Kennedy, Johnson, and policy toward China: testing the importance of the president in foreign policy decision making.

Author:Newmann, William W.
Position::Presidents John F.Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson

Presidents and their advisors are absolutely certain that their individual contributions to American foreign policy are significant, unique, and often heroic. An administration's legacy in foreign policy is the product of the president's vision or at least the result of an opportunity seized by a shrewd and decisive leader. In this sense, it is more than literary convention when scholars personify a policy, naming it the "Truman Doctrine" or "Johnson's War" or the "Reagan Doctrine." This view runs counter to the rise of the Institutional model in presidential studies. This body of work often argues that characteristics of individual presidents are irrelevant; political and legal forces create a context for presidential policy making, and all presidents will react to those forces in a similar manner, making decisions based on rational choice calculations. This debate over whether individual presidents matter is critical to the evolution of presidential studies (Cohen 2009; Dickinson 2009; Jacobs 2009; Mayer 2009; Moe 2009; Rockman 2009; Skowronek 2009; Wood 2009). While scholars may be pleased with their ability to develop parsimonious and more rigorous models of the presidency, veteran policy makers might argue that scholars are missing the essence of decision: people make decisions, and different people make different decisions even in similar situations. (1)

The more personality-centered model, often called some variation on Persuasion or Bargaining (hereafter Persuasion model) and derived from the seminal work of Richard Neustadt, sees the ways in which individual presidents choose to wield their power as the crucial characteristic in executive branch decision making. Presidents use their powers of persuasion to bargain with organizations and individuals in an effort to direct policy in a desired direction (Neustadt 1990). In contrast, the Institutional model downplays the importance of the president's decision-making impact, contending that as the presidency has become more institutionalized, it has decreased the importance of the character of the individual president (Moe 1989, 1998, 2009)

This article dives into that debate by developing a research design that tries to isolate the impact of the president as a variable. The transition from President John F.Kennedy (JFK) to President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) provides a measure of experimental control that is unique (however morbid). The tragedy of JFK's assassination left LBJ as the leader of JFK's hand-picked foreign policy team facing a set of challenges initially defined by JFK. In short, were any variations in the decision-making structure that followed the transition based on LBJ's idiosyncratic style, or were institutional pressures the cause of any changes? Focusing on a specific policy area, in this case China policy, creates an additional measure of control.

If the Institutional model is correct in its assumptions, the replacement of JFK with LBJ should have had little effect on the policy process. The independent variable in the foreign policy process is the set of external and internal institutional pressures facing the administration. Consistency or variation in management structures will be based on the consistency or variation in those institutional pressures. However, if the Persuasion models are correct, the change in the White House should redefine the foreign policy process, since JFK and LBJ are typically considered to be very different types of presidents with very different management styles. The decision-making needs of the individual president are the independent variable.

This article first considers the Institutional model and the Persuasion model then develops a case study research design to test the impact of the president on decision making. A structured-focused comparison methodology is used to assess change or the lack of change (George 1979; George and Bennett 2004; George and McKeown 1985). A standard set of questions provides a comparative framework for each case study. This process-tracing methodology creates clear criteria for comparison of the key elements of the decision-making process during JFK and LBJ decision making on China. Two case studies are included here. The first examines the Kennedy administration's initial decision in 1961 on the Chinese representation issue at the United Nations. The second examines the tentative outreach of the Johnson administration in 1966 and the fall 1966 decision on China and the United Nations. Each case study is treated in a narrative that answers all the questions in the structured-focused comparison. Preceding the case studies is a section summarizing the general analysis of the JFK and LBJ styles of decision making. This places the case studies within the context of previous scholarly analysis.

This study reaches two conclusions. First, discussions of which model best explains decision making do not capture the complexity of decision making. Institutional pressures and presidential preferences are both crucial elements in decision making. Persuasion, bargaining, and idiosyncratic styles do matter, but institutional variables, particularly domestic political aspects, serve as constraints on the actions of all officials involved in decision making. Institutional dynamics place limits on the president's persuasion capacity during decision making. This idea helps explain why on China policy at least, the JFK and LBJ management styles show more similarities than differences. Second, the president is not the only individual who matters. Key officials, in this case Secretary of State Dean Rusk, can be institutional and idiosyncratic actors in the process, shaping the decision process, regardless of who is in the Oval Office. In short, the president matters and so do institutional factors. The ways in which they interact should be the focal point of further study on the issue.

The President Matters

There is a great deal of literature on the ways in which presidents or other leaders in executive roles matter (Byman and Pollack 2001; Dyson 2006; Etheredge 1978; Steiner 1983). Most concerning the U.S. presidency are based in the study of character or cognitive psychology (Barber 1992; George 1969, 1974; Renshon and Larson 2003; Schafer and Crichlow 2010). Obviously, presidential biographies focus on the individual, but comparative studies, generally with individual chapters on specific presidents, also highlight the role of the individual (Anderson 1968; Greenstein 1988, 2000; Hess 1988). A focus specifically on how presidents make decisions, however, narrows the scope to management and to theories that are based in Neustadt's Persuasion model. The premise of this model is that individual presidents bring a set of skills to the White House that they use to persuade and bargain their way through the internal policy process of the executive branch and the external policy arena of executive-legislative relations. Though the statutory tools of each president are relatively the same, each president's political talent may be the difference between success and failure for an administration.

From this basic idea came two variants of the Governmental Politics model, which views decision making as the result of bargaining and compromise between members of the executive branch. The Organizational Process model focuses on organizational competition (Allison and Zelikow 1999, 143-96; Halperin and Halperin 1983-84; Huntington 1961; Schilling, Hammond, and Snyder 1962), while the Bureaucratic Politics model narrows the analysis to individual rivalries (Allison and Halperin 1972; Allison and Zelikow 1999, 255-324; Halperin 1974; Halperin and Kanter 1973). In both these models, the president's key job is to bring order to potential chaos, though he is often described as just another player in the bargaining game.

The Presidential Management model developed in some ways as response to these models. It argues that the president is not just another player. He has managerial resources and skills that allow him to bring structure to the process. For the purposes of this research, the crucial point is that those structures are designed to fit the decisionmaking needs of the individual president. (2) Presidents will favor advisors and committee structures that they trust, regardless of statutory hierarchy and authority.

Former governmental officials make this point explicitly. The Tower Commission, mandated to examine the flaws in the Reagan administration's policy process that led to the Iran-Contra scandal, was chaired by three men with long experience in government, Senator John Tower, Senator Edmund Muskie (who had also been President Jimmy Carter's secretary of state), and General Brent Scowcroft (who had been President Gerald Ford's national security advisor and would resume that role under President George H. W. Bush). Its report stated forcefully that the National Security Council (NSC) was the "president's creature" and is "used by each president in a way that reflected his individual preferences and working style" (Tower Commission Report 1987, 13). Jack Watson, head of Carter's transition staff and eventually his White House chief of staff, claimed that "one of the clearest lessons is that the White House staff organization is a personal reflection of the president and what will work beautifully for one man may not work at all for the next president" (Bonafede 1976, 1543-44).

JFK and LBJ's key advisors agreed with this assessment. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who served both men, said it eloquently: "The real organization of government at higher echelons is not what you find in textbooks or organization charts. It is how confidence flows down from the president" (Destler 1974, 90). McGeorge Bundy, national security advisor for JFK and LBJ (until 1966), wrote of national security decision making in a 1961 memo to JFK: "This is really your private business ... The essence of it is that the organization...

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