18. Memorandum of Conference With President Kennedy0


  • General Lemnitzer
  • General Decker
  • Admiral Burke
  • General White
  • General Shoup
  • Mr. Rostow
  • General Goodpaster
  • General Clifton

Some of the representatives of Time-Life Films, Inc. were taking pictures of the President and they followed him into the room with their cameras and microphones. While they were in the room, General Lemnitzer gave a brief report on the meeting in Puerto Rico with the Latin American representatives of their Armed Forces.1 In connection with this (but later in the meeting), the President asked the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to get a report from all Services on the number of Latin American military personnel whom we educate in our military schools in this country—by country, by service, and by school.

The President also instructed General Lemnitzer to make an effort in the next few days to find out how these military Latin Americans feel about Castro; from a military viewpoint, what would they do from their countries to offset his regime; and does Castro represent a threat to their countries? The President instructed the Chiefs to do this quietly and unofficially. They assured him they could get information of this kind within the next few days while our escort officers are still with the Latin Americans.

[Page 49]

The President indicated he wanted to take up two subjects: the guerrilla and counter-guerrilla warfare, and the nuclear weapons. He mentioned the Holifield Report,2 indicating that he expected them to read it and be prepared to discuss it as well as other facets of atomic weapons “command control.” [2-½ lines of source text not declassified]

In the discussion on guerrilla and counter-guerrilla warfare, the President asked several questions which General Decker and others answered:

How many are in training in the Special Forces of the Army? Decker: 1100 at Fort Bragg, 346 in Germany, 364 in Okinawa.

How do we intend to use these forces—in what kind of war? Decker: In all kinds of war—cold war, limited war, and even in general war, if it occurred.

How many people in our MAAG in Viet-Nam are skilled in guerrilla warfare operations? Decker: There are three officers in the MAAG in Viet-Nam who include this kind of training with their more general training. We had a team of 30, but the MAAG Chief had requests for the team to pull out. Our program was based on training Vietnamese who, in turn, trained others. General Decker made the point that in some areas we don’t have authority to train the military personnel and we have to have the host government invite us to participate in this training.

In response to questions, it was stated that we are putting 75 more people into the Laotian training program. We have already trained 7000 Laotians. Altogether, we have trained 14,000 people in the Southeast Asian area. We now have a team with each of the 21 Laotian battalions. In addition, there are 1200 Meo tribesmen in the hills who have been trained by our people.

The President asked General Decker’s judgment, in line with Khrushchev’s speech, on what our course of action (as far as training is concerned) should be in Iran and in Viet-Nam.

A general discussion then brought out the following points: That we now respond, in the military assistance program, to country requests as to what kind of training and what kind of equipment they want. The country requests are screened thoroughly by the “country team” and then, back here, before we furnish them the equipment or the training. It was stated that certainly more emphasis can be given to guerrilla and counter-guerrilla training. We can also examine our programs carefully to see that more light equipment is put into the program—the kind that a man can carry with him. In regard to equipment, General Decker pointed out that one of our most valuable contributions is radio direction-finding equipment in order that guerrillas can be located. Usually, guerrilla [Page 50] teams have some sort of radio communication, and we can locate them promptly if we have teams trained with this direction-finding equipment. This is vital to counter-guerrilla operations because guerrillas are in small groups and move so rapidly.

In response to the President’s questions, General Decker showed him some pictures of our Special Forces and described their organization. An “A” team has 12 men. “B” and “C” teams are organized to control the “A” teams. General Decker finally estimated that we have approximately 100 “A” teams in the three Special Force centers. The “A” teams include linguists, communications, intelligence, and medical personnel. Their jobs are to train anywhere up to 500 men each, and that the “B” and “C” teams then help control the “A” teams and the trained guerrillas.

In response to the President’s questions, the JCS emphasized that the teams in Germany are essential; they are aimed at the satellites in case of a war where guerrillas would be trained to operate against Soviet lines of communication.

The President asked them to study carefully and give him some idea of whether or not we could use more teams in South Viet-Nam—for training of men who can be inserted in North Viet-Nam and operate as Vietnamese guerrillas, and in South Viet-Nam as counter-guerrillas. He directed that they find out what the South Vietnamese are doing about anti-guerrilla preparations in their own country, and what they are doing in South Viet-Nam to infiltrate North Viet-Nam. In this connection, he brought to their attention the Lansdale Report.3

General Decker pointed out that in the MAP program an additional 20,000 strength was being considered for South Viet-Nam. General Lemnitzer added that approximately 6,000 of the 20,000 are to be used in this unconventional warfare approach. The President asked General Decker to get in touch with the Military Assistance Group in Viet-Nam and find out, from their viewpoint, what the situation is in regard to additional training.

The President brought up the subject of a rather large-scale Communist effort in Ecuador and indications that Castro was probably the source of some of this activity. He asked: “What are we doing to help Ecuador train and prepare to offset this?”

Responses from the group brought out that the State Department has to negotiate for additional people to be introduced into these countries. General Decker said that a first “must” was to teach the people counter-intelligence operations; and secondly, then help them train their [Page 51] own forces in these matters. General Decker added that guerrilla and counter-guerrilla operations have not been emphasized in our Latin American MAAG efforts.

The President then directed that the JCS make “a sort of analysis” of what we can do around the world in building anti-guerrilla forces. He especially wanted comments on each Latin American country. He pointed out that each year as we go to Congress on military aid, he would get more support if we emphasized this type of activity—“giving friendly nations the kind of military assistance they are most likely to need.”

General White suggested that the JCS take a look at our guidance to our Military Assistance Advisory Groups in Latin America. In his discussion, he cited Colombia.

Returning to the discussion of Castro in Cuba, and the opinions of the Latin American military people whom they had just talked with, Admiral Burke said that the consensus of the military was that their governments are really moving too slowly in countering the Communist activities in Latin America. The present governments, he said, are not too eager to go into this training large-scale, because they are afraid of dissident groups in their own countries rising up and taking over the government when they are well-equipped and trained. General Lemnitzer commented that our engineer equipment had made a considerable contribution to these countries in repairing roads, bridges, and airfields—in effect, although it is not contemplated in our military assistance, it is most helpful in improving the economies and communications of the countries, and ultimately leads to stability. He commented that we might review our military aid program to see that more of this kind of material is usefully provided.

Admiral Burke commented that a great deal of local pride is involved and we should emphasize items that help their local prestige. For example, we are helping them build a naval academy in Ecuador. Its cost is only $30,000. The Ecuadorans are doing most of the work and are very pleased with this kind of contribution.

General White discussed what the Communists are doing in these areas. He mentioned a small thermo-generator being given wide distribution—a little generator that can light one single lamp bulb or run a radio—and that the Communists are getting great credit for this small physical improvement. He felt we could examine our own efforts in this line.

General Decker mentioned the school that is opening in the Canal Zone in June for Latin American countries and stated that we would see that the guerrilla and counter-guerrilla training would be emphasized.

General Lemnitzer mentioned that many of our escort officers and briefers spoke in Spanish. General White pointed out that the A-2, an Air [Page 52] Force general, gave his whole briefing in Spanish. The President asked if he mentioned Castro at all. General Lemnitzer said that he would check on this.

It was at this point that the President asked them to take a reading on how the Latin American military people felt about the Castro threat.

Turning to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, the President asked him for a brief resume of their activities in this field. General Shoup stated that the Marines had a different approach to this problem: The Marines felt that we should be allowed to go in and be guerrillas by direct action; that the Marines are always ready to go in and blow up bridges and tear up the countryside and then, if necessary, they can go into action to teach other guerrillas. Fundamentally, he stated, the Marines don’t want to train someone else. They would rather go in and do the job themselves, and then take on indigenous help and, finally, train them to do likewise. General Shoup made it clear that the Marines have no such mission of training other people, but that they would gladly do it if so directed.

The President pointed out that it is not always possible for us to take direct action and that, for most of the problems that face us now, we will have to satisfy ourselves with training the people of these various countries to do their own guerrilla and anti-guerrilla operations, “realizing, of course, that this would disappoint the Marine Corps, but that into each life, some disappointment must fall.”

General Shoup then discussed the force-reconnaissance company, the reconnaissance battalion in each division, their missions and training. He pointed out that in the Philippines the Marines have a radio that only exposes itself for 30 seconds to communicate with other forces. He added that the Marines work very successfully with submarines and can invade other areas without discovery. He explained the language training of the Marines and that the linguists are added to the force as the mission is assigned.

The President then mentioned that Ambassador Thompson told him that it is his opinion that, in the future, no Soviets will actually cross their own borders to enter into these operations and, therefore, for the time being, we will have to prepare other forces to protect themselves. The President added that we will have to do more to help those countries (with whom we are associated) to do more for themselves. He mentioned the threat that 15,000 men from North Viet-Nam will be enough to overwhelm South Viet-Nam, and that Viet-Nam “will fall this year.” The President felt that, if this threat had any basis of realization, certainly we must face up to it promptly.

