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 mini–State 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 post–World 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.