44. Memorandum of Conversation0


  • Dr. Von Brentano’s Meeting with The President


  • Dr. Heinrich von Brentano, Majority Leader in the German Bundestag (CDU)
  • Professor Wilhelm G. Grewe, German Ambassador
  • Mr. Weber, German Interpreter
  • The President
  • Foy D. Kohler, Assistant Secretary for European Affairs
  • Robert M. Brandin, Office of German Affairs, EUR

The President expressed his sympathy to Dr. Von Brentano regarding his automobile accident and said he was glad to see him in the United States.

Dr. Von Brentano said he was happy to be able to make the trip despite the accident and grateful for the opportunity to talk to the President. He said he wanted to point out at the beginning in order to avoid misunderstanding that he was not in the United States in an official capacity, but rather as a member of the German Parliament and Head of the CDU Parliamentary Group. He stressed, however, that there were no differences between himself and the Federal Government, the Chancellor [Page 126] or Foreign Minister Schroeder. He acknowledged that in the last days before Easter certain misunderstandings had been reported in the German press. He had left for France and did not hear about them until later. In connection with the US-Soviet talks, there had been a meeting in Bonn, but he assured the President that no one who participated in that meeting wanted indiscretions. He said anyone who knew him would know that he would not commit such an indiscretion. He said he realized that one could not have a common policy with a major ally if there were such indiscretions. He could not be sure, however, that someone else was not responsible.

The President said he knew Dr. Von Brentano was not responsible for the indiscretions because we had worked with him in the past. The President then went on to say that the problems we have with the Soviets are extremely difficult. They are unsolvable in a real sense and may be unsolvable even as far as lesser matters are concerned. We could not even begin to deal with them, however, if our proposals came out in the press and become part of a political controversy.

The President referred to the difficulty of getting together proposals and noted that it was easy to criticize from the outside. He cited the criticism that had been made since the erection of the wall in Berlin—i.e., that it should have been taken down brick by brick—but said we had adopted the course we considered most responsible. The President said there might be some things in the documents we had prepared which should be changed. No one wanted to dictate to the Germans, who were most involved geographically and personally, what they should do. This is why we had submitted documents for their comments.

The President remarked that if the present situation were satisfactory, we would not need a modus vivendi. It was not satisfactory, however, and that is why we wanted to try to change it. He referred to Khrushchev’s rude remark about being able to squeeze the West in Berlin any time he wanted to. Perhaps we could not change this situation, but we should try to do so.

The President said he had the feeling the press in Bonn was carrying on a war against the United States, accusing the United States of being weak and lacking determination. He pointed out that since his Vienna meeting with Khrushchev, he had increased the United States defense budget by $3–1/2 billion, had called up two divisions of reservists with all the difficulties involved, would soon have seven more combat divisions in readiness than were available when he took office and had sent General Clay to Berlin. In addition, we were taking the risk of war, were getting ready for a possible blockade, and had passed national emergency legislation. We were also taking on the burden of trying to reach a solution with the USSR on these problems. At the same time, the United States was under constant attack while the French were [Page 127] held up as a good example. Yet the French had only two divisions in Germany and the two divisions recently recalled to France from Algeria were not even fully armed. The President said that if someone else wanted to carry on negotiations with the USSR, it was all right with him. For the past seven months, the United States had had only headaches.

Dr. Von Brentano said that neither he nor his friends had ever reproached the United States for weakness or lack of determination. In fact he could cite additional illustrations to the contrary. He said the United States and Germany have common policy objectives, but there were some misunderstandings. Perhaps the fact that the Federal Government had been asked to comment on the United States proposals had stirred up unrest in Bonn because it was felt that there were far-reaching implications involved. Dr. Von Brentano said the Germans had welcomed talks with the USSR, being fully aware of their importance and the importance of mitigating present tensions. He added that all Germans were aware of the great responsibility for the United States and the Free World which rested on the President’s shoulders.

The President expressed his appreciation and said that in any negotiations it was easy to sit outside and say what should or should not be done—e.g., in labor-management negotiations. He went on to say that there were basic disagreements with the USSR on Western presence in Berlin, on the Soviet free city proposal, and on the Soviet desire for presence in West Berlin. He emphasized that the United States would not recognize East Germany de facto or de jure. It was necessary, however, to see if there was any possibility of reaching an accord which would prevent increased tensions every few months and would end the situation whereby West Berlin could be saved only by the threat of war. He pointed out there might be greater trouble after the USSR had signed a peace treaty with the East Germans.

