30. Memorandum of Conversation1



Paris, May 31-June 2, 1961


  • Wednesday Morning Talks


  • United States
    • President Kennedy
    • Mr. Glenn (Interpreter)
  • France
    • General de Gaulle
    • Mr. Andronikoff (Interpreter)

The President opened by saying that the range of problems common to the two countries extends all over the world from Laos through Africa and Latin America. There is, however, the problem of Berlin which is particularly important at this moment as it may come up during the week end talks with Mr. Khrushchev. What is General de Gaulle’s point of view on this question?

The President then reported the conversations between Mr. Khrushchev and Ambassador Thompson3 in which Mr. Khrushchev said that he had waited long enough, that he has commitments in this area and that his prestige is engaged. He said therefore that after the elections, it is time for him (Khrushchev) to carry out his commitments. Ambassador Thompson spoke of the Western commitments in the area and particularly of the presence of Western troops. Mr. Khrushchev said that those troops should prepare themselves to tighten their belts.

The President again asked the General for his thoughts about the manner in which this question should be discussed with Mr. Khrushchev. Backing down on Berlin would clearly represent a defeat for the Western Alliance and result in a very serious weakening thereof. What is General de Gaulle’s opinion on this question, not only for the immediate future but also for the longer range point of view?

There seemed to be two possibilities. One is to say that neither the status of Berlin nor the right of the Western Powers to free access to and [Page 81] from Berlin are subjects for negotiation. The other one is that the right of free access to Berlin is not a subject of negotiation but that the future status of Berlin can be a subject of discussion. If the second position is taken, it might lead to some talks about Berlin such as the ones which took place in Geneva at an earlier date.4 Such talks will be fruitless but will give the appearance of a negotiation.

General de Gaulle replied that for two and a half years, Mr. Khrushchev has been saying and repeating that his prestige is engaged in the Berlin question and that he will have to have a solution of it in six months, and then again in six months and then still in six months. This seems to indicate that Mr. Khrushchev does not want war. If he had wanted war about Berlin he would have acted already. This is a psychological question. General de Gaulle had already said to Mr. Khrushchev: “It is annoying to both sides that Berlin should be located where it is; however, it is there.” There is no reason why the Western Allies should withdraw. Under the circumstances, why is it that Mr. Khrushchev keeps on raising the question of Berlin. “You pretend,” said General de Gaulle to him, “that you seek a detente. If such is the case, proceed with a detente. If you want peace, start with general disarmament negotiations. Under the circumstances, the entire world situation may change little by little and then we will solve the question of Berlin and the entire German question. However, if you insist on raising the question of Berlin within the context of the cold war, then no solution is possible. What do you want? Do you want war?” Mr. Khrushchev had replied that he didn’t want it. In that case, de Gaulle told him, do nothing that can bring it about.5

The President said that the question was how to make the Western position believed by Mr. Khrushchev. There is a danger that he might not believe in our firmness. The General himself had asked whether we would be ready to trade New York for Paris. If the General himself, who has worked together with the United States for so long, could question American firmness, Mr. Khrushchev can question it also. The problem then is how to convince him.

General de Gaulle said it is a situation with which we are faced. It is important to show that we do not intend to let this situation change. If we were to retreat, if we were to accept a change in the status of Berlin, if we were to accept a withdrawal of the Western troops from Berlin, or if we were to accept that obstacles be put to our communications with Berlin, this would be the defeat. It would result in an almost complete loss [Page 82] of Germany and in very serious losses within France, Italy and elsewhere. We must not retreat before Soviet dictation. Now, in speaking with Mr. Khrushchev, we must make it clear that we are not asking for anything. It is he who seeks a change. That change we reject. If he uses the GDR to stop us, then we will push through the GDR because it is obvious that we are stronger than the GDR. If he wants war, we must make it clear to him that he will have it. But the General does not think that Mr. Khrushchev wants war.

The President asked what would happen if Mr. Khrushchev signs a peace treaty with the GDR—for such a possibility clearly exists—and if he transfers the inspection rights to the GDR, if furthermore the GDR begins by stamping all travel documents and then possibly step by step renders communications more difficult, what would be our position in such a case? Should we act immediately as soon as a treaty is signed and as soon as the GDR assuming the rights of inspection begins to stamp documents, or should we wait to act until such time as restrictions are imposed on our communications?

