126. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Berlin


  • The Secretary
  • Foy D. Kohler, Assistant Secretary
  • Dean Brown, WE
  • Herve Alphand, French Ambassador
  • Jean Claude Winckler, Counselor

The Ambassador said the Berlin situation is developing seriously. Yesterday’s measures2 had been the first direct threat to allied access rights. The dangerous period may have come faster than we thought. First, we must be ready to apply counter-measures immediately. This means some review and some government decisions. We all seemed agreed on this. Second, we should make a diplomatic démarche to the Kremlin, either the three Ambassadors together or one speaking for them. The French Government has a draft of what form this approach should take. (The Ambassador then read from the attached paper.3 In summary, it states that Soviet actions create an intolerable situation. Does Khrushchev want a showdown? If not, then he must abandon unilateral actions and create a relaxed atmosphere in which discussions can take place.)

The Ambassador then commented that unless we take this approach the Soviets will continue their actions believing we are weak when we are not.

The Secretary replied that Khrushchev might simply say that he has made proposals and where are the West’s?

The Ambassador said we should then say that we are ready to talk when the tension disappears.

The Secretary asked if the French based this attitude on the Soviet airlift note. When the Ambassador replied affirmatively, the Secretary said the French had expressed their reluctance at the Paris Ministerial meeting even before the Soviets had acted in Berlin.

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The Ambassador replied that the West was under threat at that time. To offer negotiations, he continued, without knowing the aims and results of those negotiations could lead to miscalculation by the Soviets. The Secretary said he agreed. We want to protect our vital interests without war. We must get into contact with the other side. The French propose setting up pre-conditions for contact. This might assure mis-calculation before contact.

The Ambassador said that the suggested language is the only one the Soviets understand. The US may believe that public opinion must be considered; the Soviets, however, will interpret a willingness to negotiate as a sign of weakness and will step up their threats.

The Secretary said we are talking about the possibility of negotiations. By the time the UNGA comes, we should be ready. If we don’t express a willingness to negotiate, there will be increasing pressure within the alliance and in much of the world believing that diplomacy has made no effort to find out if there is a way to avoid a disastrous chain of effects.

The Ambassador replied that it is public knowledge that we want to negotiate. The other side will feel we are ready to yield. They’ll say they are ready to negotiate on a peace treaty and turning over Berlin to the GDR.

The Secretary said we do not have to agree to this. There could be discussions over a period of time as to what negotiations would be about.

The Ambassador said we have different views. Over the years we have agreed that we must keep a firm position, that we don’t have to take the initiative, and that what we now have in Berlin is better than we could get. Why has the US changed?

Mr. Kohler said we start by agreeing that the key is a demonstration of firmness and determination. We have done this. We don’t feel weak, and we don’t believe the Soviets think we are weak. We are convincing them by acts. We can show the world we are ready to negotiate and that the Soviets are at fault if negotiations do not occur. We give a demonstration of weakness by an appearance of disunity. The three Governments believe we should take the next step; only France is unbending.

The Secretary asked why the US and France disagree on so many important questions: test suspension, disarmament, the Congo, Southeast Asia,SEATO, consultation, the UN. There is no important question on which the two countries are working closely.

The Ambassador attributed this to the UN, wherein the US attaches significance to a consensus of nations and from which France has only suffered. He then said that the US may consider a meeting of Foreign [Page 368] Ministers. He did not believe France would want to be associated with it.

Mr. Kohler asked about the note to the Soviets.4 If we, the UK, and the Germans agreed on it, would France expect us to send it without taking any part itself?

The Ambassador said his Government only disagreed on the last paragraph about negotiations. He didn’t know what the procedure would be.

The Secretary mentioned the President’s letter to de Gaulle5 on this subject.

The Ambassador suggested we await a reply to it before going further on the note. He said he had seen President de Gaulle before the latest Soviet measure.6 Now that the latter has occurred President de Gaulle would be even more adamant. He then asked: Is there something we don’t know? The meeting between the two Presidents had gone extremely well, especially on Berlin. Suddenly something had happened. Had it?7

The Secretary replied negatively. We have different appreciations of what the situation calls for. The President is worried about the alliance falling into disunity over the lack of response to Khrushchev’s proposals.

Mr. Kohler suggested the Ambassador confirm this by reading the reports of NATO discussions.

The Secretary said that France is virtually isolated in NATO on this issue. The disunity of the alliance is what will impress Khrushchev the most.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 762.00/8-2461. Secret. Drafted by Brown and approved in S on September 8.
  2. On August 23 the number of sector crossings in Berlin for residents had been reduced to seven and, for the Western Allies, to the one at Friedrichstrasse. On the same day the Soviet Union protested to the Western Allies the use of the air corridors to the city for transporting extremists from the Federal Republic. For text of the note, see Documents on Germany, 1944-1985, pp. 783-784.
  3. Not found.
  4. Reference is to a draft reply to the August 3 Soviet note. The French objected to the draft because the final paragraph called for negotiations with the Soviet Union. A copy of the draft was transmitted to Moscow in telegram 562, August 25, for information only. (Department of State, Central Files, 762.00/8-2561)
  5. For text of this letter, dated August 24, in which Kennedy appealed to de Gaulle to agree that negotiations be part of the reply, see Declassified Documents, 1986, 2260.
  6. For Alphand’s account of his conversation with de Gaulle on August 23, see L’Etonnement d’etre, pp. 362-366.
  7. On August 22 Winckler had made this point even more forcibly in a talk with Kohler, stating that Couve de Murville had been “astounded” by the change in the U.S. position between the President’s speech and the Foreign Ministers meeting. Winckler concluded that France was “not only disturbed but alarmed by what seems to it to be a sudden and inexplicable reversal of the U.S. tactical position.” (Memorandum of conversation; Department of State, Central Files, 762.00/8-2261)