Harry S. Truman Library: Papers of George M. Elsey

Notes on a Meeting at the White House, January 31, 1951 1

top secret

The following persons were present:

  • The President
  • General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower
  • The Vice President2
  • The Speaker of the House3
  • Dean G. Acheson, The Secretary of State
  • John W. Snyder, The Secretary of the Treasury
  • General George C. Marshall, The Secretary of Defense
  • J. Howard McGrath, The Attorney General
  • Jesse M. Donaldson, The Postmaster General
  • Oscar L. Chapman, The Secretary of the Interior
  • Charles F. Brannan, The Secretary of Agriculture
  • Charles Sawyer, The Secretary of Commerce
  • Maurice J. Tobin, The Secretary of Labor
  • W. Stuart Symington, Chairman, National Security Resources Board
  • Charles E. Wilson, Director of Defense Mobilization
  • W. Averell Harriman, Special Assistant to the President
  • John R. Steelman, The Assistant to the President
  • George M. Elsey, Administrative Assistant to the President

The President and General Eisenhower entered the Cabinet Room at 2:35 P.M. After General Eisenhower had greeted those present, the President invited him to take a seat at the end of the table so that he could be seen by all those present.

The President said that he had asked “Ike” to tell the Cabinet what he had seen in Europe and to repeat some of the things he had told the President at lunch.4

General Eisenhower began by reminding everyone that he had been asked to be Supreme Allied Commander of the military forces of 12 governments. The purpose of his command was to defend Western Europe. It was, he said, a sad commentary on the state of the world that we had to spend so much of our energy at this time on building up defenses of Europe. Western Europe is the seat of our culture and our civilization. Our literature, our art, our religions, our system of government and our ideas of justice and democracy all come from Western Europe. In Western Europe there are about 350 million people, tremendous industrial capacity, and a highly skilled and educated population. Why, General Eisenhower asked, since Europe has all of these resources, is there so great a fear of Russia? Why should Europe be afraid of 190 million backward people?

General Eisenhower said the answer was simple; there is unity on the part of the Russians and disunity on the part of the West. Russian unity is forced unity, it is unity at the point of a bayonet, but it is still unity. General Eisenhower said he conceives his job as being in large part an effort to bring about a unity in the defense of Western Europe and, he said, if he could succeed in doing that, most of the danger would end.

“My first job” General Eisenhower said, “was to go around these countries and find out what they had in their hearts. I wanted to see how they feel about these questions.” His itinerary had included (in [Page 451] this order) Paris, Brussels, The Hague, Copenhagen, Oslo, London, Lisbon, Rome, Luxembourg, Germany, Paris, Iceland and, finally Ottawa.

Every place he went, Eisenhower said, he recited to officials the advantages which the West possesses. He got everybody to agree that the Western nations could tell Russia to go to hell if they only would get together, raise enough men, and produce enough equipment. There was agreement on this, because everywhere he went he found that there was confidence that the communists in Western Europe presented no grave menace and the opposition could be overcome.

General Eisenhower spoke at some length on the nature of communism in Western Europe, as it appeared to him on this visit. He felt that there is only a small hard-core of communists in each country, even in France and Italy, where supposedly the communists are fairly strong. He admitted that there was a fanatic, highly organized core which is very skillful in getting a fairly sizeable number of people to vote communistic in elections, but he thinks that most of the people who vote the communistic ticket really don’t care very much about it and would drop away in time of trouble. The real communist danger at the moment is in its latest manifestation, that of “neutralism.” The communists are busy fostering the idea of a “third force.” They are trying very hard to persuade large numbers of people that Western European countries ought to be neutral. This appeals to the timid folks, and, the indecisive ones who don’t want to have to make up their minds. Neutralism is only a wishful hope, Eisenhower said, but we have to recognize that it has a fairly wide appeal. Neutralism has a number of Western European leaders worried, especially Pleven, and neutralism is definitely a drag on French efforts and probably will be until after the General Elections are held about six months from now.

General Eisenhower said that, while he had found general agreement on the principles of a unified defense for Europe and general agreement that such defense could be successfully organized, he found it much tougher in trying to reach an understanding with each country as to its contribution. At each stop he would ask the question “What are you going to do? You have to tell me exactly what you are going to do so that I can report back to the United States Government.”

