158. Letter From the Ambassador to Yugoslavia (Kennan) to the Under Secretary of State (Bowles)1

Dear Chet: Time is very short this afternoon and this will have to be a sketchy note; but I wish without further delay to express my bewilderment over the Department’s circular telegram 543, September 21,2 to NATO country Ambassadors on the decisions of the Foreign Ministers’ meeting concerning Berlin. Let me quickly cite the points that give me this feeling.


It is said that Soviet action since early August make it more apparent than ever that the Soviets are willing to pursue the hard line to the very brink in order to intimidate and divide the West.

I should think it would be clear to everyone now that unless the West shows some disposition to negotiate in the sense of coming forward with some ideas and proposals of its own, the hard line is going to be pursued in Moscow not only to the very brink but to the full point of a world catastrophe. I fail to understand what seems to me to be our complacency in the face of this trend of events.


It is said that so far there is no indication that the Soviets are prepared to negotiate a reasonable settlement.

I am at a loss to know how anyone could form any judgment of what the Soviets are or are not willing to do in the absence of any negotiations, [Page 436] either private or public, and in the absence of any proposals or suggestions or ideas from our side. I have said publicly, and I can only repeat it now, that there is no way to find out what the Russians will do in negotiations except to negotiate. In the absence of negotiations I am unable to imagine the basis on which we consider ourselves justified in making assumptions about what they would or would not offer.


The Ministers, it is said, have reviewed “practically all previous negotiating positions on both sides including the 1959 Western peace plan.”

I would not know what negotiating positions we had ever taken outside of the 1959 Western peace plan.

It is said that the Soviet “free city” proposal provides no basis for a settlement since a new settlement would have to safeguard three vital interests: freedom and viability of western Berlin; the presence and security of allied forces there; and free access to the city from Western Germany.

Aside from the fact that it is impossible, as stated above, to know, in the absence of negotiations, what the Soviets would or would not propose, I am not aware that there has been any statement made from the Soviet side which would specifically preclude the achievement of any of these objectives. So far as that is concerned, all would seem to have been conceded on principle in Khrushchev’s various statements. I do not mean from this that I think his statements represent, as they stand, an adequate basis for an agreement. Agreements are not reached by public statements presented unilaterally and exchanged over a great distance. I am simply at a loss to know why the fact that these three vital interests have to be safeguarded is taken as meaning that the Soviet “free city” proposal provides no basis for settlement.

I write this note from very real anguish of spirit, for the view of the problem reflected in the Department’s telegram seems to me little short of frivolous; yet the stakes, as we all know, are total. It is quite clear that the Russians suspect us simply of stalling; and so long as they suspect that this is our game, and that we have no intention of negotiating in the sense of making any proposals of our own, things are going to continue to get worse. Proposals for self-determination and reunification of Germany (or rather, for unification on the basis of self-determination and in the absence of any agreement on Germany’s military future), however justified in the moral terms, represent—as everyone knows—a demand for a unilateral Soviet military and political withdrawal from central Europe. Obviously, this is not a realistic demand, and if this is the only alternative presented to the Russians, it is clear that they would prefer to make war.

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Can it really be that it is not realized in Washington that our present course of a sullen and passive refusal to discuss Berlin represents a collision course with relation to very powerful and basic compulsions within the Soviet system? I do not mean by this to voice any certainty that successful negotiations with the Russians are possible. I mean only to say that I cannot understand, in the circumstances, why they should not be given a try.

Sincerely yours,

George F. Kennan 3
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 762.00/9-2261. Confidential; Official-Informal.
  2. Attached but not printed.
  3. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.