Presidential Advisers

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Presidential Advisers

Albert Bowman and

Robert A. Divine

In his foreword to Decision-Making in the White House by Theodore C. Sorensen, President John F. Kennedy wrote:

The American presidency is a formidable, exposed, and somewhat mysterious institution. It is formidable because it represents the point of ultimate decision in the American political system. It is exposed because decision cannot take place in a vacuum: the presidency is the center of the play of pressure, interest, and idea in the nation; and the presidential office is the vortex into which all the elements of national decision are irresistibly drawn. And it is mysterious because the essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observeroften, indeed, to the decider himself.

After more than two centuries of experience, there is no longer any doubt concerning the formidability of the presidency. The spare and general presidential powers conferred by the Constitution have evolved and developed in proportion to the phenomenal growth of the nation, although until recently at a much slower rate. A list of the powers included in Article II of the Constitution contains the barest hint of presidential power and authority today: the vesting in the president of the executive power of government, his designation as commander in chief of the military forces of the United States, the power to make treaties and to appoint ambassadors and other public officerspowers exercised in both cases in partnership with the Senate of the United States, and the authority to receive ambassadors and other public ministers. Perhaps the most interesting of the president's constitutional powers, since it touches on the mysterious process of decision making, is this: "he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments."

The Constitution created no executive departments. That was left to the Congress, which on 27 July 1789 created the Department of Foreign Affairs (later changed to Department of State). It was headed by a secretary who was to conduct its business "in such manner as the president of the United States shall, from time to time, order or instruct."

It was hardly to be expected, however, that so formal a line of authority would be restrictive; and every president has to some degree relied on the counsel of advisers outside of and in addition to the Department of State. Indeed, in view of "the play of pressure, interest, and idea in the nation," an important element in arriving at wise presidential decisions may well lie in the diversity and quantity of opinions or, as they are now referred to, options among which to select. Limits are indispensable, of course, and the quality of the opinions, as well as the president's capacity to discriminate, are of the highest importance.

Mystery is inherent in the presidency, and it may seem paradoxical that the office is at the same time the most exposed one in the land. From George Washington, reluctant first president and probably the only one who did not aspire to the office with some degree of cupidity, to Richard Nixon, perhaps at the opposite extreme, the presidency of the United States has usually been described as a lonely eminence. Even those presidents who relished the power and majesty of the office managed to convey a sense of the solitary nature of the presidential decision-making process.

But the ultimate solitude of the presidency is not mysterious; the singular and final responsibility of the president is generally visible. The mystery, the impenetrability, lies in the sources of presidential decision, which, as Kennedy noted, may be unfathomable even by the president himself. If the president cannot always know how he decides, how can even the closest observer know? After declining a request to rate the performance of previous presidents, Kennedy exclaimed to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., then serving as a White House special assistant: "How the hell can you tell? Only the president himself can know what his real pressures and his real alternatives are. If you don't know that, how can you judge performance?"

Presidents have the further advantage of making their decisions in private. Unlike Congress and the judiciary who conduct their business, for the most part, in public, the president cannot only keep the decision-making process secret, but he can keep the records sealed even after leaving office. A president may publicly state one thing while secretly planning another, he may say one thing in public and another in private, and he may inexplicablyeven to his adviserschange his mind. But even more difficult for the student of presidential decision making is the deliberate obscuring of presidential intentions from everyone. Intimates of Franklin D. Roosevelt have been unanimous in attesting to his delight in mystifying even his closest lieutenants and in setting them at cross-purposes. Schlesinger, a Roosevelt biographer, assessed the Rooseveltian technique thus: "Once the opportunity for decision came safely into his orbit, the actual process of deciding was involved and inscrutable."

However mysterious and inscrutable the processes of presidential decision, there can be no doubt that every president has recognized the need of advice and counsel, if not consent. Nor can there be any doubt concerning at least two aspects of the presidential use of advisers: in addition to the formal, almost cryptic constitutional provision relating to "principal Officers of executive Departments," presidents have always solicited or received counsel from both public and private sources, and there has been an evolutionary growth in the number and variety of presidential advisers.


Understandably and characteristically, George Washington began his presidency by following the letter of the Constitution as closely as he could. Not only had he presided over the debates in the Constitutional Convention in 1787, but he was keenly aware that his every act as the first president of the United States would tend to set a precedent.

The first potential foreign crisis of Washington's administration arose in 1790, when war between Great Britain and Spain appeared to be imminent over remote Nootka Sound on the northwest coast of America. Anticipating a British request to move troops through American territory to attack Spanish Louisiana, Washington requested written opinions on a possible answer from the three heads of departmentsThomas Jefferson, secretary of state; Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the Treasury; and Henry Knox, secretary of warand of Attorney General Edmund Randolph and Vice President John Adams. Although the matter related most directly to the duties of the secretary of state, it obviously had implications much broader than simply diplomatic, and Washington evidently wanted to widen his range of advice as much as was constitutionally possible. On later questions of significant national or constitutional import, he adhered to much the same procedure.

On matters of direct personal concern, however, Washington turned to old and trusted friends for advice. He had decided by the spring of 1792 that he would retire from public life. As he had so often done, he wrote to a fellow Virginian, James Madison, for help: "namely, to think of the proper time, and the best mode of announcing the intention; and that you would prepare the latter." Despite his long collaboration with Madison, his affectionate regard for Randolph, and his esteem for Jefferson, Washington's foreign policy was nevertheless increasingly directed by Hamilton. Looking upon himself as a kind of prime minister in addition to being finance minister, after the British tradition that frequently combined the two roles, Hamilton secretly conducted his own foreign policy and consistently opposed the secretary of state in meetings of Washington's official advisers. When Washington made his firm decision to retire at the end of his second term as president, he turned to Hamilton for advice on both the method and the substance of his farewell to public service.

