80. Memorandum of a Conference With the President, White House, Washington, May 24, 1956, 10:30 a.m.1


  • Admiral Radford
  • General Taylor
  • Colonel Goodpaster

The meeting was held at General Taylor’s request. He started with the statement that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have the Joint Strategic Objectives Plan for 19602 before them at the present time. Through it, the JCS will give guidance to the staffs which will serve as the basis for programs and funds. The paper is now split, with the Army and Marines following NSC 5602, as he understands it, and with the Air Force, the Navy and Admiral Radford taking the view that all planning must be based upon the use of atomic weapons. He stressed that the plan pertains to 1960, by which time both sides will have developed large stockpiles of thermonuclear weapons. A situation of mutual deterrence must be envisaged. He recognized that a big war, under [Page 312]such conditions, might come deliberately, but thought it was more likely that it would come through “backing” into it through a succession of actions and counteractions. In view of the tendency of thermonuclear capacity to deter both sides from a big war, any war that occurred would seem more likely to be a small war.

Two differences of view have developed within the Chiefs. The first relates to the definition of general war used as the basis for the plan. This is defined to be a war between the United States and USSR, using atomic weapons from the outset without restriction. The emphasis is on war starting with large-scale attack on D-Day, whereas the NSC has considered that it might arise step by step from smaller action. He said that the Air Force and Navy members regard this as the worst possible case, and therefore state that it would provide for all the others. He is inclined to disagree with this. He feels that this concept would leave us less flexible, and that the programs for fighting a big war would absorb all available funds.

The second difference arises in the firm commitment for the use of atomic weapons—in every case in a general war, and also in local wars where required for military reasons. He thought that this contravened the principle of “flexibility” which has been worked into NSC papers, and that it would result in tremendous atomic forces and defenses against them, tending to freeze out all other types of military forces— and that these latter are what would be needed to handle small war situations.

The President said he thought General Taylor’s position was dependent on an assumption that we are opposed by people who would think as we do with regard to the value of human life. But they do not, as shown in many incidents from the last war. We have no basis for thinking that they abhor destruction as we do. In the event they should decide to go to war, the pressure on them to use atomic weapons in a sudden blow would be extremely great. He did not see any basis for thinking other than that they would use these weapons at once, and in full force. The President went on to say that he did not care too much for the definition of general war as given. To him the question was simply one of a war between the United States and the USSR, and in this he felt that thinking should be based on the use of atomic weapons—that in his opinion it was fatuous to think that the U.S. and USSR would be locked into a life and death struggle without using such weapons. We should therefore develop our readiness on the basis of use of atomic weapons by both sides. He recalled that the United States had never been “scared” until these weapons came into the picture, and it is this type of war which justifies the great peacetime efforts we are now maintaining.

[Page 313]

As to local wars, the President thought that the tactical use of atomic weapons against military targets would be no more likely to trigger off a big war than the use of twenty-ton “blockbusters.” In his opinion, we must concentrate on building up internal security forces and local security forces of the regions themselves. We would give mobile support, with the Air, Navy and Army supporting weapons, and perhaps put in several battalions at truly critical points. He was very clear that we would not, however, deploy and tie down our forces around the Soviet periphery in small wars. He thought that the support forces we provide would use the most efficient weapons, and over the past several years tactical atomic weapons have come to be practically accepted as integral parts of modern armed forces.

The President went on to refer to the ideas of movement of large numbers of divisions in the the early months of an atomic war. He thought it was very unlikely that they could be moved, and thought that military planning is now emphasizing the forces immediately available, with much less interest in those following by months. The incorporation of new weapons such as rockets and missiles into the ground forces, with small mobile combat groups integrating their operations closely with them, should be stressed. General Gruenther had told him that he badly needs the two U.S. divisions shown to be sent to Europe in the first thirty days, but that when the President asked him how they could be gotten there, he simply said that was his (the President’s) problem. The President did not consider that anything like ten or twelve additional divisions in the first six months could be moved. If we have been heavily attacked, there would be neither the planes nor the air bases needed to take them there. He added that he thought Europe had come a great way toward this same manner of thinking.

