Source Material: The Truth Is out There: The Recently Released NSC Institutional Files of the Nixon Presidency
Siniver, Asaf, Presidential Studies Quarterly
This article reviews the recent release of material concerning the National Security Council by the Nixon presidential material staff in NARA. The new collection covers a wide array of issues relating not only to the structural and procedural developments of the council during the Nixon-Kissinger years, but also to the activities of its many interagency groups. Following an evaluation of the collection's sub-series, the article will demonstrate the significance of the findings by analyzing a particular document, suggesting that the new NSC series offers researchers a unique opportunity to reconstruct the story of the Nixon-Kissinger dyad and their control of the foreign policy machinery between 1969 and 1974.
A significant addition has recently been made to the collection of open records of the Nixon presidency. In July 2003, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) announced the opening of the National Security Council Institutional Files series from the Nixon Presidential Material Project. Hitherto, the range of original material concerning the making of foreign policy during the Nixon years has been limited. The picture has now changed. We are no longer dependent on journalist accounts and the participants' accounts. The recently released NSC series offers original, high-quality material that has never been seen before. These new findings will hopefully allow researchers to build a more balanced and complete picture of the realities of White House politics between 1969 and 1974, as far as national security issues are concerned. The NSC Institutional Files are presidential records, subject to access and disclosure under the Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978, which changed the legal ownership of presidential records from private to public. The act defines presidential records as documentary materials (in paper, audio-visual, or electronic format) created or received by the president, his immediate staff, or any other individual or unit that serve to assist or advise the president. (1)
This article will first review the nature of the files that have been made public in the recent release, and will then examine one document from the new series in order to demonstrate the series' significance to our understanding of the structural and procedural aspects of the machinery of foreign policy making between 1969 and 1974.
The new series' 105 cubic feet of materials is only a drop in the vast ocean of released and still-classified records of the Nixon presidency; indeed, the 180,000 pages of NSC institutional files are part of a presidential collection that includes, as one researcher noted, 40 million pages of documents, 2.2 million feet of film, 4,000 hours of White House tapes, 5,312 microforms, and 2,000 pages of oral histories (Hoff 1996, 259).
But while it may only constitute a mere fraction of the interminable collections of the 37th president's five and a half years in office, the significance of the new series is indubitable in more than one way. First, it enables researchers for the first time to use authentic documents to explain the radical transformation the NSC went through during the first months of the Nixon administration, a cumbersome project brought to life by the assistant to the president for national security affairs, Henry Kissinger. (2) Second, the series also provides a unique account of the relations between key personalities in the administration, such as Melvin Laird, Alexander Haig, and of course, Henry Kissinger. The image of Nixon's national security advisor as it comes up repeatedly in the new NSC files is of a person determined to position himself at the top of the decision-making pyramid, with tight control over the flow of information to the president, and often with disregard to important inputs from key actors in Washington, such as the Joint Chief-s and the intelligence community.
What Files Have Been Made Public?
The newly released NSC files consist of nine sub-series. Some are richer in data than others; the main reason is that a considerable amount of documents are still withheld by an executive order governing access to national security information. Indeed, some files contain nothing but withdrawal sheets, which merely record the form of the document (memo, reports, etc.); the correspondents or title of the document; its date; and the code of restriction. (3) Although researchers are entitled to submit a Mandatory Review Request for items on the withdrawal sheet, they should be realistic in their hope for a quick and successful response, as the process can be quite wearing, in a similar manner to that of FOIA requests (Freedom of Information Act). Because most of the data in the new series have only been declassified during 2002, it is unlikely that further documents from the series will be released in the near future, as most are restricted for national security reasons. Typically, this might include signals--intelligence material collected by the National Security Agency.
Nevertheless, each of the nine sub-series of the NSC Institutional Files is voluminous enough to keep researchers fairly busy, whether they wish to learn more about the organization and functioning of the National Security Council, or in broader terms, the machinery of foreign policy during the Nixon years.
