31. Memorandum for President Kennedy 0


The President’s staff is at present about two-thirds of the way toward a sound and durable organization for his work in international affairs. Since January a number of steps have been taken, and in the same period the President’s concept of what he wants has developed somewhat. There is still unfinished business.

The rules of this operation, as we see them, are four:

  • First: The President’s staff must not attempt to replace the President’s chief constitutional and statutory advisers.
  • Second: The President’s staff is to serve as an extension of himself—as his eyes and ears and his source of nondepartmental comment. The President’s staff is his own instrument. It is not—though this is a hard rule—a place for men trying to peddle their own remedies without Presidential backing.
  • Third: The President’s staff must see to it that all great issues are adequately controlled and coordinated. This does not mean that control and [Page 106] coordination should necessarily be managed through this staff, but rather that when there is weakness the White House group must spot it early and stimulate remedial action—either through efforts with those directly responsible or by reference up the line, to the President if necessary.
  • Fourth: The President’s staff must be a center of initiative and energy in the planning process. It is an abiding weakness of this—and of every democratic government—that it tends to react to crises. We have sought to correct this weakness by organizing the planning process in Washington: isolating foreseeable problems and areas of opportunity; arranging for the assignment of responsibility for initiating planning papers; reviewing the papers as they come forward; gearing the intelligence process to the town’s planning schedule. Centered about the Tuesday Planning lunch, all of this has moved forward in good order and is reflected in the attached planning schedule.1

The staff near the President, as it stood in January, 1961, was a complex affair. General Eisenhower had within the White House staff six men with distinct and significant responsibilities in foreign affairs: Gray, Goodpaster, Harr, Kistiakowsky, Randall and Persons. But across the street in the NSC he had a multitude: the NSC staff and the staff of OCB.

President Kennedy has changed all that. He abolished the OCB; his men have cut back the NSC staff. On the other hand, he has used for specific foreign problems several of his immediate White House staff. He has not wished to give clear authority to any one of these men over another, preferring to retain the right of direct communication and command with such men as Schlesinger, Dungan, Goodwin, Sorensen, Feldman, and Clifton—in addition to Bundy and Rostow, who hold formal appointments in this area, and McCloy, McGovern, Berle, and Acheson, each of whom has some special relation to the White House. There is also the Vice President, a highly valuable agent, but obviously one with direct access; and members of the Administration who are particularly close to the President, by blood or friendship, have channels of their own.

  • First, though the President works through many people and talks to still more, he retains an acute sense of “operational” communication; thus he seldom gives an assignment to an inappropriate receiver; he expects his staff to get his ideas into sensible channels; he counts on his people to keep in close touch with each other, and in general they do. His own plain sense of the matter is that the White House must be the center of both final authority and initiatives, but that the great roles of the State and Defense Secretaries must never be undermined. It is within these standards that his agents work.
  • Second, after some months of effort and much resistance in all agencies, the White House now has sure and rapid access to all important messages, and they all come in to one place (or nearly all—end-running is endemic). This puts Mr. Kennedy and his people where none of his predecessors have been. It is the cable and despatch traffic, above and beyond anything else, that gives the immediate flavor of the daily world and shows the President and his people where to look further and where to intervene.
  • Third, although many men have direct access to the President, they have learned, in very large measure, to keep in close touch with one another, and to see to it that their work is coordinated. The White House very rarely speaks with two voices, and there is good communication from the President’s men to one another. In part this is the result of informal communication, and in part is the result of a regular staff meeting now held each morning under Bundy. Those who attend with regularity are: Bundy, Rostow, Dungan, Schlesinger, Clifton, Smith, Kaysen, Komer, C. Johnson, R. Johnson, Belk, Hanson and Shepard.

    This staff meeting is an informal affair, because no one has formal authority, but it keeps us all informed of what the President wants and what the day’s situation is. In particular, this meeting allows for prompt report on any trouble or opportunity in any task force, for the staff is represented on all operating forces.

