62. Minutes of a National Security Council Meeting1


  • The Horn of Africa


    • The President
    • The Vice President
  • State

    • Cyrus Vance
    • Warren Christopher, Deputy Secretary of State
  • Defense

    • Harold Brown
  • JCS

    • General David Jones, Acting Chairman
  • CIA

    • Admiral Stansfield Turner
  • White House

    • Zbigniew Brzezinski
    • David Aaron, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • NSC

    • Robert Gates (notetaker)


At the President’s request, Admiral Turner began the meeting with an intelligence briefing on the military situation in the Horn.2 [3 lines not declassified] there is no Ethiopian military activity in the southern Ogaden now. [less than 1 line not declassified] Ethiopia’s [less than 1 line not declassified] advance was slowed in the last ten days, and the Somalis have executed a reasonably organized withdrawal.

The President inquired why the Ethiopian advance had slowed, and Admiral Turner replied that the Ethiopians had outrun their logistics and that the Somalis were better organized than expected. The Admiral continued that the main battle now is developing around Jijiga [1½ lines not declassified]. He advised that [less than 1 line not declassified] we can expect a major push within a week to ten days by the Ethiopian forces. Further, the Cubans will be deeply involved. Admiral Turner said there was no indication that the Somalis have yet made a decision to withdraw and that in fact it was too late for them to withdraw and protect all their forces. Thus, the key question becomes what they will lose in the battle at Jijiga. If the Somalis fight to the death they may be able to withdraw 5,000 of the 20,000 men now deployed at Jijiga, [Page 150] but without armor. Admiral Turner admitted that the chance of a successful defense of Jijiga is slim, as is the chance of withdrawing more than a token force of Somali armor. After the battle for Jijiga and withdrawal of Somali forces, the Somalis may try to build on the present core of defense around Hargeisa, but they will be no match for the Ethiopians if the latter are accompanied by Cubans. The Intelligence Community believes that the Soviets will counsel restraint with respect to crossing the border, but there will be great pressures on the Ethiopian leadership to go into Somalia. Militarily, they may not want to be in a position of facing a Somali army in front of them with Somalia forces at their rear in the Ogaden or in southern Somalia.

Secretary Vance inquired about the credibility of clandestine reports that the Ethiopians will in fact invade Somalia. The DCI said that the Intelligence Community places considerable credence in these reports, but that it is hard to tell what the Ethiopians will do if the Somalis withdraw from the southern Ogaden.

Secretary Brown said that from the military perspective, the Ethiopians and Soviets would be unwise not to have a plan to invade Somalia and proceed to Hargeisa.

Mr. Aaron noted that the Ethiopians in fact have such a plan and that it was prepared for them by the United States’ military assistance group several years ago.

Admiral Turner said the question is whether the Soviets are willing to spend the political capital to hold Mengistu and the Cubans back and noted that the Intelligence Community believes that the Soviets will pay that price.

The President asked whether the Iranians and Egyptians would do anything to stop such an invasion, as for example, by sending in aircraft.

Admiral Turner replied “no”. He added, however, that the Shah has discussed what he would do in the Horn and has said he would send help if the border was crossed.

Secretary Vance observed that the Shah would need US permission to use his planes in Somalia.

The President asked whether there would be a shift in the region toward Ethiopia because of their military success.

Admiral Turner replied that there is in the region a sense of coming to terms with the Ethiopians, particularly in view of US inaction. He noted that a Soviet General is directing the Ethiopians in battle and that the Ethiopians were even making progress in Eritrea.

The President asked who is helping the Eritreans, to which Admiral Turner replied that all Arabs are providing assistance, including the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

Mr. Aaron noted that the Sudanese are letting the Eritreans use Sudanese territory for moving small forces from place to place.

[Page 151]

Admiral Turner advised that flights carrying Cubans from Angola to Ethiopia are continuing and that nearly 10,000 Cubans are in Ethiopia now. The Cubans now have a mechanized infantry brigade in action, and 40 Cuban pilots are playing an important role. Meanwhile, Soviet supplies are continuing to flow to Ethiopia with seven ships having arrived this month, and 12 last month.

The President asked Secretary Vance how much information should be made available to the public with respect to Soviets and Cubans in Ethiopia, including their command role.

Secretary Vance said that this might be done when we have hard information.

The President said that the more publicity we make available, in the form of complaints or statements to various African countries, France and the UN, the better off we will be.

Dr. Brzezinski advised that such information would leak out whether we put it out or not, and it could have a negative impact if the US was playing a passive role.

