59. Memorandum of Conversation0


  • Berlin1


  • The German Ambassador—Mr. Grewe
  • EUR—Mr. Merchant
  • GER—Mr. Lampson

Ambassador Grewe told Mr. Merchant that he was leaving for Bonn on Monday afternoon to attend a meeting at the Foreign Office called for noon Tuesday.

His first task this afternoon was to deliver a personal message from Chancellor Adenauer to Mr. Dulles.2 He drew special attention to the last sentence in which Adenauer said that it was desirable, even necessary, for the Four Governments (i.e. the United States, United Kingdom, French and German Governments) to meet when the Soviet Union announced its measures against Berlin. The time and place could be agreed through Ambassadors.

Mr. Merchant asked what level of meeting the Chancellor had in mind. Grewe replied that he had no clear instructions on this point and thought that perhaps this had purposely been left “a little open” for discussion. Mr. Merchant assured the Ambassador that the letter would be shown to the Acting Secretary at once. The Secretary was expected back in the Department on Monday afternoon.3

The Ambassador then said that he had instructions to stress the gravity of the situation which we faced. Although he did not wish to overdramatize, great firmness was required. The German Foreign Office feels that it would be dangerous to give in on the question of negotiations with Pankow. Although it does not feel that it would be decisive whether the West entered into certain types of technical contacts with the GDR, technical contacts on questions which would involve our [Page 107] quadripartite status and would have a bearing on our relations with the Soviet Union would seriously involve the prestige of the West in its dealings with the Soviet Union. Both the Chancellor and the Foreign Minister believe that if the West should enter precipitously into some sort of an arrangement which looked like giving in to Soviet pressure this could have a very demoralizing effect on many people in Germany and elsewhere. The morale of many Europeans would be impaired. The policy of non-recognition would be seriously jeopardized by dealing with the East Germans. This would encourage direct Pankow–Bonn talks and would be dangerous. The Chancellor and the Foreign Minister recommend a very decided and strong position in the whole situation.

The German Ambassador went on to discuss several other points. He referred to the news reports that a new Interzonal Trade Agreement had been concluded. He explained that a clause was included in the agreement providing for traffic between West Germany and Berlin. Grewe stressed that the agreement was a routine matter and that it merely represented at most a legalization of the status quo. No new arrangements were provided for. Technical contacts concerning interzonal trade had been in existence for many years and this interzonal trade agreement was a renegotiation of an agreement of long standing. If there was in fact a new clause on trade between Berlin and the West the Ambassador was sure that it had not been inserted in the last few days as a result of the Berlin crisis. Negotiations had been going on for a long time. Grewe stressed these points because he was afraid that U.S. newspapermen might distort the situation in reporting on this matter and attempt to connect it with the current crisis.

Grewe then discussed at some length the thinking of the German Embassy on the Berlin situation. Their analysis ran along the following lines:

There were several courses of action theoretically open. The first of these was to reject any sort of GDR control over the access routes to Berlin whatsoever. In such a situation the Western Powers might react in one of a number of possible ways to GDR interference. If the GDR insisted on controlling Allied trains and trucks, the trains or convoys could return to the crossing point and the Three Powers could rely on an airlift to supply their garrisons in Berlin. Alternatively they could attempt to push the trucks and trains through to Berlin by force. Grewe raised the question of what the train or convoy would do if the GDR blew up the railroad or highway bridges.

Grewe then raised the question of what would be done in case an airlift was mounted if the Soviets withdraw from the Berlin Air Safety Center. Mr. Merchant said that it was his understanding that the BASC was not the focal point for navigational guidance for allied planes but that it was limited to the filing of flight plans. Although the withdrawal [Page 108] of the Soviet representative on BASC might create problems as to rights of way in the corridors it would not affect the actual navigational controls normally in operation.