Washington was, according to James David Barber's model, a "passive-negative" type, a president who sought stability as the precondition to establishing the legitimacy of the American experiment in self-government, so it was natural that he should resist innovation and generally choose the path of least resistance. In a period of intense foreign and domestic turmoil, such a president would naturally be drawn to the adviser whose counsel seemed most likely to promise tranquillity at home and safety abroad. That meant validating the power of the central government over its citizens while bowing to superior force in the conduct of foreign relations. Specifically, it meant a succession of centralizing fiscal and economic measures and a persistent tilting toward Britain in its war against revolutionary France. Hamilton's pro-British foreign policy, culminating in Jay's Treaty of 1794, could easily have been fashioned in London. In fact, Hamilton has been described as the effective minister of the British government to the American, although Washington never knew how intimate and cooperative were Hamilton's relations with the nominal representatives of George III.

By the end of Washington's second term, all dissenters to Hamiltonian policy had been purged and Hamilton himself had left office. But President John Adams, to his later undoing, kept the department heads he had inherited from Washington, most of them unswervingly loyal to Hamilton. The latter, who once wrote that he had not "lost my taste for a little politics," continued to run the government from his New York law office. Adams only later, in the midst of an undeclared war with France, realized that the advice he received from his subordinate officers originated with his arch rival. Perhaps Hamilton had this extension of his influence over the Adams administration in mind when, after Washington's death, he described their relationship: "he was an Aegis very essential to me " (Hamilton's emphasis).

After he had removed the Hamiltonian influence over his administration, Adams was able to end the Quasi-War with France. His son John Quincy Adams had recently been sent as minister to Berlin and, with the treachery of Secretary of State Timothy Pickering in mind, the president told his son to "write freely" to him but "cautiously to the office of State." It was the advice of John Quincy Adams that convinced the president that France sincerely wanted peace and led him to extricate the United States from a war only the Hamiltonian extremists wanted.

John Adams yielded to no one when it came to knowledge of foreign affairs, although until his break with the war faction in his Federalist Party, he had allowed himself to be influenced by the Hamiltonians in his cabinet and in the Senate. Jefferson, however, after the "revolution of 1800," was able to make a fresh start, with a cabinet of his own choosing and Democratic-Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. No American, save perhaps Benjamin Franklin, had had a richer diplomatic experience than the new president, and probably no president ever had a secretary of state who was closer, both personally and intellectually, than James Madison was to Jefferson. The advice of his brilliant secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, was valuable to Jefferson, but the efficiency and subtlety with which Jefferson and Madison synchronized their efforts in pursuit of American foreign policy objectives probably have never been matched.


Two periods of intense involvement in foreign affairs have marked the history of the United States: the nation-forming period, when the new Republic sought to register its independence while the world was being shaken by the mortal conflict of the great powers of the time, France and Great Britain; and the period beginning with World War II, when the United States itself became the world's greatest power. A more striking contrast between two eras could scarcely be imagined, though the simple substitution of the roles of all the powers involved is a start.

In addition to the irrelevance of affairs out-side of North America to the growth of the United States during the nineteenth century, those who would probe the sources of national action are faced with another problem: how to detect and analyze possible connections between domestic influences and foreign policy actions. It is probably safe to say of this period, however, that presidents generally felt little need of advice on foreign affairs except from their secretaries of state, and sometimes not even from them.

Some presidents, such as James Madison, acted as their own foreign ministers. Deprived by Senate hostility of his first choice for secretary of state, the able Albert Gallatin, Madison was forced to appoint the incompetent Robert Smith and for a time even found it necessary to rewrite Smith's dispatches. Historians still debate the influence on Madison in 1812 of such war hawks as Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Felix Grundy; but Madison's most perceptive and thorough biographer, Irving Brant, believes that the president reached his own decisions.

President James Monroe, who had been secretary of state under Madison, relied almost exclusively on Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, except for the president's questions to his Virginia friends and predecessors, Jefferson and Madison, during the formulation of what became the Monroe Doctrine. Indeed, Adams, generally recognized as the greatest of all American secretaries of state, was responsible for the two major foreign policy achievements of the Monroe administration. It was Adams who negotiated the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819 (Adams-Onís Treaty) by which the United States not only acquired Florida but also laid claim to the Oregon territory. And it was Adams who persuaded the president and the cabinet to reject a British offer and instead have the United States alone declare itself the protector of the New World against European interference, and thus was responsible for the doctrine that bore Monroe's name.

President James K. Polk evidently had imbibed the elixir of "manifest destiny" long before John O'Sullivan coined the phrase in an editorial in the Democratic Review (1845). The idea of westward expansion was at least as American as the Declaration of Independenceit had been a fact since 1607but the war with Mexico to advance it was mostly the president's idea. The accusation "Mr. Polk's war" was undoubtedly accurate.

The Civil War marked an end and a beginning to many things in America, but neither an end nor a beginning to expansionism. William H. Seward, secretary of state under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, had in the 1840s believed that "our population is destined to roll its resistless waves to the icy barriers of the north, and to encounter oriental civilization on the shores of the Pacific." Thus he welcomed the suggestion that Russia might be willing to sell Alaska. Presented with an opportunity to expand to "the icy barriers of the north," ostensibly to guarantee Alaskan fishing rights and to repay Russian Unionist sympathy during the war, Seward rushed through a treaty to purchase Alaska in 1867.


In the American rise to world power, which began in the 1890s, one man who was neither president nor secretary of state played a crucial role. Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, naval strategist and historian, provided the theoretical framework for the extension of American power into the Pacific as the key to national security and world peace. If Seward can be called the precursor of American imperialism, then Mahan was its prophet. Mahan's influence upon American foreign policy is easy to demonstrate because he was so visible. His first book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 16601783, achieved an instant success when it was published in 1890, and it had an effect on the Anglo-American world comparable with Charles Darwin's Origin of Species a generation earlier. A rising group of dynamic, nationalistic American leaders pondered Mahan and became his fervent disciples.