Committee Files, This sub-series is concerned with the administration and workings of the NSC internal committees and study groups, such as the Vietnam Special Studies Group.
Meeting Files. This includes schedules, memorandums, agendas, and summaries concerned with the NSC interagency groups, such as the Senior Review Group, the Verification Panel, the Washington Special Actions Group, and the Defense Program Review committee. Also included here are memorandums regarding the organization and procedures of these groups, as well as background papers between NSC staff and Kissinger, and between Kissinger and Nixon before interagency meetings.
Minutes of Meetings. Perhaps the most telling of the nine sub-series, included here are both verbatim and summarized minutes. Some are handwritten, although the majority of minutes are part of memos that also include a summary of the decisions of each of the NSC internal committees, as well as the NSC itself. In some cases, such as during the incursion to Cambodia in the spring of 1970, the minutes are very helpful in enhancing our understanding of the deliberations of American decision makers at the time, both at home and abroad.
Study Memorandums. Known as National Security Study Memorandums (NSSM), this category documents the 206 presidential directives instructing that particular studies be undertaken for the formal consideration of the NSC. In addition to the directives themselves (which were often generated in Kissinger's office), also included are communications between the bodies concerned, as well as background papers.
Policy Papers. The second procedural instruments alongside the NSSMs were National Security Decision Memorandums (NSDM), which informed the various departments and agencies of presidential decisions which may or may not have resulted from NSC meetings. Included here are policy drafts, submissions from the departments concerned, as well as narrative background in some cases.
Undersecretaries Committee Memorandum Files. This group dealt with issues in the short-to-medium term, and which did not require a presidential decision. This sub-series includes pre-decisional memorandums, dealing with the initial consultations and interagency inputs concerning specific tasks; and formal decision memorandums, in the form of formal position papers for the consideration of the National Security Council.
Intelligence Files. The bulk of the data here covers overt intelligence matters relating to the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which was responsible for providing the president independent advice and analysis on the quality and adequacy of various intelligence activities, as well as the House Committee on Internal Security. It contains correspondence dated from 1969 to 1970 between the NSC and administration officials on matters of national and international intelligence.
Records of the Staff Secretary. Included here are files maintained by the NSC staff secretary, such as minutes of meetings, reports, and various correspondence, as well as the NSC Decisions Index. (4)
Miscellaneous Institutional Files of the Nixon Administration. This sub-series documents various institutional functions and activities of the council, such as the structure of the NSC system, its administrative and functional development, as well as summaries of minutes, some of which cannot be found in the Minutes of Meetings sub-series.
The Significance of the Series: An Example
The literature on the Nixon-Kissinger dyad and its hierarchical-formalistic management of advice and information in foreign policy matters is voluminous. (5) There is, however, general consensus among scholars about the role of the NSC in the making of foreign policy, and the relations between the 37th president and his national security advisor on one hand, and other important actors in the administration (most notably the State Department) on the other. The foreign policy system that Kissinger developed in the first year of the administration ensured that the White House was placed at the hub of the system, and that information and advice to the president was channelled through a single source: the office of the assistant to the president for national security affairs. In doing so, Nixon and Kissinger attempted to secure two objectives: first, to weaken the autonomy of individual departments, and in particular to ensure tight control over the State Department ("a bastion of Democrats") and the formulation of foreign policies; and second, to minimize bureaucratic quarrels and long, infertile discussions with large groups of experts and staff, which did not suit Nixon's style of management. Instead, Nixon opted to put his trust in the hands of Kissinger as far as national security and foreign policy matters were concerned)
