161. Memorandum From Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1


  • The German Version of the FessendenSahm Conversation of December 16, 1970

As relayed by Commander Howe, you asked for my comments on Ehmke’s letter to you of December 23 and on the German memcon of the FessendenSahm conversation, which he enclosed (Tab A).2

I attach Fessenden’s own memcon (Tab B).3 You will note that it is dated December 24, eight days after the conversation. This memcon was the result of a request by Hillenbrand after the Ehmke conversation in your office and Fessenden’s memcon may therefore have been written to compensate to a degree for the allegations that Ehmke had made in his rendition of the conversation. However, in checking the account of Hillenbrand’s conversation with Fessenden, I note that the former did not provide Fessenden with any detailed version of what Ehmke had attributed to him. Hillenbrand did make clear that Ehmke had alleged that Fessenden had proposed a Brandt visit. In addition, Fessenden sent in a private account of his December 16 talk late on December 18.4 This account, which though quite brief, squares completely with Fessenden’s December 24 rendition of that part of the conversation dealing with a high-level visit (i.e., that Sahm proposed that you come to Bonn; that Fessenden expressed doubt that this would be feasible and that Sahm then suggested either Bahr or Ehmke; and that Fessenden did not react one way or the other).

A close reading of the purported Sahm memcon indicates that it is a doctored account. It is even questionable that the use of the word [Page 481] “today” in the first line is bona fide. Circumstantial evidence, at least, indicates that this record was made up some time between midday of December 18 and Ehmke’s departure for the US on December 20.

Following are items in the “Sahm memcon” which are not only at variance with the Fessenden record (in itself not proof of doctoring) but almost certainly inaccurate on their face.

  • —It is highly unlikely that Fessenden would have cited either you or Laird or the President by name as being skeptical about Ostpolitik. While Fessenden knew at secondhand that each of you three gentlemen had at one time or another voiced reservations, the only written record involving you three even remotely approaching a statement of skepticism which Fessenden has access to was the memcon of April 11, 1970, between the President and Brandt in which the President stressed the need for consultations and cautioned about “seeking votes they did not have at the expense of votes they did have.”5 All other accounts came to Fessenden from German sources who reported to him what had purportedly been said to them by Americans. (Strauss, incidentally, did not see the Embassy after his last visit here, but wrote an article in the FAZ on December 13.)6 It is simply not in character for Fessenden to purport to cite the views of senior US officials without having seen those views in authoritative American writing.7
  • —The listing of you, the President and Laird as skeptics is identical to that in the Binder New York Times article, the existence of which became known in Bonn late in the afternoon on December 18. (The article had been scheduled to appear on December 19, but did not actually run until December 20, Tab C).8 Ehmke and Bahr have categorically denied (to Fessenden on December 19) being the sources of the Binder article. Ehmke himself has suggested9 [name not declassified] that Ahlers was the source and there is other evidence to indicate that this is so. There remains a suspicion that, despite their mutual dislike, Ehmke in fact put Ahlers up to stimulating the Binder piece.
  • Sahm attributes to Fessenden remarks concerning the fact that the President, you and Laird were acting under the impact of Soviet expansionism and that for this reason you had to be skeptical of Ostpolitik. But Fessenden had no firsthand record of any of you saying any such thing. Such a record does, however, exist in the debriefings in Bonn by Gaus and Wild of Spiegel who saw you here on November 25. They debriefed Fessenden and German officials some time in the first week of December, and did so in terms of highlighting the alleged difference of view between yourself and Hillenbrand, whom they also saw. Given this slant—an echo of which, incidentally, appears in Spiegel’s opening article of December 28, in which Chancery sources are cited as saying that we are jealous of the FRG’s stealing our détente policy—it is highly unlikely that Fessenden would have taken the Gaus and Wild debriefing as guidance for a conversation with a German official.

    The “Sahm memcon” would thus appear to have been edited to incorporate the Spiegel debriefing plus, conceivably, other statements by yourself concerning the “two-tier” Soviet policy toward us and the West Europeans, especially the FRG.

