7. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) to President Kennedy1


  • Policies previously approved in NSC which need review
The most urgent need is for a review of basic military policy. What is our view of the kind of strategic force we need, the kinds of limited-war forces, the kind of defense for the continental U.S., and the strategy of NATO? What should be your thinking about the great decisions, at crisis moments, on levels of U.S. military action? The urgency of these matters arises from existing papers which in the view of nearly all your civilian advisers place a debatable emphasis (1) on strategic as against limited-war forces, (2) on “strike-first,” or “counter-force” strategic planning, as against a “deterrent” or “second-strike” posture, and (3) on decisions-in-advance, as against decisions in the light of all the circumstances. These three forces in combination have created a situation today in which a subordinate commander faced with a substantial Russian military action could start the thermonuclear holocaust on his own initiative if he could not reach you (by failure of communication at either end of the line). There are good arguments for the decisions which led to this situation, but there are arguments on the other side, and it seems absolutely essential that you satisfy yourself, as President, on these basic matters. Moreover, a review of this sort should include at all stages the relevant political questions, and it should go along the whole spectrum from thermonuclear weapons systems to guerrilla action and political infiltration. Our current troubles in Laos and other places seem to arise at least in part from too narrow and conventional thinking about “military” as opposed to “political” problems.
Our first problem is to decide how to get these matters studied out so that you personally can make the necessary decisions in the light of your own assessment of the complex issues involved. In the past these matters have generally been settled in the light of pressure and argument mainly from interested parties—the Air Force especially, but others too. All of us are agreed that a better way must be found.
My own preference is for an NSC staff study under your own direction, in steady consultation with Jerry Wiesner, and with selected advisors (Killian, Kissinger, Gavin?) from outside. But I think Bob McNamara [Page 19]wants to do this job in the Defense Department (not in the JCS, but in his own office). There is a good deal to be said, from your standpoint, in having two studies, especially if those in charge of them (Nitze and Bundy?) keep each other in full touch as they go along. The matter is of literally life-and-death importance, and it also has plenty of political dynamite in it, so that the more advice you get, the better off you will be.
Whatever method you choose, it will be essential (and new) that your men-in-charge have full and candid information about existing plans and thinking in the armed services, and instruction to this effect could usefully be given by you to McNamara and Lemnitzer at the first NSC. (Both of these, as individuals, are in favor of such communication, as far as I know.) And while in my judgment the initial studies should not be made by JCS, there should be full consultation with the military at all stages and a fully military comment to you before you decide anything.
While the largest and hardest questions in this can of worms are judgment questions, with a combined military-political-diplomatic meaning, there are also some technical issues which can be attacked best by Wiesner through special studies by qualified scientific leaders. We believe, for example, that Air Force planning is based on very doubtful technical judgments on the damage that will be done by given weapons exploded on given targets. This can be studied by George Kistiakowsky if you wish, and the result might show that we need much less expensive plans than we now have.
There are other policies currently active that need examination, but none is as important as the basic military-political policy. One neat little one that can be settled Wednesday2 is a rule, in our African policy, which has required that new countries seeking economic help be referred first to their former masters. This often makes sense, but not always, at all, and State will urge a change—there will be no opposition, I think. A second problem of some interest is NSC 5412/2,3 the paper which authorizes covert anti-Communist action under CIA. I myself do not think the paper bad, but I think Dean Rusk will raise a question on it, and my advice for now is to listen to what he says—I don’t know just what his worry is.4
McG. B.
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Meetings and Memoranda Series, NSC Meetings, No. 475. Top Secret.
  2. February 1; see Document 8.
  3. Entitled “Covert Operations,” dated December 28, 1955. (Eisenhower Library, Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Records)
  4. Also on January 30, Bundy prepared a summary of recommendations on techniques for creating task forces to deal with crises. It is described in Bromley K. Smith, Organizational History of the National Security Council During the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations (n.p.: n.d. [1988]), pp. 10-11.