10. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Germany and Berlin


  • United States
    • The President
    • Foy D. Kohler, Assistant Secretary
  • Germany
    • Willy Brandt, Governing Mayor of Berlin
    • Franz Krapf, Charge of the German Embassy
    • Egon Bahr, Press Chief of West Berlin Senate

After the initial greetings, the President opened the conversation by asking Mayor Brandt about the forthcoming elections in Germany. [Page 26] The Mayor replied that he expected some campaign activity in May and June but the real political campaign would only get underway intensively in August.

The President then asked how the Mayor saw developments with respect to Berlin’s status. The Mayor said that he thought the critical date to keep one’s eye on was the October Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. He believed that Khrushchev might feel the need of some kind of action favorable from his point of view prior to that meeting. In reply to the President’s question as to what the nature of such action might be the Mayor expressed the opinion that it would probably not be in the form of a serious military confrontation. However, Khrushchev might decide to go ahead with his program to conclude a separate peace treaty with the “GDR”.

The President then turned to the subject of the current situation with respect to access to Berlin and movements within the city. The Mayor referred to the recent incidents of harassment by the East Germans of movements between West and East Berlin and expressed the opinion that the outcome of this in the form of the December arrangements between the East and West Germans had been satisfactory from the West’s point of view. On the general subject, he acknowledged that it was always possible to have movements into West Berlin from West Germany harassed and made difficult in which case conditions of life in West Berlin would worsen. However, he pointed out that considerable stockpiles of fuel and food had been built up in the city which he thought would be sufficient for the population to carry on for about six months. This would give time to find a way out of an impasse.

The President then commented that of all the legacies of World War II which the West had inherited Berlin was the most difficult; he expressed the opinion that we would just have to live with the situation. He then asked the Mayor’s opinion as to whether, if Khrushchev concluded a separate peace treaty, the East German regime would act independently of Moscow. The Mayor replied in the negative. He added that the “GDR” had tried to act independently some times in the past but again expressed the opinion that the December experience had exercised a restraining influence. Fundamentally he could not believe that the “GDR” would be permitted to go very far on its own. In reply to the President’s further inquiry as to whether he thought Berlin constituted a real point of weakness for the “GDR” Mayor Brandt replied in the affirmative. He said he thought that the existence of West Berlin made it hard for Ulbricht to stabilize the East German regime. The comparison between West and East Berlin was very visible and was unfavorable to the East. Moreover West Berlin provided an escape hatch for the Eastern population. He said that he had to admit that the existence of West [Page 27] Berlin was a serious problem for the Ulbricht regime which had absolutely no mass basis of support, unlike, for example, Poland.

The President then referred to the problem of the Oder-Neisse border with Poland and asked the Mayor what he thought the Federal Government could do about this. The Mayor replied that it would be difficult for any West German Government to go beyond the Allied position that frontier questions could only be finally settled at a peace conference. It was his personal view that if ways could be found to bring the peoples together the question of the boundary would become a less important one. He felt that particularly if some small modifications could be made in a frontier it would be possible to find a solution satisfactory to both Germans and Poles. The President questioned whether since reunification of Germany was not foreseeable perhaps for a period of many years, this question might not increasingly exacerbate relations between Poland and the FRG and all the West. The Mayor said that this could be the case but pointed out that in any event it was for the time being the East German regime and not the FRG which bordered on Poland. Some further discussion ensued on this problem and its relationship to the German desire for reunification, the importance of which relationship the President recognized. The Mayor confirmed that this was a basic consideration, then went on to say that he thought it might be possible to have some new discussions with the Russians. Possibly they could be brought to agree to some kind of self-determination for Germany after a period of perhaps 10 years with some interim arrangement during that period. The President questioned whether there would be any Russian interest in such a proposal as the Mayor described it. He said he did not see how it would serve their purposes to agree to any self-determination formula. The Mayor said he had no specific idea as to the acceptability of such a formula to Moscow unless perhaps it could be accomplished as a result of broader agreements between the East and West in such fields as arms control. In this connection the President asked the Mayor’s views as to whether proposals for Central European neutral zones or arms zones such as had been propounded by Mr. Kennan some years ago might be useful.2 To this the Mayor replied with a firm negative.

The President commented that it was very hard to find grounds for agreement with the Soviets on anything beyond perhaps removing restrictions on crabmeat and this was really unilateral. He then went on to ask the Mayor’s estimate as to whether economically the “GDR” was a net help or burden to Moscow. The Mayor replied that on balance he felt [Page 28] that Moscow still regarded the “GDR” as an economic asset. He repeated, however, that the regime was politically weak and said it was possible that some day the Soviets might find a reunified non-Communist Germany better and easier to deal with from their point of view than a corrupt Eastern regime. In reply to a further question from the President about the reliability of the “GDR” armed forces the Mayor expressed the opinion that the “GDR” Army might fight effectively elsewhere but that in the case of a really significant move on Berlin they were likely to revolt and go over to the other side.

The President then asked how the people in Eastern Germany regarded West Berlin. The Mayor said that West Berlin provided a window to the West for the East German population and kept alive their hopes for an eventual change. Without West Berlin this hope would die. As to the relations between the governments of the two parts of the city the Mayor referred to East Berlin Mayor Ebert as “the least known” Mayor in the world. He said that he had never met Ebert and that the relationship between the two parts of the city was limited to technical contacts. Expressing his appreciation for the Mayor’s explanations, the President said he had not been in Berlin himself since 1949.

