Truman Library, Truman papers, PSF–Subject file

Memorandum for the President of Discussion at the 113th Meeting of the National Security Council Held on Wednesday, March 5, 1952 1


top secret

The following notes contain a summary of the discussion at the 113th Meeting of the National Security Council, at which you presided. Admiral Fechteler attended the meeting for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.2

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2. United States Objectives and Courses of Action With Respect to Communist Aggression in Southeast Asia (NSC 124 and Annex to NSC 124; Memo for NSC from Executive Secretary, same subject, dated March 4, 1952)3

The President requested Secretary Acheson to make the first comments on NSC 124, particularly with respect to what decisions the Council might come as to the best handling of the report.

Secretary Acheson expressed the view that it would be premature to try to reach a formal decision on NSC 124, but instead the Council should discuss this and another paper he had in mind, as a means of making progress without commitment. Secretary Acheson then discussed briefly what he described as a “hen, chicken or egg” problem. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, he pointed out, feel that they can not undertake to make detailed studies of the military courses of action open to the United States in Southeast Asia without first obtaining a political decision regarding United States policy in that area. On the other hand, it was difficult to reach a political decision without some knowledge of the capabilities of the military to support certain courses of action. Secretary Acheson went on to point out certain difficulties which were inherent in the views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with respect to the present report. In illustration he cited their view that our allies, notably Britain and France, were expected to support us if we became engaged in a war against Communist China, but that we alone should undertake to run the show. He was also doubtful about the British and French view of what was to be gained by war against Communist China if in the course of it the British and French were to lose their positions in the countries of Southeast Asia for which they were responsible.

Secretary Acheson also emphasized his belief that any paper on Southeast Asia should stress the contingency of a continued deterioration of the situation in Indochina in the absence of any identifiable Communist aggression, and should also take careful account of the possibility that the French might feel compelled to get out of French Indochina. He said that he had discussed this matter at considerable length in Lisbon, and had come to the tentative conclusion that what the French really mean when they stress their difficulties is that they cannot continue to carry their burden both in NATO and in Indochina without additional help from the United States. The French, he said, were also seriously concerned about the ultimate effects of their losses in Indochina on the whole French military manpower reserves. Accordingly, Secretary Acheson [Page 71] suggested that the Senior NSC Staff be asked to undertake a thoroughgoing study of the priority which should be accorded Indochina as compared, for instance, to NATO, and what the United States is really prepared to do in order to keep the French in Indochina.

Secretary Acheson then produced and read from a series of assumptions4 in the political realm which he said the Joint Chiefs of Staff might take as a basis for developing further military studies with regard to United States courses of action in Southeast Asia. If these assumptions could be agreed upon, Secretary Acheson believed that they would solve the Joint Chiefs’ problem of developing studies on military courses of action in the absence of a political decision.

The President then asked Secretary Lovett for his views.

Secretary Lovett explained that the Joint Chiefs of Staff views derive from evidence in their possession of a lack of desire on the part of the British and French to do more than conduct a perimeter defense of Southeast Asia—that is, of British and French opposition to any proposal to broaden the war by carrying it to Communist China. On the other hand, Secretary Lovett agreed emphatically with Secretary Acheson that it would be undesirable to attempt to reach a formal decision on NSC 124 at today’s meeting. He further agreed that the French were very likely to attempt to get us to shoulder a larger part of the costs of the Indochina campaign. Nevertheless, Secretary Lovett expressed strong sympathy with the position taken by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that it was difficult to go further into the details of military courses of action in Southeast Asia in the absence of some clearer idea of the political decision. Actually, said Secretary Lovett, there was nothing really effective that we could do to prevent the Chinese Communists from seizing Indochina if they were prepared to use military force to secure it. Not even military action against Communist China itself could stop this, because a considerable interval would elapse before the effect of military action against Communist China would be felt on the periphery. In short, the effect of a threat of war against Communist China was the hope that it would deter the Chinese Communists from such a course. On the other hand, said Secretary Lovett, if it is not the real intention of the Chinese Communists to seize Indochina by military means, and if we wish to save Indochina over a period of time, it would presumably be very sensible to spend more money, perhaps even at the rate of a billion or a billion and a half dollars a year, in support of resistance there. In any case, this would be very much cheaper than an all-out war against [Page 72] Communist China, which would certainly cost us fifty billion dollars. These matters ought to be explored carefully with the British and French before the United States reaches any final military decisions. Secretary Lovett also expressed his agreement that Indochina was most likely to go by internal subversion or by other means than overt Chinese Communist aggression. Since this matter was not dealt with at any length in NSC 124, Secretary Lovett suggested that the Senior NSC Staff correct this deficiency and consider what the United States could do if the situation in Southeast Asia continued to deteriorate in the absence of identifiable aggression.

