The Atlantic Report on the World Today: Washington

on the World Today

PRESIDENT Kennedy was discussing one day the problem of revamping the approach to foreign aid. His chief aid planner, George Ball, asked whether he should try to construct a new setup on the basis of what would be most desirable or on the basis of what might be politically feasible. The President’s reply was instant: “You tell me what it ought to be. I want to see the whole dimension of die kind of program the United States ought to have. And then I’ll make the political decision of what can be done.”Of the many stories about the energetic new President current in the Capital, this one tells as much as any about the Kennedy style of running the executive department.

When Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson was called home from Moscow for consultation, he found himself spending a total of seven hours with the President, in contrast to the half-hour calls he used to pay to President Eisenhower. Kennedy discussed the Soviet problem with Thompson and the two other senior American diplomats in that field, Charles E. Bohlen and George F. Kennan. Sitting with them and with Secretary of State Rusk and McGeorge Bundy, his assistant for national security affairs, the President let the experienced men talk themselves out without so much as giving a clue to his own feeling, which might have induced some to follow his hint. The decision to bring Kennan back into the government as Ambassador to Yugoslavia was Kennedy’s own, and it is generally rated as a brilliant stroke.

Creative tension

The President’s system for getting information has been called by one of his aides “creative tension.”He himself has said privately, “I can’t afford to have just one set of advisers on anything,” and, “The thing I have got to watch is that I’m not just sitting here at the end of the paper chain [from the departments].”

One man who sees the President almost daily comments that Kennedy “wants to have a view of the alternatives, a view wider than that available through the departments.” This is why he has cut across a good deal of the bureaucratic setup, often going direct to those handling a specific problem, and why he has made Bundy’s office in the White House itself the center of an interdepartmental planning staff.

Franklin Roosevelt’s method was deliberately to create competition among his subordinates. There is an element of this in the Kennedy style, but the difference is that far more people have access to the President now than at any time in White House history since the earliest New Deal days. This very fact has kept to a minimum, thus far, cries by one branch of government that another is poaching on its preserves.

Curtailing the N.S.C.

One effect of the Kennedy style of operating has been to limit drastically the function of the National Security Council and to eliminate sixteen other administrative bodies established since 1954.

The N.S.C. is a marvelous institution for gathering information and distributing it to the top echelons of government, but it is a poor instrument of decision. Kennedy has, in effect, all but abolished the N.S.C. institution; he abolished outright its subordinate Operations Coordinating Board by placing the responsibility for following up on his decisions with the heads of the operating agencies, using his own White House staff members as prodders to the departments.

But no system has yet been devised for circulating sufficient information, as used to be done via the N.S.C., to top policy makers. As a result, Rusk and Bundy, or Bundy and Defense Secretary McNamara, have to catch up now and then by private talks.

The Cabinet meetings since the early Truman years have been devoted chiefly to domestic issues. Here Kennedy prefers to meet with the Cabinet members concerned rather than have everyone listen to the problems of the Postmaster General or the Secretary of Agriculture. At the first Cabinet meeting, the President began a nervous fingerdrumming when Agriculture Secretary Freeman expounded on exports of dressed poultry.

One Cabinet session was devoted almost exclusively to the problem of how to get along with Congress. The narrow five-vote victory in the House on the Rules Committee fight convinced the President that most of his domestic legislation, especially his medical care and education bills, is likely to have hard sledding. The President advised Cabinet members to handle mail from senators and congressmen personally and to do their best to establish close relations with key members of Congress.

The President and the Congress

Kennedy is not a man to back away from a fight. He wants, however, to pick the best place and time for the inevitable first big scrap with Congress. A lot of maneuvering is likely before the executive and the legislative branches go to the mat for a decision on a critical issue. Yet Kennedy knows, as he has told some subordinates, that “there will never be a better year than the first one" to draw on his public support.

A great deal of his energies have gone into building that public support by use of televised press conferences, speeches, and a mass of messages to Congress, through which he has dominated the news pages. A powerful image is a help at the Capitol for a President. But in itself it is not enough in a Congress as closely divided as this one. In a world of half peace, half war, every success in lessening world tensions tends to lessen a desire for strong leadership in international affairs. And a rebounding economy, despite millions of unemployed, leaves many unconcerned about domestic problems. To one visitor who urged stronger economic measures, Kennedy replied, “There may be 7 per cent unemployed, but there are 93 per cent employed. To another on a similar mission he remarked that “Roosevelt had it easy in winning his way during his first year in office.

