199. Memorandum From Acting Secretary of State Herter to President Eisenhower0


  • Berlin Contingency Planning

When Secretary Dulles and others discussed Berlin contingency planning with you on January 29,1 the application of additional military force was reserved for governmental decision in the event that an initial probe followed by other measures proved unsuccessful.

Though decision is reserved, the need for advance planning is evident, and the Department of State has been examining alternative possibilities. Short of general war, these appear to be two. One is the use of substantial force to attempt to reopen passage to Berlin. The other, a pacific counter-blockade, supplemented perhaps by other forms of naval reprisal, seems on preliminary examination to merit careful study also. There is attached a memorandum on this subject prepared in the State Department.

Pacific blockade is considered an act of reprisal rather than an act of war. By applying this concept to Berlin situation, we might frame a strategy which would counter interference with Western access not by invading East Germany, where we would be at a disadvantage, but by action at sea where the USSR would be at a disadvantage. We might, for example, control Soviet and East German shipping at the entrances to the Baltic and the Black Sea. The control could assume various degrees of stringency, in case the USSR should use gradual tactics over Berlin. It could be extended to other principal ports in the North and Far East if desired, and it could be supplemented by seizing ships on the high seas.

While such a course of action, like its alternative, raises serious problems, it has such apparent advantages that I believe it worth very careful study. I therefore suggest that you direct that the Department of Defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff report urgently on United States capabilities for naval reprisals, including counter-blockade, in connection with Berlin contingency planning.

Christian A. Herter
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Paper Prepared by George A. Morgan of the Policy Planning Staff



There are two basic issues which confront us in contingency planning for Berlin:
at what stage and over what issue to threaten and, if necessary, use force;
what type of force to use.
This memorandum addresses the second of these issues. It proposes in particular the study of a type of force which could be used as an alternative to substantial ground action in East Germany or immediate initiation of general war. It does not address the question of defining the point at which the proposed type of force should be used, but it does suggest that the threat to use it would decrease the likelihood of such a point being reached.
In challenging the West on Berlin, the USSR is relying on two circumstances in particular: first, the only way the West can maintain access is by crossing territory under effective communist control and, second, it is far easier to deny than to maintain such access by localized military action. It is thus clear that local use of force by Western powers cannot of itself be an effective counter to the proposed Soviet line of action, hence that its significance would consist wholly in the implied threat of imminent general war. Yet it is precisely the immense psychological gap between pinpoint Berlin situation and global reaction that has made it difficult to win Allied commitment to this step, makes Allied unanimity uncertain when faced with the ultimate decision, and therefore encourages Soviet intransigeance.
We need accordingly to look beyond Berlin to see if there is not some other way in which we can more effectively deter or counter Soviet interference with Western access. One way might be the application of seapower which served us so well over Lebanon and Quemoy. In [Page 415] seapower the balance of general military advantage is with us, not with the USSR, and by its use we should be able to pick situations where the balance of local advantage would also be in our favor.

The Concept of Graduated Pacific Counter-Blockade

Some form of counter-blockade would seem to be the most logical use of seapower in relation to Berlin, since what is threatened against us in Berlin amounts to a blockade. It should be considered a pacific counter-blockade since it would be intended as a reprisal rather than an act of war. As Soviet or East German interference with our access might begin gradually, it would be desirable to plan wide flexibility in both degree and scope. Suitable points at which to control shipping might be at the entrances to the Baltic and the Black Sea, and the degree of control might vary with the degree of interference with our access to Berlin. The blockade could be extended to the principal ports in the north and far east if desired. It might be applied to all Soviet and East German shipping, or to vessels to and from one or more specific ports. It could also be supplemented by seizing ships on the high seas by way of reprisal, or by other measures such as a trade embargo.
If in the end any new agreements or implicit understandings were reached concerning Berlin, the continuing possibility and perhaps explicit threat of pacific counter-blockade might provide useful insurance against further Soviet bad faith or East German nibbling at our position.

Advantages as a Deterrent

The USSR would know counter-blockade to be a course of action well within our capabilities, on terms relatively advantageous to us and therefore not suspect of bluffing. The recent incident when we boarded a Soviet trawler believed to have cut cables3 illustrates for their benefit the decisiveness of US action in this sphere.

