161. Telegram From the Mission at Berlin to the Department of State1

624. From Clay for Rusk only.

Dear Mr. Secretary: The President’s speech2 has greatly encouraged the thinking Germans in Berlin, although the extreme nationalistic [Page 442] political element will argue that it is not enough. To me, it was exactly what needed to be said and clearly proved that our policy is strong and determined. With full confidence in this policy, I must report that it is being vitiated in Berlin by undue caution verging on timidity. We are fighting a political battle here, not a war. Of course, we cannot win a war in Berlin but we can win the political battle. To do so we must convince the Russians on the ground what our rights are, and not let them lapse one by one. We cannot expect them to believe us otherwise.

It seems to me we have reached a point where various levels of command accept too many incidents in Berlin as routine and thus not urgently importance to our position here. I would like to take our exclave at Steinstucken as an example. As it is within the area in which I have a responsibility, I considered it my immediate duty to pay it a visit. Finding refugees there, I asked for a small patrol to be sent in by helicopter for their protection. The State Department immediately approved the removal of the refugees by helicopter. However, this approval asked that the removal be done as much as possible under cover. We did not have to undertake this operation as the refugees made their own way into Berlin. I suggested then replacing the helicopter service by a truck moving on the ground. This action was turned down even though there had been no Soviet reaction to our helicopter service. In addition, the local commander was told to get permission each time a helicopter was sent into Steinstucken. Additional refugees succeeded in breaking through the police cordon to enter Steinstucken. When permission was requested to remove them by helicopter it required discussion between three commands with a lapse of approximately twenty hours before any action was taken. When the refugees were brought out it was still done as much under cover as possible.

Steinstucken is a recognized part of our responsibility and if we fail to meet this responsibility the repercussion in Berlin would be serious indeed. We can argue with some validity that since we cannot protect Steinstucken by force we must not endanger its people. The same argument applies to our entire responsibility. The right to use the air and our responsibility to protect the people in our sector are the basic rights to which we are committed. We should have moved our helicopters openly but not ostentatiously into Steinstucken and brought whoever we wanted to out openly and proudly. Of course, we would not announce them to be refugees. We would be irresponsible if we played any part in helping refugees get through the cordon but if the Soviet and German police cannot keep them from doing so and they come into the areas for which we are responsible we must provide them protection. Otherwise I cannot see why we are in Berlin. I am sure too that this issue is one which would be clearly understood by the people of West Berlin and by our people at home.

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There is no longer time for either caution or timidity when our basic rights are threatened. The Russians are not going to war to stop us from taking refugees out of Steinstucken. They may well take the acts which would cause war if we fail to exercise our rights at Steinstucken in the belief that we have given up these rights. I know of no better opportunity that we have had to have shown our determination, and unfortunately we do not have enough such opportunities to fail to utilize those which do arise.

I am sure that I was not sent here to live in vacuum, nor to see our strong national policy eroded by our failures to act promptly in Berlin. I managed to live here through some critical years without getting involved in the use of force. And I recognize that the use of force in Berlin is not an answer to our problem. However, we must be prepared to force the East German police to use force or to call up their Soviet forces to show our determination. We must be bold without truculence, quietly and not ostentatiously determined, and completely sure of those rights to which we are committed. This requires a greater reliance on those who are responsible in Berlin as they alone have the knowledge and experience to know when reaction is essential. This is not a reorientation of policy but it does imply that now our national policy is firmly established we must support it fully on the ground. If we do this I doubt if we will be pushed into war as we can well be if the East German police and Soviet forces have underestimated our determination. I am sure that there is determination in Washington and that we must make it clear to the people of West Berlin and to the East German and Soviet forces that it exists here, too. This requires no sudden or major change in our immediate posture. It does require a change in thinking in the long channel which comes from you. I believe it a matter of urgency.3

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 762.0221/9-2861. Secret; Eyes Only.
  2. For text of the President’s address to the U.N. General Assembly on September 25, which included a section on Berlin that attributed the crisis to the Soviet threat to Western rights in the city, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1961, pp. 618-626.
  3. In telegram 640, September 29, Clay reported that he was not entirely clear on the importance the United States attached to access to East Berlin and specifically noted that U.S. encouragement of visiting the Soviet Sector gave the impression that this was a right the United States was prepared to defend. Clay then suggested two alternatives in the event the Friedrichstrasse crossing were closed. The first was to do nothing at the site, but announce publicly that the issue was so serious it would be taken up with the Soviet Government. The second would be to physically destroy the barrier with a tank or heavy equipment to discover the real reason for the closing. Clay concluded by registering his support for the second alternative. (Department of State, Central Files, 762.00/9-2961)