118. Record of Meeting of the Berlin Steering Group1


  • The President; the Secretary of State and Mr. Kohler; the Secretary of Defense, Mr. Gilpatric, and General Lemnitzer; the Attorney General; Mr. Dulles and Mr. Murphy; Mr. Wilson; General Taylor, Mr. Bundy, and Mr. Owen
The Secretary of State proposed two actions:
Reinforcement of the West Berlin garrison.
A statement of protest by the three Western heads of government.
The President decided that the US reinforcement should be one battle group (1500-1800 men).2 Mr. Kohler reported that the UK had indicated, when reinforcement was discussed in the Ambassadorial Group, that it would probably rest on the modest reinforcement it was already effecting. The French had no instructions. The President said that the allied total should be at least 2500.
The President asked about our going to the UN. The Secretary said that there would not be sufficient Afro-Asian support to make a good showing. This might encourage Khrushchev. The UN should be held in reserve for a more important and suitable occasion.
The President said that this Bloc move should have been foreseen and that Berlin planning should look ahead to such possible contingencies in the future.
The President asked about the timing of the reinforcement and of the tripartite heads of government statement.
It was agreed that the reinforcement would take place Saturday morning unless a strongly adverse allied reaction developed in the meantime.
The tripartite statement would also be made Saturday.
Secretary McNamara suggested that (i) this Bloc action might portend a speed-up of Khrushchev’s schedule; (ii) our own military preparations should be hastened accordingly. There was some disagreement with his diagnosis, but none with his prescription. DOD proposed to move the deadline by which we would be able to put forces in [Page 348] Europe from January 1 to November 15, and to modify preparatory actions accordingly. Secretary McNamara indicated that this speedup would result in some imbalance and additional cost. The air units and Army specialist units would be called up earlier than now planned. Demothballing of ships would also be hastened. The Guard divisions would not be called up.
Secretary McNamara said that the US would not replace the battle group that would be withdrawn from the 8th Division to go to Berlin. He was considering instead some large scale movements to Europe, e.g., moving the stocks for two divisions there. He did not want a decision on this now.
The President stressed the need to be ready to frustrate any Bloc action looking to rapid “civilian” seizure of key points in West Berlin. It was suggested that the Communists in East Berlin might become “dizzy with success” and act rashly.
The President then directed that the proposed heads of government statement be revised, which was done on the spot.3 It was agreed that the proposed reinforcement would be announced separately.
It was agreed that the Vice President and General Clay would leave Friday evening for Bonn and Berlin, where they would deliver the President’s answer to Mayor Brandt’s letter.4 Neither this answer nor Mayor Brandt’s letter would be made public. It was agreed that the troop reinforcement might be credited to Mayor Brandt’s request, however.
No single announcement of the accelerated US buildup would be made. The steps would be announced seriatim, as they were taken. Our allies would make similar statements of any accelerated build-up on their part. The US speed-up would not be credited to the access closing.
The President asked about the NATO military build-up. Secretary McNamara said that DOD would submit a memo Friday on this subject.
The Attorney General asked if more could not be done to stimulate worldwide protest over the East German action.5 A group will examine this question and report next week. It will include Mr. Dulles, [Page 349] General Taylor, the Attorney General, Mr. Wilson, and Secretary Goldberg.
Mr. Dulles reported a call by General Eisenhower about Berlin. A State-DOD briefing team will be sent, with Mr. Dulles, to Gettysburg Sunday, and Mr. Dulles will notify the General.6
The President stressed the need for balance, in any press backgrounders, regarding recent events in Berlin. We should make clear that we remained firm in defense of our rights in West Berlin, which had not been affected or threatened by those events.7
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Germany, Berlin, Steering Group. Secret. The source text bears no drafting information.
  2. For Taylor’s recollection of this decision, see his oral history interview at the Kennedy Library.
  3. For text of the proposed statement as sent to Macmillan and de Gaulle later in the day, see Declassified Documents, 1986, 1867.
  4. For an account of the origin of the idea to send General Clay to Berlin, see Cates, The Ides of August, pp. 350-352 and 402-403.
  5. The propaganda aspects of the Berlin crisis had been the subject of a memorandum from Attorney General Kennedy to the President on August 17. For text, see Declassified Documents, 1979, 44 A.
  6. For a report on this briefing, see ibid., 1981, 407 A.
  7. In 1989 Murphy recorded the following recollection of this meeting:

    “Later that Thursday, DCI Dulles asked me to accompany him to a White House meeting that had been called to address the West Berlin problem. In addition to President Kennedy, those present included the Secretaries of State and Defense, the National Security Adviser, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other senior officials concerned with matters relating to national security, including Foy Kohler, then Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs and Director of the Berlin Task Force—on which I was to serve for the remainder of 1961 as a CIA representative.

    “Mr. Dulles introduced me to the President as an officer who had served several years in Berlin and might therefore provide helpful insights into the psychology of the West Berlin population. In response, the President, as if to caution me not to reopen the issue of the wall itself, observed that ‘our writ does not run in East Berlin’ and asked me to speak to the question of West Berlin morale. The problem, I explained, was one of West Berliners’ perceptions. Although they realized that since 1948 there was little the Allies could do to counter Soviet and East German actions in East Berlin, in essence Berlin remained for them one city. East Berliners could shop and attend the theater in West Berlin while relatives and friends in both sectors exchanged regular visits. Whereas over the years there had been frequent crackdowns at border-crossing points, the actual closure of 13 August came as a deep emotional shock. This shock, plus the perception of Western inaction, caused many to fear that the Allies intended gradually to withdraw their protection from West Berlin. Thus, it seemed essential that steps be taken to restore confidence and rekindle the spirit of the West Berliners.

    “Others agreed, and the President moved rapidly to order the movement overland from West Germany of reinforcements for the US garrison and a visit by the Vice President. Obviously, the measures had been under consideration by the principals beforehand, but this meeting seemed to crystallize everyone’s resolve and led to specific decisions.” (Central Intelligence Agency, Studies in Intelligence, vol. 33, No. 4, Winter 1989, pp. 79-80)