The German Ambassador then mentioned a third possible course of action. The Allies could call for negotiations with the USSR either in advance of a Soviet note on Berlin or in response to it. This possibility, he said, had been discussed in the Foreign Office. Grewe said that it was a weakness of the West that it always seemed to be on the defensive and the courses of action he had discussed so far had all been defensive responses to Soviet moves. He saw a psychological advantage to the West taking the offensive and demanding something. He suggested as an offensive move that we propose the negotiation of an extra-territorial status for road and rail communications with Berlin. He also suggested that consideration might be given to stating that we would be willing to deal with the GDR as agents of the Soviet Union in return for a guarantee to us that the extent and frequency of traffic would be maintained at the present level. He said it would be useful to have a fuller discussion of these ideas and problems. [First Secretary Osterheld of the German Embassy on the following day discussed this last idea with GER—Mr. Vigderman. He pointed out the difficulty of arousing world opinion over, such technical questions as the stamping of travel papers. He thought that the above suggestion would have the virtue of focusing blame on the Soviet Union if they refused to accept what seemed like a plausible Western proposal and their rejection of the proposal would place the West in a much better position vis-à-vis Western opinion to take rigorous measures to maintain our access to Berlin without dealing with GDR officials.]4

Mr. Merchant then said he would like the Ambassador’s views on certain questions. Did he think that the Soviet Union and the GDR would only move against military traffic or against all traffic, civilian and military alike? Would there be another full blockade of Berlin or only a limited blockade directed against the Western garrisons? This question had a crucial bearing on the magnitude of the actions which the West would have to undertake. For example, it directly affected the scale of our airlift planning.

Ambassador Grewe replied that one could not exclude from one’s calculations the possibility that a blockade would be extended to all civilian traffic. The legal basis for civilian traffic was not altogether clear, especially in the air. (Mr. Lampson asked whether the new clause in the interzonal trade agreement would have any bearing on this question. Mr. Grewe replied that it might.)

[Page 109]

Mr. Merchant then asked for the Ambassador’s views on economic retaliation. Was Bonn studying the matter? What economic weapons are there in our arsenal which could be used effectively? Mr. Merchant said that he recalled that one of the elements in this field—and it might be a substantial factor—was the dependence of the Federal Republic on brown coal from East Germany.

The Ambassador replied that the general results of the studies which had been made in Bonn had not been very encouraging. The Federal Government had often tried to find measures of retaliation and the only field where there seemed to be any prospects was that of interzonal trade. Even here the Germans felt there were no countermeasures which would be effective over the long run. The Soviet Zone was in the position to find alternate sources of supply for practically all of the goods which the Federal Republic could deny them. Moreover, the Soviet Zone could retaliate on its own part in the economic field by shutting off shipments of brown coal. If this were done, the supply of brown coal for Berlin would be seriously endangered.

Mr. Merchant asked whether civilian traffic to Berlin was inspected by GDR personnel. The Ambassador replied that it was.

In concluding his remarks on economic countermeasures the Ambassador commented that it was in the nature of the Communist system to put a greater weight on political than economic factors. If they were embarking on a course of action for an important political objective they would not be deterred by economic counter-measures. They would be willing to force their populations to accept economic deprivations.

Mr. Merchant and the Ambassador agreed to keep in very close touch. Mr. Merchant assured the Ambassador that we viewed the Soviet moves against Berlin very seriously. In our opinion this was not a limited action but represented the opening of a major political offensive over a broad front. He said that we were not going to let ourselves be pushed around. It was very important that the Western allies move in unison.

Mr. Merchant set up a meeting for the Ambassador with Mr. Murphy at 10:30 on Monday morning.5

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 762.00/11–2158. Secret. Drafted by Lampson on November 24. A summary of this conversation was transmitted to Bonn on November 24 in telegram 1078. (Ibid., 762.0211/11–2458)
  2. Merchant also discussed Berlin with Alphand and Caccia on November 21, during which Alphand agreed that the United States and France had the same conception of the threat to Berlin and that the British memorandum seemed to show uncertainty of purpose. Caccia felt that Bonn should be the locus for discussions on Berlin. (Memorandum of conversation, November 21; ibid., 762.00/11–2158)
  3. Document 60.
  4. Secretary Dulles vacationed on Duck Island in the St. Lawrence Seaway, November 18–24.
  5. Brackets in the source text.
  6. In their meeting on November 24, Grewe and Murphy reviewed the terms of the trade agreement between East and West Germany signed on November 20, discussed the possibility of a tripartite démarche to the Soviet Union (see Document 63), and reviewed the Western position on dealing with East German officials instead of Soviet representatives. Grewe also gave Murphy a seven-page memorandum summarizing the legal and political opinions of the Federal Republic on the status of Berlin. (Memorandum of conversation; Department of State, Central Files, 762.00/11–2458)