The man who brought us the Cold War.
When Paul Henry Nitze died at the age of 97 on Oct. 19, an era died with him. If there was one man responsible for America's emergence as a global military power in the mid-20th century, Nitze could lay claim to that credit. If one man was most responsible for the nuclear nightmares that many Americans suffered along the way, Nitze could wear that tag as well.
In the annals of Cold War history, three sets of documents stand out as potent hair-raisers—the kinds of documents that not only gave their readers cold sweats, but also changed the course of American security policy—and Nitze wrote all of them.
The first and most pivotal was a top secret paper, written in April 1950, called "United States Objectives and Programs for National Security," more famously known as NSC-68. In the months leading up to this paper, the Truman administration was split on its policy toward the Soviet Union. Secretary of State Dean Acheson saw the Soviets as a serious threat that needed to be countered through an enormous military buildup. Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson sided with fiscal conservatives—and Truman himself—who believed that boosting the annual arms budget beyond $15 billion would wreck the economy. Acheson's powerful policy planning chief, George Kennan, though worried about the Soviets, favored a "containment" policy that stressed bolstering the West more through political and economic means.
At the beginning of 1950, Acheson fired Kennan and put Nitze in his place. Nitze, a former Wall Street banker, had been one of Kennan's deputies, but openly sympathized with Acheson. Nitze's first task: Scare the daylights out of Truman, so he'd raise the military budget. NSC-68 was the vehicle for doing so.
The document (which was declassified in the mid-1970s) warned of the "Kremlin's design for world domination," an urge it posited as intrinsic to Soviet Russia. "The Kremlin is inescapably militant," the paper argued. The Soviet system required "the ultimate elimination of any effective opposition," and so it would inexorably seek to destroy its main opponent, the United States. Moreover, the paper continued, once the Kremlin "calculates that it has a sufficient atomic capability to make a surprise attack on us," it might very well launch such an attack "swiftly and with stealth." The Soviets would have this capability as early as 1954—"the year of maximum danger"—unless the United States "substantially increased" its army, navy, air force, nuclear arsenal, and civil defenses immediately.
Years later, in his memoir, Present at the Creation, Acheson admitted that the language was "clearer than truth," as he put it, but justified the hype. "The purpose of NSC-68," he wrote, "was to so bludgeon the mass mind of 'top government' that not only could the President make a decision but that the decision could be carried out."
Truman received NSC-68 on April 7, 1950. Two weeks later, he called Louis Johnson into his office and told him the economy-in-defense policy was dead. On June 25, the North Korean army spilled over the border. The Korean War forced a reassessment of U.S. policy. NSC-68 may not have been the best fit for the circumstances, but it was there. The National Security Council adopted it on Sept. 30. The defense budget climbed—not just to beat back North Korea, but to tackle communism everywhere—and didn't come down again for decades. From then on, U.S. foreign policy adopted the Manichean worldview that Nitze laid down in NSC-68, viewing every local struggle as reflecting the "underlying conflict" between the "free world" of the West and the "slave society" behind the Iron Curtain.
The next turning point came in 1957, when Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican and fiscal tightwad, was president. The Democrats, including Nitze, were out of power. Intelligence estimates were indicating that the USSR would soon outgun the United States in nuclear weaponry. Yet Eisenhower seemed passive in the face of this threat.
Nelson Rockefeller urged Eisenhower to form a panel to examine whether the United States should fund a nationwide program of fallout shelters in case of Soviet attack. Eisenhower appointed a prominent lawyer named Rowan Gaither to head it. Gaither and his staff expanded the mission to look at the nuclear balance generally. Nitze was one of the staff members. When Gaither got sick, Nitze was picked to write the final report.
The result—"Deterrence and Survival in the Nuclear Age," aka the Gaither Report —was another barn-burner. It warned of the "spectacular progress" the Soviets had made in their missile program and the "increasing threat which may become critical in 1959 or early 1960. … If we fail to act at once, the risk, in our opinion, will be unacceptable."
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Paul Nitze by R.D. Ward/AFP.