A former dean at Harvard University, McGeorge Bundy became the national security
adviser for President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Under Bundy's leadership, the NSC staff
became a powerful force in the planning and coordination of America's foreign and secu-
Mac Bundy returned from his Caribbean vacation in early January 1961 to a bitterly cold New England winter. A few days later, President-elect John F. Kennedy was escorted inside Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s Cambridge home to meet with a select group of his Harvard-based advisers. As a team of Secret Service men stood guard outside, Bundy rode his bicycle past a crowd of onlookers, dismounted and, after leaning his bicycle against the gate, strode in to meet with his new boss.1 Inside were some of the well-known scholars who would be joining Bundy in Washington. Schlesinger himself was already slated to work as one of the president's assistants; Jerome B. Wiesner became White House science adviser, and John Kenneth Galbraith was named ambassador to India.
When Kennedy announced Bundy's appointment on January 1, the president-elect said that his national security adviser would be "helping me to strengthen and to simplify the operations of the National Security Council."2 What he really meant was that Bundy was going to dismantle much of the NSC's bureaucratic paraphernalia created during the Eisenhower years. Both Kennedy and Bundy had read Richard Neustadt's 1960 book, Presidential Power, which contrasted the freewheeling presidential style of Franklin Roosevelt with the rigid, military chain-of-command system Dwight Eisenhower had brought to the White House. A trendy political scientist at Columbia University, Neustadt argued that Roosevelt's disorderly style actually exposed him to more information from a wider range of sources and gave him the flexibility that was the genius of his administration. Neustadt's book gave Kennedy and Bundy the intellectual rationale to do what they were going to do anyway—run the White House as if it were Harvard, with Bundy as dean and Kennedy as president.
They would promote disorder. There would be fewer people, reports and formal meetings of the National Security Council. Bundy himself would take the jobs of five of Ike's NSC aides. The NSC would become more of a mini-State Department and less of a debating society. Within a month the NSC's staff was cut from seventy-one to forty-eight. In place of weighty policy papers, produced at regular intervals, Bundy's staff would produce crisp and timely National Security Action Memoranda (NSAMs). The new name signified the premium that would be placed on "action" over "planning." In effect, foreign policy would no longer be made at cabinet-level meetings. In theory, the men who came to advise the president in these smaller, freewheeling NSC meetings would represent no bureaucratic constituency other than the president, and they would argue the merits of each policy course based on substance. This was how intellectuals, not bureaucrats, would make foreign policy.3
Bundy immediately began recruiting his own staff, and many of them were also Cambridge men. Kennedy himself hired Walt W. Rostow to fill one slot in the
From Kai Bird, The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998), 185–90.
Kai Bird is an independent scholar and biographer.