The answers to this question, Eisenhower said, all tripped on one hard tough fact. That fact is the poverty, the extreme poverty of Western Europe. General Eisenhower said he had found that this poverty meant that no one yardstick could be used to measure the contributions of the various countries. We couldn’t, for example, expect the Western Europeans to spend the same percentage of their budget on defense that we are going to spend. They are so desperately poor that some of them just can’t spend any more than they are already doing. In Norway, [Page 452] for example, the people live on fish and potatoes and many of them are just scratching out an existence. Despite their poverty, the Norwegian Cabinet has just voted an increase in their defense budget. It doesn’t look like much of an increase to us, but it will mean a lot on their standard of living. Incidentally, General Eisenhower remarked, we certainly don’t need to have any doubts about Norway. The Norwegians went through one occupation and they aren’t going through another one. He is convinced that they will resist to destruction rather than give in to the Russians.

Another country that is trying hard is France. France has just increased her military service to 18 months. That may not look like much to some people over here, since we already require 21 months and are trying to raise it, but the French don’t permit any exemptions—no deferments at all. General Eisenhower spoke of a specific case of a widow who had lost four sons in World War II, and her fifth and last son was about to go into the army. People accepted things like that in France and nobody got deferred.

Every country, Eisenhower said, seemed to him to be trying hard except Holland. He can’t understand Holland or the attitude of the Dutch. All they seem interested in is a navy, which doesn’t make any sense to him, when they ought to be worrying about the land defenses of Holland.

Britain has stepped up her military program tremendously, and General Eisenhower expressed his conviction that the British were pushing hard. He was especially impressed with Shinwell’s efforts. Shinwell was running the British Chiefs of Staff as they have never been run before. A short time ago they recommended against sending more divisions to Europe and Shinwell had told them to get the divisions over there, or he would get some new Chiefs.

General Eisenhower said he didn’t have much to say about Portugal. Portugal can’t reach Europe except by going through Spain. What they Seem most interested in at the time is getting Spain into Western European defense in some manner or other. The Portugal Dictator Salazar impressed General Eisenhower especially.

Rome had worried him some, before he got there, because he had heard what the Italian communists were going to try to do. However, once he arrived, he was impressed by two facts. De Gasperi’s government is really tough with the communists and really on top of the situation. He did not see a single communist demonstrator while he was in Rome. A second fact that impressed him was the conviction of the Italian leaders that their men could and would put up a good fight if they had to. Eisenhower himself was beginning to believe this. The Italians told him, he said, that their own men were very much underrated because of their record in World Wars I and II, but they explain this by saying they have not had, in modern times, a cause they [Page 453] could put their hearts in. In World War I, the leaders had sat on the fence and held out for the highest price, while in World War II Mussolini had done the same thing. Eisenhower said he was convinced that if Italy had the cause and had the leaders, she could fight. He thought the present Italian Government was doing a pretty good job of providing both.

Luxembourg also presented an optimistic picture. Of course, Luxembourg is tiny and doesn’t count for much in terms of men. There are only 300,000 in the whole country. But Luxembourg has just put in universal military service and they seem eager to do all they can. What they need right now is equipment for their men going into the service and General Eisenhower said he had succeeded in getting a promise of enough equipment for Luxembourg when he was in Canada. He said the Luxembourgers had the finest kind of spirit, and he had told them they were leading everyone in morale.

As for Germany, General Eisenhower said, he thought that too many Americans talked too much out loud about Germany. He, personally, would like to have German troops under his command. He had good reason to know what kind of fighters they made. But he did not want Germans in his command unless they came in without conditions and without strings attached. He had made this very clear to all the German leaders he had spoken to and he had made it equally clear that he didn’t give a damn about their quarrels with France. They could settle that themselves, but they certainly weren’t going to use his command as a place or as a means to bargain for improving their condition. He wants their men but he doesn’t want them if it means coming to some kind of terms. Eisenhower said that he had given his opinions very frankly and very bluntly to German leaders, and they seemed to understand.

To conclude the report of his trip, Eisenhower said that he found a “growing confidence” everywhere and that it was evident things were progressing.

As for the matter of military equipment, we have a lot to do here at home. “What we need is a rapid conversion of our economy so that we can get the equipment to those people. We’ve got to get them the equipment to end this idea of neutralism. I don’t know how fast Charlie Wilson is producing tanks, but I know it’s not fast enough. What we need is speed, more speed, and more speed in production. They’re being told by the communist press in every country that it’s no use, that we can’t get the stuff there in time.” Let’s go ahead and give them the stuff, Eisenhower said, and not be slow about it or decide to do it just if they make the right kind of speeches or spend a particular percentage of their budget. After all, we must remember that some of their leaders are in grave danger all of the time. So are their families and all of [Page 454] their relatives. Europeans can’t always talk the way we would like to hear them talk, Eisenhower said, and we ought to realize that. “They can’t talk like I’m doing now, I’m not close to the Kremlin, they are; they’re right under the walls.”