The President then turned to the question of the balance of payments situation, referring to his recent talks with FRG Foreign Minister Von Brentano.3 He said that in addition to his concern about our own situation he is now worried about the British who are having considerable trouble in the wake of the revaluation of the German mark. The Secretary of the Treasury had informed him that the British had lost nearly 10% of their gold reserves during the last 7 days. He felt that the West needed some mechanism which would prevent the development of these imbalances and the strain which gold surpluses put on the international payments situation. He said that the cost of maintaining the United States troops in the Federal Republic, which ran to about $340 million in gold every year, was a major factor in the U.S. situation. The problem here was not one of relief for the U.S. budget or the U.S. taxpayer but of the outflow of gold. The United States is committed to keep the U.S. divisions on the continent and he personally believed our conventional forces should be strengthened so that we would not be faced with the question of using nuclear weapons in the middle of Germany. The President feared that some mistaken impressions had resulted from the Anderson visit to Germany last December. He wanted to make it clear that the United States was not asking for budgetary relief but was concerned about its gold position and also that of the British. If the FRG should undertake a program of aid to the underdeveloped countries [Page 29] this might ease the strain. Also and more directly it would be helpful if the costs of maintenance of our troops could be reduced and if the FRG should procure additional military equipment in the United States. He felt that there had been considerable misunderstanding of U.S. purposes. Mayor Brandt agreed that some misunderstanding had developed in connection with this problem. He was personally convinced that we needed not only military strength but cooperation in political strategy, in the conduct of a peace offensive and in the economic field. He was very pleased with the establishment of the OECD. The importance of these questions was understood and agreed to in Germany by both major parties. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) would not oppose agreements reached by the present Government to help in the balance of payments situation and to undertake a program of aid to the lesser developed countries. Indeed on aid they would be inclined to go even farther than the present Government. He thought that these questions would play no real role in the electoral campaign. The only questions on the part of the SPD would be as to how the Government planned to work these matters out, particularly from a budgetary point of view.

The President commented that we had some differences of opinion in the United States as respects economic aid programs but he thought there were no important differences as to the need for military preparedness. He referred in this connection to the “grandiose” requirements which had been put forward by General Norstad as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Concluding, he remarked that maybe when the elections were over we could get down to details on these questions.

The President then explained to the Mayor that his administration had not said much about Berlin since the new administration took office. It was too bad that Ambassador Harriman had recently had to make a statement in Berlin which had necessitated further statements by Secretary Rusk and then further clarifications. He had felt that it was better on this subject to leave the launching of any challenges to Khrushchev. Mayor Brandt said that he entirely agreed to this position and the West Berliners fully understood it. He said that if the Soviets do raise the Berlin question again he felt the West should seek to broaden the agenda. The President commented that he had thought Mayor Brandt’s point in his television interview as to the inadequacy of the UN as a guarantee for Berlin following the Congo experience was well made. He also commented in this connection that Senator Mansfield had been active in promoting this idea. However, the President said he recognized that the UN would not provide a satisfactory guarantee for West Berlin. The Mayor said he believed that the presence of United States troops was not only the essential guarantee for Berlin but also important for the United States itself. He felt that if the Russians were told clearly that the U.S. [Page 30] position there must not be challenged then they would have to respect this position.

The President asked the Mayor’s views as to the build-up of the FRG military forces. The Mayor replied that he thought the situation was satisfactory in this respect. Perhaps it could be improved some-what though he did not believe that the FRG should build its forces up to the point where it would create fears among its neighbors in Western Europe and arouse apprehensions in Eastern Europe. It was necessary to find the right level.

The President then referred to the political campaign and asked what the issues would be. When the Mayor replied health, schools, public roads and the like, the President commented that this sounded very familiar to him. The Mayor then went on to say that there would be no serious foreign policy issues in the campaign. Originally there had been major differences between the SPD and the CDU in the foreign policy field, particularly as relates to the approach to Moscow and the East; however, both parties had had to face up to the realities over the last 10 years, during which the Soviets had given no reason for hope. Both parties were convinced that West Germany could only go with the West. The President commented that when he had met Chairman Ollenhauer of the SPD in 1956 this had been a period when the SPD had been more optimistic as regards negotiations with the Soviets. Mayor Brandt replied that that time had gone by. The SPD was now firmly committed to the West.

The meeting concluded with discussion of and agreement on the statement which would be made to the press by Mayor Brandt regarding his talk with the President.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Germany. Confidential. Drafted by Kohler and approved by the White House on March 23. The meeting was held at the White House. A briefing paper for this meeting, transmitted by Rusk to the President on March 10, is in Department of State, Central Files, 762.00/3-1061. A memorandum of Brandt’s conversation with Rusk on March 14 covering similar topics is ibid., 762.0221/3-1461. For Brandt’s account of his conversation with the President and visit to Washington, see Begegnungen und Einsichten, pp. 17-18 and 80-83.
  2. For text of the series of lectures given by George F. Kennan over the BBC in 1957, see George F. Kennan, Russia, the Atom, and the West (London, 1958).
  3. See Document 5.