310. Memorandum by the Under Secretary of State (Bowles)1


In mid-May we had our first indications that a group in the Dominican Republic might be plotting against the life of Generalissimo Trujillo. Dissident groups communicated with American officials in the Dominican Republic to inform them that the assassination was imminent and that they would like help, in the shape of arms, recognition, and general support.

Dick Goodwin, who had spent considerable time studying the problems involving the Dominican Republic was in favor of both granting [Page 636] arms and guaranteeing support. However, I and others in the Department of State took a strong position that we had no real knowledge of who the dissidents were, their views, or depth of influence. Nor was it proper for the United States to be involved in an assassination, directly, indirectly, or in any other way.

The first plans for a contingency paper were developed during the week of May 24th.2 When I left for Connecticut (my first trip outside the District of Columbia since February), this paper had not taken shape. However, I was sufficiently concerned about developments not only in the Dominican Republic but also in Haiti to ask Alexis Johnson before I left the office to move into both situations and to recommend a constructive plan for whatever may occur.

Shortly after I took office I asked Tom Mann to send an economic mission to Haiti to find out what we could do to help relieve the massive malnutrition which existed there. Although I followed this up on two or three occasions, the pressures on Mann, myself, and others were so great that there was no follow through on this effort.

Early Wednesday morning I received a telephone call from the Secretary before I left for New York for a luncheon with Anna Rosenberg and Bill Benton. The Secretary told me he thought it was essential that I come back immediately for reasons which would become evident when I arrived. I managed to get the 10:26 plane out of Bridgeport, and Sam Lewis and Joe Scott3 met me at the airport with the news that Trujillo had been assassinated the night before.

They had with them the contingency paper which had been prepared over the week end. The immediate impression I had was that it was a dangerously inadequate document, which broadly interpreted, could throw us into a war in the most casual fashion.

For instance, one of the provisions was the statement that if we receive [sic] from a dissident element in the Dominican Republic to intervene, and if the Consul General should concur in this request, we would immediately send in American forces to take over the island without regard for the Organization of American States, treaties, or common sense.

After arriving back in Washington, I went into the Secretary’s office and called these sections of the contingency paper to his attention. I am not clear whether or not he had previously gone over it with any great care, but it is my impression he had not, since he agreed immediately with my own concern.

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It was completely clear following this conversation that he agreed that this contingency paper would have to be interpreted with the greatest care.

The Secretary had intended to leave that day (May 31) to join the President in the conference with DeGaulle.4 However, he waited over until the following day, leaving at noon. In the meantime, the situation remained calm.

On Thursday afternoon about 2:30 Dick Goodwin called to say he thought we should have a high level meeting to discuss “what we should do about the Dominican Republic.” I told him I would discuss this with some of our people working on the problem and get in touch with him.

Alexis Johnson, Ted Achilles, and Wyn Coerr all agreed that no meeting was called for, and I asked Wyn Coerr to call Goodwin to tell him. About an hour later Bob McNamara called to suggest a similar meeting in my office at 6:45. It was obvious he had been called by Dick Goodwin.

In the meantime the Vice President wanted to report to me on his trip to Southeast Asia. He arrived about 5:45 and our talk lasted for forty-five minutes. I told him about the meeting and asked him if he would like to attend. The Vice President, Bob Kennedy, Secretary McNamara, Dick Goodwin, General Lemnitzer, Wyn Coerr, and Ted Achilles were here. Bob McNamara and Lemnitzer stated that under the terms of the contingency paper, they were required to be prepared to move into the island on short order if required to do so, and this, in their opinion, called for substantially more troops that we had in the area. After some discussion we considered two more aircraft carriers, some destroyers, and 12,000 marines should be moved into a position some one hundred miles off the Dominican Republic shore.

I underscored that this troop movement should be accomplished with the minimum of publicity, the minimum of maneuvers, that the fleet be spread out over a wide area so that it would not appear to be in formation.

