32. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Meeting Between The President and Chairman Khrushchev in Vienna


  • US
    • The President
    • The Secretary
    • Ambassador Bohlen
    • Ambassador Thompson
    • EUR—Mr. Kohler
    • D—Mr. Akalovsky (interpreting)
  • USSR
    • Chairman Khrushchev
    • Foreign Minister Gromyko
    • Mr. Dobrynin, Chief, American Countries Division, USSR Ministry of Foreign Affairs
    • Ambassador Menshikov
    • Mr. Sukhodrev, Interpreter, USSR Ministry of Foreign Affairs

[Here follows discussion of Laos and disarmament.]

Turning to the question of Germany, Mr. Khrushchev said that he wanted to set forth his position. He said that he understands that this will affect the relations between our two countries to a great extent and even more so if the US were to misunderstand the Soviet position. Conversely, if the US understood the Soviet position correctly our two countries would be brought closer together rather than be divided. Sixteen years have passed since World War II. The USSR lost 20 million people in that War and many of its areas were devastated. Now Germany, the country which unleashed World War II, has again acquired military power and has assumed a predominant position in NATO. Its generals hold high offices in that organization. This constitutes a threat of World War III which would be even more devastating than World War II. The USSR believes that a line should be drawn under World War II. There is no explanation why there is no peace treaty 16 years after the war. This is [Page 88] why the USSR has suggested that a peace conference be convened. In this connection, the USSR proceeds from the actual state of affairs, namely, that two German States exist. Our own wishes or efforts notwithstanding, a united Germany is not practical because the Germans themselves do not want it. No delay in the matter of signing a peace treaty is justifiable and only West German militarists gain from such a delay. A peace treaty would not prejudice the interests of the US, the UK, or France; on the contrary, these interests would be best served by a peace treaty. The present situation looks as if the US opposes a peace treaty while the USSR wants it. Mr. Khrushchev said that he wanted the President to understand him correctly. He would like to reach agreement with the President—and he said he wanted to emphasize the words “with you”—on this question. If the US should fail to understand this desire the USSR will sign a peace treaty alone. The USSR will sign a peace treaty with the GDR and with the FRG if the latter so desires. If not, a peace treaty will be signed with the GDR alone. Then the state of war will cease and all commitments stemming from Germany’s surrender will become invalid. This would include all institutions, occupation rights, and access to Berlin, including the corridors. A free city of West Berlin will be established and there will be no blockade or interference in the internal affairs of the city. West Berlin should have a clearly defined status. If the US desires, guarantees could be given to ensure non-interference and the city’s ties with the outside world. If the US wants to leave its troops in West Berlin, that would be acceptable under certain conditions; however, the Soviet Union believes that in that case Soviet troops should be there too. Likewise, the USSR would be agreeable to having neutral troops stationed in Berlin. UN guarantees would be acceptable as well. The USSR would be prepared to join the US in ensuring all the conditions necessary for preserving what the West calls West Berlin’s freedom. However, if the US rejects this proposal—and the USSR will regard such an action as having been made under the pressure of Adenauer—the USSR will sign a peace treaty unilaterally and all rights of access to Berlin will expire because the state of war will cease to exist.

The President said that first of all he wanted to express his appreciation of the fact that Mr. Khrushchev had set forth his views in such a frank manner. At the same time the discussion here is not only about the legal situation but also about the practical facts which affect very much our national security. Here, we are not talking about Laos. This matter is of greatest concern to the US. We are in Berlin not because of someone’s sufferance. We fought our way there, although our casualties may have been not as high as the USSR’s. We are in Berlin not by agreement of East Germans but by contractual rights. This is an area where every President of the US since World War II has been committed by treaty and other contractual rights and where every President has reaffirmed his [Page 89] faithfulness to his obligations. If we were expelled from that area and if we accepted the loss of our rights no one would have any confidence in US commitments and pledges. US national security is involved in this matter because if we were to accept the Soviet proposal US commitments would be regarded as a mere scrap of paper. West Europe is vital to our national security and we have supported it in two wars. If we were to leave West Berlin Europe would be abandoned as well. So when we are talking about West Berlin we are also talking about West Europe. The President said he would like to see the relations between our two countries develop in a favorable direction so that some arrangement could be found. Mr. Khrushchev seems to agree that the ratios of power today are equal. Therefore, it is difficult to understand why a country with high achievements in such areas as outer space and economic progress should now suggest that we leave an area where we have vital interests. How can the US agree to East Germany’s preventing it from exercising our rights we had won by war? The United States cannot accept an ultimatum. Our leaving West Berlin would result in the US becoming isolated. The President emphasized that he is not President of the US to preside over isolation of his country just as Mr. Khrushchev, as leader of the USSR, would not want to see his own country isolated.

