Seventy years ago this week, on Sept. 26, 1947, the U.S. National Security Council met for the first time. President Harry S. Truman presided over the meeting. The NSC — like the Departments of Defense, the Air Force and the CIA — had been created two months earlier via the National Security Act of 1947.
If all this seems like dusty, ancient history, a look into the records of the early years of the modern American security establishment might surprise you. What is more, they would certainly prove instructive to the current generation of leaders. While we have come a long way since those first days of America’s role as a true superpower, the issues we are dealing with remain strikingly similar — but the way in which we are dealing with them has gone through some unsettling changes.
For example, the first paper produced by the council, NSC 1, which was presented to Truman on Nov. 14, 1947, and accepted by him 10 days later, approved covert U.S. meddling in the elections of a leading Western democracy. In that case, it was Italy, recovering from World War II. America was trying to counter the efforts of the Soviets to support the rise of the Italian Communist Party.
Later in 1947, another early product of the new council, NSC 4, headlined “Coordination of Foreign Information Measures,” was produced. It cited a threat, saying, “The USSR is conducting an intensive propaganda campaign directed primarily against the US . . . employing coordinated psychological, political and economic measures . . . . The ultimate objective of this campaign is not merely to undermine the prestige of the US and . . . weaken and divide world opinion to a point where effective opposition to Soviet designs is no longer attainable.” NSC 4 recommended creating mechanisms within the U.S. government to counter the Russian efforts. Over ensuing years, these counter-measures often included covert U.S. intervention in elections and political affairs worldwide.
None of this exculpates the Russians for their recent efforts to intervene in U.S. elections and political affairs. Still, this history might suggest we should check our self-righteous indignation a bit.
It would be more productive to recognize that the very nature of democracy opens it up to efforts by multiple actors, foreign and domestic, seeking to influence outcomes to serve their purposes. These documents demonstrate it has long been this way and taking them hand in hand with current headlines suggest it will long be so. That is why it is so important that we do not fall into the trap of viewing Russian interventions purely in near-term, self-interested, partisan terms. We must, of course, identify and protect ourselves against wrong-doing regardless of its authors. But we must do so with an awareness that countries with the capacity to advance their interests worldwide will continue to use “all measures available” to do so. New technologies change this game and the keepers of those technologies need to wake up, look at the history, recognize that they will be subject to constant efforts by hostile powers to co-opt their resources to achieve their objectives, and start cooperating with governments to reduce risks going forward. Managers of electoral processes and technologies need to do likewise. Because the price of running an open society in the information age is that enemies will be tempted to use it against us and our allies; we must be as prepared now as we were seven decades ago.
The early records of the NSC also show an awareness in post-World War II, early-Cold War America that our greatest strengths countering those efforts lie in a respect for the values underpinning our system. Early documents of this era, like George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” framed the Russian threat, and ended with the admonition that our victory will depend on cultivating the strengths of our society at home.
NSC 68 was one of the most important documents of the early NSC, framing America’s response to the dawning of the nuclear rivalry between the United States and Russia. Here is what it had to say about the importance of protecting our open society even in the face of pernicious, even existential threats from abroad:
” . . . this idea of freedom with responsibility derives the marvelous diversity, the deep tolerance, the lawfulness of the free society. This is the explanation of the strength of free men. It constitutes the integrity and the vitality of a free and democratic system. The free society attempts to create and maintain an environment in which every individual has the opportunity to realize his creative powers. It also explains why the free society tolerates those within it who would use their freedom to destroy it. By the same token, in the relations between nations, the prime reliance of the free society is on the strength and appeal of its idea… For the free society does not fear, it welcomes, diversity. It derives its strength from its hospitality even to antipathetic ideas.”
It is a reminder that while freedom opens us to risk, we must protect it because it protects us. It offers America both the moral high ground and the kind of society others seek to follow by choice, without the need to resort to subterfuge or coercion.