NSC 68: America’s Cold War Blueprint

Advisor: Philip Brenner, Professor, School of International Service, American University
© 2015 National Humanities Center

Why did the United States believe it had a responsibility to engage the Soviet Union in a cold war, and why was that war a global conflict?


Between the end of World War II and 1950 American policy makers debated how to interpret the Soviet Union’s takeover of countries in eastern Europe and what to do about it. Eventually, they concluded that the Soviet Union sought to eliminate freedom throughout the globe and bring nation after nation under its rule. They decided that the United States, as the world’s chief proponent of democracy, should stop Soviet expansion and defend freedom wherever it was threatened for moral reasons and to ensure world peace through American strength and dominance.

NSC 68, cover


“A Report to the National Security Council by the Executive Secretary on United States Objectives and Programs for National Security, April 14, 1950” (excerpts)

Text Type

Report, non-fiction

Text Complexity

Grade 11-CCR complexity band.

For more information on text complexity see these resources from achievethecore.org.

In the Text Analysis section, Tier 2 vocabulary words are defined in pop-ups, and Tier 3 words are explained in brackets.

Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.


Common Core State Standards

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.1 (cite evidence to analyze specifically and by inference)
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.6 (determine author’s point of view)

Advanced Placement US History

  • Key Concept 8.1 (IA) (…the US developed a foreign policy based on collective security…)

Teacher’s Note

To understand America’s actions during the Cold War, it is essential to understand NSC 68 — the 1950 report, requested by President Truman and prepared by the National Security Council (NSC), that guided American foreign policy for nearly forty years. Through close reading this lesson examines key passages from the report’s critical early sections to help students see why the United States believed it had to confront the Soviet Union and why the Cold War spread beyond Europe to become a global conflict.

This lesson is divided into two parts, a teacher’s guide and a student version, both accessible below. The former includes a background essay, a textual analysis with close reading questions and responses, four interactive exercises, and an optional follow-up assignment. The first interactive exercise explores vocabulary in context. The second considers how the authors of NSC 68 relied on the connotations of words to help make their case. The third asks students to match policy options with arguments against them. It is not only an exercise in drawing inferences but also an exercise in close reading because each argument contains a word that is key to identifying its corresponding policy. Finally, the fourth exercise challenges students to recommend specific actions to implement the policies of NSC 68. The student version of this lesson, an interactive PDF, includes all of the above, except the responses to the close reading questions and the follow-up assignment.

Teacher’s Guide (continues below)

  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions with answer key
  • Interactive exercises
  • Follow-up assignment
Student Version (click to open)

  • Interactive PDF
  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions
  • Interactive exercises

Teacher’s Guide


Background Questions

  1. What kind of text are we dealing with?
  2. When was it written?
  3. Who wrote it?
  4. For what audience was it intended?
  5. For what purpose was it written?

Even during World War II, when the United States and the Soviet Union were allied against Nazi Germany, relations between the two nations were characterized by tension and distrust. When peace came in 1945, relations did not improve. In fact, they grew worse.

The former allies disagreed on many issues, but the chief source of conflict was the question of what to do about defeated Germany and Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe. The Soviets demanded that Germany make huge payments to repair the damage it did to their country. To insure that it would never attack them again, they insisted that Germany — which had been divided into American, British, French, and Soviet occupation zones — be stripped of its ability to make war. Moreover, since Russia had experienced two devastating wars in thirty years, losing close to forty million people, the Soviets wanted to establish a buffer zone of friendly Soviet-controlled governments around them to ensure that no land attack would ever threaten Russia again. The United States and its allies, on the other hand, were more interested in rebuilding Germany than in extracting reparations, and they demanded independent governments throughout Eastern Europe.

The Soviets pursued an expansionist policy that, by 1948, had brought Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia under its sway. The “iron curtain” that separated the free nations of Western Europe from the Soviet-occupied states of the East was firmly in place.

