The Little State Department: McGeorge Bundy and the National Security Council Staff, 1961-65

Article excerpt

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. …