Eisenhower Library, Eisenhower papers, Whitman file

Memorandum of Discussion at the 179th Meeting of the National Security Council, Friday, January 8, 1954,1

top secret
eyes only


Present at the 179th meeting of the Council were the President of the United States, presiding; the Vice President of the United States; the Secretary of State; the Secretary of Defense; the Director, Foreign Operations Administration; the Director, Office of Defense Mobilization. Also present were the Secretary of the Treasury; the Attorney General (for Item 2); the Director, Bureau of the Budget; the Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission (for Items 1 and 2); the Deputy Secretary of Defense2 (for Item 3); the Secretaries of the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (for Item 3); the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Director of Central Intelligence; Sherman Adams, the Assistant to the President; Robert Cutler, Special Assistant to the President; C. D. Jackson, Special Assistant to the President; Gen. Persons, Deputy Assistant to the President; the NSC Representative on Internal Security; the Assistant White House Staff Secretary; the Executive Secretary, NSC; and the Deputy Executive Secretary, NSC.

Following is a summary of the discussion at the meeting and the chief points taken.

1. Significant world developments affecting U.S. security

The Director of Central Intelligence first briefed the Council on the military situation in Indochina. The French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, consisting of ten battalions, was now surrounded by approximately three Vietminh divisions. It was not yet clear whether the Vietminh would launch a frontal attack on the French position or invest it and move south toward the Thai frontier. Though in no immediate danger, the French were somewhat disturbed. While Dien [Page 948] Bien Phu was a strong position, the French were actually locked up in it, and fresh Vietminh battalions were en route.

In the center, where the Vietminh made their first thrust, the situation was still fluid. New French reinforcements were coming, and they should be able to clean up the Vietminh column.

Admiral Radford commented that General Navarre had told him that the Vietminh might well be able to take Dien Bien Phu if they were willing to commit the three full divisions and take the resulting heavy losses. Admiral Radford did not believe, however, that the Vietminh force was large enough both to besiege Dien Bien Phu and also move forces south into Laos. Accordingly, Admiral Radford believed that the Vietminh would probably avoid an all-out assault on Dien Bien Phu.

Mr. Allen Dulles went on to point out that the only purpose to be served by a Vietminh attack on this fortress would be the psychological damage which they could do the French will to continue the war in Indochina. This political and psychological advantage might seem to the Vietminh to be worth the military loss that they would suffer.

. . . . . . .

4. United States objectives and courses of action with respect to Southeast Asia (NSC 177 and Special Annex to NSC 177)3

General Cutler, in introducing the report on Southeast Asia, stated that in accordance with his discussion of the paper with the President, there would be no reference to the Special Annex as such. The contingencies referred to in the Special Annex would henceforth be discussed only orally, and all copies of the Annex would be recalled for destruction. General Cutler also stated that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had not yet been able to reach a final decision as to their views on NSC 177 or on the problem set forth in the Special Annex. They would therefore prefer that the Council make no decision on NSC 177 at this meeting.

General Cutler then proceeded to read to the Council many of the most important sections of the report and to summarize such portions as he did not read. He also referred to the courses of action in the two contingencies envisaged in the Special Annex: One, courses of action in the event that the French insist that they will pull out of Indochina unless we participate militarily in the war; and two, courses of action if the French state that they will pull out of Indochina in any event.

After General Cutler had finished his briefing of NSC 177, the President stated that he wanted to ask a few basic questions. First, why did the French persist in their unwillingness to allow the Associated States to put the case of Communist aggression against any [Page 949] of them before the UN? He had understood why the French were originally opposed to this move, but he could not understand why French objections persisted now that France had declared the Associated States to be independent.

Secretary Dulles explained that French reluctance stemmed from French sensitivity with regard to the French position in North Africa. If the Associated States were to go to the UN, the Moroccan issue would almost certainly be raised.

