As an unconventional roller coaster of a semester draws to a close, LEAP ambassadors take comfort in the high quality educational and informational opportunities provided by the World Affairs Council (WAC) of Houston.
WAC Executive Director Maryanne Maldonado…
…introduced John Gans, a Washington, D.C. speechwriter who has worked for such entities as the Office of the Speaker of the House and the U.S. Secretary of Defense. Gans discussed his recent book, White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War, and about the role of the National Security Council in general.
As someone interested in policy, history, and communications, I LEAPed at the opportunity to participate in the moderated discussion and write this blog.
In this interview, Dr. Gans – moderated by WAC’s Ronan O’Malley – began by giving an in-depth history regarding the inception and development of the National Security Council (NSC).
As he explains it, the NSC was founded by Harry Truman as a result of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretive behavior and compartmentalized organization during WWII. FDR, consulting only his closest advisors and Winston Churchill, left the rest of Washington in suspense of decisions made regarding war efforts. (Indeed, he had not even informed VP Harry Truman of the Manhattan Project!)
Believing that no president should have so much freedom and unchecked power during wartime, Truman established the NSC to advise, instruct, and coordinate between the White House and the rest of Washington. Originally an organization of nearly twelve individuals, the National Security Council has grown into one of the most powerful organizations in Washington.
After explaining the origins of the NSC, Gans went on to discuss how the role of the organization has evolved over the decades and become a pivotal part of the development of foreign policy. He claims that, over the years, there would often be certain NSC staffers who would step up and influence the course of policies and wars.
Next, Ronan asked about Henry Kissinger, who, as Gans stated, made the position of National Security Advisor a “household title.” According to Gans, Kissinger assembled one of the “best-credentialed NSC staff in history.” In spite of this, the council often found that they had nothing to do, due to Kissinger’s lack of trust. Famously, he would take the drafts of memos written by members of the NSC, change the conclusions, and present them as his own, generally with an optimistic outlook. His process created tension and distrust among his staff, and eventually led to some of the first wiretaps involved with Watergate. In Kissinger’s time, Gans suggests, if you were considered disloyal, you may be spied on, and if you were considered loyal, you rose in power and rank.
As disconcerting as this process was, even more so is the fact that the NSC is not subject to congressional oversight. Although some staffers have testified under oath, they are not required to, which has been a cause of concern for many leaders in Washington. Due to this freedom from oversight, the NSC has grown as an authority in foreign policy. Gans contends that this remains an issue to this day.
Gans also shared a number of anecdotes about the “most egregious” events in NSC history, including that of the only NSC staffer to die in the line of duty (in a car accident) and the story of a staffer who “assumed an army uniform and picked up a rifle” to go on patrol in Afghanistan. Conversely, he identified the George H. W. Bush National Security Council as “the high point” in organization and decision making since the Council’s inception–a heartening conclusion, given that we will be hearing from Condi Rice in a few days (she was part of that NSC).
Gans argues that, in times, the NSC has “gotten in the way of the chain of command” and have come to run strategy in both war and foreign policy in general. He also stated that government, like business, boils down to trust, which is why many presidents have come to rely on the staff of the NSC as individuals who have their best interests in mind. As a result, a great amount of authority falls under the scope of the NSC.
After a few questions from the audience, the conversation ended. Despite being a virtual event, as many things are right now, this has been one of my favorite WAC discussions. In such a short amount of time, I learned a great deal about a very influential part of the United States’ foreign policy. Dr. Gans offered an interesting, engaging, and in-depth perspective into the National Security Council, and I am excited to read his book and learn more about its history and development. LEAP is, as always, appreciative of the World Affairs Council for arranging such a high quality conversation.