97. Memorandum of Conference With President Eisenhower0

Others Present

  • Vice President Nixon
  • Secretary Herter
  • Secretary Anderson
  • Secretary Quarles
  • General Taylor
  • Mr. Allen Dulles
  • Mr. Gordon Gray Asst. Secretary Merchant
  • Mr. Lay
  • General Goodpaster
  • Major Eisenhower

The President called this meeting as the result of learning that the contingency plans currently in effect covering a possible closing of the corridors to Berlin are not adequate. He began the meeting by announcing that we are here to consider the attitude that we will take in the face of the current Berlin situation.

Secretary Herter presented the basic State Department position by stating that we have now discovered that our initial position (that the GDR may be considered as agents of the Soviets) no longer applies. This conclusion he has reached because of: (a) the Soviet note of November twenty-seventh, which was received after the formulation of the U.S. position, and (b) the violence of the reaction of Chancellor Adenauer. Thus, since we do not recognize the GDR as agents of the Soviets, if GDR officials attempt to stamp or examine our papers, the question is what do we do?

Mr. Herter went on to explain that the draft message under consideration, which is designed for transmittal to the U.S. Embassy in Bonn,1 is to be used as a paper for tabling at an Ambassadorial level talk to our allies in Bonn.

This contingency plan message, and the four-power discussions with relation to it, should not be confused with the four-power discussions [Page 173] which are soon to take place at the Ministerial level during the NATO meeting in Paris. This Ministerial level meeting is designed to formulate an official answer to the Soviet note of November twenty-seventh. It had been recommended that this matter be considered in NATO rather than in Bonn because of the rigid attitude of the British Ambassador in Bonn. The decision had emanated from the recommendation of Ambassador Bruce in Bonn.

The President agreed that this message would be all right for discussion purposes with our allies. He then went on to explain some of the difficulties which he visualizes. First of all, the U.S. now finds itself in a different situation from that in which the present agreements were formulated. These agreements came about at a time when all four powers were occupiers, which we no longer are. In the President’s view, the U.S. made an error in attempting to control Germany from Berlin, so far behind the Russian lines. But he also recognizes that we now have pledges in the form of two million Germans in West Berlin, and we must stay there for their protection if nothing else. Since the present agreements were formulated, we have recognized West Germany and the Soviets have recognized East Germany. Since we refuse to recognize East Germany, our position with respect to Berlin can best be described as a “can of worms.”

The President then referred to a conversation which he had recently with Secretary Dulles.2 At this time the two had agreed that negotiation with the Chinese Communists and the GDR to leave our prisoners in their hands has not in itself resulted in recognition. The problem is, where do we go from here? We are in a position of using an obsolete agreement with a former occupying power as a basis on which to force our way into Berlin. In conclusion, the President stated that this paper is acceptable to table for discussion purposes with our allies, with recognition of the magnitude of the problem facing us.

The President then turned to another aspect of the problem, to wit, the definition of the term “token force.” Mr. Quarles suggested that the key to the “token force” idea is to avoid letting the situation slip to the point that the force must become a major invasion. Our position must be to meet the first indications resolutely.

The President, in general agreement with this idea, questioned whether we shouldn’t make it clear to the Russians that we consider this no minor affair. In order to avoid beginning with the white chips and working up to the blue, we should place them on notice that our whole stack is in this play.

[Page 174]

Mr. Herter then shifted the conversation to a British paper received the other day (State Department Daily Summary, December 11)3 in which the focus was thrown on the issue of interference with our rights of access, and the matter of recognition downgraded. On this matter, the President stated that in some of the reports he had seen, Brandt has complicated the issue by taking a softer attitude toward the prospect of a free city (including all zones) than does Adenauer. On this, Mr. Dulles, seconded by Mr. Herter, stated that Brandt has made one statement to that effect but that his position is not quite clear.

The President then gave a review of the actual events that transpired in 1945 with regard to selection of Berlin as a site from which to govern Germany. (He referred to the press conference of December 10.)4 He stated that he had been in favor of a cantonment type of combined headquarters located at the juncture of the zones. In contrast to this situation, we are now confronted with a group of hostages in the hands of the Soviets.

Mr. Herter then mentioned the problem of timing of a reply to Khrushchev. The French are in no hurry to reply to the Soviet note. Mr. Herter considers that how we approach the USSR on this matter is most important. On this, the President stated that we must give a reply after the Ministerial meeting of NATO. This reply should specify that we stand to guarantee the safety of West Germany.

Here Mr. Herter pointed out that Mr. Merchant is preparing a communiqué similar to that issued after the Berlin airlift in 1948.

The President now questioned the State Department as to their views on the efficacy of token force. Mr. Merchant’s answer to this was that the key issue is a willingness to use limited force to maintain our rights. The attitude of the Germans if we let the GDR officials stamp our papers would be bad. If we accept any signs of jurisdiction by the GDR in the first instance, we have no firm line on which to stand if later provocations follow. He repeated that we must use limited force at the first instance, and that will be the greatest deterrent.

General Taylor proceeded to outline the position of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to wit, that it is difficult to tell how far we will go ultimately in our use of force. The important thing, in the view of the JCS, is to verify that we have been stopped, not by our own backing down, but by actual use of force on the part of the Soviets. From there we may have to proceed [Page 175] to an airlift as the next step; but this is the least desirable course of action and is regarded as a form of defeat. In short, an attempt on the part of an armed convoy may be regarded as a “reconnaissance in force.” Its failure would leave us facing two choices: the use of more force, or the use of an airlift.

The Vice President then posed the question of what Khrushchev is after. Mr. Nixon considers it improbable that Khrushchev is seeking a fight but believes that Khrushchev may be seeking a conference.

