6. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Merchant) and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (Nitze)1


  • A proposal for the NSC meeting of Wednesday, February 1, 1961

At the President’s direction, the three of us have met and talked about the problem of identifying crisis problems and arranging for effective leadership in dealing with them here in Washington.2 I think we are agreed on the following general position:

The identification of such problems should be the responsibility of all interested parts of the government. Insofar as such problems are in the first instance political, special responsibility rests with the Department of State, but there is every reason to expect alarm bells to be rung by someone in CIA or Defense whenever there is a strong conviction in either place that we need to act promptly. Such alarm bells can be rung in any one of a number of ways. In the most urgent cases the President himself will wish to be directly informed, but if there should be a regularly meeting group of senior officers of State, Defense, CIA and the President’s office, such a committee might well be used for less urgent signals. And of course alarms may always be rung directly by a Secretary or to him. It did not seem to us that it was useful to establish a single tightly defined system here.

Where we do think that system is needed is in the assignment of responsibility once a problem has been identified and marked for concerted action. Since we agree that the President and his Cabinet officers will all want such problems identified before they get big and troublesome, if possible, we need a plan which will work for both small problems and big ones.

On the small ones, we believe it best that direct responsibility ordinarily be assigned to the Assistant Secretary of State of the region concerned. [Page 18] He may wish to make the matter his own urgent business, or he may wish to assign it to a deputy, but in either case he should have for this problem the same kind of authority and responsibility that we propose for a different individual in particularly urgent and large-scale problems. To this special arrangement I now turn.

Our proposal is that in the case of an unusually urgent, difficult, and complex problem, it will be desirable to center responsibility in a single full-time officer under the Secretary of State. This officer might or might not be the Assistant Secretary for the region, but in any case he should be free of other responsibilities while he is handling this one. He should be the Chairman of an executive committee of senior officers of immediately interested agencies, but this executive committee should not be one in which everything is decided by vote, and still less a place in which unanimous concurrence is required for any action. It should be an instrument of cooperation and coordination but the man in charge should be the chairman and his decisions should stand unless they are successfully challenged through appropriate channels to the Secretary of State or the President. This officer would have authority to coordinate all actions in the field, and he should be responsible for continuous reporting of his progress or lack of progress, his needs and his assessments to the President, the Secretary of State, and other agency heads. He should be provided with explicit and continuous direction on the policy of the United States by the President and the Secretary.

Our discussions showed that an individual holding this kind of responsibility will have to be kept in close touch not only with other departments but with the whole range of political problems which will relate to his immediate task. What we do in Laos, for example, is plainly and deeply interdependent with problems of relations to our allies and the Soviet Union. Thus no task force commander can be given the illusion that he is free to go his own course.

But it should be possible to arrange a framework of continuous guidance which gives him a kind of ability to act which no committee system can provide.

One particular device seemed to us a useful one in helping such task force commanders: it is that there should be regular weekly meetings of senior officers of State, Defense, CIA, and the President’s staff, to keep in touch on day-to-day operating matters. Such a committee might be the one thing to keep from the old OCB and it might be a natural and easy place of regular review, short of the top level, of your departmental efforts in support of a task force commander’s work.

We did not give detailed attention in our discussion to the problem of coordination in the field, but I think we would all agree that the [Page 19] Ambassador should be the senior responsible operating officer except in the most extraordinary circumstances.

McGeorge Bundy3
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Meetings and Memoranda Series, NSC Meetings, 1961, No. 475. Confidential. Also on January 30 Bundy sent a memorandum to President Kennedy on the subject of: “Policies previously approved in NSC which need review.” The text is printed in Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. VIII, Document 7.
  2. In a separate January 30 memorandum, Bundy outlined for a luncheon discussion later that day with Merchant and Nitze the President’s interest in the rapid identification and effective executive management of crises. (Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Bundy Memoranda to the President, 1/61–2/61)
  3. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.