A strategy of counter-blockade would be a rational and symmetrical response to wrongful use of force against us, thereby appealing to the poplar sense of justice, and it would tend to place on the USSR the chief onus for extending the conflict into open hostilities if that occurred. It should therefore be more acceptable to NATO and to Western public opinion than using substantial force to try to open a passage to Berlin. It would be a course of action in which the French and British could fully participate, and their efforts could be supplemented by some or all other NATO powers as a token of solidarity. Moreover it would be capable of adoption at an early date, at least for purposes of planning and preparation.

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To enhance its deterrent value we should probably wish to let the USSR know our intentions, privately if not publicly, well in advance. It should thus confront the USSR with the prospect of full and continuing Allied unanimity on a vital aspect of the question of using force over Berlin.

Counter-blockade would help to bridge the psychological gap between Berlin and our global deterrent. It would involve operations on an extensive scale, from which the transition to a global strike would be credible alike to friend and foe if it appeared to be in the US interest.

Advantages if Implemented

In addition to several advantages already mentioned, counterblockade if implemented would inflict serious psychological and political damage on the USSR, and it could not be broken without grave risk of general war, for which the USSR would bear the main onus. It would therefore give the USSR substantial inducement to come to terms. The psychological and political inducement would be supplemented by significant economic losses, the probable amount of which should be the subject of further study.
Counter-blockade would afford time and a sound basis for further negotiations, rather than precipitating a rapid showdown. We would be under no compulsion to make concessions without counter-concessions. We would be in a relatively favorable position with world opinion, which would be drawn away from confusing details about Berlin traffic control and focussed on the big picture.
Counter-blockade would wear well in case of UN intervention. The UN could hardly ask one side to back down more than the other, and any foot-dragging by the USSR could be matched by us.

Possible Objections

While the present memorandum is only an initial not a definitive study, some objections which readily arise may be considered briefly.
Counter-blockade might be considered unduly provocative, especially since blockade is traditionally considered an act of war and the concept of pacific blockade is not familiar to the general public. But our actual interference with communist shipping would be proportionate to the interference with Western access to Berlin, hence a just response rather than a provocation. In any case in the light of Khrushchev’s flat statements it would probably seem less provocative than invasion of East Germany—the only alternative resort to force so far proposed.
The communists might extend the Berlin blockade to civilian traffic, or even seize West Berlin. But we would have at our disposal appropriate counter-measures, including seizing all communist shipping [Page 417] and extending our counter-blockade, or deciding this meant general war. If Western troops were captured and held as hostages, we could likewise imprison all personnel of ships we seized.
West Berlin could not hold out indefinitely, and the USSR might simply sit tight until Berlin collapsed. It is true that the USSR could physically stand our counter-blockade indefinitely. But whatever the economic losses involved, the USSR would doubtless find the situation very humiliating to its prestige. Meanwhile the pressure of world opinion, both direct and through the UN, would mount strongly in favor of a settlement. As for Berlin, the stockpiles should enable the city to hold out physically for some months, which should be adequate. The key question would be morale, but that also should respond on the whole favorably to a vigorous stand by the West like counter-blockade. Something might also be done about morale on the other side, as the tense situation could easily bring anti-communist feelings in East Germany to the boiling point.
The USSR might well react with mine sweeping if our blockade used mines, with submarine attacks on our shipping, or plane and submarine attacks on our blockading vessels, conduct mine warfare against them, or try to force the blockade by naval escort of merchant ships. But in that event they would bear the responsibility of taking additional military measures, and we would retain the option of fighting back in a type of hostilities which would be more advantageous to us than local ground fighting and less dangerous than immediate resort to general war.


The possibility of naval reprisals, particularly in the form of pacific counter-blockade, has enough apparent promise to justify careful study.

  1. Source: Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, Administration Series. Top Secret. Initialed by the President with a notation to “hold.” The memorandum and attachment were drafted by Morgan; concurred in by EUR, L, and C on March 3; and approved by Herter on March 4 for transmission to the White House. According to a March 12 note attached to another copy of the memorandum, the President was “cool to the idea of directing that a study be made” but had no objection to it.
  2. See Document 149.
  3. Top Secret.
  4. On February 26 the U.S. Navy had boarded the Soviet trawler Novorossisk off Newfoundland during the course of an investigation of five breaks in transoceanic cables.