9. Memorandum From the Chairman of the National Security Council Undersecretaries Committee (Richardson) to President Nixon1 2

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  • Jet Military Aircraft Sales to Colombia and other Latin American Countries

You asked for State and Defense views on how best to assist President Lleras to obtain small numbers of F–5 aircraft as part of Colombia’s arms modernization program. The NSC Interdepartmental Group for Latin America and the NSC Under Secretaries Committee have examined this question in light of the overall problem of military aircraft sales to Latin America in general—a problem which also immediately affects our relations with Brazil, Chile and Argentina and will affect Venezuela in due course.

Since 1963 the U.S. Government has attempted to delay the acquisition of supersonic military aircraft in Latin America, or at least to slow the pace. By doing so, we hoped to limit diversion of Latin resources from essential economic development purposes to less important military uses. The policy coupled efforts at persuasion against early introduction of supersonic jets with U.S. commitments to provide some F–5-type fighter aircraft to several countries during the 1969–1970 time frame to meet their minimum modernization goals.

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For several years this policy, aimed at reducing Latin American military aircraft inventories, produced its desired effect. However, the Conte Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, adopted in 1967 and modified slightly in 1968, inhibited the Johnson Administration in carrying forward this effort. Our ability to exert a restraining influence is now practically at an end. Our limited capacity, under Congressional restraints, to respond to these requests has become less and less satisfactory to these Latin governments. They are now close to the point of turning in frustration to other Western nations for their aircraft needs.

Peru’s decision in 1967 to purchase French Mirage aircraft resulted in part from our long delay in responding to their request for a firm commitment to supply F–5’s. The Argentine and Brazilian Air Forces have been on the point of ordering expensive Mirages or equivalent aircraft for several months—held back only by the concerns of Presidents Ongania and Costa e Silva over competing budgetary needs and their apparent continued preference for U.S. weapons. The Chilean Air Force is pressing for authorization from the Chilean Government to purchase F–5’s or their equivalent. Venezuela will probably seek some aircraft more modern than its F–86’s once it learns of Colombia’s aircraft purchase plans.

All these countries are determined to acquire some modern jet military aircraft in the near future to maintain the professionalism of their air forces. The only uncertainties involve timing, acquisition source, and numbers and types of planes. We cannot prevent these acquisitions. We might, however, influence these decisions in sensible directions if we were now more forthcoming in licensing the export of F–5, A–4, or [Page 3] other similar aircraft and in providing some credit to assist in their purchase. Mere exhortation against “stimulating an arms race” or against irresponsible diversion ot scarce resources will unfortunately have little further effect.

The Brazil case is pressing, for we should reply to a formal request now eight months old for a credit sale of two squadrons of A–4’s. (Costa e Silva long postponed making this request in recognition of our Congressional problem—specifically described to him in 1967 by President Johnson.) The Brazilian Government apparently made clear to Governor Rockefeller that it will regard our response on this and other weapons requests as important indicators of the degree of overall collaboration it can anticipate from the Nixon Administration. It we assist Colombia to obtain F–5’s, a decision to refuse to assist Brazil will be interpreted as a deliberate political act. Costa e Silva’s announcement during the visit of Governor Rockefeller that he plans to move back toward constitutional forms improves the atmosphere for decision somewhat, but there remain particularly difficult problems in the Brazil case in view of the repressive nature of the Costa e Silva regime, the Reuss “sense of the Congress” Amendment to the Foreign Military Sales Act directed against military dictatorships, and some strong U.S. Congressional and public animosity toward the Brazilian Government.

Congressional Aspects

There are serious, valid concerns about the effect in Congress of any move by the Administration during the next few weeks to facilitate sale of jet aircraft to Latin America. The Conte Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act states:

“The President is directed to withhold [Page 4] economic assistance in an amount equivalent to the amount spent by any underdeveloped country for the purchase of sophisticated weapons systems, such as missile systems and jet aircraft for military purposes from any country, unless the President determines that such purchase or acquisition of weapons systems is important to the national security of the United States and reports within thirty days each such determination to the Congress.”

