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Retired ambassador and career diplomat Bill Dale holds in the balance and examines the two fundamental foreign policy documents of the past half century—National Security Council Memorandum 68 of 1950 and the “National Security Strategy” of 2002. Citing similarities, the author also points out clearly where they diverge. —Ed.

U.S. National Security Policies in the Cold War and the War on Terror: A Comparison by William N. Dale

“The Bush administration’s approach to preventive war is entirely and fundamentally different from that of the Truman government.”

This report will compare and contrast the national security strategy designed to win the Cold War as set forth in National Security Council document NSC-68 of April 7, 1950, and “The “National Security Strategy” of the United States of America” issued by the President on September 17, 2002, designed to achieve victory in the current war against terrorism.1 As both documents are detailed and complex, this commentary can cover only the main strategic themes of the Truman and Bush administrations.

The government of the United States has been consistent in that in both cases, when it realized that the country had become engaged in a long period of strife that could at any moment become violent, it prepared an analysis of the situation and a list of the means by which it hoped to meet it. The Harry Truman administration accomplished this in early 1950 through NSC-68, which elaborated on an earlier document, NSC-20. Likewise, a year after the Twin Towers attack of September 11, 2001, the George W. Bush administration published a national strategy statement providing an overview of the war on terrorism and the means the administration intended to use to combat it. Although NSC-68 bore a security classification and had a limited readership during many of the years when its guidance was most pertinent, its contents became known to the interested public in the 1970’s. The Bush strategy statement was openly and widely published. Both documents now are freely available. A comparison of the two shows which major factors relating to defense have remained fairly constant and which have changed significantly over an eventful half century.

The immediate goal of the United States in the Cold War, as explained in NSC-68, was “to foster a fundamental change in the nature of the Soviet system” as a consequence of internal forces in the society resulting from Allied pressure.2 Displaying great patience along with the threat of the opposition’s ever-increasing military strength, this country and its allies achieved their aim. The basic strategy contained in NSC-68 ultimately was a winner. A longer term goal, “to bring about order and justice by means consistent with the principles of freedom and democracy,”3 remains a work in progress.

In bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union, the success of the NSC-68 strategy left the United States as the supreme military power on the planet. This is the most obvious difference in the world strategic situation as it existed in 1950 and as it exists today. Then there were two great powers; now there is only one. It turns out, however, that today’s military supremacy does not mean that this country has no enemies. The Bush administration’s National Security Policy points out that “new deadly challenges have emerged from rogue states and terrorists.”4 These new enemies hate the United States, are determined to acquire weapons of mass destruction to use against it, and to sponsor terrorism around the world.

The American plan—the Bush strategy—now is to combat this terrorism on a world-wide basis and to hold to account nations that are compromised by terror, especially those that harbor terrorists. This so because the allies of terror are seen as the enemies of civilization. According to the Bush doctrine, the great powers are now all on the same side, “united by common dangers of terrorist violence and chaos.”5 As in Truman’s NSC-68, the Bush strategy contains an ultimate objective beyond the more immediate defeat of terrorism: “The aim of this strategy is to help make the world not just safer but better. Our goals on the path to progress are clear; political and economic freedom, peaceful relations with other states and respect for human dignity.”6 Thus, in the most general sense,the ultimate goals of the two security strategies are similar.

Both strategies were a reaction to obvious dangers. The Soviets had extended their control over Eastern and much of Central Europe and local communist parties and cells were active in many countries far beyond the Soviet Union. NSC-68 was a reaction to this threat.

Terrorist attacks on American targets, including the first attack on the World Trade Center, the two attacks on U. S. embassies in Africa, the 2000 assault on the USS Cole, culminated in the mass terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in September 2001. President Bush’s national security strategy was a reaction to this horrendous series of assaults. In 195O, the Truman administration was opposing an identifiable territorial entity with huge armed forces. In 2002, President Bush was opposing terrorist organizations made up of shadowy groups in several different countries, united by a determination to destroy a Western civilization led and exemplified by the United States.

In 1950, our Soviet adversary possessed nuclear weapons. Fifty years later, a certain amount of proliferation of these weapons has occurred, but the multifarious terrorist groups which constitute our enemy either do not possess them or if they do, they are not in a position to deploy them or are awaiting a better time to do so. Chemical and biological weapons have joined nuclear weapons to form an unholy trinity of the means of mass murder. The possibility of using WMD (weapons of mass destruction) has replaced the danger of invasion by large land armies accompanied by nuclear attack.

The authors of NSC-68 foresaw a world in which the Soviet Union would strive for world domination, a drive that the free nations of the West would attempt to forestall and frustrate. In addition to preparing to meet a land army advance on the North German plain. NSC-68 pointed out the danger of a devastating atomic attack on Britain, Canada, and the United States. The National Security Council created an office under the National Security Advisor, James Lay, to analyze the kinds of surprise or clandestine attacks the nation could expect, including those on U. S. harbors. Fifty years ago, the American government was much less concerned with the dangers of chemical and biological weapons, although they could have existed at that time.