In the five years after World War II policy makers in Washington debated Soviet intentions and the possibility of achieving peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union. A 1946 report to President Truman prepared by advisors Clark Clifford and George Elsey concluded that the Soviet Union was an expansionist power, not only in pursuit of world domination but utterly convinced that it could not coexist with the United States. Nonetheless, its authors recommended that the United States try to persuade the Soviets that America had no aggressive intentions toward them and that the two countries could, in fact, coexist peacefully.

This foreign policy debate took place within an atmosphere of growing alarm over a Communist threat at home that was partly generated by President Truman himself with the 1947 Loyalty-Security Program, which required government employees to sign loyalty oaths and cast suspicion upon “leftists,” citizens who held ideas perceived to be Communist-inspired. State and local governments followed suit with similar programs of their own. The Taft-Hartley Act made it a crime for a union to have an officer who was a member of the Communist Party, and the Attorney General created a list of alleged Communist front organizations. Hollywood contributed to the atmosphere by denying work to actors, writers, directors, and others who professed “leftist” leanings. By 1949 the Congress was holding well-publicized hearings about Communists in government, and the following year Sen. Joseph McCarthy, after whom this period is named, began his notorious inquests.

Two events beyond America’s shores heightened the nation’s fears: the Soviet’s detonation of an atomic bomb in 1949 and, in 1950, Communist North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, an American ally.

In 1950, with Communist paranoia rising at home and the Soviet threat growing abroad, President Truman decided to bring the five-year debate over what to do about the Soviet Union to its culmination. He directed the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense to “undertake a reexamination of our objectives in peace and war.” Their conclusions went to the National Security Council, the President’s leading foreign policy advisors, and on April 14, 1950, the Council presented him with a top secret report, NSC 68.

The report endorsed a policy of containment, first proposed by diplomat George Kennan in 1947. Kennan argued that Soviet leaders acted out of weakness. They engaged in expansionist behavior to draw their people’s attention away from their nation’s serious internal problems. He recommended that the United States use political, diplomatic, cultural, economic, and military means to “contain” the Soviet Union, that is, block it from dominating other countries and spreading its influence, chiefly in Europe. If the United States could stop Soviet expansion and deny Soviet leaders this source of distraction, Kennan maintained, the Soviet Union would, in one way or another, collapse.

While NSC 68 embraced Kennan’s recommendation, it emphasized containment should seek to check the Soviets throughout the world, not mainly in Europe, and that it should rely primarily on military power.

What is most important to understand about NSC 68 today are its four fundamental premises, which guided American foreign policy throughout the Cold War and are evident in our policy even now:

  1. America’s vital interests are global. A vital interest is an interest essential for life. Many countries had previously declared that their interests were international, but the United States was the first in history to declare that its vital interests spanned the globe. Before NSC 68 the primary purpose of our military had been to defend the homeland, the ultimate vital interest. After 1950 homeland defense became one among many interests deemed equally vital.
  2. A defeat anywhere is a defeat everywhere. The containment of Communism had to be worldwide, because American vital interests were global, and the Soviet assault on them was global. Thus a defeat in Vietnam was the same as a defeat in the Middle East, Guatemala, or San Francisco.
  3. Communism is the same the world over. Communist parties around the world may characterize themselves as independent, nationalistic and local, but they are fundamentally the same, and all take orders from Moscow.
  4. The world is sharply divided between the Communist world and the free world. There is no place for neutral countries. If a country is not with us, it is against us. That meant that a gain for the Soviets was a loss for us, and vice-versa. The Cold War thus became a conflict that would not allow for compromise and cooperation.

Exploring key passages in NSC 68, this lesson concentrates on Part IV, “The Underlying Conflict in the Realm of Ideas and Values between the U.S. Purpose and the Kremlin Design.” As its less-than-catchy title suggests, this section states the rationale by which this country justified its actions during the Cold War, from stationing tanks and troops in Europe to opposing socialist revolutions in Latin America and Africa to waging a long, costly, and divisive war in Southeast Asia.

