I was re-reading NSC-68 the other day (NSC-68 United States Objectives and Programs for National Security (fas.org), the height of bureaucratic geekiness. For those unfamiliar with the NSC process or the National Security Council policy document, all U.S. government administrations prepare documents that lay out various national security strategies and policies outlined in a series of policy papers throughout the life of that administration. They can go by many names—National Security Directive (NSD), National Security Decision Directive (NSDD)—but they are all basically the same. NSC-68 laid out the U.S. strategy for meeting the threat of the Soviet Union and communism and laid out the strategy of containment that the U.S. more or less followed throughout the Cold War.
The document is a bit long but well worth the read. It clearly presents the challenges presented by the Soviet Union in detail and outlines how the U.S. will meet those challenges. It details who the Soviets are, what they represent, and their plans and intentions. It also details who the U.S. is, what we represent, and our plans and intentions. At its most basic, NSC-68 argues that the Soviet Union represents authoritarianism and slavery while the U.S. represents freedom. Sections are worth repeating.
A free society values the individual but requires a measure of self-discipline and self-restraint that makes the rights of each individual compatible with the rights of every other individual. Individuals should not exercise freedom in ways inconsistent with the freedom of other individuals. There should be a constructive use of freedom in building a just society and derives this from a “marvelous diversity and deep tolerance and lawfulness.” A free society maintains an environment in which every individual has the opportunity to realize their creative powers, even tolerating those who would try to overturn that society. The strength of the free society is the appeal of its ideas. A free society does not fear, but welcomes diversity and derives strength from its hospitality.
NSC-68 states that the idea of freedom is contagious and, in the end, will attract other peoples and nations freely, not through compulsion. This was articulated at a time when we still embraced segregation, had Jim Crow laws, black Americans were lynched, and large swaths of the American people were purposely marginalized. The ideals expressed in the document were aspirational. We fell short of these goals, but we had ideals that we aspired to. We were demonstrating to the world what we wanted to be, what we could be, and what other people could be if they joined us in striving for these goals.
The free society is founded upon the dignity and worth of the individual and laid out in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, while communism was based on retaining and solidifying absolute power. NSC-68 devotes considerable discussion on military power and the need for a strong defense but argues that for a free society military action is a last resort, used to deter hostile aggression, and in some cases physically defend the nation. But the struggle against communism would be waged primarily through other means, such as economic and political. It argues that the Kremlin is able to select whatever means are expedient for its success and does not hesitate to use military force to achieve its aims. The U.S. has no such freedom of choice, least of all in the use of force. We have no choice, but to demonstrate the superiority of the idea of freedom.
NSC-68 does highlight the essential nature of military power as a deterrent and defender of that free society and the disparity in military power between the West and the communist alliance, but its place is constricted. Also deemed essential is the ability to negotiate with our opponents. This reached its height under President Reagan.
This strategy, imperfectly implemented throughout the years, won us the Cold War. We are now staring at a new conflict with China and a resurgent Russia. Are these principles relevant to today’s struggle? Where are we now as a nation compared to the start of the Cold War? Can we win such a struggle again?
We face an adversary in China that has watched and learned. One of the many reasons the Soviet Union collapsed was that it overextended itself. Its allies and satellites were unable to stand on their own and required substantial Soviet economic and military assistance, something that the inefficient and weak economy could not provide indefinitely. The majority of our allies could stand on their own, and in any event, the U.S. economy could provide greater levels of support. China faces no such pressure. It has no subordinate nations requiring large amounts of aid. It has a strong and healthy economy. Our manufacturing capabilities have declined while theirs remains robust. They have developed a blend of capitalism and communism that appears to be working for them.
I believe the principles articulated in NSC-68 are still relevant today. We will not win the struggle with China through military conflict. That only serves to devastate people, nations, and economies. We will win by proving what we represent, freedom is the best condition for humanity. There are problems, however.
NSC-68 argues that the U.S., and free societies in general, are more cohesive than totalitarian societies since the free societies are bound together voluntarily. But are we more cohesive today than in 1950? We don’t seem to be cohesive, but rather seriously divided. We can’t seem to agree on anything.
According to NSC-68, the power which resides in the American people is evoked only through the democratic process. This, in turn, requires first and foremost that sufficient information regarding basic political, economic and military elements be made publicly available so that intelligent, popular opinion may be formed, that people and government can arrive at a consensus and develop a determination of the will. The proliferation of misinformation, much of it generated by our adversaries, makes it hard to believe that we have this well-informed populace.
NSC-68 posited a strong society leading an international community founded on freedom and economic vibrancy. Today we face growing income inequality. Standards of living have risen, but they are becoming harder to maintain for large portions of the population. Our healthcare system is in shambles and is not the envy of the world. For the first time, even our life expectancy has declined. Our democratic institutions are in crisis. We don’t seem to be the same nation that won the Cold War.
This is not to say that we are a nation in decline and that we will lose against China. Nothing is inevitable. We do need, however, to gather ourselves up and pull together for the coming struggle. We need a national strategy that engages the American people and unites them behind a worthy cause: that of freedom versus totalitarianism. We need to engage the American people in this cause, educate them on what is expected and what we plan to do, not frighten them. We need to develop a united, international front. We are doing some of that, but not enough. The effort should not be a military-first effort, that will almost certainly lead to an expensive and debilitating war. It must first be a war of ideas and economic benefit that other countries will willingly join, on our side. Like the Cold War, it must not be an effort to destroy China, but rather to lead the world toward a free society with benefits for everyone.
This article was first published on Debrief: A Rundown of Today’s National Security, which can be found on the OpsLens app.