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PPS files, lot 64 D 563, “Review of NSC 68 & 114”

Memorandum by the Counselor (Bohlen)1

top secret

The Bases of Soviet Action (The General Nature of Future Soviet Actions)


Whatever the estimate, and the field is, of course, highly speculative, of Soviet future actions or long-range and short-range intentions, there are certain fundamental features of the Soviet system which are generally uncontested by all analyses. These fundamental factors represent the solid and unchanging basis for the programs of rearmament in the Western world. Regardless of any particular phase of Soviet policy, it is generally accepted that the Soviet system:

Is a totalitarian state, heavily armed and continuously seeking to increase its military potential, where the power of decision rests entirely in the hands of a small group of men;
By the nature of its state structure, reinforced by its ideology, is fundamentally and unappeasably hostile to any society not susceptible to its control;
The directing group of the Soviet Government and of international Communism are totally uninhibited by any considerations of a humanitarian, moral, or ethical character which have acted, in history, as restraints upon the use of force.

These factors, quite apart from any other considerations, require that the non-Soviet world and the United States in particular, not permit a decisive imbalance in military force in favor of the Soviet Bloc.

Drawing conclusions about future Soviet actions is not only difficult but can be dangerous unless it is borne in mind that the purpose for which one attempts to do so is to find the best—or least bad–assumption for planning purposes, in other words, to draw only those conclusions which it is safe to make the background of one’s own behavior.
In order to have some context within which profitably to draw conclusions about future Soviet actions it may be helpful to make an arbitrary distinction between two dangers: (a) the danger of becoming involved in global war, and (b) the danger of being defeated in a global war. In that way we can at least put aside initially what it is we are not studying. Because there is no important disagreement that if matters reach the point where the Soviets attain the capability of delivering a “decisive”* initial blow on the United States without serious risk to their own regime, they would do so, i.e., that they would do so would have to be considered so probable for planning purposes, that it would be unprofitable to argue about degrees of possibility. What we are considering here then is the probable nature of Soviet actions short of delivering a “decisive” blow on the United States.
The Soviet regime came to power in October 1917 with what the Bolsheviks considered to be a clear, thoroughly thought out thesis, or doctrine, which described the direction of the future course of world history. In seizing power by a coup d’état rather than by the prescribed revolution and in a country which had none of the doctrinaire prerequisites for socialism they immediately violated the doctrine, and have continued to do so ever since. The life of the Soviet regime has been one continual contradiction and, in essence, Soviet actions have represented an unending series of compromises as, with each concrete situation facing them, they have attempted to resolve this contradiction. The moment that they seized power they discovered that doctrine was totally inadequate to answer the questions as to how to exercise power in that country, under those circumstances, at that time. Compelled to consolidate the power attained and to strive for absolute control over the captured state, Lenin compromised with doctrine. Stalin has continued to do so, and since 1917 whenever a conflict has arisen between doctrine (the revolutionary ideology) and any question of power, the latter has prevailed without exception. Where Lenin, however, acknowledged each compromise as such, Stalin has twisted the doctrine to fit the compromise. His policies therefore have been completely opportunistic—but by necessity, not by design.
The basic contradiction, then, lies in the twin necessities of maintaining power at home and advocating revolution abroad. From this has sprung the dual nature of the State wherein the same men are at once the rulers of the Soviet Union and the Board of Directors of an international conspiracy. To date no sacrifice of the State has been made for the benefit of the world revolutionary [Page 7]movement. It is unnecessary, however, to state dogmatically that the Stalin regime is interested in maintaining power in Russia entirely for the sake of power and not at all as a base for eventual world revolution since, for the foreseeable future, they amount to the same thing. The prime preoccupation of the masters of the Kremlin remains the security of the home base and there is no realistic sign that in the foreseeable future the internal situation in Russia will undergo such radical alteration as to remove this preoccupation from their minds.
Furthermore, the specific and artificial nature of the Stalinist regime, which bears little resemblance to any socialist or communist society as envisaged by either Marx or Lenin makes it probable, if not inevitable, that any Communist regime not susceptible of control by the Soviet Union would be basically different in its development from Stalinist Russia and hence potentially hostile to it. The relationship of the Soviet Union and other Communist states which it cannot control is a subject of extreme complexity and one on which we have very little evidence to base any firm conclusions, but as Tito illustrates, the mere fact of being Communist does not eliminate the possibility of a hostile relationship with the Soviet Union.
To say that the ideology of Communism and the doctrine of Marx and Lenin do not provide any real guide to Soviet action, in the sense of cause and effect, does not mean that doctrine does not have an effect on Soviet action. The effect is indirect but nonetheless real. Doctrine has served as the rationalization and justification of Soviet actions taken for different reasons. By this fact alone it conditions to an important degree the manner in which the action is taken. And it is the bait that attracts supporters abroad. In one field, furthermore, it has a very important effect, and that is in the field of analysis of situations in non-Soviet countries and, hence, on the Soviet estimate of the policies of non-Soviet governments. Available information indicates that in the analysis of the development of capitalist society, rivalries between capitalist powers, and the relationship between “colonial powers and colonial or semi-colonial peoples” the Soviet rulers operate quite literally according to doctrine. It is in this field that doctrine plays its greatest role and contains the greatest possibility of serious Soviet miscalculation as to the reaction of other countries (Finland and Korea). In a contradictory sense, however, it also operates as one of the safeguards of world peace and makes our behavior one of the principal factors bearing on Soviet action.
[sic] General war is clearly not something into which the Soviet rulers would enter lightly. One of the chief factors which they would obviously consider would be the relative strength of the [Page 8]enemy. But regardless of their estimate of this factor, they must regard any major war as highly dangerous to the regime. It would subject an overburdened economy and their control of the satellites to grievous strains. It would greatly increase the problem of defection. Most seriously of all it would alter to the detriment of the party the relationship between party and army; and control over the army is one of the principal cornerstones of the survival of the regime.
For such people, however, struggle is the most natural environment. The interests of the regime have no direct relation with the interests, aspirations, and needs of the Russian people. Preoccupied with the problems of maintaining iron discipline over the captive peoples, they are obliged to justify it by the bogey of “capitalist encirclement” and an ostensible goal of world revolution. A tranquil relationship with the outside world, then, becomes impossible and their expansionist tendencies spring from a desire to push the edge of freedom farther and farther away.