Secretary Brown suggested that releasing such information would in itself raise the stakes in the area.

Dr. Brzezinski referred to the recommendations of the SCC on next diplomatic steps, illicit transfer of US-origin weapons and other responses to the Soviets and Cubans.3

The President said he had no objections to any of the measures unanimously recommended by the SCC.

Secretary Vance said he would like to raise the issue of arms transfers to regional powers. He said that Somali Ambassador Addou had been in touch with him yesterday with a request that the United States begin supplying weapons to Somalia now and that we invite Siad-Barre to Washington.4 The Secretary added that when he inquired whether these measures would be in the context of a Somali withdrawal from the Ogaden, Ambassador Addou would not say. The Secretary expressed the view that there should be no authorization of third country arms transfers unless the Somalis state their intention to withdraw from the Ogaden.

Secretary Brown asked if that would apply even if the Somali border was crossed, to which Dr. Brzezinski said that such transfers should be authorized in that event with or without a Somali commitment to withdraw from the Ogaden.

[Page 152]

Mr. Aaron said that the United States faced two decision points. First, to advise the Somalis that if they withdraw we will provide them with support. Second, in the event of no withdrawal, a decision will have to be taken later on about what we will do.

Secretary Vance said if we get a commitment to withdraw now we would give arms in return.

[Page 153]

The President asked whether delivery of arms should be consummated before actual Somali withdrawal, to which Secretary Vance replied in the negative.

Secretary Brown observed that if we were to authorize such third country transfers, we would need to notify the Congress which would then pass a resolution.

Dr. Brzezinski added that such notification should be accompanied by consultations.

Admiral Turner said that the Somalis primarily need logistical support, maintenance, and leadership.

Secretary Vance commented that even if weapons go in, the Somalis can’t use them—that such weapons would in fact be a face-saver.

Admiral Turner suggested that even with arms support the Somalis could not stand up to the Cubans.

The President said we must look to what we want in the area. We want peace there, we want to get the Soviets and Cubans out, and we want the Somalis to withdraw from Ethiopia. These are our basic desires. “The most important of these is to get the Soviets and Cubans out. This is compatible with third country arms transfers if Somalia withdraws or if the Cubans cross the border. We should make this clear to the Congress now.”

Secretary Vance asked, “Is that the case even if the Somalis are still in the Ogaden?”

The President responded, “that is my inclination”.

Secretary Vance said it was his view that Siad-Barre would refuse to withdraw.

Dr. Brzezinski suggested that we should exploit the assurances of Mengistu and of Ambassador Dobrynin that the Ethiopians would not cross the border.5 We should get the Congress and all regional powers to initiate consultations with respect to the transfer of arms if the Somalis withdraw or the Cubans go into Ethiopia.

The President said, “don’t rule out direct US aid,” for example 2½ or 5 ton trucks and food. We need to be forceful without prolonging the conflict.

Secretary Vance said that if we assume this position and notify Saudi Arabia and Iran that we want arms transfers to Somalia, they will certainly ask whether the United States will help with fighters and troops if they get in trouble. We would say no, but we need to face up to this question now.

Dr. Brzezinski observed that if such a question were discussed, we should say that if the Iranian or Saudi arms deliveries or forces were attacked by the Soviets we would respond. This in itself would communicate an important message to these regional powers. We would in effect tell them that they would be in Somalia to match the Cubans and we would be there to match the Soviets.

General Jones advised that in the view of the Joint Chiefs, Ethiopia, with the Cuban and Soviet help, could overcome whatever aid from regional powers might go into Somalia as long as the United States was not involved. Third country or even direct US materiel assistance might prolong the conflict but it would not stop the Ethiopians. In response to Dr. Brzezinski’s question whether the Ethiopians alone might succeed against the Somalis and regional powers, General Jones said he thought so although the participation of the Iranians would give the Somalis a good chance to stop the invasion.

Dr. Brzezinski said that our principal role should be to deter the Soviets.

Mr. Aaron said that air power is particularly important.

Dr. Brzezinski observed that up to now we have been in an impossible position in the Horn because Somalia is the aggressor. He noted, however, that once Somalia is invaded, the picture will change dramatically.

The President asked what kinds of forces the French have in the area.

Secretary Brown responded that they have some troops and aircraft, and also have a carrier in the Mediterranean that they could bring to the area.

Dr. Brzezinski said that if the US and France each put in an aircraft carrier it would certainly cause the Cubans to think twice about participating in the invasion of Ethiopia.