As the new Administration begins to come into focus, it is evident that Kennedy has energized the government as far as the executive branch is concerned. This of itself is an immense gain and is likely to be increasingly important as time goes on. He has obtained a firm grasp on the reins of the vast bureaucracy he heads; he is making good use of the remarkable talent he has gathered together. There have been a couple of poor appointments, but they are small in the aggregate.

The major problem of how to energize the nation, and through it, the Congress, remains. That there is a willingness in the public to respond is evident from the reaction to the Peace Corps. But more will have to be done. The President is fully aware of what faces him and has begun by taking steps to put his own house in shape, both for a protracted conflict with the Communist world and to teach the American public the realities of life at home and their relationship to success in that world-wide conflict.

The school bill

During the presidential campaign, Kennedy showed a keen sensitivity to the words of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, whether in the form of an editorial in L’Osservatore Romano, a pronouncement of the American or the Puerto Rican bishops, or what he heard of the purported private words of such leaders as Francis Cardinal Spellman. From his comments, some of them to newsmen in unguarded moments, it was evident that he thought an influential part of his church’s hierarchy was unhappy at the possibility of his election to the White House.

Since the election, especially since the Catholic bishops’ statement on federal aid for parochial schools, Kennedy aides have been commenting that the President feels he had the active opposition, though not publicly so, of much of the hierarchy. Twice at his press conferences, Kennedy has asked why there is so much pressure for aid to parochial schools now, whereas there was so little when former President Eisenhower made his proposals for aid to education. The answer quite probably is that today, for the first time, there seems to many, including the Church, a real possibility of enacting such a law in Congress. But Kennedy’s suspicion is that it is being done to embarrass him because he is the first Catholic President.

Kennedy has avoided opportunities to express his own view on whether it would be wise public policy to expend federal funds on private elementary and secondary education. He has made his case against it strictly on constitutional grounds, and there he evidently intends to stand as long as possible. The President is keenly aware of the political crevasses embedded in the issue, doubly so because so many non-Catholic votes doubtless were cast for him last November on the strength of his strong assurances on the issue of separation of church and state.

Emotions aroused by the school aid issue in Washington are intense; members of Congress generally feel themselves trapped. It is highly doubtful whether a majority wants to vote for aid to parochial schools at the lower levels, but the Church’s insistence that such aid could pass a court test makes it difficult for them to hide behind a claim that it would be unconstitutional.

Among the non-Catholics in the Administration there is considerable feeling against the Catholic hierarchy. They are especially bitter at the hierarchy’s “No aid for the public schools unless we are aided also" attitude.

Some defenders of the public schools take the position that this is the critical battle; that if the parochial schools are given federal aid at the lower levels there will be a multiplication of church schools of all denominations, and of private secular schools as well, particularly in the South, and that this might destroy the public school system as it has long existed.

To the President the timing of the conflict is highly unfortunate, for it tends to balk his aim of rallying the American public behind both meeting the needs at home and facing up to the larger danger abroad.

Mood of the Capital

Talk of ultimate weapons and of the last, best chance for East-West negotiation is old stuff in the Capital, but so far there always has appeared some new facet in weaponry and some new device for negotiation. There is considerable hope that at long last the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union will reach agreement on a treaty to ban nuclear weapon testing.

In the past, much of the American pressure, both from within and from without the government, for a testban treaty has been based on fears of radioactive fallout and on a belief that an agreement on this issue would open the way to more significant arms-control agreements. This year, the compulsions, fully accepted by such senior statesmen (of excellent Republican reputation, to boot) as John J. McCloy and Arthur H. Dean, come from the increasing proliferation and fragmentation of nuclear weapons.

It is the belief, accepted by the President, that unless testing is stopped, nuclear weapons in missile form very soon will be found all over the United States and the Soviet Union on railroad cars, and before many years there will be smaller nuclear weapons on thousands of vehicles the size of jeeps, and eventually, uncounted numbers of them in mortar form. The so-called “hand-held” nuclear weapon is said already to be in the American arsenal in small numbers.

Fallout as a health hazard no longer exists as far as the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union are concerned, since all are now able to test underground. If a treaty cannot be negotiated and testing is resumed, the hazard would exist again as soon as Red China began testing. Unless there is a treaty. China and other nations soon will develop their own nuclear capabilities. A treaty would not guarantee an end to further membership in the nuclear club, but it would have an inhibiting effect — at least, that is the hope. In the case of Red China, it could be the instrument for reopening American-Chinese discussions.

The chief reasons why Washington is hopeful about a treaty are, first, that there is a mutual SovietAmerican desire to limit the spread of such weapons; and second, that there is a mutual Soviet-American desire to limit the Cold War to manageable proportions, which would exclude the possibility of accidentally starting a war neither side wants.