The President turned to a discussion of the SEATO meeting4 and what we should do about discussing guerrilla and counter-guerrilla [Page 53] training and operations with our SEATO friends. General Lemnitzer mentioned that Admiral Felt is our representative and they would get an opinion from him on whether or not we should encourage this discussion at the SEATO meeting. He promised that he would give the President a report on this subject very promptly.

Admiral Burke stated frankly that some of our troubles came from the Ambassadors in these areas who head the “country teams.” He felt that there is frequently resentment about the U.S. team’s military activities; that the Ambassadors generally want nothing undercover going on in their areas—things that they cannot face publicly; and that the MAAG people then feel suppressed and, finally lose heart and enthusiasm. Admiral Burke felt that we must change this. The President then asked what can we do about SEATO in this connection. He stated that he would talk to Secretary Rusk and see if that would be a channel which could interest the State Department in furthering this effort. He pointed out that the Malayan example was a very successful one and might be applied to some of our trouble spots. Again, he mentioned Cuba, Viet-Nam, and possibly Iran.

General Lemnitzer volunteered that they might work out a joint State-Defense message to all Ambassadors to get their reaction and thoughts—country by country—on this new approach. He also volunteered that they would get a report from Iran in this field; and they would hold discussion on what kind of proposals could be made at the SEATO conference.

The President asked where this sort of training and activity was centered in the Pentagon. General Decker responded that it is handled in the Organization and Training Division of Army Operations under the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, and he has recently appointed General Heintges, who has been in Laos for the last year and a half, as the director of this activity in the Army staff.

The President then requested that they give him a report concerning Viet-Nam. He wanted them to specifically indicate how many people we could and should train and by what date these people could be effective. They were to consider whether we should make a direct approach to Viet-Nam, or propose this at a SEATO conference.

On the subject of atomic weapons, there was a discussion of two major command and control areas, including the Holifield Report, and the JCS assured him that they were preparing briefings on both subjects and would be asking him for time to present such briefings.

The President then asked them to discuss Berlin—including the steps that the East Germans and the Soviet Union might take, and what we should do to counter them. Again, the JCS told him that they would present to him a briefing of all our contingency plans, and urged that this [Page 54] be done rather soon so that he would be prepared in his analysis of the Berlin problem.

The President then asked about the military situation in Laos and what our next steps should be. The JCS reported that the situation is now stable. They pointed out that the loyal government would like to take Plaines des Jarres, but that it was pretty slow going.

Turning to the presentation by Secretary McNamara on an increased budget for defense, he asked if it was essential that we have an additional 13,000 personnel—“Can’t we get them elsewhere?”

The JCS outlined the personnel problems in some detail, mentioning the needs in SAC, and the Polaris crews; and Admiral Burke outlined some of the steps the Navy is taking to meet these new requirements. The new attack transport (ship) was discussed, and the President was told why the World War II type transport was no longer adequate. In addition, the strain on personnel caused by RB-47 wings, missile commands, nuclear submarines, and support forces, were discussed. The President inquired about the level of manning of the Marine divisions and the use of reserves.

The final discussion led by the President was on intelligence and the differences between the Army, the Air Force, and the Dulles conclusions based on the same intelligence. He wanted to know on what basis these differences arose. General Lemnitzer responded with a discussion of the intelligence problem, pointing out that, in the last analysis, the course of action, based on the intelligence estimates, had to be a Presidential decision.

The President concluded the meeting by indicating that at the next session he would like to discuss the atomic weapons problems that were scheduled for this agenda. Mention was made of the AEC-Defense paper that was already being worked on with Mr. Bundy, but the Chiefs agreed that they would prepare such briefings for the next meeting with the President.

C. V. Clifton
Brigadier General, USA
Defense Liaison Office

Note: Attached are Mr. Rostow’s notes on the actions he thinks resulted from the meeting.7

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Chester V. Clifton Series, Conferences with the President Volume I. Top Secret. Drafted by Clifton. Documentation on the JCS response to a number of President Kennedy’s requests for information made at this meeting is ibid., Departments and Agencies Series, Department of Defense, Special Warfare Volume I.
  2. Not further identified.
  3. Not further identified.
  4. General Lansdale reported on his January 2-14 trip to Vietnam in a January 17 memorandum to Secretary of Defense Gates; see Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. I, Document 2.
  5. Held in Bangkok March 27-29.
  6. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.
  7. Not found attached. The notes list the President’s requests for action and information made at this meeting in summary form. (Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Chester V. Clifton Series, Conferences with the President Volume I)