Notes on a National Security Council Meeting Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During his first ten months in office, President John F. Kennedy had sent several individuals and groups to South Vietnam to assess the situation and recommend a course of action. The last group had arrived in mid-October, headed by General Maxwell Taylor. Taylor recommended that thousands of American soldiers be sent to Vietnam, not only to advise but to fight. Thus, when President Kennedy met with the National Security Council on November 15, 1961, it was to consider what steps to take in Vietnam. The decision that was to be made based upon this discussion would set the extent of American involvement in Vietnam and could affect the relations that the United States would have with many other countries. Kennedy had an agreement with Lyndon Johnson that the vice president review national security decisions. These notes were taken by one of Johnson's aides. While Kennedy did not make the final decision at this meeting, it can be seen from the text that he was not interested in a large-scale escalation of American forces.

Summary Overview

During his first ten months in office, President John F. Kennedy had sent several individuals and groups to South Vietnam to assess the situation and recommend a course of action. The last group had arrived in mid-October, headed by General Maxwell Taylor. Taylor recommended that thousands of American soldiers be sent to Vietnam, not only to advise but to fight. Thus, when President Kennedy met with the National Security Council on November 15, 1961, it was to consider what steps to take in Vietnam. The decision that was to be made based upon this discussion would set the extent of American involvement in Vietnam and could affect the relations that the United States would have with many other countries. Kennedy had an agreement with Lyndon Johnson that the vice president review national security decisions. These notes were taken by one of Johnson's aides. While Kennedy did not make the final decision at this meeting, it can be seen from the text that he was not interested in a large-scale escalation of American forces.

Defining Moment

In 1961, the Cold War was at its height. Since the end of World War II, communism had spread from the Soviet Union to encompass all the Eastern European countries, as well as China and Cuba. Two governments had been established in Germany based upon the territory occupied by Soviet or Western troops. At the time of this meeting, tension, caused by the building of the Berlin Wall, had just eased. Soviet and American tank units had faced each other across the barbed wire barrier, and after negotiations, they slowly backed away from each other, preserving the peace. It had only been seven months since the failed US invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy's record against the communists was one clear loss and one draw.

In this context, President Kennedy had to make a crucial decision regarding how heavily the United States should invest in supporting South Vietnam against communist incursions. The struggle in Vietnam, between the communist North and the pro-Western South, had been going on for seven years. Those who had studied the situation in Vietnam gave conflicting advice. Some were optimistic that victory would be easy, others thought it would be impossible. Some thought that simply by inserting American forces the balance of power would shift, while others believed that there needed to be a change in the governing style of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam—or perhaps that he needed to be replaced. Since Kennedy's inauguration, there had been ongoing discussions of numerous matters, but now that other areas of the world had calmed down, Vietnam became the focus of anti-communist activity. Kennedy had always advocated stopping the spread of communism, but he was not eager to produce another failure. Thus, in the NSC meeting, Kennedy asked questions about the appropriateness of American involvement in the conflict, as well as some questions regarding possible steps that could be taken.

While the decisions made after this meeting were not monumental in terms of numbers of troops or advisers, or the scope of the mission, they did reflect a significant increase in the level of US involvement. Kennedy did not go as far as many had wished, or as the Department of Defense had expected, but his thinking in this discussion proved important in his decision to continue aid to South Vietnam, at an increased level. The stage became set for the eventual assignment of a combat role to American forces.

Author Biography

The National Security Council (NSC) was formally established in 1947. However, a group functioning in this manner has always been part of the executive branch. Under law, there are several positions that automatically are part of the NSC, such as the vice president, the secretaries of Defense and the Treasury, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. However, other individuals may be invited to attend some, or all, of the NSC meetings at the discretion of the president. There were twenty-six individuals noted as in attendance at this meeting, with Vice President Johnson the only regular member absent, owing to his travel schedule.

Historical Document

Washington, November 15, 1961, 10 a.m.

