134. Memorandum of Conversation0


  • Berlin Access and Related Problems


  • Germans
    • Foreign Minister Gerhard Schroeder
    • Ambassador Karl Heinrich Knappstein, German embassy
    • Dr. Reinkemeyer, Chief, Soviet Affairs, Foreign Office
    • Dr. Simon, Personal Aide to the Foreign Minister
    • Mr. Swidbert Schnippenkoetter, Counselor, German embassy
    • Mr. Kusterer, Interpreter
  • Americans
    • The President
    • Mr. McGeorge Bundy, Special Assistant to the President
    • Assistant Secretary William R. Tyler, EUR
    • Ambassador Walter C. Dowling, Bonn
    • Mr. Martin J. Hillenbrand, Director, BTF
    • Mr. Robert C. Creel, Director, GeR

The President said he was glad to see the Foreign Minister. He had come at a helpful time, since there was a strong feeling there would be difficulties over Berlin within the next two to three months. He would appreciate hearing the Foreign Minister’s thoughts as to the actions the Soviets were likely to take and on our contingency plans to meet them.

The Foreign Minister thanked the President for this opportunity to meet with him and said he brought cordial greetings from the Chancellor. He regarded his own visit as a useful preparation for the Chancellor’s visit next month.

Regarding Berlin, Schroeder said he was not certain in his own mind whether the Soviets really intended to sharpen the crisis by their own actions in late November or before the end of the year. He felt it more likely that they would continue to bring various psychological pressures to bear and meanwhile they would wish to keep talking in the hope of achieving their objectives without war. There were several factors to consider: First, the Soviets had thus far received little support from other countries regarding their project for a separate peace treaty with east Germany. From the standpoint of their posture before world public opinion it would not be so attractive to the Soviets to have only themselves and their “sub-contractors” in the Bloc as signatories of the treaty. From our own viewpoint the attitude taken thus far by the non-committed states had been a positive factor. Second, with regard to what specific measures the Soviets might take in Berlin, from their standpoint they did not have a great deal of leeway and there were only a limited number of steps which they could take if they were to avoid a real confrontation. There was also the question of what actions might be taken by the Soviet Zone authorities.

One big problem in this area related to civilian access, where the other side might introduce a passport and visa requirement. In such event we would have to take care to avoid any deterioration in the access situation. The difficulty was that most of the questions here related to pieces of paper; at the outset the other side, instead of giving the piece of paper now in use, would introduce a requirement for a visa. The problem was that while the change from the standpoint of what met the eye would not be very great, from the legal standpoint the change would be a very subtantial one. To accept visas would mean subjecting land access to the complete discretion of the east Zone authorities and would increase recognition of the east Zone regime. (Schroeder referred in passing to the difficulty created by the fact many foreigners traveling [Page 364] to Berlin, including United States civilians, had already accepted GDR visas, which he said was unfortunate.)

The Foreign Minister said he was convinced that if we should accept any deterioration in civilian access, we would one day find ourselves on the spot as concerned military access. If new paper formalities were introduced for military access, it would be difficult from the standpoint of international law to reject these if we had already accepted them for civilian access. The Foreign Minister then outlined the hypothetical situation under which on December 1 the Soviets would sign a separate peace treaty with east Germany to take effect on January 1. They might specify that for a transitional period of six months Western troops could stay in Berlin, but also that meanwhile a new piece of paper would be required for travel to Berlin which could be obtained either at Pankow or at the border checkpoint. What would the West do between December 1 and January 1 and what would it do after January 1? World opinion would have to be considered; there was the risk that if we decided to keep access open by force, world opinion would say that there had not been a sufficient change in procedures to justify this. He felt we needed to make it perfectly clear to the Soviets that if they tried this game they would not succeed and that any effort on their part to proceed by installment would fail. The conclusion to be drawn was that our contingency planning must consider realistically the matter of reacting strongly to prevent any deterioration in the field of civilian access to Berlin. In the political, diplomatic and psychological fields, we must do everything possible to make clear to the Soviets that we have no intention of accepting the visa requirement and would react strongly if this were imposed. Furthermore, the relationship and interdependence between civilian and military traffic must be taken realistically into account in our contingency planning.

