History of the United States National Security Council 1961–1963

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This article is about the history of the United States National Security Council during the Kennedy Administration, 1961-1963. The National Security Council is the principal forum used by the President of the United States for considering national security and foreign policy matters with his senior national security advisors and cabinet officials.

President John F. Kennedy, who was strongly influenced by the report of the Jackson Subcommittee and its severe critique of the Eisenhower NSC system, moved quickly at the beginning of his administration to deconstruct the NSC process and simplify the foreign policy-making process and make it more intimate. In a very short period after taking office, the new President moved to reduce the NSC staff from 74 to 49, limit the substantive officers to 12, and hold NSC meetings much less frequently while sharply curtailing the number of officers attending. The Operation Coordination Board was abolished, and the NSC was, at the President's insistence, pulled back from monitoring the implementation of policies. The coordination of foreign policy decisions was ostensibly left to the State Department (and other agencies as necessary).

McGeorge Bundy's appointment as the President's National Security Advisor inaugurated this position as it has essentially continued down to the present. The definition of Bundy's responsibilities and authority unfolded and grew during the Kennedy presidency. Bundy's considerable intellectual and bureaucratic abilities as well as close personal relationship with the new President contributed much to evolution of the National Security Advisor position and the new role of the NSC. In a letter to Senator Jackson in September 1961 Bundy sought to define the early relationship sought with the State Department.

The Department of State's apparent failure effectively to coordinate the administration's response to the Bay of Pigs Invasion crisis in early 1961 led to a series of measures aimed at providing the President with better independent advice from the government. It also sparked the NSC process to reenter the arena of monitoring the implementation of policy. The most important step in this direction was the establishment of the Situation Room in the White House in 1962. The Sit Room, located next to Bundy's office in the basement of the West Wing of the White House, was directly linked to all the communication channels of the State Department and the Department of Defense, as well as to some of the channels of the CIA. The Sit Room allowed the President and his foreign affairs advisers to keep abreast of all the cable traffic from overseas posts. More than anything else, the Sit Room allowed Bundy and his NSC staff to expand their involvement in the international activities of foreign affairs community and become, in essence, "a little State Department."

As National Security Advisor, Bundy divided his work with his Deputy, Walt Rostow (and later Carl Kaysen). While Bundy dealt with the immediate day-to-day crises and the range of European affairs, Rostow focused upon long-term planning with a particular concentration on Latin American affairs. Kaysen focused upon foreign trade and economic affairs matters that became increasingly important in the latter part of the Kennedy Presidency.

In addition to Bundy and the NSC staff, President Kennedy reached out still further for foreign affairs advice. Early in 1961 the President appointed General Maxwell Taylor to serve as his military representative and provide liaison with the government agencies and defense and intelligence establishments on military-political issues confronting the administration. Taylor in effect took up the role filled by Admiral Leahy in the Roosevelt White House. General Taylor advised the President on military matters, intelligence, and Cold War planning and paid special attention to the continuing Berlin crisis and growing difficulties in Indochina. The Taylor-Rostow mission to Indochina at the end of 1961 and the resulting report led to military decisions on aid to South Vietnam and the entry of the United States into the Vietnamese quagmire. Taylor had a very personal connection with the President and was not replaced in 1962 when he left. But in 1962 Kennedy appointed former State Department Under Secretary Chester Bowles to serve as his Special Adviser on Foreign Affairs. Bowles had not survived conflicts with Secretary of State Dean Rusk and his appointment to the White House was partly compensatory. His brief was seemingly intended to be the development of policy toward the Third World, but after a year he left Washington to become Ambassador to India.

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