Eisenhower Library, Eisenhower papers, Whitman file

Memorandum of Discussion at the 198th Meeting of the National Security Council, Thursday, May 20, 19541

top secret
eyes only


Present at the 198th Meeting of the Council were the President of the United States, presiding; the Vice President of the United States (presiding for part of Items 1 and 8); the Secretary of State; the Acting Secretary of Defense; the Director, Foreign Operations Administration; and the Director, Office of Defense Mobilization. Also present were the Secretary of the Treasury; the Secretary of Commerce (for Item 6); the Director, Bureau of the Budget; the Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission (for Items 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5); the Federal Civil Defense Administrator (for Items 1, 4 and 5); the Chairman, Council of Economic Advisers (for Items 1, 2 and 3); Mr. Milton for the Secretary of the Army, the Secretary of the Navy, and the Secretary of the Air Force (for Items 1, 2 and 3); the Deputy Director, Bureau of the Budget; Assistant Secretary of Commerce Anderson and Marshall Smith, Department of Commerce (for Item 6); Admiral DeLany, Foreign Operations Administration; the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, the Chief of Naval Operations, the Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force, and the Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps (for Items 1, 2 and 3); the NSC Planning Board (for Items 1, 2 and 3), as follows: Mr. Bowie, Department of State; Mr. Tuttle, Department of the Treasury; Gen. Bonesteel, Department of Defense; Mr. McDonnell, Department of Justice; Gen. Porter, FOA; Mr. Elliott, ODM; Mr. Reid, Bureau of the Budget; Mr. Snapp, AEC; General Gerhart, JCS; Mr. Amory, CIA; and Mr. Staats, OCB. The following were also present: the Director of Central Intelligence; Mr. Cutler, Special Assistant to the President; Gen. Persons, Deputy Assistant to the President; Gen. Carroll, White House Staff Secretary; Mr. Harlow, Administrative Assistant to the President; the Executive Secretary, NSC; and the Deputy Executive Secretary, NSC.

[Page 1587]

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

. . . . . . .

3. Factors Affecting Military Operations in Indochina

The National Security Council:

Noted an oral briefing on the subject presented by the Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff, G–2, U.S. Army, in lieu of the regular weekly briefing by the Director of Central Intelligence.

. . . . . . .

7. Assignment of U.S. Aircraft Technicians to Indochina (NSC Actions Nos. 1074–a and 1086–d–(1))2

The National Security Council:3

Noted the President’s statement that assignment of U.S. technicians for aircraft maintenance in Indochina beyond the previous termination date of June 15, 1954, would be authorized only to the extent required by the United States in order to be prepared for the possible repossession of U.S. equipment previously furnished to the French or to take other action in the interest of the United States.

Note: The above action subsequently transmitted to the Secretary of Defense.

8. Regional Grouping in Southeast Asia4

. . . . . . .

Meanwhile, talks had been going on in Paris with the French with respect to our pre-conditions for military intervention in Indochina. These talks with the French had now been interrupted, owing to the departure of General Ely to Indochina for a brief inspection of the military situation there. We had agreed, said Secretary Dulles, that General Trapnell should go to Paris to discuss military problems with Premier Laniel and his associates. In fact, General Trapnell had been on his way to Paris when we received word that General Ely had gone to Indochina. We had accordingly called General Trapnell back from [Page 1588] Gander, but he would be sent to Paris again after the return of General Ely.

Secretary Dulles indicated that if these talks with the French on pre-conditions succeeded, they would form the cornerstone of a regional grouping which would include Indochina, but he did not believe that the French had really made up their minds whether or not they wanted to continue the war in Indochina with U.S. participation. These talks were probably being used chiefly to strengthen the French bargaining position with the Communists at Geneva. While one couldn’t be sure, Secretary Dulles felt that even if Premier Laniel agreed to meet our pre-conditions, the French Chamber of Deputies wouldn’t go along with the decision. He was therefore inclined to the view that in our conversations with the French on pre-conditions we were going through an academic exercise except in so far as these conversations affected the Geneva Conference. He did not exclude, however, all possibility that the French might ultimately agree to internationalize the conflict.

With respect to the U.S. pre-conditions, Secretary Dulles expressed the view that we might be exaggerating the significance of the independence issue for the Associated States. The Associated States had already achieved in fact a very high degree of independence. Moreover, if we harped on the independence issue it might well rise to embarrass us when the scene shifted from Indochina to Malaya.

In explaining the hesitations of Australia and New Zealand, Secretary Dulles pointed out that the Australians were in a tough spot in view of the imminence of the national election. Accordingly, we had refrained from pressing the Australians too hard. Secretary Dulles indicated that the Foreign Minister of New Zealand was seeing the President this afternoon. Both these Dominions were torn between their sentimental ties with the United Kingdom (now greatly strengthened by the visit of the young Queen) and their practical security ties with the United States. Above all, they wished to avoid making a choice between these ties.5

Secretary Dulles then stated that he had just sent a message to Ambassador Dillon, emphasizing the importance of the time factor in discussions with the French regarding U.S. intervention in Indochina. He had pointed out in this message that if the French delayed too long in agreeing to the pre-conditions for U.S. intervention, it [Page 1589] might be too late for the U.S. to intervene at all, since the military and political situation in Indochina was deteriorating so rapidly. In short, it might be impractical for the United States to intervene even if our pre-conditions were finally agreed to by the French.

