178. Memorandum From Acting Secretary of State Ball to President Kennedy 1


  • Action for Dealing with the Possible Closing of the Friedrichstrasse Entry Point into East Berlin

On September 14, 1961, Secretary Rusk discussed with you the question of our response to a Soviet/GDR decision to close the access point into East Berlin at Friedrichstrasse to Allied traffic. The decision you took at that time is reflected in the National Security Action Memorandum No. 94 of September 14, 1960.2 (A copy is attached.)

General Clay, however, has now asked that the Friedrichstrasse problem be re-examined in the light of additional recommendations he has just made.3

In essence, the General suggests that if the Friedrichstrasse crossing point is closed, we should force the barrier even in the face of desultory fire, with a small number of tanks. These tanks would then take a defensive position in East Berlin immediately inside the entry point. Almost simultaneously, the United States Commandant would demand an immediate [Page 499] conference with his Soviet counterpart, with whom he would insist upon restoration of our entry rights. If, however, our tanks were attacked by East German forces or confronted by substantial Soviet forces, our tanks would withdraw to defensive positions in West Berlin.

General Clay believes such action would probably result in the entry point being kept open and he sees as additional advantages the fact that the Soviets would again be forced to participate in a Berlin problem; we, in turn, would have demonstrated our insistence upon our right of access to and circulation in East Berlin; Soviet intentions and determination might be more clearly revealed; and Berlin opinion would be less disillusioned than if a weaker course of action had been taken.

We see considerable merit in General Clay’s proposed course.

It would demonstrate that we consider our right of access to and circulation in East Berlin still valid.
It would probably make the Soviets pause before taking further encroaching action as well as affect the nature of their subsequent actions.
Moreover, unlike other proposals for a military response to a Soviet/GDR closing action, General Clay’s proposal does not involve a serious problem of disengaging our forces for General Clay apparently accepts the fact that the operation might be limited to running tanks a few yards into East Berlin without attempting to use the access thus gained.

On the other hand we question General Clay’s assertion that such action on our part is likely to keep the access point open. In our view it is unlikely that such a gesture would cause the Soviets to leave the entrance open if they had once decided to close it. As for Soviet participation in Berlin problems, this would not seem to be any longer of major significance once the Communists decided finally to split the city. Soviet responsibility within the city would be of little practical importance once the boundary was closed. And the appearance of their forces to drive out our tanks, if they in fact appeared, would be the last gasp of Soviet responsibility.

Whether this action would be less damaging to Berlin morale than present plans is also moot. The sight of our tanks plunging through the barrier to remain in the East Sector might raise hopes that the wall at last was coming down or at the very least, indicate that we intended to keep the access point open. And then if our tanks simply stopped, and subsequently had to withdraw, the let-down following in the wake of our demonstrated inability to follow through might be greater than if we had implied no bold determination.

A final and major difficulty for us is this proposed course of action, even though it might reduce the problem of follow-up and disengaging forces, still is essentially open-ended, and does not clearly forestall an uncontrollable and unpredictable situation.

[Page 500]

However, in considering General Clay’s proposals, it seems to us that the purposes of his recommendations might probably be achieved, and at the same time some of its apparent disadvantages avoided, through the following course of action:

If the Friedrichstrasse crossing point is closed either by unacceptable demands for documentation by the GDR or by the erection of a barrier, we might run two or three tanks up to the checkpoint to demolish whatever was barring our entry (even if only a customs-type gate), and then have them withdraw and stationed nearby inside the Western Sector. The Commandant in the Kommandatura chair for the month, or alternatively the US Commandant (Friedrichstrasse is in the US Sector), would then immediately call Karlshorst to protest the situation and demand an urgent meeting with the Soviet Commandant as well as assurances of safe conduct through the sector boundary for purposes of such meeting. He would immediately release a statement, explaining that the Allied forces had destroyed a barrier which the East Germans illegally erected to bar Allied passage, and that the matter was being protested to the Soviet Commandant. He also would make it clear that, following our initial action, this was a problem to be resolved with the Soviets, who continue to bear full responsibility for the situation. If, as is likely, access continued to be denied us, we would take the further position that the Soviets had violated existing agreements and that we would take appropriate countering measures.

The rationale in this course of action would be that we refused to accept exclusion at the hands of the East Germans; we destroyed their barrier; and we then took the case to the Soviets. It would be Soviet refusal to admit us that brought our exclusion, albeit still under protest. Some such line is desirable to explain our withdrawal without pressing the matter further.

It is to be noted that neither this proposal nor that of General Clay is really a plan for reopening access. Both must be considered on their merits as gestures demonstrating Western readiness to react in a forceful manner, and bring home to the Soviets the point that they must expect increasingly vigorous countermeasures to moves against us.

The advantage of this alternative to General Clay’s proposal is that it would present no problem of disengaging our forces. It would be sufficiently abrupt so that it would not unduly raise the hopes of the Berliners. It also would be so limited so that the danger of escalation and the possibility of setting off uncontrolled popular demonstrations would be reduced to an absolute minimum. In essence it would have the desirable effects of General Clay’s proposed course without leaving us in a vulnerable position, open to unpredictable and uncontrolled developments.

[Page 501]

In his message on the Friedrichstrasse problem, General Clay says he believes no response is preferable to a weak response. Presumably the General means we should not even take the measures now proposed (attempt to drive through the crossing point, remove any barrier that can be removed by hand, protest, take retaliatory action against Soviet personnel in Berlin, take countermeasures outside Berlin, move additional forces to the sector boundary, expel Czech and Polish Mission personnel from West Berlin).

It might perhaps be argued that since we could not take measures adequate to restore access, lesser measures would simply demonstrate weakness.

In our view, however, the absence of any response on our part to a Soviet/GDR move at Friedrichstrasse would be unnecessarily supine. To take no action against Soviet personnel, for example, would hardly be understood. To take the obvious retaliatory measures might not regain much of our lost prestige, but not to take them would cost us further prestige.


The alternatives posed therefore are:

The Clay proposals,
The State Department’s variant of those proposals,
Adherence to the September 14, 1961 decision,
A decision to take no action at all.

The Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have told us they prefer General Clay’s proposals. However, if for any reason the General’s proposals are not politically acceptable, they consider that the State Department’s variant of those proposals represents an improvement over present plans.

General Norstad, in a message received today,4 generally supports General Clay’s suggestions but recommends in addition that “with the removal of the barricades, jeeps or other vehicles should be sent through immediately”. He specifies that “no arms would be used except as clearly necessary for defense or rescue purposes”.

As far as the State Department is concerned, we consider that earlier reservations concerning the consequences of forceful removal of barriers are in the main eliminated by limiting the action outlined in the State Department variant of the Clay proposals. The Clay proposals as they now stand are not sufficiently limited in this respect and therefore would not seem to be acceptable. The same is even true of the Norstad proposals. And insofar as General Clay’s suggestion that no reaction is [Page 502] preferable to what he terms weak action, this seems to be the least desirable alternative.

The State Department further believes that adoption of any of the alternative proposals should be subject to the agreement of the British and French.

For your use, I am enclosing a photograph of the Friedrichstrasse crossing point, as well as a map showing the Friedrichstrasse area.5

George W. Ball
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, NSAM 107. Secret. The source text bears no drafting information.
  2. Document 148.
  3. Clay made these recommendations in telegram 674 from Berlin, October 5. (Department of State, Central Files, 762.00/10-561)
  4. Telegram 2017 from Paris, October 14. (Ibid., 762.00/10-1461)
  5. Neither found.