Mr. Khrushchev interjected that he understood this to mean that the President did not want a peace treaty. He said that the President’s statement about US national security should mean that the US might wish to go to Moscow because that too would, of course, improve its position.

The President replied that the US was not asking to go anywhere; we were not talking about the US going to Moscow or of the USSR going to New York. What we are talking about is that we are in Berlin and have been there for 15 years. We suggest that we stay there.

The President continued by saying that the US was interested in maintaining its position in Berlin and its rights of access to that city. He said he recognized that the situation there is not a satisfactory one; he also recognized that in the conversations Mr. Khrushchev had had with former President Eisenhower the term “abnormal” had been used to describe that situation.2 However, because conditions in many areas of the world are not satisfactory today it is not the right time now to change the situation in Berlin and the balance in general. The United States does not wish to effect such a change. The US is not asking the USSR to change its position but it is simply saying that it should not seek to change our position and thus disturb the balance of power. If this balance should [Page 90] change the situation in West Europe as a whole would change and this would be a most serious blow to the US. Mr. Khrushchev would not accept similar loss and we cannot accept it either. The question is not that of a peace treaty with East Germany but rather of other aspects of this proposal which would affect our access to Berlin and our rights there.

Mr. Khrushchev said that he was sorry that he had met with no understanding of the Soviet position. The US is unwilling to normalize the situation in the most dangerous spot in the world. The USSR wants to perform an operation on this sore spot—to eliminate this thorn, this ulcer—without prejudicing the interests of any side, but rather to the satisfaction of all peoples of the world. It wants to do that not by intrigue or threat but by solemnly signing a peace treaty. Now the President says that this action is directed against the interests of the US. Such statement is difficult to understand indeed. No change in existing boundaries is proposed; a peace treaty would only formalize them. The USSR wants a peace treaty because such a treaty would impede those people who want a new war. Revanchists in West Germany will find in a peace treaty a barrier impeding their activities. Today they say that boundaries should be changed. But if a peace treaty is signed there will be no ground for revision of the boundaries. Hitler spoke of Germany’s need for Lebensraum to the Urals. Now Hitler’s generals, who had helped him in his designs to execute his plans, are high commanders in NATO. This logic cannot be understood and the USSR cannot accept it. Mr. Khrushchev said he was very sorry but he had to assure the President that no force in the world would prevent the USSR from signing a peace treaty. 16 years have passed since World War II and how long should the signing of a peace treaty be delayed? Another 16 years, another 30 years? No further delay is possible or necessary. As far as US losses in the last war are concerned, losses are difficult to measure. Loss of a drop of blood equals the loss of a pint of blood in the minds of those who shed that blood. The US lost thousands and the USSR lost millions, but American mothers mourn their sons just as deeply as Soviet mothers shed tears over the loss of their beloved ones. Mr. Khrushchev said that he himself had lost a son in the last war; Mr. Gromyko lost two brothers, and Mikoyan a son. There is not a single family in the USSR or the leadership of the USSR that did not lose at least one of its members in the war. Mr. Khrushchev continued by saying that he wanted the US to understand correctly the Soviet position. This position is advanced not for the purpose of kindling passions or increasing tensions. The objective is just the opposite—to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of development of our relations and to normalize relations throughout the world. The USSR will sign a peace treaty and the sovereignty of the GDR will be observed. Any violation of that sovereignty will be regarded by [Page 91] the USSR as an act of open aggression against a peace loving country, with all the consequences ensuing therefrom.

The President inquired whether such a peace treaty would block access to Berlin. Mr. Khrushchev said that it would.

