21. Message From Chairman Khrushchev to President Johnson 1

Dear Mr. President:

I felt a need even earlier to send you a message of this content. But I put it off somehow, thinking that perhaps the reasons for which I decided to address myself to you would not be rightly understood. Now, I believe, you will understand me correctly.

During the last few months there have occurred one incident after another, causing much unpleasantness and adding to the tension in the already complicated relations between our two countries.

In the first place some member of the United States Armed Forces assigned to the Federal Republic of Germany and West Berlin wanted to change, without prior permission, the procedure for checking documents of military personnel on the routes of communication with West Berlin passing through the territory of the German Democratic Republic. To be sure, United States Government organs insisted in the correspondence carried on subsequently through diplomatic and military channels that the Soviet side had changed the conditions while the Americans adhered to the old rules that had been agreed upon. But I can assure you that this was not so at all. We did not change anything in the procedure for checking documents of the military personnel of the United States, Great Britain and France. On the contrary, the American command adopted some sort of internal instructions changing the practice agreed upon, and required that others take this into account.

Why do I come back to this question? If this were an isolated act, it could have been taken as constituting an unpleasant occurrence, but unfortunately similar acts are not few in number and it is not always easy to avoid the impression: are these not links in the same chain with which certain circles are striving to keep the United States of America and the Soviet Union from throwing off the shackles of the “Cold War"?

Incidents on the ground have finally been settled. Now they happen in the air.2 On January 28, an American military aircraft intruded in the air space of the German Democratic Republic. In spite of the [Page 50]warning and of the order to land, the aircraft continued to fly deep into the GDR until it was shot down. The American side stated that this violation was unintentional, that this was not a military plane but a training plane which had lost its bearings.

It is difficult to agree that even a training plane could stray off course in such clear weather and over territory which is quite familiar to flying personnel. Nevertheless we took into account the statement made by your government that this was an accidental flight and that USA authorities are taking steps to prevent similar violations in the future.

But hardly six weeks had gone by and on March 10 there occurred a new violation of the frontiers of the German Democratic Republic. This violation was committed by a military aircraft, a reconnaissance-bomber equipped with air cameras as well as radio reconnaissance facilities which were in operation at the time of the flight. According to the official version, the RB–66 aircraft committed a navigational error and accidentally found itself over an area where something of interest to the American military command was taking place.

Can we fail to reach the conclusion, Mr. President, that the RB–66 intentionally violated the air space of the GDR and did so in order to engage in air reconnaissance, if a film on which important military objects had been recorded was found in the wreckage of the plane and if throughout its flight, the crew knew exactly where it was and maintained two-way communication with its land bases?

Mr. Rusk, Secretary of State of the United States, told the Soviet Ambassador, in your name, that the United States of America regrets the occurrence, that the US Government is in no way involved in the intrusion of the RB–66 within the GDR and that you had given strict instructions not to allow such violations in the future. Mr. Rusk also said that a careful inquiry will be conducted and the culprits will be called to account. In view of these assurances, the Soviet Government and the Government of the GDR have found it possible to return the crew members of the intruding aircraft to the American authorities.

I believe that the flight of the RB–66 was arranged without instructions from the President of the United States of America. But I declare to you that I do not accept the idea that this was an accidental border violation. I will say more: soon after the January incident, we received information according to which the American command in Europe, intended to continue reconnaissance flights over GDR territory. It developed that we did not have to wait very long to receive confirmation of the accuracy of this information. Therefore, accepting your declaration that the Government of the United States did not order aircraft of the American military air forces to fly over the GDR for [Page 51]reconnaissance purposes, at the same time, I exclude the possibility that what has happened is the result of an error of the pilot.3

It remains to assume that among the American military command in Germany there are people, and perhaps such people also exist within the military departments in Washington, who seek a worsening of the relations with the Soviet Union and who use, to that end, the very areas where the absence of settlement for many questions related to the defeat and the destruction of the German Reich during the Second World War, is felt more acutely, where there are greater possibilities for all sorts of collisions and conflicts, where American forces located in West Germany confront the Soviet forces stationed in the GDR.

