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 mini–NSC 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.