Mr. Cutler asked Secretary Dulles whether the French Government had as yet formally asked for U.S. armed intervention. Secretary Dulles replied by describing the two informal French suggestions for “one-shot” air strikes by the United States, but indicated clearly that there had been no formal French request for United States partnership in the Indochina war. He added that he had also recently warned Ambassador Dillon not to allow himself to be maneuvered into a position where the French could blame the United States for the loss of Indochina.

The Vice President then asked Secretary Dulles for an explanation of how Dillon had been conducting his conversations with the French regarding the pre-conditions for U.S. intervention. Did the Ambassador simply present the list of our pre-conditions to the French and then wait for an answer? Or did Dillon actually press the French for a favorable response to these pre-conditions?

Secretary Dulles replied that Ambassador Dillon conducted his negotiations with Premier Laniel and with Under Secretary Schumann strictly on an oral basis. Nothing in writing passed either way. They had last met on Monday,6 at which time the French had suggested suspension of further conversations during the absence of General Ely.

The Vice President then asked Secretary Dulles with whom Premier Laniel would be obliged to clear his own decision to ask for U.S. participation. Secretary Dulles said that we would require clearance by the Chamber of Deputies, because Laniel’s government was so shaky that it could be easily overthrown and its decisions reversed and disavowed.

Secretary Dulles went on to state his belief that the Communist negotiators at Geneva would continue to dangle false hopes before the French so that the latter would be unable to reach any firm decision until the situation in Indochina had deteriorated to a point where it was beyond salvation by any means.

Mr. Allen Dulles confirmed the likelihood of these Communist tactics, and stated that intelligence indicated that General Cogny was not getting the reinforcements he needed to save the situation in the Tonkin Delta. Vietminh forces were being moved in the direction of the Delta with the apparent view to launching an attack there, though as yet we could not be absolutely sure of the motives for this move.

The Vice President asked if the following constituted an accurate summation of the existing situation: The British and the French were [Page 1590] dragging their feet until such time as the possibility for a settlement by the Geneva Conference appeared clearly hopeless. The Communists were well aware that the British and French were dragging their feet, and would protract the negotiations until they were sure that they had won the war in Indochina.

Secretary Dulles replied that the Vice President’s summary was substantially correct. The only ray of hope would be Communist fear of United States intervention in Indochina or of general war. This fear might conceivably induce the Communists to moderate their demands on the French at Geneva. The Communists realize that the United States is not permitting the British a veto on our actions in this area, and this knowledge was certainly not lost on the Communists.

The remainder of the discussion related to Congressional action. Secretary Dulles pointed out the desirability of getting Congress to give some degree of discretionary power to the President to act during the period Congress was adjourned.

The National Security Council:

Discussed the subject in the light of a report by Mr. Cutler, based on the discussion of the subject in the NSC Planning Board.7
Noted and discussed an oral report by the Secretary of State on developments with respect to the formation of a regional grouping in Southeast Asia; the Geneva Conference; and the military situation in Indochina.
  1. Prepared by Deputy Executive Secretary Gleason on May 21.
  2. For NSC Action No. 1074, see extracts from the memorandum of discussion at the 190th Meeting of the National Security Council, Mar. 25, p. 1163; for NSC Action No. 1086, see the memorandum of discussion at the 192d NSC Meeting, Apr. 6, p. 1250.
  3. The statement which follows constituted NSC Action No. 1131, May 20, 1954. (S/SNSC files, lot 66 D 95, “NSC Actions”)

    In his memoirs, Richard M. Nixon describes NSC consideration of this matter as follows: “On May 20 the NSC discussed the possibility of keeping the two hundred American mechanics in Vietnam past June, but Eisenhower dismissed the idea. First, he said, the French were already going back on their word to keep up the fighting. Second, he said that such an extension would make our future relations with Congress very difficult, because he had given a solemn pledge that the mechanics would come out by June 15, and he intended to honor his pledge.” (Memoirs of Richard Nixon, p. 155)

  4. For the portion of the record of the discussion of this agenda item not printed here, see volume xii.
  5. Assistant Secretary Merchant discussed the problems of Indochina, the Geneva Conference, and united action with Ambassador Spender of Australia on May 17; with Ambassador Munro of New Zealand on May 17; and with Ambassador Makins of the United Kingdom on May 13, May 17, and May 18. Memoranda of these conversations are in file 751G.00. The conversations with Ambassadors Spender, Munro, and Makins are summarized in telegram Tosec 190 to Geneva of May 17: for text, see volume xii. For memoranda of conversations between Secretary Dulles and Foreign Minister Webb of New Zealand in Washington on May 20 and 21 regarding the problems of Indochina, the Geneva Conference, and united action, see ibid.
  6. May 18.
  7. For a description of Cutler’s oral report, see extracts of this memorandum, volume xii.