NSC (National Security Council), History

NSC (National Security Council), History


The history of the United States National Security Council (NSC) lends itself to widely diverging views of the NSC, depending on the presidential administration in question. Held in suspicion by President Harry S. Truman, the organization became a vital part of the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration. Thereafter it remained, for the most part, a significant aspect of subsequent administrations, although in differing manners. For example, four very different chief executives—John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, James E. Carter, and George W. Bush—relied heavily on powerful National Security Advisors (McGeorge Bundy, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Condoleeza Rice, respectively), yet the similarities in organizational style end there.

The Roots of the NSC (1947–53)

Among its many provisions, which collectively reformed the U.S. defense, intelligence, and security apparatus, the National Security Act of July 26, 1947, created the NSC. The latter was to serve as a presidential advisory board on issues of significance to the military, security, intelligence, and foreign policy. Its chairman would the president, and its members would include the secretaries of State, Defense, the Army, Navy, and Air Force, as well as the director of the National Security Resources Board. Other Cabinet-level secretaries and officials with prominent security roles could attend occasionally. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), also created by the National Security Act, was to report to the NSC in an advisory role, but the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) was not an NSC member.

The enabling legislation, designated as Public Law 80–253, made no mention of the National Security Advisor, a figure whose role would become prominent only in the Kennedy years. However, there was a powerful precedent for the idea of trusted White House advisors as guides for national policy; during World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had depended on top White House aides such as Harry Hopkins and Admiral William D. Leahy at least as much as he did on his Cabinet secretaries. Likewise, during the early years of his administration, President Truman enjoyed a similar rapport with Special White House Counsel Clark Clifford.

This relationship with Clifford coexisted with Truman's ambivalence toward the NSC. Wary of a surfeit of advice and advisors that could impair his ability to make executive decisions, Truman largely ignored the NSC until the outbreak of the Korean War, attending only 10 of 55 meetings in those first three years of the body's existence. In 1949, however, Truman signaled a new interest in it when he instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to attend all NSC meetings. Congress also amended the earlier act to remove the three service secretaries, who would be represented thenceforth by the Secretary of Defense. The amendment also added the vice president to the Council, and made the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) permanent advisors on military matters.

Other events of 1949—the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Soviet detonation of an atomic bomb, the Communist takeover in China—all signaled a growth in importance for the Council, but the real change came after the outbreak of hostilities in Korea in June 1950. Thereafter, Truman, although he continued to rely on other sources for advice, attended most NSC meetings. Through the Council, he authorized the first of what were to be many covert operations on the part of the U.S. intelligence community.

President Lyndon Johnson (right side, second from right) shown meeting with the National Security Council in 1964 with the prime topic expected to be the North Vietnamese torpedo boat attack on the U.S. destroyer Maddox. ©BETTMANN/CORBIS.
President Lyndon Johnson (right side, second from right) shown meeting with the National Security Council in 1964 with the prime topic expected to be the North Vietnamese torpedo boat attack on the U.S. destroyer Maddox. ©

The Eisenhower Years (1953–61)

As a former general, Eisenhower came to the White House with an appreciation for advisory staffs and for the organized system of strategic planning that the NSC concept embodied; therefore, the Council flourished under his administration. So, too, did various study groups, headed by the Operations Coordinating Board (OCB), which included the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, DCI, and others. Eventually, there would be more than 40 interagency working groups, and critics of the Eisenhower NSC complained that it was bogged down by too many committees and excess reports.

At the heart of the NSC were four full-time statutory members: the president, vice president, and the secretaries of State and Defense. Along with the Director of the Office of Defense Mobilization, these formed the core of the Eisenhower NSC. The Treasury Secretary, JCS Chairman, DCI, and others regularly attended meetings. Eisenhower created the position of Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, forerunner of the modern National Security Advisor, but in the 1950s this job was chiefly that of a staff coordinator, with little independent power.

A hands-on leader, Eisenhower attended the vast majority of NSC meetings—329 out of 366—that took place during his eight years in office. NSC meetings were the single most significant regularly recurring item on his weekly agenda, and through the Council he closely over-saw a burgeoning roster of covert missions, most notably in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. His emphasis on the NSC had many detractors, among them Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who naturally feared that the Council would eclipse his own importance in foreign policy; Senator Henry Jackson, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on National Policy Machinery (1960–61); and others.

Kennedy and Johnson (1961–69)

The report of Jackson's subcommittee had a strong effect on Kennedy, who, upon assuming leadership in 1961, immediately cut NSC staff from 74 to 49. He also reduced the number of substantive members, and the frequency of their meetings. Therefore, it is ironic that Kennedy would ultimately strengthen the NSC by establishing the position of National Security Advisor, and by appointing Bundy—already a closely trusted associate—to the job.

