Memo Review

Good policy memos are clear and concise. They use effective structure and well-conceived arguments. They are persuasive. Hitting all of these marks is a challenge for policy writers. In order to demonstrate best practices of policy writing, the blog posts below evaluate policy memos and consider both strengths, and areas for improvement.

Israeli Nuclear Program: Memo to President Nixon from Henry Kissinger, 7/16/69

Pres. Nixon, Golda Meir and Henry Kissinger
President Richard Nixon (center), Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (left), and Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger (right), in the Oval Office.


Memo Review by Alex Dubin

Memo: https://www.nixonlibrary.gov/sites/default/files/virtuallibrary/documents/mr/071969_israel.pdf

            Israel is thought to have developed its nuclear program over time in the 1950s and 1960s, likely with the capability to build weapons by the late 1960s.[1] The Israeli government had maintained a policy of secrecy over its nuclear program, pursuing a policy of nuclear ambiguity. It was widely believed to have between 90-200 weapons,[2] although Israel had never officially tested a nuclear weapon.... Read more about Israeli Nuclear Program: Memo to President Nixon from Henry Kissinger, 7/16/69

1995 Moscow Summit, "Moment of Truth": Memo to President Clinton from Strobe Talbott, 4/15/1995

Clinton and Yeltsin, Vancouver April 1993

Memo Review by Alex Dubin, HKS MPP

            The end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union generated an enormous peace dividend and left the U.S. as the world’s sole superpower. However, the question of how to effectively engage with post-Soviet Russia loomed large over U.S. policytowards Europe.... Read more about 1995 Moscow Summit, "Moment of Truth": Memo to President Clinton from Strobe Talbott, 4/15/1995

LBJ's Conversation with Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban: Memo to President Johnson from Secretary of State Rusk, 05/26/1967

Abba Eban and LBJ

Memo Review by Alex Dubin, HKS MPP

In this 1967 policy memo, Secretary of State Dean Rusk writes a concise and compelling memo to President Lyndon Johnson, which includes talking points for an upcoming meeting during a tense period just before the Six Day War. Although Rusk’s solution ultimately did not prevent the outbreak of the war, his writing is an excellent example of understanding and supporting an audience composed solely of a critical decisionmaker.... Read more about LBJ's Conversation with Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban: Memo to President Johnson from Secretary of State Rusk, 05/26/1967

U.S. and Soviet Anti-Satellite Capabilities: Memo to President Ford from National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, 07/24/1976

President Ford and Brent Scowcroft
President Gerald Ford and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. The U.S. National Archives

Memo Review by Alex Dubin, HKS MPP

The Space Race began in October 1957 when the Soviets shocked the United States by launching Sputnik 1 into orbit. The U.S. soon followed with a satellite of its own, eventually overtaking and beating the Soviets by landing humans on the Moon in 1969. The Space Age, however, was beginning to create a nascent infrastructure of satellites in space, the capabilities of which the U.S. and world were increasingly relying on.... Read more about U.S. and Soviet Anti-Satellite Capabilities: Memo to President Ford from National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, 07/24/1976

Memos regarding "Signing Kyoto Protocol" and "Climate Change COP-6 Negotiations Issues," sent to President Bill Clinton, November 2000

Memos reviewed by Anna Lipscomb, HKS MPP

Smoke Pollution

“Signing Kyoto Protocol – Timing” (February 6, 1998) and “Climate Change COP6-Negotiation Issues” (November 10, 2000), obtained by the National Security Archive through a Clinton Library Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, offer a behind-the-scenes look into the Clinton Administration’s deliberations on international climate change policy decisions and actions at the Kyoto Protocol and Conference of the Parties (COP-6). Although these two memos address two different points of global climate discussions – one at the end of a negotiation and the other at the beginning -- they both described opportunities for the Clinton Administration to advance its climate goals during periods of uncertainty in domestic politics.... Read more about Memos regarding "Signing Kyoto Protocol" and "Climate Change COP-6 Negotiations Issues," sent to President Bill Clinton, November 2000

Memo From: DNC To: JFK Campaign-coordinators, "Remain alert to public's various attitudes towards 'Religion Issues.'" Date: Oct. 1960

Memo reviewed by Eugenia Soiles, HKS MPA/MC

JFK speaking with priest

This very short memo addresses a critical problem for Democrats in the 1960 campaign. James Wine, the author of the memo, begins with the bottom line upfront (BLUF) by describing that attitudes around religion across the country range from indifferent to severely critical. At the time, there had never been a US President who was a Roman Catholic, and certain parts of the country had varied feelings on JFK’s religious background.