General de Gaulle said that we cannot prevent Mr. Khrushchev from signing anything he wishes with the GDR. This is his own Communist business and none of ours. We must, however, make it clear that no matter what he does with the GDR it will not be recognized by us in any way. Our position remains that there can be no peace treaty except as signed by all four powers. We must also make it clear to Mr. Khrushchev that no internal Communist document between him and the GDR changes in any way the position that the responsibility concerning Berlin is a Russian responsibility (as well as, of course, a responsibility of the Western Allies) and that it can change only if all four powers agree to a change. It must be made clear to Mr. Khrushchev that we do not recognize any duality between him and the GDR. To us, both are one and the same thing. We do not accept any stamping of papers by the GDR. What they sign between themselves is their business, but we might make it immediately clear that we do not accept any consequences of their action. Should we wait, we could be drawn into serious difficulties. In particular, we could even be brought to a state of affairs where we would have lost without seeming to have lost but in a way which would be understood by the entire world. In particular, the population of Berlin is not made up exclusively of heroes. In the face of something which they would interpret as our weakness, they might begin to leave Berlin and make it into an empty shell to be picked up by the East.

It is the firm opinion of the General that the course of action which he outlined is a necessary one. If Mr. Khrushchev had wanted to go to war, he would have done it already.

[Page 83]

However, this is the question of the general Soviet intentions which the two Presidents will be discussing later.

Another point is that the thing which may be discussed is not the particular situation of Berlin but rather the general situation of Germany. If Mr. Khrushchev wishes to talk about it, we can talk about it once more. But we should not talk about Berlin in isolation and we should ask Mr. Khrushchev outright if he wants to humiliate us—in which case he will not succeed—or does he want war?

The President asked in what manner this could be handled in detail. If Mr. Khrushchev signs a treaty with the GDR, this in itself is no reason for a military retaliation on our part. If the GDR starts stamping travel documents, this is not, per se, a cause for military action either. In what way, therefore, at what moment, shall we bring our pressure to bear? Right now Mr. Khrushchev can sign a peace treaty, the GDR can start stamping documents and then little by little, it can make the situation more difficult, causing the economic ruin of Berlin. How do we answer that?

General de Gaulle answered that the criterion is the use of force either by the Soviets directly or by the GDR. If either he or his lackeys use force to cut our communications with Berlin, then we must use force. We must see clearly that no GDR exists other than the Soviets themselves and that no matter what documents Mr. Khrushchev signs, the responsibility in regard to Berlin remains his.

The President said that he agreed. If we should weaken, then we should have suffered a severe blow in both Western Germany and in all of Europe, a blow which would not be mortal but would be serious. The point is how to convince Mr. Khrushchev of our firmness. Let us again look at the situation which might follow a signature of a treaty between the Soviet Union and eastern Germany and the stamping of documents by the GDR and the stoppage of our access to Berlin. Is the General satisfied with the Allied plans as they exist right now and which in such a case we call for a demonstration in approximately company strength and in case of failure, possibly in brigade strength? Are these good plans?

General de Gaulle replied that there is no possibility of a military victory for us in the area of Berlin. What we must make clear is that if there is any fighting around Berlin, this means general war.

Prior to adjourning for lunch, the President asked General de Gaulle about the manner in which the fourth estate should be handled.

General de Gaulle replied that the French do not intend to say anything at all for the present.

  1. Source: Department of State, Conference Files: Lot 66 D 110, CF 1891. Secret. Drafted by Glenn. The meeting was held at the Elysee Palace. A summary was transmitted in telegram 5266 from Paris, May 31. (Ibid., CF 1893) For de Gaulle’s account of the President’s visit, see Memoires d’Espoir, pp. 267-271. Additional documentation on the President’s visit to Paris is in Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, volume XIII.
  2. See Document 24.
  3. For documentation on the Geneva Foreign Ministers Meeting May 11-August 5, 1959, see Foreign Relations, 1958–1960, volume VIII.
  4. Regarding de Gaulle’s conversations with Khrushchev on Berlin in March 1960, see footnote 4, Document 6.