304. Memorandum of Conference With President Kennedy1

Bi-Partisan Congressional Leaders—Off The Record

[Here follows a list of participants, which included the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Vice President, and 20 other Senators and Congressmen.]

The President opened the meeting with an outline of the briefers and the items he wanted them to cover. He indicated that Secretary Rusk would cover Berlin, including the Gromyko/Thompson talks, and the buzzing of our planes in the corridors. Secretary McNamara, who was just back from Hawaii, would discuss Viet-Nam and Laos, assisted by Mr. Harriman and General Lemnitzer.

Mr. Rusk indicated that he would discuss Berlin in three stages. The first stage was mid-summer, which was a period of the Soviets making threats against us, and the other allies. After eight weeks, the Soviets finally faced the fact that this was not going to get them what they wanted in Berlin.

The second stage began when the President made his July 25, 1961 speech, and with the support given by the Congress, we changed the atmosphere. There was no war, and the Soviets lifted their deadline on the signing of a peace treaty with East Germany. Gromyko came here to visit and both the President and Secretary Rusk talked to him. Out of this period came a general feeling of agreement that the Soviets and the Western powers must talk.

The third stage of these developments was highlighted by the discussions between Thompson and Gromyko. Secretary Rusk reported that, as a result of this series of talks, there is still no significant progress. He said that the Soviets are staying with their same position that World War II must be liquidated and West Berlin must become a de-militarized and neutralized city, with access to it to be settled with the East Germans. This is a position which the West cannot accept. All the West is agreed on the fundamental position on Berlin, which is clearly known (Secretary Rusk reiterated our position).

Secretary Rusk reported that these talks have been useful. We firmly established with the Soviets that the U.S. is not going to give up, and that the Soviets cannot share in West Berlin as long as they are going [Page 838] to be the grabbers of East Berlin. We have also made clear that no three-to-five year agreement on Berlin would be an acceptable compromise, because at the end of that time the whole matter would be wide open again and we would have the same problems all over. In the talks, we have also made it clear that there are no gimmicks or gadgets, but that this is a straight-forward searching for substantive agreement. The Soviets have made it clear that they have absorbed East Berlin, and having done so, East Berlin is not negotiable nor to be discussed. They have set about trying to discuss with us the future of West Berlin without the unification of East and West Germany.

Turning next to the problem of the air corridors, Secretary Rusk made it clear that the air access to West Berlin was the most sensitive of the various means of access because so far it is the only “uncensored” method of access.

The Secretary then summarized the actions of the past few days, including the Soviet techniques for preempting the corridors. The Secretary made clear that we do not accept their reserving of an entire corridor up to 7500 feet because that would be the first step toward eventual taking over of one whole corridor, and perhaps the prelude to a more complete interruption of our access. He explained briefly the types of missions we had flown to keep the corridors open.

The President said that they had already set a ceiling of 10,000 feet, and Secretary Rusk agreed, but said that we had never admitted that we were limited to a 10,000 foot ceiling, and that our actions had been designed to make sure that we did not give up any part of the corridors below 10,000 so that we would finally be confined to an altitude of 7500 to 10,000 feet. The U.S. rejected these demands and we put our planes through daily. The Soviets have been flying very close, as close as two meters to our aircraft, trying to get our pilots to land, but our pilots have shown great skill and nerve and have not given in. Their latest gambit is to file flight plans in accordance with the rules. In a sense, it is a legal way of preempting the air space, and we are not now sure of their purpose in this.

In summary on the Berlin problem, we are not convinced that the Soviets themselves are sure of what course of action they are going to follow. There are indications that they are talking it over and thinking it over among themselves. We haven’t had any indication from the Soviet Union in the past four weeks of whether they intend now to press forward with their peace treaty or, on the other hand, choose the course of sitting down and having some serious talks. We just don’t know. They are convinced now, we believe, that what they want cannot be had. We don’t know whether their alternative to this is seeking a modus vivendi with no crisis, or whether they want to push this thing on to a crisis. We expect Thompson to have some more talks, seeking to clarify some of [Page 839] these things, but right now we cannot report that we are moving toward an agreement. None of their movements or actions indicate that they are getting ready for an intensification or a military action of any kind over Berlin. There are instruments of harassment in their hand which they can use against us, but we don’t intend to sit idly by and watch them. We expect to react sharply and immediately so that they have no false conception of our position in the matter. After more talks with Gromyko, we may know whether there is any chance of a settlement of this matter. We are going to keep the way open for settlement while making the West position utterly clear. The West is convinced that the best way of preventing a war is to make it absolutely plain that we won’t be pushed.

The President then said there would be time for questions later. Meanwhile, Secretary McNamara would go ahead with his part of the briefing.

[Here follows discussion of unrelated subjects.]

Secretary Rusk then added a comment on the Berlin matter. There have been stories emanating from across the Atlantic about allied disunity, and Secretary Rusk pointed out that we have been acting with complete unity on the Berlin issue. We are sitting down daily with the four who are involved in Berlin and more than once a week with our NATO friends, and the only point of difference is that General de Gaulle has a question about what kind of negotiations we should enter into with the Soviets. He added that the negotiating problems with the Russians were not because of the rigidity of the allies. Some have said that the Germans have been so rigid that we have no basis of discussions with the Russians. The problem at this time is the rigidity of the Russians. The allies pose no problem.

Senator Russell2 asked that if the planes which have been harassing in the corridors were Russian or planes with East German markings. Secretary Rusk confirmed that they were Russian fighters. Senator Russell then made the comment that the Russians have been insisting that we observe the sovereignty of the East Germans all the time, including the checkpoint, and that this intervention by Russian fighters was highly inconsistent. [3 lines of source text not declassified]

[Here follows discussion of unrelated subjects.]

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Chester V. Clifton Series, Conferences with the President. Top Secret. The source text bears no drafting information. The meeting was held in the Cabinet Room of the White House.
  2. Senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia.