The National Security Advisor: A Primer

NSA operations center
A National Security Operations Center setup, circa 1985

Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn has been named the next National Security Advisor. Since the position does not require Senate approval, Flynn is expected to become the “Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs” in January. That’s the official title of a position that grew out of the executive secretary role at the National Security Council (NSC) at the dawn of the Cold War.

The NSC is the advisory and coordinating body for national security and foreign affairs for the Executive branch. The council’s executive officers include:

President
Vice President
Secretary of Defense
Secretary of State
National Security Advisor

It was created by the National Security Act of 1947. The first National Security Advisor was named in 1953.

“National security” is an extremely broad writ, encompassing diplomatic, military, intelligence, and economic spheres. The same 1947 Act also created the Central Intelligence Agency and began the reorganization of the military services into the Department of Defense. It is generally considered the formal birth of the bureaucracy of the national security state, the military and intelligence establishment that has proved more permanent than any elected official or cabinet head. As an example of its institutional reach: the U.S. has 800 military bases in 70 countries, and the ability to monitor tens of millions of phone and email messages at home and abroad.

The position began to play a much larger role after JFK, often becoming the public face of foreign policy.

Andrew D. Grossman, reviewing research into Cold War mobilization and postwar American political development, explores the connection between the growth of the Executive branch’s power through the national security apparatus and “a narrow, constrained view of liberalism that ultimately undermined civil liberties” domestically. The national security state has fundamentally transformed the American political system, giving presidents unprecedented power overseas even when they may be stymied by domestic politics. For instance, Congress, which is authorized by the Constitution to declare war, has not done so since 1941. Grossman concludes that some “illiberalism” was “accepted by the American public and its political leaders as the price of becoming a super-power in the international arena.”

R. Gordon Hoxie gives a good synopsis of the history of the National Security Advisor and the NSC, set up to be “a principal instrument in both the formulation and implementation of foreign policy.” This followed the ad hoc experience of World War II, when the President, his advisors, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff ran the American war effort.

Until the appointment of McGeorge Bundy as President Kennedy’s Advisor in 1961, most appointees were relatively low-key. With Bundy, the National Security Advisors begin to play much larger roles, often becoming the public face of foreign policy. Henry Kissinger, initially President Nixon’s National Security Advisor, overshadowed the Secretary of State so much he eventually became the Secretary of State himself.

Hoxie argues that “the National Security Council is indispensable; the [Advisor] per se is not.” National Security Advisors today would doubtlessly disagree, as would their bosses: the position may be most powerful job in Washington after the President, although it did not start that way. The institutional arrangements created during the early Cold War have continued into the post-9/11 world.


JSTOR Citations

The Early Cold War and American Political Development: Reflections on Recent Research

By: Andrew D. Grossman

International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Spring, 2002), pp. 471-483

Springer

The National Security Council

By: R. Gordon Hoxie

Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1, Alexander Hamilton, William Howard Taft, and Franklin D. Roosevelt: Continuity or Discontinuity? (Winter, 1982), pp. 108-113

Wiley on behalf of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress

Matthew Wills

Matthew Wills has advanced degrees in library science and film studies and is lapsed in both fields. He has published in Poetry, Huffington Post, and Nature Conservancy Magazine, among other places, and blogs regularly about urban natural history at matthewwills.com.

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