Secretary Vance advised that the United States should not put in an aircraft carrier unless we are prepared to use it.

Secretary Brown seconded this view adding, however, that if we know the situation will come out all right in Somalia—that there will be no invasion—then we might deploy the carrier and take credit for successfully preventing the invasion. On the other hand, if we don’t [Page 154] know how the situation will come out, or we do not intend to use the aircraft or the carrier in Somalia, then we should not put it in. There is a great danger that our bluff will be called with serious implications for the successful use of carriers in the future.

Dr. Brzezinski said that while he agreed on the advisability of using a carrier if in fact the Ethiopians were likely to stop at the border, he was also concerned about the larger consequences of such an invasion succeeding and overrunning Somalia. This would be destabilizing for Saudi Arabia and Iran, and would also affect our allies in Europe. He continued, “I am prepared to put in a carrier to use against Cubans participating in an invasion of Somalia if other countries in the region are also prepared to go in.” If the countries in the region will not help, then we certainly should not put in the carrier.

Secretary Vance disagreed with Dr. Brzezinski. He said, “We are getting sucked in. The Somalis brought this on themselves. They are no great friend of ours, and they are reaping the fruits of their actions. For us to put our prestige on the line and to take military steps is a risk we should not take.”

The President inquired where the aircraft carriers are presently stationed, to which Secretary Brown replied that the Kitty Hawk is at Subic Bay. He added that it would take 12–14 days for it to reach the Horn.

Secretary Brown said that it has 100 F–14s on board, and that if they engaged the Cubans it would be “quite a fight”.

Dr. Brzezinski , referring to Secretary Vance’s above stated position, said he had no quarrel with the Secretary on the moral issues or the history of this conflict. Rather, he expressed his concern about the consequences of the Soviet and Cuban role. If we by deploying a carrier could deter the Ethiopians and Cubans from invading, this would retrieve the situation.

Mr. Aaron suggested that we should focus more carefully on how to obtain Somali withdrawal from the Ogaden. Siad-Barre needs an incentive or, rather, assurances of security should he withdraw. The deployment of a carrier as a response to the withdrawal would provide an incentive to that withdrawal, and give Siad-Barre confidence that the security of Somalia would be preserved.

Secretary Brown objected, noting that you have to be prepared to fight the Cubans. He added, “there are bad consequences either way we go”.

Dr. Brzezinski referred again to the consequences elsewhere in the area of the Cubans crossing the border, noting that this would cause problems for us throughout southern Africa. If other countries agree to help us, then we should send in the carrier. He commented, “If the United States is afraid to take the Cubans on now, what will this do to the confidence in us of other countries?”

[Page 155]

Secretary Brown asked if it would not be unclear whether the Somalis had in fact withdrawn from the Ogaden.

Dr. Brzezinski said that if there were an invasion, then not only Mengistu would have lied, but the Soviets in the person of Ambassador Dobrynin, would have lied directly to the Secretary of State. This would have grave consequences for our relationship with the Soviets.

The President commented that the “Congress would react with horror” at the prospect of American military help for Somalia. He added that there is no support here for Somalia, and that Americans consider Somalia to be a communist country and an ally of the Soviet Union. He continued by expressing his concern that the extent of US involvement would grow. The Shah’s desire for a carrier might be related to his belief that the presence of such an American force would subsume his own obligations. He expressed his agreement with Dr. Brzezinski that the regional powers should meet the Cubans and the US meet the Soviets if necessary. He asked whether we should move a carrier into the Indian Ocean to stand by, perhaps at Diego Garcia.

Dr. Brzezinski asked if we should not tell the countries in the region that if the Soviets interfere we would act.

The President said we should reaffirm the historic position of this country, that if the Soviet Union becomes involved then we would act. The President said he had no doubt about the reaction of the Congress if the Cubans invade in the face of Soviet and Ethiopian assurances, and the reality of a very serious situation in the Horn. He added that firmness was certain to prevail vis-a-vis the Soviets.

Secretary Vance expressed the view that the Soviets will not get involved.

The President said we should point out publicly about a Soviet General being in command in Ethiopia, and about the number of Cubans there. He added that we should get our allies and the OAU to understand the situation and collectively deplore it.

Secretary Vance noted that we are attempting to do just that in the OAU.

Dr. Brzezinski inquired whether we should say to the countries in the region that we will support and protect them against the Soviets if they are willing to help Somalia.

