After winning the election of 1968, then President-elect Richard Nixon and his Assistant for National Security Affairs Dr. Henry Kissinger set about restoring the National Security Council to its preeminent role in foreign policy planning. Nixon’s belief that foreign policy should be made at the White House level stemmed from his time in Congress, where he experienced first hand the lack of decision-making ability and excessive bureaucracy which more often than not handcuffed sound policy decision making. Because of this dissatisfaction, Nixon and his administration began to reform foreign policy decision making from the moment he won his election.
The National Security Council, established in 1947 by the National Security Act, represents the official foreign policy output of a presidential administration. The National Security Council (NSC) presents foreign policy recommendations to the president, whereupon the president makes the final decision on what to implement. The NSC structure is intended to incorporate the inputs of military, state, and executive offices, most notably that of the Secretary of State. As each administration takes control of the NSC, the Council varies to suit the requirements and needs of each president. Dr. Kissinger noted this fact in his review of both the Johnson and Eisenhower administrations, contained in his memo to President Nixon on December 27th, 1968, which can be read below.
The Johnson Administration used the NSC sparingly, and to ill effect in the eyes of Dr. Kissinger. Johnson’s NSC “met from time to time, and its principal function [was] an educational one…the NSC [was] not used as a decision making instrument.” The Johnson Administration had informal weekly NSC meetings, which were mainly educational briefings. In contrast, Dr. Kissinger praised the Eisenhower administration’s usage of the NSC under the Eisenhower Administration. The NSC met often and conducted extensive and productive meetings that assisted the President in foreign policy decision-making. After reviewing both administrations, Dr. Kissinger stated that “the present task is to combine the best features of the two systems.” Dr. Kissinger and Nixon worked extensively to create what they felt would be the most successful form of the NSC. They envisioned a model of White House foreign policy making assisted and informed by the various officials of the NSC. Up until Nixon took office, this model was relatively unheard of. Historically, the major foreign policy decisions came from the State Department rather than the White House. This shift in policy making is detailed in the January 1969 National Security Decision Memorandum (NSDM) 2, which has been reproduced below.
This comprehensive memorandum, which was formed out of numerous draft memorandums between Nixon and Dr. Kissinger, outlines the reorganization of the NSC under their shared vision. As previously stated, NSDM 2 notably shifts the procedures of the Council into the supervision of the executive branch, while giving Dr. Kissinger sole authority over the Council’s direction. The memorandum created the National Security Council Review Group, replacing the chaotic review system of Johnson’s Council with a much more systematic and comprehensive team of officials. Also featured in the memorandum is the extension of Dr. Kissinger’s role in the NSC. As the Advisor to the President for National Security Affairs, Dr. Kissinger became the chairman of many important sub-committees. Since the chairman could set the agendas and dictate the flow of information, he gained the ability to effectively consolidate a significant amount of policy making into both his and President Nixon’s hands.
When President Nixon was inaugurated into office on January 20th 1969, he entered the White House with a revolutionized NSC structure. His and Dr. Kissinger’s vision for a streamlined and informed executive committee had been implemented by NSDM 2, setting the stage for arguably one of the most successful periods of foreign policy in recent U.S. history.