The President then said that the US is opposed to a buildup in West Germany that would constitute a threat to the Soviet Union. The decision to sign a peace treaty is a serious one and the USSR should consider it in the light of its national interests. Referring to the question of boundaries, the President said that General de Gaulle had made a statement on this question.3 This problem has been discussed in the Western world and there is some division of opinion on this matter. However, the US is committed to the defense of Western Europe and has assisted Western Europe in the past. The President said that one of his brothers had been killed in the last war, when the US came to Western Europe’s assistance. If the US were driven out of West Berlin by unilateral action, and if we were deprived of our contractual rights by East Germany, then no one would believe the US now or in the future. US commitments would be regarded as a mere scrap of paper. The world situation today is that of change and no one can predict what the evolution will be in such areas as Asia or Africa. Yet what Mr. Khrushchev suggests is to bring about a basic change in the situation overnight and deny us our rights which we share with the other two Western countries. This presents us with a most serious challenge and no one can foresee how serious the consequences might be. The President said it had not been his wish to come here to Vienna to find out not only that a peace treaty would be signed but also that we would be denied our position in West Berlin and our access to that city. In fact, the President said, he had come here in the hope that relations between our two countries could be improved. The President stressed he hoped that Mr. Khrushchev would consider his responsibility toward his country and also consider the responsibility the President of the United States has toward his people. What is discussed here is not only West Berlin; we are talking here about Western Europe and the United States as well.

Mr. Khrushchev replied that he could not understand the President’s reference to Western Europe. The USSR does not wish any change; it merely wants to formalize the situation which has resulted from World War II. The fact is that West Germany is in the Western group of nations and the USSR recognizes this. East Germany is an ally of the socialist countries and this should be recognized as a fait accompli. East Germany has new demarcation lines and these lines should [Page 92] become borders. The Polish and Czech borders should be formalized. The position of the GDR should be normalized and her sovereignty ensured. To do all this it is necessary to eliminate the occupation rights in West Berlin. No such rights should exist there. It would be impossible to imagine a situation where the USSR would have signed a peace treaty with the US retaining occupation rights, which are based on the state of war. The US may say that its blood was shed, but the USSR shed blood too and not water.

The President interjected that our rights were based on a four-power agreement. Mr. Khrushchev replied that this was so in the absence of a peace treaty, but said that a peace treaty would end the state of war and those rights would therefore expire.

The President said this meant unilateral abrogation of the four-power agreement by the USSR and emphasized that the US could not accept such an act. Mr. Khrushchev replied that this was not so because the USSR would invite the US to sign a peace treaty and would sign it alone only if the US should refuse to do so. In that event the US could not maintain its rights on the territory of the GDR. The President again referred to the four-power agreement, but Mr. Khrushchev replied that the USSR considered all of Berlin to be GDR territory. The President stated this may be Soviet view but not ours. If the USSR transfers its rights, that is a matter for its own decision; however, it is an altogether different matter for the USSR to give [away?] our rights which we have on contractual basis. He said that the USSR could not break the agreement and give US rights to the GDR. Mr. Khrushchev rejoined by saying that this was a familiar point of view but had no juridical foundation, since the war had ended 16 years ago. In fact, President Roosevelt indicated that troops could be withdrawn after two or two and a half years.

