Eisenhower Library, Eisenhower papers, Whitman file
Memorandum of Discussion at the 183d Meeting of the National Security Council, Thursday, February 4, 1954 1
The following were present at the 183rd Meeting of the Council: The President of the United States, presiding; the Vice President of the United States; the Acting 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 Secretary of Commerce (for Item 2); the Acting Director, Bureau of the Budget; the Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission (for Item 2); the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff (for Items 3 and 4); the Director of Central Intelligence; The Assistant to the President; Robert Cutler, Special Assistant to the President; Mr. Max Lehrer, Department of Defense (for Item 3); the Executive Secretary, NSC; and the Deputy Executive Secretary, NSC.[Page 1014]
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 reported that the most important developments in Indochina had occurred in the Dien Bien Phu area, from which approximately fourteen Vietminh battalions had moved in the direction of Luang Prabang, the capital of Laos. This force was now about 60 miles north of the capital and still moving ahead, although Mr. Dulles believed that the French ought to be able to contain the thrust before it reached its objective. The balance of the Vietminh forces were still investing Dien Bien Phu. Mr. Dulles thought that the thrust into Laos, as well as the Vietminh activities in southern Annam, were primarily psychological in motivation and designed to fit in with the Soviet propaganda line at the Berlin conference. The objective was to induce the French to give up the struggle in Indochina.
The most disheartening feature of the news from Indochina, said Mr. Dulles, was the evidence that the majority of people in Vietnam supported the Vietminh rebels. This had enabled them to seize 40 French outposts in the course of the last ten days. There was no dynamism in the leadership of the Franco-Vietnamese forces. What was really needed was a leader with some of the characteristics of a Rhee. Most of the people of Vietnam obviously considered that this was a French colonial war, and it was difficult to see how this problem could be solved short of a drastic change in French psychology.
At this point the President interrupted Mr. Dulles’ briefing to inquire whether it would be possible to capitalize on the religious issue in an effort to provide inspiration to the French Union cause. Since he understood that most of the people of Vietnam were Buddhists, the President asked whether it was possible to find a good Buddhist leader to whip up some real fervor. The President illustrated his idea by referring to the incursion of the Arabs into North Africa and Southern Europe in the early Middle Ages. It was pointed out to the President that, unhappily, Buddha was a pacifist rather than a fighter (laughter).
The President went on to say that he had recently received the Ambassador from Vietnam,2 and that he had asked the Ambassador whether he believed the French promises of genuine independence for Vietnam. When the Ambassador replied in the affirmative, the President inquired how many of the people of Vietnam believed the French promises. The Ambassador shrugged his shoulders and said perhaps two or three percent.[Page 1015]
The Vice President expressed some doubt as to the strength and conviction with which the people of Vietnam clung to their religious views. As for Bao Dai, unsatisfactory as he seemed to be in many ways, it would be be difficult indeed to find an acceptable substitute. The Vice President therefore thought it better to try to make Bao Dai himself a more effective leader. After his conversations with Bao Dai, the Vice President had concluded that he was intelligent, good looking, and well intentioned. If he could actually be induced to go out among the troops, the French believed that he might accomplish a lot by way of instilling a fighting spirit. Unfortunately, continued the Vice President, Bao Dai shares the typical French caution, and when this idea had been suggested to him Bao Dai had replied that it was too risky to attempt it now, but that he would do what was required at a later time.
The President commented that he still believed that there was something in the idea of a religious motivation, and pointed out how Joan of Arc had managed to defeat a large enemy force and place a timid king upon his throne in France. The President said that his religious leader would not attempt to oust Bao Dai, but to support him.
Mr. Dulles pointed out that there were, of course, a million and a half Roman Catholics in Vietnam, and that they included most of the best brains in the country. Undaunted, the President suggested that the Catholics be enlisted too.
After further discussion of the lack of leadership in Indochina, the Vice President inquired of Mr. Dulles as to the reliability of the French intelligence reports concerning developments in the war. By and large, Mr. Dulles thought that French intelligence on the enemy’s military movements was pretty good. If that is the case, replied the Vice President, can anything be done to counteract the greatly exaggerated reports on the Vietminh successes against the French in Indochina? It seemed obvious that the Vietminh propaganda people had magnified their successes out of all reasonable proportion with very serious repercussions in France and elsewhere in the free world. Mr. Dulles replied that of course we could do a great deal to counteract this propaganda if the French could be induced to play ball with us. As a matter of fact, continued Mr. Dulles, the French themselves exaggerate the successes of the enemy for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was to prepare the ground for negotiations. The Vice President admitted that this was a fact, but thought that the French in Paris, rather than in the field, were at fault. Generals Navarre and Cogny, said the Vice President, had indicated that they had no faith whatever in negotiations with the Vietminh. At any rate, said the Vice President, what should really concern us is the constant stream of bad news from the battle areas. This is developing a defeatist attitude in [Page 1016] the United States as well as in France. The recent Alsop columns were proof. Furthermore, there was a very defeatist atmosphere on Capitol Hill about the usefulness of any further American aid for Indochina.
At this point Mr. Dulles read a brief summary of the CBS newscast of this morning, which revealed the existence of a special high-level committee to advise the National Security Council as to further steps to assist the French in Indochina. The President exhibited anger at this latest leak of classified information, and inquired who possibly could have told the press about the existence of this committee. Did every member of the Council warn his subordinates to shut up about such matters? There was no answer to the President’s question, but Secretary Smith commented that about all one could say was that this secret had been kept quite a bit longer than most others.
The Vice President said that he had one more point to raise before we left the Indochina problem. Has everything, he inquired, been explored with respect to additional measures which might be taken by the USIS and FOA to counter the defeatist complex? Congress, he added, would be much more willing to contemplate additional support for this kind of assistance than it would additional U.S. military measures.
Governor Stassen said he would undertake to see if there were anything else that might be done, but pointed out that of course the French authorities in Indochina did not like the USIS, which made it very hard for that agency to show any initiative. Mr. Dulles agreed with Governor Stassen, …
The Vice President said that Governor Stassen and Mr. Dulles had put their fingers on the very basic problem. The United States has some very good representatives in Vietnam, but it ought, particularly in the case of the USIS, to have the very “best men in the information and propaganda fields. These new men should be found and sent out there in order to reappraise the situation since, after a period of six months or so, our representatives tended to get into a rut. In short, we didn’t have our first team in the field for the USIS, and the Vice President believed that Mr. Streibert himself might profitably go out there and look over the situation.
. . . . . . .
Secretary Wilson endorsed the idea of sending our very best team of experts to Indochina. There was no doubt whatsoever, he said, of General O’Daniel’s capacity to judge the military situation, but some skepticism existed in the Pentagon as to General O’Daniel’s qualifications in the political and psychological field.
Secretary Smith commented that it was a pity that we had not sent General Donovan to Indochina rather than to Thailand. The Vice President added that our present Ambassador in Vietnam, Heath, was very capable and efficient, but that he had been stationed at his [Page 1017] post so long that he had inevitably taken on much of the French attitude.
. . . . . . .