Eisenhower Library, Eisenhower papers, Whitman file

Memorandum of Discussion at the 196th Meeting of the National Security Council, Saturday, May 8, 1954, 8 a.m.1

top secret
eyes only


The following were present at the 196th Meeting of the Council: The President of the United States, presiding; the Vice President of the United States; the Secretary of State; the Secretary of Defense; the Acting Director, Foreign Operations Administration; and the Director, Office of Defense Mobilization. Also present were Mr. Tuttle for the Secretary of the Treasury; the Chief of Staff, U.S. Army; the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Director of Central Intelligence; Robert Cutler, Special Assistant to the President; the Deputy Assistant to the President; Robert R. Bowie, Department of State; the White House Staff Secretary; Bryce Harlow, Administrative Assistant to the President; the Executive Secretary, NSC; and the Deputy Executive Secretary, NSC.

There follows a summary of the discussion at the meeting and the main points taken.

1. Report of the Director of Central Intelligence

The Director of Central Intelligence commented on the initial reports on the fall of Dien Bien Phu. The Vietminh radio claims to have taken prisoner only 17 companies, three to four thousand men. General de Castries is probably a prisoner of war. The garrison of strong point Isabelle was pretty well slaughtered in a final attempt to break out. The Peiping radio has claimed large casualties for the French Union forces.

The immediate danger now is in the Tonkin Delta. There has been a reappraisal of the time interval which the Vietminh would need to get their forces from Dien Bien Phu to the Tonkin Delta area. Mr. Dulles estimated that with 500 trucks the Vietminh should be able to effect this operation in two or three weeks. At the present time the French Union forces in the Delta number 192,000, as against 76,000 regular Vietminh forces. The situation, however, could become acute sooner than anticipated, and to make matters worse, the French forces in the Delta are all enclosed in fixed strong points. They have little mobility.

The President commented that if the native population had any friendly sentiments toward the French, the French forces would not feel themselves compelled to stay within the strong points. Obviously the native population was still far from won over. It was heartbreaking that they showed no inclination to be saved from Communist aggression.

[Page 1506]

Admiral Radford said that in part the apathy and hostility of the population resulted from fear of the ruthlessness of the Vietminh. The French had not yet dared to take the necessary measures to control this ruthlessness. There were some seven million people living in the Delta area, and only the cities were securely in the hands of the French.

The National Security Council:

Noted and discussed an oral report by the Director of Central Intelligence on the situation in Indochina, with particular reference to the loss of Dien Bien Phu and the situation within the Tonkin Delta.

2. Position of the United States With Respect to the French Proposal for Negotiating an Armistice in Indochina

Mr. Cutler recommended to the Council that it divide the business for this morning’s meeting into three parts. First, discussion of the French proposal for a cease-fire. On this subject Mr. Cutler read Secretary Smith’s summary of the Bidault proposal. Thereafter, Secretary Dulles handed him the actual text of the Bidault proposal, just received in State, which Mr. Cutler in turn read to the Council.2 He then pointed out that according to press reports the U.S. and U.K. delegations at Geneva had agreed to support the Bidault proposal, despite the fact that the National Security Council was now sitting down to discuss this problem. Mr. Cutler also called attention to the fact that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had, through the Secretary of Defense, presented their views as to the so-called Bidault proposal. The action paragraph in this JCS report (paragraph 7) had been revised by the President.3 In summary, as revised, the paragraph urged against U.S. agreement to support any cease-fire in advance of a political settlement and adequate controls, and called on the United States to continue aid to the French Union forces and also to seek to create a regional grouping to protect Southeast Asia. Mr. Cutler then asked Secretary Dulles to speak.

Secretary Dulles said he thought it meaningless for the United States to take the position that there could be no cease-fire in Indochina in advance of a political settlement. There is no satisfactory political settlement anywhere in sight. Any kind of coalition government is out. Accordingly, if we take such a position we would be asking the French to do the opposite of what we ourselves had done in Korea, and the French would rightly resent it. On the other hand, if [Page 1507] we want to say no cease-fire in advance of a suitable armistice agreement—that made better sense.

