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Analytical Paper

John Morgan

IR 350


Dominating geopolitics for much of the 20th century, the Cold War marked a dramatic

change in American foreign policy. The United States’ involvement in WWII thrust it into a

position of leadership that made previous isolationist policies impossible to return to. After

defeating Japan and Germany, the United States quickly pivoted to counter its former ally the

Soviet Union, an adjustment that was made feasible by their ideological polarity. For many, the

official start of America’s involvement in the Cold War was Truman’s Congressional address on

March 12, 1947. The Truman Doctrine, as it is now known, signaled America’s intention to

contain the spread of Communism on a global scale, starting with its involvement in the Greek

Civil War. However, the Truman Doctrine and its consequences pale in comparison to that of

NSC-68. A report to the President by the National Security Council in 1950, NSC-68 advocated

for a far more comprehensive military and economic initiative to counter Communist expansion.

NSC-68’s creation was the result of various developments that had occurred since the Truman

Doctrine, which shattered previous conceptions of Soviet capabilities and intentions. Its results,

namely a dramatic strengthening of American military capacity, recognition of the direct threat

the Soviets presented to the United States, and the use of psychological warfare make it the true

starting point of the Cold War.

The Truman Doctrine was without a doubt a crucial development in American foreign

policy. During WWII, the United States had been alarmed by Soviet actions in newly conquered

territories, especially in European areas such as Poland and Germany. These issues were brought

up at various diplomatic summits both during and after the war, but America was largely unable

to have any say over the political status of Soviet-occupied territories. However, the end of

WWII left the US and USSR without the mutual enemy that had bound them together in the first

place, and a burgeoning hostility between the two nations soon became apparent. Stalin’s 1946

election speech and Churchill’s speech at Westminster College were both telltale signs of a

brewing conflict. Truman’s address to Congress and the American public, just one year later, is

largely seen as America’s “declaration of war” in its conflict with the Soviet Union.

Despite the magnitude of the Truman Doctrine, its importance is overshadowed by NSC-

68 for a variety of reasons. Chiefly, Truman’s decision to counter global Communist expansion

was not a purely American initiative, but rather the result of an important ally seeking assistance.

Since the end of WWII, Britain had been helping the government of Greece fend off a

Communist insurgency. In 1947, Britain’s new Labor government found itself unable to afford

the expense of supporting Greece and turned to the United States for help. Britain’s request for

help proves to be the fundamental reason for the creation of the Truman Doctrine; it would take

years for the United States to develop the American-centric response that was characteristic of

NSC-68. The text of the Truman Doctrine also fails to adequately identify the opponents that the

United States and the free world are facing. The word “Communist” only appears once in the

entire passage, when Truman is specifically describing the events unfolding in Greece1. While

the overwhelming majority of listeners were aware that Truman’s speech was directed at

Communist expansion, his use of the term “armed minorities” shows that the Truman Doctrine

Truman, Harry S. "Special message to the Congress on Greece and Turkey: The Truman Doctrine." March 12

could have been applied to a wide range of geopolitical scenarios, neither Soviet nor Communist

in nature. Lastly, the foreign policy measures described in the Truman Doctrine are minuscule

compared to NSC-68. The core of the document is the $400,000,000 the United States is

pledging to Turkey and Greece, as well as a small number of civilian and military personnel2. It

does not specify an increase in American defense funding or an overt pledge of military

assistance, which were fundamental components of the Cold War. In this sense, the Truman

Doctrine is little more than a foreign aid program for nations deemed threatened by outside

actors, Communist or not.

When compared to the Truman Doctrine, NSC-68 marks a dramatic shift in thinking that

is truly indicative of the start of the Cold War. Issued in 1950, three years after President

Truman’s Congressional speech, NSC-68 was a top-secret report created by the National

Security Council and presented to Truman. Various developments since 1947, notably the Soviet

development of atomic weapons, the victory of Communism in China, and the outbreak of the

Korean War prompted the United States to develop a far more aggressive protocol for

Communist proliferation. The document’s importance eclipses that of the Truman Doctrine in a

variety of ways. In particular, it immediately draws to attention to the new bipolar nature of

global power, illustrating a direct conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union that

the Truman Doctrine failed to express. It also explicitly states that unchecked Soviet expansion,

to the extent that no power or coalition can defeat them, is a direct threat to the United States. “It

is in this context [further Soviet expansion] that this Republic and its citizens in the ascendancy


of their strength stand in their deepest peril.”3 With NSC-68, the Truman administration clearly

viewed the USSR as an immediate threat to America, rather than the free world in general.

The Soviet test of an atomic weapon in 1949 had a profound impact on American foreign

policy, as NSC-68 indicates. A sizeable part of the document involves Soviet atomic capabilities

and the rate at which weapons are being produced, with it estimating that by 1954 the Soviets

will be in possession of 200 atomic bombs.4 The United States had been counting on its

monopoly of atomic power to even the odds in a potential war with the USSR. Without this

technological edge, the American military knew that it had to increase output and develop new

weapons, such as the hydrogen bomb. The need for rearmament is expressly stated in NSC-68.

“It is necessary to have the military power to deter, if possible, Soviet expansion, and to defeat, if

necessary, aggressive Soviet or Soviet-directed actions of a limited or total character.”5 The

nuclear arms race that this decision would lead to is one of the hallmarks of the Cold War era.

An increase in military spending was not the sole component of NSC-68, though. It proposes a

wide range of actions, such as increased military assistance to foreign countries, foreign

economic aid, propaganda programs to benefit the United States’ image abroad, and the

establishment of civilian defense programs. However, it is the seventh recommendation on the

list, which advocates for covert operations to formulate unrest in “strategic satellite countries” 6,

that catches the eye. A key component of the Cold War was American and Soviet interference in

the domestic politics of certain nations; Guatemala, Chile, Iran, and South Vietnam are all

National Security Council. “NSC 68”. Report to the President. April 7, 1950.

testaments to America’s use of this tactic. Had NSC-68 not been created, it is entirely likely that

this integral aspect of the Cold War would have been seriously diminished.

Evidently, there is an abundance of material showing that NSC-68 was the true

commencement of the Cold War for the United States. Though the Truman Doctrine was an

important step towards American-Soviet conflict, the actions it led to were slight in comparison

to that of NSC-68. The Truman Doctrine’s inception was mainly the result of a United States’

ally seeking help, rather than a purely American decision to play a more active role in combating

Communism. Truman’s speech also failed to overtly target the Soviets or Communists in

general, instead talking about the threat of “armed minorities”. Additionally, the Truman

Doctrine was essentially a foreign aid program, and did not lead to any change in American

military capabilities or thinking. On the other hand, the developments that NSC-68 led to,

namely a massive increase in US military spending, a recognition of Soviet expansion as a direct

threat to America, and the recommendation of covert operations in certain countries, were far

more crucial to the implementation and perpetuation of the Cold War. Had the United States

been relegated to the measures recommended by Truman Doctrine, the Cold War may have

never become such a dominating force in world politics.