The President said he realized that the United States objection to the diffusion of nuclear weapons created difficulties for Germany, but indicated that we had a problem with the French on this matter and that our policy was a general one not directed against Germany. As far as the non-aggression pact between NATO and the Warsaw pact was concerned, the President thought it should be possible to word it differently to meet German objections. He suggested that Dr. Von Brentano discuss the question of technical commissions with Mr. Kohler.1 The President made the general point, however, that the United States wanted to move in association with the Federal Government. If parts of the United States [Page 128] proposals were not acceptable, the United States wanted to hear the German comments. The President hoped Germans realized, however, that we could not get everything we wanted. Otherwise, there would be no possibility of trying to reach an agreement.

Dr. Von Brentano agreed with the President on non-diffusion of nuclear weapons, saying it was not a problem and not necessary to discuss since he understood the United States legal situation. The important thing was whether or not we had a functioning Atlantic Alliance ready to react to any threat. Dr. Von Brentano said it was not necessary to talk about non-aggression pacts either because he was also sure some acceptable formulation or language could be found. He noted, however, that guarantees from the other side were of problematic value and cited Khrushchev’s definition of wars of liberation. Dr. Von Brentano said it was necessary to discuss some things, privately not publicly, because of our responsibilities to the German and American people.

Turning to the question of recognizing the GDR, Dr. Von Brentano indicated this was not a prestige factor, but a political question of overriding importance. The participation of the GDR on equal terms with the great powers in an international access authority would tend to place it on the same footing with such powers. The establishment of joint commissions was also potentially dangerous because it could set in motion a train of events leading to the establishment of an all-German commission. He did not think this would happen under the present government, but he was afraid that a first step in this direction could lead to a second step which would be disastrous—i.e., taking Germany out of the Western Alliance. Dr. Von Brentano stressed the necessity of avoiding any developments which would open up such vistas. This concern was the basis of his reserve and warning.

Dr. Von Brentano pointed out that the Federal Government had agreed in 1959 to the establishment of joint technical commissions as part of the over-all Herter Plan.2 If those commissions were established apart from such an over-all plan, however, it could lead to all-German conversations. He was not worried about the threat of the GDR, but about the possibility of weakening the Western Alliance. If Germany left the Western Alliance or if such a possibility were implied in any proposals, the consequences would be very serious.

The President asked Dr. Von Brentano what it was in the United States proposals that worried him. We were talking about West Berlin and East Berlin and others participating in an international access authority on a basis giving the West and the others a clear majority over [Page 129] the Communists. He pointed out that West Berlin and East Berlin and the other members each had a different status. Recognition of the GDR was not involved. The President noted that the United States had been dealing with Communist China at Geneva without recognizing it. He said he would have the same problem if he tried to change United States policy toward Communist China and, therefore, he understood German sensitivity in this matter, but he emphasized that dealing with the GDR did not mean recognition, as demonstrated by the fact that the Federal Republic dealt with the East Germans on 90 per cent of Berlin access at the present time.

Mr. Kohler said it was a question of technical functions not political institutions.

Dr. Von Brentano replied that the proposed commissions were really political institutions. He said he was fully aware that German reunification could not be brought about now by the United States or Germany, but he thought the common goal of reunification should not be given up. If there were all-German talks or an all-German commission, the impression would be created that the Western Alliance was not interested in the peaceful reunification of Germany and had shifted the problem to the Germans. In those circumstances, people in Germany would say it was up to the Germans to settle this problem. This development could be dangerous.

The President suggested that Dr. Von Brentano discuss with Mr. Kohler the language establishing technical commissions to see if a way could be found of meeting the problem without lessening the commitment to reunification. He emphasized again, however, that it would not be possible to reach an agreement with the USSR that would fully satisfy everyone. He thought it would be useful to distinguish between what was unsatisfactory and what was verboten. Unless some agreement could be reached on possible proposals, we would have to stop the conversations with the USSR.

The President said we envisaged a technical access authority which would actually govern traffic to Berlin. This traffic was being controlled now. The question was how we could set up a system assuring continued traffic for the next few years at least. With this objective in mind, we had put forth proposals to see if it was possible to create a basis for seeking such a solution. The President expressed the view that the present situation with respect to Berlin access was unsatisfactory since it gave the USSR great opportunities for interference. For example, the Soviets could insist on certain visas. As a result, no Germans would travel. He wondered where this would lead to.

The President said the French did not want to be associated with our efforts because they wanted to avoid criticism in the future that Germany [Page 130] had been sold out by the West. In the President’s opinion, this was taking the easy way out.

Dr. Von Brentano said he knew that if the situation was serious, it was necessary to try to find an accommodation. He was aware that concessions on both sides would be necessary, but as the President himself had said, one could not negotiate on the basis of “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable”.

