181. Letter From the President’s Special Representative in Berlin (Clay) to President Kennedy 1

Dear Mr. President: I had not reported to you prior to receipt of your letter2 as I am only now beginning to have a real feel of the situation and no specific incident had occurred of sufficient import to bring to your personal attention.

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I realize all of the political and military implications involved in the Berlin problem, including the difficulties we face in reconciling our views with those of our Allies, including West Germany. At the same time we must retain the confidence of West Berlin. Otherwise, the flight of capital and responsible citizens could destroy our position here, and the indicated loss of confidence in us would spread throughout the world. Unfortunately the West Berliner is concerned only with what we do. The failure of the British or French to react promptly when incidents occur does not disturb the West Berliner; if we fail, he is dismayed.

Perhaps my greatest concern is that the trespassing on our rights which has taken place in the last several months has been by east German forces; mainly east German police, while Soviet forces have been far in the background. I do not believe that we should have gone to war to stop the creation of the wall, but I do believe that we should have taken sufficient action to force Soviet participation and that this would not have led to war. At minimum, we could have moved back and forth across selected places on the border with unarmed military trucks and this limited action might well have prevented the wall. I was amazed to find that no specific action to this end was recommended here. If there is doubt here as to what to do it could not be expected that a prompt solution would come from elsewhere. I am not critical of our representatives here as they are of high quality. The restraints under which they operate have discouraged imagination and initiative. After all, it takes only a few disapprovals to discourage independent thinking and positive recommendations.

I have respect for our military leadership in Europe and I know the limits of its authority. I am concerned that even as able a Commander as Norstad can report as the American Commander without being influenced by his NATO hat. Perhaps independent viewpoints would be more valuable.

As to relations with the Military Command, I have made no recommendations to the local Commander which are not within the purview of the European Command. However, I can not accept the recommendations I do make to be tossed lightly aside at higher headquarters in Europe. Of course, these recommendations apply only to minor incidents as I would immediately call Washington in a major or emergent matter. However, it is the sum total of many minor invasions of our rights, no one of which seemed important, that cumulatively has resulted in serious and continuing erosion.

I feel strongly that prompt reaction is essential when an incident occurs which threatens a right, and that even a delay of a few hours makes it impossible to take action without increasing the risk of war. If we are to react properly and promptly, the local Commander must have the authority in emergency to act immediately with my advice and consent [Page 511] within the full range of the authority you have delegated to our Military Command in Europe.

Of course, we can not solve the Berlin problem by using force in Berlin. We can lose Berlin if we are unwilling to take some risk in using force to bring about Soviet confrontation even if we withdraw immediately when confronted with superior force. We could easily be backed into war by failing to make it clearly evident on the ground that we have reached the danger point.

Without going into detail, I would like to refer briefly to several recent events. News that refugees were in Steinstucken had reached West Berlin on the morning of my trip and would soon have become public. A failure on our part to rescue these refugees would have seriously damaged our position here. Also, prompt action in sending highway patrols drew strong Soviet protest but stopped harassment of our licensed vehicles on the autobahn. Similar prompt action in pushing military vehicles through Friedrich Strasse on Sunday stopped harassment of our licensed vehicles at our one remaining crossing into east Berlin. I realize the danger of escalation but it works both ways. These few simple actions on our part have eased tension here and restored confidence in West Berlin. I must add that I feel strongly about protecting our right to cross at Friedrich Strasse as we have built it up in the minds of the West Berliners as an important right by pushing as many vehicles as possible through each day.

To me, the handling of these minor harassments is more difficult than the handling of a major harassment. If a major harassment does occur, we must move to break it up by force, withdrawing only if met by superior force. If this occurs we may be sure that a new blockade is inevitable. If we are stopped on the highway, we must probe quickly and, I would think, from Berlin with light military strength to find out the depth of the intent. If our probe is stopped by superior force and compelled to withdraw, we should resort to an immediate air lift concurrently and publicly applying economic sanctions and blockade in an attempt to force Soviet action. If these steps are taken concurrently there will be no panic in West Berlin and we will gain the time for you to make the ultimate decision with calm and objective judgment. If our probe results in the destruction and capture of the force involved, it is of course evident that the Soviet government wants war.

I find it much more difficult to know what to do if rail and water traffic is stopped as a military probe would be of no value in developing intent. I would think we would have to content ourselves with air and highway traffic while this was negotiated.

I am not seriously alarmed at the present time over the morale of West Berlin. However, underneath the outward signs of a normal, prosperous city there is a very real tension. It is not a personal fear of an immediate [Page 512] danger but rather a doubt as to the future of the city as a desirable place to live and to raise a family. There is little if any unemployment at present; people are prosperous and living well. Of course, some of the stores and almost all of the entertainment enterprises have lost their east Berlin customers who had West German currency. I do not regard this as catastrophic. The flight of capital which followed the 13th of August has been stopped and the net loss of people is surprisingly small.

Long range, the problem is real. The Senat recognizes this and is planning carefully for the future. However, until the present crisis is over there can be little reality to the planning. Since the problem is neither pressing nor immediate, I am confident in the development of a program which will sustain the cultural, educational and economic vigor of West Berlin.

I also realize the difficulty in finding a solution to the West Berlin problem which does not create an even more serious West German problem, and that intense nationalism is on the rise in West Germany. Still, I find little evidence in West Germany of the will to fight and I doubt if the West German people are as determined as we are to defend Berlin. Many of the political leaders would like to fix the responsibility on us for any so-called concession in dealing at any level with an east German government. However, some of them are beginning to face the facts. Recently, I have reported conversations with two political leaders which, if they correctly present the views of their respective parties, would seem to make it possible to develop a common position. Obviously, it is most important for the West German government to participate in and to accept this common position so that they share in the responsibility of explaining it to the German people. Otherwise, intense national feeling could lead West Germany into breaking with the West. I hope the new government will seek to share in this responsibility rather than to avoid it and I believe this can be brought about.

It is certain that the measures you have taken to increase our military capabilities have been noted by the Russians and I have a feeling that they are being much more careful here now than a few weeks ago. I find it difficult to understand why this has not been equally effective in convincing our Allies, particularly West Germany, of our determination and in encouraging them to like measures.

I realize, Mr. President, that this is much too long a report to submit to you and I shall be much more brief in any future reports. I am honored to serve as your personal representative. However, I realize that no one knows quite what this means. I can assure you that here in West Berlin any failure to act positively and determinedly with me here in this capacity will be assumed to have your direct approval. Moreover, each time we fail to act my value as a symbol of American determination will [Page 513] diminish and, in fact, will result in greater loss of confidence than otherwise.

I have no ambition except to be of service to you in a critical place and time. Neither frustrations nor work bother me in the least as long as I am of service. I do not believe that you sent me here to live in a vacuum and I know that I can be of no real service if it is deemed wise to be extremely cautious in Berlin. Please understand that I do not now or will I ever question any decision you have made. I must advise you when I feel that any value I may have here as your representative is lost.

I may add, too, that I did not come here to add to your problems and that I am gladly expendable. I do want you to know that I would never permit myself to be made into a controversial figure in these critical times and that if you decide, or I find that I must report to you, that I serve no useful purpose here, I would withdraw only in a manner which would meet with your approval and would not add to the problem here.

With high respect.

Faithfully yours,

Lucius D. Clay
General, Retired
U.S. Army
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Germany, Berlin, General Clay. Top Secret. The source text bears no drafting information.
  2. Document 172.