287. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Soviet Policy


  • Dr. Kurt Birrenbach, CDU Member of Parliament
  • Baron Herbert von Stackelberg, Minister, German Embassy
  • Carl Lahusen, Counselor, German Embassy
  • The Secretary
  • The Under Secretary
  • John M. Leddy, Assistant Secretary, EUR
  • Alfred Puhan, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary, EUR
  • Alexander C. Johnpoll, Acting Country Director, German Affairs

Dr. Birrenbach said he was here at Kiesinger’s request to explain the German viewpoint on developments in Czechoslovakia. Before coming here Birrenbach had long talks with the Chancellor, Minister of Defense Schroeder, and Foreign Minister Brandt. The FRG thinks that the strategic situation in Europe has been altered: there are now 15 Soviet divisions in Western Czechoslovakia; 40 Soviet divisions west of the Vistula; they have 30 divisions in a high state of readiness; the Soviets have proved that they can move much faster than we had realized.

Soviet policy had changed after the Bratislava and Karlovy-Vary meetings into one of repression of any signs of independence among the bloc countries. The change in Soviet policy is based on a wrong appreciation of the Dubcek experiment. Within the bloc, Poland is stagnating; the GDR, Bulgaria and Hungary are under complete control. The Soviets simply cannot understand Western reactions. They are misjudging the situation in the West on the basis of the French reaction, United States involvement in Southeast Asia, reductions and rotations in NATO forces, the force ceiling of about 460,000 men on the German contribution to NATO, etc.

Birrenbach continued that the Soviets are taking advantage of what they think are these signs of Western weakness to try to isolate the FRG. The FRG is accused of being solely responsible for European tensions because of the FRG’s refusal to accept the five conditions laid down by the Karlovy-Vary meeting (recognition of the GDR, Oder-Neisse Line, division of Germany, special status of Berlin, and total nuclear renunciation). The Soviets referred in their Notes of November 21, 1967 and July 5, 1968,2 to Articles 53 and 107 to suggest that these gave the Soviets right to intervene in Germany. Tsarapkin in his recent talks with Kiesinger had raised this issue in a brutal way. Tsarapkin had charged the FRG with fomenting unrest in Czechoslovakia; he had called the FRG détente policy “interference” in the internal affairs of a socialist country. He had threatened severe consequences to the FRG if the FRG persisted in its policies. He had identified FRG policy with the program of the NPD. Birrenbach said that there was now fear in the FRG that these Tsarapkin complaints could lead to further East German pressures on Berlin accesses.

Birrenbach said that as a result of the Czech developments and the Tsarapkin communication, FRG Ostpolitik is completely blocked; movement toward détente and the policy of working toward disarmament are [Page 739] under serious question; there is unrest among the European neutral countries as well as Romania and Yugoslavia; and popular morale in Berlin has suffered. Germany’s Eastern, European and Atlantic policies are all in difficulties. The first two may have consequences in the next election by improving the prospects of the NPD. Some NATO concepts, on the strategic situation, require force levels, and political warning time need examination.3

The Secretary said that with respect to Birrenbach’s political analysis we can agree with most of it. The Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia was a rude shock to those affected with the euphoria of détente. We have been concerned about excessive détente euphoria for some time. For the present, most NATO countries have adopted the view that there should be a reduction in the number of friendly exchanges, particularly the more visible ones. For the longer run, consultation in NATO is necessary.

The Secretary added that he had to take exception to the statement about our concentration on Southeast Asia, with the implication that this meant we were neglecting European problems and that this had encouraged the Soviets in Czechoslovakia.

The Secretary compared the Soviet defamation of the FRG with the defamation of Israel in the Arab world. The defamation of Israel among the Arab countries is the only thing they can agree on, and therefore it is important to them. Similarly, the Soviets hope to build up East European unity by concentrating on the Federal Republic.

We are trying to help counter this Soviet defamation; we have informed the FRG, for example, that we are prepared to send appropriate instructions to all our Embassies. As for Articles 53 and 107 of the United Nations Charter, we ought to get that problem out of the way promptly. The Articles actually are empty. They don’t have the slightest effect on NATO commitments. The Soviets know that if they try anything in Germany it means war. It is as simple as that.

Birrenbach said that this should be made quite clear to the Russians.

The Secretary said that broadly speaking we see things the same way. For the short term, the outlook in Eastern Europe is negative. For the longer run, however, trends in Eastern Europe toward greater independence and liberalization are irreversible. They are practical necessities.

Birrenbach asked whether this was also true for the Soviet Union.

The Secretary said he thought this was the case.

The Under Secretary said that the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia was really not surprising. The fact that the Soviets felt compelled to [Page 740] do it was a tribute to the success of Western policy in Eastern Europe. What we need is a strong alliance and a collective policy toward Eastern Europe.

The Secretary said that East-West relations have, of course, been complicated by the Czech developments. The fact that the Soviets were willing to accept all the disadvantages of intervention—involving risks to their bilateral relations with the Western countries, Soviet relations with the other communist states and parties, and many other risks—is not a good omen. But this doesn’t make the other pressing problems disappear. The problems of nuclear missiles, Viet-Nam, the Middle East—all require solutions. We’ve all got to give some thought to the problem of getting somewhere in these matters despite Czech events.

Birrenbach asked whether there was still some possibility of a meeting between the President and Kosygin.

The Secretary replied that there is no plan for such a meeting now. He called Birrenbach’s attention to the President’s press statement to this effect.4 He pointed out that in a matter of this kind, nothing is final.

The Under Secretary pointed out that in dealing with weapons of the new kind, such as ABM’s, governments reach a point of decision from which they can’t turn back. This has a bearing on the problem.

The Secretary said that on warning time NATO had had good advance knowledge of the movement and the order of battle of the Soviet forces. What we did not have was a warning about their decision to march. Of course, the time and forces required for a move against the West is an entirely different thing than that required to move against Czechoslovakia. It may be that the amount of political warning time has now been cut somewhat. We have to look carefully at this. But the concept of political warning time has not been eliminated.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Germany, vol. 16. Secret. The meeting was held in the Secretary’s Dining Room. The source text is marked “Part I of V”; other memoranda of conversation covering the meeting are ibid. A memorandum of conversation between Birrenbach and President Johnson, September 13, is in Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. XIII, Document 326.
  2. For texts, see Documents on Germany, 1944–1985, pp. 971 and 1017–1022.
  3. See page 6. [Footnote in the source text. Reference is to the last paragraph of the memorandum.]
  4. For text, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968, Book II, p. 928.