24. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) to the President’s Special Counsel (Sorensen)1


  • Decisions in the White House

It is a great advantage for you not to know how much academic nonsense is written about “the decision-making process,” and it is probably not sensible for me to try to add to what you know so well about the real life here. Nevertheless the subject is interesting even outside the world of academic jargon, and the following points occur to me:

The modes of Presidential decision are enormously varied: there is the legislative method, the press conference reply, the individual appointed, the candidate encouraged, the interview granted and refused, the news that is made or prevented, the effort at persuasion included or omitted, the speech delivered, and perhaps as important as any group of these together, the ceaseless process by which, if an administration is lively, recommendations and proposals are ground forward for consideration. What I think many people forget is that the entire Presidential existence is in this sense a process of decision.
Most big decisions have lots of history. In the most notable single case, the missile crisis, it appears as if the decision were made between Tuesday and Sunday. But the fact is that very important antecedent decisions were made at the end of August and in early September, and incorporated in Presidential statements of major significance. Earlier still, in the speeches which followed the Bay of Pigs and in a consistent set of comments [Page 46] on Cuba for more than a year thereafter, the President had laid down a line of policy which was plainly inconsistent with a strategic missile base in Cuba. Equally clearly he had laid down a line of conduct developed out of his conviction that invasion of Cuba by the U.S. Armed Forces, in the absence of a major change in the situation, would not be in the national interest. Carefully construed, the decisions of October 1962 are an outgrowth of a line of policy developed by the President in many different modes over a long period of time. (And one may say, by contrast, of the Bay of Pigs, that it grew out of an early history which was not of the President’s making and had to be grafted on to a point of view which was incompletely shaped in his own mind by the time decision became necessary-and in addition he was hampered by all the difficulties and unfamiliarities and failings of men who did not know him or their own roles as perhaps they have been learning to do since.) I think the steel case2 has quite a similar trail of preparation which was really governing in what was required of the President when the moment came, but you know much more about that than I.
At least in my experience there is always a lot of discussion of the relative roles of the WH Staff and of Cabinet officers and their Departments and Agencies. You know as much about this as I do; my own belief is that our best course as staff officers is to make it clear that we are operating within the framework of the President’s own immediate responsibilities and are not trying to replace or blockade those who have major operational, statutory, and advisory responsibilities of their own.
The President’s use of all arms for information and comment is as striking as his very good record in using only responsible officers for final advice and decision. This is familiar to you—but not to everyone else.
The President’s larger policies: an open door to Moscow, an open door to all underdog Americans, an open door to intelligence and hope, honor to bravery, equal sense of past and future, gallantry to beauty, and pride in politics—these are colors of a permanent palette—reflected in the small as well as the large decisions, drawn from in a hundred ways.
The President relies heavily on others for all sorts of follow-up, and intercommunication, and preparation and recommendation. He also delegates, massively but selectively. But he is still probably the most personal President of modern times—doing more himself. You know the millions of examples.

McG. B.3
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Bundy Chron File, March 1963. No classification marking.
  2. Reference is to President Kennedy’s successful effort in April 1962 to persuade the steel industry to rescind steel price increases.
  3. Printed from a copy that bears these typed initials.