221. Memorandum of Conference With President Kennedy 0


  • Berlin


  • Secretary Rusk
  • Secretary McNamara
  • General Taylor
  • Ambassador Thompson
  • Assistant Secretary Nitze
  • Deputy Assistant Secretary Richard Davis (State)
  • General Clifton
  • Mr. David Klein
  • Mr. McGeorge Bundy
  • Mr. Bromley Smith

Secretary Rusk reported to the President that Russian Ambassador Dobrynin had been told of the holdup of the U.S. convoy.1 The Russians were told that hours were of great importance in resolving this question. Both Dobrynin and Gromyko appeared to be upset on hearing of the blocking of the U.S. convoy.2

Secretary Rusk said we should go ahead and assemble the tripartite Free Style forces3 but he believed that a larger allied force should also be brought to a state of readiness. He favored a unit as large as that called Trade Winds.4 He said the four Ambassadors would meet again at 3:00 PM to report on their governments’ views as to actions to be taken to end the existing situation.5

General Taylor noted that it would take eight days to assemble Trade Winds.

Secretary Rusk recommended that we ask our allies to approve the immediate assembly of Free Style forces. He also recommended that we [Page 596] ask the British and French to send in convoys for the purpose of building up allied forces blocked by the Soviets. The President doubted that we should increase the number of forces blocked, believing that the one U.S. convoy now blocked was sufficient. Secretary Rusk said we must consider all explanations of the current Soviet action in blocking our convoy. We may be heading for a major crisis with the USSR. Possibly we are coming to the end of a major Russian deception program although he personally doubted that the Russians had been attempting to deceive us by agreeing to a limited test ban treaty and by offering to purchase U.S. wheat. The Soviet action may be a reflection of divided councils in Moscow. It may be an effort to show off Soviet muscle for the benefit of the Chinese and before the forthcoming international Communist conference. The action may be the result of a local Soviet commander’s unauthorized action which, for prestige reasons, Moscow has backed up. No one explanation is sufficient. If there are divided councils in Moscow, we should play out our resistance which might provide enough time to the Russians to get them back into line.

Secretary Rusk said our first effort should be to align our allies with us. They would be asked to join us in a protest note to the Russians. In response to a question as to whether the tripartite protest would be made public, Secretary Rusk said he felt that public opinion would move very fast if the convoy were not released promptly. He referred to the public position of Senator Goldwater and foresaw an immediate effect on the wheat negotiations if the present situation is not immediately clarified. If our troops have bivouacked, it is possible that the Russians would permit them to mount their trucks in the morning and pass on through. If the Russians acted this way, we would need to send immediately another U.S. convoy to make clear our right of access to Berlin.

Ambassador Thompson recalled that we had never told the Russians the dividing line between convoys which dismount and those which do not. We have never told them the specific numbers which we use to decide which is a dismounting convoy and which is not.

In response to the President’s question as to how the Soviets knew what our procedures are, Mr. Nitze said the Soviets have learned on the basis of long experience with our convoys. The reason we have not told the Russians exactly what we do is because our position is that they have no right to restrict our access in any way. The President read the attached report of the Soviet commandant’s conversation with an American colonel.6 He said it sounded as if the Russians had a final position. It did not sound as if they would be changing [Page 597] their view, i.e. that we have changed our procedures, thereby justifying their action in blocking the convoy.

General Taylor said we should never have started the practice of dismounting troops in the Berlin convoy. The first dismounting had been a mistake. The practice had been continued and it was now expected by the Russians.

The President expressed doubt that we should keep piling up troops at the blocking point. Secretary Rusk agreed we should not so act today.

Secretary McNamara asked that both U.S. convoys be kept in place, the small one which is blocked and a larger one which is nearby and has been cleared to proceed but is not leaving the scene until further ordered to do so. He recommended that additional large dismounting convoys be sent in both directions.

The President asked how the Soviets could extricate themselves from this situation. He thought that the only way would be for them to permit the convoy to proceed.

Secretary Rusk expressed concern that the U.S. helicopters which are flying above the blocked convoy might create an incident. The President instructed that these helicopters stay high above ground, fly over for the sole purpose of taking pictures, and then leave the scene. Secretary Rusk and General Taylor reported that we have received no information of any kind about Soviet troop movements toward the autobahn.

Ambassador Thompson, referring to the meeting of the Ambassadors in the morning, said the British were interested in knowing whether anything unusual had taken place between the Russians and the Americans prior to the blocking of the convoy. He asked that we have our officers in the field report whether any incident took place before the Soviets announced their refusal to permit the convoy to proceed.

General Taylor agreed that the big convoy, not now blocked, should stay where it is to meet the possibility that we may need additional troops on the scene. Secretary Rusk agreed with General Taylor, adding that if the big convoy left it might appear that we were abandoning the smaller convoy.

In response to the President’s suggestion that a large convoy be sent to Berlin, Secretary McNamara said such a convoy could leave today from West Germany, dismount in accordance with established procedures, and proceed to Berlin unless blocked by the Russians.

