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Presidential Judgment: Foreign Policy Decision Making in the White House (Introduction)

On January 9, 1961, eleven days prior to his inauguration as the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy addressed the Massachusetts Legislature for the last time as a Senator. In a moving segment of this speech, Kennedy declared:

“When at some future date the high court of history sits in judgment on each one of us…our success or failure in whatever office we hold will be measured by the answers to four questions:

Were we truly men of courage?
Were we truly men of integrity?
Were we truly men of judgment?
Were we truly men of dedication?”

What did President Kennedy have in mind when he stated that his success or failure would be determined by whether he was “truly a man of judgment?” Most would agree that judgment is important because the president is compelled to face many situations where the stakes are high and the outcomes profoundly uncertain. After all the staff work has been completed, the responsibility for decision, and therefore the burden of judgment, lies with the president alone. But—unlike courage, integrity, or dedication—it is difficult to grasp what “judgment” means.

This book is the product of an Institute of Politics (IOP) study group at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, the purpose of which was to examine the judgment of six American presidents in the context of their foreign policy decisions: Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush. To provide first hand accounts of presidential judgment in action, five distinguished former practitioners delivered presentations that offer insight into the presidents they knew best.

In addition, the nation’s thirty-eighth President, Gerald Ford, shared his personal reflections on the difficult foreign policy decisions he made while in the White House. These six presentations considered foreign policy decisions from the perspective of a president and his staff forced to operate with neither perfect information nor the benefit of hindsight.

The practitioners in this book certainly do not claim to resolve the mysteries surrounding judgment. In fact, they appear to disagree, or differ significantly in emphasis, concerning whether judgment is the product of an individual capacity or a decision making process. Seen as a whole, their presentations highlight the importance of three factors that contribute to presidential judgment: (1) the structure of the National Security Council (NSC) and the flow of information to the president; (2) the substance of the president’s beliefs about foreign policy; and (3) the intellectual style, experience, temperament, and character of the president. The concepts of structure, substance, and style are important, but the preactitioners in this book also imply that examples of presidential decisions must be examined with close attention to particulars in order to fully understand the meaning of judgment.


In his presentation, Robert Bowie explains how Dwight Eisenhower utilized a structured, formal process in the National Security Council to develop foreign policy. Judgment cannot be separated from the process used to arrive at decisions, Bowie argues, and the Eisenhower administration’s discipline and attention to detail led to a coherent and sustainable strategy of containment that governed U.S. foreign policy for the next forty years.

Ted Sorensen argues that judgment is “absolutely the most essential element in presidential decision making (and) far more important than organization, structure, procedures, and machinery.” Instead of process, Sorensen traces John F. Kennedy’s judgment to four specific elements of the President’s character—Kennedy’s sense of responsibility, priority, objectivity, and history—and he describes Kennedy’s judgment in action by analyzing sixteen of his decisions during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.

Francis Bator explains why he believes that the common opinion that Lyndon Johnson was “no good at foreign policy”—that he relied on “hawkish advisors and split the difference when they disagreed”—is mistaken. Instead, Bator argues that Johnson’s experience as Senate Majority Leader provided very good preparation for his management of foreign poluicy in general and alliance politics in particular.

In a wide-ranging discussion with the group, former President Gerald Ford examines a variety of decisions he made during his presidency and emphasizes the importance of character and temperament in foreign policy judgment. In particular, Ford argues that his controversial decision to attend the CSCE Helsinki Conference in 1975 opened the door for a Final Accord whose human rights provisions fueled dissident movements throughout Eastern Europe and initiated the collapse of communism.

Jeane Kirkpatrick argues that Ronald Reagan’s prescient grasp of the fragility of Soviet Communism resulted from his passionate and unshakable personal conviction that “the free individual is the creative principle in the society and the economy.” Kirkpatrick shows how Reagan’s belief system influenced his decision making style and led him to adopt policies that played a critical role in ending the Cold War.

Finally, Brent Scowcroft argues that George Bush exhibited a unique instinct for foreign policy as president that was shaped by his extensive experience in foreign affairs prior to assuming the presidency. Scowcroft describes the way in which Bush’s pre-presidential experience in the executive branch taught him the importance of a smoothly functioning NSC process, and he suggests that Bush’s instinct for foreign affairs is manifested in policies that made the peaceful end of the Cold War “seem so natural and inevitable” when it could have been otherwise.

While these arguments tell us much about presidential judgment, the discussion period following each presentation yielded numerous additional insights and anecdotes. Among other things, the students learned what Ronald Reagan might have done, given his approach to the use of force, had he been president after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990; how Dwight Eisenhower’s NSC could be used to avert crises in the age of CNN; and why President Bush did not consider invading Baghdad “a serious option” during the Gulf War in 1991.

The Institute of Politics strives to teach its students that a life devoted to public service is valuable because of the contribution it makes to the nation or community. But since experience in an important element in sound decision making, out study group also learned that a life of involvement in public service is valuable because it serves to cultivate judgment. For both reasons, it is the Institute’s hope that the opportunity to examine presidential judgment and interact with former practitioners has helped to instill Harvard students with a desire to pursue careers in public service. This book reproduces the flavor of our study group experience in the hopes of motivating others as well.

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