The President stated his agreement with the position taken by Secretary Dulles, and Mr. Cutler pointed out that the position recommended by Secretary Dulles comported with his speech of the previous evening.4

Secretary Dulles then read to the Council cables which had just come in from Admiral Davis at Geneva,5 and Mr. Cutler suggested a revision of paragraph 7 to meet the points raised by Secretary Dulles in favor of seeking an armistice with an acceptable international guaranty of controls. A considerable interval was devoted by the Council to drafting the revision of paragraph 7. The President was anxious to see to it that reference was made to the Vietnamese and the Bao Dai government as well as to the French, since otherwise we might seem to be disposing of areas and peoples without consulting them. The President summed up his position on this point by saying that in effect we were urging the French and the Associated States not to stop fighting until they had gotten a satisfactory armistice agreement.

Admiral Radford made the point that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were fearful that if the French proposed negotiations looking to an armistice, the Communists would come back with a proposal for an immediate cease-fire and that the French would soon feel obliged to accept it.

Mr. Cutler inquired as to the wisdom of including reference to accelerating the complete independence of the Associated States. This point, Admiral Radford thought, should be handled separately. We should consider, he advised, putting pressure on the French to secure the independence of the Associated States, and we also ought to put pressure on Bao Dai to go home and take charge of his responsibilities. Secretary Dulles suggested that this matter could best be taken up in the discussion of the next point on the agenda.

The Vice President said he was concerned over the possibility of a situation in which the French would wish to press for an armistice while the Associated States were opposed to this course of action. In this contingency the United States might find itself involved in support of the French against the Associated States. The President, however, said he believed that we had covered ourselves by linking the [Page 1508] French and the Associated States together in the course of this statement in paragraph 7. If the French and the Associated States split up, we could choose which to support. In any event, we could not go into Indochina unless the Associated States invited us.

In subsequent discussion Secretary Dulles expressed the opinion that on balance it was perhaps desirable for the time being to omit anything in the statement with respect to the United States bringing pressure on France to grant complete independence to the Associated States. In their present extremity the French might resent any renewal of U.S. pressure to this end. It was agreed to omit this point.

Admiral Radford then suggested revisions in the language to take care of the point that the Joint Chiefs of Staff do not believe in the possibility of the Communists actually agreeing to or abiding by any system of international controls for an armistice.

Secretary Dulles said that he doubted the wisdom of tying continuation of U.S. military aid to the French Union forces to the willingness of these French Union forces to oppose the Vietminh “with all means at their disposal”. In point of fact, the degree of resistance by the French Union forces might not measure up to our own standard and definition of “all means at their disposal”. Secretary Dulles went on to suggest that we avoid becoming so concentrated on what was happening in Indochina that we forget about EDC. There was no point in slapping the French in the face and losing out on EDC.

Mr. Cutler then inquired as to the desirability of Council action with respect to discussing with the French the pre-conditions which we insisted the French must meet before there could be any possibility of U.S. intervention, and which had been discussed at some length at the Council meeting on Thursday, May 6.6

Secretary Dulles expressed the opinion that it would be undesirable to set down these conditions on paper, but that if the Council agreed, he would undertake to make clear to the French that any time they were prepared to discuss these conditions we would be ready. He added that he had actually hinted at this in his speech last night by virtue of the analogy he had drawn with Korea.

The Vice President felt that the inclusion of the willingness to discuss conditions for U.S. intervention was of the utmost importance, since otherwise the whole emphasis of the statement would be in the direction of negotiations with the Communists. If the fall of Dien Bien Phu actually stiffens the resistance of the French Union forces, the French should know that there is at least an alternative to a course of action involving negotiation. This was true even if we did not spell it out.

