320. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) to President Carter1


  • Possible Coup in Nicaragua (S)

At your request, I chaired an SCC today with Secretary Muskie, Acting Secretary of Defense Claytor, General Meyer of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Frank Carlucci of the CIA.2 According to the CIA, the situation in Nicaragua is deteriorating rapidly, and the chances of a coup, and of a successful coup, have increased. The opposition to the Sandinista Directorate is apparently coming from three sources: (1) High level military officers, who oppose the pro-Cuban Marxists in the FSLN, and who have some support from the private sector; (2) moderate democratic parties and representatives from labor and the private sector, who have walked out of the Council of State; and (3) Nicaraguan exiles, primarily former National Guardsmen and Somocistas. The CIA estimates that the first group has the highest probability of implementing a successful coup, and that they might start it by this Sunday3 or even earlier. (S)

The key issue concerns possible Cuban involvement. The SCC agreed to recommend that you authorize the following three actions at the moment a coup begins:

1. Wayne Smith, Chief of our Interests Section, should immediately make a demarche to Cuban President Castro (at Tab A).4

2. The USS FORRESTAL, which is currently being moved to within six hours of MODLOC, should move immediately to that point from which we could interdict Cuban air or sea traffic to Nicaragua (map at Tab B).5

3. An AWACS would immediately be dispatched to the same area to monitor Cuban communications and traffic. (S)

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We also recommend that an NSC be called immediately to decide on rules of engagement, and we have tasked the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to prepare a number of options. Our principal problem will be to distinguish between “innocent” Cuban traffic to the Island, perhaps to evacuate their personnel, and the dispatch of combat troops and military equipment. The CIA estimates that the Cubans could dispatch 1,000 troops and light equipment in 24 hours, and thus we will not have much time to respond after the coup gets underway. We also need to decide how we will protect Americans in Nicaragua. The Joint Chiefs of Staff will review their contingency plans so as to insure that we will have the capability to send as much as one brigade (3500 troops) into Nicaragua within 24 hours. We agreed to meet again to discuss these remaining issues before Sunday. (S)


In summary, the SCC recommends that you approve our taking the following three steps at the moment a coup begins in Nicaragua: (1) The demarche to the Cubans at Tab A; (2) the dispatch of the USS FORRESTAL to MODLOC; and (3) the dispatch of an AWACS to the area. (S)6

Secretary Muskie’s memorandum on the subject is at Tab C. (U)7

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office, Unfiled Files, Box 143, Nicaragua: 9/78–11/80. Secret. Sent for action. Carter wrote at the top of the page: “Zbig—Ed Inadequate—a) Msg tab A is unclear & implies US prior knowledge of coup. b) Spell out UNOAS action by us. c) Extraction/protection of Americans.” Carter also wrote: “Expedite,” and circled the word.
  2. See Document 319.
  3. November 16.
  4. Tab A, attached but not printed, is the undated draft démarche.
  5. Tab B is attached but not printed.
  6. Carter did not approve or disapprove of this recommendation.
  7. Tab C is attached but not printed. See footnote 4, Document 319.