Fateful Decisions: Inside the National Security Council

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

5
THE NSC UNDER TRUMAN AND EISENHOWER

Stanley L. Falk

The NSC is a creature of the president. This article illustrates how the Council assumed
different permutations from 1947–1961, according to the management style for foreign
affairs adopted by each president.


I

President Truman's use of the National Security Council,1 especially in the three years prior to the outbreak of the Korean War, reflected his strong concern for the authority, responsibility, and prerogatives of the chief executive. Congress had declared that the NSC would consist of certain officials whose function it would be to "advise the President … in matters involving the national security."2 But Truman, among others, seriously questioned whether Congress had the constitutional power to require the President to seek advice from specific individuals before reaching decisions on certain subjects.3 Truman also recognized that the wording of the National Security Act might be construed to establish the Council as an imitation of the British Cabinet, with similar powers and responsibilities, and a subsequent diminution of presidential authority.4 Indeed, he recalls "There were times during the early days of the National Security Council when one or two of its members tried to change it into an operating super-cabinet on the British model." This he strenuously opposed, as he did all ideas of adopting any aspects of the cabinet system. Under the British system, he wrote later, "there is a group responsibility of the Cabinet. Under our system the responsibility rests on one man—the President. To change it, we would have to change the Constitution…."

As a means of emphasizing the advisory role of the NSC, Truman did not regularly attend Council meetings. After presiding at the first session of the Council on September 26, 1947, he sat in on only eleven of the fifty-six other meetings held before the start of the Korean War. In his absence, in conformity with Truman's view that the Secretary of State was the second ranking member of the Council and that the Department of State would play the major role in policy development, Secretary Marshall (and later Acheson) presided. Beginning in August 1949, when the VicePresident was added to the NSC, that officer took the chair in the President's absence.

Truman's lack of participation in NSC proceedings has often been explained as a means of permitting a free exchange of views that might otherwise have been inhibited by his presence. Some observers have also suggested that the President was simply too busy to attend. It is quite evident, however, that his absence was aimed at clearly establishing the Council's position with respect to the President and at preventing any apparent dilution of his role as chief executive.

This is not to say that Truman regarded the NSC as unnecessary or undesirable. On the contrary, he viewed it as "a badly needed new facility" in the government. "This was now the place … where military, diplomatic, and resources problems could be studied and

Reprinted with permission from Stanley L. Falk, "The National Security Council Under Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy," Politi-
cal Science Quarterly, 79 (September 1964): 403–434 (the portion dealing with the Kennedy Administration is omitted here).
This study was originally prepared in slightly different form for use by students of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, Wash-
ington, D.C.

Stanley L. Falk is a military historian and lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

-35-

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