National Security Council: Definition, History, Members & Role

Instructor: Andrea Stephenson

Andrea has a Juris Doctor and has spoken at legal conferences on government transparency.

This lesson will discuss the formation and primary role of the National Security Council. Additionally, this lesson will provide the history of the NSC and identify its members.


Could you imagine making important decisions that affect your life and the lives of others completely alone, without having people to discuss the matter with? Well, for national security and foreign policy issues, the President of the United States needs a group of people to discuss these issues with, too. Therefore, under President Truman, the National Security Council was established for just such a purpose.

What is the National Security Council?

The National Security Council (NSC) is a committee created to advise the President on all national security matters, including domestic, military, and foreign matters. The NSC sits under the umbrella of the Executive Office of the President. It is generally comprised of the President's senior national security advisors and cabinet members.

Role of the NSC

The primary role of the NSC is to advise the President regarding integration of foreign, military and domestic policies which relate to national security. It also helps facilitate cooperation between government agencies regarding implementation of such policies. Additionally, the NSC is authorized to evaluate risks to national security, weigh policy options, and provide the President with reports and recommendations regarding actions or policies.

History of the NSC

The NSC was created during Truman's presidency by Congress's enactment of the National Security Act of 1947. The NSC was originally comprised of seven members: the President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Army, the Secretary of Navy, the Secretary of Air Force, and the Chairman of the National Security Resources Board.

President Truman in the Cabinet Room of the White House with the NSC on August 19, 1948
NSC Truman

In 1949, pursuant to the National Security Act Amendments, the NSC was reorganized and moved under the Executive Office of the President. The members were also overhauled, which meant eliminating the Secretaries of Army, Navy and Air Force and adding the Vice President and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

At that time, the NSC staff was also divided into three groups: (1) the Executive Secretary and his staff, (2) personnel on detail, and (3) Consultants to the Executive Secretary. Additionally, NSC standing committees were created in order to handle certain very secretive issues. Further changes were made to the NSC by Truman in 1950-51, including making the head of the Office of Defense Mobilization a member of the senior staff and eliminating both the personnel and Consultants in favor of Senior Staff.

Each administration and President influence both the function and structure of the NSC. Each President's relationships with his advisors, as well as his needs and desires, affect the role of the NSC in the administration's policy and decision making. For example, President Truman preferred to rely on advice from civilian consultants and his secretaries of State and Defense and really only used the NSC during the Korean War. On the other hand, President Eisenhower regularly used the NSC and created within the NSC a structured system in order to review policies.

Other presidents such as Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter preferred a small NSC, and therefore, they each reduced the NSC's size and responsibilities, and for national security matters, they each relied on their respective National Security Advisor, his staff and other heads of governmental agencies. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some presidents such as Nixon expanded both the NSC's members and the NSC's reach into policy.

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