Referring now to general war (the President used this term and “war between the U.S. and USSR” interchangeably), the President said that prudence would demand that we get our striking force into the air immediately upon notice of hostile action by the Soviets. Massive retaliation, although the term has been scoffed at, is likely to be the key to survival. He reiterated that planning should go ahead on the basis of the use of tactical atomic weapons against military targets in any small war in which the United States might be involved.

General Taylor drew attention to deterrence as the key factor in our present situation. We need diverse types of forces to deter large wars, and small wars as well. If we proceed on the basis of needs for actually fighting atomic wars, the needs for atomic striking forces and for continental defense are open-ended—practically limitless. He thought we should first calculate what is needed for deterrence and provide that (rather than what is needed for fighting an all-out thermonuclear [Page 314]war), should then provide the requirements for flexible forces usable in small wars, and finally put what remaining effort we have into the requirements for fighting an all-out war.

The President said he was very understanding that the position he had described did not leave the Army the same great role in the first year of war in relation to the other services as formerly. In his opinion, in the initial stages the Army would be truly vital to the establishment and maintenance of order in the United States. He went on to say that the Chiefs of Staff still thought much too much each in terms of his own service. He thought that each service should have what the corporate judgment of the Chiefs thought proper. He said that if the Chiefs can’t develop corporate judgment on the great problems that are facing us, the system as we now have it will have failed and major changes must be made. He referred to recent criticisms of the capabilities of carriers. He said that even if these charges are right, they should not be made in public; it is a matter that should be thrashed out in deepest security within the JCS. We shouldn’t tell an enemy our weaknesses—if they are weaknesses—and shouldn’t damage the confidence of our people and our allies in these weapons if they are as effective as he thinks they are. Similarly, the public criticism of the Nike is damaging to our country. If it is not a good weapon, we should determine that privately, and not notify the enemy but make our own corrections. Again, if it is a good weapon, we are harming the confidence of our public and our allies through this type of criticism. He recognizes that there are going to be differences of view, but considers that they should be worked out by the JCS. All should be thinking of the good of the country rather than attaining gains for a particular service. The President said he would like to see a Nike test firing, but has felt unable to do so because of the need to give psychological support to peaceful rather than military things.

General Taylor said that the decision of the President will initiate fundamental and rather drastic changes. The President did not feel that they would be too drastic. He said that, in any case, we are going to keep forces in the Far East and in Europe (even though the concept in Europe had been to have them there for a short period only—now it looks as though they must stay almost indefinitely). He felt that in the emphasis he has given on the atomic weapons lies the greatest safety and security for our country. He did not claim to be all wise in such matters, but he was very sure that as long as he is President he would meet an attack in the way indicated. With regard to the budget, while stressing the need to maintain the economic soundness of the U.S.— and specifically to avoid tax levels which would prevent the building up of capital productive industry, the President said he has told everyone that we must have what we need for security. He anticipates a fairly stable estimate which might be of the order, in his opinion, of [Page 315]$37 billion. Admiral Radford said that the decision of the President, in his opinion, supported the majority view, and General Taylor agreed. Admiral Radford said that the decision will have some far-reaching effects. For example, we should now tell our allies that support will be as the President described. If they can plan on that, they could cut down some of their forces. It might well mean that we would put into their country units such as Honest John and missiles with atomic warheads as support elements. The President said that these changes and others to be made would not necessarily be radical, but could be gradually applied.

Admiral Radford referred to additional requests coming in for programs that would run above the “maintenance level” the Chiefs had spoken of on their return from Puerto Rico. The Air Force will be coming in for an increase in strategic air units, partly needed because the problem of penetrating to targets will be becoming increasingly severe. The President thought that the development of higher, faster aircraft relates to this purpose. Admiral Radford said we still have a big program to carry out regarding Continental Defense, dispersal of air fields, and provision of guided missile air defense. He said there has never been complexity equal to this in terms of military planning.

The President thought there was need for a group like the advisory board he constituted while Chief of Staff. That produced no memos but concentrated on thinking about the major problems of the military forces. They were, with one exception, retired officers having no further assignments in view. Such a group under the Secretary of Defense or JCS composed of senior officers divorced from service, with a few scientists added, would be of the greatest value.


Colonel, CE, US Army
  1. Source: Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, DDE Diaries. Top Secret. Drafted by Goodpaster on May 24.
  2. Not found in the Eisenhower Library or Department of State files.