66. Paper Prepared by the Assistant for Programs, National Security Council Staff (Halperin)1


This memorandum responds to your request for my views on possible NSC work schedule over the next several months with particular reference to the possibility of “bold initiatives.” This memorandum: (1) describes some of the current shortcomings of the NSC system; (2) considers items currently on the NSC Agenda and what initiatives may result from them; (3) considers possible new initiatives.

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I. Current Status of the NSC System

I think that the new NSC system has functioned far better during its first six months than we had any right to expect. The process has actually been used and has resulted in Presidential decisions on a number of issues. More important, the bureaucracy has begun to think in terms of options and alternatives rather than a single course of action. The system has also resulted in the President and his principal advisors coming to grips with major issues, such as Okinawa reversion and German offset, in a systematic way, taking account of long-range considerations and without the pressure of immediate deadlines.

However, there are beginning to be danger signals which suggest that the system is running into serious trouble. The main concerns are:


Major issues are moving outside the NSC system. Three of the most important issues—perhaps the most important—facing the government, are now being dealt with largely outside the NSC system, while they were initially within the system. For differing reasons, Vietnam, SALT, and the Middle East are now effectively outside the NSC procedures. I recognize that there were valid reasons for treating each of these items as we have, but the result is to begin to move toward the Eisenhower Syndrome of using the NSC for low priority issues and dealing with important matters in other ways. Unless the line is drawn and these issues are moved back into the system there will be increasing pressure to deal with other major issues on an ad hoc basis.

The memorandum in which the President made his decisions regarding China also had unfortunate implications. After the bureaucracy had labored long and hard to produce a reasonable paper on China policy, without warning and without explanation to the bureaucracy, and prior to NSC consideration of that paper, the President announced decisions on many issues contained in that document.2 While I think I can guess at the reasons for the President’s action, it tended to undercut the belief that the President would not make major decisions unless the issues were fully argued out in the NSC system. This can only lead to attempts to have the process short-circuited on other issues, arguing the pressure of time or security.


Deadlines are beginning to slip badly. A number of responses to NSSMs have been delayed repeatedly, even in cases such as India-Pakistan military policy and SVN internal security where the request for the study came personally from the President. Initially the delays resulted in part from the overloading of the system but this is no longer the case. Delays now result in part from the fact that people have discovered [Page 144] that it is relatively easy to get a delay. They also result from the fact that some studies submitted on time (frequently because of weekends and long nights of work) have been cancelled out of the Review Group, often at the last minute and without explanation. This has produced a good deal of cynicism in the bureaucracy. For example, we have just been asked whether we really want the Sino-Soviet paper when we say we want it and whether we can give assurance that the schedule will be adhered to. The paper can be done on time only by long hours during the summer and there is reluctance to do so if the study will lie on the shelf when it is completed. (We have given these assurances.)

Delays are also resulting from the failure of some of the operators on the NSC staff to emphasize the importance of deadlines and to give priority to their own participation in these projects. This results in part from the fact that they are overworked, and in part from the fact that some of them do not really accept the system.

The failure to meet deadlines and the accompanying failure in some cases to take the project seriously leads to inferior papers and also to delays in making necessary policy decisions. For example, the Indian, Pakistani, and Greek governments have all been told for some months that our military assistance policies are under review in the NSC system but we still do not even have papers completed. I suspect that Sisco believes in the end that he will get decisions by some informal means. If he is proven to be correct, the system will be further undermined. In any case, the long delays tend to make the papers less relevant and to lead people to believe the system cannot be used where relatively quick decisions are needed.3

Implementation of NSC decisions is unsatisfactory. We have not done very well at all in devising procedures to implement NSC decisions and to monitor that implementation. As you pointed out many times, one of the main failures of the Johnson Administration was that the bureaucracy was never informed as to why the President was making the decisions he was making. I believe that we are almost equally guilty of that charge. Moreover, in many cases, no decisions have been reported at all or only to a very limited circle and there is no procedure for NSC staff follow-up. Aside from implementation problems, this lack of concrete results from NSC meetings undercuts the morale of the bureaucracy which labors to produce the papers and prepare for the meetings. This poses the danger that the NSC will be considered more and more as a high level seminar rather than a decision-producing body.

[Omitted here is Part II, NSC Agenda Items (pages 3–11 of the paper).]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 817, Name Files, Halperin, Morton H. Secret. Halperin forwarded this paper, together with two other papers, to Kissinger under cover of an August 5 memorandum in which he noted that Winston Lord did “most of the drafting of these papers.” (Ibid.) The papers were forwarded to Kissinger by Haig under an August 15 covering memorandum. (Ibid.)
  2. NSSM 14, “U.S. China Policy,” February 5, 1969, and related papers are ibid., NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–134, National Security Study Memoranda, NSSM 14.
  3. Kissinger wrote in the left margin next to this paragraph, “Let’s force that issue & get specific deadlines.”