A brief outline of the size and disposition of Chinese armed forces was given. The President then asked what routes of movement are available for these troops from China to North Viet Nam. Mr. Amory pointed out and described the condition of railway and roads of access and cited the generally inadequate aspects of these avenues. Mr. Dulles cautioned that it should not be assumed that the Chinese setbacks as well as the ideological rift were such that the Soviets and Chinese would not be able nor willing to engage jointly any nation which threatened Communist interests.

Mr. Rusk explained the Draft of Memorandum on South Viet Nam. He added the hope that, in spite of the magnitude of the proposal, any U.S. actions would not be hampered by lack of funds nor failure to pursue the program vigorously. The President expressed the fear of becoming involved simultaneously on two fronts on opposite sides of the world. He questioned the wisdom of involvement in Viet Nam since the basis thereof is not completely clear. By comparison he noted that Korea was a case of clear aggression which was opposed by the United States and other members of the U.N. The conflict in Viet Nam is more obscure and less flagrant. The President then expressed his strong feeling that in such a situation the United States needs even more the support of allies in such an endeavor as Viet Nam in order to avoid sharp domestic partisan criticism as well as strong objections from other nations of the world. The President said that he could even make a rather strong case against intervening in an area 10,000 miles away against 16,000 guerrillas with a native army of 200,000, where millions have been spent for years with no success. The President repeated his apprehension concerning support, adding that none could be expected from the French, and Mr. Rusk interrupted to say that the British were tending more and more to take the French point of view. The President compared the obscurity of the issues in Viet Nam to the clarity of the positions in Berlin, the contrast of which could even make leading Democrats wary of proposed activities in the Far East.

Mr. Rusk suggested that firmness in Viet Nam in the manner and form of that in Berlin might achieve desired results in Viet Nam without resort to combat. The President disagreed with the suggestion on the basis that the issue was clearly defined in Berlin and opposing forces identified whereas in Viet Nam the issue is vague and action is by guerrillas, sometimes in a phantom-like fashion. Mr. McNamara expressed an opinion that action would become clear if U.S. forces were involved since this power would be applied against sources of Viet Cong power including those in North Viet Nam. The President observed that it was not clear to him just where these U.S. forces would base their operations other than from aircraft carriers which seemed to him to be quite vulnerable. General Lemnitzer confirmed that carriers would be involved to a considerable degree and stated that Taiwan and the Philippines would also become principal bases of action.

With regard to sources of power in North Viet Nam, Mr. Rusk cited Hanoi as the most important center in North Viet Nam and it would be hit. However, he considered it more a political target than a military one and under these circumstances such an attack would “raise serious questions.” He expressed the hope that any plan of action in North Viet Nam would strike first of all any Viet Cong airlift into South Viet Nam in order to avoid the establishment of a procedure of supply similar to that which the Soviets have conducted for so long with impunity in Laos.

Mr. Bundy raised the question as to whether or not U.S. action in Viet Nam would not render the Laotian settlement more difficult. Mr. Rusk said that it would to a certain degree but qualified his statement with the caveat that the difficulties could be controlled somewhat by the manner in which actions in Viet Nam are initiated.

The President returned the discussion to the point of what will be done next in Viet Nam rather than whether or not the U.S. would become involved. He cautioned that the technique of U.S. actions should not have the effect of unilaterally violating Geneva accords. He felt that a technique and timing must be devised which will place the onus of breaking the accords on the other side and require them to defend their actions. Even so, he realized that it would take some time to achieve this condition and even more to build up world opinion against Viet Cong. He felt that the Jorden Report might be utilized in this effort.

The President discussed tactics in dealing with the International Control Commission. He delineated a clever plan to charge North Viet Nam with the onus for breaking accords. Following this he envisioned the initiation of certain U.S. actions. He realized that these actions would be criticized and subject to justification in world opinion but felt that it would be much less difficult if this particular U.S. action were secondary rather than primary. He directed State to study possible courses of action with consideration for his views relating to timing and to the Geneva Accords. He asked State also to consider the position of the individual members of the ICC and further suggested that the time was appropriate to induce India to agree to follow U.S. suggestion.

