234. Memorandum from Rostow to President Kennedy, April 211

[Facsimile Page 1]


  • The Problem We Face

1. Right now the greatest problem we face is not to have the whole of our foreign policy thrown off balance by what we feel and what we do about Cuba itself. We have suffered a serious setback; but that setback will be trivial compared to the consequences of not very soon regaining momentum along the lines which we have begun in the past three months.

2. How did we begin? Our central aim has been to bind up the northern half of the Free World more closely and begin to link it constructively to the south. We began by seeking to associate ourselves more powerfully with the constructive aspirations of the peoples in the underdeveloped areas. This was done in the Alliance for Progress; in the foreign aid message; in our position on Angola; etc. We also began the process of tightening the Atlantic Alliance in its military and economic dimensions. Here, too, we have made progress: with the Brentano and Ball trips; with the Macmillan and Adenauer visits against the background of the Acheson report. We have dealt cautiously but firmly with three of the four major enclaves of Communist power Eisenhower left us in the Free World: the Congo, Laos, and Viet-Nam. We dealt with the Congo through the UN in ways which, while annoying some in the north, nevertheless advanced the grand strategy; and we moved on Laos through SEATO in ways which have thus far held European and Asian members of SEATO more or less together and kept the neutrals elsewhere more or less with us. After the SEATO meetings there was an increased international recognition of the problem of Viet-Nam; and if we are thoughtful, I suspect we can deal with this problem in ways which would give us an even more unified Free World position than we have enjoyed in Laos.

[Facsimile Page 2]

3. The action in Cuba has temporarily damaged the grand alliance in all its dimensions.

4. In Latin America we run the risk of posing an almost impossible dilemma for those politicians whose success and collaboration we need most. We began well with the Alliance for Progress. This has real potential, as the meetings in Brazil last week revealed. It is a framework [Typeset Page 752] within which we can help Quadros and other shaky but hopeful leaders find their feet, and establish a sufficiently firm political base to deal, in time, more resolutely with their domestic subversion and opposition problems. But we cannot confront Quadros openly with the problem of choosing between working with us against Castro or in working with us in his economic development business; and so, also, with the others. An urgent item of business is, therefore, to implement your speech of yesterday in ways which avoid this dilemma.

5. In Asia we have posed a similar and even more dangerous problem for Nehru and other neutrals. Nehru can and will support us in dealing with overt aggression. He may even conceivably work covertly with us in certain circumstances, as perhaps in Nepal. But we have not found the means and the legal basis for dealing overtly with infiltration and covert aggression. The trouble with our Cuban operation was and remains that it was mounted on simple ideological grounds. Given the common law of the contemporary world, those grounds cannot be generally acceptable. If accepted, they would justify any nation which has the military capability and logistical advantage, marching into the territory of a government it does not like. That principle—which the Chinese Communists advocate within the Communist bloc—would be murderous for Nehru if applied in Southeast Asia. We must either do what we must do covertly or find a new overt basis for dealing with Communist strategy. I suspect overt action of a useful kind can be developed on a case-by-case basis; and, as I have suggested to you earlier, the crucial element may be forms of international action on the question of Communist arms shipments.

6. To Europeans our recent action on Cuba seems much like the obsessive reaction of the British on Egypt; the French on Algeria; the Netherlands on Indonesia; etc. We have appeared to move with violence, on a unilateral basis, in an area where historically we had deep commitments and deep emotions. Their anxiety is on three scores:

[Facsimile Page 3]

First. Because our prestige appears somewhat to be damaged and our prestige is important to each of them in his own situation.

Second. We did not consult with them and they will bear a part of the consequences.

Third. Their confidence in our judgment has been, at least temporarily, shaken.

All of this, it seems to me, is reparable, if we do not get further driven in on ourselves with respect to Cuba, and if we resume with vigor the lines of action we have launched with the Europeans, including especially the technique of intimate and candid consultation, which Acheson has proposed.

7. What then must we do? The answer should be in two parts: What we do about policy in general, and what we do about Cuba.

[Typeset Page 753]

8. First, policy in general. I believe we must resume with intensified vigor and perhaps more boldness than we have heretofore envisaged, the lines of action already under way. Specifically,

a. We should work intensively with the British and the Germans in the next month to see if a major breakthrough in the Atlantic Alliance cannot be made on the occasion of your visit to De Gaulle. We have prepared a new working paper on this, which goes beyond the Acheson report.

b. We must push the Alliance for Progress at an accelerated rate. This means not merely getting the $500 million from the Congress; not merely getting cranked up for work on development plans with the Latin Americans; but also having ready for the June Latin American ECOSOC meeting some commodity agreements. Dick Goodwin is making real progress on this.

c. It is crucial to our strategy in every direction that the India and Pakistan consortium meetings be a major success. These meetings must succeed in order to demonstrate to the Congress that the Europeans will, in fact, contribute to demonstrate to the other [Facsimile Page 4] underdeveloped areas that a concentration on domestic tasks and good programming pays off; and to stabilize the position in the Indian Peninsula itself, which contains about half of the population of the Free World’s south.