  • —The Sahm and Fessenden versions are not too far apart on the matter of US-German agreement on substance but disagreement on tactics and timing. However, whereas “Sahm’s memcon” indicates that Sahm quoted Brandt on the point that haste was not indicated (Brandt to Tsarapkin on December 15), Fessenden indicates that he himself cited Brandt on this point (Brandt to Rush, no date.)
  • Sahm makes no reference to Fessenden’s citation of Schuetz as an advocate of a cautious pace. (Fessenden was wrong in referring to Schuetz’ remarks on this to the President (November 17) since he had no American record of that conversation, there being none extant. However, Fessenden had State telegram 190972 of November 21 quoting in detail Schuetz’ remarks on precisely this issue to Rogers on November 17.10 Schuetz also debriefed Fessenden some time after his return. The Chancellor’s staff is plainly not eager to incorporate in its records the strong current views of Schuetz on the Berlin talks.)
  • —“Sahm’s memcon” makes the curious error of denying that the Germans favor an “intensification” of the Berlin talks. You will recall that Ehmke, while here, repeatedly stressed that while the Germans were not advocating a speedup they were indeed advocating “intensification.” Sahm notes that Brandt’s letter to the three Western heads (December 16)11 did not refer to intensification but to a change in the [Page 483] character of the talks. Some time between the drafting of the “Sahm memcon” and Ehmke’s arrival in your office on December 21, Ehmke must have devised the gambit of characterizing the Brandt letter as advocating “intensification” rather than speedup. (Brandt, Sahm and Ehmke are, however, on the same wavelength in advocating greater continuity and a more systematic approach.)
  • —The “Sahm memcon” cites Sahm as using the debating trick of asking Fessenden how the Germans could be accused of wanting a speedup when Hillenbrand (in Bonn on November 17–18) allegedly complained (“left the impression that”) the Germans were making excessive demands regarding Berlin.12 Fessenden makes no reference to this. The record of the Hillenbrand-level talks in Bonn in November does indicate that Hillenbrand expressed some unhappiness about the elusiveness of the German position on Berlin because of its frequent shifts from conciliation to a more demanding stance; but it indicates no statement or “impression” of criticism of excessive German toughness. (Ehmke, while here, you will recall, stressed how far the FRG was ahead of the Allies in its toughness on substance; this was in the context of his denying Acheson’s claims of excessive German haste and eagerness.)
  • —The “Sahm memcon,” as already noted, attributes to Fessenden the idea of a Brandt visit to Washington, before the one already in the works in May (to Indianapolis for a conference on cities). Apart from the complete divergence on this point with the Fessenden record, we know that Bahr on December 11 broached [less than 1 line not declassified] the idea of an early Brandt visit in connection with Time’s selection of him as Man of the Year.13 Apparently, the proposal was put into Fessenden’s mouth in order to substantiate the dramatic and urgent character which the Germans chose to confer upon Fessenden’s remarks to Sahm. It is simply not credible that Fessenden, a trained and cautious diplomat, would have taken it upon himself to initiate the idea of a summit meeting. I find it somewhat more plausible, as the “Sahm memcon” indicates (but Fessenden does not) that in the course of this part of the conversation, Fessenden might have mentioned Schmidt. But even this seems unlikely and, in my judgment, the point was inserted into the “memcon” because Schmidt is known to be cautious on Ostpolitik and the idea of our proposing his coming as an emissary would fit into the context of picturing us as trying to slow-up the Ostpolitik.

I cannot judge where the drafting of the “Sahm memcon” occurred: whether Sahm himself wrote it, or whether Bahr, Sahm’s immediate superior who brought him from the Foreign Office, did it; or whether [Page 484] Ehmke did it; or whether all three did it. I have previously pointed out Sahm’s own ambivalence on Ostpolitik (stemming from his Danzig birth and other aspects of his past). It is possible that he fixed the record because he was attempting to make points that he dared not make in his own name.

More likely, however, the editing occurred within the BahrEhmke combo. For it is these gentlemen who have most at stake in regard to Ostpolitik (Ehmke, in part, because he has ambitions of his own for the succession to Brandt). My conclusion remains that Ehmke/Bahr decided to exploit the FessendenSahm conversation to force you into support of the Ostpolitik. This decision was evidently reached in the 24 hours between the end of the FessendenSahm luncheon on December 16th and Ehmke’s call to you at 5:50 p.m. (Bonn time) on December 17th. (I gather, actually, Ehmke may have tried to reach you some time before this time in the afternoon of December 17.) If Ehmke colluded with Ahlers in launching the Binder article it probably fell in the same time frame since Binder must have taken some time to write his piece. (Its existence became known in Bonn, as pointed out previously, in the afternoon of December 18.) I would judge that the “Sahm memcon” was drafted for Ehmke’s Washington briefcase some time after it was known that you had agreed to receive Ehmke and after it was known that Binder was going to press, i.e., some time after the later afternoon of December 18.

Now, as regards Ehmke’s letter to you.

Given the weighty words attributed to Fessenden in the “Sahm memcon,” it is only logical that Ehmke should contend that Fessenden had acted on instructions. Yet, why then does he also say that he is convinced “Fessenden meant well.” If Fessenden was officially instructed what relevance is there to his personal intentions?