Bearing in mind that the purpose of this analysis is neither to draw all possible conclusions concerning Soviet actions nor to set down everything which might help us understand events as they occur but rather to enumerate only those conclusions concerning the nature of future Soviet conduct which will assist in formulating our own strategy, the following may be stated:

It must be accepted as probable that the Soviets would attack us if they felt they could deliver a “decisive” initial blow to the U.S. without serious risk to their own regime.
The Soviets might attack if they were convinced as a matter of fact, rather than theory, that an attack by the West was actually imminent—and the facts would probably have to include a physical preponderance of Western strength in being plus a menacing political attitude on our part.
War could come from miscalculation on the part of the Soviets coupled with the unwinding chain of action and reaction—a concomitant of this conclusion is that our actions play an extremely important part in Soviet actions.
War could come from accident—as contrasted with miscalculation—simply as a result of the confrontation of two armed and arming hostile powers.
Short of a above, and possibly b, Soviet action is more likely to be confined to the “cold war”—i.e., a continuous hostility and a pushing and probing toward an exploitation of all Western weaknesses.
The following represent certain criteria, all of which should be present before the Soviet Union would be likely to take or support overt action against non-Soviet territory but which conditions, even if met, would not necessarily impel such actions: [Page 9]
That the territory’s accession to Soviet power would have a direct and important effect in improving the Soviet strategic position;
That the territory could be brought under total Stalinist control;
That the internal situation would be such as to indicate the “objective” conditions for revolution, at least to the extent of providing cover of revolutionary or civil war activity to which Soviet or satellite forces would bring assistance; and
That the use of open armed force would not carry with it a major risk of general hostilities involving the Soviet Union.

  1. A notation on the source text reads: “Revised paper as transmitted to NSC”. This memorandum by Bohlen was in response to NSC Action No. 575–c, Oct. 17, 1951 directing the NSC Senior Staff to submit for Council consideration at an early date a reappraisal of the policies and programs set forth in the NSC 68 and NSC 114 Series. See the memorandum by Bohlen, May 19, p. 17. For documentation on the NSC 68 Series, see Foreign Relations, 1950, vol. i, pp. 126 ff.; for documentation on the NSC 114 Series, see ibid., 1951, vol. i, pp. 1 ff. For text of NSC Action No. 575, see ibid., p. 235.

    Bohlen was the representative of the Department of State on the Senior Staff of the National Security Council. For information on the administrative composition of the National Security Council and recommended changes thereto, see the memorandum by Cutler to the President, Mar. 16, 1953, p. 245.

  2. A “decisive” blow is one which renders the enemy incapable of further serious action. [Footnote in the source text.]