344. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Secretary of State Rusk1

Johnson: Yes.

Rusk: This is Dean Rusk. I have here on my end a conference call with Cy Vance, General Wheeler, John McCone, George Ball, Averell Harriman, and myself. We want to talk a moment about the Congo situation. I think you were informed earlier today that the situation in Stanleyville apparently deteriorated somewhat further. The leadership that we’ve been trying to bicker with apparently is not in the city. The venue apparently is over on the border of Uganda. The military man Olenga is apparently up on the border of Sudan, and the elements in Stanleyville appear to be the most irresponsible group there, the so-called jeunesse, the rebel private personnel, that is the troops.

Now we’ve been talking about this operation that you’re familiar with and we would like to send a message tonight saying that upon arrival at Kamina, the aircraft and forces should prepare to execute the operation at first light on Monday morning, November 23. Do not execute unless directed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The order to execute would be sent prior to a given hour here unless developments in the next 18 hours indicate the desirability of further postponement. Then we tell them in a second paragraph that the aircraft should be refueled immediately upon arrival in Kamina in case further marked deterioration in Stanleyville requires us to have them go earlier, that is the afternoon before. Now this coincides with the views of the Belgians, who are taking the major burden here and have the major responsibility. We have had a thorough discussion here. The Chiefs of Staff are fully on board with this line of action. So is Cy Vance. There is one—.

Johnson: Where is McNamara?

Rusk: He is in town but I talked to him before I came over here, sir.

Johnson: All right, is he on board?

Rusk: Yes sir.

Johnson: Where’s he been all day, Cy?

Vance: He’s been here. He’s been in budget meetings at the Pentagon.

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Johnson: Yeah, OK, all right.

Rusk: There’s some differences down the line in CIA that I think John McCone ought to mention to you. John, would you speak to that point?

McCone: Yes, Mr. President. The difference at CIA is there is one group that feel that probably the consequences on the hostages would be lessened if the particular operation were held up and moved only in the event that things broke out before the Vanderwaele [Van der Walle] column went in. They feel that the most advantageous situation from the standpoint of the hostages would be for the column to take Stanleyville rather than to resort to this drop. Now there is a difference within the Agency on this point, and really it’s a matter of opinion more than anything that you can really prove.

Rusk: Mr. President, I think that all of us feel that we should say to you that we can’t think of any line of action here that would be sure to pick up live hostages throughout, and if we don’t do anything, we’ll find corpses and some corpses if we take an action of this sort by execution order tomorrow, that we’re likely to find some corpses. But we don’t have any feeling at all that there’s any responsible authority in Stanleyville that can give anybody any protection. Now our Embassy in Brussels will be talking with Spaak tomorrow to get his final judgment before we recommend whether to push the button for an actual move. But this will get us in a position to move quickly if we have to move with the least possible warning and to get them thoroughly prepared to move at first light on Monday.

Johnson: What does this do, Dean? Move them up a few hours?

Rusk: Well, all this does is to give them in effect an alert time for the most probable hour of commitment, but it does not—, it specifically says do not execute unless directed by JCS.

Johnson: Does it move—, does it physically move them from where they are?

Rusk: It doesn’t move them from where we’ve already ordered them, that is in Kamina.

Johnson: All this does is just say: “get ready.”

Rusk: That’s right.

Johnson: Now John, do you agree this ought to be done?

McCone: Yes sir, I do.

Johnson: Do you—, then you’ve got a minority opinion in your own staff?

McCone: Yes, that’s correct.

Johnson: But you—

McCone: Based on their appraisal of the situation.

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Johnson: But you don’t share their view?

McCone: No, but I can’t ignore it.

Johnson: No, I’m not saying you ignore it, but you don’t agree with it?

McCone: No, I can’t agree with that totally.

Johnson: You agree with what Dean’s saying?

McCone: Yes, I do.

Johnson: OK. Go ahead, Dean.

Rusk: Well, I do think we ought to give as much weight as we can to the Belgian [predominance]. And they have several hundred hostages, and they’re putting in the paratroopers and are going to take casualties, and Spaak seems to feel that it’s important to move. I think the Belgians—.

Johnson: How many people, how many paratroopers are they putting in?

Rusk: Approximately a thousand, sir.

Johnson: Now all we’re doing is furnishing the planes?

Rusk: That’s right, sir, and 200 American military aircrews on those planes. In other words, we’re running some risk ourselves.

Johnson: Now wait a minute. Repeat that. How many Americans?

Rusk: It’ll be about 200 American air crews on those planes, but no combat troops.

Johnson: How’re they going to—, they’ll shoot the planes down you mean, that’s the danger?

Rusk: Well, we could lose some Americans if they shot the planes down. That’s right, sir. But these will be given cover with T–28s and B–26s that are already in the Congo, and they will use these planes to go ahead of the drop and also to help them deliver suppressive fire if anything comes out of the ground at them.

Johnson: Do they have any anti-aircraft?

Rusk: We’re not absolutely certain what is at Stanleyville at this point. They had some. Some of the anti-aircraft that they had at Stanleyville turned up in Bukavu, so we know that some of it was moved away, but we don’t know what is there or who’s there to man it. But these planes should be—, these T–28s and B–26s should be able to find that out before the paratroop-carrying planes actually arrive on the scene.

Johnson: A thousand men in the paratroop group?

Rusk: That’s right, sir. Now this is a highly trained elite group that is actually the palace guard in Belgium. This is the best outfit they’ve got. The Belgians are very confident that if they get down and if they get there, that they will not run into serious problems. They’ve had a lot [Page 500] of experience in the Congo and they feel certain that if it is necessary to commit these troops that the troops will take care of themselves.

Johnson: Where’s Harriman?

Rusk: He’s sitting right here.

Johnson: Does he agree?

Rusk: Yes, he agrees very much.

Johnson: All right. Go on then.

Rusk: All right, sir.

Johnson: Good night.

Rusk: We’ll call you tomorrow.2

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation between President Johnson and Secretary Rusk, November 21, 1964, 9:42 p.m., Tape WH 6411.26, 6439, Side A, PNO 16. Ball was in Washington; President Johnson was in Texas. This transcript was prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume.
  2. At 10:56 a.m. on November 22, Rusk phoned the President to report that U.S. and Belgian political and military people were meeting at Kamina and that Washington should have a report by 3 p.m. He said Spaak was waiting for a report from that meeting before making a final decision and the United States would go along with the Belgian decision, whether to postpone or to go ahead. If there was any news from Attwood, they could take that into account as well. Rusk hoped the President would be available between 4:15 and 5 so they could get in touch with him. Johnson asked when they had to decide, and the Secretary said if there were to be a drop the next morning, i.e., November 23, they would have to decide by 5 p.m.—4 p.m. at the Ranch and midnight in the Congo. In response to Johnson’s question regarding the purpose of the operation, Rusk stated that the only purpose was the humanitarian one of evacuating those being held hostage and that we would withdraw as soon as that was done. (Ibid., Recording of Telephone Conversation between President Johnson and Secretary Rusk, November 22, 1964, 10:56 a.m., Tape WH 6411.26, Side A, 6442, PNO 19)