Lemnitzer estimated that this force would be in position by Sunday. After some discussion, I further agreed that we would authorize the destroyers and other vessels within sixty miles of the coast, still well out of sight of land.

The tone of the meeting was deeply disturbing. Bob Kennedy was clearly looking for an excuse to move in on the island. At one point he suggested, apparently seriously, that we might have to blow up the Consulate to provide the rationale.

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His general approach, vigorously supported by Dick Goodwin, was that this was a bad government, that there was a strong chance that it might team up with Castro, and that it should be destroyed—with an excuse if possible, without one if necessary.

Rather to my surprise, Bob McNamara seemed to support this view. I took the opposite view that our whole world position was based on treaty rights, that it would be a catastrophic mistake to take them lightly, and that in acting in a reckless manner in the Dominican Republic, we would only be compounding the mistake of Cuba, and that while I thought it was necessary to take all possible measures for the protection of American lives, we should not move beyond that point.

There was then further discussion about the need to stimulate movement among some of the dissident movements which might as a dissident government and propose American assistance so that we would have this kind of excuse in case we wished to move [sic].

I said I thought this was a mistake since a request of this kind, stimulated by us, would almost make us react favorably, if we were to provide a reasonable measure of good faith.

After some argument, this was put aside.

The entire spirit of this meeting was profoundly distressing and worrisome, and I left at 8:00 p.m. with a feeling that this spirit which I had seen demonstrated on this occasion and others at the White House by those so close to the President constitutes a further danger of half-cocked action by people with almost no foreign policy experience, who are interested in action for action’s sake, and the devil take the highmost.

The next morning I learned that in spite of the clear decision against having the dissident group request our assistance Dick Goodwin following the meeting sent a cable to CIA people in the Dominican Republic without checking with State or CIA; indeed, with the protest of the Department of State.5 The cable directed the CIA people in the Dominican Republic to get this request at any cost. When Allen Dulles found this out the next morning, he withdrew the order. We later discovered it had already been carried out.

When the meeting broke up, it was suggested that another meeting be held at 9:00 the next morning. I asked that it be postponed until 11:00, in order to give me an opportunity to consult with people here in the Department and Dean Rusk in Paris.

Immediately following the staff meeting, I called in George McGhee, Ed Murrow, and George Ball, and told them the full story. They were startled and shocked as I was, and I was gratified to find them in full [Page 639] agreement on the position I had taken. Indeed, they were even more outspoken in outlining the disastrous consequences of this kind of action.

I also talked with Dean Rusk on the telephone, told him the general developments, and outlined the position I had taken, and as I expected, I found him in close agreement.

At the meeting at 11:00,6 Bob Kennedy was again present together with Arthur Schlesinger, Dick Goodwin, Allen Dulles, Alexis Johnson, Bob McNamara, Walt Rostow, Wyn Coerr, Ed Murrow, George McGhee, George Ball, Colonel King, Lyndon Johnson, General Wheeler. I later discovered that Adlai Stevenson was in the building and sent to call for his attendance.

Bob Kennedy was in an even more aggressive, dogmatic, and vicious mood than the previous meeting. He turned directly to me and said, “What do you propose to do on the situation in the Dominican Republic?” I answered that I thought we had taken the necessary military precautions, and the next order of business was to find out what was going on.

Cablegrams that morning from Dearborn expressed some of the horror stories of assassination and retaliation which were reported going on behind the scenes at the Dominican capital.7 I pointed out that while these stories were probably correct and everyone knew the vicious character of the young Trujillo who would take over the government, there was still a great deal which needed to be taken in.

For instance, there was no evidence whatsoever that any American had been harmed or threatened, or any evidence of aggressive acts against Haiti or any other country.

Bob Kennedy’s response was vicious, unpleasant, and dogmatic. Dick Goodwin supported his position, although in somewhat more polite language. To my surprise, they were joined by Arthur Schlesinger, who was almost as outspoken as Bob Kennedy and Dick Goodwin, although in more pleasant terms.

Bob McNamara went along with their general view that our problem was not to prepare against an overt act by the Dominican Republic but rather to find an excuse for going into the country and upsetting it.