Mr. Khrushchev continued by saying that all the USSR wants is a peace treaty. He could not understand why the US wants Berlin. Does the US want to unleash a war from there? The President as a naval officer and he himself, a civilian although he participated in two wars, know very well that Berlin has no military significance. The President speaks of rights, but what are those rights? They stem from war. If the state of war ends, the rights end too. If a peace treaty is signed US prestige will not be involved, and everybody will understand this. But if the US should maintain its rights after the signing of a peace treaty, that would be a violation of East Germany’s sovereignty and of the sovereignty of the socialist camp as a whole. Mr. Khrushchev recalled that President Eisenhower had agreed that the situation in Germany was abnormal. Eisenhower had said that US prestige was involved. Then the possibility of an interim agreement was discussed, an arrangement that would not involve the prestige of our two countries. Perhaps this could serve as a basis for agreement. The USSR is prepared to accept such an [Page 93] arrangement even now. Adenauer says that he wants unification but this is not so. As far as unification in concerned, we should say that the two German governments should meet and decide the question of reunification. A time limit of say 6 months should be set and if there is no agreement we can disavow our responsibilities and then anyone would be free to conclude a peace treaty. This would be a way out and it would resolve this question of prestige, which, Mr. Khrushchev said, he did not really understand. Mr. Khrushchev said that he had hoped that Eisenhower would agree subsequently at the Summit, but the forces which are against improvement of relations between the US and USSR sent the U-2 plane and the USSR decided that in view of the tensions prevailing as a result of that flight this question should not be raised. However, the USSR believes that time for such action is ripe now. Mr. Khrushchev expressed regret on his own behalf and on behalf of his colleagues and allies at not having found understanding on the President’s part of the Soviet Union’s good intentions and motivations. If only the German question were resolved the road would be clear for the development of our mutual relations. The USSR does not want to infringe upon any-body’s interests, but neither would it concede its own interests. Mr. Khrushchev said he believed that the US does not want territorial gains although there is ideological disagreement between the US and the USSR. However, ideological disagreements should not be transferred onto the plane of a devastating war. He said that he was confident that people would be reasonable enough not to act like crusaders in the Middle Ages and would not start cutting each other’s throats for ideological reasons. If the United States disagrees with the Soviet proposal it should at least understand the Soviet position. The USSR can no longer delay. It will probably sign a peace treaty at the end of the year, with all the ensuing consequences, i.e., all obligations will come to an end. The status of West Berlin as a free city will be guaranteed and complete non-interference will be ensured. West Berlin will be accessible to all countries with which it will want to maintain ties. However, access will be subject to GDR’s control, since communication lines go through its territory. If the US is concerned about what it calls freedom of West Berlin, let us develop guarantees jointly or invite the UN. No nation will understand the US position of perpetuating the state of war with Germany. The USSR will explain its position to the world. It wants to prevent the possibility of war. If the US refuses to sign a peace treaty, the USSR will have no way out other than to sign such a treaty alone. The USSR lost 20 million people in the last war while the US lost 350 thousand.

The President interjected that this was why the US wanted to prevent another war.

Mr. Khrushchev continued by saying that if the US should start a war over Berlin there was nothing the USSR could do about it. However, [Page 94] it would have to be the US to start the war, while the USSR will be defending peace. History will be the judge of our actions. The West has been saying that Khrushchev might miscalculate. But ours is a joint account and each of us must see that there is no miscalculation. If the US wants to start a war over Germany let it be so; perhaps the USSR should sign a peace treaty right away and get over with it. This is what the Pentagon has been wanting. However, Adenauer and Macmillan know very well what war means. If there is any madman who wants war, he should be put in a straight jacket. Nations close to USSR territory know what war will mean for them. The USSR thinks of peace, of friendship, and it is happy with its trade relations with West Germany, France, Great Britain and Italy. It is not by accident that trade between the US and the USSR is still frozen but that is a problem for the US. So this is the Soviet position. The USSR will sign a peace treaty at the end of this year. Mr. Khrushchev concluded by saying that he was confident that common sense would win and peace will prevail.

The President said he recognized that the situation in Germany was abnormal. Germany is divided today. When President Roosevelt talked about the withdrawal of troops he was not able to foresee this situation or the fact that our two countries would be on different sides. The US does not want to precipitate a crisis; it is Mr. Khrushchev who wants to do so by seeking a change in the existing situation. The President then said the US was committed to this area long before he had assumed a position of high government responsibility. Now Mr. Khrushchev suggests a peace treaty at the end of the year, which would deny our rights in that city and our rights of access. Mr. Khrushchev knows very well that Berlin is much more than a city and yet he makes such a suggestion. Is that a way to secure peace?

Mr. Khrushchev replied he did not understand how the signing of a peace treaty could worsen the world situation. Peace is always regarded as something beneficial while the state of war is regarded as something evil.

The President said that the signing of a peace treaty is not a belligerent act. He had not indicated this at all. However, a peace treaty denying us our contractual rights is a belligerent act. The matter of a peace treaty with East Germany is a matter for Mr. Khrushchev’s judgment and is not a belligerent act. What is a belligerent act is transfer of our rights to East Germany. West Berlin is not important as a springboard. However, the US is committed to that area and it is so regarded by all the world. If we accepted Mr. Khrushchev’s suggestion the world would lose confidence in the US and would not regard it as a serious country. It is an important strategic matter that the world believe the US is a serious country.

