13. Memorandum of Conversation0


  • Berlin and Germany


  • US
    • The President
    • Vice President Nixon
    • The Secretary
    • Amb. Lodge
    • Amb. Thompson
    • General Goodpaster
    • Major Eisenhower
    • Mr. Kohler
  • USSR
    • Chairman Khrushchev
    • Mr. Gromyko
    • Amb. Menshikov
    • Mr. Soldatov
    • Mr. Troyanovski
[Page 36]

The President opened the conversation by saying we were prepared to examine all problems in a reasonable way but he made a distinction of the problem of Berlin. This problem touched our people deeply and not just the Government and himself. If we could ease tension with respect to this problem we could make progress on other questions. We do not want to perpetuate the present situation in Berlin and keep our Occupation Troops there forever. We hope to find a way out with honor. Khrushchev’s statement that he was prepared to take unilateral action if necessary had alarmed our people.1 If some statement could be made on this question we could make progress on others up and down the line, such as on disarmament. We did not like the present situation and agreed it should be corrected, but this should be done on a reasonable basis consonant with our responsibilities to the people of West Berlin and to our own security. Berlin had become a symbol. If tension on this problem could be removed we could make progress. Perhaps the trouble was that we had not met since 1955.2 He inquired what Mr. Khrushchev thought.

Khrushchev said in general he was in agreement but he inquired how could the Soviet proposal to establish a free city of West Berlin reflect upon the security of the United States. He did not attach strategic importance to Berlin. Whether we had ten thousand or a hundred thousand troops there was of no importance.

The President said he agreed. Khrushchev said that the question of prestige was involved.

The President said this was true but there was also the effect upon our whole position.

Khrushchev said that they approached the Berlin matter not directly but from the fact that it was necessary to end the state of war with Germany and conclude a peace treaty. This was the main problem. He wanted agreement with us and our Allies to sign a peace treaty and thus settle the Berlin problem. If this were done the German revanchists would be paralyzed or at least contained. This would calm Poland, Czechoslovakia and other countries. He would like to know what the President thought of this. He said we were maintaining an abnormal situation and a state of war in Germany because of the position taken by Adenauer. It would be better not to encourage him in this respect. The important thing was that there were two German States and he saw no prospect of uniting Germany in the near future. For the time being there would have to be two German States and it was better to end the state of [Page 37] war. The question of the recognition of the German Democratic Republic could be avoided. The United States could sign a peace treaty with West Germany and the Soviets could sign a treaty with both Germanies and this problem of recognition could be avoided. He understood that Berlin and the German problem had become a symbol involving prestige. Therefore we should try to come to terms about the period of time during which the Germans would be encouraged to reach agreement. He did not think they could do so but we would be released of certain responsibilities. After this period we could proceed with the peace treaty. He did not believe that any of the Allies wanted German unity, including De Gaulle and Macmillan. Although De Gaulle himself would not say it straight out, those around him said it would be even better if there were three or four Germanies. The British said that if there were one German State the balance in Europe would be upset. This was true because no other country in Europe could stand up to a united Germany.

The President interjected that the United States and the Soviets could.

Khrushchev said he meant in Europe. He said, of course, that even if Germany were unified it would be no menace to the Soviet Union or the United States but it might involve our two countries in a war. He suspected that Adenauer did not want Germany united. His support was mainly Catholic while East Germany was mostly Protestant. If Germany were united probably the Socialists would come to power. Why should we quarrel about reunification when the Germans themselves did not want it? He even suspected that there was no great enthusiasm for German unification in the United States.

The President said he did not know what these European leaders thought about reunification on the short term but on the long term he thought that they were agreed; that the East and West Germans were brothers and that to keep them apart was not in the best interest of a peaceful world. To review the situation, war had brought about an unnatural situation among us all. It had brought up quarrels. From what Khrushchev had told him at the breakfast table3 a more liberal attitude has developed in the Soviet Union than existed in the time of the Generalissimo. He pointed out that this heavy burden of armaments was very dangerous. If they were to be statesmen, they had to resolve these problems. Berlin was a residue of the war, so was the division of Germany. The question was how could we resolve all these problems, such as lasting disarmament, et cetera. His own concern was that the [Page 38] tension over Berlin was a great obstacle. He did not mind if the Soviets made a treaty with the East Germans if they did not thereby affect our position in Berlin.

