1. Editorial Note

On January 17, 1961, Theodore Sorensen enclosed with a memorandum to McGeorge Bundy the undated 27-page “Report to Senator Kennedy’s National Security Policy Committee.” Paul H. Nitze headed this Committee, the other members of which were David K. E. Bruce and Roswell Gilpatric. The report opened with an analysis of defense policy issues. Concerning the first, “Basic Strategic Judgments,” the Committee stated in part:

“The most basic issue is between attempting to follow a politically meaningful ‘win’ capability in general war versus the creation of a secure retaliatory capability.

“Weapons systems and programs necessary for a ‘win’ capability may differ quite radically from those required for a secure retaliatory capability.

“A true ‘win’ capability would require accurate and powerful attack systems, first class target acquisition systems, elaborate active and passive defense systems, forces for the prosecution of the second and third phases of a general war and a good recuperation program. It is doubtful whether such a capability is possible within presently foreseeable technology. In any case it would be immensely expensive both economically and politically to make an all out drive toward achieving such a capability. It would also probably require a first or preemptive strike by our side to capitalize in its ‘win’ possibilities. Furthermore, such a capability would probably be destabilizing—in other words would increase the danger of nuclear war.

“On the other hand there are very great political and military dangers in having merely a punitive retaliatory capability with no possibility of a ‘win’. If deterrence were to fail, or threaten to fail, we would be left with no option for military action other than a self-defeating punitive attack.

“A pure retaliatory capability therefore undermines the credibility of the deterrent and gives little or no support to the political aspects of our policy.

“It would therefore seem that in addition to a secure deterrent posture, some admixture of possible ‘win’ capabilities is called for.

“A general approach to the ‘mix’ of general war capabilities to be striven for should be determined by the President-elect, as early as full briefing by those knowledgeable in the subject can be arranged.”

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The Committee called for an early Presidential decision on the degree to which the United States should rely on nuclear weapons in limited wars. It stated that “judgments as to the circumstances under which nuclear war must be accepted as unavoidable, who should have his hand on the safety catches and the triggers of nuclear war and the nature of the original target systems, should deterrence fail, must all be made by the President. These judgments are inherently not delegatable.”

Other defense policy issues discussed in the report include specific defense programming decisions, NATO issues, the fiscal and organizational implications of defense policy, and the relationship of disarmament to defense.

The report identified several other issues as having national security implications: the gold drain and the U.S. balance of payments, U.S. representation at the United Nations, and a number of European and other area problems. The report emphasized that the Department of State needed “strengthening in its competence on military problems. State can’t give intelligence guidance on politico-military questions unless it has people who in addition to political competence thoroughly understand military matters, including questions of military strategy, tactics and logistics.”

The Committee believed that “the top level coordination machinery in the White House [was] peculiarly a matter of the President’s personal desires and needs.” It suggested that a number of existing interagency advisory committees be brought under the “NSC tent.” The Operations Coordinating Board “has been a great generator of useless paper work and might be scrapped and a new start made.” The report recommended “a series of ad hoc task forces to develop plans and direct operations on critical upcoming situations involving a high component of secret operations,” and mentioned potential groups dealing with Cuba, the Congo, and Indochina, and also a “central secretariat which would service the entire panoply of interagency committees associated with the NSC’s work.” Such a body “would perform some of the functions of the British Cabinet Secretariat.” The full text of the report, which was completed in November 1960, is in the Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Departments and Agencies Series, NSC Political Committee Report 1/17/61. For further information, see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), page 157.