THE PRESIDENT AND THE SECRETARY OF STATE
Theodore C. Sorensen
In this selection, a former top aide to President Kennedy and a keen observer of national
security policy offers thoughtful insights on the tension between the NSC directors and
the secretary of state, along with six recommendations to improve the White House–State
The next president, regardless of party, must restore mutual respect between the White House and Department of State.
Although the Iran-contra hearings focused on the executive-legislative imbalance, they also revealed a pattern of White House disdain for the Department of State so pervasive that Secretary George Shultz's own blunt testimony, while preserving his personal reputation, confirmed his department's emasculation. Never informed by the president of key foreign policy decisions, deliberately deceived by what senators termed a White House "junta" utilizing "rather shady characters" to carry out U.S. foreign policy, the secretary testified to "a sense of estrangement," of not being "in good odor" with the White House staff.
This was no attack of Foggy Bottom paranoia. National Security Adviser John Poindexter had placed the State Department on the list of those "who didn't need to know" certain overseas actions. His assistant, Oliver North, gave the department the code name "Wimp." Poindexter's predecessor Robert McFarlane once said North should be secretary of state. Both McFarlane and Poindexter traveled secretly abroad without informing the department. Still other White House aides vetoed Shultz's trips and suggested anonymously to the press that he resign.
Although the House and Senate committees investigating the Iran-contra affair were assured that new personnel and procedures would halt such conflicts, this was neither the first nor the last time Mr. Shultz was shut out or shot down by the White House. Nor was he the first secretary of state to encounter this treatment.
Indeed, his appointment followed Reagan's "acceptance" of a resignation frequently threatened, but never tendered, by Alexander Haig. Despite repeated presidential assurances that "you are my foreign policy guy," Secretary Haig found his policy pronouncements publicly disputed by White House assistants (who reciprocated his ill will), his procedural requests unanswered, and his authority over personnel and crisis management—even his place on Air Force One and in presidential receiving lines—downgraded. Like Shultz, Haig at one point felt obliged to acknowledge that he could not speak for the Administration.
Ironically, candidate Reagan had denounced White House-State Department feuding under President Carter, just as candidate Carter four years earlier had pledged that there would be no Kissinger-like "Lone Ranger" in his administration. But Carter's secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, soon found National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski cabling ambassadors,
Reprinted by permission from Theodore C. Sorensen. "The President and the Secretary of State," Foreign Affairs, 66 (Winter 1987/88).
231–248. Copyright 1987 by the Council of Foreign Relations, Inc.
Theodore C. Sorensen, who served as Special Counsel to President John F. Kennedy, now practices international law in New York