  • Fourth, gradually, and still imperfectly, members of the White House-NSC staff have assumed defined assignments for specific areas of the world. These assignments (listed in the attached paper, Annex A)2 do not distinguish between “planning” and “operation,” and resistance to this distinction is fundamental to our whole concept of work. The old pattern completely separated the general plan from the concrete work. This Administration does not think that way, and the staff does not work that way.
  • Fifth, the White House-NSC group has gradually encouraged the growth of responsible self-reliance in the Departments, and especially in the Department of State. The first stimulus has come from the President: his personal decision formed the post-invasion Cuban task force under Paul Nitze, and his approval has been responsible for all other action. But the incentive for special task forces on South Viet-nam, Korea and Iran came from the staff, and the process of follow-up has drawn deeply on the energies of the staff. Quietly, but persistently, White House men have pressed for activity and energy. This is true also for NATO. But the State Department has been encouraged, not trodden on, and its internal energy, with critical exceptions, is growing.
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The White House-NSC group has thus effectively accepted the concept of Departmental responsibility with which the Administration began. Criticism of the sort lately leveled at White House men for work in Latin America is wildly beside the point; the President’s men have sometimes filled vacuums as best they could, but they have never tried to take over the work of men who showed energy and ability of their own. The exact opposite is the case.

Finally, the White House-NSC group represents a high level of ability. No comparable dozen men, I believe, meets regularly anywhere in Washington, and no executive in Washington has a more wholly loyal group of agents than the President in these men.

Much has been accomplished, but much remains to be done. The staff is much closer to the State Department than it is to Defense, and what it knows of CIA is limited to a handful of top officials. There is a clear need in the White House for a senior military adviser, and in one way or another the world of intelligence needs closer connection to the President. In part, this is a matter of increased direct contact; in part, it is a matter of reinforced staff, and somewhat thickened procedures.

Timing and rules of procedure for the NSC itself need some improvement. The NSC should probably meet more regularly—though not more often—and at fixed times. Against its schedules there should be a more clearly defined pattern of preparation for new policy papers, and reporting on existing crisis areas. Against a fixed pattern of NSC meetings, much could be ordered that is now somewhat haphazard. This would require a Presidential acceptance of routine that might be dull. But meetings that are called suddenly, or suddenly called off, make staff work hard.

The staff labors under some handicaps in being half-in and half-out of the White House. This is not easy to change without changing the statutes, but it would probably help if all staff members could have courtesy access to such immediate conveniences as White House transport and membership in the White House mess.

The mechanism of interdepartmental coordination should be carefully, but sparingly, increased. The experience of the OCB shows how dangerous this sort of thing can be, but in the first few months we have probably gone too far the other way. In this instance, I believe that the administrative responsibility should rest with the White House, and I am proposing a revision of certain weekly meetings to ensure that somewhat more formal processes are followed. But it should be clearly understood that in my own judgment such a modest revision should in no sense replace the department as the agency of daily action, and the task force, [Page 109] with a specified Chairman, as the instrument of interdepartmental performance in a time of crisis.

Above all, the White House-NSC group needs what the whole executive branch needs, a renewal of strength and energy in the operating departments. We believe that progress is being made on this front too, but that more progress is urgently needed, and our specific recommendations on ways and means are being put to appropriate officers as we go along.3

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Meetings and Memoranda Series, NSC Organization and Administration 5/6/61-7/25/61. No classification marking. There is no drafting information on the source text.
  2. Not found attached.
  3. Not found attached.
  4. On September 4, McGeorge Bundy described the new administration’s changes in and operation of the National Security Council in a letter to Senator Henry M. Jackson, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Policy Machinery of the Senate Committee on Government Operations. For text, see Jackson, ed., National Security Council, pp. 275-279. In another letter to Jackson dated January 28, 1965, Bundy stated: “In almost every particular, the principles and procedures set forth in the [September 4,] 1961 letter have governed the work of the Council under both President Kennedy and President Johnson.” (Ibid., pp. 279-280)