The Vice President asked for more details about what we were doing to assist in Indonesia, Burma and Thailand.

Secretary Lovett replied that we had been giving military assistance to Thailand but not to Burma or Indonesia.

The Vice President then inquired about what use might be made of Chinese Nationalist forces. Do we intend, he asked, or do we plan to take such forces with us into China in the event of war with China?

The answer to this, said Secretary Lovett, was “no”. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have strongly recommended against the use of United States ground forces inside China. We would be more likely to use the Nationalist troops as guerrillas or as raiding forces. If we did so, he added, we would of course have to transport such forces to their destinations.

With respect to the views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Southeast Asia, Secretary Lovett said that he wished to emphasize three significant points which they had brought out. The first of these, in paragraph 9,5 noted the grave danger to U.S. security interests should Southeast Asia pass into the Communist orbit. The second was the stress placed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the undesirability of committing United States ground forces in campaigns in the countries of Southeast Asia, and the undesirability of the United States entering into any combined military command for the defense of these countries. Thirdly, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were very emphatic against the United States joining in any warning or ultimatum to Communist China unless we were ready to back it up. We cannot afford to bluff.

In conclusion, Secretary Lovett expressed himself as in accord with the proposal of the Secretary of State that the problem be explored further and that the deficiencies of the present paper be corrected. He proposed, therefore, that NSC 124 be referred to the Senior NSC Staff and that the Joint Chiefs of Staff be requested to [Page 73] elaborate their views on military courses of action on the basis of the political assumptions which the Secretary of State had just read to the Council.

Admiral Fechteler expressed the hope that if this course were adopted by the Council it would prove possible to develop an agreed set of assumptions which would be realistic and would produce meaningful conclusions. Admiral Fechteler expressed the view that the Joint Chiefs of Staff should join in the development of the political assumptions to which Secretaries Acheson and Lovett had referred.

Mr. Lay traced briefly the genesis of NSC 124, and pointed out that the paper had been developed out of fears widely current at the end of 1951 that the Chinese Communists were about to launch an overt attack on Indochina. It was for this reason, said Mr. Lay, that emphasis in the paper had been on courses of action to counter identifiable aggression, rather than on courses of action to counter deterioration of the existing situation or to counter internal subversion in the countries of Southeast Asia.

Mr. Souers suggested that the Senior NSC Staff join with the representatives of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in working out the political assumptions referred to by Secretaries Acheson and Lovett.

Secretary Lovett expressed the opinion that two major problems needed a thorough airing before any real answer could be given to the problem posed for us by the situation in Southeast Asia. First, are the British and French militarily prepared to join us in an ultimatum to Communist China, and to go wherever such a course of action should lead? Secretary Lovett thought the answer was “no” at present. Secondly, inasmuch as it was less likely that we should face naked Chinese aggression in Southeast Asia than a deterioration of the existing situation to a point where the French would throw in the towel, the question we must face is, are we prepared to pick up this towel at a cost, perhaps, of a billion or a billion and a half dollars a year?

Secretary Acheson explained what appeared to him to be the present British and French concern about the type of action proposed in NSC 124. In brief, this was that the courses of action could easily lead to an all-out war against Communist China without actually saving Southeast Asia itself.

