National Security Council

views updated Jun 08 2018

National Security Council

Anna Kasten Nelson

The National Security Council (NSC) has been a ubiquitous presence in the world of foreign policy since its creation in 1947. In light of the tension between the Soviet Union and the United States, policymakers felt that the diplomacy of the State Department was no longer adequate to contain the USSR. The NSC was created specifically to coordinate the various strands of national security policy among the agencies then operating under the rubric of national security. Originally, it was centered around a council dominated by the military services and the State Department and was a paper-driven organization that mostly discussed papers prepared by staff. Both President Harry Truman and President Dwight D. Eisenhower enhanced the role of the council while relying upon interdepartmental staffs for information and analysis. John F. Kennedy chose to use the NSC quite differently. He rarely called the council together, relying instead on the newly appointed national security adviser and his staff. Lyndon B. Johnson followed suit and even enhanced the role of the national security adviser and his staff while calling together the council only for its public relations value. By the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, the NSC had become the national security adviser and his staff, although the original term continued to be used to describe the effort of the president to integrate national security policy. The story of the NSC, therefore, is the story of the evolution of the organization established in 1947.


For more than 150 years, presidents of the United States conducted foreign policy with the advice of a secretary of state; a small, select group of foreign service officers; and, perhaps, a personal adviser. As he directed American foreign policy during World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt continued this tradition through his very personal diplomacy and his reliance on friends and advisers who had served him so well during the era of the Great Depression and the New Deal. The frustrating process of resolving complex problems of strategy and diplomacy within the unstructured and chaotic Roosevelt administration led a number of wartime leaders to search for a new institutional arrangement to fulfill the postwar obligations of a world power.

Concern also centered on the elevation to the presidency after the death of Roosevelt in 1945 of the untested Harry Truman. Worried about the growing tension between the Soviet Union and the United States, many members of Roosevelt's cabinet, including Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, assumed that the former senator from Missouri would need help from a formal council of advisers to provide the leadership necessary in the postwar period. Forrestal and his supporters began the search for a new institutional arrangement to advise the new president and provide coordination between the various military services, the State Department, and other agencies concerned with foreign affairs.

The opportunity for change unexpectedly arose when President Truman first proposed the unification of the military services, a proposal influenced by General George C. Marshall and his own experience in the Senate as chairman of a committee to investigate the national defense program. The fragmentation that had developed during World War II was now exacerbated by the development of airpower and the creation of three separate air forces, one for each service. Truman first proposed unification in December 1945 in a special message to Congress. The proposal met with hostility and protest. It was studied, debated, attacked, and revised for the next year and a half. With the support of Marshall, the army backed the plan for unification, but James Forrestal and the navy, supported by a coterie of congressional members, were adamantly opposed. The navy wanted to ensure the maintenance of its own air force and, furthermore, Forrestal was opposed to any system that would deprive the navy secretary of a seat in the cabinet and direct access to the president.

But Forrestal was also eager for the military services to be an integral part of foreign policy. He began to seek an alternative to the plan for unification, one that would integrate the decision making of the military services and the State Department without also jeopardizing the position of the navy. He called upon an old friend and former business associate, Ferdinand Eberstadt, to study and recommend an organizational system that would preserve the nation's security. The National Security Council emerged out of Eberstadt's recommendations. Eberstadt's plan emphasized coordination more than unity. The military establishment would remain decentralized but would be surrounded by several coordinating groups, the most important of which was the prototype of a coordinating body chaired by the president and composed of representatives from the State, War, and Navy Departments. Under this plan, the navy, and Forrestal, would continue to have a voice in policy.

Truman's advisers, including General Marshall, were suspicious of any congressionally imposed group that would usurp the president's power to conduct foreign policy and fulfill his duty as commander in chief. When Truman sent his proposal to Congress, a national security council was missing, made unnecessary in his view by the organization of a National Military Establishment with a unified armed services and a single secretary of defense. The navy rallied its supporters in Congress, and it appeared that after eighteen months of negotiations, unification would be defeated. Finally, to stave off defeat and achieve his goal of a unified armed services, Truman agreed to the idea of an advisory council. Meanwhile, his staff members were working on a revised draft of the original proposal. By the time they finished changing a word here and a phrase there, the precisely defined council with an executive director confirmed by the Senate had become a group purely advisory in nature, with no authoritative, statutory functions and a staff appointed at the sole discretion of the president.

Few, if any, members of Congress recognized the ramifications of the proposed National Security Council. Since it was part of the unification act, the legislation did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but went instead to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which was concerned only with the future of the military services and gave little time to the other agencies created by the measure. The ambiguous language describing the council and its responsibilities meant that some inclusion of advice from the military services in the formation of national security policy would be considered by the president. Otherwise, the law provided little guidance to presidents and their advisers.


The National Security Act of 1947 established four new coordinating agencies: the National Military Establishment, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the short-lived National Security Resources Board (NSRB); and the National Security Council. The statutory members of the NSC were the president; the secretaries of defense and state; the secretaries of the army, navy, and air force; and the chairman of the NSRB. Forrestal's attempt to gain the ear of the president had resulted in a membership distinctly weighted toward the military. After Forrestal was replaced, amendments to the act in 1949 eliminated the three civilian secretaries of army, navy, and air force and added the vice president to the council.

Since 1949 these fourthe secretaries of state and defense, the president, and vice presidenthave been the core of an ever-changing set of presidential advisers. Virtually from the NSC's inception, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) have participated in its meetings as "advisers." Often presidents, beginning with Truman, have added the secretary of the Treasury or the director of the Bureau of the Budget (later the Office of Management and Budget) to the mix.

The ambiguity that made for successful compromise provided little guidance for actually organizing the NSC. The statute provides a council "to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security." To do this, the Council is to "assess and appraise the objectives, commitments and risks of the United States in relation to our actual and potential military power." The council has no statutory function and operates with a staff appointed at the discretion of the president. The NSC is also unique in its relation to Congress. Unlike other executive agencies created by Congress, it has no obligation to report to the legislative branch. With such a vague mandate, initial decisions concerning the NSC's structure seemed particularly important. Members of the defense group envisioned the council as part of the military establishment. It should be housed with the military, they argued, and, more importantly, the president should appoint the secretary of defense to preside over meetings in his absence. In other words, the secretary of defense rather than the secretary of state would be the principal adviser to the president on matters involving national security. Encouraged by his staff, however, Truman housed the NSC in the Executive Office Building. Furthermore, his trust in Marshall guaranteed that the secretary of state or his deputy, Robert Lovett, would sit in the chair of the presiding officer. The State Department was the key player in U.S. national security policy.

All of the NSC members agreed, for varying reasons, that the president should attend NSC meetings as seldom as possible, and Truman shared that view. But there is nothing in the legislation that indicates a president has an obligation to be present. Some supporters of the NSC felt that the presence of the president would inhibit the necessary frank exchange of views, but few presidents, including Truman, shared that opinion. The Berlin blockade brought Truman to some meetings in 1948, but it was not until the Korean War that he began to value the NSC process and depend upon NSC meetings. As Forrestal had foreseen, the very structure of the NSC made it useful as a warmaking body. It was a mechanism for bringing together the views of the diplomats, military officers, intelligence analysts, and economic prognosticators.