Text Analysis

From Part II: Fundamental Purpose of the United States

Close Reading Questions

Activity: VocabularyActivity: Vocabulary
Learn definitions by exploring how words are used in context.

1. Why would the authors of NSC 68 cite the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence at the very beginning of the document?
Citing the nation’s founding documents associates NSC 68 with them, gives it a sense of weight and importance, and suggests that it accords with the nation’s fundamental principles.

2. What is the effect of the repetition of the word “determination”?
It sets a tone of firm resolve and underscores the seriousness of the issues involved.

The fundamental purpose of the United States is laid down in the Preamble to the Constitution: “…to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” In essence, the fundamental purpose is to assure the integrity and vitality of our free society, which is founded upon the dignity and worth of the individual.

Three realities emerge as a consequence of this purpose: Our determination to maintain the essential elements of individual freedom, as set forth in the Constitution and Bill of Rights; our determination to create conditions under which our free and democratic system can live and prosper; and our determination to fight if necessary to defend our way of life, for which as in the Declaration of Independence, “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

From Part III: Fundamental Design of the Kremlin

Close Reading Questions

Activity: Connotation as ArgumentActivity: Connotation as Argument
Explore the authors’ attempts to make readers emotionally sympathetic to their side by using the unstated ideas, associations, and feelings that certain words arouse.

3. How does the first paragraph of this section reflect the American view that Communism is the same the world over?
It argues that the leaders of the Soviet Union control the international Communist movement. They seek to extend their authority and “solidify their absolute power” not only in the Soviet Union but in Communist countries throughout the world. In other words wherever it exists, Communism will be the same, defined and controlled by Moscow.

4. The first interactive exercise in this lesson explored the way in which the connotations of the verbs in Parts 2 and 3 of NSC 68 define the societies of the United States and the Soviet Union. However, we encounter connotation as argument even before we get to the verbs. We see it in the very titles of the sections. What does the word “purpose” connote? What does the word “design” connote?
To help understand the way the authors of NSC 68 use the word, think of “design” as denotatively meaning “plot” or “scheme.” “Purpose” suggests motivation to achieve an intended, clearly stated object, forthrightly with resolution and determination. “Design,” in the sense of a “scheme” or “plot,” suggests motivation toward a hidden goal, sought with evil intent through underhanded, devious means.

5. Why would the authors of NSC 68 assign a “purpose” to the United States and a “design” to the Soviet Union?
They did so to differentiate the two nations and suggest the moral character of each — one honest and forthright, the other dishonest and devious. Note that the argument for confronting the Soviet Union in the Cold War hinges upon the American policy makers’ conclusion that the leaders of the Soviet Union harbor an evil intent, which they will pursue by means both open and hidden.

6. Why do the authors use “the United States” in the title of Part 2 and “the Kremlin” in the title of Part 3?
Saying “Kremlin” rather than “Soviet Union” identifies the “design” with the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union rather than with the people of the country. Note that the authors make the same distinction when, in Part 3, they speak of the “fundamental design of those who control the Soviet Union,” suggesting that the country is in the hands of an oligarchic elite separate from the citizenry. This distinction emerges later as an important element in the argument of NSC 68.

The fundamental design of those who control the Soviet Union and the international communist movement is to retain and solidify their absolute power, first in the Soviet Union and second in the areas now under their control. In the minds of the Soviet leaders, however, achievement of this design requires the dynamic extension of their authority and the ultimate elimination of any effective opposition to their authority.

The design, therefore, calls for the complete subversion or forcible destruction of the machinery of government and structure of society in the countries of the non-Soviet world and their replacement by an apparatus and structure subservient to and controlled from the Kremlin. To that end Soviet efforts are now directed toward the domination of the Eurasian land mass. The United States, as the principal center of power in the non-Soviet world and the bulwark of opposition to Soviet expansion, is the principal enemy whose integrity and vitality must be subverted or destroyed by one means or another if the Kremlin is to achieve its fundamental design.

