91. Memorandum of Conversation0



  • The Vice President, Senators Mansfield, Humphrey, Russell, Fulbright, Dirksen, Saltonstall, Hickenlooper, Wiley
  • The Speaker, Congressmen McCormack, Albert, Vinson, Morgan, Arends, Chiperfield, Hoeven, Byrnes (Wisconsin)

[Here follows discussion of Kennedyʼs meeting with De Gaulle.]

II. Khrushchev

The President reported that the most important subject discussed on the first day had been Laos; that he and Khrushchev had agreed that Laos should be neutral in the same fashion as Cambodia and Burma, but that Khrushchev had not appeared really much interested in Laos. The most ominous discussion of the first day had been Khrushchevʼs doctrine of the three wars. In the Presidentʼs judgment, Khrushchev now feels that there is a balance in the nuclear field which prevents us from using nuclear weapons for local purposes. He feels further that in local engagements the shorter lines of communication and the large manpower of the Sino-Soviet bloc will give it a decisive advantage—whatever number of men we put in, they can put in several times as many. Moreover, Khrushchev insists upon the validity of his third kind of war, namely, the war of liberation, or sacred war. The President reported that in Khrushchevʼs view Iran and South Korea were going to collapse, and his own riposte with respect to Poland. The President believed that this very militant Soviet effort will continue.

Returning to Laos, the President said that there had been some language agreed on in the communiqué,1 and that perhaps something would come from it. He also expressed his view that Khrushchev was partly right in saying that not all weaknesses in governments and danger of Communist take-over could be attributed to the Communists themselves. The President reported that Khrushchev seemed uninterested in [Page 233] Cuba. Khrushchev said that Castro was not a Communist but we were making him one. The President reported Khrushchevʼs view that the present situation was like the period during the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism. The President had answered that in that period there had been a lot of wars, and we should try to prevent such a situation now, to which Khrushchev replied that if we want war we can have it. To a question from Senator Fulbright, the President replied that Khrushchev seemed rather bitter on Nasser and that he (the President) had written three letters to Nasser,2 which seemed to produce some improvement in Nasserʼs feeling toward the United States.

Senator Humphrey commented that perhaps we ought not to jump to the conclusion that all people of this sort are going Communist, and referred to the example of Qasim3 in Iraq. The President then read excerpts from the minutes of the conversation after lunch on Saturday, beginning on page 1 and continuing through page 3. (The President specifically omitted reference to his own remarks about the Cuban situation.)

Senator Dirksen asked whether there was discussion of CENTO, and the President said there was not, and repeated his view of the Soviet sense of a change in the power balance. The President then read a passage relating to the Soviet view of the sacred war and how the United States used to be in favor of such revolution but was not any longer.

Asked about the Congo, the President reported Khrushchevʼs statement that his experience in the Congo was what confirmed in him the necessity for the Troika. To a question from Senator Fulbright about arms limitation in Africa, the President replied that the matter had not been discussed. The President read from the memorandum of conversation to explain Mr. Khrushchevʼs remarks about Taiwan.

To a question from Senator Dirksen, the President commented that there had been only a brief reference to U.S. bases.

On Sunday the discussion began with nuclear testing and Mr. Khrushchev had insisted on the Troika, stating that there was no such thing as a neutral person. Control in such circumstances was a form of espionage. There could be no serious control or inspection until after the decision for complete and general disarmament had been accepted. Mr. Khrushchev had urged that the President should agree to a merger of the test talks with disarmament, and the Presidentʼs conclusion was that either from Chinese pressure or for other reasons the Soviets have lost interest in a test ban agreement. The President replied that in his view it would be wrong to merge the test ban with general disarmament since [Page 234] for fifteen years discussion of the latter subject had gotten nowhere. Khrushchev said that when we start to test, he will start to test. The main question now was how to disengage from these negotiations. Macmillan and the President had talked about this matter, which was a hot issue in England. Gaitskell4 had also expressed his hope that we could wait until the autumn, until after his own contest for control in his own party, which he expected to win. This was a problem in Canada, too, and in general a major question of propaganda values. The question was how to break it off so that the Soviets would seem to be responsible.

Discussion then turned to Germany, which was what, in the Presidentʼs judgment, Khrushchev had come to talk about. He gave us an aide-memoire on Germany5 and it was on this subject, for the first time, that his voice began to rise. The President read at length from the memorandum of conversation to show Khrushchevʼs position on Germany and his own response. Senator Fulbright asked whether there was a time limit on these discussions, and the President replied, “He said December.” Then he read further from a memorandum of conversation and particularly emphasized this sentence of Khrushchevʼs: “TheUSSR would never under any conditions accept U.S. rights in Berlin after a peace treaty had been signed.” Senator Dirksen asked three questions: (1) What is Khrushchevʼs physical condition? The President said it was good. (2) Was there any other arrogance about him? The President said no. (3) Should we expect a recognition of East Germany before December? The President said that in his view there might well be a signing of a peace treaty at some such time, and that the Soviets would say that all rights reverted to the East Germans, although they might in fact not do anything to interfere with our access (which the President noted was Prime Minister Macmillanʼs belief). And as far as military access was concerned, our own troops could be supplied with four air sorties a day. To the question whether Khrushchev had described the period of time for which the Free City would have the rights he offered, the President said that the answer was not clear.

The President then quoted again from the aide-memoire to explain the Soviet proposal on a Free City, and also the Soviet view that a peace treaty would formally end occupation rights.

Senator Humphrey asked whether East Berlin had been mentioned. The President answered no.