The war also brought home the fact that Truman's NSC system needed some repair. As a reaction to both the fall of the Chinese Nationalists and the detonation of an atomic bomb by the Soviet Union, a review of U.S. policy was begun in early 1950 that would ultimately result in NSC 68, the consummate Cold War paper. At the same time, the president mandated a review of the NSC process. But while NSC 68 was a milestone in the conduct of American foreign relations, the NSC procedural study made very little impact. The basic problem rested with Truman's reluctance to have a national security assistant. By 1950 the NSC executive-secretary had returned to private life and the president's valuable assistant, Clark Clifford, had joined a law firm. As Truman faced war in Korea and dissension at home, there was no one to coordinate policy or mediate disagreements among the various members of the NSC.

Since the end of the Truman administration, the NSC has gone through many incarnations. Each presidential candidate has heaped criticism on the system used by his predecessor and promised reform. Each president has then largely restructured the process of making national security policy. The ambiguity inherent in the creation of the NSC has allowed presidents to impose their own system on what was given to them by Congress. Because of its legislative base in the National Security Act of 1947, no president can abolish it, but several presidents, among them John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, irreparably changed it. Others, such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, reached beyond the 1947 act by stretching and manipulating the NSC for their own purposes. After more than forty years and ten presidents, several stages in the evolution of the national security process have emerged.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower came closer to implementing the NSC as it was originally conceived than any of the presidents who followed him. As he campaigned for the presidency, Eisenhower criticized what he referred to as Truman's "shadow agency." The battles of the Cold War required a stronger national security process and a revitalized NSC, he argued. Eisenhower saw the NSC as the premier coordinating agency for protecting American security. In addition, he answered the complaints against Truman by appointing a national security assistant to be the chief facilitator of a coordinated policy. But Eisenhower, like Truman, did not believe in providing the NSC with a policymaking staff in the White House. The agency had a secretariat run by an assistant, but staff work continued to be done in the various departments and agencies.

After his election, Eisenhower restructured and strengthened the NSC system by dividing the NSC process into three parts. The first of these involved the writing of the policy papers that were examined and critiqued by the council. Every agency represented on the council, plus the secretary of the Treasury and the heads of the JCS and CIA, were to choose someone on the assistant secretary level to be a member of the interdepartmental Planning Board, the substitute for the former NSC senior staff of President Truman. This group wrote the papers presented to the council and tried to resolve disagreements over policy between agencies. Each week the formal NSC meetings considered the papers, generally sent them back again, and finally approved the revised version.

Summaries of the meetings between Eisenhower and the members of the council, the second part of the process, often reveal freewheeling discussions dominated by the secretaries of state and Treasury. Few of these discussions, however, were about immediate policy matters. The council never discussed the decision to disallow funding to Egypt for the Aswan Dam, for example. Many meetings were devoted to the annual budget that the president presented to Congress. This is not a surprise, since budgets make policy. Other meetings were largely devoted to long-term or general policy issues.

Nevertheless, Eisenhower rarely missed an NSC meeting. In fact, the NSC took an inordinate amount of his time, since he would get together before the meetings with his national security adviser to go over the agenda and often had smaller meetings in the Oval Office at the conclusion of the meetings. The former army general was a man who believed in both an orderly process and planning.

The Operations Coordinating Board (OCB) was the third part of the Eisenhower national security process. Basically an interdepartmental group of deputies or assistant secretaries, the members met each week to make sure that policy decisions were coordinated and carried out. Although their task seemed straightforward, the OCB was also designed to make sure that CIA covert actions did not operate at cross-purposes with the other policy positions.

Eisenhower regarded his remade NSC as an important policy tool. Gathering together the NSC members, their numerous deputies and assistants, and the ancillary groups from the CIA and JCS, Eisenhower used the NSC as a device to keep political appointees and civil servants informed and committed to the final decisions. Everyone would have a stake in the policy if they had participated in writing the original paper and observed the discussions of the council meetings. The Eisenhower era was marked by this extensive set of meetings and the many policy papers they produced. By the president's second term, however, the designated agency representatives dreaded their participation in the NSC Planning Board meetings, and the council meetings began to sound stale. Disagreements over words and phrases replaced those of substance.

Although the work of the NSC was top secret, Eisenhower and his national security adviser were eager to talk about the orderly process behind the policies. They gained that opportunity when the Subcommittee on National Policy Machinery of the Senate Committee on Government Operations held hearings in the first six months of 1960. The committee was chaired by Senator Henry Jackson, a Democrat from Washington State, and was an effort both to discredit the administration before the presidential election and to serve as a vehicle for Jackson to enter the world of national security policy. Regardless of the motivations, it provided one of the rare glimpses into national security policymaking.

Witnesses were called from both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. Those from the Truman administration were uniformly critical of the NSC, while Eisenhower's national security advisers not only defended their process but indicated that the NSC played a central role in making foreign policy. The NSC was, in the words of national security assistant Robert Cutler, the "top of policy hill." The impression that emerged from the subcommittee hearings was that of a passive president beholden to a paper-driven, ponderous, bureaucratic process The emphasis in these hearings on Eisenhower's extraordinary use of the council proved very damaging to him as well as to the NSC.

Eisenhower and his advisers were eager to promulgate the view that the general was a man who relied on planning procedures and the advice of NSC members rather than making policy precipitously in response to crisis. His was an orderly system that he urged his successor to follow. Unfortunately, Eisenhower's efforts to promote his NSC system failed to explain fully its value to him. Neither Eisenhower nor any other president ever made policy within the NSC structure. Policy was made in the Oval Office. Eisenhower used the complicated NSC structure to encourage a sense of participation on the part of the policymakers. Council meetings informed those at the deputy and assistant secretary level and promoted a sense of loyalty. But policy was not formulated there. Neither the Jackson subcommittee nor the incoming administration understood the duality of policymaking represented by the NSC and the Oval Office.

Ironically, Eisenhower's use of the NSC appears consistent with the original view of its creators. The NSC was a mix of State Department, Defense Department, and intelligence representatives with other participants joining the group for special projects. It was created to advise the president and met at designated intervals. There are various indications that Eisenhower was thinking about a more streamlined system by the end of his second term, but he made no changes. Although the policymaking process in the Eisenhower administration is generally given high marks, no president since Eisenhower has scheduled as many NSC meetings or participated in them as fully and as often.


President John F. Kennedy completely dismantled the highly organized institutional NSC system, establishing arrangements more amenable to his governing style and, it would appear, to succeeding presidents. Whereas Eisenhower took his experiences as an army commander into the White House, Kennedy emerged from the much more freewheeling structure characteristic of a U.S. senator's office. Critical of Eisenhower's cautious diplomacy and reluctance to increase military budgets, Kennedy was convinced that the stolid, paper-based structure of the NSC system described in the Jackson hearings was responsible for what Kennedy perceived as the timid foreign policy that marked Eisenhower's national security policy. Both the Planning Board and OCB disappeared. The statutory council remained, but was rarely used. Yet, under Truman and Eisenhower the council was the heart of the NSC. It was here that the presidents gathered the opinions of all their advisers representing every facet of national security policy. The council was the mechanism for the widespread input of advice. After Kennedy, the NSC meant the adviser not the council.