The President expressed agreement with the positions taken by the [Page 1509] Secretary of State and the Vice President, but said that the best way to handle the conditions for intervention would be for Secretary Dulles to talk with Ambassador Bonnet. If it seemed desirable for Under Secretary Smith to raise this issue of conditions of intervention with the French at Geneva, there would be ample time to get this information to Secretary Smith.

The Vice President concluded the discussion of this point by saying that he had emphasized it as a result of his knowledge of the much stronger position that De Jean was taking in opposition to the idea of negotiations for an armistice at Geneva.

The National Security Council:7

Agreed that the following United States position be communicated to the U.S. delegation at the Geneva Conference:

“The United States will not associate itself with any proposal from any source directed toward a cease-fire in advance of an acceptable armistice agreement, including international controls. The United States could concur in the initiation of negotiations for such an armistice agreement. During the course of such negotiations, the French and the Associated States should continue to oppose the forces of the Viet Minh with all the means at their disposal. In the meantime, as a means of strengthening the hands of the French and the Associated States during the course of such negotiations, the United States will continue its program of aid and its efforts to organize and promptly activate a Southeast Asian regional grouping for the purpose of preventing further expansion of Communist power in Southeast Asia.”8

Noted that the Secretary of State will indicate to the French Government that the United States is willing to discuss at any time with France the conditions under which the Indochina conflict might be internationalized.

Note: The above action, as approved by the President, subsequently transmitted to the Secretary of State for appropriate action.

3. Position of the United States Regarding the Provision of Military Aid to Indochina in the Event of a Cease-Fire

After Admiral Radford had explained the position taken by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in favor of curtailing immediately delivery of additional military assistance to Indochina in the event that the French agreed to a cease-fire,9 Secretary Dulles stated that he had concurred with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in this matter. Mr. Cutler inquired if there was any other comment. Secretary Dulles said that [Page 1510] another thought that worried him was how we might recapture the matériel we had already sent to Indochina if there were a cease-fire. Admiral Radford outlined some of the problems and difficulties attending the recapture of this matériel. Not least of all, he said, was the fact that legally this matériel belonged to the French Union forces.

The President queried whether Admiral Radford’s latter point was correct. Secretary Dulles commented that if the legal title to the matériel was obscure, we should at least inform the French that we do not propose to send them any more matériel without a promise to return it to us in the event of a cease-fire. He was inclined to think, however, that in law we had a right to recapture the matériel which we had sent to Indochina, though admittedly this would be a difficult task physically to carry out.

General Ridgway stated that the legal advisers to the Department of the Army supported completely the views of the Secretary of State. We had every legal right to reclaim this matériel, although General Ridgway readily agreed that it would be extremely difficult to lay hands upon it.

Mr. Cutler then raised the point that if it became known to the French that we would immediately stop sending them military assistance in the event of a cease-fire, this knowledge might have very damaging repercussions on French morale and the French attitude toward the United States. It would also look bad, thought Mr. Cutler, if we tried to pull out our matériel from Indochina at the very time when we are trying to create a regional grouping for the protection of Southeast Asia.

The President stated very flatly that if the Communists were allowed to secure an armistice at Geneva they would presently secure control of the entire area.

There were then several comments to the effect that everything possible must be done to prevent any U.S. matériel from falling into the hands of the Vietminh. The President agreed, and said that if worse came to worst, every effort should be made to destroy such matériel. Admiral Radford agreed that a plan should be worked out with a view to accomplishing this objective. There was a consensus that the first job was for the Department of Defense to work out a program, after which the President suggested that Secretary Smith notify the French that our military people would like to confer with their military people on how to solve this problem. Above all, said the President, we should avoid getting into a new row with the French. The thing to do was for our military staff people to start quietly to negotiate with the French. We most emphatically didn’t want to lose our matériel or let it fall into Communist hands.

Admiral Radford stated his belief that destruction of the stores would probably be the only feasible course of action, since the situation [Page 1511] in the ports and other considerations would make it almost impossible to bring back any significant amount of matériel.

