28. Letter From President Johnson to Chairman Khrushchev 1
Dear Mr. Chairman:
I welcome your letter of April 2, 1964,2 because of the spirit in which it was written. It is certainly incumbent upon both of us to do anything we can to strengthen our relations and to prevent incidents which could adversely affect those relations.
I found your letter particularly interesting because it seems to me it so clearly illustrates the ease with which misunderstandings can arise. You referred to the incidents on the autobahn which occurred last October. Our investigation showed that in the six months preceding these incidents, eighteen convoys with a configuration similar to those that were stopped were processed through your checkpoints without dismounting and without difficulty, except in the case of two which were delayed for short periods of time. It was, therefore, most natural for us to consider that it was your side that had changed procedures. But I am happy that this matter has now been resolved, and trust that there will be no further difficulties.
With respect to the airplane incidents, I can quite well understand your concern that within a short period of time two American airplanes crossed the demarcation line. There is little I can say about the incident involving a training plane, since the crew were killed and we are unable to ascertain what actually happened. I am disturbed that in both cases, however, there does not appear to have been justification for the rapidity with which there was a resort to force by Soviet planes. The American planes should not have been there, but I believe that this fast and violent reaction is quite unjustified. Avoidable acts of force which can bring death in peacetime do not contribute to an improvement of our relations. All of our pilots have long had rigid instructions that if by error they found themselves in East Germany, they should promptly obey signals to land.[Page 70]
The RB–66 was on a training flight from Toul Rosieres in France and was scheduled to pass over Hahn, Dortmund and Nordholz in Germany at high level, to descend to low altitude over Hamburg for a photographic exercise, and to return to high altitude on the return trip to its base. It is normal for planes on missions of this kind to test the cameras en route to see that they are in working order, but to use them only for the assigned mission. A thorough investigation has shown that the compass was faulty and that through a series of errors, adequate further checks of position were not made. Our Air Force has had procedures to prevent incidents of this kind, and when our radar station detected an unknown plane proceeding toward East Germany, the plane was ordered to turn back. The instructor navigator states he heard this instruction but says he thought that he was over Nordholz at the time and that the signal did not apply to him. Appropriate steps are being taken to deal with those responsible for the errors made.
From the debriefing of the crew, we can find no basis for the conclusion that “the crew knew exactly where it was.” I was particularly interested in your statement that you had received information, according to which the American command in Europe intended to continue reconnaissance flights over Eastern Germany. I should be glad to have any additional information bearing on this statement. From our own most thorough investigation, I am convinced that any suspicion that this violation was a deliberate provocation is unfounded. I recognize that this is an astonishing series of errors, and upon my instructions the American military authorities have established the most rigorous procedure possible in order to prevent any repetition of such an incident.
I think it most important that we deal with each other frankly in matters of this kind. I shall be glad to cooperate with you in reducing tension in this most sensitive area of the world. In this connection, may I tell you that I have been disturbed that the East German press has for some time been carrying on a campaign of accusations of alleged violations of traffic regulations by our military vehicles in East Berlin. After most careful investigation, it appears that, with rare exceptions relating to quite accidental episodes, these allegations have no basis in fact. I was, therefore, disturbed when your military authorities protested to ours on the basis of these allegations. For my part, I have given renewed instructions that our military vehicles take every precaution to avoid any incident in the future, and I hope that your own authorities will carefully investigate and establish, to your own satisfaction, whether or not East German allegations of this kind are well-founded.[Page 71]
I have already sent you birthday greetings but I would like to repeat them in this message and to close by sending you again my best wishes for continuing health and strength.3
- Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Presidential Correspondence: Lot 77 D 163. No classification marking. The President discussed the drafting of the letter in two brief telephone conversations with McGeorge Bundy on April 17, emphasizing that he wanted the letter to make clear that “the provocation did not justify the remedy.” Telling Khrushchev to quit “shooting down our planes,” Johnson stressed, was the “most important part of the letter.” (Recording of telephone conversations between the President and Bundy, April 17, 11:14 a.m. and 11:16 a.m.; Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Tape 64.24, Side A, PNOs 4 and 5)↩
- Document 21.↩
- In an oral message delivered by Dobrynin to Thompson on May 15, Khrushchev welcomed President Johnson’s assurances about the prevention of future incidents and assured him that the “Soviet Union firmly adheres to the position that our states must learn to live without quarrels and confrontations,” but he also defended shooting down the U.S. planes and continued to insist that the RB–66 was on a reconnaissance mission. He again referred to evidence that after the January incident “the American command in Europe planned to continue reconnaissance flights over the territory of the GDR,” and he indicated that Dobrynin would turn over “photographs of the readings of the radar indicator of the RB–66” that would convince Johnson “the crew could not be unaware of their location at any time during the fulfillment of its mission.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Presidential Correspondence: Lot 77 D 163)↩
- Printed from an unsigned copy.↩