26. Letter From President Kennedy to Chairman Khrushchev 0

Dear Mr. Chairman: I enjoyed very much my talk with your son-in-law, Mr.Adzhubei.1 His publication of the entire transcript of our interview was, I believe, a useful step in promoting better communications and public understanding among the citizens of our two countries. I was glad to hear from Mr.Adzhubei that you were in good health, having successfully weathered the arduous proceedings of your Party Congress.

Having previously replied to your letter of November 10 on Laos and Vietnam, I want to reply now to your letter of November 9 concerning Germany and Berlin. Let me re-emphasize my strong desire that we not use this private and informal channel of communication to repeat the usual arguments and assertions normally reserved for public debates and propaganda. We should try instead to identify more clearly our areas of disagreement and areas of possible agreement on concrete matters presently before us.

Your son-in-law and I knew that there was little value in arguing over either our different social systems or our different views of history; and thus we largely avoided those subjects. Consequently I will save for a more appropriate time and place my comments in answer to yours as to who armed which part of Germany first, who violated the Potsdam agreements, why you ended the four-power administration of all Berlin, who is now abusing their presence in Berlin, or whether the Japanese Peace Treaty is a precedent for a “treaty” with only part of Germany. Nor am I going to engage in a characterization of personalities, a repudiation of what may have appeared in some Western newspaper, or a repetition of the evidence which shows why I believe West Germany to be incapable of threatening your security.

Let us clear aside in this exchange these differences of view that apparently cannot be changed. And let us, to the extent possible, also refrain from using labels or adjectives that each of us may interpret differently—such as “occupation regime” or “free city”. Let us talk about our responsibility: the actual situations we face now, and the concrete changes which might be discussed to improve those situations. That is the only [Page 66] way in which this correspondence can be meaningful—the only way in which we can make certain that we understand each other clearly and can prevent the tide of events from slipping beyond our control—and the only way, finally, in which we can achieve the lasting peace we both so devoutly desire.

I was very serious in telling your son-in-law that our two nations have the most to lose from war and the most to gain from peace. The program of development which you outlined at your 22nd Party Congress, which was fully described in our press, must necessarily be carried out, as you state in your letter, under conditions of peace. The same is true of the programs I am seeking from the American Congress—to improve our people’s health, education, housing, recreation and welfare, for example, as well as general employment opportunities and economic growth.

So, with peace as our goal, let us examine where we stand in more concrete terms. After reading your letter I think it particularly important that you should have my views on these important matters.

Western forces are in West Berlin now—and they will remain there as long as the people of West Berlin want them to remain. This is in accordance with your own position that they must remain masters of their own fate.
Soviet troops are not now in West Berlin, and would not in the future be needed there to guarantee our access any more than they are needed for that purpose now—and we could not under any circumstances agree to their being stationed there. I gather that you are not insisting on this and there does not seem to me, therefore, to be any need for us to become involved in long discussions in this matter except as a part of an all-Berlin solution.
Western rights of access to West Berlin preceded and are independent of the Soviet Union’s creation of the present East German regime. Their free exercise is a solemn obligation of the Soviet Government toward us. Those rights should therefore be confirmed and respected by any subsequent regime or any arrangement it purports to make. In no circumstances can we permit these rights to be subjected to the discretion of East German authorities, which might be subject to change; and surely you can understand how that would only increase the chances of unnecessary conflict.

While you may refer to these rights as “occupation” rights, our presence and access are not being imposed upon the West Berliners contrary to their will, and it is the “vanquished” population which is in a position to protest continuation of an occupation. Also, while these rights may not be consistent with your concept of a “free city,” they do mean the city is and will be free in the sense that the West Berliners are free to choose their own future and their own protectors of that future. But whatever those terms may mean in our different languages, these facts remain. [Page 67] And no treaty or other arrangement with the East Germans can alter these facts, inasmuch as West Berlin has never been a part of East German territory.