Mr. Nitze asked why we should not now order the assembly of the forces called Back Stroke.7 This force is tripartite and assembles in Berlin. [Page 598] It moves from Berlin to the autobahn in an effort to get to West Germany. Mr. Nitze thought we might need to use this force. Secretary Rusk replied that it would be all right to assemble this force in Berlin, but not at the checkpoint. If it appeared at the checkpoint, it might appear to the Russians to be a menacing threat with which they would have to deal for prestige reasons. Secretary McNamara said the Back Stroke force could be assembled in eight hours. The purpose of assembling it would be to add pressure against the Russians.

The President asked whether it was believed that if a tripartite group was allowed to pass by the Russians, other convoys would be allowed to go through.

Secretary Rusk suggested that the U.S. commandant in Berlin talk to the Soviet army official in East Germany, telling him that the blocked convoy had to go through. If the Russians have anything about allied procedures they want to discuss, they would be asked to do so. The approach to the Russians would be not to negotiate the release of the convoy, but rather to find out what the Russians are seeking to accomplish. The conversation with the Russians on allied procedures would take place only after the blocked convoy was released.

General Taylor suggested that it would be possible to send out armed U.S. bulldozers with instructions to remove the barriers blocking the convoy.

Secretary Rusk raised again the importance of a tripartite note of protest which would reflect allied agreement on how to deal with the Soviet blocking action.

Secretary McNamara commented that we need badly a face-to-face local meeting with Soviet military officials. He thought the commanders should meet at the checkpoint. We do not know how the Soviet commanders would react if confronted with a personal protest by the U.S. commander.

Secretary Rusk noted that Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko had delayed his return from here to New York until noon in order to send messages to the Foreign Office.

The President summarized the actions which are to be taken immediately. A copy of these actions is attached, along with a more detailed list of actions sent to our commanders in Paris.8

The President was shown a copy of the report of the Berlin commandants’ meeting.9 General Taylor added that General Lemnitzer, [Page 599] who was in the U.S. on vacation, is now in the Pentagon and would normally return to Paris at once.

The President said that if we were asked what our position was now on the wheat negotiations, we should say nothing. We could say that Secretary Rusk had seen Ambassador Dobrynin in Washington and Ambassador Kohler had made protests to the Foreign Office in Moscow.

Secretary Rusk agreed that we should brush off any questions as to what effect the blocking of the U.S. convoy would have on our wheat negotiations. He noted that the Soviet trade mission to the U.S. will not leave Moscow for several days.

Mr. Bundy said that we should play the wheat card in private with the Russians before we make any reference to it in public. The President’s view was that the wheat deal wouldn’t mean much to the Russians if they were set on blocking our access to Berlin. Secretary Rusk added that if the incident continued to the point where we took it to the UN Security Council, then we would use the wheat sales as a major point, including efforts to persuade the Canadians not to go through with their wheat shipments to Russia.

Ambassador Thompson said he believed the incident on the autobahn had not been intentionally planned. He could not believe that the Russians would simultaneously seek to reach agreements with us and seek to block access to Berlin. Secretary Rusk agreed and commented again that Gromyko, when told of the autobahn situation, acted like a man upset. The incident may have been part of an effort to embarrass Gromyko at the exact moment when he was talking with the President. Mr. Nitze commented that the incident reflected the use of force to change existing procedures.

The President asked that the group meet again with him later in the day.

Bromley Smith 10

[Page 600]



Send to Berlin U.S. dismounting convoy as soon as possible.
Instruct General Baker to ask General Ariko for meeting as soon as possible to tell Soviets blocked convoy must be allowed to pass but if Soviets want to talk about general convoy procedures apart from this special case, we are prepared to hear his views.
Until further decision, keep large U.S. convoy (27) bivouacked at checkpoint.
Seek prompt U.K. and French approval of draft tripartite note of protest to Moscow.
Urge U.K. and French approval of assembly of Free Style forces.
Urge U.K. and France to send dismounting convoys from West Germany and non-dismounting convoys from Berlin.
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Meetings and Memoranda Series, Meetings with the President, Berlin Convoy Incidents. Secret. Drafted by Bromley Smith.
  2. See Document 220.
  3. This reference and ones later in the memorandum indicate that Gromyko had been apprised of the convoy incident. Presumably this happened at the dinner Rusk gave for Gromyko at 8:15 on October 10, but no conclusive evidence has been found to determine when Gromyko was informed.
  4. A platoon-sized probe from Helmstedt to Berlin.
  5. A battalion-sized probe from Helmstedt to Berlin.
  6. Thompson had chaired a meeting of the Ambassadorial Group at 9:30 a.m. to review Rusk’s conversation with Dobrynin during the morning and a conversation with Gromyko on the previous day. He suggested to the Ambassadorial Group that a Free Style probe be assembled. (Telegram 1033 to Bonn, October 11, 12:57 p.m.; Department of State, Central Files, POL 38–8)
  7. Not found.
  8. A platoon-sized probe from Berlin to Helmstedt.
  9. The more detailed list is not attached, but the instructions were transmitted in JCS 3023, October 11, 2:55 p.m. (Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Meetings and Memoranda Series, Meetings with the President, Berlin Convoy Incidents)
  10. ASBCS/499/63, October 11. (Ibid.) The meeting was held at 1 p.m. Berlin time.
  11. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.
  12. Secret.