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


  • CIA-paid Pilots for the Congo

Messrs. Rusk, McNamara, and Helms have signed off on a small covert step to strengthen our negotiating position with Mobutu for a peaceful (evacuation) solution to the mercenary problem in the Congo. I support their decision, but I thought you should be aware of the operation and that we should have your guidance before proceeding.

In substance, the proposal is that we:

—authorize CIA to recruit five pilots, experienced in the Congo and with T–28 aircraft. (The Agency has already located 10 such pilots—[less than 1 line not declassified] who are willing to go back to the Congo on such a mission.)

—authorize a three-month CIA contract with the pilots whereby they would, under covert direction of an American officer, fly Mobutu’s T–28’s for him. [1½ lines not declassified]

—authorize McBride to use this as a bargaining counter (1) to preempt acceptance of Soviet or Chinese aid (which has been offered and is very hard for Mobutu to refuse), and (2) to push Mobutu toward another try at an evacuation plan of the sort which came within inches of success last week.


The mercenaries are still holed up in Bukavu on the Eastern border of the Congo, 1200 miles from Mobutu in Kinshasa. Schramme agreed last week to a plan to evacuate them through Rwanda to Europe, but the plan fell through because of Belgian vagueness about precisely how the evacuation would be carried out and Rwandan fear of agreeing to anything which would put the mercenaries on Rwandan territory without absolute assurance that they would leave immediately. Mobutu is under heavy political pressure from his own firebrands—including a good share of his army—to “do something” about the mercenaries. But as of now he is helpless; his troops won’t fight them, at least without air cover, and he has no pilots to operate the seven T–28 trainer/fighters which represent his total tactical air force.

The situation is complicated by the fact that the Chinese-influenced Congo Republic (Brazzaville) across the river has made it [Page 789] clear to Mobutu that if he says the word they can and will supply enough Castro Cuban troops to mop up the mercenaries. In addition, the Soviet Ambassador to Congo (B)—there is now no Soviet representation in Congo (K)—has asked Mobutu to give him a list of his military requirements, with the strong implication that the Soviets are prepared to help him. In the light of their action in Nigeria, it seems likely that they would jump at the chance, particularly since 150 mercenaries do not represent a very difficult problem for any reasonable military force. The Algerians are also waiting in the wings.

Mobutu has given us several signals that he can’t hold out much longer against his internal critics unless he has some further token of Western support that he can point to as good reason for not accepting communist help. Moreover, he must be able to present at least some credible threat to the mercenaries as a deterrent to keep them from marching south to Katanga, a move which could well recreate in precise and painful detail the secession situation of 1962–64—which we have invested more than $500 million to avoid. And it is clear to any Congo veteran that if the Brazzaville Cubans or Soviet troops ever get into the Congo, it will be very hard to get them out. At the very least, we could expect a whole new East-West dimension to the chronic problem of the Congo, with dark implications for the rest of Africa.

Purpose of the Operation

The pilots would be a political bargaining counter, both within Mobutu’s councils and for McBride in dealing with Mobutu. They would not constitute a decisive military factor. We would hope they would give Mobutu a marginal capacity to present some threat to the mercenaries, give him some evidence of Western support to counter pressure to accept Bloc aid, and give us the leverage to get him to be an active force in moving toward a new evacuation plan. (We are also working on the Brussels end of this problem; we may need to come back to you on it later this week.)


Like all covert operations, this one runs the risk of exposure. Until a few months ago, the CIA financed and controlled pilots, aircraft and maintenance for the entire Congolese air force. (These operations are now entirely financed and controlled by Mobutu.) The pilots we would supply would be veterans of those days. It is conceivable that an enterprising reporter (of whom there are very few in the Congo) could blow the cover, which could be highly embarrassing here—though it would not have much effect, abroad, in my judgment. It would be even more embarrassing if, after receiving the pilots, Mobutu kicked over the traces and let the Bloc in and then the cover blew. Obviously, we would [Page 790] maintain that the Congolese had hired and paid the pilots, but these are serious risks, which you should take carefully into account.


On balance, I would recommend we go ahead. We got away for several years, through thick and thin, with covert operation of Mobutu’s entire air arm. I think the odds are very good that we can get away with quiet support of five pilots now. Moreover, although it may seem implausible to argue that giving Mobutu fighter pilots will make him more peaceful-minded, I think it is our best chance of maximizing the chances of an evacuation solution, while at the same time avoiding Bloc access to the Congo. The costs of mercenary-inspired disintegration of the Congo and/or Sino-Soviet involvement would be infinitely greater than the money cost and political risk involved in this proposition. I would vote that you accept the risks and approve the operation.


Go ahead with the operation


Speak to me2

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Congo, Vol. XIV, Memos & Miscellaneous, 8/67–10/68. Top Secret.
  2. None of these options is checked.