The Little State Department: McGeorge Bundy and the National Security Council Staff, 1961-65
Preston, Andrew, Presidential Studies Quarterly
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy and his special assistant for national security affairs, McGeorge Bundy, began a fundamental transformation of the National Security Council (NSC) system and the role of the special assistant. A decade later, amid the turmoil of the Nixon-Kissinger White House operation, former secretary of state Dean Acheson (1971, 603) reflected on the change:
The new organization, with staffs of size and competence, has now survived a decade of political life and constant criticism. At its head Messrs. McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow and Henry Kissinger, all men of outstanding ability, have served successively to the announced satisfaction of their presidential chiefs. What emotions they stirred in the breasts of their colleagues at the State Department we must wait on future to learn. Meanwhile, we can imagine that there has been strain. (1)
Under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, the position had been largely administrative, and special assistants rarely, if ever, participated in shaping the foreign policy of the administration. Under Kennedy, who wanted to act as his own secretary of state and concentrate foreign policy formulation in the White House, McGeorge Bundy fundamentally transformed the post by augmenting to a tremendous extent its power and prerogatives. (2) Although this crucial development has not gone unnoticed by scholars of the period, the change, and its impact on American foreign policy, have yet to be explored in any great detail. (3) Whereas Kennedy's predecessors saw their special assistants as facilitators of national security policy, Kennedy wanted a contributor; whereas Truman and Eisenhower wanted their assistants to be subordinate to the Cabinet, Kennedy wanted his to be equal. Indeed, with his own staff of experts who became policy makers in their own right, and with inclusion in the administration's highest decision-making councils, Bundy performed more like a Cabinet official than a presidential aide, in effect becoming the first "national security adviser" and the progenitor of a straight and narrow line that would come to include Walt W. Rostow, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Robert C. "Bud" McFarlane.
The changes that had occurred at the advent of the Kennedy presidency were accentuated during the next, that of Lyndon B.Johnson. LBJ relied on Bundy to formulate and coordinate foreign policy to an even greater extent than Kennedy had. This was due in large part to the informality and personalization of decision making under Johnson. Paradoxically, as Bundy's authority increased, the scope of his staff's power decreased. Fewer people actually conducted American foreign policy after November 1963, and those who did were concentrated at the highest levels. By 1965, when major foreign policy decisions were made-especially on the perennial crisis in Vietnam-there were very few internal obstacles that blocked the path Bundy advised the President to take.
The Evolution of the NSC System, 1947-60
The special assistant for national security affairs had its origins under President Harry S. Truman. In July 1947, at the dawn of the cold war and at the behest of the Truman administration, Congress passed the National Security Act. The act established the NSC as a Cabinetlevel advisory body for the president; the position of executive secretary was created to serve as its administrative head; and Cabinet members constituted the membership of the NSC. The broad scope of the provisions of the act also included the founding of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). (4) The purpose of the legislation was "to provide for the establishment of integrated policies and procedures for the departments, agencies, and functions of the Government relating to the national security," (5) and, as a top-level body that integrated various federal departments and agencies, it was the NSC's duty, when convened, to advise the president on matters of national security. At first, Truman found the NSC too large and unwieldy and did not regularly attend its meetings. However, after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, the president changed his mind. To make it more effective, he limited the NSC's membership and regulated the occasions on which it met. (6) There were two executive secretaries during the Truman presidency: Rear Admiral Sidney W. Souers served until his retirement in January 1950; and his successor, James S. Lay, served until Truman left office in January 1953.
The original role of the executive secretary was modest and essentially administrative. As was Truman's intention, the executive secretary and his staff operated very much as administrative presidential aides, ensuring the smooth function of the agenda and staff of the NSC and offering policy advice sparingly and infrequently (Truman 1956, 60; Acheson 1969, 733-34). Clark Clifford, Truman's special counsel and close personal assistant, recalled that "President Truman wanted a small NSC staff under his direct control, with its role restricted in coordination" (1991, 164). At the inception of the NS C, administration infighting between the first secretary of defense, James V. Forrestal, who wanted the NSC staff to be directly under Pentagon authority, and the White House further resulted in firm presidential control of the NSC staff(Clifford 1991, 163; Millis 1951, 316). Truman intended the executive secretary and NSC staff to be nonpartisan, with functions and duties more within the realm of policy mechanics rather than planning and formulation. Evidently, Truman's NSC deputies agreed: "The main burden of initiating ... policies in the national security field must fall on the Department of State," Souers explained. (7) Clifford noted that "Souers and Lay were cautious men, and restricted themselves to coordinating formal policy papers" (p. 163). And unlike Cabinet secretaries, the executive secretary did not have a relationship with the news media. "The Executive Secretary," Souers stated tersely, "does not make news announcements to the press" (Bock 1987, 16). But the limited responsibilities of the executive secretary prevented him from acting as a liaison between departments and officials, particularly at the highest echelon. When Truman needed to facilitate cooperation between the Departments of State and Defense-or, more accurately, between Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson--he did not turn to the executive secretary; instead, he recalled Marshall Plan coordinator W. Averell Harriman from Paris to serve as a presidential special assistant for international affairs. Harriman was given authority for both policy formulation and execution. Essentially, Truman split the position of the NSC assistant into two separate capacities rather than enhance the existing authority of the executive secretary.