Mr. Khrushchev replied: “I agree with you, Mr. President. I can assure you that I come with wide powers from the Soviet Government to improve relations between our countries and with you personally.” He went on to say that the present Soviet Government does not agree with all of the things that were done by Stalin. The President, of course, would know the positive measures the Soviet Government had taken; for example, with respect to the position of Molotov and the policies with which he was associated. As Ambassador Thompson must have told the President, the present Soviet Government is strong and supported by the people. They have reduced the police force and abolished political concentration camps. They had replaced Serov 4 as head of the secret police. Serov himself was an honest man but it was felt that his replacement was desirable to avoid any association with the previous Beriya5 regime. He had been replaced by a man who had worked with the Komsomol organization and had no previous experience in police work.

Mr. Khrushchev then referred to the President’s earlier statement that he had no objections to a peace treaty between the USSR and the GDR provided U.S. rights in Berlin were unaffected. The President must realize that this is an impossible condition. The maintenance of these rights would be prejudicial to the Soviet moral position. Consequently, they could not agree to such a condition however much they might have liked to do so. The communiqué issued in connection with the President’s recent visit to West Germany6 had said that the people of West Berlin should remain peaceful and prosperous. The Soviet Government agreed with this and the most stringent guarantees could be worked out to ensure these conditions for West Berlin. The West Berliners could continue their life as they wished. Mr. Khrushchev saw no difficulties in working this out. He said the Soviet Government was prepared also to agree to some period of time which might be needed to take the edge off the Berlin question so that there would be no injury to U.S. prestige. He said the Soviet Union seeks no territorial, material or prestige advantage in this connection. They want to settle on a mutually advantageous basis.

[Page 39]

Mr. Khruschchev continued that he agreed with the President that the question of West Berlin, even the all-German question, was only a part of the whole picture, albeit an important part. The principal problem is disarmament. If that could be settled, future generations would be grateful to the President and himself. If agreement were reached both would be noted in history if only for that alone. He concluded that he was gratified at the President’s approach and had the impression that his position was close to Mr. Khrushchev’s own position.

The President noted that Mr. Khrushchev apparently believes that we—the American people, and our allies—attach too much importance to the Berlin question. However, if no agreement were reached, the lack of agreement would keep the Berlin question hanging over and then it would be difficult to deal with the bigger problems such as disarmament. If we could devise a method for this, then we could make a beginning on broader problems. The American people have the impression that we are in the shadow of some kind of—he did not want to say ultimatum—but at least some threat of unilateral action. This was a bad situation and the American people would not understand going on to other problems if this were not resolved. It would be tragic if peaceful efforts foundered on this less important question.

Mr. Khrushchev said that it might be useful if he would try to explain the Soviet position and how it developed. For many years the powers had been conducting negotiations on disarmament. The U.S. seemed to regard the Soviets as being too rigid. The Soviets on their part regarded the U.S. as operating from “positions of strength”, as indeed had frequently been publicly stated in the U.S. Consequently, many international problems simply became frozen up. As a result of international conditions the Soviets always found themselves in a minority position in the UNGA and other bodies. This did not represent the real state of international affairs. It led to difficulties in the relationships between our two countries. Because the Soviets finally saw no prospect of coming to an agreed settlement, they decided to seek to terminate the state of war with Germany, if possible in agreement with the US; but if the U.S. refused they decided to take certain action on their own. This governmental decision is still in force. Are the Soviets justified in taking it? They think they are. The U.S. promoted and concluded a peace treaty with Japan on an unilateral basis, as a result of which the Soviets were pushed out of Tokyo. This action gives the Soviets a right to act similarly in Europe. This would only be tit for tat. The U.S. had acted unilaterally; the Soviets could do the same.

The President asked whether the Soviets did not participate in the negotiations of the Japanese Peace Treaty?

Secretary Herter stated that the Soviets had participated, but stressed that there was no valid comparison between the two questions. [Page 40] The Soviets had participated in the discussions of the Japanese Peace Treaty and had then refused to sign the treaty, though it was signed by 41 other nations. The Soviets had not been in occupation of Tokyo. Their rights had been fully reserved. He would repeat that there was no comparison between the two questions.

Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko said that he had represented the USSR at San Francisco in the negotiations of the Japanese Peace Treaty. No account had been taken of Soviet views at that conference.

Secretary Herter repeated that 41 nations had agreed and signed and only the USSR had held out.