Ehmke seems to imply that the instructions came from State, since presumably he is not accusing you (or me) or Laird, or even the President of having sent them. But State, especially Rogers and Hillenbrand, have always been pictured by the Germans as favoring Ostpolitik. What motive could State therefore have had to instruct Fessenden. It seems farfetched to suppose that Ehmke is trying to argue that State instructed Fessenden so that the Germans would be handed a tool to force you to support Ostpolitik.

(It is possible that the Germans have soured on Hillenbrand and are trying to pin the donkey’s tail on him. The reference to Hillenbrand in the “Sahm memcon” is unfriendly and it was he, of course, who at your lunch for Ehmke stressed the technical difficulties of continuous Berlin talks. If this is so and since they can hardly believe they have permanently persuaded you of the virtues of Ostpolitik, the Germans would seem to be without any real friends in the Administration.)

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The fact of the matter is that Fessenden was not instructed. I have closely examined all communications, formal and private between State and Embassy Bonn; nothing of the kind appears. And, as noted above, for State to instruct Fessenden along the lines of what the “Sahm memcon” says he said, would (a) either have been acting against its views on Ostpolitik, (b) or have been such an utterly complex game against you as to stretch credulity far beyond the breaking point.

Moreover, no one in Bonn, apart from Ehmke and Bahr, contends that Fessenden was instructed. As I have told you, I have received a personal letter from the political director of the Foreign Office14 which dissociates that organization from the whole episode. In addition, Fessenden on December 23 was called in by State Secretary Moersch, Scheel’s deputy, and given a message of similar character.15

In sum, we have here at work a couple of fairly desperate characters (there is plenty of other evidence of this, both as regards Ehmke, [1½ lines not declassified]; and as regards Bahr, [less than 1 line not declassified]). It may amuse you to reflect that it was just 100 years ago that a far greater German tampered with a famous despatch;16 it is a sad commentary to think how one who would be his successor has developed the art. But then at least he did not start a war—yet.

I must add in conclusion that we are far from being out of the woods. We have only begun to see the tricks of the Ehmkes and Bahrs (Andrei, I regret to say, the Wehners) since sooner or later the moment of truth must come in the Berlin negotiations. Moreover, judging from Arthur Goldberg’s recent article17 and a talk I recently had with Harriman, there will be those in the Democratic camp who will try to make an issue of alleged White House obstruction of European détente and immutable attraction to the Cold War and anti-Communism. The crossruff between the Chancellor’s Office and a part of the Democrats (not, to his credit, George Ball) may well be upon us after Muskie and Harriman have made their Moscow/Bonn visits.

The importance of the new NSSM on Ostpolitik now due in February is thus more than ever underscored.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 685, Country Files, Europe, Germany, Vol. VIII. Secret; Sensitive; (Outside System).
  2. The text of the letter, as translated from the original German by the editor, reads: “Dear Henry, I believe that it was good that we spoke with each other, even if we were more or less limited to current questions. I would be happy if we soon found the opportunity to continue our exchange of views on more fundamental issues. Attached is the referenced memorandum of Mr. Sahm, released from the formal requirements for classified information. I am by the way convinced that Fessenden meant well, and besides acted according to instruction. Luckily I do not need to worry about on whose instruction. My own office [“Saftladen,” literally “juice shop”] is more than enough for me. Best greetings and all good wishes for the new year. Yours, Horst Ehmke.” (Ibid.)
  3. See Document 154.
  4. Not found.
  5. Document 81.
  6. See Document 146.
  7. Since drafting this, I have learned that State on November 10 received a memcon between Laird and Schmidt at the NPG in Ottawa in October. In a brief reference to Ostpolitik, Laird asked what the Germans were getting out of it and expressed concern about an excessive mood of détente. State presumably sent this memcon on to Embassy Bonn. [Footnote in the source text. The memorandum of conversation between Laird and Schmidt in October has not been found.]
  8. See Document 149.
  9. See Document 155.
  10. See footnote 11, Document 154. Telegram 190972 to Bonn, December 21, is in the National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL GER W–US.
  11. The letter, Document 145, was dated December 15.
  12. Regarding the senior-level meeting in Bonn, November 17–18, see Document 137.
  13. See Document 146.
  14. Not found.
  15. See Document 154.
  16. Reference is to Otto von Bismarck, then Prussian Minister-President and Chancellor of the North German Confederation, who deliberately edited the so-called “Ems dispatch” in such a way that its publication soon led the French on July 19, 1870, to start the Franco-Prussian War.
  17. Reference is to an oped piece that Goldberg, former Supreme Court Justice and Ambassador to the United Nations, wrote challenging the American critics of Brandt and Ostpolitik. (The New York Times, January 5, p. 35) In a subsequent letter to the editor, George Ball defended those critics. (Ibid., January 8, p. 31)