Theodore Roosevelt brought to the presidency a coherent program for the expansion of American power. The ideas of Mahan formed Roosevelt's frame of reference in almost all his discussions of foreign policy: a large navy that could control the sea-lanes; the acquisition of naval bases and coaling stations, and possibly colonies; the construction of an isthmian canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by water, with bases to guard the approaches on either side; and the development of a large merchant marine to expand American foreign trade. By tireless propaganda (Roosevelt described the presidency as "a bully pulpit"), cajolery of Congress, and often by breathtaking expansion of presidential powers, Roosevelt was able to realize Mahan's program. Although it was not as large as he wished, he built the "Great White Fleet" and sent it around the world. He acquired naval bases in Cuba and the Philippines, and he carried out what Secretary of State Elihu Root described as the rape of Colombia in order to build the Panama Canal.

Personally much closer to Roosevelt was Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts who was also a disciple of Mahan. Lodge thought as Roosevelt did and consistently supported him in his imperialistic initiatives. Other notable members of Roosevelt's circle of intimates were the brothers Brooks and Henry Adams, grandsons and great-grandsons of the Massachusetts presidents. They were historians, as was the president himself, and they shared his expansionist views without, however, possessing his ebullient optimism.

If foreign policy had always been an unpleasant distraction to American government officials, it was so no longer. The administrations of Theodore Roosevelt were the turning point, and the hopes of Mahan, Lodge, the Adamses, and Roosevelt himself for the growth of American power and influence were realized. The War with Spain, which Roosevelt and his friends had promoted so ardently, and World War I, even more so, thrust the United States into a commanding world position.


Ironically, it was not Theodore Roosevelt but rather Woodrow Wilson who presided over this breakthrough. Wilson brought to the White House not only a total lack of experience in foreign affairs but also a disinterest of similar proportion. He had been untouched by the muscular doctrines of Mahan, and he might have been content to establish his "New Freedom" only in America if it had not been for World War I. Wilson's response to that challenge contrasted sharply with the aggressive Rooseveltian style, giving point to John F. Kennedy's remark, "to governis to choose."

Presidents choose their advisers and weigh the advice they receive. Probably more than any president before him, Wilson focused his confidence on one adviser, "Colonel" Edward M. House, a Texan whose only title was friend of the president. House and Wilson first met late in 1911, when the former was shopping for a Democratic presidential candidate he could support. They hit it off instantly, and House managed Wilson's 1912 campaign. Thenceforth, he was Wilson's alter ego. His New York City apartment and his summer home in Magnolia, Massachusetts, were both connected by direct telephone lines to the president's study in the White House. Once, when asked whether House accurately reflected his thinking, Wilson replied: "Mr. House is my second personality. He is my independent self. His thoughts and mine are one." House was the outstanding example of the species of presidential advisers whom Patrick Anderson called "distinguished outsiders."

Wilson and House had extraordinarily complementary personalities. Both were extremely ambitious, but Wilson reveled in the limelight while House preferred the shadows. Wilson's style was rhetorical, and he was at his best in public exhortation. House, on the other hand, liked to work behind the scenes; he once told an interviewer: "I do not like to make speeches. I abhor routine. I prefer the vicarious thrill which comes to me through others. I want to be a myth." Wilson saw this as selflessness: "What I like about House," he told Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, "is that he is the most self-effacing man that ever lived. All he wants to do is serve the common cause and to help me and others."

It was House who, at the outbreak of war in Europe, tried to turn Wilson's attention to foreign affairs, arguing that the president's leadership would offer a unique opportunity to effect a revolution in international morals. House wanted Wilson to assume the mediator's role in the war: "the world expects you to play the big part in this tragedyand so indeed you will, for God has given you the power to see things as they are."

Wilson sent House to Europe early in 1915 to sound out the leaders of the warring powers on the possibilities of a negotiated peace. That mission was unproductive but, with the end of the war in sight, in October 1918, House returned to Europe to obtain Allied acceptance of Wilson's peace program. He wrote in his diary: "I am going on one of the most important missions anyone ever undertook, and yet there is no word of direction, advice or discussion between us." Wilson had simply said: "I have not given you any instructions because I feel you will know what to do." It was Wilson and House who, on the morning of 5 January 1918, hammered out the Fourteen Points. They had the work of the Inquiry to assist them, a mountain of maps and special studies drawn up by the 150-man team of experts House had established to do the research for Wilson's reordering of Europe.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's rule that "an adviser should have a passion for anonymity" has special relevance to the break that eventually ended the Wilson-House collaboration. Wilson wanted agreement, support, and of course loyalty from his confidants; and House supplied all of these, even while sometimes recording criticism of the president in his diary. When asked for advice, House wrote early in 1918, "I nearly always praise at first in order to strengthen the president's confidence in himself which, strangely enough, is often lacking." Between the president's triumphal visit to Europe late in 1918 and his return in early 1919, most of the bloom had faded from Wilson's peace plans as nationalistic interests of the Allies asserted themselves.

As Wilson's "second personality," House fought for the Fourteen Points but realized that compromise was inevitable; he got along better with the Allied statesmen than had Wilson, and he increasingly deplored Wilson's mistakes and believed he himself could have avoided them. The attention showered on him during the president's absence produced a new and overpowering desire to "come into his own." This was probably the crucial factor in the president's withdrawal of affection from House and the end to consulting him. In the final stages of the peacemaking, Wilson consulted no one.

Colonel House had beguiled Wilson and encouraged him in the intense moral commitment that became an obsession. Wilson had depended too much on House, and then not enough; ultimately he was isolated in the destructive rigidity that defeated, and then destroyed, him.


No other foreign policy adviser would exercise House's almost exclusive influence over presidential decision making until Henry Kissinger, save perhaps Franklin D. Roosevelt's Harry Hopkins. In some ways, Hopkins's relationship to Roosevelt resembled that of House to Wilson, whom Roosevelt had served as a rather free-floating assistant secretary of the navy. By 1941, as Hopkins's biographer Robert E. Sherwood explained it: "The extraordinary fact was that the second most important individual in the United States governmenthad no legitimate official position nor even any desk of his own except a card table in his bedroom. However, the bedroom was in the White House." To the recently defeated Republican candidate, Wendell Willkie, who had asked why the president kept so close to him a man widely distrusted and resented, Roosevelt replied: "I can understand that you wonder why I need that half man around me. But someday you may well be sitting here where I am now as president of the United States. And when you are, you'll be looking through that door over there and knowing that practically everybody who walks through it wants something out of you. You'll learn what a lonely job this is, and you'll discover the need for somebody like Harry Hopkins who asks for nothing except to serve you."

