• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Reagan’s Junta


This is supposed to have been the era of the imperial presidency. It has turned out to be the era of presidencies that have tried to make themselves imperial—and failed. The attempt and the failure of the Reagan presidency are only the latest of this kind. The basic elements that have gone into the Reagan effort are also not new. Other presidents have used and misused the National Security Council and its “adviser”; other presidents have deliberately kept their secretaries of state in ignorance of presidential policy; other presidents have found ways to keep Congress in the dark about what they were doing.

Yet there is something new about the Reaganite phenomenon. The elements of the present intrigue may be familiar, but they have taken a different and more ominous form. A would-be imperial president has prepared the way for a would-be presidential junta.

The transition has been a very long one. In his study of the imperial presidency, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. began the story with the disputes over presidential power in George Washington’s administration. But the present crisis of presidential power has a different dimension; it is a crisis not only about what a president has the power to do; it is also about the power of those around or behind him to act in his name.

The roots of the present predicament go back to the efforts of at least the last seven presidents to extricate themselves from the constitutional limitations of their office. Schlesinger places the “presidential breakaway” after the Second World War. “The postwar Presidents,” he asserts, “though Eisenhower and Kennedy markedly less than Truman, Johnson, and Nixon, almost came to see the sharing of power with Congress in foreign policy as a derogation of the Presidency.”1 This version lets Franklin D. Roosevelt off on the ground that though his “destroyer deal” with Great Britain in 1940 was arranged without congressional authorization, it was done for good and sufficient reasons. Schlesinger exonerates Roosevelt because the prospect of a British collapse represented a genuine national emergency, and because Roosevelt privately consulted with the Republican and Democratic leadership. But Roosevelt knew that his action was constitutionally dubious and at first did not want to send the destroyers to Great Britain without legislative approval. As Schlesinger notes, the leading authority on the presidency, Professor Edward S. Corwin, regarded the deal as an “endorsement of unrestrained autocracy in the field of our foreign relations.” The road to Reagan was paved with good intentions.

The imperial presidency, then, is one that acts autocratically. It does so far more in foreign than in domestic affairs. Yet it was not always so. As long as the isolationist tradition was still strong, presidents had less incentive or opportunity to act alone. Once the so-called Truman Doctrine of 1947 seemed to provide a license to intervene everywhere in the world, presidents were far less inclined to restrain themselves, especially in periods of congressional complaisance.

Before the end of the Second World War, presidents did not have the bureaucratic means to carry out policy by themselves. They might insist on making decisions unilaterally, but they could not bypass the existing bureaucracy in order to carry them out. Roosevelt did not have a Central Intelligence Agency or a national security adviser with his own staff; the “destroyer deal” was no secret from the department, Congress, or anyone else. The CIA and the National Security Council were set up in 1947, the latter with a staff headed by an assistant for national security affairs, better known as national security adviser. From a handful, the NSC professional staff has grown to about fifty, enough to divide up the entire world among its own specialists. With these two new agencies, presidents were able to do things that had not been feasible for them to do before.

Again, the change came by stages. The CIA was originally charged with coordinating, correlating, evaluating, and disseminating foreign intelligence information; the national security adviser was given the task of coordinating the policy options open to the president and the recommendations to him. A decision was made at an early stage that foreshadowed the end of the State Department’s traditionally predominant role in the making and execution of American foreign policy. Truman’s secretary of state, James F. Byrnes, wanted the new intelligence organization to be responsible to the State Department. 2 When he was turned down, the CIA went on to live a life of its own, increasingly at the expense of the State Department. In 1948, another new agency, loosely linked with the CIA, was set up, disarmingly called the Office of Policy Coordination, to engage in covert activities; in 1951, it was fully integrated into the CIA, which henceforth carried out both covert intelligence and covert operations.

The Truman administration was basically responsible for these innovations; yet Truman himself did not realize where they were going to lead. Eleven years after he had left office, Truman confessed: “I never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak-and-dagger operations.” He no longer liked what he had wrought: “For some time I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the government.” After watching what had resulted, he wanted no more of it: “I, therefore, would like to see the CIA be restored to its original assignment as the intelligence arm of the President, and whatever else it can properly perform in that special field—and that its operational duties be terminated or properly used elsewhere.”