The President commented that this seemed to be yet another case where the French don’t know what to do—whether to go it alone or to get assistance from other nations clandestinely. They want to involve us secretly and yet are unwilling to go out openly to get allies in their struggle. For himself, said the President with great force, he simply could not imagine the United States putting ground forces anywhere in Southeast Asia, except possibly in Malaya, which we would have to defend as a bulwark to our off-shore island chain. But to do this anywhere else was simply beyond his contemplation. Indeed, the key to winning this war was to get the Vietnamese to fight. There was just no sense in even talking about United States forces replacing the French in Indochina. If we did so, the Vietnamese could be expected to transfer their hatred of the French to us. I can not tell you, said the President with vehemence, how bitterly opposed I am to such a course of action. This war in Indochina would absorb our troops by divisions!

As to the build-up of the native forces, said the Vice President, one must realize that the French talk one way but feel another. What he had seen when he was in Indochina had given rise to the gravest doubts as to the likelihood of any really strong Vietnamese national army, at least any army built up to the levels contemplated in the Navarre Plan. General de Lattre had certainly favored such a build-up, and the Vietnamese had liked him. But Generals Navarre and Cogny actually believe that the Vietnamese cannot really fight unless led by French officers. The Vietnamese, on the other hand, doubt that the French really want to train them in large numbers. Essentially, continued the Vice President, the French are fighting in the hope of keeping Vietnam in the French Union, whereas the Vietnamese really want independence outside the French Union. These objectives are incompatible, and when you pin General Navarre down he admits that the great issue as to the success of the war in Indochina is not one of matériel but, rather, of men. He does not indicate very much confidence in the training program for the native forces. This, said the Vice President, was of course a pessimistic view, but the indigenous forces are the key to success or failure. While at present plans call for the building up of the Vietnamese forces to a point [Page 950] where they can take over the defense of their own country, there was considerable question whether the French would really prove willing to allow us to assist them with this training program. In short, the situation was not as good as it looked on paper.

Admiral Radford said he was prepared to grant the Vice President’s point, but that at least the French had agreed to receive two U.S. officers to assist with the training program.

The President then inquired whether General Navarre could be induced to agree to let us take over some considerable number of their training camps, with perhaps several hundred U.S. officers instead of two. Admiral Radford replied that in any case the French had certainly resisted such proposals in the past, as they have also been reluctant to share any of their planning for the conduct of the war with U.S. officers.

The essence of the problem, said the Vice President, was political. The French certainly want to win the war in Indochina, but they want to win it without building up the Vietnamese to the point where they could win it alone.

The President commented that in view of the fact that Frenchmen back at home were so thoroughly sick of the war in Indochina, one would imagine that the French would be glad to have the Vietnamese bear the brunt.

The trouble was, answered the Vice President, that French are aware that if the Vietnamese become strong enough to hold their country alone, they would proceed to remove themselves from the French Union. To this the President commented that if the French had been smart they would long since have offered the Associated States independence on the latters’ own terms. We had made such an offer to the Puerto Ricans recently, and they had all run to cover. In any event, said the President, if the United States could take over a good part of the training of the native forces in Indochina, it would relieve the French non-coms for combat.

Admiral Radford agreed with this judgment on the need for additional French non-coms, but pointed out that the real reasons why the French were still fighting this war after seven years was their earlier reluctance to train any of the Vietnamese.

The President said that one of the outstanding failures of the Western world in Asia was its inability to produce good fighting material in the Asian countries for which Western powers were responsible. The Communists were more effective. They got hold of the most unlikely people and turned them into great fighters.

The Vice President said that in the course of a discussion he had had with General Trapnell, the point had been made that what was lacking to induce the Vietnamese to fight was a “cause”. General Trapnell had [Page 951] argued against this view, and insisted that if the native soldiers were well led, well equipped and well trained, they would fight. No “cause” was so important as these considerations. This, said the Vice President, was of course a controversial view, but it was an interesting observation, which made the Vice President feel that the President’s idea of assisting the Associated States with a large training mission might be a very effective measure.