During his unprecedented three-plus terms as president, of course, Roosevelt had hundreds of advisers. But none wielded more than a transitory and peripheral influence on foreign policy, while Hopkins's brilliant talent for getting things done was exercised with authority throughout the government and the coalition against Germany and Japan. Sherwood described Hopkins's service thus: "Hopkins made it his job, he made it his religion, to find out just what it was that Roosevelt really wanted and then to see to it that neither hell nor high water, nor even possible vacillations by Roosevelt himself, blocked its achievement."

But Hopkins was not without convictions of his own, although they usually coincided with those of the president. Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote that Hopkins "gave his opinions honestly, but because Franklin did not like opposition too wellas who doeshe frequently agreed with him regardless of his own opinion, or tried to persuade him in indirect ways." But Hopkins could intervene directly. Once, when Roosevelt was unable to join Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at a conference because of the 1944 election, he was about to send Churchill a cable implying that the prime minister could speak for him. Hopkins ordered the cable to be held and rushed to get Roosevelt to cancel it, which Roosevelt did. Hopkins had the respect of Stalin, who spoke to him with "a frankness unparalleled in my knowledge in recent Soviet history," according to the American ambassador to Moscow, Averell Harriman, and the respect and deep affection of Churchill, who dubbed him "Lord Root of the Matter" and talked feelingly to Sherwood of "the great heart that is within that frail frame." Hopkins successfully supported Churchill in persuading Roosevelt that France had to share in the postwar occupation of Germany, and he often toned down the president's communications with the haughty General Charles de Gaulle.

Roosevelt and Hopkins last saw each other after the Yalta Conference, when Hopkins, too ill to return home by ship with the president, flew back to enter the Mayo Clinic, where he was still hospitalized when Roosevelt died. He returned to Washington to brief the new president, Harry Truman, who later recalled that "I hoped that he would continue with me in the same role he had played with my predecessor." Hopkins undertook one more mission to Moscow and succeeded in obtaining Russian concessions that opened the way to the United Nations founding conference at San Francisco, but he was too sick to continue. Six months later he was dead, leaving behind another fascinating historical "if": How differently would subsequent Soviet-American relations have developed if Hopkins could have fulfilled the wish of President Truman?


Notwithstanding the preeminence of Harry Hopkins during the last years of the Roosevelt administration, far-reaching changes were in the making. During World War II, Roosevelt accelerated one developing pattern, the bypassing of the secretary of state and his department, and established another, what the veteran diplomat Charles Yost considered "an even more unfortunate precedentthe persistent and intimate involvement of the military in foreign-policy decision making."

Another development of the Roosevelt years was the beginning of the growth of a large bureaucracy. However, since Roosevelt had an improvised and very personal administrative style, and there was no rationalization by statute, his personal assistants were scattered throughout the government. Truman introduced a significant degree of order, albeit with a large increase in the size of the White House staff. Moreover, under Truman the policymaking process was institutionalized through the creation of agencies responsible to the president. The National Security Act of 1947 created the Department of Defense and established the National Security Council (NSC) to serve as a top-level forum for thrashing out policy alternatives for the president's decision. An important corollary of the NSC was that it was provided with a staff, thus potentially giving the president his own mini Department of State.

Truman's belief in orderly administrative methods included a belief in a strong cabinet. He once said: "I propose to get Cabinet officers I can depend on and have them run their affairs," and as a result his White House staff was singularly weak. Secretaries of State George Marshall and Dean Acheson were the principal architects of Truman's foreign policy, with Defense Secretary James Forrestal at times playing a significant role. But the star of the Truman White House, Clark Clifford, made a mark because of the confidence Truman placed in him. Clifford generally reinforced with the president the views of such activist department officers as Acheson, Forrestal, and Undersecretary of State Robert Lovett, with one notable exception. In May l948, Truman followed Clifford's advice to recognize the new State of Israel over the objections of George Marshall and the Department of State.

As principal speechwriter, Clifford drafted the address enunciating the Truman Doctrine. George F. Kennan, then counselor of the United States embassy in Moscow, is usually credited with originating the doctrine of containment in his famous "long telegram" from Moscow, later published in Foreign Affairs under the title "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." Truman read the message and was impressed, but then he asked Clifford to prepare a memorandum on United StatesSoviet relations. After talks with Marshall, Acheson, Forrestal, Lovett, and others, Clifford presented to Truman in September 1946 a memorandum differing from Kennan's chiefly in its military emphasis. "The language of military power is the only language which disciples of power politics understand," Clifford wrote. "The United States must use that language in order that Soviet leaders will realize that our government is determined to uphold the interests of its citizens and the rights of small nations." Kennan had stressed political and economic measures to contain Soviet expansionism and in later years, notably in his Memoirs, repeatedly deplored the military interpretation placed on his thesis.

Clifford resigned at the beginning of 1950 and later became a "distinguished outsider," advising Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, who in the last months of his presidency drafted him to be secretary of defense. Ironically, it was the man who had helped to militarize the American posture vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in 1946 who helped persuade President Johnson to end the bombing and seek a negotiated peace in Vietnam in 1968.


President Dwight D. Eisenhower brought to the White House an unprecedented experience with the military staff system and a settled conviction that it was the only sensible and efficient way to run the government. The White House was therefore reorganized to resemble a military table of organization: the assistant to the president became the chief of staff, and other positions were established under him to systematize the flow of paperwork to and from the White House. Like Truman, Eisenhower believed that cabinet officers should run their departments, and he discouraged them from bringing their problems to the White House.

