507. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson 1


  • Help for the Congo

In the attached, Secretary Rusk 2 —supported by Paul Nitze, Dick Helms, and the Joint Chiefs—recommends that you authorize the use of three U.S. C–130 aircraft to help Mobutu put down the current mutiny of white mercenaries in the Congo. The State memorandum contains [Page 740] a good summary of the background of this decision and the costs and benefits involved.

There is little visceral satisfaction in helping Mobutu. He is irritating and often stupid. By our standards, he can be cruel to the point of inhumanity. It is perfectly true that he is trying to get his hands on Tshombe, and if he succeeds there is an excellent chance Tshombe will hang. However, we have to balance these facts against some others—just as hard, cold, and unattractive:

1. Political stability in the Congo is the key to manageable African politics. The Congo is almost as large as India and has much the same dominance over the tone of African politics that India does on the sub-Continent. It would be disastrous to retreat to the Congo of a few years ago where warring regional factions created chaos simply begging for big-power involvement which could spread the arms race to Africa and lead to an eventual big-power confrontation.

2. Mobutu’s regime is by far the most stable and widely-supported in Congolese history. It is the first that has some semblance of mass support. It is vigorously supported (and Tshombe rigorously hated) by every country of black Africa.

3. There is no other Congolese leader in sight who stands a reasonable chance of holding the country together, much less maintaining the present friendly relations with us.

4. Whatever Mobutu’s personal faults, he has made some impressive economic steps. The IMF is now about to install and support—with help from us and other countries—a comprehensive economic stabilization program which is by far the best hope yet of changing a land basically rich in resources from an international beggar (which costs us on the order of $50 million per year in aid) into a cohesive, productive economy.

5. Mobutu does have alternatives. He is under great pressure to denounce us and throw in his lot with the radical Africans and, by implication, the Soviets and/or the Chicoms. Though this would give the communist brethren some problems, it would be a major political problem for us—foreign and domestic.

With these facts in mind, your advisers have arrived at the recommendation that we supply three transport planes and crews. This recommendation is a result of a careful examination of our four major options: to do nothing; to try to finesse the problem through clandestine help to Mobutu; to provide the aircraft he has requested; and to throw the whole problem into the lap of the UN, taking no bilateral action in the meantime.

We are agreed that to do nothing would risk very serious dangers ranging from the splintering of the Congo to a sharp turn to the left in [Page 741] Congolese political orientation, perhaps involving military operations by the Algerians and other hostile forces now smarting from their defeat in the Middle East and looking for a way to recoup. As to the second alternative, there just doesn’t seem to be a way that we can covertly give Mobutu what he needs. He simply doesn’t have the air transport capability to move his men and vehicles in the numbers and with the speed necessary to snuff out the mutiny quickly. The UN is already addressing the problem—the Security Council met this afternoon. But UN action would undoubtedly take time, particularly if it involved blessing American assistance. The Soviets might well block any such resolution in the hope that meanwhile their friends could get into the act and get the credit. (Obviously, this does not mean we would oppose UN action in any event, but it does not appear to us that we can lean on the UN as a substitute for modest bilateral help to Mobutu.)

The C–130’s would be provided on the following conditions:

—that we make it crystal clear to Mobutu that this is not the first step in anything. We are talking about three C–130’s and that’s all. We would specifically rule out combat forces.

—that planes will be used only for the transport of men and material in operations we think are soundly planned and have a reasonable prospect of success.

—that Mobutu will not execute Tshombe, on pain of withdrawal of our planes.

One further condition was left out of the State memorandum by mistake, but will be enforced if you approve: that Mobutu will stop seeming to lump the U.S. and Belgium under the heading “Western white colonialists” in his public statements.

There are risks to this approach. We don’t know whether the mutiny is part of an organized plot to overthrow Mobutu. We don’t know whether or how it is related to the Tshombe incident. Most important, we don’t know how well the regular Congolese troops will do against these rough and ready freebooters. Even though the mercenaries are small in number—apparently about 200—they are formidable military forces in the Congo.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that these risks are outweighed by the benefits. This move would be hailed by all the Africans, along with the other poor countries and most of the industrialized world. (The Soviets are already committed publicly against the mercenaries.) By quick action, we may be able to avoid a painful, drawn-out conflict in the bush which could negate all the progress made in the Congo over the past two years. And in doing so, we could preempt large opportunities which this crisis could present for the communists.

Therefore, I would vote that you approve the Secretary’s recommendation.


[Page 742]

Approve State memorandum; go ahead and use 3 C–130’s


Speak to me3

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Congo, Vol. XIII, Memos & Miscellaneous, 11/66–8/67. Secret. A notation on the memorandum indicates it was seen by the President.
  2. The memorandum is signed by Gene, but approved by the Secretary, who had to leave while it was being typed in final form. [Handwritten footnote in the original.] For Eugene Rostow’s memorandum, see Document 508.
  3. None of these options is checked.