History of the United States National Security Council 1953–61

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This article is about the history of the United States National Security Council during the Eisenhower Administration, 1953-1961.

Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the National Security Council system evolved into the principal arm of the President in formulating and executing policy on military, international, and internal security affairs. Where Harry S. Truman was uncomfortable with the NSC system and only made regular use of it under the pressure of the Korean War, Eisenhower embraced the NSC concept and created a structured system of integrated policy review. Eisenhower had a penchant for careful staff work, and believed that effective planning involved a creative process of discussion and debate among advisers compelled to work toward consensus recommendations.

The genesis of the new NSC system was a report prepared for the President in March 1953 by Robert Cutler, who became the President's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs. Cutler proposed a systematic flow of recommendation, decision, and implementation that he later described as the "policy hill" process. At the bottom of the hill, concerned agencies such as State and Defense produced draft policy recommendations on specific topics and worked for consensus at the agency level. These draft NSC papers went up the hill through the Planning Board, created to review and refine the recommendations before passing them on for full NSC consideration. The NSC Planning Board met on Tuesday and Friday afternoons and was composed of officials at the Assistant Secretary level from the agencies with permanent or standing representation on the Council, as well as advisers from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Central Intelligence Agency. Hundreds of hours were spent by the Board reviewing and reconstructing proposed papers for the NSC. Cutler resigned in 1958 in exhaustion. The top of the foreign policy-making hill was the NSC itself, chaired by the President, which met regularly on Thursday mornings.

The Council consisted of the five statutory members: the President, Vice President, Secretaries of State and Defense, and Director of the Office of Defense Mobilization. Depending on the subject under discussion, as many as a score of other senior Cabinet members and advisers, including the Secretary of the Treasury, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Director of Central Intelligence, attended and participated. The agenda included regular briefings by the Director of Central Intelligence on worldwide developments affecting U.S. security, and consideration of the policy papers advanced by the Planning Board. The upshot of the discussions were recommendations to the President in the form of NSC Actions. The President, who participated in the discussion, normally endorsed the NSC Action, and the decision went down the hill for implementation to the Operations Coordinating Board.

President Eisenhower created the Operations Coordinating Board (OCB) to follow up on all NSC decisions. The OCB met regularly on Wednesday afternoons at the Department of State, and was composed of the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Deputy Secretary of Defense, the Directors of the CIA, the United States Information Agency, and ICA,[clarification needed] and the Special Assistants to the President for National Security Affairs and Security Operations Coordination. The OCB was the coordinating and implementing arm of the NSC for all aspects of the implementation of national security policy. NSC action papers were assigned to a team from the OCB for follow-up. More than 40 interagency working groups were established with experts for various countries and subjects. This 24-person staff of the OCB supported these working groups in which officials from various agencies met each other for the first time.

The President's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, a post held under Eisenhower by Cutler, Dillon Anderson, William Harding Jackson, and finally Gordon Gray, oversaw the flow of recommendations and decisions up and down the policy hill, and functioned in Council meetings to brief the Council and summarize the sense of discussion. The Special Assistant was an essential facilitator of the decision-making system, but, unlike the National Security Adviser created under Kennedy, had no substantive role in the process. The NSC staff managed by the Special Assistant grew during the Eisenhower years, but again had no independent role in the policy process.

President Eisenhower had great confidence in the efficacy of covert operations as a viable supplement or alternative to previous normal foreign policy initiatives. The seeming clear success of the operations to overthrow Iranian populist leader Mossadegeh in 1953, and overthrow the democratically elected, left-leaning President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in Guatemala in 1954 was not without their crisis moments in the White House. In 1954 NSC 5412 provided for the establishment of a panel of designated representatives of the President and the Secretaries of State and Defense to meet regularly to review and recommend covert operations. Gordon Gray assumed the chairmanship of the "5412 Committee" as it was called, and all succeeding National Security Advisers have chaired similar successor committees, variously named "303", "40", "Special Coordinating Committee," which, in later Presidential administrations, were charged with the review of CIA covert operations.

President Eisenhower also created the position of staff secretary with the responsibility to screen all foreign policy and military documents coming to the President. While Colonel Andrew Goodpaster held this position, he tended to eclipse the Special Assistant for National Security.

The strength of the NSC system under Eisenhower was that it provided for regular, fully staffed, interagency review of major foreign and national security issues, culminating in discussion and decision at the highest level of government. The resulting Presidentially approved NSC papers provided policy guidance at every level of implementation. Eisenhower felt that the regular policy discussions kept his principal advisers fully informed, in step with one another, and prepared to react knowledgeably in the event of crisis. His commitment to the system was such that he chaired every Council meeting he could attend (329 of a total of 366). The NSC meetings, including prior briefings and subsequent review of NSC Actions, constituted the largest single item on his weekly agenda.