d. Laos. Assuming that we have a conference on Laos, we must use this occasion to prove that, even with a difficult heritage, British, French and American positions in the Far East can be brought into alignment. We should make a major effort with the French, especially, to come to an understanding. We should permit them to get off their chests all of the accumulated bad feeling about our policy in Laos. We should try to get De Gaulle to assign first-rate people to the conference, instructed at the highest level to seek an accommodation; and we should listen to the French with understanding, if not whole-hearted sympathy. The Laos conference—if it takes place—should be a major exercise in what Acheson means by consultation.

e. Viet-Nam. Viet-Nam is the place where—in the Attorney General’s phrase—we must prove that we are not a paper tiger. We have a very difficult situation there; but there are advantages. The legal position is clear; the Vietminh have no international right to mount the kind of aggression they are mounting. We should consider urgently whether, since the ICC does not protect Viet-Nam, the United Nations might be forced to face this issue and be asked to provide forces which would effectively monitor the Viet-Nam frontiers which have been used for infiltration. Ambassador Stevenson should be brought in fully on the planning of the Viet-Nam exercise. We should review the counter-insurgency plan as it now exists and perhaps radically raise our sights. We should seize on the British offer to help Viet-Nam and seek [Typeset Page 754] to internationalize the effort to the maximum. We should force Nehru cooly to study the situation and face up to the implications for all of Southeast Asia of Viet-Nam’s loss. We must, with all tact, force Diem to face his domestic political problem not merely with his Communist opposition, but with his army which is deeply dissatisfied with his techniques for administering the counter-guerrilla operation. We must bring to bear all the resources—technical, economic, and intellectual—we have to prove that Viet-Nam and Southeast Asia can be held. The ultimate outcome in Laos will substantially depend, I believe, on the Viet-Nam exercise.

[Facsimile Page 5]

f. In the United Nations we should explore with Ambassador Stevenson whether he and the UN people can conceive of any useful way of making the UN, as a body, face up to the problem of indirect aggression; and we must give Stevenson positions which will permit him to rebuild the situation of strength he created in the first three months, which is now temporarily damaged.

9. As for Cuba itself, I have little background and little wisdom. There are, evidently, three quite different threats which Cuba poses, which are now mixed up in our minds and in our policy. There is the military question of Communist arms and of a potential Soviet offensive base in Cuba. If we are not immediately to invade Cuba ourselves, we must decide whether we shall permit Castro, so long as he remains in power, to acquire defensive arms; and we must decide what the touchstones are between defensive arms and the creation of a Communist military base threatening to the U.S. itself. I assume that evidence of the latter would take virtually as a cause of war, although we should bear in mind what the placing of missiles in Turkey looks like in the USSR. Second, there is the question of Cuba as a base for active infiltration and subversion in the rest of Latin America. Here, evidently, we must try to do more than we are now doing, and we should seek active hemispheric collaboration—wherever we can find it—in gathering and exchanging information on the networks involved and on counter-measures. This is, however, essentially a covert, professional operation. The more we talk about it—the more we overtly seek to pressure Latin American nations to join with us—the less likely we shall be able to get their cooperation in doing anything useful. Third, there is the simple ideological problem. Cuba is a Communist state, repressing every value we treasure. But on that ground alone we are prevented by our treaty obligations from acting directly and overtly. On the other hand, we are overtly also committed beyond sympathy to the support of those Cubans fighting for freedom. Here, how we proceed—what is to be done overtly and covertly—is a most searching question. I have no advice to give except this: Let there first be a first-class and careful intelligence evaluation of the situation inside Cuba; of Castro’s control [Typeset Page 755] methods; of the nature and degree of dissidence of various groups; of recent trends and their pace; and an assessment of vulnerabilities.

[Facsimile Page 6]

10. As I said to the Attorney General the other day, when you are in a fight and knocked off your feet, the most dangerous thing to do is to come out swinging wildly. Clearly we must cope with Castro in the next several years—perhaps sooner, if he overplays his hand and gives us an acceptable legal and international basis. But short of that, we must think again clearly and cooly in the light of the facts as they are and are likely to be. We may emerge with a quite different approach to the Castro problem after such an exercise, or we may proceed with more of the same. But let us do some fresh homework.

11. In the meanwhile, what we must do is to build the foundation and the concepts, in Latin America, the North Atlantic Alliance, and the UN, which would permit us, next time round, to deal with the Cuban problem in ways which would not so grievously disrupt the rest of our total strategy.

12. As part of this process of getting back on the tracks, I still think you should consider a well balanced speech taking stock of the first hundred days, which would flag the urgent action items across the board, at home and abroad. I attach an extra copy of my memo on that speech.

  1. Thoughts on how to get U.S. foreign policy back on track following Cuban setback. Top Secret. 6 pp. Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Meetings and Memoranda Series, Pol Plan 2/11/61–5/61.