121. Memorandum of Conversation1

SUBJECT

  • Viet-Nam

PARTICIPANTS

  • United States
    • The Secretary
    • Assistant Secretary John M. Leddy, EUR
    • Minister Francis E. Meloy, Jr., American Embassy, Rome
  • Italy
    • Foreign Minister Amintore Fanfani
    • Minister Vincenzo Tornetta, United Nations
    • Ambassador Sergio Fenoaltea, Italian Embassy

The Secretary said the United States will be faced with a major political problem in the first months of 1966. The Administration will be going to the Congress with important proposals regarding Viet-Nam which will have major significance with regard to manpower and finances. He pointed out the recent Soviet announcement of an increase of the U.S.S.R. military budget. The United States will announce an increase in its military budget. The Administration proposals will place major demands on the American people.

Against the loss of lives and the expenditures to date by the United States in defense of the Free World, the American people will ask what other members of the Free World are doing. The American public will ask, for example, how many U.S. soldiers are in West Germany? The answer is 230,000. They will then ask how many West Germans are in Viet-Nam? The answer is 50. Questions will be asked about Free World shipping to Haiphong and West Germans building a steel mill in China, among others. All of these questions will be very delicate for us in the next few months.

The Secretary said we do not know whether or not we will be at general war in the Pacific in the next few months. This depends on Peiping and Hanoi. We have two choices: we can quit or we can meet them. We will meet them.

The Secretary continued that he had said to NATO that the United States cannot abandon its commitment in the Pacific and honor its commitment in the Atlantic. This is not possible morally, legally or psychologically. NATO, therefore, has a fundamental stake in what happens in Viet-Nam.

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Ambassador Fenoaltea pointed out that the internal problem in Italy is made more difficult because other Atlantic allies do not do what the United States wants. The Italian opposition says you cannot tell us what to do. Other friends of the United States won’t do what the United States wants. The Ambassador said that he was offering this not as a justification but as an explanation of Italian difficulties.

The Secretary continued that it is the integrity of the United States that is a matter of national interest for each country.

Fanfani said that what the Secretary had said did not surprise him at all. He had long seen that we would some day reach this point. He had a profound conviction that verbal solidarity is much more difficult to apply in days of difficulty. He had always said it was necessary to be careful lest the consensus in a crisis be less than in days of prosperity. He had always said let us be careful of France lest the example of French dissension weaken the solidarity in other countries. In Italy, there is an important segment of opinion which is not confined only to the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) but also extends to the Democratic Socialists (PSDI) which takes the position that Italy should not show more solidarity with the United States than does the United Kingdom Labor Party. Policy toward China is an example. It is not easy for the Italian Government, which must take into account the resources and reactions of other countries and not only those of the United States.

Fanfani pointed out that Italian policies in Latin America had been aimed at maintaining the greatest possible support for the United States, which is Italy’s greatest ally. Italy does not seek thanks for this activity but considers it a matter of its own national interest to support the United States in this area—to fend off the mosquitoes around the legs of the United States.

The Secretary said he was not being critical but some of the problems have been falsely stated. The proposition is usually put “shall we support the United States?”. In fact, the matter should be looked at in the light of the national interest of each country. The proposition should be stated “is it to Italy’s interest that Hanoi succeed in aggression?” The Secretary said he would not fear the results of a careful and dispassionate Italian examination of this proposal. He was sure our interests would come out the same.

Fanfani rejoined that as he had said, Italy’s Latin American policy is not altruistic. It is in Italy’s interest to support the United States. It is a favor Italy does itself.

The fact exists, however, that while being a faithful ally of the United States, Italy cherishes the liberty to disagree. The United States should not overlook a repetitive historical cycle which happens to the most powerful country. At this point in history, it is the turn of the United States. The rest of the world contains those, even your friends, who want to retain [Page 250]the freedom to disagree with you. Even now the Italian Government may be considered as selling itself to the United States by a large segment of its own public opinion. It can be accused of being too conservative. The trend in the world is to change, not to conserve. It is possible that in two or three months the United States may find itself in the position of bearing great burdens and of not having the full support of its friends and allies. This is a tragedy but it is also a fact.

The Secretary said that to the U.S. the defense of liberty is indivisible. America has some forty allies around the world, and they should be aware of this. If you scratch an American you find an isolationist under the surface. If the American people are once disappointed in the support of their allies, you will find an isolationist United States. This is a fact. The President does not want this to happen but it will happen. Is this in the interest of Italy or that of our allies? This is as much a problem for you as it is for us.

The Secretary said that he had told NATO that our friends never worry about the morale of the American people. They should be aware that anyone who relies on the United States has a political constituency in the United States that needs attention just as much as a constituency at home.

Fanfani said that what the Secretary had told him confirms his own thoughts that it could be a big temptation for the United States to want to stay at home. This does not shock him. Many people, in spite of the power of the United States, wonder whether the Communist danger may not be too much even for the United States alone. The United States did not seek this responsibility. History bids the United States to carry the load in the interest of all. The problem is to come out successfully, not just to depend on your own resources and resourcefulness.

Fanfani said it would give him the greatest of pleasure to join a chorus praising the United States and urging it on. There is one caveat, however. He would like to point out to the Secretary that it is very important to have not only good words but good acts from other countries. To obtain this the United States needs not only the solidarity of other Governments but also the solidarity of other peoples. Based on this solidarity of the people of other nations, the United States has twice been successful in world conflicts in this century. He would say to the Secretary, however, that before undertaking great acts, the United States should be sure that in fact it has this solidarity.