On this, Mr. Dulles ventured that Khrushchev is probably looking for a way out at this time. His first motive had been to point up Europe since things in the world had been going rather well for the U.S. (Lebanon and Quemoy).

Mr. Nixon pointed out the parallel between this situation and the Quemoy situation in that the Soviets had stirred up trouble as a device to lure us into a conference. He then asked if the U.S. is willing at this time to have a conference.

Mr. Herter, still referring to the question of Khrushchev’s motives, stated the view that Khrushchev had felt a need to bolster East Germany. Many people were making their escape from East Germany through Berlin. A high percentage of these people comprised intellectuals. Mr. Dulles agreed with Mr. Herter, stating that if a free election were held in East Germany, only 10% would vote Communist.

The President referred back to the joint message to be formulated at Paris as an answer to Khrushchev. In this message, the President feels we should use a tone which establishes that we are not seeking war and that we realize that the USSR is likewise not seeking war. This message should, after establishing our peaceful intentions, proceed to say that, “When you deny us our rights then we must reassess the situation.” This message should be sent by the U.S. and our associates should send parallel messages. These messages should be sent soon after the NATO meeting. Once again the President reiterated that the messages should be in a friendly tone. To these thoughts, Mr. Herter added a final view that the theme of the messages should emphasize the regrettability of unilateral repudiation of obligation on the part of the USSR.

Mr. Merchant now brought up a new problem: the orders which are currently in effect directing personnel in the field to deal with GDR officials as agents of the USSR. Mr. Merchant feels that this must change. General Taylor agreed, pointing out that the orders are the result of Ambassadorial agreements. Mr. Merchant added they had been in effect since 1954.

This fact came somewhat as a surprise to the President, who stated that he believed he detected a correlation between this fact and the actions of Khrushchev. In the President’s view, Khrushchev has probably [Page 176] been counting on this to be our policy. He directed Mr. Herter to get the message off immediately to the Ambassador at Bonn to initiate Ambassadorial meetings with a view to revision of these instructions.

Mr. Gray now brought up the question of immediate action in the event of interference with convoys. Primarily, the question is one of timing. In the event a convoy is held up, do we pull back and consider the next move or is a limited use of force automatic? (The President observed that every convoy in a way is a probe.)

Mr. Gray continued with the thesis that our major problem is how to make the USSR use force first. Obviously, interference with airlift requires the USSR to be the first to use force. Mr. Gray questioned whether our policy in this regard has changed. General Taylor specified one point: when a ground convoy is stopped it does not remain at the detention point but departs the scene. In this connection, Mr. Herter pointed up the weakness of railroad traffic, which is that the Communists can blow a bridge and interdict the railroad without the direct use of force. General Taylor again reiterated his former point that he dislikes to retreat to the use of airlift.

Mr. Quarles now brought up the subject of a tack to be used in our approach to the Soviets. He feels that we should emphasize the rights of the two million people of West Berlin rather than the military rights of the occupying powers. To this the President agreed, specifying that a proper vehicle for emphasizing this point would be the talk which the Secretary of State might make when he leaves the hospital.5

In regard to the text of a reply to Mr. Khrushchev, Mr. Merchant expressed the view that we must reject the Soviet unilateral action and propose a talk on the status of all Germany. The President interposed that Khrushchev had refused to consider a talk on all Germany. Mr. Merchant recommended that we not accept this stand of Khrushchev’s. As to timing, Mr. Merchant agreed that we should have a draft completed after the NATO Ministerial meeting. However, he pointed out that the British will oppose the principle of use of limited force.

In view of possible difficulties with the British, the President then directed that we get our views in front of the British right now to allow them maximum time for consideration. In particular, if our policy is to be that our tack is to force the East Germans to use force, this point should be established early. However, the President specified that our main task should be to reach Khrushchev, ascertain what he wants, and proceed from there.

As a finale to the meeting, the President illustrated the complexity of these questions by describing a recent meeting he had had with a lady [Page 177] (Queen Frederika).6 She had urged that he take steps to ease world tensions by making a generous offer to the Soviets, so generous that the Soviets and the world would recognize it as such—but it must be short of surrender. This, the President stated, would be the trick of the week.7

John S. D. Eisenhower
  1. Source: Eisenhower Library, Eisenhower Papers, DDE Diaries. Top Secret. Prepared by John S.D. Eisenhower on December 17. The meeting was held in the President’s office immediately following the 390th Meeting of the National Security Council. For the President’s account of this meeting, see Waging Peace, pp. 337–339; for Major Eisenhower’s account, see Strictly Personal, pp. 213–216. Another record of this meeting is in Eisenhower Library, NSC Staff Records, Executive Secretary Subject Files, Berlin Contingency Planning. Lay also made a record; see footnote 7 below.
  2. State Dept. Telegram Amembassy Bonn Niact 1236. [Footnote in the source text; telegram 1236 is printed as Document 98.]
  3. Not further identified although it might be that recorded in Document 80.
  4. A copy of the Daily Summary is in Department of State, Executive Secretariat Files: Lot 64 D 187. Copies of the British paper on Soviet intentions in Berlin, dated December 10, were transmitted as enclosures to despatch 1432 from London, December 18. (Ibid., Central Files 762.00/12–1858)
  5. For a record of President Eisenhower’s press conference on December 10, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1958, pp. 851–860.
  6. Dulles was in Walter Reed Hospital December 5–12 for various tests.
  7. President Eisenhower had lunch with Queen Frederika of Greece on October 23 during her visit to the United States.
  8. According to another record of this conference drafted by Executive Secretary Lay, Herter, Merchant, Quarles, Taylor, Gray, Goodpaster, Major Eisenhower, Lay, and the President met in the Cabinet Room immediately after this conference in the President’s office, but at Acting Secretary Herter’s urging no record was kept of their conversation. (Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, NSC Records)