Senator Humphrey commented further that the Soviet position seemed identical with what Khrushchev stated before, and the President commented that the only new point was the time limit. Senator [Page 235] Humphrey rejoined that even the time limit was not new, in the sense that there had been time limits before. The President stated that in his judgment Khrushchev was talking in cold terms of a genuinely vital present interest.

Senator Saltonstall asked whether Khrushchev seemed moved by fear of West Germany. The President answered that this was what Khrushchev said, but really he was interested in the build-up of East Germany.

In response to a question, the President said that Khrushchev claimed his relations with China were very good.

Senator Dirksen found four propositions in this report: (1) two Germanys, (2) Berlin in the middle of one of them, (3) concessions on troops and access, (4) in the future, when the sovereign power says that you have to take your troops home, you are sunk.

The President said that in his own speech that evening6 he would say the situation was serious, but not press it home too sharply. We shall soon send back an aide-memoire on our own rights,7 and we must consider what else we can do.

Senator Russell said that at present he would be against an airlift. The President replied that we can decide when the time comes. The President further reported that after lunch on Sunday, he had come back to speak to Khrushchev again because he thought he ought to know that this matter of rights of access was a most vital matter to the U.S. The President said that he thought Khrushchev would indeed probably sign a Peace Treaty, and we would then say simply we do not accept it.

Senator Saltonstall asked whether Macmillan and the British were as strong as De Gaulle on this question. The President answered that the British were not as precise. Macmillan was ready to meet his commitments, but De Gaulle seemed harder—ready for war if necessary.

Senator Russell asked how long we have to decide. The President said we would answer the aide-memoire which had much superficial attractiveness. We must get our own position clear on the rights of the people of West Berlin to be free. Then he thought the matter would go along until after the German elections.

Senator Saltonstall asked if Khrushchev seemed confident. The President answered that he thought Khrushchev probably had a knife in himself a little on this one. Not all the advantages are on his side. He will have to initiate the blockade, and it will not be easy for him to give the appearance of right on his side.

[Page 236]

Senator Dirksen asked if the Germans were all out of Austria now. The President said yes.

Senator Humphrey said that the danger in a peace treaty is that Khrushchev can disclaim responsibility so that in the event of an incident—if, for example, we should have to shoot down Germans—he would be peacefully out of it, and we would be appearing to start warlike action.

The President said we should continue to hold the Russians responsible. We have to show them that there is a very serious chance that this could lead to war.

Senator Dirksen said that this was the one place where Lucius Clay8 fumbled—we had no easement—we had to go to an airlift. There followed some discussion of how a country lawyer would handle the matter.

The President asked Senator Russell what the U.S. should do if after a peace treaty the East Germans should deny access. Senator Russell said this was a big decision. He believed that if we are firm, it would not come to that point. He asked whether a Free City could be absolutely free and independent of the GDR.

Senator Dirksen asked what the timetable was. The President said we ought not to indicate. Senator Dirksen said the leadership ought to have time to puzzle over it a couple of weeks and then give its views to the President. The President said this was all right, since all we needed now was to send back an aide-memoire stating our own position.

The Vice President asked if it was not fair to state that Khrushchevʼs position as stated to the President was as it has always been, while the President in turn had restated our position.

Congressman McCormack asked for the Presidentʼs basic impression of the man Khrushchev. The President replied that he was very tough. The President had read all of his conversations with President Eisenhower and felt that Khrushchev then, and now, was a persistent counter-puncher. He had not been disagreeable. He came to talk on Germany. He wanted “to know whether we would fight” and that was why the President went back after lunch to make our position very plain. Then Khrushchev had said that if there was to be war, then let it come now, and the President “gave him a box of Sandwich glass and left.” The President felt it was going to be very close, and awfully tough. The Soviets feel that our edge is gone on the nuclear side.

On Laos, the President had asked Khrushchev how we could talk on any matter if we could not agree on Laos.

[Page 237]

The President said that in his speech he would give no sense of a time limit, that what he would try to communicate was how the Soviets were planning to operate with patience from their inside lines, hoping to pick up countries which would tumble from interior weakness. In this situation, SEATO and CENTO were not worth a damn, and we must face a different problem.

The President discussed privately with Senator Fulbright a call to the UAR Ambassador.

Senator Dirksen asked about public comment. After some discussion, there seemed to be agreement with the Speakerʼs view that all concerned would simply say that the President had given a preview of what he was going to say that evening. The Vice President summarized his sense of the Vienna meeting by saying that “he expressed his view and we re-expressed ours.” The President agreed, and there was further agreement that we should say nothing that would seem to put Khrushchev in a corner where he must fight back.

Senator Humphrey suggested that the President might presently stress the notion of reunification of Germany—our strong point in the argument.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series, France. The source text bears no classification or drafting information. Printed in part in Declassified Documents, 1986, 2256.
  2. For text of the joint communiqué, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1961, p. 574.
  3. Gamal Abdel Nasser, President of the United Arab Republic. Copies of the letters are in Department of State, Presidential Correspondence: Lot 66 D 204, UAR.
  4. Abdul Karim Kassim, Premier of Iraq.
  5. Hugh T.M. Gaitskell, Leader of the British Labour Party.
  6. For text of the aide-memoire on Germany, see Department of State Bulletin, August 7, 1961, pp. 231-233.
  7. For text of the Presidentʼs radio and television report to the American people on his trip to Europe, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1961, pp. 441-446.
  8. For text of the U.S. reply, July 17, see Documents on Germany, 1944-1985, pp. 753-760.
  9. General Lucius D. Clay, U.S. Military Governor for Germany during the Berlin blockade, 1948-1949.