Kennedy chose to follow the recommendation of the Jackson subcommittee and initially used the NSC as a more intimate forum for discussions with only his principal advisers. But one of his first decisions irrevocably changed the national security policymaking system. He appointed McGeorge Bundy as a national security adviser (as opposed to an assistant). Bundy, who expanded the role of facilitator and added the role of personal adviser, chose a small policy staff of a half-dozen people to work with him. For the first time, the White House had an independent national security policy staff, a step that reflected Kennedy's scorn for the bureaucratic State Department.

With fewer council meetings and more staff work, the NSC also became less of a planning group and more of an action group concerned with the events or crisis of the moment. Eisenhower administration veterans pointed out that under their system a Bay of Pigs could never have happened, since the idea would have been vetted by desk officers in the State Department, military representatives, and intelligence officials plus discussion in NSC meetings. Of course, they exaggerated the effect of the NSC system on policy. Bad policy can rarely be improved with good process and Eisenhower, for all of his dependence on procedure, began the training of the Bay of Pigs exile army. After the Cuban fiasco, Bundy and his staff were moved into offices closer to the president and the role of White House staff was strengthened by Kennedy's belief that the CIA and the JCS had misled him.

As Kennedy's national security adviser, Bundy was hardly the anonymous staffer, but he was rarely quoted in major newspapers or featured on television. He took seriously his role as presidential adviser and provided the president with staggering amounts of information, sending him home each night and weekend with reports, articles, and books to read. Kennedy rarely attended a formal meeting of the council, relying instead on smaller meetings in the Oval Office. An executive committee, or special committee, for example, was formed to manage U.S. operations in Cuba. The ExCom gained fame because of its successful work in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

Beginning slowly in 1961, the NSC was transformed. Aided by a White House staff, the national security adviser personally presented to the president the range of views and options that had been the function of the council during the Eisenhower administration. President Kennedy called NSC meetings for purposes of public relations. He preferred to work with the White House adviser and for the most part abandoned larger meetings. After 1961, presidents accepted the basic assumption that a White House staff and national security adviser were preferable to the unwieldy NSC meetings staffed by every department concerned with national security.

When President Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon Johnson inherited his advisers and his reliance on the White House national security staff. Throughout his political career, Johnson had concentrated on domestic policy issues. Perhaps his insecurity in the face of the new burdens he faced accounts for his return to the practice of meeting with the National Security Council during the first year of his administration. He soon abandoned it, modifying the more informal style of Kennedy to suit his needs. Bundy continued to bring detailed information to the new president and worked to integrate policy, functions that had once been a product of the NSC system. The NSC staff remained small. Bundy had three assistants: one was detailed from the CIA, a second from the Defense Department, and a third from the Office of Science and Technology. Another staff member was an expert on foreign economic policy. The executive secretary, Bromley Smith, completed the staff. Traditionally, the persons holding the positions of executive secretary and his assistants changed with presidential administrations and the concomitant arrival of new national security advisers. But Smith was an exception and stayed on under Johnson. He was especially valuable because he had experience as an NSC staffer under both Eisenhower and Kennedy and could provide some institutional memory. He was an essential participant in the procedural work of these administrations. For example, he was responsible for the "situation room," a top secret center of communication; conferred with Bundy on agenda items for meetings; and often sat in for Bundy when he was out of town.

Despite Bundy's emphasis on process, in the Johnson White House he was regarded as an adviser as well as a facilitator. Johnson's decision to send Bundy on a fact-finding mission to Vietnam illustrates the way in which the line between the two functions began to disintegrate. Finally, Bundy and his successor, Walt W. Rostow, assumed a third role, that of presidential spokesman. As the Vietnam War hit the headlines, McGeorge Bundy became a media "star."

Bundy resigned his position in December 1965 and during the following March, Johnson chose Walt W. Rostow to replace him. Rostow, who was a member of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff at the time of the Kennedy assassination, was a man of strong opinions who was not shy in expressing them. When others in the White House began questioning Johnson's conduct of the Vietnam War, Rostow stood firmly behind the president.

After convening twenty-five NSC meetings, Johnson began replacing them with small "Tuesday lunches" attended by the secretaries of state and defense, the national security adviser, the director of the CIA, and the head of the JCS. Others were invited when issues called for additional participants. Given the amount of staff work required, these lunches combined the attributes of miniNSC meetings and Oval Office policy-making sessions. Rather than diminish Rostow's role as national security adviser, the Tuesday lunches enhanced his position. Before each meeting Rostow discussed the agenda with participants and assembled the necessary documents, including a background paper. This was the task of a facilitator, but as Rostow readily admitted, he often added his own views. This further blurred the demarcation between facilitator and adviser. Lyndon Johnson's last years in office were dominated completely by the Vietnam War. Regardless of who attended any given Tuesday lunch, the primary topic remained the same. The president listened to friends and former colleagues in the Senate who urged him to bring the conflict to an end. Abject surrender in whatever form, however, was anathema to this proud Texan, and so he chose to act on the advice of the loyal supporters with whom he lunched each week, thus isolating the political leadership in the agencies. When the loyal members of his cabinet introduced a dose of reality and finally convinced him it was a war he could not win, the weary Johnson declined another term as president.


Richard Nixon promised to restore the National Security Council and blamed many of the unsuccessful foreign policies of Kennedy and Johnson on its abandonment. Nixon entered the presidency with very specific views on organizing the national security apparatus that were based on his experience in the Eisenhower administration. Soon after his election, he handed the task of reorganizing the NSC system to his national security assistant, Henry Kissinger. Although touting the changes as a return to the Eisenhower model, Nixon displayed neither trust nor regard for officials in the State Department. Seeking complete White House control of national security, he carefully chose a secretary of state, William P. Rogers, who had little foreign policy experience. Nixon's personality was so different than Eisenhower's that whereas the national security machinery was in the Eisenhower style, actual policymaking was quite different.

The NSC structure encompassed a number of interdepartmental groups representing the senior officers of an agency. Even when council meetings were in abeyance, as in the Johnson administration, these groups existed to assure presidents that they were hearing from every agency on a particular issue. During the 1960s the State Department representative had chaired each of these groups. The newly organized Nixon NSC expanded these interdepartmental policy committees and added approximately 120 people to the NSC system. The principal committee was the Senior Review Group, which bore a slight resemblance to the Eisenhower NSC Planning Board. This group was on the assistant secretary level, but with Nixon's support, Kissinger came to dominate that group as well as other groups that he chaired. The president was sending a clear signal that the White House would control the agenda.

