NSC-68 and the Globalisation of the Cold War (CIE A-Level History)

Written by Aaron

The CIE A-Level History syllabus makes specific reference to NSC-68 in its subsection on the globalisation of the Cold War.

So what exactly is it, and what is its significance?

NSC-68 Explained

Briefly, NSC-68 was a policy paper presented to President Truman in April 1950 (2 months before the Korean War). It was basically meant to advise the President on what strategy he should use against the Soviets.

It came up with the following conclusions:

  • The USA should not return to isolationism.
    • This would risk Soviet domination of Eurasia.
  • The USA should not engage in rollback policies / preventative strikes against the USSR.
    • Such aggressive actions would lead to a long drawn-out war with the USSR
    • The American public would not support that war
  • The USA should, however, build up its stock of conventional and nuclear arms to deter the USSR and protect its allies.
    • This is the essence of containment, which became the USA’s official policy.

In other words, the NSC-68 policy paper suggested No-Isolationism, No-Rollback, Yes-Containment.

Impacts of NSC-68

1. Tripling of USA defense spending (from 5% to 14.2% of GDP). The policy didn’t explicitly call for this amount of defense spending, but it resulted anyway.

2. Marks a shift of American foreign policy towards containment as an official policy.

3. Initiated a massive build-up of conventional and nuclear arms.

In other words, NSC-68 was the moment when American foreign policy towards communism became serious, formal, and focused.

When NSC-68 was first presented to Truman in April 1950, there wasn’t immediately a consensus on adopting it. However, the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950 arguably provided a push for the Americans to adopt the policy.

You could argue this as yet another consequence of the Korean War — it convinced the USA that the arms buildups recommended by NSC-68 were necessary to deter/protect against communist aggression.

Using NSC-68 In Your Essays

1. Globalisation Essays: When discussing the USA’s containment policy, you can point towards the NSC-68 and its impacts to spice up your essay.

2. Thaw Essays: You can point out that despite there being a ‘thaw’ in relations, policies like NSC-68 meant that the USA was still jacking up their military in the background.

3. Leader Essays: When analysing behaviour of US leaders, you could discuss how NSC-68 underpinned all their policies. The Eisenhower Doctrine was a policy of containment, applied to the Middle East. Kennedy was keen on expanding the USA’s conventional warfare capabilities — again, awfully NSC-68ish. In other words, NSC-68 was the bedrock of US foreign policy for years, regardless of leader.

See the rest of the guides regarding the Globalisation of the Cold War:

Globalisation of the Cold War Subject Knowledge Fact Sheet

Rollback vs. Containment vs. Detente and How to Discuss Them