The specification called for a “multi-engined” bomber. In the parlance of the time, that meant “twin-engined.” The company president, Claire Egtvedt, boldly elected to interpret the term to permit a four-engine aircraft, which would offer unprecedented size and striking power. His workers built a prototype, at company expense, and a flight crew took it for trials at Wright Field, a test center in Dayton, Ohio. It overshadowed its twin-engine competitors like a Duesenberg among Model A’s. Then disaster struck as this one-of-a-kind airplane crashed. An investigation quickly showed that the basic design was not at fault, but the Army was taking no chances; it gave the main contract to the competition. However, as a sort of consolation prize, it ordered thirteen of Boeing’s new bombers. By this slender margin the B-17 put its foot in the door.

The development proved epochal. The Germans and Japanese went on to fight their wars with only twin-engine bombers. The Luftwaffe used them in the Battle of Britain, and Hitler learned to his sorrow that such craft were good enough to start a major war but not to fight it to victory. By contrast, after 1940 the B-17 had the benefit of several years of experience in production, development, and service use. Well before Pearl Harbor we were exporting B-17s to Britain. The plane went on to play a leading role in the air attacks that flattened Germany’s cities. And with the B-17 in hand, Boeing’s designers went further with the B-29, which offered longer range and a heavier war load. In a matter of months, during 1945, fleets of these aircraft burned much of Japan to cinders.

Victory; jubilation; and once again the boys came home amid a massive demobilization. The Soviets stayed close to their wartime strength, while their line of farthest advance, extending from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, was so far forward that to march to the Atlantic, they would need little more than shoes. But that didn’t really matter; we had the bomb, and they didn’t. That was why as late as 1948, with Berlin under blockade and war seemingly imminent, President Truman could calmly persist in holding the entire military establishment to a total budget of only $14.4 billion. Significantly, this slim allocation drew little challenge in Congress, even though the Republican opposition was in control.


The wake-up call came during a single week, early in the autumn of 1949. On September 21, in Beijing, Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. Two days later Truman issued a blunt statement: “We have evidence an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R.” That explosion blew away a major underpinning for our postwar policy, and together these two events put an end to the hope that the recent victory could bring a return to peacetime business as usual.

Truman’s response brought another milestone. He approved a National Security Council policy paper, NSC 68, that certainly deserves to rank among America’s great state documents. If NSC 68 still is little known, much of the reason is that it was secret. It stated that up to 20 percent of our gross national product would go to support the military and that the United States would resist communist threats to noncommunist nations anywhere in the world.

NSC 68 was a political document written to fit the times, yet it dealt with far more than the issues of the day. It ushered in the national security state, elevating the Pentagon to the center of our peacetime concern. This document thus broke decisively with the policies we had pursued since our earliest days, which had granted only the most minimal role to our peacetime armed forces. It would stand as the foundation for a regime that we had never before tolerated, one that would maintain a large and permanent military establishment in the absence of war. Yet it came forth in secrecy and little public debate. The threat that spawned it appeared that serious.

Two months after Truman initialed “approved” to NSC 68, we were at war in Korea. The stakes were clear: resistance to open communist aggression, security for Japan. However, these stakes did not require that we push northward and conquer all of North Korea. General MacArthur, the theater commander, wanted to; so did Syngman Rhee, president of South Korea. Through third-party sources Washington was receiving warnings that China would intervene if we did. Truman went ahead anyway and soon found that there was no hope of bringing the boys home for Christmas. Instead we were trapped in a war that we could neither win nor end. It took three years before the fighting ended in an armistice.

Today, with the Cold War over, we are in the midst of another era of sweeping change.

It is twenty-twenty hindsight to say that American forces should have gone no farther than the thirty-eighth parallel in Korea, leaving South Korean troops to seize a line from Pyongyang to Wonsan. Far more culpable was the work of John Kennedy and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara a decade later. Kennedy’s willingness to “pay any price, bear any burden” expressed the purest essence of NSC 68 but not of American interests. The result was the war in Vietnam.