Like his successors Kennedy and Nixon, Eisenhower was most interested in foreign affairs. Eisenhower's passion for organization was exercised most closely in an attempt to perfect foreign policy decision making through formalizing and expanding the National Security Council. He converted the NSC staff into a planning board under a special assistant for national security affairs, with responsibility for preparing policy papers and coordinating them among interested government departments and agencies for NSC consideration. The Operations Coordinating Board was established to see that NSC decisions were carried out.

Despite this formal machinery, Eisenhower relied heavily on key advisers in deciding what policies to implement. While Secretary of State John Foster Dulles played an important role as the chief spokesman and negotiator for Eisenhower, the president gathered advice and counsel from such individuals as disarmament adviser Harold Stassen, psychological warfare advocate C. D. Jackson, Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss, UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, and, after the launch of Sputnik, presidential science advisers James Killian and George Kistiakowsky. As a result, Eisenhower's foreign policy was never as rigid as the organizational charts suggested but instead included such innovations as Atoms for Peace, "open skies," and an expanded and generous foreign aid program.

Under John F. Kennedy, the elaborate national security structure of the Eisenhower years gave way to a more modest and informal foreign policy apparatus. Distrusting bureaucracy, and disappointed in Dean Rusk, his choice as secretary of state, the president preferred to deal directly with desk officers in the Department of State who had operational responsibility for specific foreign policy issues. Kennedy did away with the cumbersome Operations Coordinating Board and relied instead on his special assistant for national security affairs, McGeorge Bundy, a former Harvard dean. Bundy assembled a small group of academic experts to staff the scaled down NSC in the basement of the White House, where they attempted to reconcile the conflicting foreign policy recommendations of the Pentagon and the Department of State.

Several others on the White House staff had regular access to the president, among them Theodore Sorensen, special counsel, chief speech writer, and long Kennedy's closest aide; scientific adviser Jerome Weisner; and special military representative General Maxwell Taylor, former army chief of staff, whose advocacy of a "flexible response" defense strategy in opposition to the Eisenhower-Dulles "massive retaliation" doctrine suited the activist approach of the New Frontier. Kennedy also placed great reliance on Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who became a sort of "super secretary." But as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 proved, Kennedy's most trusted and valued adviser was always his brother Robert, the attorney general.


Suddenly thrust into the presidency by the assassination of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson did what other "accidental" presidents had done under similar circumstances: he promised to continue unchanged the policies of his predecessor. Johnson also retained the Kennedy staff and, in general, the loose Kennedy system. As a formerly close aide, Bill Moyers, noted after he had left the White House, Johnson had regarded the National Security Council as "not a live institution, not suited to precise debate for the sake of decision." Johnson much preferred to "call in a handful of top advisers, confidants, close friends." Johnson also tried to emphasize the foreign policy leadership of the secretary of state and was persuaded to create a system of interdepartmental committees to promote this. Johnson leaned heavily on Secretary of State Rusk, but the system was less than successful. Rusk made little use of it and Johnson came to rely, as Kennedy had, on Bundy and his NSC staff as well as on Secretary of Defense McNamara.

When Bundy left the White House staff for the presidency of the Ford Foundation in 1966, he was succeeded by Walt W. Rostow, formerly his deputy and then chief of the Policy Planning Staff in the Department of State, who had been a professor of economic history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The change was significant. Rostow had written extensively on American foreign policy, notably a book entitled The United States in the World Arena. As that title suggested, Rostow thought in terms of broad historical frameworks; he was a theoretician who from beginning to end saw American involvement in Vietnam as essential to the nation's world preeminence. Along with General Maxwell D. Taylor, who later changed his mind, Rostow had urged Kennedy in 1961 to bomb the Vietnamese insurgents and Rostow's advice to Johnson was always slanted toward escalation.

Like Wilson after 1914 and Roosevelt after the fall of France in 1940, Johnson became totally absorbed in a foreign war after the decision to escalate in l965. Increasingly, his circle of advisers contracted, as the president immersed himself in the details of the Vietnam conflict and tolerated dissent less and less. Johnson continued to rely, however, on a small group of friends outside the White House, often speaking to them at length on the telephone or meeting with them individually and off the record. His intimates included Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, and Clark Clifford, who replaced McNamara as secretary of defense in early 1968. On Vietnam, Johnson also relied on the advice of a group of distinguished former government officials known as the Wise Men, who included Dean Acheson, Henry Cabot Lodge, and, by l968, McGeorge Bundy. Initially strong supporters of the Vietnam War, the Wise Men had a change of heart after the Tet offensive and helped persuade Johnson to seek peace with Hanoi in March 1968.

Early in 1965, Johnson instituted the "Tuesday lunch," which for the next four years represented the focal point of foreign policymaking. While Vietnam came to dominate the agenda, topics ranged across the globe, from the Dominican intervention in 1965 to the Six Day War in 1967. The initial grouping of Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, and McGeorge Bundy gradually expanded to include the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Earle Wheeler, CIA Director Richard Helms, and Johnson's press secretary, first Bill Moyers, later George Christian. Johnson kept the proceedings informal to encourage give-and-take, but eventually Deputy Press Secretary Tom Johnson was added to keep a record of major points.

The Tuesday lunch helped the president hear a variety of views on important foreign policy issues. "They were invaluable sessions," Rusk claimed, "because we all could be confident that everyone around the table would keep his mouth shut and wouldn't be running off to Georgetown cocktail parties and talking about it." Others, however, contended that the sessions were too disorganized and rambling, rarely leading to thoughtful decisions. The Tuesday lunch, however, was never intended to be a decision-making body. As H. W. Brands points out in The Wages of Globalism, Johnson used it as "a forum for receiving information and opinions. Sometimes he announced decisions at the Tuesday lunch. More often he took the information and opinions back to his private quarters, where he compared them with intelligence obtained from his night reading and from his telephoning to Fortas, Clifford, and who knew who else, and only then gave his verdict."


