The President and the National Security State during the Cold War

The President and the National Security State during the Cold War

On March 12, 1947, President Harry Truman addressed Congress on the “gravity of the situation which confronts the world today.” In his request for economic assistance to Greece and Turkey, Truman made his famous pledge that “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” He warned Congress that Americans needed to take action because the “free people of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms.”

The “Truman Doctrine” outlined the moral and economic stake the United States had in fighting communism abroad. President Truman used the opportunity to link global economic and national security interests in ways that would dramatically expand the president’s institutional power and international role as a leader of the “free world.”

The Truman Doctrine

Beginning in World War II, a massive “warfare state” emerged, transforming the place of the federal government, and the executive branch in particular, in the lives of individuals at home and across the world.1 The Cold War saw a bipartisan acceptance of multilateralism in foreign affairs as the country joined the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and pledged to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation.” During and after WWII, the United States grew into an international “arsenal of democracy.”2This required tremendous institutional expansion of the executive branch, economic arrangements—including income taxes on individuals and high levels of corporate taxes—and ideological commitments to internationalism and the policy of containment, as famously outlined in the 1950 National Security Council Report 68 (NSC 68).3

Historians have examined how ideology, economic visions, and personalities have shaped international diplomacy and military endeavors during the Cold War.4 The presidency looms large in these historical accounts.  As diplomatic historian Stephen Rabe points out in an overview of Cold War presidents, a recent bibliography of Eisenhower’s foreign policy contained 840 scholarly sources.5 The presidency dominates the history of post-WWII foreign relations because presidents set the rhetorical parameters of international relations, just as Truman did in 1947, and had the institutional authority to take action. During this time, Congress deliberately strengthened the authority of the presidency with the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 and the National Security Act of 1947, which created the National Security Agency, National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency.

As historian James Sparrow argues, this legislation gave the president concentrated power to “safeguard the ‘free world’” abroad by monitoring international conflicts and at home by “constantly surveilling the loyalty of citizens to preempt internal subversion of a ‘free society.’”6 Cold War presidents had the resources and the power to plunge the country into military commitments, unknown to members of Congress and the broader public, in the interest of national security. 7 As a result, as Lewis Gould notes, the presidency stood as “the only institution in government that could pursue a course of action on a sustained and coherent basis.”8  In this section, students will examine how the shifting international context influenced the responsibilities and operation of the presidency both at home and abroad. 

Defending Freedom Abroad:

The Cold War made national security issues a daily concern of the president, who now had the responsibility not only to protect the atomic bomb from misuse but also to understand the political struggles in smaller countries across the globe. As historians have noted, the ideological lens of the Cold War shaped how presidents understood revolutionary nationalism across the globe. Especially in the global South, the “prism of the Soviet–American confrontation” influenced their perception of international conflicts.9 Truman’s successors, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon, inherited ongoing military operations and international commitments from their predecessors. While some were public, others were covert. All of them, however, presented presidents an unprecedented opportunity to wage war from the Oval Office.


  • Frank Costigliola, “Personal Dynamics and Presidential Transition: The Case of Roosevelt and Truman,” in Balogh and Schulman, eds., Recapturing the Oval Office: New Historical Approaches to the American Presidency, 34–50.
  • William I. Hitchcock, “Ike’s World: In Search of Ideology in the Eisenhower Presidency,” in Balogh and Schulman, eds., Recapturing the Oval Office: New Historical Approaches to the American Presidency,108–122.
  • Marc Selverstone, “Epic misadventure: John F. Kennedy’s first year foreign policy stumbles taught hard-earned lessons,” The First Year: 2017, Where the next president begins, Miller Center for Public Affairs, University of Virginia.



  • By comparing the United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp decision, the 1940 Fireside Chat on national security, and the 1947 National Security Act, how does the meaning of the term “national security” change before, during, and after WWII? What new types of authority does the president gain with this growing definition of national security?
  • Hitchcock argues that a combination of ideology and pragmatism shaped Eisenhower’s approach to international policy, while Costigliola emphasizes the power of personalities to influence diplomatic relations. After examining Selverstone's analysis of Kennedy’s “stumbles” and the primary sources surrounding his decision during the Bay of Pigs, at what point do you see ideology shaping policy decisions? At what point do you see the dynamics of individual presidents shaping their choices? 
  • Both Marc Selverstone and Frank Costigliola examine the difficulties of presidential transitions. While Costigliola examines the personal politics, Selverstone illuminates how existing military commitments of an existing presidential administration can challenge the incoming president. After reading Selverstone’s analysis and examining the primary documents on the Bay of Pigs crisis, how much is Kennedy to blame for the military disaster in Cuba and how much are the institutional expansions of the national security state to blame?
  • Based on the Cold War presidency and the analysis of the Bay of Pigs incident, what advice would you offer incoming presidents regarding foreign policy decisions he/she may have to make in the first year?


