51. Letter From President Kennedy to Chairman Khrushchev0

Dear Mr. Chairman: I am responding to the communication received through Ambassador Dobrynin on July 5, 1962.1 Secretary of State Rusk made certain preliminary comments on this communication during [Page 143] his meeting with Ambassador Dobrynin on July 9th [12th],2 since its contents related directly to the subject of their discussion, but I should also like to take this opportunity to add my personal views. I believe that in a matter of such seriousness and potential danger to peace, we must take advantage of any legitimate channel in an effort to clarify our respective positions.

As heads of government we are naturally interested in the welfare of our peoples, but we also have a certain obligation to history and to humanity as a whole. This dual responsibility demands that each of us make an effort to understand the position of the other and to see whether accommodations cannot be made, consistent with the basic interests of both parties, directed toward finding peaceful solutions to outstanding differences. This seems particularly important in the case of Germany and Berlin where the vital interests of great nations are involved at a major point of friction.

What we, therefore, find especially troubling in the present Soviet position is the consistent failure, even in the very formulation of the problem, to take any real account of what we have made clear are the vital interests of the United States and its Allies. For example, the Soviet Government has on a number of occasions, as in your most recent communication, complained that it has put forward a number of concrete proposals which take into account “the official position and motives of prestige of the United States,” but that “unfortunately, no proposal has been put forward by the American side which would enhance the possibility of solving the question of drawing a line through World War II by abolishing the occupation regime in West Berlin and giving it the status of a free city.” Such a formulation is, in effect, the very crux of the problem, because it states the issue in a way which embodies all of the Soviet premises and none of the Western premises in its evaluation of the current situation.

We have gone to some pains over the past year to define to you what we consider to be our vital interests in the Berlin situation. These do not take away anything from the Soviet Union which it now enjoys. On the contrary, we have attempted to show that an arrangement mindful of these interests could lead to a chain of developments of mutual benefit to both sides. The Soviet Government, on the other hand, consistently states the problem in terms which completely ignore our vital interests and proposes an outcome under the shadow of a threatened fait accompli which the Western Powers can either accept in advance or in the actual fact.

In your recent communication, you note that the “main outstanding question is that of the withdrawal of the occupation troops of the United [Page 144] States, Great Britain and France from West Berlin and of the abolition there of the occupation status.” To accept this formulation would be to accept the Soviet position one hundred per cent. We find it difficult to see even the slightest element of compromise here on the part of the Soviet Government. The various formulae which the Soviet Government has put forward all have the same objective—the total withdrawal or a severe reduction in the position of Western forces in Berlin. Merely mixing the same ingredients together in different proportions does not change the basic fact that the result is impossible from our point of view. We cannot, therefore, accept as accurate the statement that these formulae attempt to take into account the “official position and motives of prestige of the United States.” They run directly counter to them. Does the Soviet Government really believe that our acceptance of any of them, including the most recent, would not be interpreted throughout the world as a complete capitulation? We know that it would be, not only by the West Berliners who would immediately begin to abandon the city and leave it a hollow shell, but by all governments and informed peoples. It was for this reason that, at our meeting in Vienna now more than a year ago, we placed such stress on the commitment of the United States to Berlin in terms of our national prestige and vital interests. Nothing that has happened since then has affected the meaning of our remarks.

The question of Western troop presence is central. Surface changes in the Soviet position which do not really take account of this fact do not provide a real basis for serious negotiations. Without this recognition of our vital interests it is difficult to see how other aspects of the situation can usefully be considered.

Having said this much about the Soviet position, I feel that I must also comment on your description of our position. To say that the American side has not put forward a proposal “which would enhance the possibility of solving the question of drawing a line through World War II by abolishing the occupation regime in West Berlin and by giving it the status of a free city” is, as I have indicated, to state the problem without the most minimum elements of reciprocity. We are not opposed to drawing a line through World War II (though we believe it more important to avoid World War III), but drawing such a line to us cannot mean accepting the position of one of the victors of World War II at the complete expense of three of the other victors. Our views as to how appropriately to draw a line through World War II are well known. We understand that these views are unacceptable to the Soviet Government. Because we know this we have not insisted on pressing our views to the point of conflict and crisis, although we believe them to be correct. We could not, of course, be expected to put forward proposals eliminating ourselves from West Berlin.

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We have instead tried to be practical in our approach and in the specific proposals we have put forward. These have not proceeded from the assumption that one side must be prepared to abandon its position entirely. We have instead been motivated by the desire to eliminate the Berlin issue as a source of major conflict, which it is in the interest of both sides to avoid. We have attempted, therefore, to provide a means of dealing with the fact of disagreement in such a way as to serve the broader common interest of both sides in the avoidance of head-on collision and in the preservation of peace. We have also made a number of suggestions for relaxing the sense of crisis in the Berlin area.

You are, of course, familiar with the informal working paper which Secretary Rusk gave Foreign Minister Gromyko at Geneva on March 22, 1962.3 We have never felt that the merits of our suggested approach have really adequately been considered by the Soviet Government or dealt with in subsequent discussions. The language of this paper was not meant to be sacrosanct, but it reflected a sincere effort to find points on which there seemed to be at least some agreement in terms of previous statements made by both sides. We would, therefore, hope that you would review the explanations which Secretary Rusk has given to see whether our approach does not suggest an acceptable way out of the present impasse.

