224. Letter From the Ambassador to the Soviet Union (Thompson) to Secretary of State Rusk1

Dear Mr. Secretary: I received your letter of November 15 in the last pouch and have now studied the documents enclosed with it.2 Khrushchev’s letter of November 9 is in substance probably the toughest [Page 635]statement of his position to date although couched in polite language. It certainly destroys any hope that might have been built up by his talks with Spaak and others and Gromyko’s talks with you and the President, that a broad settlement of the Berlin-German problems is possible at this time. I find it particularly disturbing that this hard line coincides with the Soviet resumption of testing and the move against Finland. I have no satisfactory explanation but suggest the following factors may have played a role.

Khrushchev may have been misled by the Gromyko talks and the fact that some of his statements were not specifically rebutted.
Khrushchev may have been over-encouraged by the splits in the Western ranks. Important among these in my opinion is the apparent British tendency to compromise and particularly to accept at least de facto recognition of the GDR. Moreover, Soviet intelligence may have become aware that there are some people in West Germany who would be willing to sacrifice West Berlin by some formula which would obscure the fact that they were doing so. Kroll saw Khrushchev at 11 am on November 9th. Khrushchev’s letter was almost certainly written after that interview and he may have gained the impression from Kroll that he could make as good a deal or better with the West Germans as with the Allies. Hence by taking a strong line with the President he has a double shot—one at trying to get a favorable agreement with the Allies and, if that fails, having a go with the Germans. If, in fact, the four point program which was leaked to the press that night came from the Soviets as I believe, Khrushchev has the added possibility of splitting the West by floating a reasonable-sounding plan publicly while being tough with the President privately.
Khrushchev is subject to pressures both within the Soviet Union and within the Bloc, and he could certainly use a success in foreign affairs. I am convinced that their agricultural failures are quite serious and that the de-Stalinization campaign will have deep and far-reaching effects.
Khrushchev is undoubtedly concerned at the weakness of the East German regime and is unwilling if not unable to assist it by massive economic aid.
Despite his disclaimer, the position taken in his letter is no doubt a negotiating one and I cannot believe he seriously would expect us to accept it.
Although he does not touch on it in his last letter, the Soviets seem convinced that West Germany will obtain atomic arms and doubtless wish to batten down the hatches before this happens. Along the same line, there are doubtless many Soviets who think that “certain circles” [Page 636]in the United States are bent upon the breakup of the communist empire even at the risk of war.

Turning to another aspect of the matter, I am puzzled by Khrushchev’s continued use of this channel. Now that he knows that you and I are informed the logical assumption is that he wishes to keep it from someone in the Soviet Union. This could be from some of his colleagues in the Presidium or it could be the Soviet military. In view of his hard line and the over-all military disadvantages, I should think that of the two, the military is the more likely. Another possible explanation is that he might be using this correspondence to keep Ulbricht quiet while he publicly pursues a more conciliatory line. Along the same order of ideas, he may wish to keep the British persuaded that successful negotiations are possible, and to keep the French from getting ammunition with which to oppose negotiations. This brings up the question as to whether it would be wise to show this exchange secretly to Macmillan and possibly Home. I can see no possible advantage to the British in leaking it and it should have the effect of strengthening their position. It seems to me that unity in the West is the most important factor if we are to be successful in the difficult negotiations that lie ahead.

I should think the President should in reply express his shock at Khrushchev’s position, state that evidently there is little hope for a broad agreement at this time but that we should at least make every effort to prevent war and that we are in course of working out our position with our Allies and will be in touch through other channels.

With all best wishes,

  1. Source: Department of State, Presidential Correspondence: Lot 77 D 163. Top Secret; Eyes Only.
  2. The letter is not printed. (Ibid.) Attached to it were Documents 162, 179, and 209 and a November 10 letter on Laos and Vietnam.