9. Memorandum From John Kenneth Galbraith to President Kennedy and Secretary of State Rusk1


  • Fire Brigade Operations Abroad

I have been reflecting on a problem suggested by recent developments in Bolivia, Iran, Korea and prospectively in Jordan, Viet-Nam and elsewhere. This is the case of the country with a disintegrating economy which is the cause and consequence of a disintegrating government. The pattern is familiar. The budget is unbalanced, inflation is endemic. Stabilization efforts are creating industrial and social unrest-or would. [Page 22] American aid, though considerable, is insufficient-perhaps partially as a result of egregious misuse. Maladministration and corruption are general. Underneath is a nauseous social situation in which the landlords and politicians rape the poor with an energy which they apply to no other purpose. Without going into detail, I believe that foreign policy of the recent past including that on aid was peculiarly designed to nurture such developments.

We have also a certain uniformity in reaction when the position becomes dangerous. We send a high level mission. This is done partly because no one can think of anything else to do. But it also makes a measure of sense. It puts the immediate prestige of the United States behind essential social and economic reforms. It enables us to change past policy with grace. And the mission legitimizes the infusion of needed dollars hopefully with safeguards to insure less larcenous employment.

Since the situation is recurrent and widespread, and the remedy is much the same, I am persuaded that these operations should be arranged more thoughtfully than in the past. In the past, each has been an individual crisis: as in the case of the recent mission to Bolivia, an ad hoc group was hastily recruited and dispatched.

This is a sloppy and more than slightly dangerous procedure. We have here a rather intricate problem in economic and political diagnosis and therapy. Highly qualified economic knowledge is required of a very rare sort. There is no certainty that sufficiently talented and experienced people of requisite prestige can be assembled on short notice and there is a real chance that the wrong leader will do damage. It would be dubious policy for the Massachusetts General to recruit brain surgeons on a crisis basis whenever someone was brought in with a bad concussion.

Timing is also important. There are instances when conditions must get very bad before corrective action can be taken. But were this combination of economic and political therapy put on a more regular basis preventative action might more often be possible. Thus I am of the impression, based on intelligence from economists working there, that high level pressure on the Iranian government at the moment would avoid a larger outlay of money and a greater likelihood of disorder later on.

Accordingly I suggest that there be planning for these crises operations since, in fact, they will continue to be a normal aspect of our foreign policy. For the sake of being specific, I suggest that the President and the Secretary of State empanel a small group of men who would be properly qualified and permanently on call for emergency economic and political work abroad. The greatest consideration should be given to their selection for this is work of great subtlety and importance. Members should, with [Page 23] possible exceptions, be men already in the government. Their designation should not be publicized but the likelihood of such employment should be known to them. It should be recognized as an assignment of high distinction to take precedence on occasions of need over most regular activity. Some senior official, either in the Department of State or the White House, should be designated to keep in touch with the group. The members should be asked, within reason, to keep themselves informed on situations of potential concern and should have access to relevant cables and dispatches. They should, on occasion, be invited by the Secretary of State to meet for a review of situations of potential concern. Perhaps the group might be accorded some general designation such as “The President’s Council on Economic and Political Policy.”

Such men as Willard Wirtz of the Department of Labor, James Tobin of the Council of Economic Advisers, Edwin Martin of the Department of State, Arthur Schlesinger and Walt Rostow of the White House come to mind as combining the requisite economic and political sophistication but I cite them only by way of example.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Departments and Agencies Series, Department of State—General, 3/6/61–3/31/61. No classification marking. Galbraith’s appointment as Ambassador to India was announced on March 29.