In a recent speech, you pointed to the example of Laos as showing that, given a desire for agreement, ways can be found to settle the most challenging and complicated international problems. We can agree entirely with this. In the case of Berlin, there is also undoubtedly a desire for agreement. What seems to be lacking so far, however, is any common ground as to what might be required in order to achieve agreement. Desire for agreement is important as a necessary beginning, but it cannot suffice in itself unless a spirit of patience and of respect for the vital interests of the other party is also present. We feel confident that, if these factors are present, we will also be able to work out something on Berlin which will contribute a resolution satisfactory to both sides.

In your same speech you pointed out that the German question did not have a direct bearing on disarmament but was closely related to it. Here again we can agree. Even a quieting of the Berlin question on the basis of respect for the mutual interests of both sides could not help but markedly improve the entire atmosphere of relations between the Soviet Union and the United States. As the two major nuclear powers, we have an overriding common interest, deriving from our troubling knowledge of the destructive potentialities of the new weapons, in preventing their spread into the control of other countries. We are certain that one of the major factors in recent years, not only in the general acceleration of arms [Page 146] preparations but also in focusing attention on nuclear weapons, has been the almost continuous crisis over Berlin since November, 1958. Further threats to Berlin and continued heightening of the crisis can only lead to additional measures in this direction.

We feel, therefore, that we have an additional strong and common interest in arriving at a solution of the Berlin problem, consistent with our mutual interests and prestige, in order to relieve the continuing pressures for an arms race including the piling up and diffusion of nuclear weapons. We might add that the enlarged U.S. military preparations which began last summer took place only after the renewal of Soviet threats against our position in Berlin. Our efforts in the military field, and those of our Allies, were a sign of the seriousness with which we all regard the defense of our vital interests in Berlin. This military build-up, however, was not something we wanted, or something which would have happened in the absence of the developments of last summer. If it is true that the threats to our position in Berlin remain a serious source of difference between our two countries, it is just as obvious that some satisfactory arrangement on Berlin would greatly improve the atmosphere and remove an important motive for increased Western effort in the armaments field. This is a consideration to which we hope you will give deep personal thought. Further pressures on Berlin can only exacerbate the situation and enhance the danger of an arms race which we assume neither of us basically desires.

We undoubtedly live in a climactic age. Science has now given man a capacity for destruction which, for the first time, could threaten the very existence of the race itself. This fact makes it imperative that, as rational men, we attempt to resolve our differences rather than move step-by-step towards a major confrontation. In reading the history of past wars and how they began, we cannot help but be impressed how frequently the failure of communication, misunderstanding and mutual irritation have played an important role in the events leading up to fateful decisions for war. In the nuclear age, we cannot be resigned to passive acceptance of a chain of causation which seems to determine the course of history from the outset. We know from your own willingness to discuss these matters that you do not hold to the view that what is happening now is predetermined, and cannot be effected by the decisions which our governments take. I write with this in mind, and urge that you give serious thought to the reflections and suggestions which this communication contains. I have not tried here to deal with every aspect of your communication, but have limited our comment to what seems to be the heart of the issue between us. We would not, however, want silence on these other points to be interpreted as complete agreement on our part with your formulation of the problems and suggested solutions.

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If I may summarize, the following lines of approach have seemed to us to be open in seeking a satisfactory resolution of the German and Berlin question:

We might join in a real attempt to draw a line through World War II by agreeing on a German settlement based on the freely expressed wish of the German people. As you know, this is in our view the best solution to the problems of Germany and Berlin. We have not pressed in these private exchanges for your agreement to this solution because you have emphasized that it is unacceptable to you—as unacceptable as your proposals for the removal of our troops from Berlin are to us.
Short of an all-German settlement, we might agree on new and improved arrangements for all of Berlin.
We might deal with the present situation as a factual matter, including the fact of the Western presence in West Berlin. This could mean proceeding on the basis of our informal working paper of March 22, 1962. It would essentially reflect a recognition that there are basic elements in the Berlin situation on which there cannot now be agreement. With such recognition, steps might be taken to ease tensions in the immediate area of Berlin, and it might perhaps be less difficult thereafter to deal with other aspects of the Berlin question while moving ahead with the reduction of tensions in other fields. We have in mind here particularly steps toward disarmament.

It is now expected that our Foreign Ministers will be meeting shortly in Geneva to sign an agreement on Laos. They will undoubtedly find the occasion to discuss further the question of Berlin. We hope that Foreign Minister Gromyko will come to Geneva with a position embodying genuine elements of reciprocity and taking account of our vital interests in the Berlin situation. If this should prove to be the case, we feel certain that much progress can be made in removing a major source of contention—an accomplishment which would surely have a remarkable and heartening effect in improving the atmosphere and making possible progress in other related areas.


John F. Kennedy
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series, USSR, Khrushchev Correspondence. No classification marking. Another copy is in Department of State, Presidential Correspondence: Lot 66 D 204.
  2. Document 49.
  3. For a memorandum of this conversation, see vol. XV, pp. 215222.
  4. For text, see vol. XV, pp. 6971.
  5. Printed from a copy that indicates the President signed the original.