In April 1975 President Gerald Ford was asked whether he received advice on foreign policy from anyone besides Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He replied that he was advised by the National Security Council, where decisions were made, but added that he met with Kissinger for an hour each day "on day-to-day problems." Ford's invocation of the NSC was ritualisticthere was presumed to be something reassuring to the public mind about itand his comment was also circular, for to a hitherto unimaginable degree Kissinger was the NSC. The former Harvard professor had been chosen by president-elect Richard Nixon in 1968 to be his assistant for national security affairs. By September 1973, Kissinger so dominated foreign policy, which he had made his own, that he had won a Nobel Peace Prize (for negotiating an end to American involvement in Vietnam) and senatorial confirmation as secretary of state by an over-whelming vote. Significantly, Kissinger retained the title of assistant to the president; that was still the source of a power greater than that wielded by most other presidential advisers or even secretaries of state in American history.

During the Nixon years, it was almost always impossible to determine whether Nixon or Kissinger made foreign policy decisions, and commentators became accustomed to writing of "Nixon-Kissinger" policies. The judgment that that reflects is probably correct. The president's unlimited personal confidence in Kissinger apparently was grounded in an identity and a congeniality of their respective views of the world and of the role of the United States in it. The two men favored similar operating styles: a driving, essentially amoral stance in which the end justified the means and results were what counted, and a secretive, almost conspiratorial approach that delighted in dramatic surprises. Neither Nixon, who had built a political career on hard-line anticommunism, nor Kissinger, whose writings of a decade and a half had accepted the Cold War stereotypes, was inhibited from engineering new approachesdétenteto the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. The secrecy and then the carefully staged theatrics of the Nixon visit to China represented the epitome of Nixon-Kissinger collaboration.

Kissinger was Nixon's resident philosopher, master planner, and personal executor of foreign policy. He provided Nixon with a coherent theory of international relations that postulated the maintenance of a balance-of-power equilibrium constantly adjusted to minimize friction. The principal problem was that it was initially impossible for "revolutionary" and status quo powers to negotiate: hence the necessity for painstaking planning to reduce international insecurity and create a "legitimate" world order. A supremely self-confident perfectionist, Kissinger believed that only he had the necessary conceptual expertise and skill to manage the slow process of accommodation.

Kissinger's power depended not only on his unique relationship with the president but also on the bureaucratic machinery he created and controlled. The staff Bundy assembled in 1961 had grown steadily in size, but by 1971 Kissinger's NSC staff was three times the size of Rostow's, with more than fifty professionals and one hundred clerical employees. In addition, under Kissinger's chairmanship there was a proliferation of new groups at the undersecretary and director levels, groups that exercised operational control over every aspect of national security policy, including the most comprehensive one of all, the Defense Program Review Committee, created to review "major defense, fiscal, policy and program issues in terms of their strategic, diplomatic, political, and economic implications." When Kissinger became secretary of state, therefore, he merely acquired the added prestige of the title and direct authority over the vast Department of State bureaucracy. Little else changed, except that with the Watergate scandal Kissinger seemed to personify whatever legitimacy the sinking Nixon administration could claim.

In the post-Vietnam era much of the Kissinger structure of international relationships appeared to be coming unstuck. A coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans in Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment in 1973, which stymied the policy of détente by making the legal emigration of Jews a precondition for liberalizing American trade with the Soviet Union. In late 1975, growing opposition to détente from conservative Republicans led President Ford to strip Kissinger of the position of national security adviser to the president, but he remained as secretary of state. During the 1976 presidential campaign against challenger James Earl Carter, Ford felt compelled to stop using the term "détente." Although Carter's narrow victory turned primarily on domestic issues, especially energy and inflation, the outcome clearly was a rejection of the secretive and power-oriented diplomacy practiced by Kissinger under Nixon and Ford.


As president, Jimmy Carter proved unable to stamp American foreign policy with his own imprint. Rhetorically, he did succeed in stressing human rights in contrast to Kissinger's obsession with power politics. But his own lack of experience with world affairs and a serious rift between his principal foreign policy advisers left him ill prepared to deal with a series of crises overseas that eventually overwhelmed his presidency.

Carter relied on two very different men, representing conflicting foreign policy positions, to help him deal with world affairs. The first, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, was an establishment figure who hoped to continue the policy of détente with the Soviet Union, stressing cooperation rather than confrontation between the superpowers, while at the same time expanding American aid and assistance to emerging nations. Carter's appointment of civil rights leader Andrew Young as UN ambassador was a further attempt to appeal to Third World sensibilities. In contrast, the president's choice of Zbigniew Brzezinski as national security adviser invited conflict within the administration. The Polish-born Brzezinski opposed Kissinger's policy of détente and instead favored a hard line against the Soviet Union. Carter's two primary foreign policy advisers could not have been more different. "While Mr. Vance played by the Marquis of Queensbury rules," remarked one observer, "Mr. Brzezinski was more of a street fighter." The president, however, believed that he could draw upon each man's ideas in framing his foreign policy.

In the first two years, Carter sided with Vance and Young in seeking to improve relations with the Soviet Union and assist Third World countries. Policies such as the return of the Panama Canal to Panamanian sovereignty by the end of the century and support for black majority rule in southern Africa, especially in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), together with the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, marked early victories for the softer approach. But by 1978, as the result of aggressive Soviet moves in the horn of Africa and difficulty in negotiating a SALT II disarmament agreement with Leonid Brezhnev, Carter began to turn to Brzezinski more than to Vance for advice. The climax came when the administration extended full diplomatic recognition to China in 1979, a move advocated by Brzezinski as a way to bring pressure on the Soviet Union. The result was a return to Cold War tensions, especially after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979. At the same time, the growing conflict between the Department of State and the National Security Council had a paralyzing effect on the American response to the Iranian revolution. With Brzezinski backing the shah of Iran and Vance favoring change in Iran, the Carter administration lost control of the situation and finally ended up in the hopeless hostage crisis.