All this has prompted me to address myself to you and to express my concern that unless an end is put to the actions of those who provoke these incidents, our efforts to improve the relations between the USSR and the USA and to suppress everything that is a source of unnecessary complications and that maintains the Cold War climate, may prove to be vain efforts. It need not be said that the state of Soviet-American relations exerts a great influence upon the situation throughout the world. Relations between the Soviet Union and the United States of America will not be set completely right; we have only just begun to make real progress in the solution of the most important problems of our time. Can disarmament negotiations, for example, yield much result if instead of being accompanied by the day-to-day efforts of all parties striving to establish confidence, they are accompanied by sabre-rattling?

Then what is the result? American aircraft violate the borders of a Socialist state, authorities of the USA publicly protest against the defensive action of our military, and the American press launches a noisy anti-Soviet campaign. All this merely creates additional difficulties for the achievement of an understanding in those fields and on those problems where such an understanding now seems possible or favorable preconditions for it may be ripening. Apparently this is also the very intention of those who organize various incidents at one time on land and at another time in the air.

And it is not so much a matter of what material damage such incidents produce and even, perhaps, not in the incidents themselves as [Page 52]such, as it is in their dangerous political consequences for the interests of our two countries, for the interests of the entire world. People hear statements concerning the aspirations of statesmen for peace and for improvement of the international situation. At the same time incidents occur one after another which indicate that the statements remain statements and tension continues. Can these really create an atmosphere necessary for arriving at a proper normalizing of the situation?

The problems which confront us must be solved in one way or another if we are to promote the cause of strengthening peace and eliminating the causes of disputes which may entail the outbreak of a thermonuclear war. We are convinced that it is in our general interest not to postpone the solution of these problems and, at least, in any case not to complicate their solution.

I have already mentioned that certain American military circles are organizing incidents in that very spot where there is a great deal of power, and this cannot fail to emphasize the timeliness and importance of a German peace settlement. If such questions as the normalization of the situation in West Berlin, the formalization of the existing borders of the German states, respect for the sovereignty of the GDR and other such questions were solved, then tension in this key spot for the fate of world peace would no doubt decline, which would be reflected most favorably in the international situation.

I shall not enumerate here all the specific problems requiring solution and requiring no little cooperation on our part. There is first of all the problem of universal and complete disarmament. Of course, it would not be proper not to note with satisfaction that a good beginning has already been made and that during the past year some success has been achieved even in regard to those questions the solution of which not so long ago appeared to be almost unattainable. But this, of course, is only the beginning.

The fundamental position of the Soviet Union is the improvement of Soviet-American relations and strengthening peace, and we would prefer, of course, not to engage in demonstrations of force, of hard firmness, and in the elimination of the consequences of incidents provoked by the acts of American military forces, but to concentrate, with you, our efforts toward guaranteeing for the peoples of our two countries a durable peace.

I should like to hope that you will consider with understanding these words of mine which are dictated by a sincere desire to avoid the unnecessary complications for the interests of our two countries.

With respect and esteem4

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Presidential Correspondence: Lot 77 D 163. Top Secret; Exdis. The source text is a translation done in the Division of Language Services of the Department of State. Dobrynin handed the Russian-language text to Thompson at an April 4 meeting. Thompson’s memorandum of their conversation at that time is ibid.
  2. See Documents 9 and 16 concerning the incidents on January 28 and March 10.
  3. After receiving the message from Dobrynin, Thompson glanced through it and responded, according to his memorandum of conversation, that “I felt absolutely certain that the Air Force could not be deliberately deceiving the President. I said that General Le May himself had investigated the matter and had assured us that this plane had orders not to go near the demarcation line. I said our preliminary investigation indicated that the plane had a faulty compass and that the crew had apparently carelessly not checked it.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Presidential Correspondence: Lot 77 D 163)
  4. Printed from an unsigned copy.