Despite Nixon's campaign oratory about restoring the Eisenhower model, this control was one among several of the profound differences between the Eisenhower NSC and the Nixon system. Quite apart from personalities, the major difference between the Eisenhower and Nixon systems was the position of the State Department within the policy process. Eisenhower's principal and trusted adviser was Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, whereas Nixon's choice for secretary of state was the inexperienced Rogers, a clear indication that the State Department would be at the periphery of the policymaking process. Nixon's national security assistant, Kissinger, shared his desire to bypass the State Department and conduct foreign policy from the White House. The NSC staff grew accordingly and a third model for the NSC system emerged: the NSC as a small State Department under the control of the president and national security adviser. A flow of paper representing the requests of the NSC for agency input continued to move, but, in contrast with previous years, the requests did not seem to matter. Agency personnel suspected that the process of making them was designed to keep them occupied while Kissinger and Nixon made policy.

As in the previous administration, frequent official NSC meetings were held early in the Nixon presidency, but the thirty-seven meetings in 1969 diminished to twenty-one in 1970 and only ten in the first two-thirds of 1971. As the NSC moved away from formal meetings, the committee system stepped into the vacuum and gained importance. While the Nixon White House tapes show an overbearing president with little respect for his national security adviser and an almost subservient Kissinger, in fact the two men were in agreement on both policy priorities and the manner in which to implement them. Both were intent on controlling and conducting foreign policy and both were convinced of the need for secrecy.

The Nixon and post-Nixon NSC arrangements illustrate the difficulty of separating policy, process, and personality. Henry Kissinger exemplifies this problem. First as national security assistant and then as secretary of state, he insisted on full control of people and ideas. He used the diffuse NSC interdepartmental process to better accomplish his goals and bent it to his needs. Given his belief in secrecy, Kissinger often did not tell his staff what he was doing.

The results of the Nixon-Kissinger approach were mixed. They turned China policy around but failed to end the war in Vietnam. Kissinger personally began lengthy and open negotiations in the Middle East, while Nixon directed the secret intervention in Chile that resulted in the seventeen-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Kissinger and Nixon basically took advantage of the NSC mechanism to achieve their goals, making it their handmaiden. Meanwhile, Nixon ignored Secretary of State Rogers, a pliant individual who did not try to impose his own views or those of his department. When he resigned and Kissinger took over at State, any potential conflict between the secretary and national security adviser was laid to rest.

When President Gerald Ford succeeded Nixon, he reestablished some equilibrium between the State Department and White House. National security adviser Brent Scowcroft assumed a low profile and moved to establish better relations between the State Department and the White House.

In the tradition of his predecessors, President Jimmy Carter quickly reorganized the NSC staff and stated the intention of placing more responsibility on the departments and agencies. The numerous committees of the Nixon-Ford White House were combined into two subordinate committees, the Policy Review Committee and the Special Coordination Committee. However, Carter appointed as his national security adviser a man every bit as strong willed and as opinionated as Henry Kissinger. Zbigniew Brzezinski reorganized the staff to eliminate most of the vestiges of the Kissinger years. Rather than function as a miniState Department, his staff was to carry through the usual coordination of policy and serve as a kind of think tank for the president. Aware of the tendency of his predecessors to overshadow the secretary of state, he also assured the president, press, and public that he would cooperate with the secretaries of state and defense. The prospects for harmony seemed good, as Brzezinski and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance had served as cochairs of the Council on Foreign Relations while Secretary of Defense Harold Brown had worked with Brzezinski on the Trilateral Commission, a group to increase cooperation between the United States, western Europe, and Japan. The climate of cooperation promised smooth working relationships. Recognizing earlier problems between the NSC and the secretaries of state and defense, Carter asked for an internal study on integrating policy six months after taking office. The report, prepared by Philip Odeen, emphasized process and organization rather than personalities. In the long run, however, Carter's policy process was influenced far more by personalities than procedure.

It did not take long for Brzezinski, a dynamic man with wide-ranging interests, to become the predominant foreign policy spokesman of the Carter administration. Despite earlier plans, Carter's policy process was among the most centralized in the postWorld War II era, with Brzezinski as the fulcrum. Like those of Kennedy and Johnson, it evolved into an informal structure, this time revolving around a Friday morning breakfast between Brzezinski, Vance, and Brown. Unfortunately, each man often emerged with a different interpretation of the discussion. The rivalry between the national security adviser and the secretary of state that had existed in the Nixon years took on a different cast under Carter when it became clear that Brzezinski's views on American foreign policy were quite different from those of Secretary Vance. Brzezinski, for example, sounded the death knell for détente on 28 May 1978, when he strongly attacked Soviet and Cuban activities in Africa. On 14 June, however, Vance made it clear that the White House approved of his plan to send an American diplomat to Angola for talks with the government there. Brzezinski also made it clear that negotiations over the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) were linked to Russian meddling in Africa and its support for African revolutionaries. A more conciliatory Vance dismissed the notion of linkage between the two issues. The secretary of state also assured the House International Relations Committee that he was the only one who spoke for the president.

It was Brzezinski, however, who saw Carter several times each day and served as the liaison between the cabinet secretaries and the president. He prepared summaries and reports of meetings and discussions held under the national security tent between the principal participants of policy meetings and did not hesitate to give his opinion or express his disagreement with Secretary Vance or Secretary of Defense Brown.

Carter, a former governor of Georgia, had very little foreign policy experience. His personal goals included improving human rights, curtailing the military, and reaching out to the Third World in Africa and Latin America. Brzezinski, on the other hand, concentrated on such traditional Cold War problems as outsmarting the Soviets and encouraging the Chinese to look to the United States to the detriment of the USSR. Carter had success in accomplishing his own goals, but as international tensions unfolded, particularly the Soviet war in Afghanistan, he was pulled between the views of Vance and Brzezinski. By the time Secretary Vance resigned in 1980, Carter had accepted the views of his national security adviser and sounded like another cold warrior. Meanwhile, foreign policy lost its coherency as the administration spoke with two voices instead of one.

To observers, the disarray in the Carter administration seemed to be one more example of a national security system out of control. The publicity generated by Brzezinski drew attention to the organization of national security in the White House and the fate of the NSC itself. Although Brzezenski's staff never reached the size of the Kissinger staff of about two hundred (of whom fifty were professionals), it was a large staff of about one hundred (of whom thirty were professionals) and, like Kissinger's staff, it was a policy staff. Meanwhile, the NSC atrophied. Only ten NSC meetings were held while Brzezenski was the national security adviser. Even the Nixon and Ford administrations had held 125 meetings in their eight years in office.

In April 1980 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the first time, under its chairman, Frank Church, held hearings on legislation requiring Senate confirmation of all national security advisers. Two powerful national security advisers had become major policymakers yet were free from confirmation proceedings and were not required to testify before the Foreign Relations Committee. The effort to require accountability on the part of the national security adviser was ultimately unsuccessful. A consensus existed that presidents should be allowed to pick their own advisers and organize their administrations according to their own views and personalities. But the attempt did highlight the duality of foreign policymaking within the White House.


