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National Security Council Memoranda

National Security Council Memoranda. Soon after President Harry S. Truman established the National Security Council (NSC), its participants developed an extended series of memoranda recording basic policy on diplomatic, intelligence, and military issues. Most comprehensive and ambitious was NSC 68, 14 April 1950, “United States Objectives and Programs for National Security,” which called for massive increases in military spending to support the U.S. position in Europe and East Asia. Besides the policy papers, Truman's NSC institutionalized National Security Intelligence Directives (NSIDs) that specified tasks for the intelligence establishment. For the most part, NSC memoranda had high security classifications—often top secret—a practice that Truman's successors carefully followed.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower's NSC apparatus continued Truman's precedent. Among important papers issued were annual statements on basic national security policy that delineated foreign and military policy objectives, strategic concepts, and requirements for foreign aid and military capabilities. Like Truman's policy papers, Eisenhower's documents created a framework for policymaking, seldom recording particular decisions.

When President John F. Kennedy came to power, he abolished the NSC policy paper and institutionalized more informal arrangements through National Security Action Memoranda (NSAMs). Kennedy and his national security adviser McGeorge Bundy used NSAMs for a variety of purposes—to communicate a policy decision, request specific information, or ask for studies on a particular issue. President Lyndon B. Johnson continued this format, although less frequently than his predecessor.

After President Richard M. Nixon appointed Henry Kissinger as his national security adviser, a more formal system of National Security Study Memoranda (NSSMs) and National Security Decision Memoranda (NSDMs) appeared. NSSMs were White House requests for studies by the agencies, while NSDMs represented a presidential decision made after an NSC Senior Review Group, NSC members, and the president had completed the study and review process. Some have claimed that Kissinger used this process to distract the bureaucracy, but others have argued that it gave White House decision makers a better sense of the available options. For example, NSC agencies produced important studies on strategic arms control that led to NSDMs on negotiating positions for the SALT Treaties. Nevertheless, the NSDMs only reflected part of the diplomatic process; Nixon and Kissinger never incorporated positions discussed in secret “backchannel” negotiations.

President Gerald Ford continued the NSSM/NSDM process, and subsequent presidents adopted the same routine although using different terminology. Under President Jimmy Carter, there were Presidential Directives (PDs) and Presidential Review Memoranda (PRMs), while under President Ronald Reagan the national security system produced National Security Study Directives (NSSDs) and National Security Decision Directives (NSDDs). During the Reagan and Bush administrations, congressional investigators tried to get information about the scope and content of presidential directives; however, both administrations refused to cooperate because they considered them too important and too sensitive to divulge. Although giving new nomenclature to his NSC memoranda, the first post–Cold War president, Bill Clinton, continued the practice of shrouding most of them in secrecy.
[See also Arms Control and Disarmament: Nuclear; Commander in Chief, President as; Intelligence, Military and Political.]


John Prados , Keepers of the Keys: A History of the National Security Council from Truman to Bush, 1991.
Jeffrey Richelson, ed., Presidential Directives on National Security from Truman to Clinton, 1994.

William Burr

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