14. Memorandum of Conversation1

THE PRESIDENT'S MEETINGS WITH

PRIME MINISTER MACMILLAN

WASHINGTON, APRIL, 1961

SUBJECT

  • East-West Issues: Berlin

PARTICIPANTS

  • U.S.
    • The President
    • Secretary of State
    • Secretary of the Treasury
    • Secretary of Defense
    • Mr. McGeorge Bundy
    • Mr. Dean Acheson
    • Ambassador Stevenson
    • Ambassador Harriman
    • Ambassador Bruce
    • Mr. Foy D. Kohler
    • Mr. Charles E. Bohlen
    • Mr. G. Mennen Williams
    • Mr. Walt Rostow
    • Mr. George McGhee
    • Mr. John M. Steeves
    • Mr. Harlan Cleveland
    • Mr. William C. Burdett
    • Mr. James W. Swihart
  • U.K.
    • The Prime Minister
    • Lord Home
    • Ambassador Caccia
    • Sir Norman Brook
    • Sir Frederick Hoyer Millar
    • Honorable Peter E. Ramsbotham
    • Sir Patrick Dean
    • Mr. John Russell
    • Mr. Philip de Zulueta
    • Mr. John Thomson

The President observed that Mr. Acheson was leaving tomorrow for a meeting of the World Court. He said he would like to have Mr. Acheson present his views on Berlin and the subject could be followed up tomorrow.2

Mr. Acheson said that the President had drafted him to get some studies started. He had not reached any conclusions. The studies would [Page 37]be ready when he returned. However, some rough conclusions came to mind which might lead the Prime Minister to associate him with the late-lamented administration. In his thinking he approached the problem of Berlin with certain semi-premises. 1) There was no satisfactory solution to the Berlin problem aside from a resolution of the German problem. It did not look as though the German problem were in train for immediate solution. 2) It looked as though the Soviets would press the Berlin issue this year. 3) There was no solution that would not weaken the Western position. The same issues would confront the West under less favorable circumstances. He could see no proposals on the whole of Germany which would be better or put the West in a more favorable position.

Thus, Mr. Acheson continued, we must face the issue and prepare now for eventualities. Berlin is of the greatest importance. This is why the Soviets press the issue. If the West funks Germany will become unhooked from the Alliance.

Political and economic preparations are not adequate. There has got to be some sort of military response. When we would come to a military response is a difficult question. We would not do so on purely formal matters such as who stamps a pass. The important test is substantial interference with the traffic to Berlin, civilian or military. There are three ways of responding; on the air, on the ground or by threat of a nuclear response. The last is not wise, but reckless and would not be believed. This brings us to a ground or air operation. He would hope we could go further than before with Live Oak, etc.

Since the last airlift, Mr. Acheson went on, developments have caught up with the use of aircraft as a test of will. He did not think the West had the capability of forcing access versus determined Russian opposition. What is needed is a test of will. He hoped the test would make it clear to the Russians that Western interest in access was more important than Russian interest in stopping access. Berlin is vital to us but not to them. Ground-to-air missiles have been brought to a point where aircraft cannot survive. Thus there could be no test of the will in the air. The Russians would just shoot down the planes with their rockets. On the ground it would be really possible to raise some ugly questions for the Russians and to show the Russians that it was not worthwhile to stop a really stout Western effort. A small battalion or a brigade is not enough. A division with a division in support is required. Then we would have a very formidable weapon. If the Russians were to throw some twenty divisions at it our division could get back. If East German divisions were used maybe we could take care of them. There would be no resort to nuclear weapons. We would have tested and seen whether Russia was really firm on Berlin. If Russia threw back the attempt all would rally and realize the need to increase their efforts as happened after Korea. [Page 38]Concluding, Mr. Acheson said that these were only his ideas for study. They had not been considered by the President.

The President said that he had not come to a conclusion over what to do, but he had concluded that the state of planning was not adequate. The plans he had seen were not serious enough. The tests proposed did not escalate the matter to a sufficient height. The President asked for the Prime Minister's views.

Lord Home inquired whether in saying that the tests did not escalate high, the President was referring to a land probe. The Russians would have made a choice if they shot down a plane. Mr. Acheson replied that the air probe would face only East Germany with a choice. All sorts of hindrances could be placed in the way of air transport. They could shoot down one or two. What do we do? Bomb the ground?

The Prime Minister said that Mr. Acheson had made a most important point when he stated that he would regard the test as stoppage of military or civilian supplies. He had never thought the British people would go to war over who stamped a document. What counts is what happens to Berlin. Will supplies move? Mr. Acheson's statement is a tremendous advance in the U.S. position. Just saving face with the East Germans was not important. It was a great change. Mr. Acheson interjected that it might become so if after every change the East Germans made another.

The Prime Minister expressed the view that a division would be a very vulnerable body if moving on a narrow front. It would have to spread out if trouble started. Secretary McNamara said he thought of it as something to test intentions. More definite plans were required and he hoped these could be worked out.

The President asked the Prime Minister if it was his view that we should begin with an air lift. The Prime Minister replied that he was told what was done in 1949 could not be done now.