From Part IV: The Underlying Conflict in the Realm of Ideas and Values
Between the U.S. Purpose and the Kremlin Design (excerpts)

Close Reading Questions

Activity: Possible Courses of ActionActivity: Possible Courses of Action
Explore the arguments used against three possible courses of action considered by policy makers.

7. How do the authors of NSC 68 characterize the conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union?
They characterize it as a conflict between freedom and slavery.

8. How do they characterize the Soviet Union?
In guiding student discussion, we suggest you emphasize two points: NSC 68 characterizes the Soviet Union as an oligarchy — that is, a government run by a small group for its own selfish and often corrupt purposes — and that the Soviet Union is a slave state. The latter point is critical in understanding the logic, explored in the next two questions, of Soviet’s antipathy toward U.S. and other free nations.

9. “The idea of freedom… is peculiarly and intolerably subversive of the idea of slavery. But the converse is not true.” The Cold War was fundamentally a war of ideas, and that sentence states what the authors of NSC 68 took to be the logical relationship between the two ideas that confronted each other. It is key to understanding NSC 68 and, indeed, the Cold War itself. Select the statement that best expresses its meaning.

A. Freedom always threatens slavery, but slavery does not always threaten freedom.
B. Slavery always threatens freedom, but freedom does not always threaten slavery.

Answer: A

10. Based on your answer to question 9, what does the logical relationship between the ideas of freedom and slavery mean for relations between the United States and the Soviet Union?
It means that the existence of the Soviet Union, a slave state, would not necessarily threaten the existence of the United States, but the existence of the United States, a free nation, would always threaten the existence of the Soviet Union.

11. The idea of contagion, the ability to spread something from person to person, is critical to the logic of the Cold War. How does the contagious nature of the idea of freedom threaten the Soviet Union?
Use the idea of contagion to help students see the case NSC 68 is building:

  • The idea of freedom always subverts the idea of slavery.
  • Thus the “contamination” of freedom would subvert a nation, like the Soviet Union, built on the idea of slavery.
  • The idea of freedom is highly contagious.
  • Therefore, the Soviet Union, to insure its own survival, must eliminate this threatening contagion wherever it appears.

12. According to NSC 68, how have the leaders of the Soviet Union brought about the submission of their people?
The authors of NSC 68 assert that the leaders of the Soviet Union have, through compulsion, convinced their people that they will find meaning in their lives only through the state. Thus, in a perversion of religious faith, the state becomes God, and as people would willingly submit to the will of God, they willingly submit to the will of the state. To bring this about, people must be isolated from alternative belief systems. This analysis asks about isolation in question 13.

13. What do the authors mean by “Gandhian non-violence”?
This is a reference to the strategy Mahatma Gandhi used to win India’s freedom from Great Britain in 1947. It involves resistance to the state, not through active, violent means, but through passive, non-violent means. Central to it is the idea that one maintains his or her own intellectual independence from the state by refusing to assent to its values and principles. Even this sort of resistance, NSC 68 claims, is unacceptable to Soviet leaders.

14. Why would the leaders of the Soviet Union need to isolate their people behind an “iron curtain”?
They must do so to protect their slave state from the “contamination” by the idea of freedom and to deny their people access to alternative beliefs that might depose the state as the God to which they submit.

15. Why is the “assault on free institutions” worldwide?
The Soviet Union has had to attack free institutions worldwide because, as the authors of NSC 68 have asserted, the existence of a successful model of freedom anywhere on the globe threatens the existence of the Soviet Union.

16. What does the worldwide “assault on free institutions” mean for the United States?
It means that the U.S., as the leading proponent and defender of freedom, must combat this assault wherever it occurs: “the defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.” This is a critical element in the logic of the Cold War, for it explains why the conflict spread from Western Europe, to Asia, Africa, and Latin America — why, in fact, it was global.

17. Why do the authors of NSC 68 say that the U.S. is “unwillingly” challenged by the Soviet system?
They want to emphasize that the U.S. is not the aggressor in the Cold War. The U.S. has been drawn into this conflict against its will because the Soviet system “mortally” threatens that of the United States.