Even though the authors of NSC-68 recognized that modern weapons gave an advantage to the party executing the first strike, they opposed preventive war. “It goes without saying that the idea of ‘preventive’ war—in the sense of a military attack not provoked by a military attack upon us or our allies is generally unacceptable to Americans.”7 The Council believed that although the American people would support a war which the United States initiated, the long term impact would be morally corrosive. Also, many people might consider that a war started in this way was not a “just war” and would doubt whether all possible avenues for a peaceful settlement had been explored. Finally, the National Security Council argued that victory in a preventive war would bring the United States no closer to winning the ideological conflict with communism.

The Bush administration’s approach to preventive war is entirely and fundamentally different from that of the Truman government. In the light of the Twin Towers experience, it envisages terrorist organizations striving to acquire weapons of mass destruction which they would use against the United States, its allies and friends. In the introductory letter to “The National Strategy,” President Bush indicates his willingness to act against potential threats before they are fully formed. The Strategy’s language is quite specific: “Our immediate focus will be those terrorist organizations of global reach and any terrorist or state sponsor of terrorism which attempts to gain or use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or their precursors; defending the United States, the American people, and our interests at home and abroad by identifying and destroying the threat before it reaches our borders. While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively against such terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country.”8

This strategy differs in two important respects from the Truman administration’s plan: The Bush team takes a position that the surprise use of weapons of mass destruction makes it too dangerous to wait for an enemy to attack first. The United States must be prepared to act first when danger threatens. However, the new strategy goes beyond preemption. This country will now act to prevent a threat of attack from developing. A capacity to mount an assault even without proof of intent to do so is apparently all that is required to justify the use of force against an unfriendly nation or group. Perhaps the administration’s reasoning provides a rationale for the U. S. attack on Iraq under a regime that had not threatened this country. The recent failure to locate weapons of mass destruction may, however, reduce the credibility of the new strategy.

The second new element in the Bush strategy is the policy statement that this country will act by itself if need be against a terrorist threat. Given that the United Nations and NATO both gave strong support to this country in the measures it took against Afghanistan after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the willingness to act alone appears to be less a consequence of experience than an example of the isolationist sentiment prevalent for many years in the Republican Party. American strategy now would give the administration license to use force against any nation which acts in a manner it considers potentially dangerous to this country or which the administration believes is harboring terrorist groups that possibly intend to perpetrate an assault against the United States, its allies or its friends.

The Bush doctrine sets limits to its use of force by holding that “The purpose of our actions will always be to eliminate a specific threat to the United States or our allies and friends. The reasons for our actions will be clear, the force measured, and the cause just.”9 It would appear that Washington alone would be the judge as to when these conditions are met. At the present time, for instance, many in the international community and even in this country do not find the reasons for the use of force against Iraq at all clear, although the reasons were apparently sufficient for the Bush administration. Without the approval of an authority higher than the political leadership of a particular administration, the success of the new strategy will depend entirely on the amount of strength the American people are willing to devote to enforcing it. At the moment, the government led by President Bush is ready to provide that force. “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.”10 Because this country will have to be ready to meet security challenges at any time anywhere in the world, according to the new doctrine, the nation could well be entering a period of continuous strife. As enforcers of the peace, it follows that American troops are therefore in a position of unique importance and must not be subject to the jurisdiction of the newly constituted International Criminal Court.

The United Nations plays a central role in the strategy outlined in NSC-68. “It is clear that our long-range objectives require a strengthened United Nations, or a successor organization, to which the world can look for the maintenance of peace and order in a system based on freedom and justice.”11 The program of rearmament outlined in NSC-68 “must light the path to peace and order among nations in a system based on freedom and justice, as contemplated in the Charter of the United Nations.”12 Although the world organization receives honorable mention in several citations in the Bush strategy, it does not play an indispensable role. In general, the new strategy recognizes that the United States will require the help of other nations as it acts to create a world in which human dignity can thrive. Many international organizations can contribute to its efforts, including the United Nations, The Organization of American States, NATO and the World Trade Organization. The new Strategy also mentions “coalitions of the willing to augment these permanent institutions.”13

NSC-68 foresaw a long process of negotiation as an essential element in America’s engagement with the USSR. It held that free countries must always be ready to negotiate and they must offer terms which will be sound and fair. ”This means that they must be consistent with a positive program for peace—in harmony with the United Nations’ Charter and providing. at a minimum, for the effective control of armaments by the United Nations or a successor organization.”14 The terrorist enemy which the Bush strategy addresses, however, is not a fixed entity with which the United States can negotiate. It is terrorism—“premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents.“15 ”The United States will make no concessions to terrorist demands and strike no deals with them.”16 Apparently, the Bush administration does not wish to negotiate with groups it considers terrorists on moral grounds, as well as for the practical reason that they are difficult to locate and agreements with them may not last.