The apparent contradiction in Kennedy's position on the NSC is explained by the aftermath of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, an abortive April 1961 attempt to wrest control of Cuba from Communist dictator Fidel Castro. In Kennedy's view, the State Department failed to effectively orchestrate the White House response to the debacle, so he turned to Bundy and the NSC for this assistance.

In 1962, NSC gained a powerful tool, both symbolic and real, for its implementation of policy when the Situation Room was established in the White House basement. The Sit Room, as it was called, connected the President with State, Defense, and the CIA, while providing the National Security Advisor with an opportunity to monitor cables from foreign service posts around the world.

Kennedy remained ambivalent toward the NSC as such, which met only 49 times in his three years as president. Much of its work was replaced by the Standing Group, which consisted of Bundy, DCI, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, and the Undersecretary for Political Affairs, who served as its chair.

As crises developed during the course of Kennedy's tenure in the White House, the President or Bundy established committees to respond to them. This was in sharp contrast to Eisenhower's emphasis on long-range planning, but sometimes these ad hoc groups outlasted their original purposes, and continued to serve in planning for the future.

For example, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, formed as the Cuban Missile Crisis was heating up in the early fall of 1962, continued to meet until the spring of the following year. During that time, its agenda included a number of items besides Cuba. Kennedy also formed the 5412 Committee to oversee covert operations. Although chaired by Bundy, the committee operated outside the NSC framework.

This reliance on ad hoc committees was one of several practices that would continue under Lyndon B. Johnson when he assumed leadership after Kennedy's assassination in November, 1963. In February, 1965, as the war in Vietnam was reaching its height, Johnson convened the NSC frequently, but after that month, it seldom met. When it did, its role was to simply approve actions decided by the White House rather than to direct policy.

Also like Kennedy, Johnson's antipathy toward the NSC contrasted with his reliance on the National Security Advisor. Bundy remained in that position until February 1966, when he was replaced by Walt Rostow. The National Security Advisor, along with Secretary of State Dean Rusk and a few other key figures, met with the President for lunch almost every Tuesday from February 1964 onward, and this "Tuesday Lunch Group" largely performed the advisory role for which the NSC had been designed.

Nixon, Ford, and the Kissinger Era (1969–77)

Two names from the Nixon era epitomize the emphasis he placed on the role of the National Security Advisor: Henry Kissinger and William Rogers. Kissinger was Nixon's National Security Advisor, while Rogers served as Nixon's first Secretary of State. Nixon went into office intending to direct foreign policy from the White House with the aid of a highly effective National Security Advisor. Therefore, to avoid conflicts with the State Department, he appointed a virtual unknown and inexperienced diplomat to its top position.

Kissinger would replace Rogers as Secretary of State in September 1973, becoming the only person in history to hold that position while remaining National Security Advisor. By then, the power of Kissinger himself, magnified by the eclipse of Nixon in the Watergate scandal, was far greater than the influence formally accorded to any government position. Under Gerald R. Ford, who succeeded Nixon after his resignation in August 1974, Kissinger relinquished his dual role when Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft became National Security Advisor in November 1975. Kissinger remained the President's chief advisor, however, and Scowcroft deferred to Kissinger as the leading figure in foreign policy.

Kissinger relied on a number of planning and review committees to help him manage an ever-widening array of issues that included Vietnam, rising tensions in the Middle East, efforts toward normalization of relations with China, and the birth of detente with the Soviet Union. This necessitated expansion of the NSC staff from 12 to 34 members, as well as other measures. Through his secretary, Jeanne Davis, he instituted a computerized document-tracking system, a revolutionary move in the 1970s. With the help of the White House Communication Agency, which had special aircraft that operated as communication centers, Kissinger could travel the globe, operating a one-man command post.

So great was his power that his accession to the top position at the State Department in 1973 was more of an annoyance to Kissinger than anything else; as he later recalled in his memoirs, serving in dual roles forced him into the inherently ridiculous position of having to represent the Department of State's interests at the NSC. For this reason alone, aside from more obvious concerns about one person having too much power, it is unlikely that both positions will again be held by the same person at the same time.

The Carter Interregnum (1977–81)

James E. Carter acceded to the presidency in January 1977 with a promise to reform many of the excesses that had darkened Washington. Among these was the virtually unprecedented accumulation of power by Kissinger, which he sought to counteract by returning the NSC to a role of policy coordination and research. Once again, the NSC staff was cut, this time reduced by half. For his National Security Advisor, however, Carter chose another strong personality, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Carter also allowed the growth of new committees, which replaced those of the Kissinger era. Brzezinski chaired only one of the two principal NSC committees, the Standing Coordinating Committee, and thus Carter hoped to hold the NSC's influence in check. These committee meetings ultimately formed the basis for presidential directives, classified orders from the White House that originated with Nixon.

