Eisenhower Library, Eisenhower papers, Whitman file
The United States High Commissioner
for Germany (Conant) to the President
Dear Mr. President: The staff here in Bonn is now busily at work preparing material for Mr. Stassen’s summary of the food distribution program in Berlin. This will come to you in due course, but I am venturing to send you this personal note on a matter too confidential to be included in the official papers. It is a bit of history of the crucial period of the program which involved a sharp disagreement with the British.
After the brilliant idea had been developed in Washington that you should make an offer to the Soviets of food for the East Zone and after the Soviets had refused, the question arose how could we get this food to the East Zone inhabitants. We all recognized this required the cooperation of the Germans in the Federal Republic and this was forthcoming. But the scheme which was actually put into effect and which proved to be an enormous success was largely the result of the foresight and initiative of one man—the late Mayor Reuter. He was the man who persuaded his Berlin associates on the one hand, and the officials of the Federal Republic on the other, to start the distribution of food in West Berlin.
I got in touch with him personally early in the planning stage and gave him my enthusiastic support. In so doing I must admit I failed to keep my British and French colleagues fully informed. The British High Commissioner was subsequently rather annoyed at me for my early endorsement of Mayor Reuter’s ideas. At the same time, I am certain that if I had acted more circumspectly and consulted my French and British colleagues at every stage, the food program would never have been a reality. Indeed, at the last moment the British High Commissioner nearly prevented the initiation of the program because he felt the risks were far too great. He only agreed, he said somewhat bitterly, because he was essentially confronted with an accomplished fact.
I think it is important to realize that the British High Commissioner’s fears were by no means unjustified. The operation was a calculated risk and its success should not blind us to that fact. It was Mayor Reuter’s keen judgment of the situation that made the calculations an accurate prediction. The Russians had the possibility of blocking the program by a variety of methods, the use of any [Page 1661] one of which would have seriously embarrassed the Allied High Commission and the West Germans. For example, the Soviets might have prevented people going from the East Sectors to the West, that is, they might have cut the city as they did at the time of the riots; they might have immediately tried to stop people travelling from the East Zone to the East Sector, as they eventually did; they might have immediately punished severely those caught with the packages. Such repressive measures, if put into effect at once, would almost certainly have stopped the program. They would have brought on our heads accusations of endangering the life and welfare of the inhabitants of the East Sector and the East Zone. All of these objections were put before me by the British High Commissioner. All of them had been discussed with Mayor Reuter in my first talk. It was his judgment, and on this I relief [relied] primarily, that with the state of affairs as they then were in the East Sector and East Zone, the Russians would not take the countermeasures which would be effective. His estimate of the situation proved remarkably accurate.
When Mayor Reuter, shortly before his death, decided that the time had come to stop the program, that for me was sufficient reason. His ground for stopping the program were that the Russians had gradually put into effect some of the measures which we feared they might use at once. The consequence was that in Mayor Reuter’s view and the view of the officials of the Federal Republic, we were indirectly stopping traffic to Berlin and endangering the welfare of many people in the East Sector and the East Zone. The disadvantages were too great to warrant a continuation of the program.
As far as the experience involving the British is concerned, the less said about the past the better, I am sure you will agree. But the importance of Mayor Reuter’s calculations is something that can be spoken about and to me illustrates how vital it is to have a wise estimate of the actual situation at any given moment in the East Zone. Such wise estimates can only be provided by Germans who are in daily touch with East Germans. For the future we must look to a group in Berlin rather than any single man, though I have confidence in both men now candidates for Reuter’s position.
To sum up, I am convinced that if we had undertaken this food program at almost any other time in the past two years, it would have been a failure. We caught the Russian authorities off base with an effective tactic, thanks to Reuter’s calculation of the existing transient situation. Almost everybody will agree that as a consequence we have completed an operation of great value to Germany and the free world.[Page 1662]
May I apologize for sending you this personal letter. The matter is delicate but of importance, I believe, in connection with an assessment of the Berlin food program. May I add my very best personal wishes. I am delighted that all the reports indicate that your summer vacation was successful and that you are in the best of health. May you remain so, is the fervent wish of the citizens of the entire free world.
P.S. Referring to a conversation of last April, I am proud to report our American staff in Bonn has been reduced from 615, when I took over, to 336—for the whole of Germany from 1,128 to 778.