195. Talking Points Prepared by the National Security Council Staff1



—The NSC was created in 1947 in recognition of the increased complexity of national security issues in the post-WWII period and the [Page 653] necessity for coordination of political, military and economic factors in developing and implementing a national security policy.

—The NSC is exclusively the instrument of the President. He may use it in any way he wishes and does not have to use it at all if he chooses. It has been used quite differently by different Presidents:

President Eisenhower: Formal and institutional. Very orderly procedures. Everything in writing. Overemphasis on consensus, differences papered over in “agreed language.”

Presidents Kennedy and Johnson: Used NSC practically not at all. Preferred smaller, more flexible, less formal arrangements. Convenient for President; smaller groups encouraged greater candor and fewer leaks. However, President on occasion did not hear all appropriate voices. Because of informality of procedures with little in writing, there was often bureaucratic confusion over precise nature of decisions.

Present Role of NSC

—Present Administration has tried to combine orderliness of Eisenhower period with flexibility and candor of Kennedy/Johnson periods.2

—At present, the NSC is the principal forum through which major foreign policy issues are brought to the President for decision.

—There is no such thing as an NSC decision. It merely provides the mechanism for defining the issues and US objectives, developing alternative courses of action, and obtaining views and recommendations of the Departments involved in the foreign policy process.

Requirements for Policy Development and Implementation

In his first Report to the Congress in February, 1970, the President laid down the requirements for the management of national security issues in the 70s.3 These requirements are the raison d’etre of the NSC system:

Creativity: More than reacting to external events and emergency situations, we should clarify our view of US objectives and design our policies to achieve these objectives.

Systematic planning: Our actions should be product of thorough analysis, forward planning and rational and deliberate decision.

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Determination of facts: Intelligent discussion and wise decision require the most reliable information available. If a set of facts can be interpreted in more than one way, this also should be known.

Range of Options: The President must know the full range of real options open to him. The various policy choices must be debated and differences of views identified and defended rather than buried or papered over in “agreed language.” The views of all departments must have a fair hearing.

Crisis Planning: We should be prepared to deal with crisis situations over which we have little or no control by systematic contingency planning and by ensuring that, in time of crisis, our actions in the diplomatic, economic and military areas are properly coordinated.

Implementation: Effective implementation of policy decisions requires continuing review and coordination. If circumstances change so that a decision cannot or should not be carried out, the issue should be brought back to the President for review.

Structure of NSC

NSC: President is Chairman. Statutory members are Vice President, Secretaries of State and Defense. Chairman of JCS is military adviser. Director of Central Intelligence is intelligence adviser. Mr. Kissinger is chief supervisory officer of the NSC system. President may invite anyone he wishes to attend NSC meetings. Other Department heads are often invited depending on issue to be discussed.

Three sets of sub-groups:

1. Interdepartmental Groups—six groups, one for each geographic area and one politico-military. Each chaired by appropriate Assistant Secretary of State and comprise representatives of all appropriate agencies. Foundation stone of the system. Draft basic papers defining issues, objectives and options with pros and cons of each option, which serve as basis for subsequent discussion of issue.

2. Intermediate Groups—four groups at Deputy Secretary level chaired by Mr. Kissinger:

Senior Review Group: Work-horse of system. Policy oriented. Reviews work of IGs to be sure issues, options and agency views are presented fully and fairly.

Verification Panel: Deals with important strategic issues including arms limitations, capabilities and potential adversaries, means of verifying compliance with possible agreement in this area. Major role in preparation for SALT talks and consideration of MBFR.

Defense Program Review Committee: Reviews major defense policy and program issues which have strategic, political, diplomatic and economic implications in relation to overall national priorities. For first [Page 655] time defense budgeting process considered in interdepartmental environment.

Intelligence Committee: To determine the intelligence needs of the top policy makers and to provide guidance to the intelligence community. Advises on quality, scope, and timeliness of the intelligence input to Presidential decisions and on steps to improve it.

3. Operational Groups

WSAG: Chaired by Mr. Kissinger. Responsible for coordination in crisis situations. A high-level crisis management group which operates within a framework of policy decisions made by the President. Normally becomes operational following an NSC meeting.

Under Secretaries Committee: Chaired by Deputy Secretary of State with responsibility for overseeing implementation of President’s decisions and setting forth operational programs and recommendations.

NSC Staff

Less than 50 substantive officers of whom more than half are assigned to the staff by member agencies. Appropriate that interdepartmental operation should be staffed largely by representatives of participating agencies. Avoids creation of separate bureaucratic layer with vested interests of its own. Reassures departments, facilitates close working relationships at all levels, maintains intellectual honesty and objectivity of NSC staff members.

Operation of System

—Flagging of issue requiring Presidential decision. May originate with President, Secretary of State or Defense, NSC staff. NSC staff prepares NSSM (183 since January 1969) setting out terms of reference of study, assigning to particular group to prepare, setting due date, indicating which intermediate group will review study.

IG drafts basic paper with issues, US objectives, options with pros and cons of each, estimated budgetary impact if appropriate, and illustrative operational consequences that might flow from decision.

—Paper is considered by SRG (or VP or DPRC if appropriate) to ensure that options and agency views are fully and fairly stated.

—If there is agreement among the agencies to recommend a particular option to the President, the matter can then be handled in a memorandum to the President, drafted by the NSC staff and cleared with the agencies, which lays out the issues and the options and reports the consensus recommendations of the foreign policy community.

—If there is disagreement among the agencies as to the recommended option, the matter will go to a full NSC meeting. NSC staff requests written statements of views by Department heads and prepares [Page 656] briefing book for President containing basic paper, analytical summary if required, and statements of agency views.

NSC meeting commences with intelligence briefing. Mr. Kissinger lays out issues and options and President asks each member for his views and recommendations. Each member states his own views and, as the meeting develops, has an opportunity to rebut the views stated by others. Meetings can be long and detailed with President asking many questions. President does not decide at the table, but considers written and oral material, discusses issue with principal advisers and reaches a decision.

NSC staff prepare NSDM (217 since January 1969) spelling out as specifically as possible President’s decision, and containing directives for operational activity and for reporting on implementation. NSDM approved by President and issued.

Strengths of System

  • —Ensures that President is hearing all appropriate voices.
  • —Dissent and disagreements are surfaced, not stifled.
  • —Provides systematic analytical treatment of major issues and deliberate decision making.
  • —All agencies notified in writing of Presidential decisions.


There is no right way or wrong way to operate in this area. The only criterion for effectiveness or success of such a system is whether or not it suits the style of a particular President. Each President requires some independent coordinating mechanism for dealing with major problems cutting across Departmental lines of responsibility, but present system is not a panacea and would probably be adjusted by subsequent President to suit his particular method of operation.

  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Council, Institutional Files, Box 85, Davis, Jeanne W.—Personal File, NSC Organization and Administration (4). No classification marking. The talking points were prepared for Scowcroft’s May 18 briefing of 93 Allied officers attending the Army Command and General Staff College. Davis forwarded the paper to him under a May 17 covering memorandum.
  2. The effectiveness of the NSC system under the Nixon administration was evaluated by NSC Staff member Richard T. Kennedy in a memorandum to Kissinger on November 29, 1972. For the text of this memorandum, see Document 175, Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. II, Organization and Management of U.S. Foreign Policy, 1969–1972.
  3. For the text of Nixon’s report, U.S Foreign Policy for the 1970’s: A New Strategy for Peace; A Report to the Congress, see Document 95, ibid.