The NSC as a whole met only 10 times in Carter's four years, a far cry from the 125 meetings of the eight years of Republican administrations that proceeded his. Like his Democratic predecessors, Carter relied instead primarily on informal and ad hoc groups. Whereas Johnson had his Tuesday lunches, Carter had his Friday breakfasts, at which he met with Vice President Walter Mondale, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, Brzezinski, and others.

Despite Carter's efforts to prevent the rise of another Kissinger, Brzezinski soon emerged as a leading figure of his administration. Differences between Brzezinski and Vance, combined with the lack of strong leadership from the top, helped spawn the series of foreign-policy debacles that would help bring the Carter years to an end. Whereas Brzezinski favored taking a strong, activist stance toward U.S. enemies—the Soviets who had invaded Afghanistan, and the fundamentalists who had seized control of Iran—Vance took a more cautious position. These differences in approach came to a head during the abortive March 1980 attempt to rescue the U.S. hostages from Iran. Conceived by Brzezinski, the move was submitted to so many changes in an effort to ameliorate all sides (a fact symbolized by the multiservice team undertaking the attempted rescue) that it ultimately lacked the clear direction essential to such a bold move. In the wake of the hostage-rescue disaster, Vance resigned, and Carter's fate in the coming election was sealed.

Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush (1981–93)

Seeing Carter's failure to resolve the rivalry between NSC and the State Department, as a presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan called for a decrease in the power of the National Security Advisor. On the day of Reagan's inauguration, his Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, drafted a presidential directive placing all foreign-policy planning under his own department. It seemed that the problem had been resolved, but in fact a new one had been created, because other members of the Reagan administration feared that the new direction of foreign policy took too much power away from the president.

Reagan, however, was determined to reduce the power of the NSC, and he directed National Security Advisor Richard Allen to report to presidential advisor Edwin Meese. This marked the first time since the inception of the NSC that the National Security Advisor did not have a direct line of contact with the President. Meese chaired a meeting in February 1981, that revived senior interdepartmental groups (SIGs), first introduced under Johnson. The meeting established three SIGs, on foreign, defense, and intelligence issues, that would be chaired by the secretaries of State and Defense and the DCI, respectively.

Allen resigned in January 1982, and Reagan replaced him with Deputy Secretary of State William Clark, a close friend. Thenceforth the National Security Advisor would again hold a powerful role. There followed a series of presidential directives and other orders clarifying the functions of the advisor and the SIGs, and establishing new SIGs and interagency groups (IGs). Meanwhile, in June 1982, Haig resigned and was replaced by George P. Schultz, signaling a move to a less activist State Department—even as the influence of the NSC continually increased.

Iran-Contra and the fallout. Robert McFarlane, with Admiral John Poindexter as his deputy, replaced Clark as National Security Advisor in October 1983. By then, the ever-growing number of committees had created an NSC bureaucracy that, critics would later charge, made it easy for Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North to carve out his own miniature empire within the NSC. More significant, however, was the fact that the NSC under McFarlane took an increasingly active role in formulating and implementing policy, particularly in the Middle East and Central America.

All these threads came together in the Iran-Contra situation, whereby the NSC (Poindexter replaced McFarlane as advisor in December 1985) sought to purchase the release of hostages held by pro-Iran groups in the Middle East and simultaneously provide funds to the Contras, anticommunist guerrillas in Nicaragua. They would do this by selling arms to the Iranian regime, which they believed they could cultivate as an ally against a common enemy, the Soviets. Arms sales would fund the Contras, to whom a Democrat-dominated Congress had refused support.

Once word of the Iran-Contra operation leaked to the press in late 1986, it sparked a scandal that would darken the remainder of Reagan's administration. In the wake of Iran-Contra, the Presidential Review Board—better known as the Tower Board after its leader, Senator John Tower—made a number of recommendations that collectively limited the size and power of the NSC.

In November 1986, Reagan appointed Frank Carlucci as National Security Advisor, with Lieutenant General Colin Powell as his deputy. Carlucci, whose tenure was marked by continued reforms of the NSC, served for less than a year before succeeding Caspar Weinberger as Secretary of Defense. Reagan replaced him with Powell, who ran an NSC that was tightly controlled, disciplined, efficient, and unobtrusive.

Vice President George Bush, elected to succeed Reagan, assumed office in January 1989, on the brink of momentous changes in the world. The Cold War was coming to an end, and the period that followed would give rise to an increasingly uncertain international situation in which the United States would become involved in conflicts around the globe, including Panama in 1989, Kuwait in 1991, and Somalia in 1993.