The President said he would not express it that way, but rather we should initiate consultations and inquire of the countries in the region whether they would be willing to face the Cubans if we permit them to use and transfer US materiel. We should state our historic position with respect to countering the Soviets. We should also begin consultations with the Congress.

Dr. Brzezinski inquired whether the President wished to defer action on the carrier.

[Page 156]

Secretary Brown inquired what the United States would say if countries in the region asked if we would help them if they were being overrun by the Cubans in Somalia. The Secretary said he was confident our reply would be “it’s up to you to counter the Cubans”. He added, however, that he had no doubt what the countries in the region would do in response to this—they would do nothing and blame us.

Secretary Vance said he shared Harold’s view, and could assure everyone that the countries in the region would ask that very question.

Mr. Aaron said that in his recent trip to the Horn in both Cairo and Khartoum he learned that the US is being blamed for not doing anything.6 Others believe we have tilted to the side of Somalia and given the impression that we are interested in what happens there, but that we are not acting. If we decide to take a passive role, then we should say so and emphasize that it was a conscious decision to do so. If we accept Harold’s analysis, then we probably will not proceed with consultations with countries in the region because of the hard questions they will ask. This will leave us only with the OAU.

The President asked Mr. Aaron if he was saying that the only alternative for this country is to go to war if the Cubans cross the border.

Mr. Aaron said that was not his point, but that he favored proceeding with the consultations.

Secretary Vance noted that the other alternative would be to go to Congress and discuss the transfer of weapons, but not Iranian or other troops in the region. Then there would be no questions posed about what the US would do if the Cubans began overrunning Somalia.

The President indicated it was his impression that Iran and Egypt might provide airplanes to help Somalia. Also, Sadat seems eager to send forces into Berbera.7 He added, however, that Sadat has taken a step back in the absence of encouragement from the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Dr. Brzezinski suggested diplomatic initiatives in the region in which we would express support for arms transfers, providing Somalia agrees to withdraw or in the event of an invasion of Somalia. He said this point seemed to be agreed, but wondered if countries in the region send in forces to help Somalia whether we would say that we would offset the Soviets.

The President asked what the Soviets could do, to which Dr. Brzezinski replied that they not only could interefere with supply ships and [Page 157] aircraft, but also exert very strong diplomatic pressure and make threats.

Secretary Vance and Secretary Brown both said the US position should be to protect against the Soviets.

Dr. Brzezinski added that we would not take on the Cubans.

The President said he did not envision the Saudis or Iranians sending in ground troops, but rather fighting in the air against the Cubans or providing anti-aircraft support.

General Jones expressed the view that the Iranians could handle the Cubans in the air specifically in terms of having superior equipment. Nevertheless, the Iranians are not particularly good in organizing their forces or in command and control. He continued that it was his view that our problem now is that we are on the side of an aggressor. Militarily it would make sense for Ethiopia to invade Somalia to force the Somalis to get out of the Ogaden. The key, therefore, is for us to get the Somalis out of the Ogaden. Once they are out, then we should support third country transfers.

Secretary Vance emphasized that we must get the Somalis to agree to withdraw, and the President agreed.

The Vice President asked if there was some way to arrange withdrawal that would allow Siad-Barre to preserve some measure of prestige and not be totally humiliated.

The President concluded the meeting by noting that this should not be difficult because Siad-Barre has up to now denied that Somali forces are in the Ogaden.


(The principals continued to discuss the issues of the NSC meeting after the President left, and reconvened in the White House Situation Room to discuss preparation of the Summary of Decisions memorandum for the President.)

Dr. Brzezinski outlined the memorandum noting that except for the question of arms transfers, the decisions were the same as stated in the SCC Summary of Conclusions.8 With respect to arms transfers, the memorandum should state “Should Somalia agree to and announce a decision to withdraw from the Ogaden, the US would be prepared to authorize action for third country transfers.” While this point would be made in consultations, Dr. Brzezinski said it should be noted in the minutes that the President was prepared to authorize third country arms transfers if Ethiopia invaded Somalia. He added that a second [Page 158] point to be made in the consultations would be “If they decide to deliver equipment, provide air cover or other assistance in the event of an invasion, the US would stand by them and protect them against Soviet interference.”

Secretary Brown said it should be clear that by protection against the Soviets we mean interference with flights or ship movements bringing aid to Somalia. In such an event, the US would respond.

Secretary Vance said he would express it somewhat differently, that the US should take the position that if the Soviets take military action, we will interpose ourselves.

Dr. Brzezinski said he thought there was no difference between Secretary Vance and him on this.