President Eisenhower expanded but did not strengthen significantly the duties of the NSC and its head. The principal changes to the NSC were structural: the executive secretary remained but was superseded by the newly created special assistant for national security affairs; the Planning Board was created to have a long-range policy-planning function within the NSC staff; (8) and the Operations Coordinating Board (OCB), its members drawn from various executive departments and agencies, was established to "provide for the coordinated execution of approved national security policies." (9) Policy papers generated by the Planning Board were used to stimulate debate when the NSC was convened by the president, and it was the duty of the special assistant, as the director of the Planning Board, to present these papers to the NSC. The NSC would arrive at a consensus on policy--although Eisenhower always held the decisive opinion-and the OCB would then ensure and expedite the adoption of the decision at which the NSC had arrived. Eisenhower, who had spent most of his life as a professional soldier, preferred a regimented decision structure of this kind (Cutler 1966, 300-301). He convened the NSC more often than Truman, attended it more regularly, and placed greater faith in its capacity to deliberate matters and provide advice.
Three men held the post of special assistant for national security affairs under Eisenhower: Robert Cutler, Dillon Anderson, and Gordon Gray. (10) The special assistant's job was to keep the stream of policy papers flowing from the Planning Board to the president and the NSC. According to Anderson (1956, 45), the special assistant "states why the policy is up for revision; or, if it is a new proposal, why it has come before" the NSC. The Special Assistant was also obliged to "make clear what is to be decided, what the alternatives are, [and] any divergences of views." He was not to formulate or recommend a policy of his own, although on occasion Cutler did skew the options he presented to the NSC to give more weight to policy recommendations he himself favored (Bowie and Immerman 1998, 162-63). Cutler thought it helpful to think of the NSC as "at the top of Policy Hill." The president and the Cabinet secretaries--the statutory members of the NSC who made the actual policy decisions--were at the top. On one side, leading to the top, was the Planning Board, which synthesized for the NSC policy options on long-term planning; on the other side, leading down from the top, was the OCB, which sought to guarantee that policy decided upon by the NSC was implemented successfully. The task of the special assistant was to facilitate smooth progress up and down policy hill (Cutler 1956, 448-49). The NSC staff served under the special assistant, and it was their task to assist in the progress of policy decisions. NSC staff members did not engage in policy making, essentially serving as clerks to the special assistant; those who served on the Planning Board simplified and condensed existing policy options for the NSC rather than generate those of their own. The duties of the NSC staff remained deliberate and methodical and avoided decision making. As Cutler wrote of the NSC in 1956, "There is a tendency toward formality and stylization" (p. 447). Cutler also agreed with Souers's concept of relations with the media: "No speeches, no public appearances, no talking with reporters" (p. 296). And when Eisenhower felt the need for greater coordination among federal departments and agencies and a tighter rein on daily foreign policy issues, he did as Truman did with Averell Harriman and appointed a presidential assistant for international affairs. Eisenhower's assistant, General Andrew Goodpaster, even had a small staff of his own and was more directly engaged in influencing day-to-day decisions on foreign affairs than the special assistant (Eisenhower 1965, 319).
Toward the end of his second term, Eisenhower's "formal and stylized" approach to foreign policy earned him many critics who charged that the President was lethargic and inattentive. One of the foremost of these critics was Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson, a Democrat from Washington. Jackson's criticisms were notable because he attacked not only the president's conduct of foreign affairs but also the careful system of policy coordination Eisenhower and his subordinates had constructed since 1953, particularly the NSC structure. Senator Jackson opened his campaign to reform the NSC system in an influential speech delivered at the National War College on April 16, 1959. Portraying the Eisenhower NSC hierarchy as overly bureaucratic, Jackson identified its "fatal flaw: a lack of internal consistency," due to the requirement of Planning Board papers to reach a consensus prior to coming before the full NSC. For this reason, along with the overlapping layers of NSC and departmental bureaucracy, Jackson warned that "our present NSC system actually stultifies true creative effort in the executive branch." (11) Two months later, Jackson elaborated on this theme, specifically questioning the function and utility of the Planning Board. (12) However, these were only the opening shots fired in Jackson's battle against the Eisenhower NSC. In response to his exposition, in July the Senate approved the creation of the Subcommittee on National Policy Machinery of the Senate Committee on Government Operations to investigate the Eisenhower administration's national security apparatus. Naturally, Senator Jackson served as its chairman, but alongside Democrats Hubert H. Humphrey and Edmund S. Muskie, the membership of prominent Republicans--Senators Jacob K. Javits and Karl E. Mundt--afforded the committee bipartisan credibility. The Jackson committee was also supported by several prominent figures outside of government service. Hans J. Morgenthau, an international relations scholar who would come to oppose bitterly American policy in Vietnam, derided the Eisenhower NSC system and said hyperbolically of the committee's efforts: "Upon its success or failure may well depend the fate of the country." (13) Government professor William Y. Elliott of Harvard--a mentor to both McGeorge Bundy and Henry Kissinger--testified before a House committee on the drawbacks of the NSC system and the merits of its overhaul. (14) The names of those who were willing to testify before the Jackson committee were also impressive, among them former Secretary of Defense Robert A. Lovett, Sidney Souers, Nelson Rockefeller, and even Eisenhower administration officials Robert Cutler and Secretary of State Christian A. Herter. Yet, despite all of the outside expert advice and participation, the Subcommittee on National Policy Machinery remained very much Henry Jackson's project.
So that the next president could make use of the committee's findings, its initial conclusions were completed and released in a series of interim reports before the inauguration in January 1961, although other conclusions followed later that year (Fosdick 1990, 63, 71). It was strongly recommended that the OCB, with its "inherent limitations" as an interdepartmental committee, be abolished. The Planning Board was spared a similar verdict, but the committee recommended that it be …
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Publication information: Article title: The Little State Department: McGeorge Bundy and the National Security Council Staff, 1961-65. Contributors: Preston, Andrew - Author. Journal title: Presidential Studies Quarterly. Volume: 31. Issue: 4 Publication date: December 2001. Page number: 635+. © 1999 Center for the Study of the Presidency. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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