... Read more about Memo From: DNC To: JFK Campaign-coordinators, "Remain alert to public's various attitudes towards 'Religion Issues.'" Date: Oct. 1960

"Removing Barriers to Mental Health Services in Ohio" a Memo from The Buckeye Institute

Memo reviewed by Daniel Estupiñan, HKS MPP, Amy Mahler, HKS MPA/MC, and Katie Wesdyk, HKS MPP

Mental Health

The Buckeye Institute provided a memo recommending the removal of barriers to mental health services in Ohio. A case is made to recognize out-of-state practitioners permanently to provide mental health support, but lacks a clear connection from problem to proposed solution.... Read more about "Removing Barriers to Mental Health Services in Ohio" a Memo from The Buckeye Institute

Health Economist's memo to U.S. Treasury Secretary - "Urgent Need for Changes in Health Reform Implementation"

Memo reviewed by Oriol Solé Borràs, HSPH Masters candidate, 2021

Healthcare reform

David Cutler, a Harvard health economist and an advisor to President Obama’s 2008 campaign sent in May 2010 a memo to Larry Summers, the Treasury Secretary at that time, arguing that the White House had the wrong team in charge of health reform, and they needed to overhaul their implementation strategy.
... Read more about Health Economist's memo to U.S. Treasury Secretary - "Urgent Need for Changes in Health Reform Implementation"

Memo from Director of U.S. Dept. of Interior, Re: Recycling and Reduction of Disposable Plastic Bottles in Parks

Memo reviewed by César Monarrez, 2021 MBA/MPA candidate, MIT Sloan and HKS

    Plastic Bottles in trash

The National Parks Service (NPS) memo PM 11-03 regarding disposable water bottle policies is a mildly compelling document that, despite having some noteworthy elements, loses potential impact due to a lack of urgency and a muddled argument structure.... Read more about Memo from Director of U.S. Dept. of Interior, Re: Recycling and Reduction of Disposable Plastic Bottles in Parks

"Building a Secure Energy Future" a Memo From: Brookings Institute, To: President-Elect Barack Obama

Memo reviewed by Leah Foecke, HKS MPP

Factories and smoke

Apr 30, 2020
This memo is an example of a cross-organization memo – not written within an existing organizational hierarchy – that provides advice and advocacy from two Brookings Institution fellows to the newly-elected Barack Obama.... Read more about "Building a Secure Energy Future" a Memo From: Brookings Institute, To: President-Elect Barack Obama

Peter Navarro, Assistant to President Trump, sends Memo Warning of Mass Coronavirus Death Circulated in January, 2020

Memos reviewed by Lauren Brodsky, HKS Lecturer in Public Policy

Picture of Covid-19 Memo

The New York Times and Axiom have exposed the pleas, on the record, of Assistant to the President Peter Navarro in the months leading to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s excruciating now to read these memos, written January and February, whereby Navarro lit the siren for the administration to act quickly and prepare.... Read more about Peter Navarro, Assistant to President Trump, sends Memo Warning of Mass Coronavirus Death Circulated in January, 2020

Murrow, Kennedy and memos on Cuba

Memo reviewed by Lauren Brodsky, HKS Lecturer in Public Policy

Kennedy Coin

Sitting slightly reclined, with a steady stream of cigarette smoke visible to the viewer, esteemed journalist Edward R. Murrow faces a television screen with a view of a Boston apartment. It is 1953. Murrow is interviewing junior Senator John F. Kennedy, and his wife, Jackie, for the show People to People.... Read more about Murrow, Kennedy and memos on Cuba

"Present at the Catastrophe: Standing By as Turks Cleanse Kurds in Northern Syria," US Envoy Criticizes Trump Administration

Memo reviewed by Michelle Barton, HKS MC/MPA

Russian and Turkish military vehicles patrolling in NE Syria

This foreign policy memo  (found in the New York Times article by Eric Schmitt, 11/7/19) is a clear and concise piece of writing in response to a mammoth decision in U.S. foreign policy. It was written to experts at the Department of State, and was unclassified. The memo deals with a catastrophic, unilateral decision to withdraw by President Trump, made in consultation with no area experts, and has since caused rapid deterioration on the ground in Syria. The author, Ambassador William Roebuck, has been in and out of Syria for the last two years.... Read more about "Present at the Catastrophe: Standing By as Turks Cleanse Kurds in Northern Syria," US Envoy Criticizes Trump Administration

"Our Response to Soviet Intervention in Afghanistan," a Memo to President Jimmy Carter, From: Assistant for National Security Affairs, Date: 12/29/79

Memo reviewed by James J. McDonnell, National Security Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School

Adult man with gun in war battle black and white

Brzezinski, the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (currently called the National Security Advisor) under Jimmy Carter, wrote a memo to outline what response the U.S. should take to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.... Read more about "Our Response to Soviet Intervention in Afghanistan," a Memo to President Jimmy Carter, From: Assistant for National Security Affairs, Date: 12/29/79

"Reinvigoration of Human Rights Policy," a Memo To: Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, 10/26/81

Memo reviewed by Andreas L. Hahn, 2020 Fletcher MALD Candidate

Globe and many faces

(Memorandum From the Deputy Secretary of State (Clark) and the Under Secretary of State for Management (Kennedy) to Secretary of State Haig[1], 26 October 1981)

The memo on the “Reinvigoration of Human Rights Policy” left an impact on me because it distilled abstract concepts in a persuasive way. But what made this particular memo stick, compared to an abundance of other memos on the topic?... Read more about "Reinvigoration of Human Rights Policy," a Memo To: Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, 10/26/81

"Iraq: The Perfect Storm" - Memo to Secretary of State, Collin Powell from Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs on the dangers of invading Iraq

Memo reviewed by Dimas Muhamad, HKS Master's candidate

Soldiers deploying to Iraq

In 2002, William Burns, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, wrote to Secretary of State Collin Powell on the dangers of invading Iraq in this memo. Overall, the substance of the memo is quite strong. However, in terms of writing, policy writers can learn from certain improvements that could have been made.... Read more about "Iraq: The Perfect Storm" - Memo to Secretary of State, Collin Powell from Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs on the dangers of invading Iraq