The President agreed there was a clear interrelationship between civilian and military traffic, but said there was at the same time a substantial difference in that our military forces could be supplied by air. Furthermore, civilian traffic was now treated on a different basis from military traffic and the east Zone authorities had for some time had considerably greater authority over civilian than military traffic. Was this not true?

The Foreign Minister agreed but said the danger nevertheless existed that once we had accepted a deterioration in civilian traffic, changes in military traffic which were optically minor in character would be difficult to reject. The big question was whether or not we could accept any deterioration in civilian traffic. If the answer was “no”, then what specifically did we do about it? Theoretically, of course, we could resort to an airlift for the transport of personnel, but given problems about the weather, electronic countermeasures, etc., this would not [Page 365] solve the problem of access of goods. One essential at stake here was the viability of Berlin, which would be threatened by reliance on an airlift. If the airlift and economic countermeasures did not prove effective, we might find that we would have to retreat from our position, which would involve a great loss of prestige. Therefore, the question of how we should react at the outset was extremely important. He was not satisfied with the middle solution being recommended up to now, which was to continue vital traffic to Berlin, accept visas for this under protest, and apply economic countermeasures. He said he felt it was necessary to re-think our whole planning on this question.

One additional factor to take into account was the reaction of the Berliners themselves. Their main concern was not the recognition problem but unrestricted access. There was, therefore, some difference in perspective between Berlin’s and the Western position as a whole; it was necessary to try to harmonize these interests.

The President inquired: Suppose they insist on visas and we do not accept this and ground traffic to Berlin stops, then where are we?

The Foreign Minister said basically the question in such a case was whether we will and can keep access open by force or whether we should resort to an airlift and await the effect of our countermeasures. He himself considered it a dangerous position to think we could solve the problem of access by an airlift.

The President said our plans were clear on what to do in the event of a blockage of traffic by force. The basic question was whether, if the blockage was in fact only by paper, we would be justified in using force.

The Foreign Minister commented that if we accept visas at this point, even though viability is clearly involved, what are our chances in the military field of refusing procedural changes and what chances do we have to react by force to them if we have accepted the visa for civilian traffic?

The President again said that civilian traffic was a different problem since military traffic could be moved by air. If we did not accept visas for civilian traffic then we would have a self-imposed blockade. We might find ourselves in a slightly ridiculous position, and the Berliners themselves might not be entirely sympathetic nor understand why their viability was being threatened merely because of disagreements and too legalistic arguments over whether or not to accept a piece of paper.

The Foreign Minister said he was fully aware this was a difficult problem. He considered that land access was very important to military traffic and that the problem of military access could not now be solved by an airlift. The situation was different from 1948–49. He did not believe that we could now resort to an airlift without suffering a severe diplomatic and political defeat. He stressed again we must get our position [Page 366] worked out clearly and in detail to cover every possible situation. He again expressed concern over our solution up to now to let essential civilian traffic continue by accepting visas under protest, while at the same time applying economic countermeasures by reduction or termination of interzonal trade and the employment of further measures by the Allies and in NATO. If all these measures remained without effect we were in a situation where we had reduced access to Berlin dangerously and would still be faced with the decision whether or not eventually to accept the visa requirement. We would be operating on a declining scale.

The President said he was not sure we should make visas the great issue. We did not want Berlin blockaded. Was the visa issue the one on which we would employ force rather than countermeasures? Were we in a position to fight our way up the Autobahn over the visa requirement when we had been accepting for a long time a piece of paper for civilian traffic?

