Memorandum of Conversation, by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (Bonbright)

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  • United Action in South East Asia


  • Mr. Leslie K. Munro, New Zealand Ambassador
  • Mr. G. R. Laking, New Zealand Minister
  • The Acting Secretary of State
  • Mr. Bonbright, EUR

The Ambassador stated that the situation in Indo-China has changed considerably from the end of last week when he had hoped to see General Smith. In the meantime, he had heard from London of our proposal to the British that we would seek Congressional authority to intervene in Indo-China if the British went along. Mr. Munro wondered if General Smith was in a position to comment on this report.

The Acting Secretary stated that the situation had been discussed in Paris between the Secretary and Mr. Eden. Unfortunately so far, our suggestions had not been warmly received in London. President Eisenhower and our Congressional leaders feel that the United States should be willing to do anything it can to assist in this situation but that we cannot bear this responsibility alone. We are willing to do our share and more if our allies, particularly those who are closer to the danger, go along with us. We continue to be gravely concerned over the threat to South East Asia. The French have asked us for additional assistance but this we cannot give without Congressional approval. In General Smith’s opinion, this approval would have been given by the Senate if we had been able, as we had tried to do, to get a joint declaration of intent. For reasons which we all knew, the meeting of the Ambassadors which we had planned for this purpose a week ago had had to be changed with the result that attendance was placed on a different basis and it became merely another briefing session. Frankly, we had been at a loss to know how this misunderstanding arose. It was only later that Mr. Eden give us the explanation that when he had discussed the matter with the Secretary in [Page 1418] London he had overlooked the impending Colombo conference. General Smith added that if this were so, it would have been helpful to us to have known it earlier so that we would not have had to improvise at the last moment. We thought that we would be faced with great difficulties if we could not deal with each other in confidence.

General Smith went on to say that Eden has now gone back to present our views to the British Cabinet. And, in addition to the political problem, there are apparent differences between the British Chiefs of Staff and our Joint Chiefs regarding the urgency of taking joint action and concerning the results which may be expected to follow our failure to act together. It was disappointing that we had not been able to make more progress during the past few days but we were at least encouraged by M. Bidault’s informing us that there would be no ceasefire during the period of Geneva.

The General stressed the fact that we had no desire to coerce our allies or to give an ultimatum to China or to sabotage the Geneva conference. However, we were gravely concerned and felt that probably nothing could save Dien Bien Phu now, although courage and more ammunition might delay its fall. However, even if a major part of Indo-China were to be lost we must not accept the loss of all South East Asia.

General Smith then informed the Ambassador in confidence that the President had asked Admiral Radford to put the question to the British Chiefs of Staff whether they would prefer to approve action now when there is a French army fighting on the spot or wait until that army disintegrates or possibly is withdrawn. In any event, we will not relax our efforts and appreciate the support of our ANZUS allies.

Mr. Munro gave it as his personal view that the present situation had elements of similarity with that of 1936 in connection with the Rhineland. He thought that the key to the situation was France. Assuming that the UK agreed with us, how could we deal with the situation if the French still wanted to go through the Geneva discussion prior to considering united action. It seemed to him that by asking the US to intervene directly, the French had cut the ground out from under their own argument. General Smith stated that he did not know if he could give a precise answer to this question. As Mr. Munro knew, we had wanted a joint declaration of intention. If we had had it, we would have obtained a Congressional resolution authorizing the use of naval and air power. In appealing to us the French had said that even if we didn’t save Dien Bien Phu, our intervention at this time would help morale and prevent a cease-fire all over Indo-China. In our view, a cease-fire would be disastrous and would lead ultimately [Page 1419] to the complete withdrawal of the French. However, we still hoped to prevent this and to gain time for the formation of a coalition which would hold at least part of Indo-China and secure the rest of South East Asia. The General reiterated that the British position was the key to this situation and Mr. Munro said that the attitude of his government also depended on the British.

Mr. Munro concluded the conversation by stating that he would like to have us consider a meeting between himself, the General, and Sir Percy Spender, which could be publicized as an ANZUS meeting. General Smith stated that we all three seemed to be in agreement concerning the desirability of not allowing the ANZUS relationship to be submerged. He thought that such a meeting would be desirable and he asked Mr. Munro to speak to the Australian Ambassador and let him know their joint views.