239. Memorandum From Secretary of State Rusk and Secretary of Defense McNamara to President Kennedy 0


  • Proposed Delay of Soviet Ships in the Panama Canal

Soviet blockings of Berlin autobahn convoys in the last month make it useful to considercounteraction to vary the one-sided pattern of tension and release by a demonstrationoftripartite or U.S. potential in similar harassment of the Soviet Bloc.

[Page 628]

Early opportunities for such counteraction will occur on 8 November and 11 November when Soviet freighters bound from Vladivostok to Montreal are scheduled to begin transit of the Panama Canal. (An average of two Soviet ships per month use the Canal.) By “administrative” and “procedural” delays, which are subject to precise U.S. control, transit of Soviet ships through the Canal could be delayed for periods well in excess of delays of the last blocked U.S. convoy (about 42 hours).

There is a small-scale precedent for such counteractions in periodic detainment by U.S. forces of Soviet vehicles in West Berlin in retaliation for Soviet detainment of U.S.vehicles in East Berlin. On the other hand, we have in the past avoided focussing on restricted waterways in low-level countermeasures on grounds that the U.S. is so dependent onfree maritime movement around the world. In this connection, a year ago during the Cubancrisis, for both policy reasons and treaty obligations, we defined the blockade line so as to exclude the Panama Canal itself.

Since our objective is to signal that the proposed action is related to autobahn harassments, the way in which we handle the matter with the Soviets and publicly is a key element. The most appropriate alternatives seem to be:

To hope that the Soviets will make the connection by themselves and take no positive action to communicate our motive, except perhaps by making the period of detention identical with that of the convoy.
To await a Soviet protest before allowing the ships to proceed and to then make an appropriate “unofficial” comment, while holding to the official explanation that the delays are purely administrative.

Which of these will govern will depend on the circumstances.

We think it unlikely that it will be necessary to leak the detention to the press, particularly if the ship is [not?] detained very long.

Conceivable Soviet counters to our action might include, for example, vigorous protests on interference with freedom of the seas, suggestions that the friends of the USSR might restrict U.S. or allied freedom of maritime movement elsewhere, furtherBerlin access delays, and no further reduction of Soviet troop strength in Cuba.1

If such measures were ordered at the Panama Canal, the Canal operating authorities would be given guidance as to the nature, timing and exact total duration of the delays desired. The actions which could be taken are derived from Canal transit procedures and would be applied by Canal authorities as appropriate under circumstances and guidance. [Page 629] Some combination of the following actions could delay a Soviet ship for 42 hours (or longer):

Ordering vessel to anchorage before entering Canal and report no pilots available. Plausible delay: 5 or 6 hours.
Boarding vessel with admeasurers (individuals utilized to calculate tonnage for toll payment). Meticulously measure every part of cargo space. Plausible delay: 12–36 hours. Note: Most Soviet Bloc vessels on this route have been previously measured which would make this tactic obvious.
Having detailed security inspection for dangerous materials. Delay: 2–4 hours.
Having pilot board vessel, report difficulty in steering and anchor vessel for inspection by divers. Delay: 12 hours.
If vessel has any cargo, requiring removal for security inspection. This would require docking the vessel and give rise to the question of stevedoring and other dock charges since this has never been required before. (No grain storage exists at either end ofthe Canal.) Delay: 3–5 days.
Delaying providing tugs to move ship from dock to Canal. Delay: 2–4 hours.
Establishing priority of movement through Canal from Pacific to Atlantic or Atlantic to Pacific in opposition to movement by Soviet Bloc vessel. Delay: 8–10 hours.
Simulating mechanical difficulty with the locks. Delay: 4–6 hours.

The Department of State’s view of this countermeasure is that while it offers usadvantages, there are also certain risks which we should be aware of. The principal benefit of this action, in the Department’s view, is that it would serve as a signal tothe Russians of our concern about their actions on the autobahn. Furthermore, in contrastto our past attempts to devise suitable countermeasures to Soviet harassment, which wereinvariably frustrated by lack of appropriate options or administrative problems, this measure represents a present opportunity which can be carried out on quick notice by the U.S. side alone. (The State Department does feel, however, that our French, British and German Allies should be consulted, prior to implementation of this measure.) On the otherhand, the State Department perceives the following disadvantages:

The action involved is so far removed from the autobahn that it might be regarded by the Soviets as a sign of weakness. This could, however, be obviated, by continuing topursue a firm course of action on the autobahn.
The action represents a limited parallel, in view of the disproportionate use of the autobahn by the Allies and the Canal by the Soviets.
The action could invite counteraction on the Soviets’ part. For example, if we hold up the Soviet vessel on November 11, this could [Page 630] provide the Soviets an excuse forholding up our convoy scheduled for November 12.

The Secretary of the Army, as your representative for the supervision of Canal Zone affairs, could implement delaying tactics on very short notice if you so direct.

We recommend that the Secretary of the Army be directed to take the necessary, but not publicly noticeable, preparatory actions to permit, when so directed, effective transit-delaying tactics of the kind described above against the Soviet ship scheduled to use the Panama Canal on 8 November, or if time does not permit, the ship now expected to arrive on 11 November.

  • Dean Rusk
  • Robert S. McNamara
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series, Germany, Berlin, Autobahn Crisis. Top Secret. The source text bears no drafting information.
  2. At this point in the source text there is an asterisk and at the bottom of the page the following handwritten notation by U. Alexis Johnson: “They also might move against the Berlin barge traffic.”