General Smith expressed the opinion that when the chips were actually down, the British and French would probably go along with us in the course of action against Communist China. In general, he described the Joint Chiefs of Staff comments as a highly realistic paper. It had, he felt, one deficiency, namely, its tendency to imagine that the British could be held responsible for saving Burma. General Smith expressed the view that while most of the [Page 74] fuss was currently over Indochina, Burma was actually the weakest link in the chain.

Mr. Harriman asked if he was correct in assuming that while the Joint Chiefs of Staff were developing their military studies the State Department would parallel such studies by investigating what could be done to shore up the political structure in Indochina.

Mr. Gorrie raised the question as to whether the courses of action discussed at the meeting were likely to imply the need for a stepping-up of our mobilization effort.

In answer to Mr. Gorrie’s question, Secretary Lovett replied that as far as immediate assistance to Indochina was concerned, such assistance would have to come at the expense of some other area. There simply was not enough to go around. Moreover, he said that should the United States ultimately get into a full-scale war with China, it would be obviously necessary to move into full mobilization. Secretary Lovett also warned that there was no possibility whatever of increasing the rate of production of essential military end items before next December, even if we were now to determine to go to full mobilization.

Mr. Wilson expressed general agreement with the statement of Secretary Lovett, but nevertheless stated that in a few important cases it might well be possible to step up production. However, if we were going to do so it was essential to make the decision now. As an illustration, Mr. Wilson pointed out that it would probably be possible to achieve a 25% increase in Sabre jets in the course of the next year if we really wanted to do so.

Mr. Gorrie then inquired whether it would be necessary to step up the mobilization effort if we issued an ultimatum along the lines indicated in NSC 124.

Secretary Lovett replied, “Unquestionably.”

Mr. Lay then stated to the Council his understanding of the action which it had determined upon with respect to the present paper, namely, that the Senior NSC Staff would undertake to provide a new set of assumptions on the basis of which the Departments of State and Defense would develop further studies on diplomatic and military courses of action in Southeast Asia in the contingency of overt aggression, and secondly, that the Senior NSC Staff would undertake to provide a new report recommending courses of action to be undertaken in the absence of identifiable aggression to counter continued deterioration of the existing situation in Southeast Asia.6

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The National Security Council: 7

Directed the NSC Staff to prepare an agreed set of assumptions, along the lines suggested by the Secretary of State, as a basis for further studies by the Department of State and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, respectively, of diplomatic and military courses of action to counter identifiable Communist aggression in Southeast Asia.
Referred NSC 124 to the NSC Staff for reconsideration in the light of the above studies.
Directed the NSC Staff to prepare for Council consideration a report on U.S. courses of action in Southeast Asia to counter continued deterioration of the existing situation in the absence of identifiable Communist aggression.8

  1. Prepared on Mar. 6, apparently in the NSC Secretariat.
  2. The meeting was attended by all the Council members: President Truman; Vice President Barkley; W. Averell Harriman, Director of Mutual Security; Jack Gorrie, Chairman of the National Security Resources Board; and Secretaries Acheson and Lovett. Among the seven others present were John W. Snyder, Secretary of the Treasury; Charles E. Wilson, Director of Defense Mobilization; Walter Bedell Smith, Director of Central Intelligence; Sidney W. Souers, Special Consultant to the President; and Admiral Fechteler.
  3. Not printed; it enclosed the JCS memorandum to the Secretary of Defense dated Mar. 3, cited in footnote 2, p. 55. (S/SNSC files, lot 63 D 351)
  4. Reference is to the memorandum, supra .
  5. Reference is to paragraph 9 of the memorandum cited in footnote 2, p. 55.
  6. Secretary Acheson prepared a briefer account of this meeting entitled “Report on NSC Meeting”. This document, dated Mar. 5, is in file 790.5/3–552.
  7. Paragraphs a-c constitute NSC Action No. 614. (S/SNSC files, lot 66 D 95)
  8. The plan of action set forth in NSC Action No. 614 was not carried out fully. For a review of subsequent developments with regard to the NSC 124 Series, see the memorandum from John M. Allison, Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, to Acting Secretary Webb, June 25, p. 119. This memorandum serves to clarify much of the intervening documentation on the subject.