63. Memorandum from Lay to the NSC1

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  • Capabilities of Forces for Limited Military Operations


  • A. NSC Action No. 1814
  • B. NSC 5724; NSC 5724/1
  • C. NSC Actions Nos. 1841, 1842 and 1844
  • D. Memo for NSC from Executive Secretary, same subject, dated March 7, 1958
  • E. NSC Action No. 1881

The enclosed memorandum from the Secretaries of State and Defense, and the attached study on the subject,2 prepared by the Departments of State and Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with appropriate participation of the Central Intelligence Agency, pursuant to the plan concurred in by NSC Action No. 1881, are transmitted herewith for consideration by the National Security Council at its meeting on Thursday, June 26, 1958.

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The enclosures are being given a special limited distribution. It is requested that special security precautions be observed in the handling thereof, and that access thereto be limited on a strict need-to-know basis.

James S. Lay, Jr
Executive Secretary

cc: The Secretary of the Treasury

The Director, Bureau of the Budget

The Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission

The Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

The Director of Central Intelligence


Memorandum for the National Security Council From McElroy and John Foster Dulles

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  • Study relative to the Capabilities of Forces for Limited Military Operations in Response to NSC Action No. 1881

1. There is submitted herewith a coordinated study of United States and allied capabilities for limited military operations to July 1961, prepared by the Department of State, the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with appropriate participation of the Central Intelligence Agency.

2. We wish at the outset to stress the limitations of this study.

a. It does not examine capabilities for limited military operations against Soviet armed forces. The study was undertaken within the framework of our current strategic concept which holds that a war in which the armed forces of the USSR and the United States are overtly engaged is a general war.

b. It does not examine capabilities for limited military operations against an enemy using nuclear weapons. The study assumes that enemy use of nuclear weapons to 1 July 1961 would be construed as overt employment of Soviet armed forces.

c. It does not examine capabilities for covert limited military operations.

d. The study’s approach to limited military operations in the Far East is based upon an assumption—i.e., “that the United States could engage in effective military action against mainland China without undue risk of initiating general war”—which the NSC observed in [Typeset Page 229] Action No. 1881–c was “to be regarded only as a working assumption for the purposes of this study.”

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e. The study is not a complete and final analysis of limited military operations upon which the size and nature of United States forces required for limited military operations can be determined for future years. Estimates of enemy action were, of necessity, hypothetical and thus are not a basis for military planning. None of the situations studied have been war-gamed. The conclusions and recommendations, based as they are on hypothetical but possible situations, should not be considered as definitive.

3. We consider the significant findings of the study to be as follows:

a. U.S. Capabilities

(1) Within the limitations set forth in paragraph 2 and if the use of nuclear weapons as required to achieve military objectives is authorized, United States capabilities for limited military operations are adequate to undertake and carry out limited operations of the nature examined.

(2) In many such limited military operations, the use of nuclear weapons would be required only as an unlikely last resort.

(3) In the Far East, however, the United States does not now have a ready non-nuclear capability which alone could cope satisfactorily with limited military operations against overtly engaged substantial Communist forces. The selective use of nuclear weapons against such forces and the facilities supporting them would be necessary.

(4) The withholding of authorization to use nuclear weapons for limited military operations against overtly engaged substantial Communist forces in the Far East would be likely to entail requirements for additional overseas deployment of United States forces, the construction of bases and other facilities overseas, augmentation of sea/airlift in being and expanded logistic support capabilities and “pipelines” both overseas and in the United States.

(5) The burden of the initial military response will fall on the U.S. forces deployed in or near the area involved, regardless of Service. Prompt and vigorous response by these forces may obviate a requirement for major reinforcements.

(6) The effectiveness of United States limited military operations will be affected by the timely availability of sea/airlift for the provision of logistic support to our own and friendly forces and particularly for the movement from the United States of ground forces committed to action. To the extent that the limited military operations examined in this study are expected to affect adversely our posture for general war, the temporary diversion of transport from general war tasks is usually cited as the principal adverse factor.

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(7) Only small numbers of “clean” nuclear weapons, which will be in the high yield category, will be available to United States forces to 1 July 1961.

