402. Memorandum From the Presidentʼs Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kaysen) to the Presidentʼs Military Aide (Clifton)0

Ted: Here is some stuff that Secretary Gilpatric had prepared specially. The Joint Chiefs responded directly to a Presidential request as transmitted through Secretary Gilpatric.1 In my judgment, there is no urgency in showing the President this; however, he may ask for it, and I am accordingly sending it to you.



Item 1

[17 paragraphs (3-1/2 pages of source text) not declassified]

Item 6

“Advantages and disadvantages of making a statement that the U.S. would not tolerate establishment of military forces (missile or air, or both?) which might launch a nuclear attack from Cuba against the U.S.”

It should first be noted that the character of Soviet military aid to Cuba thus far does not indicate the building of Cuban military capabilities designed for attack on the U.S. The nature of arms and equipment being furnished to Cuba, so far as known at present, seems primarily aimed at improving defensive—particularly air defense—capabilities. The main line of propaganda accompanying Soviet Bloc military aid, to the extent that a definite line is discernible, focuses on Cubaʼs right to defend itself against “aggression” from an “imperialist” USA. With respect to nuclear weapons, it would mark a very significant change in [Page 1008] Soviet policy to date if nuclear weapons were to be turned over to the Cubans, or even deployed to Cuba under Soviet custody.
At the same time, it cannot be ruled out that Soviet policy may shift, and that the creation of a nuclear threat on the U.S. “doorstep” might appeal to the Soviets as an appropriate counter to U.S. deployment of an alleged nuclear threat close to the Bloc periphery.
Final judgment on a proposed warning statement by the U.S. would seem to call for better evidence than presently available that a recognizable nuclear threat to the U.S. is being fashioned in Cuba. Pending evidence that elements of such a threat are coming into being, the pros and cons of a warning statement are discussed below.
A strong U.S. statement warning against the establishment of nuclear-capable forces in Cuba would serve clear notice to the Soviets that we are reaching the limits of patience on their military intervention in the Western Hemisphere. To the extent that the Soviets are probing to see how far they can go, a firm commitment of U.S. prestige to stopping the build-up of a nuclear military threat in Cuba could cause the Soviets to weigh the risks of provoking us into action in a part of the world where we hold all the geographic advantages.
A U.S. declaration would pave the way for taking firmer sanctions. If the Soviets continued to support a Cuban buildup, we could take the position that their actions threatened the security of the U.S. and of the hemisphere, and that we therefore considered ourselves justified in taking necessary measures to cut off the flow of arms, such as interception and turning back of Bloc shipping. (The critical point would be to establish the “nuclear threat” aspects of the Cuban buildup. There might be no clear-cut proof, in which case we would have to establish the threat by our own definition.) Needless to say if we intend to make declaratory statements at all, we will have to be prepared to back them with some sort of action or take a damaging prestige setback.
In many parts of the world the U.S. image would be improved by statements and action showing determination of purpose and a clear concept of vital national interest. In Latin America, reactions would probably be mixed. There would be propaganda charges by Communist and left wing extremists that the U.S. was preparing to intervene by force in Cuba. This would probably be echoed to some extent by non-Communist liberal elements, particularly in Uruguay. However, in the key countries of Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, and Colombia the statement should tend to hearten anti-Communist and pro-U.S. sectors of opinion. This is especially important in Brazil, where these elements are being hard pressed by pro-Communist supporters of President Goulart; in Venezuela, where the extreme left has recently made two unsuccessful attempts to overthrow President Betancourtʼs Government by force and in Chile, [Page 1009] where a left wing popular front movement is being formed for the next elections. On balance, although there would be criticism, it should be offset by the psychological lift which the opponents of Communism and of Castro could be expected to derive from the U.S. position.
A warning statement keyed to the nuclear threat would have the advantage also in some quarters of underscoring U.S. tolerance and patience, even to the point of permitting a Communist state on the very doorstep of the U.S. until the unacceptable condition of a nuclear threat from that state came into the picture.
If it is granted that the unequivocal existence of Cuban-based nuclear weapons would be unacceptable from the standpoint of U.S. security—and that we would therefore take action to neutralize the threat—then consideration of disadvantages from a declaratory warning hinges mainly on the effects accruing from a warning made in advance of clear establishment of a nuclear threat.
An advance warning confined to the nuclear threat would have the disadvantage of casting U.S. policy in a rigid mold. It could be inferred that the U.S. intended to do nothing unless Cuba actually established a nuclear capability, which would tend to increase Castroʼs freedom of action in other matters and lower the morale of Cuban resistance elements. Unless accompanied by supporting indications of U.S. firmness and unanimity, an advance declaration would probably have a questionable deterrent effect on Soviet efforts to enlarge a military foothold in Cuba.
An advance declaration would give the Soviets legalistic propaganda leverage to argue that in view of U.S.-controlled nuclear bases ringing the Bloc, the U.S. was in no moral or political position to proscribe the establishment of a modest nuclear counter-force on the periphery of North America. Thus, a statement might very well have a reverse effect and help provide the justification for establishment of a nuclear capability in Cuba.
In the case of either an advance declaration or one made while indications of a nuclear capability were still highly uncertain, the U.S. would be vulnerable to a large-scale propaganda counter from the Communist side to the effect that Soviet aid to Cuba was only for purposes of defense against American aggression and interference in the affairs of a free and independent country.
The disadvantages of an advance declaration concerned with a nuclear threat only would appear to outweigh the advantages.
A declaration made after the existence of nuclear forces had been determined would be useful to the extent that it was followed up by action to eliminate the threat.
Making introduction of a nuclear capability the criterion for U.S. action has the inherent disadvantage that it allows time for further strengthening of Cuban armed forces, air defense capability, naval installations and possibly bases for submarines, so that any eventual military operations that might prove necessary against Cuba would become more difficult and costly.
The final conclusion which emerges is that any declaratory warning issued by the U.S. should not be confined only to the nuclear aspect of a Cuban military buildup, and should not be made at all unless the U.S. is prepared to take action to thwart the buildup.
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Meetings and Memoranda Series, NSAM 181, Cuba (B). Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only for General Clifton for the President. The attachments were apparently prepared for Gilpatric in DOD/ISA and responded to items numbered 1 and 6 in NSAM No. 181. (See Document 386.) The package also included a draft response, not printed, to item 5 in NSAM No. 181, which was redrafted with additional analysis by McGeorge Bundy and submitted to the President on August 31 in Document 401. A note attached to the source text indicates that President Kennedy saw the attached items.
  2. See Document 403.
  3. Top Secret.