172. Letter From President Kennedy to His Special Representative in Berlin (Clay)1

Dear General Clay: I think it is important for us to be in close touch, and so I write to bring you up to date on recent developments here and to ask your comment on several important points.

The Berlin problem has two main tracks, military and political. I am determined that we shall be clear and energetic in both. I believe that our military resolution, as shown in preparatory steps during the summer, has much to do with the somewhat increased readiness of the Soviet Union to consider serious negotiations before proceeding with its so-called peace treaty. But the military build-up is not yet satisfactory, and in particular I find hesitation and delay on the part of some who talk as if they were firm and resolute. Moreover, we have not yet worked out a strong and clear allied agreement on military responses in the event of major harassment or blockade of ground access.

I would very much like to have your own informal comments on this issue. The central question is whether we should treat a blockade of ground access as requiring prompt resort to force on the scene, with possible rapid escalation toward general war, or whether we should proceed by stages, allowing the Soviets time to understand the consequences and risks of their action. I am much struck by the force of the [Page 485] observation which you have made in the more limited context of minor harassments in Berlin—that it is important to be prompt and energetic in response, to avoid misunderstanding, and to prevent the hardening of a new status quo. On the other hand, an almost instantaneous resort to force may not be easy to agree with our allies, and may in fact not be in our own interest. It is not clear that we should deliberately embark on a series of actions on the ground that would quickly fail if the Soviets chose to use their full conventional capability, thus facing us very quickly with the choice between defeat and escalation. It is central to our policy that we shall have to use nuclear weapons in the end, if all else fails, in order to save Berlin, and it is fundamental that the Russians should understand this fact. I think they are beginning to do so. But the specific course of military contingency planning remains open.

Closely associated with this problem is that of the amount of authority that we should delegate to General Norstad or to his subordinate commanders. I have read with great interest your own dispatches on these matters and I will count on you to keep us informed of points where you think increased discretionary authority is needed. I do not want to confuse formal lines of communication by commenting now on the specific issues of Steinstuecken and Friedrichstrasse, but I can assure you that your views are most carefully weighed here. I am sure you understand that any limitations which I may place upon commanders in the field reflect no distrust of them, but rather my own sense of personal accountability for actions which may have consequences far beyond the field of responsibility of the specific commander concerned. Our problem, therefore, is to combine flexibility and energy in appropriate responses with the avoidance of action which infringes on responsibilities I cannot delegate. Your experience and your alertness are invaluable to us in working out this issue in specific cases.

The political problem is no simpler. Mr. Rusk’s exploratory conversations with Gromyko have been just that and nothing more. As you know from immediate experience, the Germans tend to be nervous about nearly any American statement of these matters, but in fact we are still merely circling each other to find out what the areas of eventual negotiation might be. The real problem is the one which was highlighted by German misunderstanding of your own informal remarks: how do we get the Germans to recognize that it is not a betrayal of them for all of us to face the fact that we cannot enforce reunification now. We should certainly sustain strongly the broad principle of support for reunification, but we are not going to get Soviet agreement on this point right now, and we must find ways and means of sustaining the courage and energy of our German allies in the face of the continued division of their country. If we can strengthen the position of West Berlin, and get a clearly recognized and less easily harassed system of access, I think we [Page 486] can endure a situation in which the uniforms of the junior personnel concerned with these matters are changed. What we will not budge on are the things which are essential to the people of West Berlin and it is on that point above all that your presence and your work can be so significant. Meanwhile, I shall count on your help in finding ways of sustaining a clear sense of common purpose with our friends in West Berlin and West Germany.

Finally, it becomes more and more plain that whatever the form of an eventual settlement, it will be necessary for the West to take energetic measures in further support of the life and meaning of the city of West Berlin. I count on you in this field too, and I look forward to hearing your views on the ways and means of meeting this challenge, as they develop. In my judgment, the basic responsibility and need for initiative here fall to the people of West Berlin themselves and to the citizens of the Federal Republic, but where American stimulus or energy can be helpful, we will not hesitate. The vitality of West Berlin and the confidence of Germany are together the prizes we must win from this crisis.

I am sure that your work in Berlin is hard and demanding, and I can well believe that it has some frustrations. This crisis is one which makes unusual demands on all of us. But I do want you to know that your presence there is a source of encouragement and strength to me as I am sure it is to Mayor Brandt and all the people of West Berlin.


John F. Kennedy
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Germany, Berlin, General Clay. Top Secret. The source text bears no drafting information.