Carter's foreign policy failures were not entirely self-inflicted. The legacy of the Vietnam War, the rising tide of nationalism among emerging nations, and the reactionary leadership of the Soviet Union all worked against effective American diplomacy. But Carter's belief that he could transform the conflicting views of such antagonistic foreign policy advisers as Vance and Brzezinski proved unfounded. By 1980, the American people had lost confidence in Carter's ability to use American power effectively in the world and were responding instead to the promise of his Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, to "make America great again."


Presidential advisers played an important, if sometimes unfortunate, role in the administration of Ronald Reagan. The president set forth the goals he sought to achievechallenge the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union, assist those around the globe fighting against communist subversion, and do everything possible to spare the world a nuclear catastrophe. But Reagan had little interest in the details of foreign policy and delegated broad authority to his subordinates in the day-by-day conduct of diplomacy. As a result, his presidency helped pave the way for the end of the Cold War, but also was badly shaken by the Iran-Contra scandal.

At the outset, Reagan tried to avoid the internal tension that had hampered the Carter administration by relying on a strong secretary of state and downplaying the status of the national security adviser. Alexander Haig, his first secretary of state, proved too imperious and domineering and the White House staff finally forced him to resign in 1982. His successor, George Shultz, was much more successful. A conservative economist skilled at bureaucratic maneuvering, he ran the Department of State smoothly and became an effective advocate of negotiation with the Soviet Union. The first five national security advisers, on the other hand, lacked stature and yet were allowed a surprisingly large amount of discretion in carrying out their duties. Only the final two, Frank Carlucci and Colin Powell, had the high professional qualifications that the post required.

Within the Reagan administration, the primary tension was between Shultz, who favored a more cooperative policy toward the Soviet Union, and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who championed Cold War confrontation. As president, Reagan tried to avoid siding with either antagonist, often seeking a middle course or avoiding a clear-cut policy decision. At the same time, Reagan turned to others in his administration for advice, notably two hard-liners. Jeane Kirkpatrick, the American ambassador to the UN, challenged Carter's stance against aid to friendly dictators like the shah of Iran, arguing instead that the United States should support "authoritarian" leaders who believed in the free market and were cooperative. William Casey, the Central Intelligence Agency director, a wealthy lawyer and veteran of the wartime Office of Strategic Services, favored an active American role in challenging what he and Reagan saw as Soviet surrogates, notably Cuba.

Reagan's reliance on Kirkpatrick and Casey proved most dangerous in Central America. The administration's efforts to use the CIA to back the contras in Nicaragua, as well as to defeat the rebels in El Salvador, led Congress to use its power of the purse to cut off funding for the contras. The president, moved by the plight of American hostages in Lebanon, approved a plan to sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of Americans held by groups friendly to Iran; the NSC staff, led by National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane and his successor Admiral John Poindexter, assisted by Colonel Oliver North, went much further. Following the advice of CIA Director Casey, they channeled the money generated by the arms sales to Iran into the hands of the contras, in defiance of Congress. When the resulting Iran-Contra scandal became public in late 1986, McFarlane, Poindexter, and North all insisted that the president knew nothing of the illegal diversion of funds (Casey died of a brain tumor in early 1987). While Reagan took responsibility for the unwise decision to sell arms to Iran, he went along with his aides' assertion that he was ignorant of the financial transaction.

Reagan finally was able to offset the damage done by the Iran-Contra affair by his success in a series of summit conferences with the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Encouraged by the quiet diplomacy of George Shultz, the president abandoned his stinging rhetoric and instead embraced the new polices of glasnost and perestroika begun by Gorbachev in an effort to reform the Soviet system. Although the end of the Cold War, symbolized by the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union, would take place after Reagan left office, he could claim credit for laying the foundation with his highly publicized meetings with Gorbachev and his negotiation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, a first step toward meaningful arms control by the superpowers. Reagan could also claim that the massive buildup of the American military carried out under Weinberger had played a crucial role in bringing the Soviet Union to the bargaining table. His presidency, however, would remain tarnished by the Iran-Contra affair, the result of granting excessive discretion to his national security advisers.


George H. W. Bush was deeply involved in foreign policy throughout his presidency. Unlike Ronald Reagan, he brought a depth of experience in international affairs to the oval officeambassador to the UN, envoy to China, director of the CIA, and frequent travels abroad as vice president. Bush's hands-on approach meant that in his administration American foreign policy would emanate from the White House, not the Department of State.

President Bush appointed James Baker, a close personal friend and successful campaign manager, to be secretary of state. Baker had shrewd political judgment, but little experience with foreign affairs. For advice, the president leaned more on two others within his administration. Brent Scow croft, his national security adviser, was a retired air force general who had served in the same position under Ford as Kissinger's successor. Prudent and cautious, Scowcroft had been critical of Reagan's policy toward the Soviet Union, viewing the early denunciation as too confrontational and the later meetings with Gorbachev too accommodating. When the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989 and the Soviet regime gradually collapsed, Scowcroft reinforced Bush's careful policy of letting events take their course without active American participation. The other man Bush relied on heavily was Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney. Experienced both as a member of Congress and as Ford's White House chief of staff, Cheney would play a key role in defining the dominant foreign policy event of the Bush administrationthe Persian Gulf War.

When Saddam Hussein caught the United States by surprise with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, Bush reacted strongly, sending American troops to Saudi Arabia to protect the vital flow of oil from the Persian Gulf region. Once Saudi Arabia was secure, the critical issue was whether the United States should use force to liberate Kuwait or rely instead on economic pressure. Secretary of State Baker, along with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, warned against getting involved in a ground war with Iraq. Scowcroft and Cheney, however, argued that sanctions would take too long to work, and the president sided with them. Cheney played an especially important role, criticizing the initial army plan to liberate Kuwait with a frontal assault and suggesting a flanking maneuver instead.

