In December 1962, the situation in the Congo was deteriorating. Moise Tshombe was leading a secessionist movement for the Katanga, an area rich in natural resources and the base of massive European mining interests. Cyrille Adoula led the Congolese central government, but his hold on power was tenuous and his government was going broke as Tshombe cut off tax income from the mining in Katanga.
The United Nations, along with the Kennedy administration, backed Adoula. The United Nations had put forward a National Reconciliation Plan that required both sides to make compromises. But getting them to implement it was proving problematic.
Losing patience and running out of funds (the UN’s operations in the Congo were costing the organization about $10 million a month), U Thant had come up with a plan to force the issue at the beginning of 1963. That plan included military action, if necessary. The UN already had international peacekeepers on hand, and more were coming in, but they needed military hardware to make the plan work. U Thant had made requests of several countries. He also made one of the United States.
The Secretary-General has suggested as an alternative that the United States help the UN in a show of force in order to bring about reintegration by supplying the UN with six US armored cars airlifted by US transport to Elisabethville; by providing thirty-two US half-ton trucks airlifted by the United States to Elisabethville; by providing ten US fighters (6 F–86’s, 4 Mustangs) to be flown to Léopoldville or Kamina by US personnel and turned over to the UN thereafter, to be flown by non-American pilots (Swedes, Ethiopians and others); and that the US provide US ground crews which would be considered by the UN as technicians; that the US provide a small engineering unit for bridging operations which would also be considered technical rather than combat; that the US airlift in US transports UK bridging material; and that the US transport six Philippine aircraft from Manila to the Congo.
Kennedy met with the ExComm twice on December 17, 1962, to make a decision on U Thant’s request and a related decision on whether to send a U.S. air squadron to the Congo.
But as is explained during the meeting, and captured on Kennedy’s secret White House taping system, there was a problem with the bit about the trucks. As Harlan Cleveland, the Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, explained:
Harlan Cleveland: I believe, Mr. President, that that’s a telephone garble, as it turns out. It’s supposed to be 30 two-and-a-half ton trucks.
McGeorge Bundy: Yes. [laughs]
Cleveland: That’s slightly different.
When you think about it, of course Cleveland is right. A half-ton truck really isn’t much of a truck at all. One of the best-selling mid-size family cars of the day–the 1962 Ford Fairlane–weighed in around 1.4 tons. The 1962 Chevrolet Nova, another of the year’s best-selling models, was about 1.25 tons. So a half-ton trucks is going to be about less than half the size of a family sedan. That’s more of a golf-cart than the kind of rugged transport needed for transporting people and equipment in the African bush. It doesn’t make sense. But it’s an easy detail to gloss over when you trust the public record.
The mistake was almost entirely inconsequential. Whether U Thant asked for half-ton trucks or 2 1/2-ton trucks doesn’t change the significance of the request and ultimately made no impact either way on JFK’s decision on whether or not to provide the military equipment to the UN operation in the Congo.
But I also add the “almost” deliberately. It seems to have introduced a flicker of doubt in JFK’s mind as to whether U Thant’s military advisers knew what they were doing. That was relevant because of the related decision about whether to put U.S. military support personnel into the Congo under UN command and whether to risk U.S. prestige and interests by surrendering control of U.S. forces there if they were sent.
In looking over the list during an ExComm meeting, Kennedy remarked:
JFK: Some of it may not make any sense. What’s–but I don’t see that–we’re in agreement with the major idea that we would respond favorably.
- To be clear, the mistake is in the original document, not in FRUS‘s rendering of it. The version in FRUS accurately reflects what is written in the document Kennedy and the ExComm had in front of them when they sat around the Cabinet Room table on December 17, 1962. ↩