Mr. Leddy asked how it would be possible to obtain the support of the people of Europe.

Fanfani said he had been away from Italy for three months but he has kept in touch and has read telegrams. He felt he had made some small contribution to the United States by winning the battle of the United States bases in the Pacific in the General Assembly.

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Fanfani said he had been tremendously impressed by public and press attitudes in Italy regarding Viet-Nam. Nenni has abstained but how about his party? Fanfani said as the Secretary knows he has always tried to split the Socialists from the Communists but the Viet-Nam problem is working against this trend.

The United States should imagine itself in a situation where it might take an extreme decision regarding Viet-Nam which might cause the Italian Government to fall and precipitate a Government crisis in Italy. The United States would be faced not only with its extreme burden in the Pacific but also with confusion in the Mediterranean area.

Fanfani said he had a serious thing to say. It was his duty to say it. The Secretary spoke of the danger of isolationism in the United States. He felt it his duty to tell the Secretary that the majority of the members of the United Nations, no matter what their color, will not support the United States. This is a statement which applies in general and not only to Viet-Nam. Look at the voting record. Many of the votes are on an equivocal basis. Look at the scanty majorities. The Secretary could have no idea of the cost at which these scanty majorities had been garnered nor of the effort required on the part of the U.S. Delegation. How many times have we had to say “let’s hold off a vote for a few days.” The Secretary could have no idea how displeased Fanfani was to be obliged to tell him this. Fanfani said it should be remembered that he is of a naturally optimistic nature. The United States has need of the most sensitive thermometers to understand better the climate in which it is operating.

Fanfani said that he was grateful that the Secretary told him that in the next few months the United States will have rough weather. It is true that there are forces at home which the United States must watch. There are also forces abroad which must be watched. The United States should look not only at Governments but at peoples. Otherwise, it will lose battles to the Communists.

The Secretary said that for each nation it is a question of priorities. Each should begin where it is and work from there. Looking at our Western European friends it seemed to the Secretary that their first problem is the prosperity of Western Europe and he was thinking of the Common Market in this connection. The second interest of Western Europe is the soundness of NATO. Here, the Secretary said, he would like to pay tribute to Italy’s contribution to both of these interests.

Another priority for Western Europe, the Secretary continued, is relations between NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries. We regard ourselves only as partners. We believe we should work as a group and, through a process of full cooperation, we should move together.

The Secretary said that speaking personally, since some of his colleagues do not agree, he believes Western Europe should place a high [Page 252]priority on developments in Africa. This is a vast continent, ten minutes flying time from the small peninsula of land called Europe. Events in Africa should have a high priority for Europe.

Beyond that, there are the problems that arise in the Pacific area and Asia. The Secretary said he could understand why Western European countries so distant from the Pacific and Asia wish that the problems there could simply go away and disappear. Fanfani interrupted to say that Europeans do not consider these problems distant, far away, or abstract. It is only Governments that do not want problems with their own public opinion that say these matters are abstract or distant.

Two elements force these problems on European countries, said the Secretary. One, the Communists are active all over the world. It is a question of whether militant aggression or peaceful coexistence is to be successful. The second element he had already discussed. This was the attitude of the United States toward its commitments to other nations. The Secretary said he understood that NATO countries have problems arising out of domestic difficulties. Canada, the United Kingdom and Norway are governed by thin majorities. Denmark is facing new elections. The Netherlands has a minority Government. Belgium has a fragile political situation. France has a 75 year old leader. Italy has a not always easy coalition Government. Greece has been without a government for some time. In fact, only Luxembourg is stable. We understand these problems but they cause problems for us. The representative of a NATO Government came recently to the Secretary and said, “if the United States does not do thus and so, my Government will fall.” To whom can the United States say this sort of thing?

Fanfani said he much appreciated this score card. The United States must understand the absolute necessity, however, for it to have friendly peoples as well as friendly governments in order to obtain support.

Fanfani said things are not going well in the Communist world. The Secretary responded that it is a great tragedy that at this time we also present a picture of disarray in the Free World. It is the great tragedy of this period in history that while the Communist world is in disorder, we also are in disarray and unable to present a contrast of unity which would make it possible to take a great step forward.

Fanfani said there are two problems: one is the lack of unity in the West. The second is that we have no Communist dictators to deal with. The Communist world is divided and redivided among themselves. We cannot go to a dictator and say: “which is it, peace or war?” It takes two to talk. Four are too many.

The Secretary said there is the same problem with regard to Viet-Nam. There are differences between Hanoi and Peiping but who can we deal with? Looking at each section of the world it seemed to the [Page 253]Secretary that general trends are favorable if we can just solve the Viet-Nam problem. We should keep in mind that Communists are not ten feet tall. Fanfani said this was lucky in view of his own short stature.

Ambassador Fenoaltea said he had seen Nenni in Rome. Nenni was impressed by the fact that any Chinese Communist triumph would have an effect on the Soviets and would bring back the hard line.

The Secretary referred to a conversation he had had with the Deputy Foreign Minister of Poland who had said the number one problem is to turn the Chinese Communists toward peaceful coexistence. The Secretary said he agreed with the observation of the Deputy Foreign Minister, but that if he had made the statement it would be called capitalistic propaganda. If we cannot turn the Chinese Communists from the hard line and this line is successful, the hard line will triumph everywhere.

Fanfani said the United States must preserve the success of the policies it has been following for the last twenty years.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Italy, Vol. 4. Secret. Drafted by Meloy and approved in S on January 4. The memorandum is Part IV of IV. The meeting was held in the Secretary’s private dining room.