324. Summary Notes of the 590th Meeting of the National Security Council1

U.S., Europe and the Czechoslovakian Crisis

The President: The purpose of the meeting is to assess the impact of the Czechoslovakian crisis, to discuss how we can use the crisis to strengthen Western European defense and NATO, and to talk about our relations with the Russians and Eastern Europeans.

Secretary Rusk will summarize the issues and possible ways of dealing with them. Secretary Clifford will talk about the defense of Western Europe and the new disposition of Soviet troops in Central Europe.

Director Helms and Secretary Rusk will give us their views on the German reaction to the crisis. The press has already printed that the State Department was recommending additional reassurances to the Germans even before Secretary Rusk had made any recommendation to the President.

Secretary Fowler will speak on the financial problems.

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If we speak out about a threatening situation and the situation does not develop, we are accused of over-reacting. If we don’t speak out and a serious situation does develop, then we are accused of not having done what we should have done. This is what happened following an indirect mention of the Romanian situation in the speech of last Friday.2

More meetings of the NSC should be held in the next few weeks so that all of the members may be fully informed on current foreign problems.

All requests of political candidates for briefings are to be granted. Mr. Temple3 and Mr. Rostow are to clear Administration responses to requests for positions on foreign problems coming from candidates, advisors, task forces, etc.

[Here follow more than 4 pages on the Czech crisis.]

Secretary Rusk: The effect of the Soviet action on the policy of detente has been serious. NATO members must consult with each other and be seen consulting. High level NATO meetings will be necessary. As to the future of NATO, it may be necessary to extend now the life of the treaty beyond 1969. The problem is what can we do to reassure NATO members that the treaty will not disappear in 1969 which does not require Senate approval and does not commit the new President.

The President: We must not forget that a large number of Senators not long ago favored a substantial immediate reduction of the level of U.S. forces deployed in Europe. Some wanted to reduce this number to 50,000.

Secretary Rusk: The country will now have to debate again the amount of its resources which it is willing to commit to keeping peace in the world. There is some isolationism in the United States. As NATO was warned at its last meeting held in Iceland, fears of the Soviet leaders as they face a changing world create a dangerous attitude in Moscow.

[Here follow 5 paragraphs on the Czech crisis.]

Ambassador Cleveland: The Czech invasion was considered in Europe as a momentous event. Soviet troop deployments raised basic questions for NATO members. Shivers went through Europe when it became clear that a successful military operation was launched with such sloppy political preparations. Some European NATO members concluded that the Soviet invasion has upset the warning theory on which they had been relying, i.e., that strategic warning would come far enough in advance to allow the NATO countries to prepare for a military response.

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NATO agreed to lie low during the time the Czech case was before the UN. They now have issued a statement. (Copy attached) They have agreed to assess the implications of the Czech invasion for allied defense policy, particularly force postures. (Tab C)4

In recent years NATO had followed a two-pillar policy. One pillar was the defense of Western Europe and the other was detente, including the concept of a mutual reduction of NATO-Warsaw Pact forces. The detente pillar had made it possible for liberal political groups in Western Europe to support NATO.

There is uncertainty about what NATO now does. There is already an approved policy on not getting chummy with aggressors. There are proposals to hold a high-level meeting consisting of foreign ministers plus defense ministers. Some members favor a review of NATO strategy. Another proposal is to find a way, without amending the treaty, to give members assurance that NATO’s life will go beyond the treaty date of 1969.

Despite the Czech crisis, Europeans still favor talks with the Soviet Union on major world problems. Some Europeans think that US–USSR relations grow out of shared “atomic complicity” and the Yalta Agreement.

Secretary Clifford: There are two views as to whether the deployment of Soviet troops into Czechoslovakia has increased the threat to NATO. One view holds that the actual threat against European NATO members is actually less than before the Czech crisis, in part because Soviet divisions are farther away and in part because Romanian and Czech troops are no longer available to the Warsaw Pact powers. Therefore the total number of troops available to fight NATO has decreased.

The other view is that the threat has increased because Soviet and Pact forces are on a higher readiness level. This readiness level, plus the partial mobilization which was necessary prior to the Czech invasion, along with the possibility that the loyalty of Czech and Romanian troops can be regained, produces a force more powerful than before the crisis.

We must use the crisis to prompt NATO states to improve the quality of their troops and to improve their mobilization potential. We should push hard on the Germans to increase their defense budget. On offsets and other balance of payment problems, we should request more from NATO members.

We do not know whether there is any possibility of the French rejoining the NATO military effort.

NATO members should react by promptly calling a meeting of the Foreign Ministers, Defense Ministers and Chiefs of Staff to discuss the [Page 752] Warsaw Pact threat to Western Europe. The meeting should be held as early as September 20, even though little comes out of it, because there would be little value in a meeting later. A general communique at the end of the meeting would produce the desired result.