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, on the other hand, had reservations about the NSC system. He was the strongest personality in the Eisenhower Cabinet and jealously guarded his role as principal adviser to the President on foreign policy. He had constant, direct access to the President and did not feel that some of the most sensitive issues should be discussed in groups as large as were involved in most NSC meetings. He drew a sharp line between the NSC policy review process and the day-to-day operations of foreign policy, which he maintained were the province of the Department of State. Dulles and his deputies also were not comfortable with the scope the NSC review system gave to Secretary of the Treasury George Humphrey, another strong figure in the Cabinet, to intrude budgetary limitations into policy considerations. Dulles successfully resisted a proposal to substitute the Vice President for the Under Secretary of State as chairman of the OCB, arguing that such a change would impinge on his role as principal adviser to the President on foreign policy.

Critics of the Eisenhower NSC system have argued that it was inflexible, overstaffed, unable to anticipate and react to immediate crises, and weighed down by committees reporting in great detail on long checklists of minor policy concerns. The most thorough critique of the system emerged from the hearings conducted in 1960(1961 by the Senate Subcommittee on National Policy Machinery, known as the Jackson Subcommittee for its chairman, Senator Henry Jackson. Cutler and NSC Executive Secretary James Lay testified in support of the effectiveness of the system, but their testimony was offset by that of former Truman administration officials such as George Kennan, Paul Nitze, and Robert Lovett. They argued that foreign policy was being made by a passive President influenced by a National Security Council rendered virtually useless by ponderous, bureaucratic machinery. Basically, they argued, the NSC was a huge committee, and suffered from all the weaknesses of committees. Composed of representatives of many agencies, its members were not free to adopt the broad, statesmanlike attitude desired by the President, but, rather, were ambassadors of their own departments, clinging to departmental rather than national views. To make matters worse, critics added, the NSC system by its very nature was restricted to continuing and developing already established policies and was incapable of originating new ideas or major innovations. The critics suggested replacement of the formal, "over-institutionalized" NSC structure with a smaller, less formal NSC which would offer the President a clear choice of alternatives on a limited number of major problems.

Eisenhower was certainly not a passive President, dominated by his Secretary of State on foreign policy and national security issues. In fact, Eisenhower was actively in command of his administration's foreign policy, and the established NSC system met his instincts and requirements to the extent he used them. Although there is substance in the criticism that the Eisenhower NSC became to some extent the prisoner of a rigidly bureaucratic process, the criticism misses the point that Eisenhower and Dulles did not attempt to manage fast-breaking foreign policy crises or day-to-day operation through the NSC apparatus. An examination of several of the major foreign policy decisions that confronted the Eisenhower administration reveals that the NSC system was used to manage some, but was essentially bypassed in others. The established NSC process was used when the question involved a policy debate between departments with strongly held, contending positions, as it did in the case of the debate between the Departments of State and Defense in 1956/1957 over whether to introduce a more modern generation of weapons into Korea, where it focused debate and produced the necessary agreed-upon decision after discussion of three draft policy papers.

In fast-breaking crisis situations however, including the concurrent Suez crisis and Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the first and Second Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1955 and 1958, and the 1958 Lebanon crisis, these were typically managed through small meetings with the President in the White House, normally involving Dulles and other concerned advisers, and through telephone conversations between Eisenhower, Dulles, and other principal advisers. Eisenhower sometimes used trusted NSC staffers to serve as an intermediary to gain information outside the chain of command as he did with Colonel Goodpaster during the straits crisis in 1955. There was great similarity between this process of crisis management and that adopted by subsequent Presidents, such as Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, except for the fact that the ad hoc meetings in the Eisenhower White House did not involve a National Security Adviser as a substantive participant. And in the event that aspects of crisis management depended on contact with the critical man-on-the-spot, as it did in 1958 when Deputy Under Secretary of State Robert Murphy was dispatched to Lebanon to attempt to defuse the crisis, his instructions came from the Department of State and he reported to the Secretary of State rather than directly to the White House, as became the practice during the height of the Vietnam War.

When Eisenhower briefed President-elect Kennedy on the NSC system, as when Gordon Gray briefed his successor McGeorge Bundy, they both emphasized the importance of the established NSC machinery in the management of foreign policy and national security affairs. They might have been more persuasive in maintaining the system had they pointed to the fact that the NSC apparatus was essentially limited to policy review, but was not used by them to manage foreign policy crises or day-to-day decisions.

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 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the White House.