57. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Schlesinger) to President Kennedy 1


  • Berlin

This memorandum addresses itself to the following questions:

accepting for the moment the premises of the Acheson paper,2 what issues are avoided in that paper?
are the Acheson premises adequate? What other premises ought to be brought into the Berlin discussion? What administrative means can help bring about a full exploration of alternative premises and a full consideration of the political issues?

I. Issues avoided in the Acheson paper


The Acheson premise is substantially as follows: Khrushchev’s principal purpose in forcing the Berlin question is to humiliate the US on a basic issue by making us back down on a sacred commitment and thus shatter our world power and influence. The Berlin crisis, in this view, has nothing to do with Berlin, Germany, or Europe. From this premise flows the conclusion that we are in a fateful test of wills, that our major task is to demonstrate our unalterable determination, and that Khrushchev will be deterred only by a demonstrated US readiness to go to nuclear war rather than to abandon the status quo. On this theory, negotiation is harmful until the crisis is well developed; then it is useful only for propaganda purposes; and in the end its essential purpose is to provide a formula to cover Khrushchev’s defeat. The test of will becomes an end in itself rather than a means to a political end.

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This argument avoids a number of major issues.

What political moves do we make until the crisis develops? If we sit silent, or confine ourselves to rebutting Soviet contentions (cf. the draft reply to the aide-mémoire), we permit Khrushchev to establish the framework of discussion. As we do this, we in effect invite him to demand from us a definition of the guarantees we would find acceptable. This, of course, casts the US as rigid and unreasonable and puts us on the political defensive.
The paper indicates no relationship between the proposed military action and larger political objectives. It defines an immediate casus belli; but it does not state any political objective other than present access procedures for which we are prepared to incinerate the world. It is essential to elaborate the cause for which we are prepared to go to nuclear war. Where do we want to come out if we win the test of wills? German unification, for example: what is our real intention with regard to this traditional objective?
The paper covers only one eventuality—that is, the Communist interruption of military access to West Berlin. Actually there is a whole spectrum of harassments, of which a full-scale blockade may well be one of the least likely.
The paper hinges on our willingness to face nuclear war. But this option is undefined. Before you are asked to make the decision to go to nuclear war, you are entitled to know what concretely nuclear war is likely to mean. The Pentagon should be required to make an analysis of the possible levels and implications of nuclear warfare and the possible gradations of our own nuclear response.
The paper directs itself almost exclusively to the problem of military access. But military traffic is only 5 percent of the whole. 95 percent of the traffic into West Berlin consists of supplies for the civil population. This civilian traffic has been for some time under full GDR control; and in recent weeks the GDR has gone to surprising lengths to facilitate this civilian traffic. Also civilian traffic is far more essential to our professed objective—the preservation of West Berlin. If the military traffic is cut off and the civilian traffic continues, our garrisons could still be effectively supplied. Though the Acheson memorandum states that military planning is also applicable to interruption of civilian access, this raises serious questions about the legal framework and the definition of the casus belli, which are not dealt with.
The paper does not define the problem of the relationship of the proposed strategy to the Alliance. What happens if our allies decline to go along? Which of them, for example, will go along with the ground probe? Even de Gaulle has indicated his opposition to sending a column through. What about the United Nations? Whatever happens, this issue [Page 175] will go into the UN. For better or for worse, we have to have a convincing UN position.

II. Random thoughts about unexplored alternatives

There are alternative predictions as to the course of events which ought to be examined—e.g., the Russians may sign a treaty with the GDR and make no immediate interference with our access routes.
There are alternative premises as to Soviet purposes—e.g., Khrushchev may be seeking to stabilize his own situation and relations in Germany and Eastern Europe; or he may be trying to increase the likelihood of a general recognition of East Germany.
There are alternatives to the present US policy toward Germany—e.g., confederation; living indefinitely with a divided Germany; or a comprehensive European solution (such as Gaitskell proposed some years ago).
There are alternative conceptions of the role of negotiation—as to timing; and as to framework of negotiations (should negotiations be confined to Berlin? or should they be in an all-German setting? or in an all-European setting?).
There are alternative assumptions as to what will change Khrushchev’s course—e.g., different kinds of military pressure; different places for military pressure (why Berlin?); possibilities of a political offensive (in East Germany? in East Europe? in United Nations?—why suppose that we are vulnerable to world opinion and Khrushchev isn’t?).
What procedure can be devised to make sure that alternatives are systematically brought to the surface and canvassed?
Mr. Acheson should be asked to fill in deficiencies in his paper and particularly to supply a political dimension.
The State Department should be asked to prepare a paper based on the premise that we should go into negotiations well before the crisis. Obviously it would not be fair to ask Mr. Kohler to take this on, since he is committed to the Acheson premises. A State Department group under the aegis of the Policy Planning Staff is presumably ready to prepare such a paper. Abe Chayes is in this group and might well be the State Department man in charge of this operation.
The decision withdrawing the Acheson paper from circulation might well be reconsidered. The danger of leaks from restricted circulation is far less than the danger of preventing full discussion of the issues raised in the paper.
Some senior non-Achesonians should be brought into the picture. David Bruce, who has an intimate knowledge of the Berlin problem, should be recalled from London for consultation. Averell Harriman might also be asked to come back. In view of the necessity of understanding and defending the US position in the UN, Adlai Stevenson should by all means be brought into the planning discussions.
The White House staff should be directed to question all existing proposals, especially from the viewpoint of the effect the pressure of events will have on decisions; and it should be further directed to take an active role in stimulating exploration of the various alternatives listed above (and others which reflection and analysis will bring to mind). In particular, Henry Kissinger should be brought into the center of Berlin planning.
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, President’s Office Files, Germany. Secret. Printed in part in Schlesinger, A Thousand Days, pp. 387-388. According to Schlesinger, on July 6 he, Chayes, and Kissinger had discussed their misgivings about Acheson’s report (Document 49), and Schlesinger prepared a memorandum for the President expressing their thoughts. He gave the memorandum to Kennedy at lunch on July 7. Kennedy in turn asked Schlesinger to prepare an unsigned memorandum on the Berlin problem. (A Thousand Days, pp. 386-387) The memorandum is printed here in full.

    Under Secretary of State Bowles sent Rusk a similar memorandum on July 7, expressing his concern about the trend of U.S. thinking on Berlin. Bowles stressed that Acheson’s report robbed the United States of control over the course of action, was an all-or-nothing policy, and appeared to be largely devoid of political objectives. While Bowles favored low-key military preparations, he also believed more emphasis should be placed on negotiations, including the preparation of a draft peace treaty. Finally the Under Secretary suggested that a study based on his ideas, “in confrontation with Dean Acheson’s proposal would focus the major policy issues for decision by the President.” (Department of State, Central Files, 762.00/7-761)

  2. Document 49.