In line with these changes, Bush altered the NSC. Colin Powell became Chairman of the JCS, while Scowcroft returned to his old position as National Security Advisor. This time, Scowcroft would hold more power than in the Kissinger years, and he enjoyed a close working relationship with the president. At the same time, Scowcroft helped sow friendly relations between the NSC and its old rival, the Department of State. Instead of constituting competing fiefdoms, the NSC, along with the State and Defense Departments and other key centers of power, more closely followed its original mandate of serving the administration's larger needs.

The Clinton Era (1993–2001)

As had been the practice from Carter's time, William J. Clinton initiated his presidency with a presidential directive. Also like Carter and all presidents since, he created new names for his directives—Clinton's were called Presidential Decision Directives (PDD), for instance, in contrast to the National Security Directives of his predecessor—as well as for other aspects of NSC operations. PDD 1, for instance, issued on his first day in office, established these new names, while PDD 2 on the following day increased the membership of the NSC.

Thenceforth, in addition to the four statutory members (president, vice president, secretaries of State and Defense), members would include the secretary of the Treasury, the U.S. Representative to the United Nations, the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (i.e., the National Security Advisor), the Chief of Staff to the President, and the Assistant to the President for National Economic Policy. (The last, head of the newly created National Economic Council, was a creation of the Clinton administration.) DCI and the Chairman of the JCS would retain their statutory roles as advisors, while the Attorney General and others would attend when invited to do so.

George W. Bush and the Post September 11, 2001, World (2001–present)

When George W. Bush assumed the presidency, he appointed Dr. Condoleeza Rice, most recently the provost of Stanford University, as his National Security Advisor. He also scaled back the roster of NSC members to the statutory core, with others invited to participate as needed. Eight months later, Bush's administrative agenda changed, along with the entire fabric of American life, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

From at least the time of the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers, the Clinton administration had declared a "war on terror," but until the attacks that brought those towers down eight years later, the "war" was ill-defined. With the launch of an attack against Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, the war became far more than a figure of speech. By that point, Americans had become accustomed to seeing Bush at public appearances surrounded by the other principal leaders in that war: Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Powell, now serving as Secretary of State.

Others sometimes appeared alongside this core group, among them one who most clearly qualified as a core participant: Vice President Dick Cheney. Like Rumsfeld and Powell, Cheney had served in past Republican administrations—in his case, that of Bush's father—but despite a close relationship, Bush and Cheney appeared together only infrequently to reinforce the idea that if anything happened to one leader, the other would be on hand to run the nation.

One figure identified with the core group was former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, leader of the newest Cabinet department, Homeland Security. By the late fall of 2001, there was already talk in policy circles about the return of the kind of turf battles that had animated the corridors of the White House decades earlier. Only the players had changed, and this time it was the NSC and the Office of Homeland Security (as it was known prior to March 2003) bickering over control of the White House Situation Room.

Battles of this kind will probably continue in one form of another for as long as the national leadership exists, and to an extent, they play a role in maintaining healthy checks and balances within a constitutional, democratic state possessing multiple centers of power. Conversely, it was emblematic of the post-September 11 America that the Bush team could act as much in concert with one another as they did. In a White House that had seen half a century's worth of struggles between the NSC and the Departments of State and Defense, the sight of Rice, Powell, and Rumsfeld standing shoulder-to-shoulder—not just literally but figuratively—was a testament to the sense of shared duty that animated many Americans in the early twenty-first century.



Best, Richard A. The National Security Council: An Organizational Assessment. Huntington, NY: Novinka Books, 2001.

Kissinger, Henry, and Clare Boothe Luce. White House Years. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.

Menges, Constantine Christopher. Inside the National Security Council: The True Story of the Making and Unmaking of Reagan's Foreign Policy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Prados, John. Keepers of the Keys: A History of the National Security Council from Truman to Bush. New York: Morrow, 1991.

Zegart, Amy B. Flawed by Design: The Evolution of the CIA, JCS, and NSC. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.


Newman, William W. "Reorganizing for National Security and Homeland Security." Public Administration Review 62 (September 2002): 126–137.


History of the National Security Council. American Federation of Scientists. < http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/NSChistory.htm > (March 24, 2003).


Bush Administration (1989–1993), United States National Security Policy
Bush Administration (2001–), United States National Security Policy
Carter Adminstration (1977–1981), United States National Security Policy
Clinton Administration (1993–2001), United States National Security Policy
Department of State, United States
Eisenhower Administration (1953–1961), United States National Security Policy
Executive orders and Presidential directives
Ford Administration (1974–1977), United States National Security Policy
Johnson Administration (1963–1969), United States National Security Policy
Kennedy Administration (1961–1963), United States National Security Policy
National Security Act (1947)
National Security Advisor, United States
Nixon Administration (1969–1974), United States National Security Policy
NSC (National Security Council)
Reagan Administration (1981–1989), United States National Security Policy
Truman Administration (1945–1953), United States National Security Policy

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