President Ronald Reagan began his administration by reversing a trend and appointing a lowkey national security assistant who would return to the pre-Kissinger model. Unfortunately, in an aberration from the designated use of the NSC, Reagan also used the national security system as an operating agency, with far-reaching results. Unfamiliar with and initially uninterested in national security affairs, Reagan, who had no trouble working with a triumvirate of domestic advisers, seemed unable to find the right national security person with whom to work. As a result, he had a record six national security advisers. Richard Allen, the first, was the only one since the origins of the NSC who did not have direct access to the president. Allen answered to Edwin Meese, a former Reagan associate who was now White House general counsel. He failed to gain the confidence of Meese and, despite his low profile, Allen immediately had turf battles with the intrepid secretary of state, Alexander Haig. Allen left office within a year and was followed by William Clark. Clark had no experience or background in national security policy but was close to Reagan, having served as his executive secretary when Reagan was governor of California. Someone who knew the president seemed more likely to be a successful assistant for national security. Clark was familiar with the president's work habits, goals, and governing style. He had complete access to the Oval Office, meanwhile building a strong staff of sixty-one to compensate for his own weakness. He could offer little in the way of substance, however, and resigned in 1983.

Meanwhile, the world had not waited for Reagan to find his way. Iranians, after overthrowing the shah, storming the American embassy, and taking American hostages, finally released the Americans on January 20, 1981, the day of Reagan's inauguration, but became an important anti-American and anti-Western force in the Middle East. In Central America, Reagan faced a revolutionary, left-wing government in Nicaragua. President Carter had not condoned or encouraged this new government but had chosen to accept it. Reagan and his advisers, on the other hand, saw the new Nicaraguan rulers, the Sandinistas, as partners in the Havana-Moscow nexus. Reagan assumed that Nicaragua, like Cuba, would try to export its revolution throughout Latin America. Therefore, Nicaragua was seen as a danger to U.S. interests, and so the administration began to support the military opposition to the Sandinistas, those known as contras.

Congress tied the hands of the president when it prohibited the use of funds to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. Reagan, however, was determined to rid Nicaragua of the Sandinistas and sought a different way to reach the contras. He turned to the one group outside the purview of Congress, the national security adviser and his staff. From 1983 to 1986, national security advisers Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter, who followed McFarlane in 1985, were the chief architects of the disastrous Iran-contra policy. With the help of national security staff assistants who scorned the constitutional issues involved, they devised a plan to send arms to Iran for its war against Iraq. The payment for the arms was then sent to the Nicaraguan contras.

For the first and only time in its history, the NSC became an operational agency. National security adviser McFarlane made secret trips to the Middle East while U.S. marine lieutenant colonel Oliver North, a staff assistant, coordinated the activities against the contras. Trading arms for money, the essence of what became the Iran-Contra scandal, was soon discovered and investigated, discrediting both the president and the participants. The fifth national security adviser, Frank Carlucci, a respected and experienced veteran of the Defense Department, was then called in to clean house. Finally, in 1987 General Colin Powell stepped into the position.

The Reagan interlude illustrates the failure of the NSC system when a president fails to exert leadership within the policy process. Created for battle in the Cold War, no president between Truman and Reagan entered office without a strong commitment to developing a policy process that could cope with the problems presented by the global interests of the Cold War. These presidents, cognizant of the problems posed by international responsibilities, also brought into the White House men and women who could implement their policies. As a result, the glaring deficiencies of the original 1947 legislation were invisible. The act provided the NSC with an ambiguous mandate that ignored the necessity for an adviser and staff as key participants in the making of national security policy.

Taking a cue from President Carter, Reagan included his vice president, George H. W. Bush, in many of the important national security decisions of his administration. As president, Bushwho had been ambassador to the United Nations, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and the American representative to Chinareorganized the national security process, as had previous chief executives. His national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and Scowcroft's deputy, Robert Gates, were at the center of the national security process, chairing the top panels of the senior officers in all the national security agencies and thus setting the agendas.

President Bush continued the use of the Principals Committee, which had been established in 1987 by Reagan. This committee was virtually the original NSC with the addition of the secretary of the Treasury, the chief of staff to the president, and the national security adviser. As was true of the NSC, the chairman of the JCS and the director of the CIA also attended, while others were invited as needed. Both Truman and Eisenhower would have recognized this group, although neither would have acquiesced to any committee of principals that did not include the president, the ultimate "principal." Instead, National Security Presidential Directive-1 noted that both President Bush and his vice president could attend any and all meetings.

Bush, like his predecessors, did not rely upon this system for making foreign policy. He valued secrecy and loyalty and relied on an unusually small set of advisers who shared similar worldviews. Bush's mini-NSC was composed of Scowcroft, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, and Secretary of State James Baker, who met with the president in the Oval Office. They were occasionally joined by the General Colin L. Powell, now chairman of the JCS, and Gates after his appointment as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency in September 1991. The fact that the Bush administration did not use the NSC did not diminish the role of the national security adviser. In 1991, for example, the president sent Scowcroft to the Middle East and China, not Secretary of State Baker.

Predictably, President William Clinton changed the national security process, this time by adding a broad economic element to the National Security Council. The secretary of the Treasury and the chief of the new White House Economic Council were added to the NSC as well as the ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine K. Albright. The Principals Committee and Deputies Committee were both retained. As usual, there were discussions in the media about relationships between national security principals, in this case Secretary of State Warren Christopher; Defense Secretary Les Aspin; and the national security adviser, Anthony Lake. But the perception of problems within the Clinton administration were partly a product of a disorganized White House and the president's initial lack of interest.

By Clinton's second term, a succession of crises had brought Clinton into the heart of foreign policy and the administration began to change. All the original players, Christopher, Aspin, and Lake, left the administration. Samuel R. Berger, Lake's deputy, became the national security adviser and Albright became the first woman to serve as secretary of state. Albright was a more colorful secretary, but, like Christopher, she apparently was relegated to traditional diplomatic tasks. She never seemed totally without influence, but the heart of the policy process remained within the gates of the White House. National security policy was again dominated by the president's staff, in particular by Sandy Berger, whose office was just steps away from the president's and for whom the president's door was always open.

When George W. Bush took office in January 2001, he quickly nominated a strong and experienced secretary of state, General Colin Powell, and moved on to nominate an equally experienced secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Under the Bush plan, the national security adviser would return to the position of facilitator, bringing information to the president and acting as a liaison officer bridging the gap between the State and Defense Departments.


No president has ever made national security policy in the National Security Council. The NSC was not created as a policymaking body but as an advisory body to the president. The Cold War brought into the policy process various agencies and groups whose views were important but rarely coordinated. Foreign policy was no longer just in the hands of the State Department. The Defense Department and the JCS, joined by the CIA and the Treasury Department, were all players on the field of U.S. global power.

Therefore, even when presidents avoided the formal structure created early in the Cold War, they found it necessary to find a substitute. Interdepartmental committees and the Committee of Principals were all created to fill this role.

The turning point in the history of the NSC came in 1961 with the election of John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy brought into the White House a national security adviser with a staff, he began an inexorable move toward a completely new process. Even though it continued to meet sporadically, after 1961 the NSC was nothing more than the president's adviser and his staff, which soon evolved into just the president's staff.

Personality has been more important to the policy process than structure. That each president uses the NSC differently is part of the received wisdom about the policy process. Every president uses the NSC differently in order to differentiate himself from his predecessor as campaign promises for new policies are subsequently translated into new processes.

