News & Politics

This Scholar Wrote an Entire Book on National Security Council Staffers

And it turns out, their story is pretty interesting.

Photo courtesy of John Gans.

While trying to settle on a subject to tackle in his Ph.D. dissertation, John Gans, a former chief speechwriter for Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, approached his advisor at Johns Hopkins with an idea. “What about the National Security Council?” The advisor initially balked, assuming that the topic had already been thoroughly explored by academics. In his review of the literature, however, Gans found that while there was indeed a surplus of books about presidents and their national security advisors, the NSC staff itself had been largely overlooked. “Well if you think you can do it,” his advisor said, “go ahead and try.” On May 14, Liveright Publishing Corporation released the book that grew out of his dissertation, “White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War.” Gans, now the director of communications and research at the University of Pennsylvania’s global policy institute (and a former high school classmate of mine), recently spoke with Washingtonian about his new book.

So how do you begin your research?

The first thing I needed to do was figure out if there is any way to find out more about the NSC staff—the guys and the gals behind the leaders—and what they were doing and thinking at various points of U.S. history. I decided to use the Reagan administration as a test case to determine whether or not that would be possible. So I flew out to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., and I just started looking at NSC files. What I found was a wealth of NSC staffers’ thoughts because they had written a lot of it down. There were memos, cables, and newspaper clippings that they thought were interesting. After seeing these primary source documents I read history books and biographies, and what became very clear is I’ve got to find these guys—they were mostly men at the time. So I just started looking for people who might be willing to talk to me. Being in Washington helps, and eventually I was able to talk to 10 to 12 NSC staffers from the Reagan era, as well as three of his national security advisors. I did this same process to gather information on every administration starting with Harry S. Truman’s, and then finally when I started doing the book I did Trump. It ended up being kind of a unique look at the people behind the power, and the power of those people to change history and change how Washington works. 

Which administration’s staffs were most decisive to US history?

Well although the national security staff was created in 1947, for about the first 40 years of its history its power emanated directly from leaders in the White House. It wasn’t until the George H.W. Bush administration that the NSC staff was really empowered as an institution. For example, during the Gulf War, the ultimatum that President Bush gave to Saddam Hussain—get out of Kuwait by January 15—was an idea that most people credit to a staffer that at the time very few people had ever heard of, a guy named Richard Haass. He’s gone on to be a regular fixture of NBC’s Morning Joe and the best seller list, and he heads the Council on Foreign Relations. But at the time he was just a staffer, and before he became a staffer he was just a guy who dreamed of working for a president. 

Did you find any other examples of rank-and-file staffers who were really able to help change the course of history?

There was man named Nelson Drew who worked at the NSC during the mid 1990s. It was during the time that Bosnia had completely fallen apart. Clinton was getting killed in the press over inaction, and the world was totally aghast at the violence and tragedy in the Balkans and Bosnia. Eventually, the National Security advisor looked at Drew and a colleague and told them to just figure something out. Just try to come up with something. Start with a white piece of paper and come up with the best plan you can think of and we’ll see what we can do. Everybody in Washington basically had given up, but it was Drew and his colleague who worked with their colleagues at the State Department and the Defense Department and in the intelligence community, and came up with a last ditch plan called the endgame plan. And Clinton said, “OK great let’s do it.” 

Since the plan was going to require a big diplomatic presence, they called in Richard Holbrooke and they said, “This is your plan you’ve got to do it.” But nobody at the White House trusted Holbrooke because he had basically given up on the issue and he had a free spirit and a pretty strong will. So they stuck Nelson Drew on his plane for the shuttle diplomacy. But unfortunately, in August of 1995, they are driving down a mountain near Sarajevo, Drew was in an armored personnel carrier with a few other folks, and their car goes off the road and ends up crashing and Drew ends up dying. And of course Holbrooke is heartbroken and goes on from the tragedy and recommits himself and they get to the Dayton and they end up getting the Dayton Accords, which end the war in Bosnia. Holbrooke becomes a historical figure; everybody knows Richard Holbrooke and Bosnia. But very few people knew Nelson Drew, who was this young former Air Force Colonel who helped come up with the plan to get Holbrooke to Dayton and dies in the process. 

Which previous NSC staff most resembles Trump’s?

I like to say that they are probably most like Reagan’s. And I always joke that to a lot of people in Washington, that would sound like a good thing. Reagan’s cabinet was hugely turbulent on foreign policy. They had people that disagreed to the point of screaming matches, they had a president who wasn’t engaged and didn’t really feel a need to fix those disagreements and the NSC kind of filled in the gaps. And I’m sure there were moments when that was a good thing, but that led to making policy decisions that weren’t probably as sound or as sort of thought through as they should have been. They end up doing Iran Contra, they end up kind of pushing the US into this civil war in Lebanon, where two hundred forty something Marines end up getting killed in a bombing. On the big issues, like Cold War issues, the Reagan administration kind of could get its act together. But on the smaller things, and those little dangerous things that can kind of go wrong in a thousand ways if they’re not looked at carefully, the Reagan administration didn’t pay as close attention, and the NSC got to do whatever they wanted. That’s the one I kind of worry about, but also see as the most similar. And I think that’s one that we should be very cautious about in the years ahead. 

What the lesson of the book for today?

I think the biggest lesson of the book that can be appreciated today is that at a time where there is a lot of distrust in government, and a lot of questions about a so called deep state and all these sorts of things, I think you will come away from the book—I hope—with a lot more trust for those who serve in government. Most of them are well intentioned and deeply committed to the country, trying to find the right answers to very hard questions. However, almost as much through abdication as much as through ambition, the NSC has taken on a lot of power and responsibility for American foreign policy—probably too much of it. And that has resulted in a Washington that doesn’t work very well, and isn’t built very well to fight wars. And so while I hope that people will appreciate that the public servants themselves are deeply patriotic and passionate and committed, that doesn’t do very much when the system doesn’t work.

Senior Writer

Luke Mullins is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine focusing on the people and institutions that control the city’s levers of power. He has written about the Koch Brothers’ attempt to take over The Cato Institute, David Gregory’s ouster as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, the collapse of Washington’s Metro system, and the conflict that split apart the founders of Politico.