Walt Rostow spoke only once or twice and I did not get any clear impression of where he stood. I then called on McGhee, Ball, and Murrow to express their views, and each of them did in the most vigorous and outspoken manner.

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Ed Murrow said that the effect of any such act would be entirely catastrophic on world attitudes to the United States. McGhee gave a stiff statement on the importance of treaty rights, and George Ball said he could not believe people talking in these terms were really serious.

This strong counterattack, plus the fact that I had asked George McGhee to talk privately with Lyndon Johnson before the meeting resulted in Johnson taking a much more moderate view.

At that point Adlai Stevenson came in, listened a while to the somewhat subdued proposals of Kennedy, Goodwin, and Schlesinger, and expressed his own amazement that these proposals were being seriously talked about.

During the course of the meeting, Dean Rusk called me back and I brought him up to date and he seemed in general agreement, although, as usual, he did not say very much.

After a good deal of discussion I again stated that I was against our stimulating any appeal by a dissident group for support, which we were not prepared fully to give, and this was generally accepted, although with considerable snarling from the White House contingent.

At that point Wyn Coerr came up with a very imaginative suggestion which grew out of a statement which Bill Fulbright made to me before, i.e. to send in an OAS fact-finding team. A basis of action was developed out of the San Jose conference in September, 1960 which called for a fact finding group to visit the Dominican Republic if there was any basis for relaxing the sanctions which were imposed.

Although the situation did not seem to justify the relaxation of sanctions, it seemed the only way we could get an OAS team on the island. Steps were also taken to intensify the effort to find out what the full facts were, to exchange views with the British, Canadians, and others with ties in the Dominican Republic.

Since this was Friday and just before a summer weekend and with the likelihood that many members of Congress would be out of town, I decided to go to Capitol Hill to describe events as we knew them in the Dominican Republic and describe the action we had taken.

This meeting was held at 5:00 with Mike Mansfield, Hubert Humphrey, Bill Fulbright, Everett Dirkson, and other Congressional leaders. They all emphasized the need for working with OAS.

Late in the evening on Friday, strongly prodded from Dick Goodwin, Alexis Johnson, who I had set up to keep on top of the whole problem, called a meeting to determine if any further action was necessary. Although in my opinion this was a serious mistake, I believe Alexis was justified because of the pressure which the White House people brought on him. Although I did not attend the meeting, I telephoned two or three times during the evening to keep in touch.

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The only new development was an appeal from General Estrella in response to our prodding (unauthorized), asking for American troops to assist the opposition troops but with no indication whatsoever of any strength or substance.

Early Saturday morning I had a telephone call from Ellis Briggs, who was assigned to go to Latin America with Adlai Stevenson, saying that Stevenson8 was so alarmed about the meeting on Friday that he was about to call off the trip on the impression that we were about to go to war. I reassured Briggs that this was not the case and told him Adlai should go along with his plans.

At 10:00 Alexis Johnson told me Dick Goodwin was holding a background press conference on the viciousness of the regime. This, of course, would have eliminated the possibility of the OAS team going into the Dominican Republic to find out what the conditions are. It was too late to call off the backgrounder, but with a good deal of telephoning back and forth, I was able to modify the tone and to avoid any statements that the Dominican Republic might have considered provocative.

  1. Source: Yale University Library, Bowles Papers, Box 392, Folder 154. Personal. The editors have not been able to account for certain chronological discrepancies in this memorandum.
  2. Apparent reference to Document 307, which was approved May 24.
  3. Reference is to Samuel W. Lewis and Joseph W. Scott, Special Assistants to the Under Secretary of State.
  4. Secretary Rusk accompanied President Kennedy to Paris May 31-June 3.
  5. Not further identified.
  6. No record of this meeting was found.
  7. Telegram 1917, from Santo Domingo, June 1. (Department of State, Central Files, 739.00/6-161)
  8. Reference is to Stevenson’s trip to Latin America June 4-22; see Document 14.