555. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson1

Mr. President:

My prejudice is to go along with the attached proposed message to McBride in Kinshasa.2 But I want to be sure that I am reflecting your wishes.

The message has been cleared by Messrs. Katzenbach and Nitze and General Wheeler. It authorizes McBride and our Ambassador in Geneva to tell the International Red Cross that we would respond favorably to a Red Cross request to use the three U.S. military aircraft now in the Congo to help evacuate the mercenaries and their Congolese henchmen. The three planes involved are the one C–130 still in the Congo, the C–123 assigned to our Military Advisory Team, and our Air Attaché’s C–54. (We would not bring back the two C–130’s we pulled out in late summer.)

We would insist that the Red Cross request be strongly worded and that we have the right to make it public. We would also tell them that our favorable response is primarily designed to make it easier for them to get other countries to make similar contributions.

This decision arises because, after endless haggling, the Red Cross has finally negotiated an evacuation plan acceptable to all parties. It involves three steps:

1. A battalion is flown in from the neighboring Central African Republic to supervise the evacuation and guarantee safe passage for the mercenaries.

2. The mercenaries are flown to Malta.

3. The 1,000 plus Congolese (Katangans) now with the mercs are flown to Zambia.

All this must be done quickly. The operation will be mounted from an airport in Rwanda, the only nearby field large enough to take big [Page 805] transports. Rwandan President Kayibanda insists that the job be done in a period of no more than four days so as to minimize the risk of trouble while the evacuees are in his country. This is a big job—about 20 C–130 round trips at about 8 hours per round trip. It would probably take five C–130’s to do the job in four days.

The only non-U.S. aircraft now in sight are two Zambian C–130’s which we are now reasonably certain will be available. We are scouring the landscape for other planes from African countries and from Europe, as well as looking into other kinds of transport. But prospects are bleak. McBride has concluded that the evacuation probably won’t happen without our logistic support and has requested “earnest consideration” of bringing the two U.S. C–130’s back to the Congo for this purpose.

The request to bring back the two C–130’s has been denied. This message tells McBride that he is free to use the planes now in the Congo. Nobody can guarantee that we will not have to make the C–130 decision again if the evacuation effort breaks down, but McBride understands that the chances of reversal are very slim.

We have a considerable stake in a successful evacuation. If the mercenaries can be peacefully spirited out of the Congo, there is reasonable chance of relative stability for sometime to come. If they remain, every day increases the chances that there will be an attempt to reinforce them (we have intelligence that strongly suggests a Portuguese-backed reinforcement effort in neighboring Angola), and/or that they will decide to march south to Katanga. The latter would almost certainly lead to civil war and a real threat that the country would come apart. In short, we would be back in the same situation we have spent more than half a billion dollars over the last six years to escape.

I think we should go ahead with this limited step. I doubt that it will hurt us much in the Congress to respond to a Red Cross appeal to use planes already on the ground in an evacuation effort which is clearly an attempt to avoid more fighting. I recommend you approve the message.

W.W. Rostow3

Approve message

Have Katzenbach and Nitze talk to Russell, Fulbright, Morgan, et al. and come back to me

[Page 806]

Approve message, but make sure Congressional conversations happen before any action is taken

Disapprove message

Speak to me4

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Memos to the President, Walt W. Rostow, Vol. 48. Secret.
  2. The draft telegram is attached but not printed. After some revision, it was transmitted on October 27 as telegram 60775 to Kinshasa and Geneva. The message expressed willingness to make available to the ICRC not only the C–130 and C–123 currently in the Congo, but also the two C–130s at Ascension. In discussions with the ICRC, the Mission in Geneva was to indicate that the final availability of such aircraft would depend upon formulation of a workable scenario for evacuation, an adequate total commitment of aircraft from other sources, and satisfactory measures to assure the security of the aircraft, as well as a formal ICRC request to the U.S. Government. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 23–9 THE CONGO)
  3. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.
  4. None of these options is checked, but the message was sent; see footnote 2 above. In telegram 1413 from Geneva, October 28, Roger W. Tubby reported that he informed ICRC representatives of the U.S. offer and conditions, and that they had been most appreciative. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, DEF 9–7 THE CONGO)