Fateful Decisions: Inside the National Security Council

By Karl F. Inderfurth; Loch K. Johnson | Go to book overview

PART III
TRANSFORMATION

Damn it, Bundy and I get more done in one day at the White House
than they do in six months at the State Department.

—President John F. Kennedy


EDITORS' INTRODUCTION

Kennedy

John F. Kennedy entered the White House promising a new, more vigorous style of leadership. "Let the word go forth," said the new president in his inaugural address on January 20, 1961, "that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." That change in leadership was immediately reflected in Kennedy's style of presidential decision making, marking a radical departure from former President Eisenhower's approach to national security. According to Theodore Sorensen, who served as the president's special counsel: "…. from the outset he abandoned the notion of a collective, institutionalized Presidency…. he paid little attention to organization charts and chains of command which diluted and distributed his authority. He was not interested in unanimous committee recommendations which stifled alternatives to find the lowest common denominator of compromise" (Sorensen, 1965:281; see For Further Reading).

Responding favorably to the recommendations of the Jackson Subcommittee report on "Organizing for National Security," the new president proceeded to abolish the elaborate "NSC system" established by his predecessor. First to go was the preeminence of the Council as the forum for national security decision making in the new administration. Kennedy made it clear that he viewed the NSC as but one of several groups he would use for receiving advice and making decisions. A greater premium was placed on more flexible, informal arrangements, including meetings with his secretary of state, Dean Rusk; his secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara; and his special assistant for national security affairs, McGeorge Bundy. Although formal NSC meetings were held—sixteen, for example, in the first six months of the new administration—their importance was unmistakably downgraded, as reflected in this comment, again by Sorensen:

At times "Kennedy" made minor decisions in full NSC meetings or pretended to make major ones
actually settled earlier. Attendance was generally kept well below the level of previous adminis-
trations, but still well above the statutory requirements. He strongly preferred to make all major
decisions with far fewer people present, often only with the officer to whom he was communicat-
ing the decision. "We have averaged three or four meetings a week with the Secretaries of Defense
and State, McGeorge Bundy, the head of the CIA and the Vice President," he said in 1961. "But
formal meetings of the Security Council which include a much wider group are not as effective.

-63-

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