We must use this opportunity to find out if our allies are really serious about carrying their fair share of the cost of the defense of Western Europe.

Domestically, the crisis has ended the threat of passage by the Senate of the Symington Amendment. Senator Mansfield no longer is urging a major reduction in the level of U.S. forces in Europe.

Secretary Rusk: Director Helms should call together an interdepartmental group to write a coordinated estimate of the change in the threat to NATO brought about by the Soviet action against Czechoslovakia.

If there is a high-level NATO meeting, the first day should consist only of statements by each NATO member as to what each is doing in response to the Soviet action. Only then would members be allowed to say what others should be doing. We would need to be in a position to say that we would not withdraw additional U.S. forces without consultation and that the force rotation exercise scheduled for the end of this year would be announced now.

The President: There hasn’t been any shortage of NATO meetings. There should not be a hurry-up meeting. Our critics could accuse us of rushing ahead of other NATO members in the defense of Western Europe. We should be fully prepared before we go to a meeting. It should be recognized that all Presidential candidates will want to send advisers to such a meeting.

First we should find out what each NATO member will do in the light of the Soviet action in Czechoslovakia. They should speak up and be clear about specific actions. The results of the meeting cannot be such as to encourage the aggressors to think that we are not concerned by the Soviet invasion nor such as to lead some people to think that our reaction has been too weak. We should consult, especially with the military leaders, before any decision is made. In addition, we should not have a highly publicized meeting until we know what the other members are prepared to do.

We should not reassure the Germans until they take action on some of the things we want them to do. There is no need to restate our commitments.

Secretary Fowler: Even before the Czech crisis, the increasing deficit in our balance of payments, projected through 1972, was higher than we can accept. (The deficit figures are in the attached paper which was cited by Secretary Fowler.) (Tab D)

The procurement of U.S. military supplies by European NATO members could have greatly helped our balance of payments problem. If [Page 753] such procurement is made, we can avoid the choice between withdrawing troops from Europe and facing an unacceptable financial risk. Many Europeans believe we are more anxious to defend Europe than they are. Unless we make it clear to them, they are likely to let us defend Western Europe with our resources.

It is well to recall that the Berlin crisis led to the first agreement by a NATO member to offset our military expenditures in Europe.

Any NATO meeting held now should include the Finance Ministers so that costs can be dealt with along with military and political problems. Treasury has listed several proposals it recommends in its paper.

The President: We should first get the views of what NATO members are doing and will do in response to the Czech crisis. Unless we do, we might have a big meeting of Foreign, Defense, and Finance Ministers which could blow up without agreement.

We should start by asking our Ambassadors to find out from Foreign, Defense and Finance Ministers what kind of money, marbles, and chalk the NATO states are prepared to put in to counter the Soviet threat. After they have this information, the Ambassadors might come here to tell us exactly what they have found out.

General Wheeler: The threat to NATO is greater now than prior to the Czech crisis because:

Warsaw Pact troops have been moved westward,
the Warsaw Pact states have partially mobilized, and
there are more Soviet troops deployed in the satellite states. The Soviets are on the alert and will stay on the alert.

General Spivey5 reports from Brussels that NATO military leaders are alarmed and deeply disturbed by the Czech situation. They think NATO should pull up its socks and that a NATO meeting would help.

The answer to the question of which NATO members would do something specific about strengthening the Alliance is:

The Germans, the Italians and the Dutch have the resources needed to build up their military forces. The question is whether they have the will do do so.
Possibly the Norwegians and the Danes would do more.
The British attitude is uncertain because their current military power is being reduced.

The President: We should have our Ambassadors go to the Germans, the Italians and the Dutch to find out specifically what they are willing to do now to strengthen NATO.

Ambassador Ball: [Here follow 2 paragraphs on conversations in New York.]

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There should be no NATO meeting without knowing in advance what is to come out of it. As to the effect of a NATO meeting, it would have no affect on the Soviet leaders but in the world it would be taken as a sign that the cold war was starting up all over again. The Soviets could use this argument to bring back into line the European communist parties which fell away following the Czech invasion.

Ambassador Thompson: A NATO meeting would be used by those Soviet leaders who opposed the invasion to show their colleagues just how much the Soviet action cost. There is no solid evidence on who favored and who opposed the invasion in the Soviet leadership.

[Here follow 6 paragraphs on talks with the Soviet Union and 2–1/2 pages on Vietnam.]

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, NSC Meetings File, Vol. 5. Secret; Sensitive; For the President Only. The source text bears no drafting information.
  2. For text of the President’s remarks in San Antonio, Texas, August 30, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson , 1968, pp. 917–920.
  3. Larry E. Temple, Special Counsel to the President.
  4. None of the tabs is printed.
  5. Lieutenant General Berton E. Spivey, Director, Joint Staff, Joint Chiefs of Staff.