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Key to National Security

Historical study examines operation of US policymaking's inner circle

THE National Security Council (NSC) was created in the aftermath of World War II, when the Truman administration and Congress decided that United States defense and foreign policy needed more coordination between agencies. The end results were the merger of the Navy and War departments into a single Department of Defense and creation of the Central Intelligence Agency and the NSC. By statute, the NSC consists of the president, vice president, secretary of state, and secretary of defense. The law stipulates that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA director serve as advisers.

John Prados's valuable new book, ``Keepers of the Keys: A History of the National Security Council from Truman to Bush,'' traces the evolution of the NSC and its staff. His reviews of the formulation and implementation of US policy, and the NSC's role in it, are a useful road map and primer on where we have been and how we got there.

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Prados begins with Harry Truman and Navy Secretary James Forrestal wrestling to implement and perfect the new mechanism. His retelling of the Eisenhower years includes a new evaluation, based on declassified White House documents, of Ike as the ``hidden hand'' actively engaged behind the scenes in the decisions for which his Cabinet secretaries got the credit.

Prados's review of the Kennedy and Johnson NSCs and the Vietnam debacle is itself worth the price of the book. The picture of President Johnson micromanaging the war, upset at the CIA for its constant stream of pessimistic reports, while national security adviser Walter Rostow bucks him up by comparisons to Lincoln confronting Northern critics during the Civil War, explains much about that unhappy time.

The book recounts how Henry Kissinger (under Richard Nixon) and Zbigniew Brzezinski (under Jimmy Carter) parlayed themselves into alternate secretaries of state. Prados's look at these two powerhouses and their Byzantine activities is especially useful: Kissinger authorizing wiretaps on his staff and conducting back-channel arms-control negotiations behind the backs of the official negotiating team; Brzezinski playing games with the events leading up to the Iran hostage crisis.

Discussing the Reagan years, Prados pictures a president asleep at the wheel while a succession of ``entrepreneurial'' subordinates - among others, John Poindexter and Oliver North - went off on various tangents, with sometimes disastrous results. Regardless of one's view of Reagan, a seeker for a comprehensible version of what the Iran-contra affair was about will find it here.

Prados writes in a journalistic style that, in most cases, makes for an easy read - if one can keep track of the players in any given chapter. Fortunately, the index is quite thorough. But the book is not without flaws. It tries to be a history of the NSC at the same time it advances the view that the NSC is out of control and needs congressional investigation and oversight. The recommendations would likely go down to defeat on Capitol Hill, and at times they call into question Prados's objectivity.

Prados also has an unfortunate tendency to use nicknames in place of family names once he has introduced an individual into the narrative. The effect in a book such as this is contrived. And the constant repetition of the phrase ``keeper of the keys'' to refer to the national security adviser quickly becomes grating.

There are some strange omissions of key players in the book as well: Carter's United Nations ambassador, Andrew Young, receives one mention; the role of his successor in the Reagan administration, Jeane Kirkpatrick, is underrated. In addition, Prados has missed something of the dynamics of the relationships between the State Department and the NSC staff during the Carter and Reagan years. Under Carter, NSC personnel thought nothing of ordering up State Department memorandums without going through channe ls, leading to a good deal of confusion and anger when superiors found out. The Reagan appointees put an end to such loose arrangements.

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Prados also attributes much of the logjam in arms control under Reagan to disputes between Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. There certainly were disputes, but the logjam was created by Reagan's hands-off style of governing, which meant that interagency disputes often never made it to the NSC: Until someone higher up intervened, matters could be bottled up for months at the assistant-secretary level in disputes between ideologues and pragmatists.

The book also assumes a good deal of background information on the part of the reader. On occasion - for example in dealing with Johnson's handling of the Dominican Republic crisis in 1965 - Prados refers to events he has not even discussed previously.

Perhaps the most serious flaw, however, is the attempt to carry the analysis on into the Bush administration. Prados's analysis of the Panama invasion suffers from a lack of the kind of documentation he relies on earlier in the book. And a hastily added paragraph about the crisis in the Gulf, written before the fighting began, is hopelessly out of date.

On paper, the NSC is served by an executive secretary, and the principals meet to coordinate and formulate policy recommendations for the president. In reality, however, the NSC may or may never meet to consider particular foreign-policy crises. The executive secretary has turned into a powerful national security adviser whose power may rival that of the secretaries of state and defense. The NSC staff, rather than just pushing papers, has carried out operations, including, in the Iran-contra affair, cov ert and illegal activities.

Whether or not one accepts Prados's recommendations for changes in the NSC structure - such as subjecting the national security adviser to congressional confirmation - he raises questions US policymakers in both the executive and legislative branches should take seriously. But ultimately it is the personality, world view, and morals of the president and his subordinates that make the system work or falter. It is hard to see how congressional oversight will change that.

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