Mr. Murrow reported that parts of the Jorden Report are already in the hands of the ICC. He questioned the value of utilizing the report in the suggested manner since to do so would simply be to place a U.S. stamp on the report. Such action might not reap the desired effects.

The President asked what nations would possibly support the U.S. intervention in Viet Nam, listing Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand (?). Mr. Rusk replied that they all would but the President implied doubts because of the pitfalls of the particular type of war in Viet Nam. He described it as being more a political issue, of different magnitude and (again) less defined than the Korean War.

Mr. Fowler said that the studies suggested to him that the job to be done has been magnified, thereby leading to pessimistic conclusions as to outcome. Taylor responded that although the discussion and even some of the draft memoranda were somewhat pessimistic, he returned from Viet Nam with optimism over what could be done if certain clearcut actions were taken. He envisioned two phases: (1) the revival of Viet Nam morale and (2) the initiation of the guerrilla suppression program. Mr. McNamara cautioned that the program was in fact complex and that in all probability U.S. troops, planes and resources would have to be supplied in additional quantities at a later date.

The President asked the Secretary of Defense if he would take action if SEATO did not exist and McNamara replied in the affirmative. The President asked for justification and Lemnitzer replied that the world would be divided in the area of Southeast Asia on the sea, in the air and in communications. He said that Communist conquest would deal a severe blow to freedom and extend Communism to a great portion of the world. The President asked how he could justify the proposed courses of action in Viet Nam while at the same time ignoring Cuba. General Lemnitzer hastened to add that the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] feel that even at this point the United States should go into Cuba.

The President stated the time had come for neutral nations as well as others to be in support of U.S. policy publicly. He felt that we should aggressively determine which nations are in support of U.S. policy and that these nations should identify themselves. The President again expressed apprehension on support of the proposed action by the Congress as well as by the American people. He felt that the next two or three weeks should be utilized in making the determination as to whether or not the proposed program for Viet Nam could be supported. His impression was that even the Democratic side of Congress was not fully convinced. The President stated that he would like to have the Vice President's views in this regard and at that point asked if there was information on the Vice President's arrival. The President then stated that no action would be taken during the meeting on the proposed memorandum and that he would discuss these subjects with the Vice President. He asked State to report to him when the directed studies had been completed.

“The meeting proceeded in the normal fashion with the first hour being consumed by the presentation of reports. Discussion continued until about 11:30, at which time the President asked me if I had further information on your arrival and, when I replied in the negative, he asked if I would check. I went outside the meeting and called Walter [Jenkins] and discovered that you had informed him around midnight of your difficulty in returning to Washington last night by private plane because of weather and of the possibility that you might not return to Washington as scheduled but might proceed to Seattle. I returned to the meeting and informed the President that I could not ascertain the details of your flight and arrival at the moment. The President then suggested that the meeting be adjourned and that he would discuss the subject with you later.” (Johnson Library, Vice Presidential Security File, National Security Council (II))

No record was found of a subsequent meeting between the President and Vice President regarding Vietnam.

Glossary

Draft (of) Memorandum on South Vietnam: a joint State/Defense memo regarding increasing aid to South Vietnam, sent November 11

International Control Commission (ICC): organization overseeing the 1954 Geneva Accords

Jorden Report: William Jorden's report on North Vietnamese aggression, publically released in December

SEATO: Southeast Asia Treaty Organization

Viet Cong: communist forces from, and operating in, South Vietnam

Document Analysis

Whether to continue assistance to South Vietnam, and if so how much, and how to justify it: these were questions about which the National Security Council needed advise the president. While ultimately Kennedy had to make the decision, the more information he could acquire, the better his decision would be. While the first question is dealt with relatively quickly in the meeting, the latter two seem to present more of a dilemma for the president and the NSC members. In addition, one always needed to have the support of Congress in order to fund any such proposed actions.

