63. Letter From the Ambassador in Germany (Conant) to the Secretary of State 1

Dear Foster : Since I am taking off day after tomorrow for a six-weeks’ home leave, I am taking the liberty of writing you about the situation here in Germany as I see it. I shall be in Washington for four or five days after Labor Day, and if you are available I would be glad to discuss the contents of this letter further if you can spare me half an hour or so.

[Page 134]

When the Bundestag adjourned for the summer about three weeks ago, the Chancellor could be satisfied with the legislative accomplishments of his coalition. The conscription law was passed but without a specification as to the length of service. The question of whether 12 or 18 months would be required has been put over for separate action next fall, and three weeks ago the Chancellor and his workers were confident that an 18-month law would be passed.

A number of measures were taken by the Bundestag which the Chancellor and his Cabinet believe strengthened their position internally. These measures included certain relief for the farmers and an increased expenditure for those who had suffered from war damages and those who are living on certain types of pensions. These measures were frankly taken by the coalition with an eye to the election in 1957. The fact that from the point of view of internal politics the Chancellor continues to be highly successful is demonstrated by the fact that at the Socialist Party’s convention two weeks ago no matter of substance concerning the internal policy of the government was seriously questioned. Indeed, except for some lip-service to the word “socialism”, the program of this Party, from the point of view of economics, is remarkably conservative considering the fact that only ten years ago demands for nationalization of industry were still part of the Party program but have now disappeared.

Against this favorable picture must be placed the fact that the Chancellor has been increasingly criticized by members of his own Party and members of his Cabinet and their staff. There seems to be no question but what he has had a struggle with his Minister of Finance, Mr. Schaeffer, which looks to the outsider like almost a struggle for power, though it has turned in part on what appears to be the basic tax and economic policy of the government. The Chancellor has also quarreled with his Minister of Economics, Mr. Erhard, who was opposed to the Chancellor’s policy in regard to the farmers, and in a technical discussion of the question of the rediscount rate spoke publicly in a critical vein of both Erhard and Schaeffer. This speech of the Chancellor’s before the Association of German Manufacturers has been deeply regretted by a number of his close associates, and the controversy which was aired in the press involving the Chancellor and his two chief Cabinet members certainly has tended to lower the Chancellor’s prestige.

The Chancellor’s foreign policy, including his firm determination to proceed as rapidly as possible with the formation of a 12-division army, has been criticized not only by the opposition parties but increasingly by some members of his own party. There is a growing sentiment, which is expressed in the newspapers and by adherents to the Chancellor’s general policy, that some action must be taken to meet the criticism from the opposition that there has been too little [Page 135] initiative in regard to reunification. It is my own guess, based on conversations with members of the Chancellor’s party, that the government will go on to the offensive in this matter of reunification some time next winter. From the point of view of the election which takes place in September 1957, such timing would obviously be good politics. Therefore I think we may expect some developments from the Chancellor along the lines of new questions to be asked of Moscow or possibly even new proposals to Moscow. Indeed, it may be that this offensive will be started next October rather than delayed until the winter. Personally, I have no doubt that all the members of the Chancellor’s Cabinet and a vast majority of the Bundestag members of his coalition are sound and solid on the question of reunification. That is to say, there will be no tendency for the foreseeable future for them to toy with the present Russian offer of reunification through discussions between Bonn and Pankow.2 It may well be, however, that there will be further developments of the idea of having the other NATO countries agree to a modified NATO if a freely elected all-German government decides to join NATO. But I doubt if the government parties will be ready to suggest anything approaching a united Germany armed and disassociated from the other Western powers. Indeed, I am not sure that the opposition parties will be ready to push the idea of neutrality of a united Germany to its logical conclusion during the debates in the coming election year.

The Chancellor’s health continues excellent, indeed amazing. Barring unexpected developments, I think one can assume he will lead his party in the election campaign in the summer of 1957. Whether or not he would then step down to make place for a successor, assuming the present coalition wins control of the Bundestag, is another question. There is an increasing number of Germans favorable to the Chancellor who are rather expecting and to some degree hoping that there will be a younger man as Chancellor after the fall of 1957. I may add that in my view there are several promising candidates to succeed the Chancellor.

I do not share the view of some of the American correspondents here who think that, in view of the loss of prestige of the Chancellor, the present coalition will fail to obtain a majority in the Bundestag in the fall of 1957. The present coalition (CDUCSUDPFVP) has a majority of nearly 80 seats. It will take quite a shift in the voting pattern of the Germans to give the opposition enough votes to elect a Chancellor (and the voting pattern of the Federal Republic of [Page 136] Germany, I believe, is now very largely determined by religious affiliations and class distinctions).