Bush's advisers also had considerable influence on the controversial decision to end the fighting short of full success. After five weeks of intense aerial bombardment, General Norman Schwarzkopf launched the ground offensive on 24 February 1991. When American armored units swept into southern Iraq in a daring flanking movement and coalition forces liberated Kuwait in just three days, Bush heeded the advice of Scowcroft and Powell to halt the attack after only a hundred hours of fighting. Powell was concerned that the United States not be seen as a heartless bully, commenting, "You don't do unnecessary killing if you can avoid it." Scowcroft had strategic concerns, primarily a fear that a prolonged invasion of Iraq would alienate Arab allies and shatter the international coalition. He also saw the need for a postwar Iraq strong enough to balance off the power of Iran in the vital Persian Gulf region. After insisting on securing Schwarzkopf's consent, Bush followed the advice of Powell and Scowcroft, thus ending the war with Saddam, still in power in Baghdad. Later, when Schwarzkopf suggested he could have destroyed the Republican Guard on which Saddam relied so heavily with just a day or two more of fighting, Powell intervened to remind the theater commander that he had agreed to the early cease-fire.

Despite the regrets over the failure to depose Saddam, the Bush foreign policy team proved effective in action. The cautious policy toward the downfall of the Soviet Union prevented the United States from providing an excuse for a final effort by hard-liners in Russia to revive the Cold War. In the Middle East, the Bush administration had succeeded in forging a remarkably broad international coalition to liberate Kuwait and thus uphold the principle of collective security. Bush's foreign policy advisers had accomplished these goals by displaying a high degree of teamwork. In contrast to the infighting that had characterized the Carter and Reagan presidencies, Bush, in the words of Baker, had "made the national security apparatus work the way it was supposed to work."


In contrast to George H. W. Bush, William Jefferson Clinton relegated foreign policy to a secondary concern when he took office in 1993. As he put it, he focused "like a razor beam" on domestic issuesreviving the sluggish American economy, balancing the budget, and proposing a sweeping reform of the health care system. He delegated foreign policy to two veteransWarren Christopher, the secretary of state, who favored a cautious, lawyerly approach to world affairs, working harmoniously with National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, a former aide to Henry Kissinger who had resigned in protest during the Vietnam War.

Two other foreign policy advisers came to play an important part in the Clinton administration. The first was Strobe Talbott, a journalist and expert on the Soviet Union, who had close personal ties with Clinton, his Rhodes Scholar roommate at Oxford. After brief service as ambassador-at-large to the countries of the former Soviet Union, Talbott became deputy secretary of state and oversaw the administration's efforts to support Boris Yeltsin's leadership of Russia. Talbott supervised the granting of $2.5 billion in economic aid as well as the Clinton administration's efforts to promote free market reforms and democracy in Russia.

Richard Holbrooke, another veteran of the Carter administration, emerged as a key player in the most critical foreign policy problem confronting the Clinton presidencythe civil war in Bosnia. Although Clinton had criticized Bush for failing to halt the bloodshed in this former Yugoslavian territory, the new president proved equally reluctant to intervene militarily to stop the fighting. In 1995, however, Clinton finally approved U.S. participation in North Atlantic Treaty Organization air strikes designed to halt Bosnian Serb shelling of the Muslim city of Sarajevo. Holbrooke, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, carried out the difficult task of negotiating a cease-fire among the ethnic rivals in BosniaCroats, Serbs, and Muslims. The accords that he succeeded in getting representatives of the three groups to sign in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995 ended the fighting in Bosnia and led to a fragile but viable political settlement.

The ethnic tensions in the Balkans continued to create difficulty for Christopher's successor, Madeleine Albright, who became secretary of state at the start of Clinton's second term in 1997. The first woman to hold the office, Albright, the daughter of a Czech diplomat, had taught international affairs at Georgetown University and served as ambassador to the UN from 1993 to 1996. More activist than Christopher, she was a firm believer in democracy and was willing to use force to achieve American goals abroad. When Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic began terrorizing the majority Albanian population in Kosovo, Albright was determined to halt his ethnic cleansing. After Holbrooke's efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement had failed by early 1999, Albright helped persuade Clinton to intervene militarily to protect the Kosovars. For nearly three months, from March to June 1999, NATO aircraft bombed Serbia in an effort to halt Milosevic's attempt to drive all the Albanians out of Kosovo. The secretary of state defended this policy against fierce criticism and she and Clinton were vindicated when the air offensive began to target the infrastructure of Serbia (bridges, power plants, TV stations), finally forcing Milosevic to withdraw from Kosovo. Remarkably, not a single American life was lost in this military campaign. The outcome in Kosovo, however, was ambiguousthe territory was still nominally Serbian but only the presence of NATO troops kept an uneasy peace between the returning Kosovars and the minority Serbs.

Inevitably, foreign policy came to occupy more of Clinton's attention during his second term in office. The failure of his health care reform and the Republican control of Congress after 1994 limited his freedom of action on domestic matters. He became personally involved in two difficult efforts at mediationtrying to broker peace between the Protestant and Catholic factions in Northern Ireland and attempting to achieve a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian rivalry in the Middle East. Although he relied on advisers in both cases (former Senator George Mitchell in Northern Ireland and troubleshooter Dennis Ross in Israel), Clinton took an active personal role, most notably in negotiating the Wye River Accord between Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasir Arafat in Maryland in 1998. By the time he left office, Clinton had traveled to nearly every part of the world and felt much more confident, and less dependent on his advisers, than when he had entered the White House.


Modern presidents have learned that foreign policy is a major responsibility for the office they hold and that they must rely on talented and experienced advisers in handling the diverse problems they encounter in the world. The dual system of national security advisers and secretaries of state, while sometimes leading to great friction as under Carter, helps a president choose between two different sets of advisers, while still leaving him free to seek the counsel of others outside the government. But the days when one individual, such as Colonel House or Harry Hopkins, would act as the president's surrogate in foreign policy, are long past. Future presidents are likely to draw on a wide variety of experts, both within and outside their administrations, in seeking ways to fulfill their responsibilities as world leaders.


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See also Ambassadors, Executive Agents, and Special Representatives; Decision Making; Department of State; Elitism; National Security Council; Presidential Power .

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