Lord Home maintained that a certain amount of planning was being done. There was plan B calling for action on the ground, which General Norstad favored. Then there was a plan for a garrison air lift and another for a civilian air lift. Quite a bit was being developed. Mr. Acheson commented that the plans are limited by what the planners are authorized to do. Secretary McNamara said we were ill-prepared to carry out a probe. Secretary Rusk recalled that back in 1948 and 1949 the plans were on such a scale that the tests could be stopped by small boys. Now we should make such a serious commitment that the Government's responsibilities would be engaged.

The Prime Minister pointed out that one difficulty has been the forum. Originally the planning was tripartite. Then the Germans were brought in. Now there is talk of NATO. Secretary McNamara said that [Page 39]the planning had been largely tripartite but even the tripartite planning was not very effective. There were two questions. A. To what extent should the planning be broadened? B. What training should there be for the plans? Lord Home asserted he was not convinced by the idea of sending in a division. Bridges could be blown and the division isolated. Mr. Acheson said this would not happen until the Elbe was reached. The President asked about the likelihood of use by the Russians of East German divisions. Mr. Acheson replied that it was the unofficial view in State that this would be very hazardous for the Russians. If the East Germans deserted the Russians would be in great difficulty.

The President commented that it had been said the plans were being developed without commitment. In addition to planning we must make some commitments. It would be helpful to us to know if Britain thought the land probe was too hazardous. If a peace treaty is signed should we go to the air lift. We should come to conclusions. The Prime Minister commented that signature of a peace treaty was not an act of war. The question would arise if the people of Berlin were deprived of what to live on. The West used to take the line that because they had occupied Berlin they had a duty to feed the populace. The Russians accepted the thesis. It was doubtful that they would do so now. Mr. Acheson warned that it was dangerous to be too legalistic. All rests on the spirit of the people of Berlin. For effective purposes there is no difference whether the supplies are for troops or civilians.

Lord Home pointed out that British doubts have been about the ground probe. The garrison air lift, civilian air lift, and diplomatic action seemed sensible. The British should have another look. The Prime Minister agreed.

Ambassador Stevenson recalled that Gromyko had recently said to him that he was disturbed to see that the United States underestimated the seriousness of the Berlin situation.

The President requested Secretary McNamara to obtain more detailed information regarding an air lift, especially on such matters as radio communication, supplies and so forth. He added that we should then reach conclusions on the effects of various forms of blockade. We should make up our own minds. Both of us would be talking to Adenauer and we must be in agreement on what to say. Secretary Rusk suggested following up the matter with the Foreign Office to see if new instructions could be sent to the planning group. The Prime Minister said the discussions should be on a bilateral basis first. The Prime Minister said he was suggesting bilateral discussions on what to do if access were blocked. The President agreed to the proposal.

Sir Frederick Hoyer Millar pointed out that the East Germans already control all civilian supplies. If this control were extended to control[Page 40]over supplies to our troops it would affect morale in Berlin. The result would be the same as a blockade.

Secretary Rusk said that additional bilateral planning would be helpful but we should get into tripartite planning rapidly and then talk with the Germans. Time was an important factor. Lord Home pointed out that German security was not good.

Lord Home expressed the view that on the political side our position was very negative. If Khrushchev says he wants a conference and that he wants to make a change we have no alternative to propose. Khrushchev will then say he is going to sign a treaty with the East Germans. Is it necessarily true that our presence in Berlin based on right of conquest, which is wearing thinner year by year, is on stronger grounds than if based on a treaty? Khrushchev has made only one public commitment—end the occupation status. He could get off this hook if we signed a treaty for a period of 10 years or such. Mr. Acheson replied that Khrushchev was not on a hook and thus does not have to be taken off one. He is not legalistic. Khrushchev is pushing to divide the Allies. He is not going to make any treaty that would help us. Our position is good as it is and we should stick by it. The real problem is reunifying Germany. If we start talking of signing of a treaty we will undermine the German spirit.

Lord Home asked is it not possible that Khrushchev does not wish to pass control to the GDR? Secretary Rusk stated that we would not want to agree that we are in Berlin by the grace of Khrushchev. We are there as the result of war. We are great powers and do not wish to be driven out. This is a fresh fact every day. If we transfer over to a treaty we are starting down a slippery slope. Lord Home admitted that perhaps this was right but added the right of conquest was wearing thin. Mr. Acheson suggested that perhaps it was our power which was wearing thin. Lord Home said he did not like going into a conference knowing we had nothing to offer.3

Secretary Rusk commented that the dilemma we have faced all along is that we have never made our case in public opinion. The Soviets have violated most post-war agreements. They have collected all that was promised to them and are trying to cut down on what we thought was our part of the settlement.

  1. Source: Department of State, Conference Files: Lot 65 D 366, CF 1833. Top Secret. Drafted by Burdett. The meeting was held at the White House. The source text bears the typewritten notation: “Uncleared."
  2. Acheson's remarks are a close summary of a memorandum that he sent to the President on April 3 in an effort to establish the premises for an analysis of the Berlin question. (Ibid., Central Files, 762.00/4-361; published in part in Declassified Documents, 1985, 2547)
  3. Home repeatedly made remarks along these lines in a conversation with Rusk on April 4. A memorandum of their conversation is in Department of State, Central Files, 762.00/4-461.