McGeorge Bundy, the NSC staff, and the making of American foreign policy, 1961-1963

Fifty Years Without JFK: Rethinking Global Diplomacy
Europe: Panel 1

The men behind the man: McGeorge Bundy, the NSC staff, and the making of American foreign policy, 1961-1963

Kasper Grotle Rasmussen (Aarhus University, Denmark)

Change was in the air, when John F. Kennedy took office as the 35th President of the United States in January of 1961. It was not at first a political change, although both the Inaugural Address and the platform of the New Frontier promised changes especially in foreign policy. The immediate change was one of process and organization, which in turn led to new results in America’s international relations. The centrepiece in this change was the National Security Council (NSC) staff.

Originally an administrative support unit for the National Security Council – a coordinating advisory body for foreign and defence policy – the NSC staff under Kennedy became political and functioned as a personal presidential foreign policy staff. Headed by the charismatic, cool and energetic national security advisor McGeorge Bundy, the NSC staff was turned into a “little State Department” or a “Foreign Office in microcosm” seeking to assist President Kennedy in his foreign policy endeavours. Bundy’s staff was comprised of a more or less like-minded group of “action-intellectuals”, issued from the country’s best universities and having almost all served in World War II. Through the staff’s close relationship with Kennedy and several significant organizational changes – for example the creation of the Situation Room in the White House basement - it acquired a policy role. This paper examines the NSC staff and its particular policy role in relation to the Berlin crisis of 1961-62 and the German question as a whole.

A central reason why this paper is interesting is due to the fact that most of the literature on the NSC staff during the Kennedy administration is focussed on the staff’s involvement in the Vietnam War. This literature emphasizes the staff’s role in the American decision to actively participate in the Southeast Asian war and thus its complicity in what is also in the scholarly literature viewed as a disastrous war and a bad foreign policy. The image of the staff and especially of its leader, national security advisor McGeorge Bundy, is strongly connected with Vietnam and with that of an aggressive and militaristic approach to foreign policy, based on the arrogance of the “best and the brightest” from Ivy League universities that were gathered in Washington to become part of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and the project to change the world. It is to this image that many would refer if asked about the NSC staff during the Kennedy administration.

This paper provides a different picture. It argues that contrary to the staff’s hawkish role in Vietnam, its role in policy-making on the Berlin crisis and the German question was based on the idea that accommodating the Soviet Union and offering a number of concessions offered the best way forward and provided the most accessible route towards a superpower détente. The present paper thus seeks to present a more nuanced portrait of the NSC staff by analyzing their role in relation to Berlin and the German question and why it was different from other policy areas with which the Kennedy administration dealt.

Europe: Panel 1A (Senate Room)

"The great testing place of Western courage and will." John F. Kennedy, Credibility, and the Berlin Crisis of 1961
Andreas Etges (Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich)

The men behind the man: McGeorge Bundy, the NSC staff, and the making of American foreign policy, 1961-1963
Kasper Grotle Rasmussen (Aarhus University, Denmark)

United States – Yugoslav Relations: From Dispute to Normalization During 1963
Zlatko Ivanovic (University of Montenegro)

“France in John F. Kennedy’s world view”
Sean J. McLaughlin (University of Wisconsin-Whitewater)

Panel 1, Europe: Q&A Session
Chair: Dr. Piers Ludlow (LSE)

Institute for the Study of the Americas
Kasper Grotle Rasmussen (Aarhus University, Denmark)
Event date: 
Wednesday, 13 March 2013 - 12:00am
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