167. Memorandum From Harold Saunders of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow)1


You asked for my thoughts on the staff.2 I look forward to talking them over with you, but meanwhile here is a combination of those and some personal thoughts on my own role. I’m very happy to be part of the new Rostow team. Having been here over four years, I’d like this to be as much a new start for me as it is for you. One needs a new lease on life every once in a while.

As I see it, this staff has three very clear but often distinct functions:

To frame decisions and other actions for the President in the broadest possible perspective. Actions range from big—how to move next in India-Pakistan—to small—simple letters and minor loan decisions. No one but a small staff close to the President sees things from his point of view. A paper cleared through the bureaucracy rarely tells the President what the real choices are or all the reasons pro and con. Those papers usually recommend. Only staff that has participated in the debate on an issue from beginning to end can take the President behind those recommendations to see what his real choices and their consequences are. It can also protect him from oversight. In all humility, I doubt the President himself realizes the extent to which the Departments don’t do that for him.
To put the President’s stamp on policy by injecting his viewpoint into deliberations early. As Schlesinger says, this government is a “sprawling” affair “filled with strong men eager to go into business on their own.” This staff can be a major tool in bringing the town into line with the President’s thinking. It can be a device for strengthening his grip. Using the staff this way also makes government more efficient by putting its vast resources to work on the problems the President wants solved in ways he wants them solved without a lot of waste motion.
To generate new initiatives and concepts. Line officers don’t readily swallow planners’ ideas. The best are good at plotting a course of action, but even they fear rocking the boat with innovation. A small staff close to the President can get new ideas into the mainstream and force their consideration where intra-departmental planners may have trouble. Moreover, only this level can see where opportunities are falling between the stools. But no small staff at this level can come up with all the new ideas there are on all the problems we face. So the staff’s job is partly to spark the imagination of experts everywhere and to focus their thinking on the President’s problems.

The main problem in combining these functions is that, here at the top, planner and operator must become one. At one extreme, it’s possible to get so immersed in tactics, cables and operational problems that there’s no time to think. At the other, a really good think-project can cost you the advantage of staying ahead of events. (This suggests that one advantage in having two people work on an area is the flexibility to divide the labor ad hoc and give each a crack at both phases of the job without sacrificing either. )

To function effectively, staff members need three things:

They must know the President’s thinking. The only reason the rest of the town listens is because it thinks it may be hearing the President. This doesn’t mean that every staff member has to talk to the President. It does mean that every staff member must talk to his chief who does. (When two people work on an area, both must have this access.)
They must take part in the town’s debate. The moment they lose touch, their thinking loses its sharp edge. Instead of leading debate to the next step, they run behind, trying to catch up. (In practical terms, this means that when two people work on an area, some way must be found to keep both in the mainstream.)
They should be in touch with the frontiers of thinking outside government as well as in. We have done least of this in the past.

What imperatives does this suggest for the staff’s future?


Stay operational. In my view, it would be a mistake to make it purely a long-range thinking outfit. It must stay in the middle of the dialogue between the President and the town. Its job—if it serves the President well—is not just to come up with ideas. Its job is to put ideas to work. So it must stay with the stream of daily business to have any effect. This may seem overly tactical, but an administration imparts a particular flavor to its policy as much through a persistent posture in tactical matters as through dramatic decisions. Also policy most easily runs off the rails on tactical questions.

If this staff has failed in any way, it has been not “overly operational” but “not think-oriented enough.” For instance, we (at least on [Page 385]Near East matters) have had very little contact outside the executive branch. So one area for new activity would be more active and broader outside contacts (conferences, touch with interest groups, etc.)

Staff members must play more than a staff role in its purest sense and become advocates. This would be a slight shift in character. The staff has always tried to force consideration of new ideas, but it has sometimes been wary of peddling them too hard. There is danger in this because the President’s men must be able to give him a balanced view of his choices without grinding their own axes. But new ideas die quickly unless pushed hard.
The staff must be willing to wrestle certain decisions into the White House. It may be putting things backwards, but the staff’s influence depends almost exclusively on the President’s desire to hold tight the decision-making reins. I assume he intends to because that’s the way he works, but the moment he stops, the staff loses its wedge into the policy-formulating councils. Maybe one reason the Eisenhower NSC staff gained a reputation as a paper mill was that many of the real decisions weren’t made in the White House. This may all seem self-evident; but it’s a fact that a staff like this not willing to engage will soon be cut out and just become a paper-handling outfit.

What’s this have to do with me? Let’s be blunt. Where two people work on an area, both need contact with you and jobs of their own to do. This means a vertical division of labor with each man running his own projects with you and with the town. If the division is exclusively horizontal, the junior member ends up getting only the crumbs that fall from the senior’s table. That just kills the victim’s usefulness to the staff. I realize this is a two-way proposition—that each member must justify having an independent voice via his contribution. But the setup also has to encourage it.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Name File, Saunders Memos. No classification marking. At the top of page 1 is a handwritten note from Rostow to Bromley Smith stating “good memo.”
  2. The composition of the NSC staff as of March 31, including individual responsibilities and types of appointments, is described in an attachment to a memorandum from Bator to Moyers, March 31. Also attached is a second memorandum from Bator to Moyers, March 31, that describes the NSC staff as of August 1965 and notes that, since that date, the staff had lost Bundy, Komer, Klein, Cooper, and Chase, none of whom had been replaced. (Ibid., Bator Papers, Chron File)