62. Memorandum of Conference With President Eisenhower0


  • Secretaries Herter, McElroy, Gates; Assistant Secretary Gerard Smith, Admiral Radford, Mr. Gordon Gray, General Goodpaster

Mr. Gray said the group had come in to discuss the issues involved in certain military paragraphs of our basic security policy paper. He had prepared a statement of these issues, four in number.1 A prior question is whether there should be any change in the language of the policy at all.

Mr. Herter spoke to the first two issues—what constitutes general war, and our limited war capabilities.2 He recalled that Secretary Dulles had agreed to continue the language with respect to limited war capabilities and the use of nuclear weapons for one year during which time State and Defense would try to agree on new language. As for general war, Mr. Herter was concerned that the import of the present language was that any hostilities involving US and USSR forces would automatically be a situation of general war. He also felt that commanders should not be automatically bound to use nuclear weapons in limited situations but that their use should be initiated only when our national objectives were advanced.

The President said that, as he has stated before, he questions the idea of such generalized definitions. He recalled that he had talked with Admiral Radford and General Taylor about this matter three years ago. He adverted to the wide range of possible hostile situations that might occur, citing in particular the undeclared Russo-Japanese war in Manchuria, about which the outside world knew practically nothing, but which involved units of more than division size. In such circumstances today involving nuclear powers he had no doubt that these weapons would be used. At the same time, he said he could imagine a situation, for example intervention in Iran, in which we would not use these weapons. [Page 229] He really thought that a major war is one where the Russians have shown that they are “going after us” with all-out effort. In his judgment the real question is how far to give junior commanders the authority to initiate the use of these weapons.

Mr. Herter said there is indication that weapons of very large size are becoming tactical in concept—weapons of over one megaton. He did not think our forces should be free to use these, but should be prepared to act wherever necessary around the world, on a conventional basis if this seemed desirable. The President said we cannot deploy our ground troops all around the world. We are obliged to put our main reliance on air, naval and other supporting type forces. Mr. Herter said that the use of these weapons at sea or in the air did not seem to cause so much trouble. The difficult question is their use on the ground. It seemed likely that this would project all-out nuclear war and this is what frightens our allies.

The President recalled the decision in the case of [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] not to use these weapons unless we were attacked so heavily as to endanger our forces. Mr. Herter recalled that our ground forces began to move their supporting weapons, including the atomic-equipped Honest John into [less than 1 line of source text not declassified], but that these weapons were then pulled back. In his judgment the question is whether we are saying that our main reliance is to be on nuclear weapons. He did not question this for strategic operations. However, for limited operations he thought we should not go this far, since such a commitment creates psychological problems for our allies, who are fearful of our initiating the use of nuclear weapons.

The President recalled that Harriman had reported a comment by Khrushchev that he has rockets (meaning nuclear weapons) ready to destroy Taiwan. He had said that if the Chinese Communists decide to attack Taiwan, he would support them with these weapons. The President said he would find it very difficult to state just when we would refrain from using such weapons as the Honest John, Corporal, Sergeant, etc. It was clear to him that if sizable forces were to come in on us, we would have to defend ourselves. Mr. Herter said he had no disagreement on this. His quarrel was with the assumption that we would use nuclear weapons under any circumstances involving the combat of our armed forces.

Mr. McElroy said the real question from the Defense point of view is whether we are to develop our forces and weapons on the basis that nuclear weapons would be used in a limited war. If we do not, then we simply will not have forces of such strength as to permit us to “sit in on sizable limited warfare.” Specifically, if we have to go after enemy air bases, we must use nuclear weapons for that purpose in order to be effective; the amount of conventional bombs we could carry would not be enough.

[Page 230]

The President said the basic point in his mind is that we have got to have nuclear weapons available wherever we have sizable American forces.

