286. Letter From the Ambassador to Yugoslavia (Kennan) to the Ambassador to the Soviet Union (Thompson)1

Dear Tommy: Perhaps you have seen the Department’s circular airgram CA-909,2 summarizing certain views—whether of our Berlin Mission or of its local acquaintances is not clear—concerning Soviet intentions and probable reactions on the Berlin problem. You probably saw, in fact, the original messages from which it was prepared. Let me—since I would not know where better to turn—pour out to you some of the concern and misgiving which this communication inflicts upon me.

The basic assumption underlying the views set forth in this airgram appears to be that the Russians are bluffing over Berlin; that if confronted with a flat no, they can be depended upon to back down; that there is thus no reason to discuss the problem of Berlin with them at all, much less to come forward with any constructive ideas of our own about it; and that no seriously undesirable consequences are to be feared from so passive and negative an attitude. It is of course true that this assumption might appear to be sustained by the experience of the three and a quarter years that have passed since Khrushchev inaugurated the present phase of this problem. The West, generally, has followed a [Page 803] course of action which, whether actually based on this assumption or not, is certainly not in conflict with it. Yet no war has ensued; nothing worse has occurred to Berlin itself than the building of the wall; and the possibility that Khrushchev’s personal position might have suffered in a manner detrimental to western interests is one which responsible western circles have found it possible to view, up to this time, either with incredulity or indifference.

But whether even this seemingly happy picture would justify the assumptions about the future reflected in the Berlin view seems to me another matter. The very weakness of the Ulbricht regime must surely continue to prevent the Russians from accepting with complacency an indefinite continuation of the present situation in Berlin. Moscow cannot realistically be expected to acquiesce happily and passively for any length of time in a situation which permits the western powers and the West Germans both to hold West Berlin as a defensive bastion of political freedom and at the same time to use it as a forward device for keeping alive hopes of eventual unification, for encouraging the East German population in this way to continue to refrain from making their peace with the Ulbricht regime, and thus for perpetuating weakness and instability in the GDR. So long as the present state of affairs exists, the Russians must be expected to continue to agitate the Berlin problem, and the German problem generally, in any way they can, with all the dangerous implications this bears for world peace.

These reflections do not support the hope that Moscow, confronted with frustration in the present phase of the exchanges over Berlin, will simply desist and subside into passivity. And there could, it seems to me, be no greater frivolity on our part than to assume that there could never come a point, in the further tilting and maneuvering over this problem that is bound to follow, where Soviet prestige would become involved to a degree that would make it impossible for Moscow to withdraw empty-handed. I would know of nothing in the historical record to substantiate the thesis that Russians can be counted upon to be always bluffing. Nor do I see any reason to suppose that the aversion they undoubtedly feel to another major war could always be depended upon to keep them from getting into positions where even war, with all its horrors, would appear as the lesser of two monstrous evils. Yet this is the supposition which, to my mind, our Berlin Mission seems to be espousing; and the ease with which it seems to find acceptance in Bonn and Washington fills me with foreboding.

In general, I have never been able to go along with the tendency of some people to look to the populace of Berlin as an unfailing source of sound instinctive wisdom about the realities of the cold war. I yield to no one in my admiration for the Berliners, among whom I spent at least five years of my life, and whom I had opportunity to observe, in particular, [Page 804] under all the strains of wartime hardship. Yet I would certainly not regard them as an unfailing oracle of wisdom about the Russians.

Sound as may be their judgment about political realities in their own city, their tendency to draw inferences from this for the relationship of forces in the world as a whole, and for Russian reactions in given international situations, can hold great dangers for themselves and everyone else, if it is allowed to become a source of inspiration for western policy. Allowing that the communists of the eastern sector find themselves in so weak a situation that in the absence of Russian support they could easily be blown away by a show of fearless and aggressive militancy on the western side—this still does not constitute adequate reason for believing that the Soviet Government, if similarly challenged on a world scale, would react the same way. Berlin is not the world; and nothing could be more misleading, in application to world events, than the heroic and romantic approaches which, due to a favorable constellation of external factors, proved so effective in the case of the Berlin blockade, and to which so many Berliners continue to look as the panacea for all political ills.

Well, forgive me this outburst. Whether or not you agree with it, I think you will understand the concern from which it flows.

My clients here seem to be continuing, despite all setbacks and frustrations, to give priority to their effort to make themselves agreeable to Mr. Khrushchev; and there is a feeling in some quarters here that they have recently had somewhat greater success than previously. I shall be more inclined to attach importance to this when a date is named for Mr. Gromyko’s return visit to Belgrade. It seems, however, to be a sad truth that if the Soviet leaders were only to cast one inviting smile in this direction, Uncle Sam, with all his bouquets and food baskets, would be promptly forgotten by Tito and some of those who are now his closest advisers, and they would almost swoon in their eagerness to bask in this eastern sunshine. What the result would be for Yugoslavia’s economic situation, I shudder to think. I suspect that if our economic help were to be wholly withdrawn there would actually be a secondary reaction here which would shake the regime, and the society in which it lives, to the foundation.

Warmest regards.


George K.
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 762.00/2-962. Confidential; Official-Informal.
  2. Not found.