Finally, he reflected: “We have grown up as a nation, respected for our ability to maintain a free and open society. There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position and I feel that we need to correct it.”3 To a correspondent, he wrote: “The CIA was set up by me for the sole purpose of getting all the available information to the President. It was not intended to operate as an international agency engaged in strange activities.”4

These activities have grown stranger and stranger, until under Reagan the president himself claims that he does not know how they have happened. Yet there is one thing that he could not fail to know—that he used his national security adviser instead of the secretary of state as his chosen instrument in the conduct of American foreign policy. If this displacement had happened for the first time, it would be serious enough. But it has happened frequently before, though not in the extreme Reaganite form.

Too much attention has been paid to the minutiae of the Iran-contra affair and not enough to the implications it has for the institutions and structure of our government. Long after the exact details of the diversion of funds to the contras have been forgotten, the institutional cost will still have to be paid. For a full appreciation of how deep and acute the problem is, it is necessary to look back and see how it has developed over the past quarter of a century. This institutional crisis mainly concerns the president, secretary of state, and national security adviser, the first two offices as old as the Republic, the third a comparative newcomer in the American scheme of governance.


The post of national security adviser did not take off until early in the Kennedy administration in 1961. The post was held by McGeorge Bundy, who with his deputy, Walt W. Rostow, according to Arthur M. Schlesinger, gave the White House “an infusion of energy on foreign affairs with which the State Department would never in the next three years…quite catch up.” At first, it is said, Kennedy wanted the State Department to be the “central point” in all aspects of foreign affairs. But he was soon “disappointed” in its makeup and performance, with the result that he came to depend on Bundy and his staff or on Theodore Sorensen, his special counsel. The secretary of state, Dean Rusk, and Kennedy’s entourage were so different from each other in outlook and manner that they hardly spoke the same language. To Kennedy himself, Rusk’s views “remained a mystery.”5 Sorensen says that Rusk “deferred almost too amiably to White House initiatives and interference.” If Kennedy had lived to have a second term, Bundy would have been a “logical candidate for Secretary of State.”6

Kennedy was not the first president to make foreign policy in the White House rather than in the State Department. The pattern had been set by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who made his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, almost a figurehead. But Roosevelt had not built up a substitute or shadow foreign-policy agency; he had preferred to work through other cabinet officers, at first Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, and then through other members of the cabinet or his personal emissary Harry Hopkins. Yet Roosevelt and the proliferation of quasi–foreign-affairs agencies during World War II were responsible for starting the State Department on its downward path. Presidents who wanted to be their own foreign ministers followed his example by choosing weak secretaries of state and depending on others to carry out their wishes.

The president who gave this system a pathological twist was Richard Nixon. We know just how pathological it was because his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, has told us all about it. Nixon hardly knew Kissinger when he took him on; his choice as secretary of state, William Rogers, was one of Nixon’s closest friends and a former law partner. When Nixon chose Rogers, Nixon knew him to be unfamiliar with foreign affairs. According to Kissinger, Nixon immediately told him to build up a “national security apparatus” in the White House. The only region that Nixon entrusted to Rogers was the Middle East—for one reason because Nixon believed at the time that any active policy there was doomed to failure. The “back channel” that Nixon and Kissinger set up with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin cut the State Department out of the most important field of Soviet-American affairs. According to Kissinger, Nixon repeatedly lied to Rogers, especially about Kissinger’s trip to China in 1971 and to Moscow in 1972.

Why did Nixon humiliate his old friend? Kissinger’s explanation clearly suggests a pathological motive. In the past, it seems, Rogers had been the “psychologically dominant partner” in the relationship. Now Nixon “wanted to reverse roles and establish a relationship in which both hierarchically and substantially he, Nixon, called the tune for once.” Kissinger was only too willing to collaborate in the diseased machination, of which he was the chief beneficiary. “I do not mean to suggest that I resisted Nixon’s conduct toward his senior Cabinet officer,” Kissinger confessed bashfully. “From the first my presence made it technically possible and after a time I undoubtedly encouraged it.”

  1. 1

    Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Imperial Presidency (Houghton Mifflin, 1973), p. 206.

  2. 2

    Harry S. Truman, Years of Trial and Hope (Doubleday, 1956), p. 57.

  3. 3

    The Washington Post (December 22, 1963).

  4. 4

    Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman, edited by Robert H. Ferrell (Harper and Row, 1980), p. 408.

  5. 5

    Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days (Houghton Mifflin, 1965), pp. 150, 407, 420–421, 435.

  6. 6

    Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy (Harper and Row, 1965), pp. 263, 270.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print