[Page 95]

Mr. Khrushchev wondered what he should do in these circumstances. He said he believed that US intentions led to nothing good. The USSR would never, under any conditions, accept US rights in West Berlin after a peace treaty had been signed. He said he was absolutely convinced that the peoples of the world would understand such a position. Moreover, the US had deprived the USSR unilaterally of its rights and interests in West Germany, it had deprived the USSR of reparations in West Germany, and it had signed a unilateral peace treaty with Japan. As a result of this latter action the Soviet Union still has no peace treaty with Japan.

The President interjected that Mr. Khrushchev had said to President Eisenhower that he would have signed the treaty. Mr. Khrushchev confirmed this, while Mr. Gromyko said that the fact remained that the US had signed the Japanese peace treaty without the Soviet Union.

Mr. Khrushchev went on to say that the US regarded all this as appropriate, but now it says what the USSR wants to do is immoral. The USSR would like to do it together with the US, but if the US refuses to sign a peace treaty the USSR will do it alone. East Germany will obtain complete sovereignty and all obligations resulting from German surrender will be annulled. The factor of the USSR’s prestige should be taken into account. What the US wants is to retain the rights gained after World War II even after a peace treaty has been signed. This is a policy of “I do what I want”. The USSR regards East Germany as a completely sovereign state and it will sign a peace treaty with it. Responsibility for violation of that sovereignty will be heavy.

The President said that there is every evidence that our position in Berlin is strongly supported by the people there, and we are committed to that area. Mr. Khrushchev says that we are for a state of war. This is incorrect. It would be well if relations between East Germany and West Germany improved and if the development of US-USSR relations were such as to permit solution of the whole German problem. During his stay in office, Mr. Khrushchev has seen many changes, and changes will go on. But now he wants a peace treaty in six months, an action which would drive us out of Berlin. If we accepted such a proposition we would lose our ties in West Europe and would lose all our friends there. We do not wish to act in a way that would deprive the Soviet Union of its ties in Eastern Europe. Mr. Khrushchev had said that the President was a young man, but, the President continued, he had not assumed office to accept arrangements totally inimical to US interests. The President said he was prepared to discuss any problem but Mr. Khrushchev should take into account our interests just as he says we should take into account his views.

Mr. Khrushchev said that then an interim agreement should be concluded. However, no matter how long a time limit such an agreement [Page 96] were to provide for, the Germans would not agree because no one wishes reunification. An interim agreement would be a formal factor, it would give the semblance of the responsibility for the problem having been turned over to the Germans themselves. If the US does not wish such an arrangement there is no other way but to sign a peace treaty unilaterally. No one can force the US to sign a peace treaty but neither can the US make the Soviet Union accept its claims. Mr. Khrushchev then said that an aide-mémoire on the Berlin question had been prepared so that the US could study the Soviet position and perhaps return to this question at a later date, if it wished to do so.4

The group then moved to the dining room for lunch.

  1. Source: Department of State, Conference Files: Lot 66 D 110, CF 1901. Secret; Eyes Only. Drafted by Akalovsky and approved by the White House on June 23. The meeting was held at the Soviet Embassy. A summary of the conversation was transmitted in Secto 25 from Paris, June 5. (Department of State, Central Files, 751J.00/6-651) For two other accounts of this conversation, apparently based on this memorandum of conversation, see Sorensen, Kennedy, pp. 504-505, and Schlesinger, A Thousand Days, pp. 370-373. The texts of all the memoranda of conversation between Kennedy and Khrushchev at Vienna are printed in Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, volume V.
  2. For documentation on Khrushchev’s discussions of Berlin with President Eisenhower during his visit to the United States in September 1959, see Foreign Relations, 1958–1960, vol. IX, pp. 35 ff.
  3. Presumably reference is to a statement on Germany made by de Gaulle at his first press conference on March 25, 1959, and reiterated at his second on November 10.
  4. The Soviet translation of its aide-mémoire was transmitted in Secto 21 from Paris, June 5. (Department of State, Central Files, 762.00/6-561) For the Department of State translation, which is basically the same, see Documents on Germany, 1944-1985, pp. 729-732. For the Russian text, see Pravda, June 11, 1961.