34. Letter From President Kennedy to Chairman Khrushchev0

Dear Mr. Chairman: In order to permit the further development of the conversations between Ambassador Thompson and Foreign Minister Gromyko, I have not answered directly your letter of December 13, 1961, 1 nor the message which you sent me through my brother.2 I had [Page 93]hoped that these conversations might lead to some more positive note on Germany and Berlin that could be further developed in this more direct and confidential channel.

It appears, however, that neither that series of conversations nor this channel is bringing our positions any closer together. The talks between Messrs.Thompson and Gromyko are tending to become more and more formal, with each side exchanging diplomatic messages restating their positions. Your communications to me still refer to the policy of “positions of strength” as though the West were in some way threatening the Soviet Union—and inasmuch as I am quite aware of the strength and determination of the Soviet people, and you, I am sure, are equally aware of our qualities, I would hope that we could dispense with this kind of exchange which is reminiscent of an earlier period in our relations.

It would seem today that neither of us knows very much more about the prospects for accommodation than we knew many months ago—i.e., you know that the West will not withdraw its troops from West Berlin or accept the stationing of Soviet troops there, and we know that you will not accept any arrangements for the city of Berlin as whole.

While these changes are thus not on the list of possible agreement, I should state again in this regard that it is not the Western powers who are seeking a change in the status of Berlin. While we do not consider the situation in Germany today to be satisfactory, we recognize that there is very little likelihood of effecting any basic change in the direction of Western aims, inasmuch as we exclude the employment of force to this end, and certainly prefer not to initiate any unilateral action that might provoke increased tension or fear. On the other hand, the Soviet Union also recognizes, I am sure, that it cannot unilaterally bring about a change in the existing situation which would result in damage to the rights, obligations and interests of the Allied powers and the people of West Berlin.

Both of us, therefore, however differently we may view the issues, are confronted with the same basic question: how to deal with the present state of affairs in a manner which will (1) avoid any shift favorable to one side and detrimental to the other, and (2) ensure a greater degree of stability and tranquillity in the entire German situation. I believe that if we take these two principles as a starting point, we might be able to see some light at the end of the tunnel.

Nevertheless it is increasingly clear that we hold wholly different views on what kind of solution would be best in the long run; and equally clear, therefore, that we must patiently expect the negotiations, exchanges and conferences required before agreement is reached to extend over a considerable period of time. Look how many months and years, for example, were spent in the talks on nuclear tests which, though as yet unproductive, covered an area where a potential agreement was no more urgently in the common interest of both sides. Fortunately, both you and [Page 94]I—or so I strongly believe—are able to take the long view, and to recognize our joint responsibility for patiently continuing the search for a joint solution—instead of taking some precipitate unilateral action that might endanger the peace that prevails in Germany now. While our negotiations should make whatever progress is possible and avoid undue delays, we should bear in mind, as I said to Mr.Adzhubei, 3 that world conditions will look very differently to us three or five or seven years from now, as the result of evolutionary changes, or progress in disarmament or other areas.

For this reason I would hope that we would both take special pains to adhere to that principle, included in the disarmament principles on which we agreed at the UN last fall, which enjoined both sides to refrain, as the disarmament talks began, from any actions in the international field which might tend to increase tensions. As Ambassador Thompson has made clear, we view the recent acts of harassment in the Berlin air corridors with very grave concern; and it does not seem likely that serious progress could be made on these or other talks as long as one side is increasing tensions in this fashion.

I had understood, from my conversations with Mr.Adzhubei as well as my earlier talks with Mr.Gromyko, that both sides recognized the desirability of doing nothing which would increase the difficulties of peaceful negotiation. As you have stated in your letter, in politics just as in physics every action causes counteraction, so that every danger or pressure you place upon us is in effect adding to the dangers or pressures which the increased prospects of conflict signify for you. Moreover, the prospects for alleviating the other concerns which you have expressed and which I fully understand—a future excess of German nationalism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, for example—are certain to be increased rather than diminished by each new increase in tension and pressure. I am certain that these concerns could be satisfactorily met if an understanding could be achieved—but further pressures on the West in Berlin only increase the pressure within France and the Federal Republic of Germany to build a greater military force, to secure an independent nuclear capacity and to adopt a more rigid attitude on any accommodation.

Another way to improve the prospects of an advance in these discussions would be to instruct our two representatives in Moscow to concentrate on concrete matters and avoid further generalized and repetitive statements of position. For example, Mr.Adzhubei, during our very interesting conversation of last January 30 here at the White House,4 suggested there might be some variation in the possibilities of an [Page 95]International Commission supervising access with East German participation. If further details on this possibility and other variations are forthcoming, they might be further explored by Ambassador Thompson and Foreign Minister Gromyko. This is the sort of fresh and concrete subject matter to which their time should be devoted.

I have written frankly of these matters in the hope that you will respond in kind. I can assure you that I will continue to hold in the utmost secrecy any message or proposal sent through this channel, for I have always regarded it as a private and confidential means of communication, without all of the pressures which public communications bring to any question of this kind.

I realize that such an exchange, if successful, would represent a considerable departure from normal diplomacy. But, surely we both recognize that new situations require new methods of procedure. And I feel very strongly that we must make every effort and explore every possibility to avoid the development of a major crisis over Berlin, replete with all the dangers of war. To avoid such a development is, I know, your basic desire as well as mine; and I am convinced, as I believe you are, that if we can either find some modus vivendi in regard to Berlin or a more solid long-range agreement, this will open up the possibility of agreements on many other questions, including those mentioned in your communications through my brother—including the question of German frontiers, respect for the sovereignty of the GDR, prohibition of nuclear weapons for both parts of Germany, and the conclusion of a pact of non-aggression between NATO and the Warsaw powers.

I was particularly glad to read in your letter that you share our hopes for peace. It was in that spirit that I was pleased to talk again with your son-in-law, Mr.Adzhubei, and stress to him the importance of avoiding any threats to the peace in this area. I enjoyed meeting with him on this occasion, and I was very pleased to see your lovely daughter. I hope she enjoyed her visit, and that there will be an opportunity for similar visits in the years to come.

Sincerely,5

  1. Source: Department of State, Presidential Correspondence: Lot 77 D 163. No classification marking. The source text bears no drafting information, but on February 12 Bohlen had sent a “first draft” of this letter, which was the same in substance but 3 pages longer. (Ibid.) Another copy is ibid.: Lot 66 D 204, and in the Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series, USSR, Khrushchev Correspondence.
  2. Document 27.
  3. Document 30.
  4. In a conversation on January 31; see vol. XIV, pp. 780 784.
  5. According to a page attached to the source text, the rest of this paragraph was a redraft by Sorensen on February 15.
  6. Printed from an unsigned copy.