13. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) to President Kennedy1


  • White House Organization

I’m giving this to Walt Rostow to give to you on the way back from Canada2 because it can wait till then and because I hope you’ll be in a good mood. We need some help from you so that we can serve you better, and incidentally prevent stories like the one from Oslo about chaos in the White House.

In the main that story and others like it are nonsense. Except for a brief period of disorder right after Cuba,3 the White House under your direction since January has been a center of energy—and controlled energy—which has revived the Executive Branch. Don’t take my word for it-take the word of all the old-timers who now fear that because of Cuba we may turn back to cautious inactivity.

Cuba was a bad mistake. But it was not a disgrace and there were reasons for it. If we set our critics on the left and right against each other [Page 29] they would eat each other up, and we already know more about what went wrong and why than any of them. If the rules of the game allowed an explanation, we could give a good one—as you have been doing privately with great effect. Against our hopes and our responsibilities, Cuba is a nit-pick—it must not throw us off balance.

But we do have a problem of management; centrally it is a problem of your use of time and your use of staff. You have revived the government, which is an enormous gain, but in the process you have overstrained your own calendar, limited your chances for thought, and used your staff incompletely. You are altogether too valuable to go on this way; with a very modest change in your methods you can double your effectiveness and cut the strain on yourself in half. What follows is only one way of doing it—but it’s worth some attention and represents, I think, a fair consensus of what a good many people would tell you—O’Donnell, Sorensen, Bell, R. Kennedy, Rusk, and Dungan.

First: you should set aside a real and regular time each day for national security discussion and action. This is not just a matter of intelligence briefing-though that is important and currently not well done by either Clifton or me (we can’t get you to sit still, and we are not really professionals). It is at least as much a matter of taking time for reports of current action, review of problems awaiting solution, and planning of assignments that have a long-term meaning. The National Security Council, for example, really cannot work for you unless you authorize work schedules that do not get upset from day to day. Calling three meetings in five days is foolish-and putting them off for six weeks at a time is just as bad. Similarly, planning for a trip to Canada or a trip to Paris can be about three times as effective if you take part in it ahead of time, not just the morning before you leave. Or again, you cannot get what you need on a problem like test resumption if you don’t take plenty of time to hear the arguments—and send back for more.

Truman and Eisenhower did their daily dozen in foreign affairs the first thing in the morning, and a couple of weeks ago you asked me to begin to meet you on this basis. I have succeeded in catching you on three mornings, for a total of about 8 minutes, and I conclude that this is not really how you like to begin the day. Moreover, 6 of the 8 minutes were given not to what I had for you but what you had for me from Marguerite Higgins, David Lawrence, Scotty Reston, and others. The newspapers are important, but not as an exercise in who leaked and why: against your powers and responsibilities, who the hell cares who told Maggie? But of course you must not stop reading the papers, and maybe another time of day would be better for daily business. After lunch? Tea? You name it. But you have to mean it, and it really has to be every day, with an equal alternate time when your schedule requires it.

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The point about a regular meeting, at a reasonably fixed time, is that it can save you a lot of time and can redouble your influence-it can give your staff a coordinated sense of what you want and it can give everyone who needs it a time of day when they can reach you through an easy channel. It also gives you a way of keeping track of your own tremendous flow of ideas. Right now it is so hard to get to you with anything not urgent and immediate that about half of the papers and reports you personally ask for are never shown to you because by the time you are available you clearly have lost interest in them. If we put a little staff work on these and keep in close touch, we can be sure that all your questions are answered and that when you ask a big one the expert himself is brought in to recite.

Will you try it? Perhaps the best place for it would be the new Situation Room which we have just set up in the basement of the West Wing; the best time would be whatever you say. 9:30 without Maggie would be ideal—or even with Maggie—we could undertake to staff out all rough stones before you arrive. The operational business of action and plans would be my job, but I think we ought to have a professional for the intelligence briefing, and my personal suggestion is that you start with Bob Amory. He is really the Chief Intelligence Analyst of CIA, and before you decide they don’t know their stuff you might try working with him—that part could be daily or three times a week, as you choose. Ted Clifton should be on hand with any business from the Joint Chiefs, and we could have anyone else you wanted.

Second—and much easier—if you can possibly manage it you must run closer to your schedule. When you start a big meeting half an hour late and let it go an hour overtime, you have not only disrupted the schedules of 30 men, but you have probably set 100 men under them to still greater trouble. This doesn’t matter, except that it wastes executive energy, the most precious commodity you have brought to Washington. You should never forget that everyone who sees you at all is lucky—anyone who keeps you beyond the schedule is an imposition. The White House is a taut ship in terms of standards—but not in terms of schedules. By the same token—though it hurts to say it—you should close the back door to your office. Right now it is a great device for those of us who find it open—but it drives Ken O’Donnell crazy and it really makes it impossible for him or for anyone to protect you, so that recently you have had to take refuge from your own office in the little anteroom or in the garden. Possibly as a compromise you could let it be open only in the late afternoon and only for a specified list.

Third—there is the staffwork. Here we are making progress, but we need to be sure we are doing what you want; we can do much better for you than we have so far. For example: you deserve better protection from foreigners; you ought to get better briefing on their relevance; you [Page 31] should get more help on tough appointments like Assistant Secretary for Latin America (what’s everyone’s business is no one’s business); and above all you are entitled to feel confident that (a) there is no part of government in the national security area that is not watched over closely by someone from you own staff, and (b) there is no major problem of policy that is not out where you can see it and give a proper stimulus to those who should be attacking it. Here the main duty is ours, and with your stimulus and leadership we’ll do the job. If you’ll agree to a daily meeting, I’ll tell you how we can help you a whole lot more than we have yet succeeded in doing.

All this, if it is done right, will strengthen, not weaken, your Secretary of State, your Secretary of Defense, and your head of CIA. But most of all it should be useful to you.

McG. B.4
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Bundy Memoranda to the President, 5/16–5/31/61. No classification marking.
  2. The President was in Canada May 16–18 for his first official visit outside the United States.
  3. Reference is to the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba; see Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, volume X.
  4. Printed from a copy that bears these typed initials.