Consequently, when you propose to conclude with the East Germans a settlement recognizing and consolidating the situation as it actually is, and as it was created as a result of the war, you must surely agree that the present status of West Berlin, including the access and presence of Western forces and the absence of Soviet forces, is one of those situations—and that any realistic settlement must therefore start with these facts.

I am certain that you, as a realist, recognize that we cannot permit West Berlin to be separated involuntarily from the forces of the Western Powers when it is wholly clear that this is what the people of that city want, that these forces constitute a threat to no one, and that you are unwilling, as stated in your letter, to permit East Berlin to be separated from what is now called East Germany.

Let us instead agree on the two principles stated in your letter:

“Let West Berlin live and develop in the way its population wants” without “any restrictions on (its) ties with the outside world or on the access to that city of these or those states by land, sea and air.”

If the people of West Berlin should ever decide that the presence of Western forces was no longer necessary or desirable, those forces will leave, without any loss of prestige. But should the people of West Berlin decide to the contrary, that should involve no loss of prestige for you, since you, too, have stated that they should be free to determine their own future. Nor does this “violate the sovereignty” of the East Germans, if any, inasmuch as West Berlin has, as I stated, never been a part of their territory, and therefore our rights in that city, including our rights of access and your responsibility therefor, cannot in any sense be terminated by any unilateral arrangements made with the East Germans.

I do not mean to imply by this that the Three Western Allied Powers and the Soviet Union cannot discuss a clarification and possible improvement of access rights. This is entirely proper, and should, in my opinion, be an important focus of any subsequent negotiations.

So let us avoid the dangers of unilateral actions, of dealing with one part of Germany only, and of abandoning agreements and goals to which both of us are legally committed. Instead let us explore together what we can do together—what joint actions for mutual benefit might be taken to improve the existing situation, without altering those situations that cannot now be altered, and consistent with our joint commitment to ultimate German self-determination. We have, as you point out, renounced force as a means of achieving that goal—but we cannot renounce the goal itself.

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You state in your letter that I have not given you any “concrete” suggestions for the settlement of this matter. This is possibly true in a formal sense. But I am actively exploring with our allies our preparations for useful negotiations at the proper time. To enter into negotiations when under threat or pressure is no more feasible for us than for you. In addition, to enter into negotiations that might later collapse for lack of preparation or unity would surely heighten the dangers to the peace. I think you understand moreover, that this is not merely a question of American policy, but also involves the intimate association we have with our Western European Allies.

As you undoubtedly are aware, there has been some divergence of views among the Western Powers on the form and timing of negotiations. There are those who believe, as you have read, that there is such a gap between the positions taken by the Soviet Union and the Western Powers that negotiations would inevitably fail, and thus the situation would become even more unsatisfactory and dangerous than it is today. My own view is that, while there are serious divergences of opinion in regard to those matters before us, they must be considered in serious and responsible discussion—and that we should not permit the present situation, so fraught with the possibility of an explosive incident, to continue without our taking every possible step to ease the matter. I have expressed this view to the other Western Powers.

I am, therefore, hopeful that shortly after the representatives of the Western Powers have met in Paris this month we and you will be in a position to sit down in an agreed and appropriate manner to attempt to reach a solution that is mutually satisfactory to all.

I want to emphasize again that what best serves peace, not merely prestige, must be our chief yard-stick. It is not the effect on Western prestige but the effect on peace in your proposals that cause me concern—and I am anxious, as you are anxious, that we find solutions “on a mutually acceptable basis” which will preserve for years to come the peace we now enjoy. While I regret that this letter cannot now be more precise as to detail, I am hopeful that stating our views clearly on certain matters at issue will help make such steps possible at an early date.


  1. Source: Department of State, Presidential Correspondence: Lot 77 D 163. No classification marking. Another copy is in the Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series,USSR, Khrushchev Correspondence.
  2. A transcript of this interview on November 25 is printed in volume V; it was published in Izvetiya on November 28 and was the first direct communication to the Soviet people by a U.S. President.
  3. Printed from an unsigned copy.