The Foreign Minister said that the problem was whether we should accept the Soviets’ salami tactics of piece-by-piece encroachment. He recognized the great difficulty was in the political-psychological field since people would ask why should we use force over this small matter. The danger in this was that we could lose the game by installments without any really major development having taken place. As for the popular reaction in Germany, it is clear that people would be discouraged over continued acceptance of minor encroachments. The people in Pankow would regard it as a victory for them if the visa requirement were accepted. Furthermore, the Soviets would look on this development as a further success which would encourage them to take additional steps.

The Foreign Minister said he wished to stress that Berlin could be held only if the Soviets could be convinced there was some specific point beyond which they could not go without encountering a strong reaction from us. While Khrushchev might be convinced that at some point the West would be prepared to fight a nuclear war over Berlin, he was likely nevertheless to continue to try to reach his objectives piece by piece. The problem for us to decide was how to deal with each move as it occurs, whether it be a visa requirement or not. He felt that the problem went much further than merely involving acceptance of a piece of paper.

The President agreed it was important to reach a decision on this within the next three or four weeks. He said we must be careful not to draw the line at the wrong place. As concerned civilian traffic to Berlin, this was now in fact controlled by the east Germans who issued papers, stamps, etc. It was not clear that an introduction of a visa requirement was a dramatic enough development to set in train all the major actions involved in our contingency planning. If we made a big issue over a [Page 367] piece of paper and then had to retreat, this would be a defeat for us. We wondered whether the actual movement of civilian traffic in and out of Berlin was not the big issue rather than the acceptance of visas.

The Foreign Minister said there was one big potential difference between visas and the present documentation requirements. It was not excluded that in issuing visas the east German authorities would eventually require that they be obtained in east Berlin, or possibly in an effort to appear reasonable, they might offer to open visa-issuing offices in West Berlin or West Germany. They could also if they wished impose a limit, such as 50,000 a month, on the number of visas to be issued for travel to Berlin.

The President said he thought that our economic countermeasures would prove sufficiently oppressive so that measures of this type would not be useful to the other side.

The Foreign Minister said he was not convinced that economic countermeasures would prove effective if the other side had already decided it was prepared to run the full risk of their imposition.

At this point in the conversation, which had already lasted for an hour, the President suggested we might turn to other matters. He referred to the history of the discussions with Gromyko over Berlin, which had thus far been unsuccessful. There now appeared at least a possibility that the Soviets might withdraw their main condition regarding Western troop withdrawal and shift their accent to the access problem. We had repeatedly made clear that the issue of maintaining our troops in Berlin was not negotiable. It was, therefore, not clear why Khrushchev was coming over. Did the Foreign Minister have any thoughts on this?

Schroeder said it was not clear to him whether Khrushchev would come to the United Nations or not. He had in any event skillfully used this possibility to get the West to indulge in a great deal of unproductive speculation. If he did come it was not clear he would be prepared to steer the hardest course. He would in any event expect that something could be accomplished. In March and July at Geneva the Soviets had stressed that the only crucial issue remaining unresolved was the Western presence in Berlin. He felt that they were too optimistic over other issues, such as nuclear weapons, non-diffusion, non-aggression pact, etc., which they presented as practically agreed. He felt the Soviets were still convinced some further compromise over Berlin was possible. They had probably regarded their original proposal for a free demilitarized city in November, 1958 as a compromise offer intended to serve as a face-saver. At Geneva they had suggested the possibility of a phased withdrawal of Western troops from Berlin concurrently with reduction of troops from other countries which would be introduced over a period of four years, at the end of which the problem would be settled. They [Page 368] were probably still thinking in terms of a compromise, and he thought that if Khrushchev came to this country he would be thinking in terms of some new compromise offer, perhaps strengthening elengthening] the time period to ten, eight or six years, rather than wishing to run the risk of a showdown over Berlin. He said this was just his personal opinion and he could not prove he was right.

The President stated that, returning briefly to the visa problem, it seemed imperative to get this settled before the end of the month. It should be discussed in the Ambassadorial Group with the British and French. (Schroeder interjected that the agreement of the Berliners was also important.)