Mr. McElroy commented that within the Defense Department, the Army, the Navy, and the Marines feel that there should be more reliance on conventional forces for the conduct of limited war. He commented that we are continuing to develop nuclear weapons on the assumption that we will use them, on the President’s decision, whenever the national interest requires the commitment of our forces. The President said he sees a difference between operations that amount merely to harassment and those that amount to limited war. The question in his mind is what are the levels of hostility at which we should be ready with nuclear forces. He repeated that if we have sizable American forces in an area, we must have nuclear weapons there too. Then we have the question, in what circumstances would we use them. Mr. McElroy said that if we were attacked in Korea it is quite clear to him that we should use nuclear weapons. [3 lines of source text not declassified]

Admiral Radford said he understood State to want Defense to be able to fight without using atomic weapons until a decision is taken here in Washington to permit their use. Defense takes the stand that when it is to our military advantage or necessity we will use the weapons. He thought we could back up our foreign policy if we have that kind of arrangement; otherwise we cannot provide the forces to do it. Specifically, we cannot make this matter dependent upon the decision of the State Department. He pointed out that we are prepared to put small units very quickly into any of a large number of possible areas, We would not dare to do this and expose these forces except that we have atomic support readily available. He recalled that we built our forces on this basis beginning in 1953. The Chiefs said very clearly that they could handle the military task with smaller forces if, and only if, they could depend on using atomic weapons should hostilities occur.

The President commented that if small units, for example conducting an intervention in Cuba, should be attacked by conventional air forces, it might not be necessary to use atomic weapons against the attackers. The key point to him is that we are fearful of someone doing something foolish far down the chain of command and getting us into major hostilities.

Admiral Radford pointed out that in the last three years we have concentrated on smaller and smaller weapons. What the State Department seems to be concerned about is that the use of atomic weapons would result in the killing of a great number of civilians. The new weapons being developed make this much less likely. He added that he had been surprised to hear General Lemnitzer and Admiral Burke say that they saw no difference between the State and Defense language, but preferred [Page 231] the State Department version. He thought this might have come about through a blurring of the old language which was very forthright that we would use these weapons when it was to our military advantage to do so; this now reads that we would use these weapons in accordance with our national objectives. The President said that if we had to intervene in Cuba, the last thing we would want to do would be to use atomic weapons. Therefore he said we must realize that there is a whole range of possible situations. He was afraid that we are trying to find generalizations that cover too many possibilities. At the same time he realized that we must have directives which give guidance to our staff officers on how to build up the military programs. He thought that we could be clear as to where we provide atomic support—i.e., wherever we have sizable forces—but that we cannot define generally just when to use it. Mr. Herter said he had no quarrel with having these weapons available. The whole question relates to using them. Admiral Radford said that if there is the possibility that we would have to go to war without using these weapons, our forces would be very different from what they are now.

Mr. McElroy said that the thing that is valuable to our foreign policy in the cold war is to be able to have a show of force wherever we need it. He said we can have a show of force, and do this with security and without exposing ourselves to disaster, if we have the nuclear weapons, but not otherwise. Admiral Radford commented that many people do not realize what a great decision it was to adopt the “new look”, i.e., to pattern our forces on the use of atomic weapons. We cannot do the job with conventional weapons alone. We cannot maintain forces of the size that would be required to meet the Soviet threat around the world if these are to be limited to conventional operations.

Mr. Herter said he is not asking this for our armed forces as a whole. Referring to the Cuban example, he said his point is perfectly brought out in that it is clear that we would not want to be in the position of having to use atomic weapons there. The President said that for that kind of pacification we would not need nuclear weapons.

Admiral Radford said that our military men must consider what are the possibilities that could be brought against them. We do not need to use the nuclear weapons in Central America, but we do need to be ready to use them instantly in case we commit forces along the Sino-Soviet periphery where we could otherwise be overwhelmed. Mr. McElroy commented that [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] we had these weapons available immediately on carriers, but not on land. The President, commenting on the operations [less than 1 line of source text not declassified], said that he would of course keep closely informed of the developing situation, and could authorize use on very short notice.

Mr. McElroy next turned to the reason Defense wants to keep the language unchanged. He said it is very difficult to change language [Page 232] without this action being interpreted as a substantial change in policy. He was afraid we would thereby open the gate to all sorts of changes in our program. He added that our allies would then doubt whether we would meet the situations that might arise resolutely or whether we would be uncertain in our responses. He said Turkey, for example, is wondering whether we would in fact use these weapons.

Mr. Gates said it should be clearly understood that a change of policy is in fact being recommended by some people. They feel that the increase of nuclear capability on the part of both the Soviets and the United States makes conflicts limited to the use of conventional forces more likely, and hence increases the need for conventional forces.