Since it was created by an act of Congress, no president can abolish the NSC. For the most part, however, it has evolved beyond recognition. The interdepartmental and ad hoc committees that form the crux of agency participation bear only a slight resemblance to Truman's senior staff or Eisenhower's Planning Board, and the dominant role of the national security adviser has changed the equation since the time when chairmen set the agenda.

The effect on policy is difficult to gauge. The danger faced by most presidents has been the tendency to rely on a few loyal advisers. If they do not participate in NSC meetings or the meetings of "principals," presidents become isolated. They do not have a forum for contrary views and are remote from those who must defend and implement their policies. Nixon and Kissinger may be prime examples of this isolation, but presidents such as Johnson and George H. W. Bush also preferred selective advice.

The NSC of the 1947 statute is probably dead and certainly obsolete. The end of the Cold War and the American position as the strongest global power probably requires a different kind of national security organization in order for the president to be truly advised in this new century.


Destler, I. M. Presidents, Bureaucrats, and Foreign Policy: The Politics of Organizational Reform. Princeton, N.J., 1974.

Inderfurth, Karl F., and Loch K. Johnson. Decisions of the Highest Order: Perspectives on the National Security Council. Pacific Grove, Calif., 1988.

Nelson, Anna Kasten. "President Truman and the Evolution of the National Security Council." Journal of American History 72 (September 1985): 560378.

. "The Importance of Foreign Policy Process: Eisenhower and the National Security Council." In Günter Bischof and Stephen E. Ambrose, eds. Eisenhower, A Centenary Assessment. Baton Rouge, La., 1995.

Prados, John. Keepers of the Keys: A History of the National Security Council from Truman to Bush. New York, 1991.

See also Decision Making; Department of Defense; Department of State; Presidential Advisers; Presidential Power .


On 21 February 1972, President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his assistant for national security affairs, met in China with Chairman Mao Tse-tung and Prime Minister Chou En-lai. The following are excerpts from a memorandum of that conversation.

Chairman Mao: (looking at Dr. Kissinger) He is a doctor of philosophy?

President Nixon: He is a doctor of brains.

Chairman Mao: What about asking him to be the main speaker?

President Nixon: He is an expert in philosophy.

Dr. Kissinger: I used to assign the chairman's collective [sic] writings to my classes at Harvard.

Chairman Mao: [Nixon and Mao] must not monopolize the whole show. It won't do if we don't let Dr. Kissinger have a say. You have been famous about your trips to China.

Dr. Kissinger: It was the president who set the direction and worked out the plan.

President Nixon: He is a very wise assistant to say it that way. (Mao and Chou laugh.)

President Nixon: When the chairman says he voted for me, he voted for the lesser of two evils.

Chairman Mao: I like rightists. People say you are rightists, that the Republican Party is to the right. I am comparatively happy when these people on the right come into power.

President Nixon: I think the important thing to note is that in America, at least at this time, those on the right can do what those on the left talk about.

Dr. Kissinger: There is another point, Mr. President. Those on the left are pro-Soviet and would not encourage a move toward the People's Republic, and in fact criticize you on those grounds.

National Security Council

views updated Jun 11 2018

National Security Council. Since its origins in 1947, the interagency, cabinet‐level National Security Council (NSC) has played major roles, ranging from advising the president and coordinating various strands of policy to formulating and ratifying policy decisions. Because it is primarily an instrument of presidential power, each president has employed the NSC as he has seen fit. Since the 1960s, however, presidents have made sporadic use of the council itself but have assigned its White House–based staff important roles in policymaking not anticipated by the NSC's inventors. Moreover, the president's national security adviser, a position unforeseen in 1947, has become central to national policymaking.

The NSC was part of a compromise, fashioned in 1947, in postwar decisions over armed services unification. The council as a mechanism to coordinate foreign and military policy was first proposed in the Eberstadt Report (1946), sponsored by Navy Secretary James V. Forrestal. Seeking an American version of the British Committee of Imperial Defence, Forrestal saw an NSC as a way to ensure timely and unified action in time of crisis, avoid the organizational confusion of World War II, and check the authority of a president—Harry S. Truman—in whom he had little confidence. In particular, Forrestal and the navy saw the council as an alternative to the strong secretary of defense favored by proponents of unification because it would provide a decentralized military structure and preserve the navy's autonomy. Though the navy could not stop the plan for a secretary of defense, its proposal for an NSC endured, if in watered‐down form; Truman's advisers altered early proposals granting the council statutory authority and ensured that the legislative language provided for advisory functions.

In the 1947 National Security Act, Congress declared that the NSC's purpose would be to “advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies” so as to ensure more effective cooperation in national security policy. Moreover, the council would supervise the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The council's members would be the president, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, the three service secretaries, the chairman of the National Security Resources Board, and other such officials as the president chose to designate. The director of Central Intelligence would be an adviser, not a member. In a 1949 amendment, Congress removed the service secretaries and the National Security Resources Board, added the vice president, and designated the director of Central Intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as statutory advisers. The amendment also provided for a small staff with an executive secretary.

During the first few years of the council's existence, in order to preserve his freedom of action and avoid pressure to make decisions on the spot, Truman seldom attended meetings. Nevertheless, he approved a number of policy papers that the council had generated to provide guidance to the agencies. After the Korean War broke out, Truman raised the council's status by routinely presiding over its meetings. In 1950, he also designated an NSC senior staff, under the direction of the council's executive secretary, and enhanced the council by integrating it into the executive office of the president. The senior staff met frequently for policy coordination purposes but had little impact on NSC policy papers, which were generated primarily by the State Department and the Department of Defense. Although Truman had resisted suggestions that he appoint a national security assistant to help him coordinate policy, in 1950 he partially conceded by designating W. Averell Harriman as a special assistant, charged with monitoring the implementation of national security policy.

Of all Cold War presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower made the fullest use of the NSC, often meeting with its members on a weekly basis throughout his eight years in office. Those meetings provided agency chiefs with a forum to debate the issues and a means for them to ascertain presidential thinking. Significantly, Eisenhower tapped Robert Cutler, Dillon Anderson, and Gordon Gray to serve, at various times, as special assistant to the president for national security affairs, a position not specified in the National Security Act. He made great use of the assistant to keep abreast of current problems, to plan meetings, and to follow up decisions. He also authorized auxiliary NSC planning and coordinating boards, based upon agency representation, for policy coordination and for developing the position papers that provided guidelines for official policy on many issues. Although some Democratic critics charged Eisenhower with constructing a cumbersome decision‐making process, he seldom relied on the NSC structure for decisions during crises; those he reserved for the flexibility of smaller meetings in his private office.

After Eisenhower, the council fell into relative eclipse as a means for policy guidance. Under President John F. Kennedy, Eisenhower's elaborate NSC structure was torn down and the council met infrequently. Moreover, Kennedy's national security assistant, McGeorge Bundy, became an adviser as well as a policy coordinator. Dissatisfied with advice from the State Department, Kennedy encouraged Bundy to turn the NSC staff into an instrument that could work quickly and secretly at the president's command and develop a “White House” perspective that was not restricted by the bureaucracy's recommendations. Lyndon B. Johnson followed suit; he virtually did away with council meetings, developing his own mechanisms, primarily the “Tuesday lunch,” for policy discussion and coordination.