“Gentlemen,” Eisenhower said, “there is only one thing for us to do and that is get this combined spiral of strength going up. These people believe in the cause. Now, they have got to believe in themselves. They have got to have confidence that they can do the job. The way we can give them that confidence is by sending equipment and by sending some American units over there to help morale.”

General Eisenhower then turned to his strategic conception of the defense of Europe. Europe appears to him to be shaped like a long bottleneck. The wide part of the bottle is Russia, the neck is Western Europe, stretching down to the end of the bottle, Spain. On either side of this neck are bodies of water that we control, with land on the far side of the water which is good for air bases. The North Sea with England behind it, is on one side and the Mediterranean with the Near East and North Africa is on the other. We must apply great air and sea power on both these sides and we must rely on land forces in the center. “I want to build a great combination of sea and air strength in the North Sea,” Eisenhower said. “I’d make Denmark and Holland a great ‘hedgehog’ and I’d put 500 or 600 fighters behind them and heavy naval support in the North Sea. I’d do the same sort of thing in the Mediterranean, I’d put a great fleet of air and sea power in the Mediterranean and I’d give arms to Turkey and the ‘Jugs’.” “Then,” Eisenhower went on, “if the Russians tried to move ahead in the center, I’d hit them awfully hard from both flanks. I think if we built up the kind of force I want, the center will hold and they’ll have to pull back.”

That concluded his remarks, General Eisenhower said, but he wanted to make the point again that we ought to mobilize just as speedily in the matériel field as if we were actually at war.

The President asked if there were any questions.

Secretary Sawyer asked about Spain.

General Eisenhower said Spain had 20 divisions and she hated Stalin. “I feel about the question of keeping Spain out the same as I feel about keeping a sinner out of church,” Eisenhower said. “You can’t convert the sinner unless you let him get inside the front door. I realize there are a lot of political problems on Spain but I am a professional soldier and when I have the problem of hitting an enemy I pick up everything I can reach and hit the enemy with it.” He hesitated to speak further on Spain but he wondered if that answered Mr. Sawyer’s question.

Secretary Sawyer said it certainly did.

[Page 455]

Mr. Harriman asked what the European countries think about Spain.

Eisenhower replied that he thought European opposition to letting Spain in was dropping.

Secretary Snyder wondered if the various European countries each wanted its own complete military force, that is, balanced air, naval and land units.

General Eisenhower replied that Holland seemed to be the only country that hadn’t fallen into line. Holland still wants a navy, which doesn’t make any sense at all. The other countries were coming along and weren’t causing any trouble.

The Vice President asked General Eisenhower, in view of the threat which the Soviet Union presents, how big he thought his combined army ought to be at the end of, say, six months.

Eisenhower replied that there ought to be 50 to 60 divisions in Western Europe, not including Germany, and he didn’t know how long this would take. We ought to have them as fast as possible. Of course, we couldn’t begin to have this in six months. He didn’t really know what we should have in six months, except that we should be building as rapidly as possible until we get up to 50 to 60 divisions.

General Eisenhower said that he wanted to comment at this point about a speech he had read some place, by some prominent American—he couldn’t remember who—who had said that, if we build 50 to 60 divisions, this would pose a serious threat to Russia and Russia would be forced to attack. The argument, insofar as he could understand it, Eisenhower said, seemed to be that we oughtn’t to try to build up a defense force because it would be a threat to Russia. This was nonsense. A 50 division force on the Rhine posed no threat to Russia at all and Russia knew it. Fifty divisions couldn’t possibly attack Russia. Fifty divisions on the Rhine is a lot different from 50 divisions on the Vistula. When an army moves forward, it has to leave all kinds of troops on its flanks, and in the zone of the interior. A 50 division army would be too feeble, by the time it got to the borders of Russia, to do anything at all. On the other hand, he thought that a 50 or 60 division force was quite capable of defending Western Europe under the general strategic concept he had outlined above. He thinks that the Russians would believe the same thing.

The Vice President asked again if 60 divisions were adequate if Russia should want to start trouble.

General Eisenhower thought they would, provided, of course, that there were appropriate air and naval supporting forces.

General Eisenhower explained why he wanted American divisions sent to Europe as soon as we could do so. He wants them there to encourage the Europeans and to boost their morale. Nothing would convince the Europeans more than the sight of 10 or 12 United States [Page 456] divisions that we mean business. Of course, we should not plan on keeping our divisions there forever. Once the Europeans build up an adequate force, and get some reserves trained, the Americans can come home.

