128. Memorandum From Robert H. Johnson of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Rostow)1


  • The President’s UN Speech2 and the Situation in Southeast Asia

As the discussion with the President last week3 made very clear, it would be very disadvantageous to us to have a crisis in Laos or South Viet Nam at the height of the Berlin crisis. Khrushchev may also consider this a dangerous maneuver and seek to avoid it. He must be concerned with the convulsive reaction a double crisis could produce in the United States and also with its impact on the respective Chinese and Soviet roles in Asia.

Nonetheless, Khrushchev could see certain short range advantages in stepping up the level of Communist military activity in Southeast Asia. It seems to me that we can utilize the concern of the neutrals about the Berlin situation to help deter Khrushchev from taking military action in Southeast Asia. We can do this by making explicit ties between the two situations. I believe this might be usefully done in the President’s speech to the UN.

Thus the President might in his speech say that it is in the interest of world peace-in the interests of the Bloc, the Western Powers and the neutrals-that the already very serious crisis over Berlin should not be complicated by a reopening of the war in Laos or by enlarging the scale of warfare in South Viet Nam. In order to show that this is a matter within the control of the USSR, the President would need to make clear that the struggles in these two countries are not simple indigenous struggles, but are wars supported by the Soviets and the North Vietnamese (with Soviet help) from outside. This would require the surfacing of evidence that we have been collecting.

Such a statement at the UN might be accompanied by a démarche to Khrushchev which would also point out our mutual interest in avoiding a war in Southeast Asia, call his attention to his understanding with the President at Vienna4 that it was in our mutual interest that Laos be neutralized and make clear that. while [Page 294] we wish to avoid a fight, we are not prepared to stand by while he gobbles up either Laos or South Viet Nam. The pros and cons of these proposed courses of action may be stated as follows.


By tying Berlin and Southeast Asia together in this fashion we could make use of some of the pressure that the neutrals are going to be exercising on both sides to come to a solution on Berlin to create some pressure on the Soviet Union not to complicate the problem further by undertaking a war in Southeast Asia. Khrushchev would have something additional to lose if he did step up the war in Southeast Asia.
We would be communicating to Khrushchev in an explicit way our recognition of our mutual interest in avoiding resumption of the military struggle in Laos in the midst of the Berlin crisis.
We would focus world attention on the crisis in Southeast Asia and thus: (a) suggest that it is potentially of as great significance as the crisis over Berlin; and (b) help avoid a situation in which the Communists manage to sneak away with Laos or South Viet Nam while world attention is focused on the Berlin crisis.
We would counter the argument that the Communists are beginning to make that we want to open a second front in Asia.


Khrushchev showed by his action on nuclear testing that he is not going to be deterred by neutral opinion. Having made that plunge he is even less likely to be so deterred in the future. (On the other hand, if the test decision was made for purely technical military reasons and overrode considerations of preserving a “peaceful” world political posture, he may be more sensitive than ever to political considerations of this kind.)
The USSR may lack the power of decision with respect to Laos and Viet Nam. Communist China and North Viet Nam can force the Soviet hand. (With the Chinese and the North Vietnamese in difficult economic straits, however, the hand of the USSR should be strengthened.)
The situation in Southeast Asia is so muddled that it is going to be very difficult to place responsibility upon the USSR for any resumption of hostilities in Laos or step-up of activities in South Viet Nam.
The proposed actions will suggest to the Russians that we are terribly anxious to avoid a fight in Southeast Asia in the midst of the Berlin crisis and will simply encourage them to step up the military struggle there in the hope that we will not respond. (But the [Page 295] USSR must estimate already that we would like to avoid such a fight if we can. If, as proposed, we at the same time make clear that we will not stand by while they take over, the dangers suggested should be minimized.)

It should be noted that, with the exception of the last argument, these are arguments that the proposed action would be ineffective rather than disadvantageous.5

Robert H. Johnson6
  1. Source: Department of State, S/P Files: Lot 67 D 548, R. Johnson Chron. Secret.
  2. See Document 137.
  3. Apparently a reference to a meeting at the White House on August 29 regarding Laos. A memorandum of this meeting is in Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Southeast Asia Region.
  4. See footnote 2. Document 61.
  5. In a memorandum of September 15 to Rostow, Johnson wrote that even though Rostow had indicated he did not fully agree with the suggestion made in the September 5 memorandum, he was submitting some specific language for inclusion in the draft of the President’s speech prepared by Schlesinger. Johnson’s draft paragraph reads: “While we keep our eyes focused upon the efforts of the USSR to deprive West Berlin of its freedom we must not forget that the Communist countries are also engaged in an effort to impose their will from outside on the countries of Laos and Viet Nam. I say to the leaders of the USSR and I say to you all that the cause of peace will not be well served if an attempt is made to use the crisis over Berlin as a cover to divert attention from a major effort by the Communist countries to gain control of these countries by either creeping or direct aggression. Just as we shall improve the possibilities for peace in these countries by standing fast over Berlin, so the Communist countries will greatly complicate the problems of finding a peaceful solution to the Berlin problem if they choose this moment to attempt to take over all of Viet Nam and Laos.” (Department of State, S/P Files: Lot 67 D 548, R. Johnson Chron. Sept. 1-Dec. 31, 1961) No reply by Rostow has been found.
  6. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.