Secretary Wilson suggested the deletion from the statement of the reference to continued shipment of spare parts and maintenance material, with which the President concurred. It was also agreed that this agreed statement of policy would not be sent at this time to the U.S. delegation at Geneva, but should be handled without publicity in Washington.

The National Security Council:10

Discussed the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the subject, and adopted a statement of policy with respect thereto.

Note: The statement of policy, as adopted and approved by the President, subsequently transmitted to the Secretary of Defense for guidance and appropriate action, and to the Secretary of State and the Director, Foreign Operations Administration, for information.11

4. Position of the United States With Respect to the British Proposal for a Five-Power Examination of the Situation in Indochina and Southeast Asia12

. . . . . . .

  1. Prepared by Deputy Executive Secretary Gleason on May 10.
  2. For the French proposals presented at the Geneva Conference on May 8, see telegram Secto 143, May 8, vol. xvi, p. 730.
  3. For the report by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, submitted to the Secretary of Defense on May 7, see United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967, Book 9, pp. 430–434. That published text bears handwritten notes purporting to indicate the changes made by the President.
  4. See footnote 5, p. 1496.
  5. By memorandum of May 8, Jeffrey Kitchen, Deputy Director of the Executive Secretariat of the Department of State, transmitted two telegrams of that date to Secretary Dulles for his use at this meeting: telegram 4267 from Paris (supra), and Defense telegram Gento 12 from Geneva containing the comments of Admiral Davis and Under Secretary Smith on the JCS views on the French proposal. In Gento 12, Admiral Davis stated the following: “We feel that there is greater distinction between cease fire and armistice negots than now apparent in Para 7. Broadly speaking, cease fire is unconditional and armistice is conditional. We hope French can be persuaded not to propose cease fire. We do not believe they can be persuaded not to propose an armistice. Cease fire unquestionably wld be disastrous. Armistice proposal wld at least gain potentially valuable time.” (Conference files, lot 60 D 627, CF 311)
  6. For the memorandum of discussion at the 195th Meeting of the National Security Council, May 6, see p. 1481.
  7. Points a and b below constituted NSC Action No. 1110, May 8, 1954. (S/SNSC files, lot 66 D 95, “NSC Actions”)
  8. This statement was transmitted to the U.S. Delegation at Geneva as telegram Tedul 43, May 8. For text of Tedul 43, see vol. xvi, p. 731.
  9. See memorandum by Secretary of Defense Wilson to Executive Secretary Lay, May 6, and its annex, p. 1493.
  10. The decision which follows constituted NSC Action No. 1111, May 8, 1954. (S/SNSC files, lot 66 D 95, “NSC Actions”)
  11. A memorandum from J. S. Cottman of the Executive Secretariat of the Department of State to William Galloway of the office of the Counselor, May 13, is filed with NSC Action No. 1111. The memorandum read as follows:

    “Cited below for action is the statement of policy which was discussed and adopted by the NSC at its Council meeting on May 8, with respect to ‘Position of U.S. re the Provision of Military Aid to Indochina in the Event of a Cease-Fire’ with reference to (NSC Action No. 1111):

    ‘In the event of a cease-fire in Indochina in advance of an acceptable armistice agreement, including international controls, the shipment of military end-items under US MDAP provided under the “Agreement for Mutual Defense Assistance in Indochina between the United States of America and Cambodia, France, Laos, and Viet-nam” will immediately be suspended. In such event, the entire question of US aid to Indochina will be re-examined in the light of circumstances then existing. The US also assumes that, in such event, military end-items previously delivered in Indochina by the US will be recovered or destroyed to the maximum practicable extent.

    ‘Accordingly, the above statement of policy, as approved by the President, is transmitted herewith to the Secretary of Defense for guidance and appropriate action, and to the Secretary of State and the Director, Foreign Operations Administration for information.’

    “It is requested that special security precautions be observed in the handling of the above statement of policy and that access to it be very strictly limited on an absolute need-to-know basis.” (S/SNSC files, lot 66 D 95, “NSC Actions”)

  12. For the record of this discussion, see volume XII.