The President said the problem always is how far you can delegate authority—what will be the consequences of the delegation. He said we have come a long way since 1952. At first, none of our atomic weapons were deployed. Finally, this deployment was achieved. Next we took up the question when could we use them. First we said they could be used when our forces are attacked for purposes of defending themselves. However, when we intervene deliberately, for example along the border of Burma, use on our own initiative is a very different thing.

Mr. Gates said that the suggestion that we be able to conduct our military operations with or without the use of atomic weapons implies a duplicate capability. The President came back to his point that if we had to put organized U.S. units into an area, he would insist that we have atomic support available. The question then is when to use them; for example, when is their existence threatened. He cited as a possible example sending our forces into Iran. Admiral Radford added Iraq and Kuwait. The President said that definitely whenever we send in organized units they have to have the capability to defend their own existence. Mr. Herter said he did not quarrel with the idea of this capacity. The question is whether the commander on the spot is to have the authority to use them. This of course also ties into the question of these units being given a non-atomic capability. The President said he would like to find a formula for this and he would suggest that when formed units are in areas exposed to the power of Sino-Soviet forces, they will always be supported by appropriate nuclear defenses. He is thinking of a defensive capability primarily. Mr. McElroy said that to defend our forces we have to be ready to take out air fields which may be 300–500 miles distant. Mr. Gates said that stated the other way around we cannot expect to be able to take them out without atomic weapons. Admiral Radford said that we must have offensive atomic power nearby also if the units are to be able to accomplish their objectives.

Mr. Gray said that as he understood it, State is in fact suggesting that the United States should develop the capability, which it does not now have, to engage in limited operations without the use of atomic weapons. [Page 233] The President said he does not agree that we do not have that capability now. He said our present division has a power greater than the division had in World War II. Mr. McElroy said this is true regarding the first 2,000 yards or so of the combat zone. The thing that will be lacking is a capacity to be effective at ten to twenty miles. The President asked if we are throwing our artillery away and Mr. McElroy said that we are on the way to doing so. Mr. Gates added that the modern airplane is decreasing in its capability to be effective using conventional weapons only. The President said he is not thinking so much of the use of aircraft in jungle countries. He said he could take one of our present day divisions into the field and defeat anything that could be put against it in such terrain. He recognized that we are at a transitional stage. He thought that if we get atomic weapons down to twenty tons equivalent explosive strength, then they will in fact have become conventional. At that time we can drop conventional artillery. Until then we are in transition.

Mr. Gray said the issue is whether we should have larger conventional forces than we have now. The President said he thought we should develop our organization basically on the theory that advanced weapons as he had just described are bound to come. We can take such units and give them training in conventional operations and give them plenty of fire power, some of which would extend more than 1000–2000 yards, and employ them against small places such as Cuba. Mr. McElroy said that while we are carrying out research and development and modernizing the conventional weapons in the hands of our forces, we are not developing conventional forces for the long-range future. The President said that we cannot base our organization on the distant future. It must be based on the weapons we now have and will have in the three or four years ahead. We should train our forces to use all weapons available. He added that in areas susceptible of overrunning by Sino-Soviet forces we must put atomic capacity.

Mr. Herter then read from a State Department paper containing a summary statement of foreign policy requirements bearing upon U.S. strategy.3 He thought that for deterrent purposes we should not explicitly deny ourselves the use of nuclear weapons. However, we should not tie ourselves necessarily to their use, since in general they are not desirable for use in limited warfare, and should be used only as a last resort. The President thought this expressed too many cautions, and would be too restrictive upon our military preparations. Mr. Herter said he had thought that a change in the policy paper could be avoided through a [Page 234] supplementary statement of this kind. The President said he does not mind changing the language in the policy paper if it can be improved. He does not put too much weight on the point earlier raised by Mr. McElroy.

Mr. McElroy said that there is some opinion that it would be possible for the United States to be engaged in a limited war involving the USSR in Europe and China. The President said it would have to be awfully limited if it were not to become all-out conflict. Mr. Herter commented that Under Secretary Murphy thinks that we could have limited hostilities, which could be kept limited, over Berlin. He was doubtful of this, however.

Mr. Gates added that some people believe that, in a situation of level expenditures, the high and increasing costs of the big weapons such as ICBMs will squeeze out conventional forces and preclude the modernizing of our armed forces. The President said that, as a matter of fact, he thought that we do have a tougher problem coming up because of this. We never know when we might have to intervene with force anywhere around the world. So far as the situations in NATO and Korea are concerned, however, if a major attack should come our only recourse can be to reply with atomic weapons.