At this point General Cutler stated that NSC 177 had reached the conclusion that there was no danger of a French military defeat in Indochina except in the event of overt Chinese aggression. Moreover, Admiral Radford, in a conversation with him, had expressed the opinion that the French could not possibly get out of Indochina, since most of them would be murdered in the process of trying to get out. Accordingly, said General Cutler, wasn’t the real question before the Council whether we propose to give in if the French turn to us and request the participation of U.S. forces in the war in Indochina?

Secretary Dulles pointed out that the French had not asked us for any combat forces, but General Cutler said that he understood that they had asked for additional U.S. aircraft together with pilots to fly them, and was not this the camel getting his head through the door?

Admiral Radford broke in to say that there was a certain amount of history in this issue. He pointed out that when he was Commander-in-Chief in the Pacific he had been given orders to draw up plans to assist the French in the air. He had done just this,4 and he now felt that the United States should do everything possible to forestall a French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Indeed, if necessary we should send an aircraft carrier to assist the French if they appear to be in danger of losing this strong point. The French Air Force had fought well, but its upkeep and maintenance was poor.

Secretary Humphrey said he simply did not see how we could talk of sending people, as opposed to money, to bail the French out. When we start putting our men into Indochina, how long will it be before we get into the war? And can we afford to get into such a war?

Admiral Radford said that of course we already had a lot of men in Indochina now, though none of them in combat operations. Nevertheless, he insisted, we are really in this war today in a big way.

Secretary Humphrey repeated his arguments against sending American troops to Indochina, and said that although he appreciated how serious the loss of Dien Bien Phu could be, it could not be, he [Page 952] thought, bad enough to involve the United States in combat in Indochina.

The President commented that even if we did not send pilots we could certainly send planes and men to take over the maintenance of the planes.

Governor Stassen queried whether this would be enough to stave off the loss of the Dien Bien Phu base. Admiral Radford explained that the French situation at the base was serious because the Vietminh had succeeded in moving up heavy anti-aircraft support. The French feel that they are not capable of destroying these antiaircraft guns, whereas Admiral Radford was convinced that our pilots could destroy them.

The President commented that if any of our people were to get into this jungle fighting, they should certainly be given the proximity fuse or VT fuse bombs, not just ordinary bombs. Let’s hurry up and give them some.

General Cutler again pointed out to the members of the Council that there was nothing whatever in NSC 177 which authorized the introduction of U.S. combat forces into Indochina at this time.

The President replied that Admiral Radford was, of course, not referring to general policy but to a specific action with reference to the Indochina war. It was certainly going to be necessary to work out some way by which our planes could be used. Obviously we couldn’t just fly them into combat off the carrier.

Secretary Humphrey again expressed his great concern lest this move involve the United States in the war, and General Cutler asked the Secretary of State if this might not well be the first step by which the French would proceed to unload their military responsibility on the United States. Did not the Secretary of State fear this consequence?

Secretary Dulles said that he did not believe that Admiral Radford’s proposal would have this consequence, and the President added that while no one was more anxious than himself to keep our men out of these jungles, we could nevertheless not forget our vital interests in Indochina.

General Cutler expressed his strong opposition to this course of action, and Secretary Humphrey asked the question, “Suppose the French were to give up and turn the whole country over to the Communists. Would the United States then interfere?” The President replied no, we would not intervene, but that we had better go to full mobilization. Speaking to the Secretary of the Treasury, the President said what you’ve got here is a leaky dike, and with leaky dikes it’s sometimes better to put a finger in than to let the whole structure be washed away.

[Page 953]

But, said General Cutler, how about the alternative of making the French do it? To this both the President and Admiral Radford replied, in effect, what else have we been doing all these years?