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b. Allied Capabilities

(1) The indigenous forces which we might find it necessary to support in limited military operations will have widely varying capabilities. Some, such as the GRC and ROK forces, have significant capabilities on the ground. Practically all have marked deficiencies in air and naval capabilities.

(2) Very few of our allies could or would provide significant forces for limited military operations outside their national territory. Most lack capability. Some, e.g. Pakistan facing a real or assumed threat from India, would be loath to send substantial forces abroad. The provision of forces by others, e.g. France in the Middle East, would be politically disadvantageous.

(3) Our allies can provide base and other facilities that will ease and lend flexibility to the application of United States power in limited military operations.

c. Political Considerations

(1) Failure by the United States to undertake effective limited military operations in support of other free nations in situations such as those examined would have seriously adverse consequences throughout the free world, particularly among our allies, and would encourage the Communists to adopt a more aggressive posture.

(2) Anticipation of the need for United States limited military operations in developing situations and the earliest possible decisions (i) to intervene if necessary and (ii) on the nature and objectives of the intervention are essential.

(3) We need the political support of our allies for United States limited military operations. We should also ensure that appropriate regional collective security organizations and their members have some military role, no matter how minor, in such operations in order to maintain the solidarity and raison d’etre of these organizations.

(4) Emotional aversion to nuclear weapons is widespread in the free world, particularly among Asians, and our use of these weapons in limited military operations would incur seriously adverse political consequences.

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4. We make the following additional observations.

a. The study understandably devotes relatively little attention to the deterrent aspects of United States capabilities for limited military operations. Deterrence of local aggression undertaken or inspired by, or serving the interests of, the Communists is a major aim. As the study suggests, timely political action supported by capabilities for limited operations can frequently avert the need for the commitment of United States forces in combat.

b. The determinative factors in decisions as to the initiation and conduct of United States limited military operations are political rather than military. In practically all likely situations, it is the political [Typeset Page 231] consequences for our general position in the world of inaction or action, and the nature of our action, that will govern United States decisions.

c. Selective nuclear strikes deep into Communist China, as contemplated in the Quemoy and Matsu, Taiwan and Korea hypothetical situations, could elicit a Sino-Soviet nuclear response. Serious consideration would, therefore, have to be given to the proclamation of at least a limited national emergency if the United States were to undertake limited military operations of this nature.

d. The increased possibility of general war inherent in most limited military operations requires precautionary and alerting steps. Even one limited military operation requiring heavy logistic support and deployment of major forces from the United States might necessitate partial mobilization.

e. Additional comments which should be taken into consideration in any possible further use of this study are contained in the Annex immediately hereunder.

5. We make the following recommendations.

a. The Director of Central Intelligence should be asked to initiate the preparation of National Intelligence Estimates on (i) world reactions and (ii) Sino-Soviet military reactions to United States use of nuclear weapons in limited military operations against Communist (non-Soviet) forces in the Far East.

b. The findings of the present study with respect to the availability of allied forces for employment outside their national territory should be taken into account among other factors in the review of 1962 force goals for nations receiving United States military assistance directed by NSC Action No. 1908.

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c. Greater efforts should be made to clarify to the free world United States intentions with respect to the use of nuclear weapons and to inform the free world of the radiation effects of low yield weapons and their relative efficiency in certain limited military operations.

  • /s/ Neil McElroy
  • /s/ John Foster Dulles
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The studies do not in all instances give sufficient emphasis to the difficult command and communications problems which would be encountered in operations in areas remote from the U.S.
The studies give no specific recognition of future modernization or buildup of military forces hostile to the U.S. by Soviet Bloc military [Typeset Page 232] aid. It is possible that such aid in any given instance could be significant, particularly if the recipient forces were applied exclusively against local allied forces.
While employment of chemical and biological capabilities has not been reflected in the studies, it should be noted that limited supplies of standardized chemical and biological capabilities are currently in the U.S. stockpile; much greater quantities of these could be produced before 1961 without further development.
  1. Source: Transmits study on capabilities of forces for limited military operations. Top Secret; Special Limited Distribution. Se 7 pp. NARA, RG 59, S/SNSC Files: Lot 63 D 351.
  2. Study not enclosed. [Footnote is in the original.]