The authors of NSC-68 believed that in addition to increasing its military strength, the free countries must “maximize our economic potential, including the strengthening of our peacetime economy and the establishment of essential reserves readily available in the event of war.”17 The document called for an increase in taxes, as well as in aid to free countries which were in need of help. The Bush doctrine likewise stresses the importance of economic factors in its war against terrorism, although there is certainly no mention of raising taxes. The United States should promote policies that raise productivity, sustain economic growth, and promote free markets on a world-wide basis. As the Bush paper declares, “The lessons of history are clear: market economies, not command-and-control economies with the heavy hand of government, are the best way to promote prosperity and reduce poverty.”18 The Bush strategy advocates an increase of fifty percent in core development assistance for nations that have adopted free market economies. The economic emphasis of this strategy is on a particular brand of economics—free market—whereas the Truman administration advocated economic growth in a more general sense.

In order to achieve the purposes of the United Nations’ Charter, NSC-68 proposed a drastic increase in the level of military readiness. The government had to assure as well “the internal security of the United States against danger of sabotage, subversion and espionage.”19 The Bush doctrine carried the pursuit of internal security much further with the establishment of a new cabinet-level department. ”Centered on a new Department of Homeland Security and including a new unified military command and a fundamental reordering of the FBI, our comprehensive plan to secure the homeland encompasses every level of government and the cooperation of the public and the private sector.”20 The impact on government of the Twin Towers attack in 2001 can easily be seen in this quotation.

The role of things unseen is quite different in the two policy formulations. The Truman strategy relied on the spiritual energies of free men everywhere to change the world situation in the West’s favor by means short of war. The authors of NSC-68 also considered the Soviet leaders as evil. In speaking of the actions required to affirm Western values, the writers cautioned that they must not be ”so excessive or misdirected as to make us enemies of the people instead of the evil men who have enslaved them.”21 There was indeed a spiritual element in the struggle between the free countries and communism as depicted in NSC-68. Moral judgment plays an even larger role in the justification for the Bush strategy. In his West Point speech of June 1, 2002, quoted in the National Strategy paper, President Bush stated, “Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree. Different circumstances require different methods, but not different moralities.”22 Later the strategy paper points out that “this country must make sure that terrorism will be viewed in the same light as piracy, slavery, or genocide.”23 These quotes reveal two important elements of the Bush strategy. One is that the new strategy makes the United States a leading force in the world for international moral rectitude. The second is that in such a capacity, it has the responsibility to make judgments on international morality.

Both strategy statements, though separated by a half century, contemplate a long period of tension and possible violence in which the United States is the leader of freedom-loving nations. In both strategic formulations, the authors show respect for the capabilities of the enemy.

Beyond that point, however, profound differences appear. The originators of NSC-68 believed that isolation of the United States would lead to its defeat, while the Bush team envisages situations in which America might wish to act unilaterally. The Truman strategy made a very strong effort to avoid war with the Soviet Union, while the Bush strategy readily envisages the use of force to prevent nations or groups from becoming a danger to this country, its allies, and friends. A half century ago, the Truman administration sought to reform, not to obliterate, the Soviet Union. The Bush strategy is to destroy terrorism wherever it exists. This is a more far-reaching goal and perhaps one that will be difficult to recognize when and if it is achieved.

The Truman strategy sought to create a peaceful world in which the United States could prosper with the United Nations as the centerpiece while the Bush administration seeks to create a peaceful world in which the United States will be the centerpiece. The profound differences between the two strategies reflect not only the technological and sociological changes of the last half century, but the ideological divergences between the two administrations.

END NOTES1. My source for the content of NSC-68 is The Naval War College Review, Vol.XXV11 (May-June 1975), pp.51-108. It can also be found elsewhere, notably the U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: 195O, Volume 1. The Bush strategy statement was issued from the White House by President Bush on September 17, 2002, and its contents widely published in the press.
2. NSC-68, p.4.
3. Ibid.
4. “The “National Security Strategy” of the United States of America,” p. 13. (Hereinafter “”National Security Strategy”.”)
5. Ibid., p. 2.
6. Ibid., p. 1.
7. NSC-68, p.10.
8. “”National Security Strategy”,” p.6
9. Ibid., p. 16.
10. Ibid., p. 30.
11. NSC-68, p. 16.
12. Ibid., p. 5.
13. “”National Security Strategy”,” p.3.
14. NSC-68, p.2
15. “”National Security Strategy”,” p.5.
16. Ibid.
17. NSC-68, p.4.
18. “”National Security Strategy”,” p.17.
19. NSC-68, p.4.
20. “”National Security Strategy”,” p.6.
21. NSC-68, p.6.
22. “”National Security Strategy”,” p.3.
23. “”National Security Strategy”,” p.6..


Amb. Dale, retired in North Carolina and active in foreign affairs-related organizations, earned two degrees at Harvard before entering the Foreign Service. He served as an officer in the U. S. Navy during World War II.


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