Admiral Radford went on to speculate that if we could put one squadron of U.S. planes over Dien Bien Phu for as little as one afternoon, it might save the situation. Weren’t the stakes worth it? We were already in this thing in such a big way that it seemed foolish not to make the one small extra move which might be essential to success.

The President thought … [of ] a little group of fine and adventurous pilots. … Then, continued the President, we should give these pilots U.S. planes without insignia and let them go. That, said the President, was the right way to use the planes from the aircraft earlier, and this all could be done without involving us directly in the war, which he admitted would be a very dangerous thing. Admiral Radford also believed that some such arrangement as this could be worked out.

Secretary Wilson then inquired whether we proposed to give the French the extra planes for which they had asked as an emergency measure. He thought we could do at least this much for them.

Admiral Radford replied to Secretary Wilson by pointing out that the obstacle in this situation was financial. To provide the French with these additional planes would cost more than the allocated funds.

The President turned to the Secretary of the Air Force, who sat behind him, and asked whether we would not be glad to get rid of some of these B–26’s. When Secretary Talbott replied in the affirmative, the President inquired whether we could not write down the cost of the B–26.

Admiral Radford added that if we did provide the French with this additional emergency aid, we might use it as a lever to secure a more active part in the plan of campaign with General Navarre.

General Cutler then asked the President what form the Council action on this item should take. The President summed it up by stating that in point of fact the French were at present unable to get out of Indochina, so the problem was to see what additional measures the United States might take to assist them.

Admiral Radford responded to the President’s point by suggesting that one of the things that could be done would be to keep General O’Daniel continuously in Indochina, and if necessary give him another star.

The President said that he felt this would be a fine move, and Secretary Wilson thought that General O’Daniel should also be provided with greater flexibility in the delivery of matériel to the French, a point which the Vice President also thought of great importance. The [Page 954] President and Admiral Radford also agreed that while we have provided military assistance in large amounts to the French in Indochina, we had been rather inflexible about certain specific items.

The President then suggested that after the responsible Council members had studied what additional measures could be undertaken to assist the French, there be a presentation before the National Security Council. The object was to get down to concrete proposals and measures.

The Vice President commented that one of the most disappointing features in Indochina was the failure of French propaganda to convince the people of Vietnam that they were on the road to independence. Our own USIS program in this area was also very weak. The Vice President wondered if it would not be worth while if Mr. C. D. Jackson were to look into the situation and see what could be done.

The National Security Council:5

Discussed the reference report on the subject (NSC 177) and deferred action until the next Council meeting, pending the receipt of the views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff thereon.
Noted the President’s directive that all copies of the Special Annex to NSC 177 should be recalled for destruction.
Agreed that Lieutenant General John Wilson O’Daniel should be stationed continuously in Indochina, under appropriate liaison arrangements and with sufficient authority to expedite the flexible provision of U.S. assistance to the French Union forces.
Requested the Department of Defense, in collaboration with the Central Intelligence Agency, urgently to study and report to the Council all feasible further steps, short of the overt use of U.S. forces in combat, which the United States might take to assist in achieving the success of the “LanielNavarre” Plan.

Note: The action in c above subsequently transmitted to the Secretary of Defense for appropriate implementation. The action in d above subsequently transmitted to the Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence for appropriate implementation.

. . . . . . . .

  1. Prepared by S. Everett Gleason, Deputy Executive Secretary of the National Security Council, on Jan. 11.
  2. Roger M. Kyes.
  3. See footnote 2, p. 944.
  4. At Admiral Radford’s direction, a planning team from CINCPAC headquarters had visited Indochina from Nov. 10 to 18, 1952. See Edwin Bickford Hooper, Dean C. Allard. and Oscar P. Fitzgerald. The United States Navy and the Vietnam Conflict, vol. I, The Setting of the Stage to 1959, Navy Historical Division, Department of the Navy (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1976), p. 190.
  5. Points a-d below constituted NSC Action No. 1005. (S/SNSC files, lot 66 D 95, “NSC Actions”)