Mr. Aaron noted that even if the Soviets are directing the Ethiopian attack in the Ogaden, or in Somalia, the US would not act.

Dr. Brzezinski added that we should tell the regional countries we will stand by them even in the face of diplomatic threats by the Soviets, to which Secretary Vance replied that such a blanket statement troubled him.

Secretary Brown agreed with Dr. Brzezinski that if the Soviets take military action we will have to stand by the countries helping Somalia.

Mr. Aaron said that the Soviets were most likely to rely on diplomatic threats to stop aid to Somalia.

Dr. Brzezinski suggested that if the Soviets even do this, fundamental decisions will be required of this government.

Secretary Brown said that the dividing line is in fact conflict between proxies and principals.

Secretary Vance expressed concern where this will lead us, and Dr. Brzezinski replied that there will only be a confrontation if the Soviets impose one.

Secretary Vance said his preference would be to let the situation ride without volunteering to the countries of the region that we would react to the Soviets.

Secretary Brown disagreed, saying that the President wanted us to do something to make clear to the Soviets, Cubans and Ethiopians what is being invited by their action.

Dr. Brzezinski suggested that this would be an unavoidable question—that the regional leaders have great anxieties about what the Soviets might do, and will certainly ask what we will do. Our answer should be that if the Cubans attack the regional countries they will have to counter it; if the Soviets interfere, we stand by to counter them.

Mr. Christopher said there was a danger of misunderstanding of this by our friends. He said there is a very real chance that if Saudi [Page 159] Arabia and Iran get involved and get beaten, they will say they thought we would help them against the Soviet threat.

Dr. Brzezinski said he agreed that it is important to clarify this point, and that we are not talking about indirect Soviet involvement.

Secretary Vance suggested in this context that we say we would “offset” the Soviets. This could include diplomatic means.

Dr. Brzezinski said that he would check back with the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense on the exact language being sent to the President.

Mr. Aaron said the commitment we are making is actually a modest one because all of this will take place only if the Somalis withdraw from the Ogaden.

Secretary Brown added that it would also have relevance in the event Somalia is invaded.

Mr. Aaron agreed with Secretary Brown, but noted that this would not be mentioned in our consultations with countries in the region. They will be told that our commitment to offset the Soviets applies only if the Somalis withdraw.

Admiral Turner expressed the opinion that none of the countries in the region will provide forces. Even the Shah is unlikely to send air power.

Dr. Brzezinski admitted that the DCI probably is right, but that it is important to establish a record that we went to the countries in the region and they declined to help. If they do not go in, there will be no US involvement.

Secretary Vance suggested that we will have major problems with the Kenyans with respect to third country arms transfers to Somalia. He advised that we be very careful with the Kenyan delegation due in the United States in the near future. He added that their concerns might be alleviated by noting that such arms transfers would be “only for defensive forces within Somalia”.

Dr. Brzezinski raised the issue of other responses to the Soviets and Cubans, and noted that the President favored some additional aid to Savimbi in Angola. Also, we should stop telling other countries not to help Savimbi.

Secretary Vance asked where this stands in the Congress, and Admiral Turner replied that the specific restrictions, according to the letter of the law, applied only to FY 76 appropriations. He noted, however, to general agreement of the participants, that he would not want to try taking this position on the Hill.

Dr. Brzezinski said this would require continuing review, and that we would not do anything in the meantime. We should also consider other responses.

[Page 160]

Mr. Aaron expressed the opinion that Ethiopia wants to win its war, and that they will go to the border and then turn south to clear out the rest of the Ogaden.

Secretary Brown wondered what the effect of this would be on Siad-Barre, and whether it would lead to a pro-Soviet replacement.

Secretary Vance said that Ambassador Addou had told him that the Somali military council, led by military leaders who had opposed the break with the Soviets, had recommended that Siad-Barre admit his decision to expel the Russians had been wrong, and that he should swallow his pride and go back to the Soviets. According to Ambassador Addou, Siad replied, “as long as I am President that will never happen” and he carried that particular meeting.9

Secretary Vance noted that this report was interesting, but highly unreliable.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Council, Institutional Files 1977–1981, Box 55, NSC 8, 2/23/78. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting took place in the Cabinet Room.
  2. Not found.
  3. See Document 58.
  4. See Document 60.
  5. For Dobrynin’s assurances, see Document 56.
  6. See Documents 57 and 58.
  7. See Document 40.
  8. See Document 58.
  9. See Document 60.