Schroeder commented that while our contingency planning had been going on for a year or so, there was still not complete agreement at several points. The time had come where our over-all planning must be brought up-to-date and possibly “streamlined”. Secretary McNamara had made this same point to him yesterday.1Schroeder suggested it might be advisable to conduct war games in which all contingencies would be played through, with our most intelligent players acting in the role of Soviets. (In a further brief discussion of this suggestion the President stated that in fact geography was the greatest asset on the Soviet side of the game.)

The President then turned to this morning’s newspaper account of an interview given in Germany by Defense Minister Strauss in which he had made two main points: 1) the comradeship established between the French and Germans on military matters, and 2) the role of German troops in the defense of Berlin. On the latter point the President said that in case of a crunch the issue would be decided by which side had the greater strength rather than by legal considerations over our right to be in Berlin.

Schroeder replied that he did not have the full text of Strauss’ interview. As concerned the matter of French-German comradeship in arms (he asked “did Strauss really say that”?), he would make only one statement, viz., that on this point he had as realistic a view as the President himself. He considered the second point to be more important. As concerned the German commitment in NATO, it was the same as that of the United States and there should be no question about this. The point Strauss apparently was making regarding the use of German troops over Berlin presumably reflected the actual situation as concerned the relationship between Live Oak and NATO. That related to the situation on paper; in practical fact, however, in the event of military conflict over [Page 369] Berlin the Germans would be in there from the first moment because they were right up in front.

The President referred to his recent talk with the French Foreign Minister2 as indicating a sharp division between us over Allied military strategy, particularly as concerned the disposition of forces. We had not been able to convince the French to move their troops forward, and if this could not be done it would be difficult of make effective military plans. The President felt West Germany had an important role to play in resolving these differences.

Schroeder said the Germans intended to try to make clear to De Gaulle that the present situation was not satisfactory. The French had claimed that their problem arose from the need to maintain French forces coming from Algeria on French soil for the time being. This point was not very convincing. Schroeder felt that the French over-all military strategy was based on the premise that there were two battles to consider: the one in Germany, which would be lost, and the one in France, which would be won. This had in fact been the premise of the most recent military maneuver conducted by the French. This seemed to him to be thinking of another century, but also possibly indicated that in such matters the French were great military geniuses.

The President said he hoped that Messrs.3Strauss and Messmer would be able to settle this matter of troop dispositions. Schroeder commented it would be better to reach agreement with De Gaulle than with Messmer.

The President said he would have to leave shortly for Connecticut. He much appreciated the efforts which had been made by Minister Schroeder to coordinate our joint policy. We would consider carefully his views on the visa problem and reach a decision. The basic problem was that we would either have to decide that here is where we take our stand, or else we should prepare the way for playing down the issue and making it unimportant. The President commented that he did not regard the forthcoming Khrushchev visit as particularly desirable in the absence of evidence, which we did not yet have, of any change in his attitude over Berlin. He would not himself encourage Khrushchev to come, but if he wished to come the President would see him. Meanwhile we should improve our planning. There should be more realistic discussions in the Ambassadorial Group. In addition, he felt that Governments should be more committed in advance to actions agreed on by the planners. He cited as an example that until recently he had not realized that it [Page 370] would take three days before we could mount our initiative probing on the Autobahn. We, for our part, were ready to say what we would do, and he felt that all four Governments should be prepared to give more in the way of firm commitments. In conclusion, the President stated that Minister Schroeder’s visit had been very useful.

Minister Schroeder thanked the President for this meeting and said he hoped that by their next meeting on November 7 we would have our planning perfected and be ready for definitive discussions.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series, Germany. Secret; Limit Distribution. Drafted and initialed by Creel and approved in the White House on October 26. The meeting was held at the White House. A summary of the conversation was transmitted to Bonn in telegram 1021, October 18. (Department of State, Central Files, 762.0221/10–1862)
  2. A memorandum of McNamara’s conversation with Schroeder is in the Kennedy Library, President’s Office Files, Germany/Security.
  3. See Document 130.
  4. Pierre A. Messmer, French Defense Minister.