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 four—the secretaries of state and defense, the president, and vice president—have 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.