18. How does the Soviet system pose an internal threat to the United States?
It threatens to use “divisive trends in our own society” to achieve its goal of eliminating the U.S. as “the only major threat to the achievement of its fundamental design.”

19. Why does the final paragraph of this section make an effective conclusion to the argument of NSC 68?
It articulates what the United States is up against in strong, dramatic, and ominous language. The Soviet value system is “wholly irreconcilable” with ours. It is “implacable in its purpose to destroy us” from without and from within. It “evokes… irrationality… everywhere” and is backed up with great military power. The repetition of the “so” emphasizes and intensifies each threat. The conclusion is clear: we are in mortal danger; we have no alternative but to defend ourselves.

Activity: Possible Courses of ActionActivity: Containment
Recommend specific actions to meet the goal and objectives of the US containment policy.
A. Nature of Conflict
The Kremlin regards the United States as the only major threat to the achievement of its fundamental design. There is a basic conflict between idea of freedom under a government of laws, and the idea of slavery under the grim oligarchy of the Kremlin…. The idea of freedom, moreover, is peculiarly and intolerably subversive of the idea of slavery. But the converse is not true. The implacable purpose of the slave state to eliminate the challenge of freedom has placed the two great powers at opposite poles. It is this fact which gives the present polarization of power the quality of crisis.

The idea of freedom is the most contagious idea in history, more contagious than the idea of submission to authority. For the breadth of freedom cannot be tolerated in a society which has come under the domination of an individual or group of individuals with a will to absolute power. Where the despot holds absolute power — the absolute power of the absolutely powerful will — all other wills must be subjugated in an act of willing submission, a degradation willed by the individual upon himself under the compulsion of a perverted faith. It is the first article of this faith that he finds and can only find the meaning of his existence in serving the ends of the system. The system becomes God, and submission to the will of God becomes submission to the will of the system. It is not enough to yield outwardly to the system — even Gandhian non-violence is not acceptable — for the spirit of resistance and the devotion to a higher authority might then remain, and the individual would not be wholly submissive.

The antipathy of slavery to freedom explains the iron curtain, the isolation, the autarchy of the society whose end is absolute power. The existence and persistence of the idea of freedom is a permanent and continuous threat to the foundation of the slave society; and it therefore regards as intolerable the long continued existence of freedom in the world. What is new, what makes the continuing crisis, is the polarization of power which now inescapably confronts the slave society with the free.

The assault on free institutions is world-wide now, and in the context of the present polarization of power a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.

Thus unwillingly our free society finds itself mortally challenged by the Soviet system. No other value system is so wholly irreconcilable with ours, so implacable in its purpose to destroy ours, so capable of turning to its own uses the most dangerous and divisive trends in our own society, no other so skillfully and powerfully evokes the elements of irrationality in human nature everywhere, and no other has the support of a great and growing center of military power.

Follow-Up Assignment

Read the speech John Kennedy delivered at the Berlin Wall on June 28, 1963. Write a brief essay that illustrates how it reflects the principles of NSC 68.

Vocabulary Pop-Ups

  • tranquility: peace
  • posterity: descendents (future generations)
  • integrity: honor (and virtue)
  • vitality: liveliness (energy and life)
  • retain: keep
  • solidify: cement (make permanent)
  • dynamic: energetic and active
  • subversion: overthrow
  • apparatus: organization (sometimes referring to equipment)
  • subservient: submissive
  • bulwark: barricade
  • oligarchy: small ruling group
  • subversive: destructive
  • converse: opposite
  • contagious: easy to spread
  • implacable: unstoppable
  • polarization: division of opposing groups
  • breadth: vitality and life
  • despot: ruler
  • subjugated: enslaved
  • degradation: humiliating act
  • submission: yielding
  • antipathy: opposition or aversion
  • autarchy: absolute authority
  • irreconcilable: unable to live in harmony