The following example from the new NSC Institutional Files series serves perfectly to illustrate this point. The new NSC system, and especially the central, almost indispensable role of Dr. Kissinger in it, was not immune from criticism from both within and outside the administration. (7) In this example, a memorandum from Rear Admiral Robinson, the liaison officer between the NSC and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Admiral Moorer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, illustrates the growing discontent of the defense and intelligence communities with Dr. Kissinger's apparent lack of commitment to NSC's schedules and meetings. Significant shortcomings of the NSC system are discussed here, most notably the tight control of Kissinger over the flow of information and advice to the president. At the heart of the problem, Robinson explains, is the fact that Kissinger's role in the administration is irreplaceable; and the immediate casualties of this predicament, are two: first, the adequate practices of decision making within the NSC in the absence of Kissinger; and second, Kissinger's deputy, General Alexander Haig, whose position could be seriously undermined by other departments and agencies:
We have looked into the Joint Staff complaint of difficulty in getting authoritative NSC information and guidance from the White House in the absence of Dr. Kissinger.... The real criticism should be directed at Dr. Kissinger's difficulty in attending promptly and remaining throughout the many meetings of the NSC sub-structure (Review Group, Washington Special Action Group, etc.). This practice has a disruptive effect on the meetings, results in inefficient utilization of the time of the other participants, and has become a source of irritation within the interagency committee. Unfortunately, there is no suitable substitute for the Assistant to the President at most of these meetings. Dr. Kissinger alone enjoys both the intimate day-to-day contact and confidence of the President. Furthermore, he is able to chair National Security meetings with relative neutrality, or at least with an unannounced position. As it turns out, the problem has been misstated and tends to derogate the role and effectiveness of General Haig.... The realities of White House politics probably prevent the designation of a true deputy for Dr. Kissinger in the immediate future.... Any enlargement in [the Deputy's] terms of reference would stimulate the same inter-agency competition that would come with any proposal to designate a Deputy or Chief of Staff ... [Haig] enjoys the confidence and trust of Dr. Kissinger and possibly even the President. He serves as a frequent point of contact for senior government officials, including those at Secretarial level. Both State and CIA, as well as certain NSC staff principals, recognize the importance of Haig's position and would welcome any opportunity to replace or by-pass him. (8)
Another comment by Robinson at the end of the memorandum might be considered as pure bureaucratic "gossip"; nevertheless, it is valuable to our understanding because it illustrates the resentment and bitterness which Kissinger generated in other actors in the administration, even if not always for the most "professional" reasons:
... criticism of Dr. Kissinger's participation in the many NSC committees remains valid. We hope to correct or at least ameliorate some of the more obvious problems through a two-fold effort to protect [Kissinger's] schedule and to induce in him a greater sense of punctuality and attendance. In such a manner we hope to prevent his academic friends and visitors of opportunity from pre-empting his time just prior to NSC-related meetings. (9)
The significance of this document lies not only in its explicitness; perhaps more important are the implicit lessons that we learn from it. Stated differently, it is important not because we now know that officials in the administration were irritated by the frequent visits of Kissinger's friends from Harvard; this document is compelling because it manages to encapsulate in a few paragraphs what has been known for years, but has never been seen before in authentic correspondence between two key officials in the Nixon administration. Reading between the lines, one gets a vivid impression of how perilous the practices of the new NSC system were, and their potentially ominous implications on the adequate process of foreign policy making in general and decision making in particular during the Nixon years. (10)
While significant portions of the Nixon records are still classified, scholars of the Nixon presidency should be hopeful. As illustrated by the cited document, the new series of NSC records will serve to further enhance our understanding of this period by shedding light on a few dark corners of the most controversial of the modern presidencies; indeed, one can only hope that subsequent releases of material from the Nixon Project would not linger.
Hoff, Joan. 1996. Researchers' nightmare: Studying the Nixon presidency. Presidential Studies Quarterly 24: 239-75.
The Nixon Presidential Material Project. College Park, MD: National Archives and Records Administration.
The Presidential Records Act. 1978.44 U.S.C. B2201-2207.
(1.) The Presidential Records Act 1978, 44 U.S.C. 132201-2207. The cct came into effect on January 20, 1981.
