How the National Security Council Works

Why Was the National Security Council Created?
President Lyndon Johnson (fourth from right) meets with the National Security Council and other top government officials, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the White House, prior to a scheduled nationwide television report on the Vietnam War in 1968. Bettman/Getty Images

For much of America's history, presidents got by without having an National Security Council. Abraham Lincoln, for example, would ask his secretary of state, William Seward, and other cabinet members for advice — but often disregarded them and came up with his own solutions [source: Monaghan]. When Seward sent a memo on why Lincoln should rely upon him to design and pursue foreign policy, Lincoln brushed him off: "I remark that if this must be done, I must do it" [source: Goodwin].

By the 1900s, the world and the government had become so complex that presidents started developing an interagency policy-creating process. After World War II, Congress — which found fault with President Franklin Roosevelt's management style, and wanted to prevent another Pearl Harbor-style attack— decided that a permanent organization was needed to make sure intelligence information got to the Oval Office, and that the president got advice from experts on important decisions [source: U.S. Dept. of State].

In 1947, Congress passed the National Security Act, creating a council to, in the words of the act, "advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign and military policies relating to the national security" and to ensure cooperation among departments and agencies. Just seven officials, including the president, were permanent members of the council, though others could attend the meetings [source: Best].

Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman, initially didn't have much use for the NSC, and rarely attended its meetings. But after the Korean War erupted in 1950, Truman quickly saw the value of bringing experts and agency heads together to hammer out policy. President Dwight Eisenhower, who was accustomed to the military's staff system, made the NSC even more elaborate, creating special boards to coordinate and implement policy and adding a top assistant to run it all, the position that's now known as national security adviser.

In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy converted a bowling alley in the West Wing basement into the Situation Room, a meeting space equipped with communications gear enabling it to receive the latest information from military posts, intelligence agencies and embassies around the clock. It became the spot where the president and his advisers would gather at moments when the nation's security was on the line [source: U.S. Dept. of State].