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  • Back to the Future: NSC-68 and the Right Course for America Today
  • Frederick W. Kagan (bio)

In September 30, 1950, President Harry S. Truman formally approved NSC-68, “United States Objectives and Programs for National Security.” This document, embodying one of the most detailed expositions of the doctrine of containment, was the blueprint for American security policy throughout the Cold War. For although different administrations followed different policies and America’s determination and fortune waxed and waned over the half-century of the Cold War, the forecasts of NSC-68 were realized. On the whole, America pursued a consistent policy of military readiness, international engagement, and opposition to Soviet expansion leading, ultimately, to the Soviet leadership’s loss of confidence in its ability to continue the struggle in the early 1980s and, shortly thereafter, to the collapse of the Soviet empire entirely.

It is no accident that the predictions of NSC-68 were fulfilled, for they were based not merely on a solid understanding of the nature of the Soviet threat and the need to respond to it, but on an even deeper understanding of what America’s role in the world had to be. NSC-68 was and is more than simply a statement of the correct policy to be pursued against a particular enemy. It contains a vision of the security policy America must pursue for as long as it is a global power. It is, moreover, a statement of the need for America to conduct a security policy in which foreign policy and military policy are closely coordinated, and a plea to devote adequate resources to both. [End Page 55]

Since the end of the Cold War it has been fashionable to imagine that the United States has no enemies, that it is “the last remaining Superpower,” and can do what it will. As a corollary, the United States has come to imagine that it can pick and choose when to engage and when to withdraw. The disappearance of the Soviet threat is seen to give us a “strategic pause,” a time to pull back if we would like. This appearance is deceptive. There is a threat in the world today, a threat that is already undermining the world’s peace and prosperity and will ultimately undermine our security and safety as well. That threat is global disorder, and if we do not meet it, we shall surely suffer.

The threat from global disorder is less immediately dangerous but much harder to control than the Soviet threat ever was. The world of the Cold War, after all, was a relatively peaceful one, if tense, because the superpowers suppressed would-be adventurers who might have upset the international order. U.S.-Soviet cooperation to contain conflicts in the Middle East from the Suez Crisis to the Yom Kippur War was a classic example of the restraining power of the Cold War. With the fall of the Soviet Union, however, America faces a more subtle and difficult challenge. The likelihood of nuclear annihilation has receded into the distance, to be sure, but there is now no force but America’s will to restrain potential adventurers like Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong II. However, the new threat and the old share many similarities. Now, as during the Cold War, conflict that may erupt anywhere in the world can lead to the destabilization of regions important to American security and prosperity. Now, as during the Cold War, international elements hostile to America and the American way of life strive to combat us across a spectrum of conventional and unconventional means. Now, as during the Cold War, if Americans do not respond to these challenges, it is certain that the international situation will move away from an order that suits Washington toward one that threatens Washington.

It is essential, therefore, to understand that NSC-68, the doctrine that won the Cold War, is more important today than it was while the Soviet Union was alive. We must look from this confused and confusing time to another uncertain era in American history to see how policymakers of that time coped so successfully and learn how to follow the trail that they blazed...

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pp. 55-71
Launched on MUSE
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