The continuation of aid to South Vietnam does not really seem to be an issue to be decided. Two days prior to this meeting, Kennedy indicated his understanding that a significant number of American troops might be needed in South Vietnam. On the day before this meeting, in response to the Draft Memorandum on South Vietnam mentioned in the meeting notes, Kennedy directed Dean Rusk of the Department of State and Robert McNamara from the Department of Defense to prepare an additional shipment of rifles for the South Vietnamese and to select a general to head up military operations in the country. Both of these directions seem to indicate continued assistance. After stating how easy it would be to make a “strong case against intervening,” Kennedy directs the group to focus on the next steps, rather than the question of whether to continue involvement.

The type and amount of aid is the major point upon which a decision needs to be made. The early statement by Rusk, hoping that American efforts will not be “hampered by lack of funds,” reflects a large deployment of military personnel and equipment, which is in the Draft Memorandum. In those previous discussions, the president had agreed that sending only a token force would not be helpful. The probable use of American air power raised the question of where to locate secure naval aircraft carriers or terrestrial air bases. Moreover, the expansion of the use of American air power would necessitate the expansion of allowable targets. In addition to South Vietnam, reference is made to targets in Laos and North Vietnam. Army deployments would be the basis for the “revival of Viet Nam morale” and, of course, direct combat action by the Americans—hence, Kennedy's point about needing the Democrats in Congress to stand with him.

The international repercussions of sending further military assistance to South Vietnam is the third area that was discussed. Which countries were capable and willing to be active allies in the fight against the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong? How would increased aid to South Vietnam affect neighboring countries? How can matters be finessed in order not to have it seem that the United States is blatantly disregarding the Geneva Accords? (The Jorden Report, documenting North Vietnamese aid to the Viet Cong, was a major help in efforts to strengthen the United States' position within the international community.) These types of concerns were at the heart of how the United States would respond to the needs of the South Vietnamese. If only Vietnam were considered, the members indicate, a large response would seem to be best. If, however, the international community is taking into consideration, the range of actions becomes more restricted. The meeting ends without a decision. Kennedy, however, does seem to have a good grasp of the situation and the various options available.

Essential Themes

This meeting of the National Security Council represents the continuation of a process that had been going on for several years. With the French having pulled out of their former colonies in Indochina and the communist Viet Minh having taken control of North Vietnam, the United States stepped forward to support the South Vietnamese. From time to time, decisions were made that continued and expanded that involvement. This meeting represents one of those times. The memos exchanged in the days leading up to this meeting were supportive of increasing assistance. This meeting does the same.

At this point, President Kennedy recognizes that continued growth will create problems external to Vietnam. Time is spent, therefore, discussing alliances, communist responses, as well as the International Control Commission (ICC). While the ICC was not that important in and of itself, it is noted that if it took issue with the United States, it could create problems within the wider global community. Thus, Kennedy cares about how American actions would be perceived and the types of justifications that could be presented to support them.

The direct outcome of this meeting came one week later, in the form of National Security Action Memorandum No. 111. In that document, Kennedy authorized greatly expanding aid to South Vietnam, including military hardware, especially aircraft. It authorized not only more assistance on training the South Vietnamese army, but also greater participation in surveillance and intelligence operations. Even then, though, Kennedy did not authorize combat troops. In a separate authorization, Kennedy gave the go-ahead for defoliation efforts—that is, the beginning of the use of Agent Orange. All of these are relatively small steps in the context of what would later become a major war, yet they are precisely the steps that wound up drawing the United States more deeply into the conflict.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Keefer, Edward C., ed. “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, Volume I, Vietnam, 1961.” Office of the Historian. US Department of State, 2015. Web. <https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v04>.
  • Logevall, Fredrik. Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Print.
  • Miller, Edward. Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013. Print.
  • Rusk, Dean. As I Saw It. Ed. Daniel S. Papp. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. Print.
  • Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. 1965. First Mariner Books Ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002. Print.
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