Mr. Khrushchev said that Secretary Herter was engaging in arithmetical exercises again. It did not matter if 80 nations had signed the Japanese Peace Treaty. This did not make law for the USSR.

The President repeated that no Soviet rights had been affected by the terms of the Japanese Peace Treaty.

Mr. Khrushchev said he would tell the President frankly that if he had been in charge of Soviet decisions at the time, the USSR would have joined in the Japanese Peace Treaty. He felt Soviet rejection had been a mistake. However, the Americans certainly had not been saints. They had acted unilaterally. The Soviet representation in Tokyo was deprived of its juridical position and left hanging between heaven and earth.

The President said he would agree that we were not saints. (Mr. Khrushchev interjected, “Try to be.”) The President continued that we had both made mistakes in the past. However our present purpose was to improve matters. He did not consider it profitable to rehash the position. Frankly, the Japanese Peace Treaty was a question about which he would confess he did not know too much.

Mr. Khrushchev replied that he agreed it would not be profitable to debate past events. He would, however, point out that even today the U.S. was not supporting Soviet claims in Sakhalin and the Kuriles. He repeated that it had been a stupid mistake for the Soviet Union not to sign the treaty. Even granting it was true that Soviet rights had been reserved, in fact the U.S. now tends to support the Japanese claims against these rights. The Soviets had taken part in the war against Japan on the direct request of the U.S. He did not say that there was no Soviet interest in participating, but would stress this was done at specific U.S. request. The U.S. was at war with Japan and suffering heavy losses. However, he would agree that it was not useful to debate about whose fly bit whom and where in the past.

Referring to the Berlin question Mr. Khrushchev said that if the Soviets had indicated a time limit last year, he must say that this was the result of the high-handed attitude of the U.S. toward the USSR which had led the Soviets to think that there was no alternative. However, he [Page 41] was interested in improving our relations. The Soviets have certain objectives with respect to Germany but they want to achieve these peacefully, and without damage to U.S. prestige.

The President said that he thought the discussion had been useful in clarifying the respective positions. Maybe it would now be useful to ask our people to do a short memorandum on what we could propose. The Soviet side might want to do one, too. Of course it should be noted that these discussions were not committing our allies. He would suggest that we break up for a half hour or so for the preparation of the paper. He personally wanted to see the doctor. Mr. Khrushchev replied that as to the Soviet side they had fully expounded their position but would be interested in knowing more specifically from the U.S. side what the U.S. wants and what it considers not acceptable. Maybe he and the President could take a walk while Secretary Herter and his aides were working on a paper.

The President commented that it was not a very good day outside—the fog had not lifted and no helicopters were flying. He was suggesting only that a very brief paper be prepared in order to get more precise ideas as to what might be a solution.

Mr. Khrushchev agreed with the President’s suggestion. If the President would excuse his frankness, he wished to comment somewhat further. He had no doubt about the President’s sincerity and appreciated the personal effort he was making. He hoped these feelings were reciprocal. However, he did see some difference in the positions of the two leaders. All of the USSR shared his, Mr. Khrushchev’s, views. However, behind the President he could see that there were elements which might make it difficult for the President to put solutions into effect. It was possible that he was wrong in this. The President replied that on such questions as a peace treaty he did have a Senate and others with whom he had to work. Mr. Khrushchev said he also had a parliament. He asked the President not to throw stones at Soviet democracy.

The President resumed, however, saying that he believed that the American people were nearly 100% behind him in seeking just settlements. The meeting broke up at 11:15 a.m.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 762.00/9–2659. Confidential; Limit Distribution. Drafted by Thompson, cleared by Kohler, and approved by the White House on October 12.
  2. Presumably the President is referring to Khrushchev’s statement on November 10, 1958, that the Soviet Union would sign a peace treaty with the German Democratic Republic if the Berlin problem were not resolved. See vol. VIII, Document 24.
  3. Reference is to the Geneva Summit Conference July 18–23, 1955.
  4. A memorandum of the President’s conversation with Khrushchev at breakfast on September 26 is in volume X, Document 129.
  5. Ivan Aleksandrovich Serov, Chairman of the Soviet Committee on State Security, April 1954–August 1955.
  6. Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria, Chairman of the Soviet Committee on State Security until 1953.
  7. For text of this communiqué, August 27, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1959, p. 905.