National Security Memoranda


This project makes available copies of National Security Study Memoranda (NSSMs) and National Security Decision Memoranda (NSDMs) issued through the National Security Council (NSC) during the administration of President Richard Nixon.

Scope of Project and Access

The National Security Council has declassified in full most NSSMs and NSDMs from the Nixon Administration. A small percentage, however, are only partially declassified or remain fully classified. In the case of partially declassified memos, staff scanned the redacted copies.

The Nixon Library staff has attempted to provide the most complete and open copy of each memo as found in the Nixon Presidential Materials or as provided by the National Security Council.

The few NSSMs and NSDMs that are classified may be requested through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or by filing a Mandatory Review request with the Nixon Library staff. Please contact us for further information.

The working files and papers associated with each memo have not been scanned due to their bulk. For more information on the memoranda and related additional holdings available in the Nixon Library collection, please contact us.

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Structure and Function of the National Security Council (NSC)

The National Security Council was established by the National Security Act of 1947 to advise the President with respect to integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to national security. It was meant to assure high-level coordination of national security matters between the President and his cabinet members. In the following years, the nature of the Council varied from very formal and strict to flexible and free flowing, depending on the current President's preferences.

Upon taking office in 1969, Nixon reorganized the NSC in an effort to combine the best practices of his predecessors and make the system more orderly, efficient, and effective. During his Administration, the National Security Council was the principal forum for consideration of national security policy issues requiring Presidential decisions.

The NSC's structured procedures for planning and discussion promoted the systematic analysis of issues to make sure that all the facts and options were considered, including their advantages, disadvantages, budgetary costs, and operational consequences. This way, Nixon and his advisors would receive the information they needed to make decisions -- a clear understanding of the issue, a full list of alternative actions, and the knowledge of likely ramifications. Nixon stated that the NSC thus provided "a focus at the highest level of government for full and frank discussions of national security issues."

On paper, the NSC Council was an advisory body rather than a decision making body; nominally, President Nixon retained all decision-making power. But Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, who chaired the NSC and each of its six reviews and operational subgroups (see below), also had decision-making authority, which grew as Watergate increasingly distracted the President and engulfed his administration in 1973-74. NSC meetings were scheduled regularly, at least once a week. The Council members were:

  • The President (Chairman)
  • The Vice President
  • The Secretary of State
  • The Secretary of Defense
  • The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Military advisor)
  • The Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (Chief Supervisory Officer of the NSC System)

Other Cabinet officers, agency heads, or other senior U.S. officials were invited to attend various NSC meetings depending on the issues being considered. A series of supporting committees and groups were created to prepare for Council meetings and manage operations.

During the Nixon Administration, the NSC system consisted of three levels. At the highest level was the Council itself, in the middle were the NSC Review and Operational Groups, and at the bottom were the Interdepartmental Groups. Information flowed up the hierarchy from the base of the system to the President and the Council. NSC subgroups included:

  1. Interdepartmental Groups
  2. Review Groups
    • Senior Review Group
    • Defense Program Review Committee
    • Verification Panel
    • Intelligence Committee
  3. Operational Groups
    • Washington Special Actions Group
    • Under Secretaries Committee

The Interdepartmental Groups brought representatives of different agencies together to draft the study papers that formed the basis of NSC discussion. The Review Groups inspected the work of the Interdepartmental Groups to refine issues and options before the information was submitted to the President and discussed in the Council meeting. The Operational Groups coordinated and managed actions throughout this whole process and saw that the President's decisions were carried out.

Role of the National Security Memoranda

At the direction of President Nixon, the National Security Council established the National Security Study and Decision Memoranda on January 20, 1969, as the main tools for studying and deciding upon issues of national security and foreign policy.

The NSSMs commissioned studies for NSC consideration.

The NSDMs reported Presidential decisions resulting from NSC meetings or consultation with agency heads.

The process began with the identification of an issue requiring a presidential decision. This could be done by the President, a National Security Council member, or by the NSC staff. The role, use, and function of the memos in the decision-making process can be described in six main steps:

  1. A NSSM is Created 
    When the President identified and approved an appropriate issue, the NSC staff prepared a NSSM addressed to the heads of various departments or agencies that directed a detailed study of the issue. Usually the NSSM listed specific questions that should be addressed or solicited opinions on possible alternative solutions. It often also set the date by which the study should be completed, assigned preparation of the study to one of the Interdepartmental Groups, and indicated which of the NSC Review Group will inspect the resulting paper. Occasionally an ad hoc group with a special focus was created to prepare the study instead. After revisions, the final official memo was signed by the authorizing agent, usually Henry A. Kissinger (Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs).
  2. A Basic Study Paper is Drafted 
    The Interdepartmental Group or ad hoc group drafted a basic study paper that defined the issues requiring Presidential decision, set forth U.S. objectives, and outlined the viable alternative courses of action. For each alternative, the paper indicated advantages, disadvantages, budgetary costs, and operational consequences that would likely result.
  3. Responses to the Study Paper are Solicited and Reviewed 
    The basic study paper was circulated to involved government agencies for comments. Once the responses were received, the appropriate Review Group met to consider the paper and the agency comments. The Review Group examined the documents and integrated them, if necessary, into a final report. This work was meant to ensure that the report addressed all the requirements described in the NSSM, all realistic alternative choices were included, and that each position was fairly and adequately presented.
  4. The Final Report is Discussed at the NSC Meeting 
    Prior to the meeting, the NSC staff prepared a briefing book for the President containing the revised study paper and each agency's recommendations. At the meeting, the Assistant to the President (Kissinger) outlined the issue and presented each alternative course of action. The President requested comments and recommendations from each NSC member, and the members debated and discussed the various choices.
  5. The President's Decision is Announced in a NSDM 
    After the meeting, the President reflected on the recommendations of the NSC members and often consulted with his senior advisors or read the issue papers again. Then he chose a course of action from the various possibilities. The NSC staff prepared a NSDM to inform the agencies of the details of his decision and assign responsibility for its implementation. After the President approved the memo, either he or Kissinger signed a final version. Generally, NSDMs state that the President reviewed a particular issue and "approved" a certain action or policy.
  6. The NSDM is Put Into Action 
    Finally, the NSDM was distributed to the involved agencies and departments, informing them of their responsibilities in regard to the decision. The NSC Operational Groups were in charge of seeing that the President's decision was carried out as specified in the NSDM.

Regarding this process, one scholar commented: "The flow of papers through the Nixon NSC system emphasizes two primary objectives of the President: the retention of control at the top of the system, and the development of clear alternative choices."

Project Technical Notes

Staff scanned each memo using a HP ScanJet 7400c machine in grayscale mode at a resolution of 300 dpi. Each page image was adjusted to a standard size (8" x 10.49") and saved as a JPEG file. Using Adobe Acrobat Professional 6.0, the JPEG images for each memo were merged and saved as a PDF document. A uniform naming convention was employed to keep track of the multiple images associated with one individual memo, and also applied to the final PDF files.