The council as a forum for policy discussion and advice continued its decline during the Nixon‐Ford period, while the council's staff and the national security adviser acquired an unprecedented level of prestige and prominence. Richard M. Nixon declared that he was restoring the Eisenhower system, but his deep suspicion of the State Department and his desire to centralize command over policy worked against that purpose. To strengthen presidential control, Nixon and his ambitious national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, created new advisory and decision‐making mechanisms such as the Washington Special Action Group. Moreover, circumventing the State Department, Nixon and Kissinger established secret communications (“backchannels”) with key allies and adversaries, e.g., with the Soviet Union, for arms control talks, and with the People's Republic of China, for normalizing relations. The unparalleled secret bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War symbolized the extent to which Kissinger and the NSC staff had developed operational control over national security policy in this period.

Kissinger's use of “backchannels” and secret missions had mixed results—by leaving agency heads out of the picture and by confusing negotiators working in regular channels, an outcome that Jimmy Carter criticized during his 1976 campaign. But like Nixon and Ford, President Carter established specific structures for policy advice and coordination as well as for crisis management. Moreover, Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and the NSC staff played central roles in offering policy advice, sometimes to the discomfort of agency heads, especially Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Although Brzezinski operated in a less Byzantine fashion than his predecessor, Carter sustained the trend toward a strong national security adviser and prominent NSC staff. This development led to an inconclusive debate over whether the president's choice for national security adviser should require the Senate's consent.

When Ronald Reagan came to power, he pledged that cabinet members, not national security advisers, would have a dominant role in policymaking, a procedure that was consistent with his lack of interest in the details of foreign policy. Though the council met more frequently, Reagan followed his predecessors by approving new structures for discussion and decision making. No powerful national security adviser emerged, but activism in policymaking and implementation at the NSC staff level reached its apogee in the “Iran‐Contra” activities of national security advisers Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter and their assistant, Lt. Col. Oliver North. Ignoring congressional restrictions, they secretly provided aid to the anti‐Sandinista Contras with funds raised through arms sales to Iran and other sources. When the scandal broke in late 1986, Reagan claimed that his management style had precluded tight control over the NSC staff. But declassified documents and his own public statements suggest that Reagan provided overall direction, and that several of the covert operations had his approval, if not the wholehearted support of some cabinet members.

Since the Iran‐Contra Affair, presidents have avoided the excesses of the Reagan system but have continued to supplant the council with other advisory and decision‐making mechanisms. For example, President George Bush made modest use of the council, relying instead on regular meetings of deputies' committees for policy development. The national security adviser and NSC staff have remained central for coordinating the strands of diplomatic, military, economic, and intelligence policy; for serving as sources of policy advice; and for managing important initiatives.
[See also Cold War: Domestic Course; Commander in Chief, President as; National Security Council Memoranda.]


Mark M. Lowenthal , The National Security Council: Organizational History, 1978.
Anna K. Nelson , President Truman and the Evolution of the National Security Council, Journal of American History, 71 (September 1985), pp. 360–78.
John Prados , Keepers of the Keys: A History of the National Security Council from Truman to Bush, 1991.
Christopher Shoemaker , The NSC Staff: Counseling the President, 1991.
Anna K. Nelson , The Importance of Foreign Policy Process: Eisenhower and the National Security Council, in Gunter Bischof and Stephen Ambrose, eds., Eisenhower: A Centenary Assessment, 1995.

William Burr

National Security Council

views updated May 17 2018


NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL. The National Security Council (NSC) is a product of World War II and the Cold War. The world war highlighted the need for a system that coordinated foreign, defense, and international economic policies. U.S. military and national security coordinating committees established during World War II included the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1942 and the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee (SWNCC), founded late in 1944 at the assistant secretary level to improve coordination between the State Department and the U.S. military on politico-military matters. To expedite communication about such matters between the secretaries of state, war, and navy, a Committee of Three was established during the war and subsequently abolished. It was a forerunner of the NSC.

After the war individuals and groups examined the problem of national security coordination. One solution, many believed, was the creation of a high-level coordinating mechanism. A study conducted in September 1945 for Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal was the first to suggest "National Security Council" as the name for the coordinating body.

Establishment of such a council took some time. In December 1945, President Harry S. Truman first asked Congress to create a unified military establishment along with a national defense council. In November 1946, officials in the War and Navy departments hammered out the membership for the proposed council, then designated the "Council of Common Defense." Creation of such a council was again requested by Truman in February 1947. Both the House and Senate substituted "national security" for "common defense" in the organization's title.

Functions and Personnel

The National Security Act, establishing the NSC, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the National Security Resources Board, along with a unified military establishment, was approved by Congress on 25 July 1947 and signed by President Truman the next day. The legislation specified that the NSC would "advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security … to enable the military services and other departments and agencies …to cooperate more effectively in matters involving the national security." In addition, subject to the direction of the president, the NSC would "assess and appraise the objectives, commitments, and risks of the United States in relation to our actual and potential military power" and "consider policies on matters of common interest to the departments and agencies of the Government concerned with the national defense" for the purpose of making recommendations to the president.

The act also specified the council's membership: the president; the secretaries of state, defense, army, navy, and air force; and the chairman of the National Security Resources Board. The president was also authorized to designate the secretaries of executive departments and the chairpersons of the Munitions Board and the Research and Development Board as members. In addition, the act provided for the creation of a career staff headed by a civilian executive secretary to be appointed by the president.


The NSC and its staff have evolved in a number of ways. The composition of the NSC itself has changed. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, membership consisted of the president, vice president, and the secretaries of state, defense, and the Treasury, along with the assistant to the president for National Security Affairs. The director of Central Intelligence and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff served as advisers.

The post of special assistant to the president for National Security Affairs was established in 1953 to provide the leader for an NSC policy planning unit. Since then the role of the special assistants has expanded. Along with directing the operations of the NSC staff, they have generally served as the president's primary national security adviser.

The role of the NSC and its staff has also changed over time. Under McGeorge Bundy, President John F. Kennedy's national security adviser, the staff's role with regard to substantive as opposed to administrative matters grew, as did its influence. President Kennedy encouraged an activist White House role and he relied on direct personal access to Bundy and a number of NSC staffers as well. Under Kennedy and Bundy the NSC staff became a direct instrument of the president.

Six functions that the special assistant and the NSC staff have performed since that time are routine staff support and information; crisis management; policy advice; policy development; policy implementation; and operations. Staff support includes the preparation of routine presidential speeches and messages, coordination of presidential trips outside the United States, and management of state visits. The NSC staff, through the national security adviser, also serves as a channel for information (including intelligence data) from agencies and departments.

Since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the NSC has played a role in crisis management. The need for an organization with direct ties to the president to coordinate the foreign policy and military aspects of crisis management made the NSC a logical choice. Over the years presidential directives have established NSC committees or working groups to handle various issues, including crises.

