George F. Kennan: An American Life
becoming increasingly wary of policy papers whose content had to reflect a consensus and whose implementation he could not control: “You understand how hard this was for someone like myself, who felt that what you do has to be flexible, according to the situation of the moment.” Kennan’s real problem with the new initiative, Nitze believed, was that it was to be “a group paper, not his.” 32
    NSC 68, “United States Objectives and Programs for National Security,” prepared mostly within the Policy Planning Staff, went to Truman on April 14, 1950. It was worthy of Kennan in several ways. One was length: the report came to sixty-six legal-size pages. A second was style: although classified top secret, it read as if meant to be proclaimed, even preached—its most memorable phrase, which Davies contributed, was the need to “frustrate the Kremlin’s design.” A third was its acceptance of containment: there need be neither appeasement of the Soviet Union nor a war fought with it. A fourth was the imprint of a distinctive personality: despite Nitze’s claim, he dominated the drafting, much as Kennan had always done. A final similarity was historical significance: since its declassification in 1975, historians have regarded NSC 68, alongside Kennan’s “long telegram” and “X” article, as a foundational statement of United States grand strategy in the Cold War. 33
    But both Kennan and Bohlen objected to NSC 68, when they finally read it, for much the same reason that Kennan had opposed the Truman Doctrine. In order to “sell” the idea of a major military buildup—in this case, to Truman himself—the document exaggerated the threats the United States confronted. It portrayed a Soviet Union resolved to risk war as soon as its capabilities exceeded those of the Americans and their allies: that point would come, it claimed, if nothing was done, as early as 1954. It rejected distinctions between vital and peripheral interests, emphasizing instead the damaging psychological effects of losing even remote regions to communism. It saw all parts of the world as equally important because all threats were equally dangerous. And because it ruled out both appeasement and all-out war, it called for responding to aggression wherever and at whatever level it might take place. At Acheson’s suggestion, NSC 68 contained no estimate of what all this would cost. The amounts would be huge, though, which led Bohlen to conclude, shortsightedly, that “there was absolutely no chance that [it] would be adopted.” 34
    Acheson was unrepentant. Of course NSC 68 exaggerated, he admitted in his memoirs. Its purpose was “to so bludgeon the mass mind of ‘top government’ that not only could the President make the decision but the decision could be carried out.... If we made our points clearer than truth, we did not differ from most other educators and could hardly do otherwise.” There were times, his great mentor Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., had said, when “we need education in the obvious more than the investigation of the obscure.” Kennan, when asked about this shortly after Acheson’s account came out, had his own Holmes reference ready: the great man had also observed “that he couldn’t write out his philosophy of the law; he could express it only as it applied to specific cases.” Documents like NSC 68, Kennan argued, “assume a static world. They freeze policy, making it impossible to respond to external changes.” 35
    The issue, fundamentally, was the tension between planning policy and executing it. Kennan’s approach, one historian observed, relied heavily on the “noncommunicable wisdom of the experienced career official” and had little patience with the “rigidities, simplifications, and artificialities” involved in administering large organizations. Acheson, in turn, had to think about exactly this: “I recognized and highly appreciated the personal and esoteric skill of our Foreign Service

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