We extend major economic assistance to Colombia, Brazil, and Chile, and technical assistance to Argentina, all of which would be subject to Conte deductions unless the “National Security” waiver were applied. You have proposed in this year’s Foreign Assistance bill some changes in this language to give the Executive Branch more discretion tor meeting reasonable weapons requirements without imposing economic penalties. Congressman Conte has indicated some receptivity to this proposed change. However, any knowledge in Congress that you were planning to grant National Security waivers for sales to Brazil or Colombia would gravely jeopardize the prospect for softening the language—and might indeed result instead in a less flexible statute. Any waivers for Latin America would be harshly viewed by some members of Congress as evading the thrust of the Conte Amendment as well as the Reuss Amendment, since jet aircraft sales to Latin America was one of the chief targets of the Conte Amendment’s sponsors. We do not recommend that you grant National Security waivers for such sales.

In light of these considerations, the Under Secretaries Committee approved the following courses of action:

1. Congressional

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We are redoubling our efforts to achieve some modification of the Conte Amendment in the Foreign Assistance Act, so as to be able to respond more satisfactorily in the future to purchase requests for modest numbers of weapons like jet military aircraft.

2. Colombia

We are instructing Ambassador Vaughn to confirm to President Lleras your desire to be helpful to Colombia, and our readiness to license exports of modest numbers of F–5 or A–4 aircraft. He will, however, describe our current Congressional problem and our efforts to amend the legislation, and will make every effort to delay final Colombian purchase decisions until after this Congressional session ends. We are authorizing our military representatives in Bogota to discuss with the Colombian Air Force details such as types, quantity, cost, delivery schedules, and whether or not government credit would be required. (If credit were needed, a National Security waiver might be necessary under the present language of the Foreign Military Sales Act.) We will indicate the availability of reconditioned A–4B aircraft for delivery early in 1970 at a very attractive price, should Colombia prefer these aircraft to the much more expensive new F–5’s.

3. Brazil

We are instructing Ambassador Elbrick to describe our Congressional problem frankly to President Costa e Silva, underscoring our desire to be forthcoming on the A–4 request but emphasizing our overriding concern that everything possible be done to amend the present Conte provision. He will try to persuade the Brazilian Government to defer any purchases a few months longer, [Page 6] and will make clear that some progress in Brazil toward reopening democratic political institutions could favorably affect our Congressional problem.

If, however, Brazil must proceed now to make a decision, Elbrick will assure Costa e Silva that we would license exports, and will also offer reconditioned A–443 aircraft for early delivery at an attractive price. He will not offer any U.S. government credit, and he will make it clear that a Conte Amendment deduction would probably result unless Congress amends the law.

4. Chile

If our Embassy considers that pressures from the Chilean Air Force now warrant some U.S. response, it will be authorized to discuss a possible sale of F–5’s or A–4’s in the same terms as described above for Colombia. We will attempt to delay any final Chilean decision until after Congress adjourns this year.

To be more forthcoming at this time would greatly imperil our efforts in Congress to obtain relief in the statute. This response should satisfy Colombia’s President Lleras, at least for the time being. It will also meet our minimum objective with Brazil, helping to reassure the Brazilian Government of our desire to continue a friendly relationship with that government within the limits set by our legislative constraints. However, the responses will not wholly [Page 7] satisfy any of the governments, and one or more may turn to European aircraft suppliers for their future military aircraft purchases.

Elliot L. Richardson
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 779, Country Files, Latin America, Colombia, Vol. 1. Secret. For more information on the concerns of the Nixon administration regarding congressional restrictions on military sales to Latin America, see the Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, and Venezuela country chapters of this volume.
  2. Richardson discussed the efforts of the NSC Under Secretaries Committee to convince Congress to modify the Conte Amendment which restricted the administration from selling jet military aircraft to Latin American nations.