Commentary

Where Have You Gone, Paul Nitze?

in Program

By Peter J. Roman – Last month saw the sixtieth anniversary of the National Security Act of 1947, the formative legislation that created the Defense Department, Air Force, CIA, and NSC to fight the Cold War. In a speech commemorating the anniversary, the CIA Director, General Michael Hayden saluted the act as initiating a “decades-long mobilization of America’s boundless energy, creativity, and technological prowess.” Six years after the September 11th attacks, Hayden observed, “I don’t think we’ve come close to matching the academic mobilization we saw in the fifties… What I’m suggesting is that if we as a country are really serious about this-if we as a people really believe we’re at war, and, from my vantage point, we most certainly are-we have to act accordingly.”

General Hayden’s comparison of the early Cold War period and the current security environment is both appropriate and troubling. It is appropriate because each period has witnessed radical changes in the security environment that present a range of new challenges for the United States. In the first six years of the Cold War (1947-1953), the US faced the expansion of communist ideology along with increased Soviet political, economic, and military power. This is evidenced by the range of security issues from the period: European reconstruction, the Berlin Blockade, the rearmament of Western Europe, the fall of China, Soviet detonation of an atomic bomb, and the outbreak of the Korean War and the subsequent intervention by both the US and China. Similarly, the post-September 11th era has presented a range of new security challenges for the US, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, global terrorist networks, nuclear proliferation, as well as non-traditional security issues such as global infectious disease outbreaks.

General Hayden’s comparison is troubling because it demands that weconsider the extent to which the US government and society have been mobilized for the new security environment. Dramatic changes in a nation’s security environment necessitate the development of new strategies, policies, organizations, capabilities, and trained personnel with specialized technical knowledge. All are required to reorient government and society from the traditional security agenda and mobilize them to meet the new challenges and problems.

In democracies, this mobilization process is the domain of elected political officials who have the responsibility for allocating resources among governmental agencies as well as between government and the private sector. These political processes are the means for creating a national consensus behind the new security objectives and the costs required to achieve them. However, these processes are inherently difficult by virtue of their political nature, opening them to bargaining, compromise, and the other elements of democratic political behavior. Still, these political processes are essential because they determinethe degree to which the national strategy and objectives will be pursued. Without these processes to mobilize government and society, nations will be left with strategies that are under-resourced and unsustainable.

Paul Nitze and others recognized the problem of establishing a new security strategy without mobilizing government or society soon after the Cold War began. While President Truman had signed the National Security Act of 1947 into law and enunciated the new strategy of containment, he did not match these organizational and strategic changes with the requisite resources. This led General George Marshall to complain that the US is “playing with fire while we have nothing with which to put it out.” In 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson directed Nitze, then director of the Department’s Policy Planning Staff, to draft a paper for the NSC on national security objectives and programs. The result, NSC-68, one of the most famous Cold War documents,recommended a massive military buildup to meet the rising Soviet threat to the US and its allies. Importantly, Nitze made clear that his recommendations required the mobilization of American government and society, built through political processes:

“The whole success of the proposed program hangs ultimately on recognition by this Government, the American people, and all free peoples, that the cold war is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake. Essential prerequisites to success are consultations with Congressional leaders designed to make the program the object of non-partisan legislative support, and a presentation to the public of a full explanation of the facts and implications of the present international situation. The prosecution of the program will require of us all the ingenuity, sacrifice, and unity demanded by the vital importance of the issue and the tenacity to persevere until our national objectives have been attained.”

The political processes advocated by Nitze in NSC-68 helped create a bipartisan consensus on security that endured for almost a quarter century until it eroded during the Vietnam War. This consensus enabled both Democratic and Republican administrations to mobilize the governmental and societal resources necessary to meet Cold War threats.

In the six years since the September 11th attacks, there has certainly been greater attention given to addressing the threats to the US, particularly catastrophic attacks by non-state actors with chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons. The establishment of the DHS, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and other new organizations has enhanced security by providing institutions that are focused on the new or evolving threat environment. The Bush administration has promulgated a series of national strategies that focus on security policies and has created a new homeland security framework through the National Response Framework and the National Incident Management System.

Still, when compared to the early Cold War, the missing piece is the failure of political leaders to form a bipartisan consensus that provides the foundation for the mobilization of government and society. This absence of consensus has undermined the formation of security policies and programs that are likely to be sustained over a long period. It has also contributed to an environment that constrains resources available to security institutions. This results in a number of deleterious consequences, including preventing the creation of new technical knowledge as well as the development of governmental professionals with the requisite training and specialized knowledge to operate in the new security environment. Further, the American public cannot be expected to support security policies that are accompanied by real human and financial costs if it has never been asked to make the required sacrifices in the first place.

As the nation approaches the last year of the Bush administration and the 2008 presidential campaign, political leaders are likely to be tempted to exploit security issues for their electoral benefit. This may offer a path to victory for some, but as Paul Nitze showed in 1950, it is not the way to build long-term security for the nation.


Peter J. Roman is a Senior Associate and Co-Director of the Domestic Preparedness and Homeland Security Program at the Stimson Center.

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices