31. Memorandum of Conversation1



Paris, May 31-June 2, 1961


  • Wednesday Afternoon Talks


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


The President opened with a summation of the morning talks on Berlin.2 The positions of the two countries are fully in agreement. If Mr. Khrushchev signs a treaty with the G.D.R. in spite of warnings from the West, the two countries should advise immediately as to a common response. Secondly, the military of the two countries should study the contingency plans so as to translate into such plans the best thinking of both governments. This should be coordinated with the British. The President does not know what the British position is. He hopes, however, that the British share the one of the French and Americans.

General de Gaulle said he had already discussed this question with the British.3 Mr. Macmillan’s position is not clear and he is somewhat hesitant. He cannot, however, take any other position than the one agreed upon by the two Presidents and he does not really wish to take any other position. As for a tactical approach to Mr. Khrushchev, it should be a direct one and not one based on legalistic argumentation. We should ask Mr. Khrushchev what is it that he wants. If what he wants is for us to retreat, this is something that we do not want. If he uses force, we will use force. He represents a great power and so do we. Great powers, and this means the U.S. and also the U.K. and France, cannot be treated as if they were insignificant entities. Mr. Khrushchev says that [Page 85] he is sensitive to his prestige and so are we. This is a type of language which fits in with Mr. Khrushchev’s view of the world and which he appreciates.

The President asked whether there wasn’t something which would go beyond mere words which we should do in order to convince Mr. Khrushchev of our firmness. The danger is that Mr. Khrushchev might not believe that we would resort to war and that in consequence he might try to undertake the strangulation of Berlin step by step, thus bringing about a situation without issue. The President does not believe that the present military plans are satisfactory. They speak only of a first probing action so weak that it could be stopped by a couple of companies. No decision has been taken about probing in brigade, division or several division strength. It is necessary that Mr. Khrushchev be made to understand that we are decided, if necessary, to wage nuclear warfare. At the present moment he may believe that the position of the U.K., for example, is hesitant and that he can gain everything by undertaking actions none of which taken individually would be enough of a provocation, but all of which taken together would destroy our position. In order to keep him from taking such a risk, we must make our position clear by actions. The United States is proceeding with strengthening the material capabilities of its armed forces; additional common planning might be useful. In 1949, we had nuclear superiority and we resorted to the air lift in Berlin. At the present moment, the Soviet Union has great nuclear capabilities and Mr. Khrushchev may think that we would not dare to go equally far.

President de Gaulle replied that it is true that Mr. Khrushchev must be made to understand that we will stand firm. It would be good indeed if some strengthening of the Berlin garrisons were undertaken. If the United States does it, France and the U.K could proceed in parallel. (Note: It seems that there was a slight misunderstanding between the two Presidents. President Kennedy seems to have spoken about the strengthening of the material of the U.S. forces in general; President de Gaulle seems to have understood this as strengthening in material of the Berlin garrisons.) President de Gaulle then said that in 1949 the air lift proved relatively easy as the West had nuclear superiority. At the present moment, the situation is not the same. Nevertheless, a useful action in the direction suggested by the President would be the public strengthening of the Air Force units having the capability of carrying out an air lift. This would clarify the situation, because the only thing which can be done against air lift is to shoot a plane down. This is an act of war and a clear act of war. It is possible to quibble about when force is actually used to stop some trucks or to stop a train, but it is impossible to deny that force is being used when a plane is shot down. The U.S. is right [Page 86] in strengthening the Berlin garrisons but a clearer action would be to strengthen air lift capabilities.

The President said that at the present moment the question of supplying the Berlin garrisons does not create a problem as there exists a capability of four sorties a day which is sufficient. The problem is more difficult in regard to supplying the civilian population. Nevertheless, the West still has time to study that question, which is unlikely to create any complications before the end of the summer.

President de Gaulle said that there is another aspect of a possible Berlin Blockade which is worth mentioning and that is that of the economic situation in Russia. Russia is no longer economically self-sufficient. She seeks trade relations with the West. Likewise, the G.D.R. needs trade relations with West Germany, on which it depends for its very life. This is something which has changed since ’49 and which Mr. Khrushchev must take into account. There is, therefore, a possibility of economic retaliation in addition to the military action and this economic retaliation is something which Mr. Khrushchev must take into account because he needs trade with the West. For example, Russia has recently bought sixty thousand tons of meat from France. As for Berlin, it has supplies for its civilian population for six months which would give the West time. Generally speaking, the West is not as weak as people think in regard to the Berlin question and Mr. Khrushchev must be made to understand this.

[Here follows discussion of Laos and Africa.]

  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 5278 from Paris, June 1. (Ibid., CF 1893)
  2. See Document 30.
  3. For Macmillan’s account of his conversations with de Gaulle on Berlin, during the latter’s visit to England November 24-29, 1960, see Pointing the Way, pp. 415-425.