15. Memorandum of Conversation1

THE PRESIDENT'S MEETINGS WITH

PRIME MINISTER MACMILLAN

WASHINGTON, APRIL, 1961

SUBJECT

  • East-West Issues: Berlin

PARTICIPANTS

  • United States
    • The President
    • The Secretary of State
    • Ambassador Bruce
    • Ambassador Bohlen
    • Mr. McGeorge Bundy
    • Mr. Foy D. Kohler
    • Mr. John M. Steeves
    • Mr. William C. Burdett
  • United Kingdom
    • The Prime Minister
    • Lord Home
    • Sir Norman Brook
    • Sir Frederick Hoyer Miller
    • Ambassador Caccia
    • The Honorable P. E. Ramsbotham
    • Mr. John Russell
    • Mr. Philip de Zulueta

The President asked why Khrushchev had not moved on Berlin. Was it the danger of the Western response? What made him hold off? Lord Home thought Khrushchev was not going to lay off much longer. Ambassador Bohlen commented that the Soviets were subjected to strong importunities from the East Germans. They had large stakes in the East German regime but it would not work so long as Berlin was there. He recalled the Khrushchev offer in 1958 of a Free City. Probably, Khrushchev really thought he was offering quite a thing. He underestimated the Western reaction, which was quite sound. The Soviets then realized that they had raised a tremendously dangerous issue. Insofar as Soviet interests are concerned, Ambassador Bohlen said, he did not consider that Berlin was worth the risk. But, the Soviets also had to think of their Eastern empire. It would be imprudent to believe that the Soviets would exercise restraint forever. In addition, the China thing was forcing Khrushchev to be more militant. He was being outflanked from the left. The Secretary observed that a good deal depended on what position Khrushchev felt he must be in before the next Party Congress. Ambassador Bohlen thought he could not stand a political defeat. The question [Page 42]was to what degree are the Russian rulers prepared to use and risk the power of the Soviet state in Laos, etc. They are supporting “wars of national liberation"!

The President expressed the view that if Khrushchev were held off by the threat of a direct encounter with the West we should consider how to build up this threat. On Berlin we have no bargaining position. Thus we ought to consider, as Mr. Acheson suggested yesterday, how to put the issue to Khrushchev as bluntly as possible.

The Prime Minister recalled that we did have a long, drawn-out negotiation with the Soviets on Berlin and at one time it looked as if we were going to succeed. It was something like a play. We maintained that at the end of the play we should be in just the same position we occupied at the beginning. The Russians insisted that at the end there should be a change. Mr. Kohler thought that there was never any real prospect of an agreement acceptable to us. All the Russians were willing to offer was to allow the status quo to continue for a year or so. Lord Home remarked that he was never happy going into a negotiation with no position at all. We might go in with the idea of getting a continuation of the present situation for say three years. During this period, the East Germans and the West Germans could come to some agreement.

The Prime Minister noted that Khrushchev never offered a Free City including both sections of Berlin. Mr. Kohler pointed out that we once did but the offer was immediately dismissed. Lord Home thought we ought to offer something like that again. Mr. Kohler advised doing everything possible not to have to negotiate on Berlin. Lord Home asked whether international opinion would permit our not having any negotiation at all. The Prime Minister thought that if Khrushchev puts up an ultimatum he will then say, let's have a conference. The Soviets, Lord Home said, would put up a proposal which looked reasonable.

The Prime Minister inquired whether we thought Khrushchev would act on Berlin before or after the German elections. Ambassador Bohlen said the West Germans were trying to induce him to wait. The Secretary referred to a speech by Khrushchev saying he would not wait.

Ambassador Bohlen stressed that it was important to broaden the basis of our stance. It tended to be overly legalistic. We could take the position that we have an obligation to the people of Berlin. Our difficulties stem not from our position, but from the nature of the problem. He did not see the Russians accepting an interim arrangement unless there was a clear implication that we would accept a Free City afterwards. Lord Home maintained that there could be a temporary period during which the East Germans and the West Germans could work out their own arrangements. Ambassador Bohlen countered that they could do so under the present situation. [Page 43]The Prime Minister observed that we had made a peace treaty with West Germany without asking the Russians. If they did the same with East Germany it should not matter to us. Mr. Kohler pointed out that the Russians now have exactly the same arrangement with East Germany as we do with West Germany. Sir Frederick Hoyer Millar added that they now wish to go further. The Prime Minister said that if the Russians and ourselves have similar arrangements then we might propose a joint guarantee for the freedom of Berlin. Although our rights based on conquest are strong juridically, as the years pass, they become slightly tarnished. Ambassador Bohlen said that we should rest on the fact that we took certain obligations to the people of Berlin. This would give us a broader basic stance.

The Prime Minister referred to the importance of the public presentation. We should maintain that we are preserving the right of the people of Berlin to have a Free City. He asked whether the United States would mind going for a treaty instead of the occupation status as the basis for our position. Ambassador Bruce explained that the Soviets were occupying so strong a position on Berlin that we could not afford to give away what little we possessed. We would be giving from so little to start with that to give a little would be to give all. We cannot disregard the consequences that would flow in Central Europe and in West Germany from weakening on Berlin. We find that the West Germans are less willing to fight for Berlin than we are. We—the United States, the United Kingdom and France—are protecting the honor of the West. There is no question whatever that more yielding will set off an exodus from Berlin that will be really shocking. We must maintain our forces there. We should be prepared to discuss Berlin but not to negotiate on Berlin. If the Russians cannot better their own position except to our disadvantage, it is best for us to keep things as they are. Seeking an alternative is not feasible. Reducing the Berlin garrison would have little military effect; it is just a police force. The question is one of prestige. If anyone is lacking in imagination it is the West Germans. A real consideration which would influence the Soviets materially would be the de facto recognition by West Germany of East Germany. This would be a matter of great consequence which would affect all of Central Europe.

Lord Home asked again whether it was really impossible to negotiate. We could come forward with a plausible plan, for example, for a Free City. We must have a negotiating position. Ambassador Bruce said that there is a plan which would be sustainable but which we have not advanced. This would involve two points: (1) Berlin should be treated as a whole because of the circumstances under which it was constituted; (2) there should be no difficulties in access. The original sin was in not defining a land corridor, although it was clearly understood at the time that there was to be a land corridor. This would be a reasonable position.

[Page 44]

The President remarked that we ought to pursue the matter of what our negotiating position should be if we do enter negotiations. We should also consider the suggestions of Mr. Acheson about what we should do if it is necessary to act. If we are going to be talking to the French, we should determine what our position will be. The Prime Minister suggested adding to point 9 of the agreed paper2 a study of our position in any negotiation. Mr. Kohler pointed out that we have a working group on Berlin and that we have staffed out every conceivable plan. Developing a negotiating position is not the problem. The fact is that there is no satisfactory solution.

The Prime Minister said we should study whether to propose a Free City. What, in fact, happens if the Russians sign a treaty and do nothing further? What happens if they sign a treaty and do something? The difficulty lies in the area between the two questions. The Russians would probably move gradually. We should study at what point we would break.

The President said obviously the deterrent effect of our response keeps the Communists from engaging us in a major struggle on Berlin. It was necessary to keep the fact of the deterrent well forward.

The Prime Minister asked, what happens when Adenauer dies. Sooner or later, say in five or ten years, the Russians might try to offer the West Germans unity in return for neutrality. Is it so dangerous for the Russians to make this offer? It would be a great temptation for the West Germans. Ambassador Bruce maintained that the great objective of Soviet policy in Europe was somehow to obtain governmental possession of West Germany. Then the German question would cease to exist. Unless the German population was exterminated in the process, the Soviets may misapprehend what is likely to happen in West Germany after Adenauer dies, believing that this event will accrue to their advantage. The extraordinary character of the immigration to West Germany is revealing. The immigration is weakening all that goes to make up the normal life of a state. Last year there were 200,000 immigrants, 70 per cent from vital age groups. The East Germans are pressing the Soviets to stop the flow. Ambassador Bohlen expressed doubt that the Soviets could offer the bait of neutrality. They could not afford to sell the “wave of the future” down the drain.

  1. Source: Department of State, Conference Files: Lot 65 D 366, CF 1833. Secret; Limit Distribution. Drafted by Burdett. The meeting was held aboard the Honey-Fitz.
  2. Point 9 of the minute agreed by Rusk and Home reads as follows: “Existing machinery in Washington will consider further what the Western negotiating position should be over Berlin if faced by a new Soviet move entailing negotiation.” For text of the agreed minute, see Foreign Relations, 1961-1963, vol. XIII, Document 382.