300. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Berlin


  • Germany
    • Ambassador Grewe
    • Dr. Schnippenkoetter
  • United States
    • The President
    • Secretary Rusk
    • Mr. Hillenbrand

Ambassador Grewe said he had just returned from twelve days in Bonn and had had the opportunity to see the Chancellor prior to his departure for Washington. The Chancellor had told him to express his gratitude for the information given him by Dr. Kissinger during their recent talk.2 The President commented that our reports also indicated that they had a good conversation, but that he was concerned that we did not seem to be able to get our position across clearly. The Chancellor had expressed certain concern about matters which we thought had previously been completely clarified, and there always seemed to be a necessity to provide reassurances. We had been trying to make the points stressed by Kissinger since last June. Referring to the Chancellor’s remarks about the decline of US prestige, the President said he could not understand what the basis of this observation was. We were carrying the major burden of the struggle against the Communists by providing economic assistance on a major scale throughout the world, and we were making every effort to strengthen both our nuclear and conventional military capacity. Yet there was this constant need to reassure the Germans.

Ambassador Grewe observed that he sympathized with the President’s point but there were special circumstances. The President again asked why it was so hard to obtain understanding of our position. The Secretary observed that Dr. Kissinger had gone to Germany without any special instructions. He had covered matters which we took for granted, [Page 831] and yet the Chancellor had found his remarks reassuring as if they contained new information. Ambassador Grewe said a source of misunderstanding was that the Chancellor was inclined too much to listen to narrow advice from the military, who did not think in terms of the political implications of US strategy within the framework of Berlin contingency plans.

The President stated that the situation which might develop over Berlin deserved serious thought. We wanted to convince the Soviets, in the event of a major confrontation, that the US was prepared to go all out and that this deserved a last thought on their part. No one expected to fight a conventional war in Europe, which we could not do without being overwhelmed. While the naval blockade favored by the Chancellor had a role to play in the context of Allied contingency plans, by itself it would not suffice and would certainly cause the Soviets to react with military force elsewhere. The President again expressed concern that it seemed necessary to reiterate repeatedly clarifications of US policy and of our strategic position which we thought had been fully explained during the November visit of the Chancellor. We were accordingly concerned that our effort to communicate with the Chancellor in the past had not seemed to make the desired impression.

Ambassador Grewe said that the basic agreement reached during the November meetings with the Chancellor in Washington still existed.3 We had come much closer together in our military concepts than at the time of the August crisis. Mr. Nitze’s explanation of the four-stage approach was close to German thinking.

The President said we were aware that German estimates of Soviet conventional strength and availabilities in Europe were greater than ours. We have stated that, if we face a major defeat in Europe, then nuclear weapons will be used, but we must exhaust the full battery of other possibilities before pressing the button. The Secretary said he hoped one point at least had been cleared up. Although NATO plans at the time of the Adenauer visit contemplated a fallback to the Weser-Rhine Line, we were talking in terms of a conventional force which would permit a forward strategy. Ambassador Grewe again referred to the fact that the Chancellor was old-fashioned in his thinking and was influenced too much by the views of the generals. The President observed that 30 divisions was not too much to expect of Europe and the Western countries could afford to raise them. The US took this question quite seriously. We felt our survival was tied up with that of Western Europe. We should all start with this common premise and not have to restate it and to reassure the Chancellor all the time. We will go as far as any and farther than [Page 832] most in the defense of West Berlin. The Ambassador said he believed that as a result of the Kissinger conversation, the Chancellor was now convinced of the military superiority of the US over the Soviet Union.

The President then referred to the Chancellor’s somewhat derogatory remarks about the product of the Ambassadorial Group in Washington, and asked what Grewe’s view was regarding the discussions which had been held in this forum. Ambassador Grewe said he did not feel such remarks should be taken too seriously; the Chancellor generally tended to be disparaging about such activities. The President observed that the Soviets certainly had not given us much reason for hope. He believed that, with the present stalemate in discussions with the Soviets, we were moving into a difficult spring and summer during which Khrushchev might feel impelled to move ahead with his signature of a separate peace treaty. If such a treaty brought with it the consequences which the Soviets had threatened, a confrontation between the Soviets and Western Powers would result. The Secretary asked what the German view was as to the next steps to be taken. Ambassador Grewe said his Government felt that the Thompson-Gromyko talks had come close to an impasse, but should be extended as long as possible. His Government did not feel, however, that the substantive scope of talks with the Soviets should be expanded at the present time since they were apparently not prepared to negotiate seriously but merely wanted one-sided Western concessions which they could pocket for the future.

After reiterating his belief that the Soviets might feel impelled to move ahead with their signature of a separate peace treaty in the spring or summer, the President said that the conversations with the Soviets had been useful in demonstrating their intransigence so far on two critical points: their insistence on the presence of Soviet troops in West Berlin if Western troops were to remain, and their insistence on the termination of the Allied presence in Berlin after a temporary period. Before a confrontation on this issue we wanted to be sure that we had covered the entire range of possibilities with the Soviets and had confirmed their intransigence in other areas as well. Then we could move into a crisis with the assurance that we had done all we reasonably could do, and would thus have greater certainty of the support of our public opinions and of other countries. The President said he did not have particular points in mind about “the range of possibilities”, but he thought all of us should be thinking about them.

Ambassador Grewe said he was not so sure that the Soviets would move ahead with their signature of a separate peace treaty. They had taken the position that such a peace treaty would have serious consequences, and these consequences would inevitably lead to a crisis. Bonn was not certain that Khrushchev wanted this. The developments since August 13, particularly the US military build-up, had convinced [Page 833] Khrushchev that a dangerous situation was developing. The President observed that the military build-up had done this more than de Gaulle’s refusal to negotiate, but he felt we must still look forward to a difficult spring and summer for the reasons he had stated.

In the exchange which followed, the President reiterated his point about the desirability of making sure that we had exhausted all reasonable possibilities with the Soviets before moving into the stage of crisis, while the German Ambassador reaffirmed the German view that talks with the Soviets should continue to be restricted to the narrow front so far observed by Thompson in his talks with Gromyko.

In response to the President’s query as to whether there was much pressure in the Federal Republic in the direction of bilateral talks with the Soviets, Ambassador Grewe said that such pressure did not exist on any significant scale. No major segment of German public opinion supported a bilateral initiative.

Referring to a talk which Mr. McCloy recently had with the Chancellor,4 the President wondered whether the Bonn view was that West Berlin was essentially a tripartite problem. Grewe said this was true only in a formal sense. The Federal Republic obviously had a great substantive interest in Berlin but felt that the basic principle of over-all Four-Power responsibility had to be maintained. The President said he understood this, but that the maintenance of Western rights in Berlin was not essentially a legal problem. It was the threat of force which deterred the Soviets. Ambassador Grewe said the Germans accepted this, and had indicated that they stood together with the three Western Powers in the common cause and were not seeking an escape clause.

The President again returned to the Chancellor’s emphasis on the role of a naval blockade which had been reported by Dr. Kissinger, and repeated his point that while this obviously had a role to play in Allied contingency planning along with economic countermeasures, it was important that Khrushchev not get the wrong idea that this was all the Allies would do. What was important was the impression given the Soviets.

After the President had once again mentioned the need to explore all reasonable possibilities, Ambassador Grewe said he agreed with the need to explore, but his Government had difficulty in extending the field of exploration to so-called “broader questions”. It knew perfectly well that this meant “European security”, and discussions of this subject would not improve the Western position. Before the Geneva talks start in mid-March, his Government felt the need for a common reassessment of the present situation. It considered it inevitable, if the Soviet Foreign [Page 834] Minister and the Secretary were in Geneva at the same time, that the subject of Berlin would arise. The President observed that this would be true even if Khrushchev went to Geneva and the Secretary were there. He agreed that there should be a complete exchange of views before the Geneva meetings using the mechanism of the Ambassadorial Group.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 762.00/2-1962. Secret; Eyes Only. Drafted by Hillenbrand and approved by the White House on March 5 and in S on February 23. A summary of this conversation was transmitted to Bonn in telegram 2283, February 19. (Ibid., 611.62A/2-1962) Memoranda of the President’s conversations with Grewe on Adenauer’s meeting with de Gaulle, German vested assets, and German purchase of U.N. bonds are in the Kennedy Library, President’s Office Files, France, and Department of State, Presidential Memoranda of Conversation: Lot 66 D 149.
  2. See Document 298.
  3. See Documents 216219.
  4. Not further identified.