170. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) and the Executive Secretary of the National Security Council (Smith) to President Johnson1

I am informed that you wish to schedule regular NSC meetings at two-week intervals.

I have taken stock with Brom Smith, George Ball, and Bob McNamara2—and reviewed my own knowledge and experience of NSC workings on and off since 1947.

We believe you will still wish to use formal NSC meetings from time to time as you have in the past; i.e., for the presentation of recommendations on major problems like Viet Nam and NATO.

But the following appear the conditions for making a regular NSC series a success.

  • —We must not pretend the NSC meetings are the occasion when you will actually be making your major foreign policy decisions.
  • —On the other hand, we must avoid creating a paper mill that would produce unimportant or uninteresting briefings for you.

There are two areas for successful regular NSC meetings, within these limits:

Well staffed presentation of issues which will, in the fairly near future, be coming to you for decision and on which your principal advisers should exchange views in a preliminary, informal way, against the background of a paper defining carefully and precisely the elements in the problem.
Intelligence briefings based on information not to be found in either the New York Times or in the normal flow of intelligence (this might include briefings on new technical developments of far-reaching implication).

With respect to the first type of subject, a good example is the Indian nuclear question. I would like to suggest this as the subject for a meeting of the NSC late next week (or the following, if you do not wish both a Cabinet and NSC session in the next week).

The problem is complex. It has been well staffed out at the planning level. There is no agreed view in the town as to whether we can do anything—or what it is we can and should do.

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The subject is hot because the third Chinese Communist nuclear explosion has increased the pressure in India to go for a nuclear device. Chet Bowles has sent us a cable outlining the alternatives.

I would propose that the meeting consider what alternatives are open to us and their implications. The end product of the meeting, aside from a common look at the problem, would be your instruction as to next steps in policy. It would not be a final decision.3

Another subject might be the Israel de-salting project.

I also propose that we go to work immediately to produce for you a list of other such important, foreseeable problems, plus possible intelligence problems; submit that list to you; and, on the basis of your reaction, set in motion systematic staff work in the town on the basis of a schedule looking, say, four or five sessions ahead.

Only on the basis of such a reliable schedule can we assure that the staff work will be serious and worthy of your attention at an NSC meeting.

One implication is that, within the limits of your schedule, we must try very hard to be regular about these meetings. This is desirable because Council members can plan their advance schedules so as to avoid conflicts or absences from Washington on the regular Council meeting day.

  • Walt
  • BKS

1. The Indian nuclear subject is OK for an NSC meeting next week4

the week after

The Israel de-salting project is better5

See me

2. Prepare a schedule of other possible subjects for submission to me6

See me

3. In principle, could we think in terms of every other Thursday,

beginning June 2

beginning June 97

See me

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Memos to the President-Walt W. Rostow, Vol. 3. Confidential. A copy was sent to Jim Jones of the White House staff.
  2. Rostow’s May 24 telephone conversation with Ball regarding NSC meetings, during which he discussed McNamara’s proposals, is summarized in a memorandum of conversation, May 24. (Ibid., Ball Papers, India)
  3. An NSC meeting on Indian nuclear weapons was held on June 9. At the beginning of the meeting the President “indicated that this was the first of a series of NSC meetings to be devoted to the discussion of complex problems requiring careful exploration before they were to come to him for decision.” (Summary notes of the 558th NSC meeting; ibid., National Security File, NSC Meetings File)
  4. The President checked this option.
  5. The President crossed out “better” and wrote “good also.”
  6. The President checked this option.
  7. The President checked both dates.