As for the question he had heard asked a few times about the fate of the Americans if Russia attacked, he thought that could be answered easily too. We only have two divisions there now. If Russia attacked now, we’d probably lose nearly everybody. But, if we have 10 or 12 divisions there, and the Europeans have their forces up to strength, and if Russia attacks, there is no reason for us to lose any sizeable number of men unless somebody makes a terrible blunder. Even if Western Europe could not hold out—and he thinks it can—we would have enough there to be able to make an orderly withdrawal to some place like the Brittany Peninsula or the Cotentin Peninsula. We could hold out long enough for a good evacuation but, Eisenhower said, he wanted to repeat that he didn’t think we would have to pull out.

The Vice President asked if General Eisenhower had been in Europe long enough to form any impression of Russia’s plans and intentions.

General Eisenhower said that he did not know what the Russians might do. He doubts very much that the Russians want to fight now. “I personally think those guys in the Kremlin like their jobs. They can’t see their way through to winning a war now and I don’t think they’ll start one. They know they’ll lose their jobs, or their necks, if they start something they can’t win.” Eisenhower said he did not believe all the Russian propaganda about how the war would start if we armed Germany, or armed Western Europe. Of course, “matches can always be thrown in an open powder key [keg]” and there was always a possibility that something could happen, but he doubted it. “If the Russians really think that 60 or 70 divisions in Western Europe are a threat to them, they are crazy. They have no business going to war over that and I don’t think they’ll do it.”

Secretary Tobin asked about the attitude of the German socialistics [sic].

General Eisenhower replied that Schumacher had been very ill and he had not been able to see him but Schumacher sent word that he was all for European unity and would support General Eisenhower.

The conversation then turned to the arrangements for General Eisenhower’s appearance the following morning at an informal joint session of the Congress in the auditorium of the Library of Congress. The Vice President and the Speaker outlined the arrangements and it was agreed that General Eisenhower would speak for an hour or so. No questions should be asked from the floor, and anybody who wished to have the General answer a question could get his answer by submitting [Page 457] it to one of the four committees before which Eisenhower would appear.

General Eisenhower then returned to some broad observations. “I believe,” he said, “that our civilization is in one hell of a hole. I believe we have to work and work like hell. I believe that we have to go all out and produce just as though we were in a war and that we have to get this spiral of strength going up in Europe. Right now, it is going down. We have got to stop it, turn it around, and make it go up. I have been reading about ‘Gibraltar’ and people who say that we ought to build up our own strength here at home and let Europe go. That’s nonsense. Any isolated fort would fall in a week. How long do you think Gibraltar could hold out if Spain attacked her?” General Eisenhower then turned to the President and apologized, saying that he knew, of course, that neither the President nor any of the others present held those views but that he felt so deeply about this question of standing together that he couldn’t resist expressing himself. “I’m a soldier and I have to do whatever job is given to me. I’m doing this job; because it was given to me but I’m also doing it because I believe in it. I believe very deeply in it.”

Mr. Charles Wilson said that he would like to talk with General Eisenhower just as soon as he could and find out what timetable Eisenhower had in mind for the shipment of equipment to Europe. He had been hard at work on production for the United States, and he wanted to know how these European requirements were going to fit into our own schedules. We were already taking on a lot, and he wanted to know how much more we would have to steam up.

General Eisenhower replied that he wanted to stay in the United States long enough to work out questions like that, so that when he went back he could give definite facts to the European governments.

“As far as equipment goes,” General Eisenhower went on, “as far as tanks and planes go, we have got to turn to a full war basis of production. We must get this curve, this damned curve, up quick. We have got to get the stuff into the hands of the Europeans. The difference here is whether our civilization goes up or goes down, and so I am ready for a tremendous sacrifice.”

Mr. Symington asked if that meant that General Eisenhower did not think that we could have both guns and butter.

Eisenhower replied that answering that question would lead him into too deep water, that he would prefer not to try to answer that question now. What he was sure of was that we would have to produce exactly as if we were going to war. “We have got to ‘convert’ “, he said, “we can’t just pile these new requirements on top of what we are doing—at least I don’t think we can.”

[Page 458]

General Eisenhower, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Symington agreed to talk further on this subject.

Since there were no other questions, the President thanked General Eisenhower for his report and the meeting adjourned at 3:30 P.M.

  1. The source text indicates that these notes were dictated by Presidential Administrative Assistant Elsey on January 31, 1951. These notes are briefly summarized and quoted in Truman, Year of Trial and Hope, p. 258.
  2. Alben W. Barkley.
  3. Sam Rayburn.
  4. No record has been found of the President’s luncheon conversation with General Eisenhower.