The President said that it was necessary to see if some middle ground could be found. For this reason, we had given our proposals to the Federal Government for comment. The President said he did not mind accepting responsibility and abuse since he thought it was in ev-eryone’s interest to try to reach an understanding. He thought the present relative calm should be used to pursue conversations with the USSR. It was better to talk now than under pressure. He added he had observed that when those most opposed to conversations were asked to face up to the possibility of war or to the necessity of economic, naval or air blockade, they always wanted to do something else. Therefore, these problems should be discussed now.

Dr. Von Brentano said he had been involved in many negotiations and he knew the difficulty of getting answers to difficult questions. He emphasized he was not entitled to reproach the United States nor interested in doing so. He wanted to express some apprehensions because he thought a frank exchange of views and expression of feelings were essential. He added that after reading the press in recent days, he frankly did not know where we stood. He emphasized, however, that it was silly to say anyone in Germany wanted worsened relations with the United States because all Germans knew how dependent they were on United States friendship and support.

The President said there seemed to be stories in the press every day criticizing the United States. He referred to the Gruson article in the New York Times of April 28 carrying the headline “Brentano Uneasy Over Bonn-US Tie”. He said it was easy to cast blame from the outside. He noted that the Federal Government had not yet established the 18-months conscription period, nor had it passed emergency legislation. Despite this, there was antagonism against the United States. The President pointed out the United States probably would have a deficit of $4 billion this year and that if it had not been for the Berlin problem, he could have had a balanced budget and could have reduced taxes.

The President repeated that if the United States and the Federal Republic could not reach an understanding, it would not be possible to go on with the talks with the USSR. He said he wanted a private exchange of views about mutual interests and in the spirit of mutual confidence. He indicated he was aware that United States relations with the Federal Republic in the last fifteen years were the best we had had with any [Page 131] country, with the exception of the United Kingdom where we had a special relationship. He added that he was also aware of German assistance to the United States balance of payments. He expressed the view that the poison in the newspapers was bad for both sides as Ambassador Grewe well knew.

The President noted that by not sharing nuclear information with France, we were avoiding creating difficulties for Germany. We were also supporting the Common Market which created difficulties for the United States, but helped Germany. The President thought that perhaps there was a breakdown in communications between the United States and Germany and that both sides should work harder and more quietly. He said the United States was totally stunned by the heat of the reaction in Bonn to the United States proposals for discussion with the USSR. When he had approved these proposals, the President added, he had assumed they were in accord with the understanding reached by our two governments.

Dr. Von Brentano agreed that things had not taken the best course in Bonn. Turning to the Gruson interview, he said he had known the correspondent for years and that he had had a long talk with him at which no notes were taken. He did not evade questions which were in the air because that would have been foolish. On the other hand, he could not accept responsibility for what the New York Times or the German press wrote afterwards. It was silly to say that he was in the United States to propose alternatives. He was not here on behalf of the Federal Government and he could not accept an official task in his present position.

The President again suggested that Dr. Von Brentano go over the United States proposals with Mr. Kohler and give his opinions. The President said he knew we shared the same objectives, but that he would welcome Dr. Von Brentano’s thoughts, particularly as to what would cause difficulties in the long range and what might be unpleasant but could be lived with.

In conclusion, the President suggested it would be best in handling the press after this interview to say that there had been a general discussion and exchange of views which had been good and useful. He advised against suggesting that there had been any discussion of details and thought nothing should be said about any protest. Dr. Von Brentano fully agreed.

As they were leaving the room, the President asked Dr. Von Brentano what he thought would happen to the price of Volkswagens. Dr. Von Brentano expressed the hope they would go the way United States steel prices had.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Germany. Secret; Limit Distribution. Drafted by Brandin and approved in the White House on May 7. On April 29, in preparation for this meeting, Bundy sent a memorandum to the President stating that Brentano needed to take away from the conversation the following four points: 1) the United States was determined to defend Berlin, and the President, not the German press, was in charge of this defense; 2) the United States found Schroeder both reliable and able; 3) German critics of the U.S. position were generally ill-informed; and 4) the Kennedy administration was not likely to be swayed by politically inspired leaks, and those responsible for them would lose influence with the United States. (Ibid.)
  2. A memorandum of Kohler’s conversation with Brentano, which took place at Kohler’s office at noon and covered the international access authority, press leaks, the general principles paper, the technical commissions, U.S.-German relations, future consultations, and the visit of Fritz Erler, is ibid.
  3. For text of the Western Peace Plan (“Herter Plan”), May 14, 1959, see Documents on Germany, 1944–1985, pp. 624–629, or American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1959, pp. 655–663.