President Truman asked for an honest assessment. He didn't get the answer he was looking for.
Give-'em-hell Harry wanted to know what it would take to win the Cold War against the Soviets. On April 14, 1950, the State Department's Policy Planning staff gave him an honest answer: a thick report entitled National Security Council Paper Number 68.
NSC-68 informed the president that the most prudent course was to ramp up U.S. conventional forces and bulk out America's nuclear arsenal. Truman blanched. The build-up was estimated to cost four times the annual defense budget.
Truman ordered the report shelved, its existence kept secret. NSC-68 wasn't declassified until 1975.
National security sometimes demands secrecy, but Truman hid NSC-68 to bury the fact that he didn't want to make the hard call.
Ignoring Cold War realities didn't keep it from getting hotter, however. Ultimately, the president wound up overseeing a massive build up. The outbreak of the Korean conflict forced his hand.
A successful democracy requires the right measure of keeping secrets and leveling with the rest of us. Truman flunked the test. It is far from clear that the Obama White House has done any better.
For months, the administration has let slip a seemingly unending stream of operational secrets, all bolstering the line that the president has been tough in the war on terrorism. On the other hand, the White House has kept a lot of stuff firmly classified -- most notably information about how the automatic Pentagon cuts required under the Budget Control Act of 2011 would affect the industrial base that undergirds our national defense.
It is a bit of a puzzler. Administration officials have no problem warning -- in general terms -- that the mandated across-the-boards defense cuts will weaken our military.
But the administration has yet to detail publicly how these cuts would affect the companies that produce the military equipment so vital to the survival of our troops and the security of our nation. Employers need to know whether or not the Pentagon is anticipating pulling the plug on their contracts so they can send out layoff notices, as required by law.
The take in Washington is that the White House doesn't want those pink slips going out until after the election. But that's not all they are hiding from us.
When the Pentagon backs out of contracts, it often has to pay hefty termination fees. That means that we, the taxpayers, wind up shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars to close down production lines ... and get nothing in return.
Further, the administration hasn't told us how this will affect the military-industrial base. What defense manufacturing capabilities will be lost? When the Pentagon gets around to buying more stuff in the future, will it be more expensive because companies had to idle their plants and send home their workers?
All Americans -- whether they want more defense, less defense, or different defense -- have the right to know what kind of defense the president is giving them. The White House's response is: Wait 'til after the election, and we'll tell you. The only thing transparent about that answer is that this secrecy exists to satisfy a political objective, not a national security purpose.
A bipartisan bill now before Congress would require the Pentagon to report, by mid-August, exactly how defense programs will be affected by the automatic cuts. That seems like a reasonable first step to letting Americans know what their government is up to.
Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.