I gather from indirect evidence that there is an interesting conflict of opinion within the Chancellor’s own party in regard to the advisability of a future coalition with the SPD. (Such a coalition is not to be confused with earlier talk of a grand coalition which would have included the old FDP as well.) There is also a conflict of opinion in the SPD as to the desirability of a coalition with the CDUCSU. Just how this conflict will be worked out in the coming year is one of the interesting problems. The Chancellor himself would never consider such a coalition, and those who share his views are working to build up the dissenting party from the old FDP, namely, the FVP. This party now has only ten votes in the Bundestag but they are hoping to increase this number at the expense of the FDP which, you will recall, went into the opposition some months ago. I have reason to believe this move is being supported by a number of the Ruhr industrialists who are strongly back of the Chancellor,—the Chancellor’s foreign policy and, with certain exceptions, his internal policy as well. These industrialists would be deeply distressed if a coalition CDUCSUSPD should come into power in Bonn. I think this group will finance the new FVP and the Chancellor’s own party quite generously in the coming year.

Although I think the possibility of a CDUCSUSPD government in Bonn after 1957 is relatively slight, I should like to record my opinion that the Chancellor is unduly apprehensive about the SPD party. As compared with the FDP, now that it has lost its better elements, the SPD is a party which could conceivably be brought into good partnership with the Chancellor’s own party. [19 lines of source text not declassified]

To sum up, I think that there is little likelihood that the SPD will be in the government after 1957, assuming that the matters which I am about to treat will be worked out satisfactorily in the coming months. This leads me to the events of the last ten days which have upset the Chancellor and the members of his coalition government as well as opinion generally here in Germany. I refer to the rumors from Washington about the reduction in troop strength and the document which the British are presenting to the NATO Council.3 If word of this British proposal had leaked before the Bundesrat acted on the new conscription law last Friday, it would not have been passed. Indeed, if the rumors from Washington had started a week earlier, the conscription law would have failed, in the opinion of the President of Bundesrat, with whom I had dinner [Page 137] Friday night. This would have meant, incidentally, that the machinery for calling up conscripts could not have been set up in time to have enabled the first recruits to have been called up according to their schedule early next spring.

It would be quite out of place for me to intrude my personal opinion as to the strategic wisdom of a reduction of the strength of the ground forces here in Europe, but I would like to emphasize the grave complications that will result here in Germany if this matter is not firmly settled early next fall. It will be impossible, I fear, for the Bundestag to pass the supplemental conscription law determining the length of service as long as there is uncertainty as to what the attitudes of the United States and Great Britain will be in regard to the size of the ground forces needed here in Europe. Furthermore, the obvious intention of the British to raise next spring once again the issue of support costs is a complicating factor. It seems to me that the whole question of the strength of the forces here in Europe must be settled before the German government can proceed with its plans. Furthermore, it seems to me that the question of the British ability to find the DM funds to pay the expenses of troops stationed in Germany ought to be settled at the same time; another support cost argument would be a serious blow to the good relations between the Western Allies and the Federal Republic of Germany.

I am afraid there can be no doubt but that the discussions that have taken place in the papers the last few days have further damaged the Chancellor’s position. I am very apprehensive of the public discussions of the new British request to NATO when the news of this “leaks” as it certainly will before many weeks have passed. Indeed, if things are not cleared up and settled satisfactorily next fall, I think my estimate of the outcome of the 1957 election would have to be greatly modified.

The FDP is already saying that the Western Allies are now adopting the position which this party has all along advocated, namely, that modern weapons make a large army unnecessary. The SPD is against any army, for the present at least. The combination of these two parties in a government after 1957 would be really disastrous from an American point of view; while the SPD might make a satisfactory minor partner in a coalition with the CDUCSU, it would make a very bad major partner in a coalition with the FDP. Indeed, such an outcome of the 1957 election can only be regarded with horror by those of us who have been in close touch with the German scene for the last three years or so. Therefore, from the point of view of internal German politics, as well as getting forward with building a German army, fundamental discussions within the NATO framework need to be made in the very near future and the [Page 138] British memorandum answered with a clear-cut decision that can be made public.

I offer my apologies for the length of this letter, but I felt a summary of the situation here in Germany might be of value to you in the coming weeks.

Sincerely yours,

James B. Conant
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 762A.00/7–2456. Secret; Personal; Eyes Only for Secretary.
  2. An East German delegation visited Moscow July 16–17. The joint communiqué issued on July 17, noted, among other things, that the only one way to unite the two Germanies was through discussion and agreement between the two countries.
  3. For documentation on the British proposal for troop reduction in Europe, see vol. IV, pp. 123 ff.