(2.) Kissinger's main partner in the rethinking of the role of the NSC and the national security advisor's own staff- was General Andrew Goodpaster. Goodpaster acted as transition advisor to President-Elect Nixon, after serving as staff-secretary to President Eisenhower.
(3.) Apart from the executive order (restriction code A), two additional sources of document withdrawal are the agency which originated the document (B) and a restriction contained in the deed of gift of the document's donor (C).
(4.) Three staff secretaries had served the NSC during the Nixon years: Richard Moose (1969-1970), William Watts (1971-1972), and Jeanne Davis (1972-1974).
(5.) See, for example, William B. Quandt, Decade of Decisions: American Policy toward the Arab-Israeli Conflict. 1967-1976 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977); Seymour M. Hersh, The Price of Power: Henry Kissinger in the Nixon White House (London: Faber and Faber, 1983); Joan Hoff, Nixon Reconsidered (New York: Basic Books, 1994); William Bundy, A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency (New York: Hill and Wang, 1997). For studies on general models of presidential management and comparative studies of the modern presidency, see, for example, Richard T. Johnson, Managing the White House: An Intimate Study of the Presidency (New York: Harper & Row, 1974); Alexander George, Presidential Decisionmaking in Foreign Policy: The Effective Use of Information and Advice (Boulder: Westview Press, 1980); Patrick J. Haney, Organizing for Foreign Policy Crises: Presidents. Advisers, and the Management of Decision Making (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002).
(6.) Kissinger's subsequent influential role in military and national security matters is adequately discussed in Morton H. Halperin, "The President and the Military," Foreign Affairs 50 (January 1972): 310-24.
(7.) Press reports about "turmoil" in the NSC were frequent in the first year of the Nixon administration. Following the departure of eleven of Kissinger's staff-in late 1969, one such report cited officials criticizing Kissinger's style of management: "When a memo goes to the President from the National Security Council staff, it carries one name, and only one name--Henry Kissinger. It doesn't make any difference who wrote it.... Those who can accept Henry's style are staying on. Others, like myself, have said, 'The hell with it,' and are getting out." James McCarthy, "One-Third of Kissinger Staff Has Quit," Houston Chronicle, October 19, 1969.
(8.) Memo, Rear Admiral Rembrandt C. Robinson to General Earle Wheeler, "NSC Organization and Procedures," January 19, 1970, Confidential: Sensitive, "NSC Organization [1 of 3]," Miscellaneous Files of the Nixon Administration, NSC System, Box H-300, NSC Institutional Files, NPMP, NARA. Robinson served as the liaison officer between the NSC and the JCS.
(10.) Incidentally, early criticism of the same nature (though not as venomous) appeared in an earlier memorandum from designated-Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird to Kissinger, in which the former expresses concerns that the new NSC system would "... institute a 'closed loop' in which all intelligence inputs would be channelled through a single source [which] would or could isolate not only the President from direct access to intelligence community outputs but also the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and other top-level members of the President's team." See Memo, Laird to Kissinger, "Your Memorandum Dated January 3, 1969 Concerning a New NSC System," January 9, 1969, Secret, "Sec. Laird," HAK Administrative and Staff Files, Box 1, Henry A. Kissinger Office Files, NSC Files, NPMP, NARA.
Asaf Siniver is a PhD candidate in the school of politics at the University of Nottingham. His research interests focus on the relations between the National Security Council and the executive branch, especially during international crises.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I would like to thank Professor Richard J. Aldrich from the School of Politics. the University of Nottingham, for his thoughtful comments on an earlier draft, though I am alone responsible for any errors.…
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Publication information: Article title: Source Material: The Truth Is out There: The Recently Released NSC Institutional Files of the Nixon Presidency. Contributors: Siniver, Asaf - Author. Journal title: Presidential Studies Quarterly. Volume: 34. Issue: 2 Publication date: June 2004. Page number: 449+. © 1999 Center for the Study of the Presidency. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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