WWII, the Manhattan Project, and the Debate over Presidential Responsibilities of the Atomic Age

On April 25, 1945, Secretary of War Henry Stimson and the Manhattan Project chief General Leslie Groves secretly met with Harry Truman. They explained to the new president that in four months, “we shall in all probability have completed the most terrible weapon ever known in human history, one bomb of which could destroy a whole city.” The two men told Truman how the weapon would become the “primary question of our foreign relations,” emphasizing the moral gravity of deciding to deploy it. “Our leadership in the war and in the development of this weapon has placed a certain moral responsibility upon us which we cannot shirk without very serious responsibility for any disaster to civilization which it would further.” Truman listened intently to the report, knowing that he would have to make a decision as commander in chief about whether to use the atomic bomb.

Click to read the Henry Stimson Diary, Sterling Library, Yale University (microfilm at Library of Congress). Source:

President Truman’s subsequent decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki three days later has caused heated controversy.

Using the collection of documents from the National Security Archive’s collection of primary sources on “The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II,” have students meet in small groups to examine the following historical questions that have generated political, military, and moral debates since 1945.

  1. Group 1: Were the atomic bombs necessary militarily to win the war and prevent a Japanese invasion?
  2. Group 2: Did Truman order the atomic strikes to gain political advantage in the postwar negotiations with the Soviets or to end the war with Japan early?
  3. Group 3: What alternatives existed, how plausible where they, and why did Truman decide not to pursue these alternate paths?
  4. Group 4: Did Truman make the decision to drop the bomb or had this decision already been made by the advisors he inherited from Franklin Roosevelt?
  5. Group 5: Was it morally justifiable to drop the bomb, especially considering the impact of radiation in the aftermath?


  • How did the development of the bomb create a new relationship between the military, the presidency, and professional experts?
  • Did dropping the atomic bomb launch the Cold War?
  • Did the success of the atomic attacks influence the priorities with which President Truman waged the Cold War?

Legacy of the Manhattan Project: The Expansion of the Military–Industrial–University Complex

Following the Manhattan Project, the pursuit of technological and military superiority encouraged government support of scientific research in universities across the country. Though research funding from the federal government only totaled $97 million in 1940, it escalated to $1.6 billion during World War II and then $2.1 billion in 1953. President Eisenhower further increased federal funding in scientific research following the Soviet launch of Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth in 1957.

Outlining how the Eisenhower administration responded to the Sputnik launch, these documents provide insight into the relationships between corporations, universities, professionals, individual students, and Eisenhower’s National Security Council. The ramifications of the atomic age unleashed by the successful Manhattan Project also shaped public and private behaviors in school and the home, as the two videos produced by the federal government’s Office of Civilian Defense illustrate.

“Memorandum of Conference with the President on American science and education and Sputnik,” October 15, 1957 (dated October 16), DDE’s Papers as President, DDE Diary Series, Box 27, October ’57 Staff Notes (2); NAID #12043792.

“Reaction to Sputnik; A preliminary evaluation,” White House Office of the Staff Research Group, Box 35, Special Projects: Sputnik, Missiles and Related Matters; NAID #12082706.

“National Science Month termed ‘Answer to Sputnik,’”; October 5, 1958, U.S. President’s Committee on Scientists and Engineers, Box 37, Washington D.C. 10/5/58; NAID #12093112.

“Duck and Cover,” produced by the Federal Civil Defense Administration (1951)


  • How have the relationships between scientists, universities, corporations, and the presidency developed since the Manhattan Project?
  • What assumptions about the Cold War shape domestic policy? Have these assumptions changed since WWII and the Manhattan Project? Why or why not?
  • How do ideas about science and technology of the “atomic age” shape the daily lives of children preparing for a nuclear attack in the “duck and cover” film or housewives cleaning their homes? What gendered assumptions about public and private behavior are relayed through these government films?
  1. ↑ James Sparrow, Warfare State: World War II Americans and the Age of Big Government. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  2. ↑ Julian E. Zelizer, Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security—from World War II to the War on Terrorism. (New York: Basic Books, 2009).
  3. ↑ John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  4. ↑ For a historiographical overview of the Cold War, see Curt Cardwell, “The Cold War,” in American in the World: The Historiography of American Foreign Relations since 1941 2nd ed., eds. Frank Costigliola and Michael J. Hogan. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 105–130.
  5. ↑ Stephen G. Rabe, “Cold War Presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon: The New Scholarly Literature,” in American in the World: The Historiography of American Foreign Relations since 1941, eds. Frank Costigliola and Michael J. Hogan. (New York: Cambridge University Press), 131. See also Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times.(New York, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
  6. ↑ Sparrow, 260.
  7. ↑ Michael J. Hogan, A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State 1945–1954. (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  8. ↑ Lewis Gould, The Modern American Presidency, 2nd ed. (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2009), 108.
  9. ↑ Rabe, “Cold War Presidents,” 157. For recent literature on the role of ideology in Cold War policies, see: Andrew Preston, The War Council: McGeorge Bundy, the NSC, and Vietnam. (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2006); Melvyn Leffler, For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007); Campbell Craig and Fredrik Logevall, America’s Cold War: The Politics of Insecurity. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2009).