History of the United States National Security Council 1969–74
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This article is about the history of the United States National Security Council during the Nixon Administration, 1969–1974.
U.S. President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, dominated the making of US foreign policy during the Nixon Presidency. As Nixon recalled in his memoirs: "From the outset of my administration... I planned to direct foreign policy from the White House. Therefore I regarded my choice of a National Security Adviser as crucial." Henry Kissinger worked through a National Security Council apparatus he revised and fashioned to serve his needs and objectives and those of the President.
The close relationship between the President and the National Security Advisor was the basis for their ability to carry out American foreign affairs leadership around the world. The National Security Council system was the mechanism for the period of unprecedented American activity in foreign policy and the exercise of Kissinger's growing power. Kissinger wrote later that "in the final analysis the influence of a Presidential Assistant derives almost exclusively from the confidence of the President, not from administrative arrangements." The two men developed a conceptual framework that would guide foreign policy decisions. Kissinger's intellectual ability, his ambition, and his frequent discussions with Nixon were all factors in increasing within the government both his own power and the unchallenged authority of the NSC system he personally directed.
The Kissinger NSC system sought to combine features of the Johnson and Eisenhower systems. The Senior Interdepartment Group (SIG) of the Johnson White House was replaced by an NSC Review Group (somewhat similar to the Eisenhower-era NSC Planning Group) together with an NSC Under Secretary's Committee. The Kissinger NSC relied upon interdepartmental working groups (IGs) to prepare for NSC directives. Critics observed that 10 IG meetings prepared the way for each SIG-level meeting, and 5 SIG meetings were needed to prepare for each NSC meeting.
White House direction of foreign policy meant the eclipse of the Department of State and Secretary William P. Rogers. Nixon did not trust the Department bureaucracy. According to Kissinger, Nixon picked Rogers, who was inexperienced in foreign affairs, to indicate that the President would dominate the relationship between the NSC and the Department of State. Throughout Nixon's first term, only Kissinger participated in the President's important discussions with foreign state visitors. Nixon excluded Rogers from his first meeting with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin in February 1969. The NSC also took control of the process of clearing key policy cables to overseas posts. Kissinger and Rogers became rivals and developed formal contacts in place of substantive discussions.
The NSC (Department of State) power relationship was reflected in institutional arrangements. During the transition period before Nixon assumed power, Kissinger recommended that the NSC be buttressed by a structure of subcommittees to draft analyses of policy that would present clear decision options to the President. The National Security Advisor was to be chairman of a Review Group to screen interagency papers before their presentation to the full NSC chaired by the President. Nixon insisted on the abolition of the SIG chaired by the Department of State. These recommendations were incorporated in National Security Decision Memorandum (NSDM) 2, issued shortly after Nixon's inauguration on January 20, 1969. NSDM 2 was rightly perceived as a victory for Kissinger and helped to establish his foreign policy authority at the outset of the administration.
Kissinger moved quickly to establish the policy dominance of the NSC. He expanded its staff from 12 to 34; not only was it the cadre for his centralized policy-making, but it was also his antennae throughout the bureaucratic structure. In the President's name, Kissinger set the NSC agendas and issued the numerous National Security Study Memoranda (NSSM) that set forth the precise needs for interagency policy papers. An NSC Under Secretaries Committee, chaired by the Deputy Secretary of State, gradually withered away. By the time the increasingly complicated committee structure was settled, Kissinger chaired six NSC-related committees: the Senior Review Group (non-crisis, non-arms control matters), the Washington Special Actions Group (serious crises), the Verification Panel (arms control negotiations), the 40 Committee (clandestine operations), the Intelligence Committee (policy for the intelligence community), and the Defense Program Review Committee (relation of the defense budget to foreign policy aims).
Kissinger also increasingly bypassed the Department of State to supervise personally sensitive negotiations in order to avoid what he and President Nixon agreed were likely bureaucratic disputes and inertia. The President made clear that he wanted the National Security Advisor to conduct important matters directly out of his office. Nearly every foreign ambassador called upon Kissinger at least once. With Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin, Kissinger maintained a special relationship that completely bypassed the Department of State and Secretary Rogers. Dobrynin was told by Kissinger to deal with the Secretary of State only on a limited range of less vital matters. Kissinger also maintained similar relationships with Communist Chinese leader Zhou Enlai and Israeli Ambassador Rabin.
In carrying on his activist, operational undertakings, Kissinger relied upon special controlled communications. CIA communications were used for his "back channel" messages so that the Department of State was kept in the dark. He also used the White House Communication Agency including the use of special aircraft as communication centers. With his negotiations in Paris in 1971 regarding Vietnam and with the Soviet Union in advance of summit meetings, Kissinger was a traveling negotiator, and the NSC was a system on the move. Jeanne Davis, the NSC Executive Secretary, also facilitated the handling of sensitive correspondence by propelling the NSC staff into the computer age with a document tracking system unheard of by Kissinger's predecessors.
The waning of Nixon's power during the Watergate affair further increased Kissinger's influence. On September 22, 1973, Kissinger became United States Secretary of State, replacing Rogers. For the first time, one individual held simultaneously the positions of National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. On October 6 the 1973 Arab-Israeli war erupted; Kissinger continued his use of "back channel" communications and his traveling negotiations with the Arabs and Israelis. On November 5, Kissinger inaugurated the phase of negotiations since known as "shuttle diplomacy".
Under these unique circumstances, Kissinger strengthened his institutional base as the administration's principal foreign policy adviser. Kissinger later admitted, however, that the union of the two positions did not work. Department of State representatives were his subordinates while he wore his Secretary of State hat. When he chaired a meeting, they had to represent his point of view or else all interdepartmental matters would be outside his control. Kissinger indicated he was in an inherently absurd position of either pushing his Department's views as chairman or dissociating himself from his subordinates.