Mr. Herter said the question is how much our forces capable of intervening in limited operations are in fact tied down. He cited the need to replace forces in Europe before they could be used in Lebanon or on the route to Berlin. The question is, are we so short of forces, and are those we have so committed, that we cannot intervene with Army or Marine forces elsewhere in the world in case of necessity.

The President said he thought there was a good measure of agreement on the facts of the matter. The problem is to state the situation in such a way as to give our people a basis for planning and preparation of programs. Governor Herter said he had no desire to get into the specifics of military planning. His thought is as to what, in round terms, is required to put us in the position where we can meet our foreign policy objectives. The President recognized that the world is “scared to death” of atomic bombs, and that we could lose all our allies in one ill-advised act. He thought we should keep ourselves ready to intervene where needed without sprawling our forces all over the world. Admiral Radford stated that while public opinion is terrified by atomic weapons, military and governmental people around the world realize that we do not have enough manpower to meet the Soviet threat without resort to these weapons. He said that Admiral Felt indicated that the military people in Asia are more concerned that we would not use these weapons in case of necessity than that we will.

The President said that we must not, however, use excessive means to meet our tasks. Just as a man cannot use a pistol against another who is simply trying to give him a bloody nose, there is need for judgment and [Page 235] care in selecting the weapons with which we would respond. He thought we should go carefully and wisely toward the weapons of 1965 in our organization and our military concepts. He thought that State is being a little overcautious in their approach. Our military people should continue the incorporation of atomic weapons into our military structure, but at the same time should make sure that we can use the forces we have in a maximum conventional role and thus avoid unnecessarily causing all-out war to occur. Mr. Herter stressed again that the world is fearful of the use of nuclear power. The President said that people are wrong, and that perhaps the opinion must be changed. He commented as an aside that he does not think that a nuclear weapon of twenty tons power would be worth its cost—he would doubt whether we should go below about 100 tons effect. Mr. Smith said that our planning has been based on the assumption that we would use atomic weapons but that our adversary would not use them since if he did we would no longer have a limited war. There was a considerable exchange over this, with Admiral Radford indicating that we had taken the possibility of their use against us into account in our planning. It turned out that Mr. Smith was referring to a specific set of plans on limited war in which this assumption was included. Admiral Radford did not consider the assumption to be a sound one, nor apparently did the others there.

The President said that we have crossed this bridge. If we were attacked in Korea, for example, we are going to use atomic weapons.

If our opponents came back with atomic weapons, perhaps this would cause all-out war. In any case, we would put all our forces on the most stringent alert possible. He stressed again that we are talking about units committed to areas susceptible to heavy attack from the central Eurasian mass; we are not talking about units committed in the Caribbean, in Africa or in other areas remote from Soviet power. He agreed that if we use these weapons and our adversary has them, we must expect that he would use them against us. Mr. McElroy recalled that he is having a basic restudy of the limited war question made in response to a request from Mr. Gray.

In concluding, the President said that he had a great deal of question in his mind as to the validity of definitions of the type attempted in this paper.

Brigadier General, USA
  1. Source: Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, Eisenhower Diaries. Top Secret. Drafted by Goodpaster on July 6. Another memorandum of this conversation by Gerard Smith is in Department of State, S/P Files: Lot 67 D 548, Military and Naval Policy 1958–1959. See the Supplement.
  2. A copy is enclosed with a covering memorandum from Gray to Haydn Williams, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for NSC Affairs and Plans, International Security Affairs, dated July 8. (Eisenhower Library, White House Office Files, Project Clean Up) See the Supplement.
  3. The other two issues were whether it should be assumed that limited war would occur in developed as well as underdeveloped areas, and whether in cases of local or limited aggression the United States should apply all force necessary to defeat such aggression, or limit operations to the amount of force necessary to limit hostilities and restore the status quo ante.
  4. Apparently a paper dated April 24, a copy of which is enclosed with an April 25 letter from Herter to McElroy. Another paper containing Department of State views, entitled “A Concept of US Military Strategy for the 1960s,” dated January 5, is enclosed with a January 24 letter from Dulles to McElroy. (All in Department of State, S/PNSC Files: Lot 62 D 1, NSC 5906 Series) All are in the Supplement.