Policy development can involve serving as an impartial broker of ideas generated by government departments or identifying policy issues and framing presidential policy initiatives. The policy development role can include studies and analyses conducted wholly within the NSC or the tasking of departments to produce studies relevant to policy. Upon receipt of the studies, a staff can simply specify the alternative options produced by the departments and identify the strengths and weaknesses of each option. Alternatively, it can seek to develop a policy proposal that would draw on the different responses to the NSC staff's tasking. In 1969, one the first tasks of the Nixon administration's NSC staff was to synthesize contributions from a variety of agencies concerning U.S. policy on Vietnam.

The NSC staff can also aid in policy implementation. It can draw up detailed guidance to implement presidential policy decisions as well as ask agencies to provide information on how they have implemented presidential policy.

Policy advice has become a standard part of the national security adviser's job and, through him or her, of the NSC staff. The national security adviser serves as a logical adviser for a president to consult in the event of disagreement between cabinet officials. In addition, the day-to-day proximity of the national security adviser can serve to establish a strong relationship with the president.

The most controversial aspects of the NSC's staff functions have been some of its operational activities. For a considerable period of time these have included diplomatic missions (some public, some secret), consultations with U.S. ambassadors, meetings with foreign visitors, public appearances by the national security adviser, and press briefings. During the Reagan administration the NSC staff also became involved in covert action operations related to support of the Contras in Nicaragua and attempts to free American hostages held in Lebanon, operations that would normally be the responsibility of the CIA.


Brzezinski, Zbigniew. Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977–1981. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983.

———. "The NSC's Midlife Crisis." Foreign Policy 69 (Winter 1987–1988): 80–99.

Lord, Carnes. The Presidency and the Management of National Security. New York: Free Press, 1988.

———. "NSC Reform for the Post–Cold War Era." Orbis 44 (2000): 433–450.

Prados, John. Keepers of the Keys: A History of the National Security Council from Truman to Bush. New York: Morrow, 1991.


See alsoCold War ; Cuban Missile Crisis ; Foreign Policy ; Iran-Contra Affair ; andvol. 9:Report on the Iran-Contra Affair .

National Security Council

views updated May 17 2018


The National Security Council (NSC) is the U.S. president's principal forum for considering national security and foreign policy matters; the council consists of senior national security advisors and cabinet officials. Since its inception under President harry truman, the function of the NSC has been to advise and assist the president on national security and foreign policies. The council also serves as the president's principal arm for coordinating these policies among various government agencies.

The NSC was established by the National Security Act of 1947, as amended (50 U.S.C.A. § 402), and was placed in the Executive Office of the President by reorganization plan No. 4 of 1949 (5 U.S.C.A. app.). The NSC was designed to provide the president with a foreign-policy instrument independent of the state department.

The NSC is chaired by the president. Its statutory members, in addition to the president, include the vice president and the secretaries of state and defense. The chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the statutory military advisor to the council, and the director of the central intelligence agency is the statutory intelligence advisor. The secretary of the treasury, the U.S. representative to the united nations, the assistant to the president for national security affairs, the assistant to the president for economic policy, and the chief of staff to the president are invited to all meetings. The attorney general and the director of the office of national drug control policy attend meetings pertaining to their jurisdiction. Other officials are invited, as appropriate.

The NSC began as a small office supporting the president, but its staff has grown over the years. It is headed by the assistant to the president for national security affairs, who is also referred to as the national security advisor. The NSC staff performs a variety of activities for the president and the national security advisor. The staff participates in presidential briefings, assists the president in responding to congressional inquiries, and prepares public remarks. The NSC staff serves as an initial point of contact for departments and agencies that want to bring a national security issue to the president's attention. The staff also participates in interagency working groups organized to assess policy issues in coordinated fashion.

The issues concerning national security are wide ranging. Foreign and military relations with other countries have generally taken center stage, but international terrorism, narcotics control, and world economic issues have been brought before the NSC. In most administrations, the national security advisor has played a key role in formulating foreign policy. For example, as national security advisor during the Nixon administration, henry kissinger was the de factosecretary of state, developing policy on the vietnam war, the opening of relations with communist China, and negotiating with Israel and the Arab nations for a peaceful solution to problems in the Middle East.

The image of the NSC was tarnished in the 1980s during the Reagan administration. Two successive national security advisors, Robert C. McFarlane and Rear Admiral John M. Poindexter, and NSC staffer Lieutenant Colonel Oliver L. North participated in the iran-contra affair. They violated a congressional ban on U.S. military aid to the Nicaraguan anticommunist Contra rebels by providing the rebels with funds obtained by the secret sale of military weapons to Iran.

Under the administration of President george h.w. bush in the early 1990s, the NSC was reorganized to include a Principals Committee, Deputies Committee, and eight Policy Coordinating Committees. Under President bill clinton, NSC membership was expanded to include the secretary of the Treasury, the U.S representative to the United Nations, and the assistant to the president for Economic Policy as well as the president's chief of staff and his national security advisor. In 2001 President george w. bush appointed Dr. Condoleezza Rice to be his national security advisor. She was the first woman appointed to that position. The NSC has been involved in American foreign policy decisions that have ranged from sending troops to Panama in 1989 and to Iraq in 1991 and 2003, as well as dealing with such issues as international trafficking in illegal drugs, U.N. peacekeeping missions, strategic arms control policy, and global environmental affairs.

further readings

National Security Council at the White House. Available online at <> (accessed July 30, 2003).

U.S. Government Manual Website. Available online at <> (accessed November 10, 2003).


Executive Branch; Presidential Powers; State Department.

National Security Council (Turkey)

views updated May 11 2018


political/military body that oversees the turkish government.

Turkey's National Security Council (Milli Güvenlik Kurulu, or NSC), formed after the 1960 military coup d'état, consists of the president (the chair of the NSC); the prime minister; ministers of defense, foreign affairs, and the interior; the chief of the general staff; and commanders of the army, navy, air force, and gendarmerie. Its composition and duties are stipulated in Turkey's 1961 constitution. The function of the NSC is to maintain the military's position as guardian of the principles of Kemalism within the institutions of the state. Following the 1980 military coup, the new 1982 constitution not only retained the NSC but also enhanced its powers, stipulating, for example, that the cabinet must give priority to NSC recommendations. The military's influence on government has proved to be an impediment to Turkey's efforts to become a member of the European Union; in order to comply with criteria set forth by the European Union, constitutional amendments in 2001 curtailed the role of the military within the NSC. For example, the civilian members of the NSC have been increased, and the NSC no longer recommends policies to the cabinet, but rather conveys its views informally.

see also kemalism.


Zürcher, Erik J. Turkey: A Modern History, revised edition. London: I. B. Tauris, 1997.

m. hakan yavuz

National Security Council

views updated Jun 08 2018

National Security Council (NSC) US federal agency within the executive branch of government. Founded in 1947, it considers policies on matters concerning national security and makes recommendations to the president. The leading members are the US president, vice president, secretary of state and secretary of defence.

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National Security Council