234. Memorandum of Conversation1



Paris, December 10-12, 1961


  • United States
    • Secretary Rusk
    • Mr. Bohlen
    • Mr. Kohler
    • Mr. Hillenbrand
  • United Kingdom
    • Lord Home
    • Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh
    • Sir Anthony Rumbold
    • Mr. Ledwidge
  • France
    • M. Couve de Murville
    • Ambassador Alphand
    • M. Lucet
    • M. Laloy
  • Germany
    • Dr. Schroeder
    • Mr. Carstens
    • Ambassador Grewe
    • Mr. Krapf


  • Berlin

Lord Home began the discussion by stressing the problem which would be created in the NATO Council unless the Four could clear up their differences prior to Wednesday. He requested information on the de Gaulle-Adenauer talks. Couve asked Schroeder to assess the results. The latter said this was not easy since most of the time on Saturday was spent in private conversations and the Foreign Ministers had participated only in the formal discussion towards the end of the afternoon. He could say that agreement had been reached on basic objectives but not to the same degree on procedure. Chancellor and he had taken the position on negotiations of which the others were aware from the recent Adenauer visit to Washington. The French had presented a number of impressive arguments which he would prefer to leave to Couve.

Couve said he wanted to begin from the beginning. The Berlin problem had been under discussion with the Soviets, directly or indirectly, for the past three years. This was not a question merely of the status of Berlin and the fate of its inhabitants, to the defense of which the three Western Powers were committed, but rather one vital to the future of Germany and therefore of Europe, including France, and important [Page 651] also to the UK and the US. It seemed to the French that the Soviets were moving not just to take Berlin but to change the entire situation in Central Europe and thus one step nearer their constant goal since the end of war of creating a satellite belt and neutralizing the rest of Europe.

This was why the French took the Berlin problem so seriously. Since the cutting of Berlin in two in August, the Soviet stress had been on these broader objectives. The pressure on East Germany caused by the refugee flow has greatly diminished. Hence, the Soviets could abandon the time limit for their peace treaty set for the end of the year. The Soviet offensive continued with growing emphasis on alleged German revanchism and with the Finnish action really aimed at Scandinavia. Moreover, in his talks with the Secretary in New York, Gromyko had linked Berlin to the all-German problems of security and boundaries.

The French recognized, Couve continued, that the essential problem of Europe would eventually have to be discussed with the Soviets in one way or another. They had had the illusion in May 1960 that this kind of discussion, including such related problems as disarmament, might take place. For various reasons the Summit had proved abortive. Nobody could exclude the possibility that such broad talks might be revived and the French were prepared for them, though they would not be easy. It was quite obvious that Berlin was not a question in itself for the Soviets but a means to an end, now that pressure to resolve the refugee problem has been eliminated. There was a tendency, he noted, to admit this might be true but then to argue that our business now was the threat to Berlin and that we must therefore offer the Soviets negotiations. The French position was that negotiations would neither be realistic nor useful. They would be unrealistic because they would not deal with the essence of the problem. He saw little prospect of a limited solution on Berlin. If the Soviet position on Berlin alone were taken—that the Occupation is outmoded and should be replaced by the status of a free and neutralized city, that there would be no relations with the Federal Republic except those agreed between us, thus excluding political relationships, and that the Berlin garrisons must go or be reduced to symbolic status for a certain period with Soviet units added—he could not see the West could gain any advantage. On access, the Soviets spoke both of freedom and also of respect for GDR sovereignty, and nobody knew precisely what the Soviets had in mind. Soviet demands were thus far from the position the West was prepared to discuss. In formal negotiations with Soviets the two sides would thus start far apart. Either the West would not budge and negotiations would rapidly collapse, or the West would find a way to compromise the present situation and accept at least part of the Soviet program. Nobody could say where this would lead. Once negotiations had begun it would be difficult to take the responsibility for a breakdown, and he did not believe the Western Powers [Page 652] would do this. It was very well to say that the West must negotiate from a position near the status quo, but it was clear it would have to deviate from this if talks were to succeed. The French also feared that the Soviets would ask for all-German concessions, especially on the military side, and that the Western Powers would end up discussing proposals leading to that neutralization which the Soviets had in mind.

Couve said he knew the question which the others would put to the French was what alternative they had in mind. He noted that in the August and September Ministerial meetings he had defended the position that the Western Powers had to remain strong and unified. They should say that they would not discuss Berlin under Soviet blackmail and threat. The Soviets were not going to risk war over Berlin any more than we were, and the situation could therefore continue for a long time. Two things had happened in the seven months since Vienna: the splitting of Berlin and the lifting of the time limit for a peace treaty. He could not see from the experience of recent months how anything had been lost by not proposing negotiations. The situation was in fact a little less bad. The Soviets and the GDR were compelled to take the risks involved in splitting Berlin, risks not from the West but from the East Germans. The action taken would have had to come at some point. It had been prepared for a long time in advance like the Soviet nuclear tests.

To sum up, Couve stated the real problem was not Berlin but Germany as a whole, which meant Europe. A severe weakening of the Western position in the world would come from offering negotiations which were tantamount to offering a compromise on Berlin. What Khrushchev had said in his speech on Saturday2 confirmed the French position. He had derided the idea of a discussion limited to Berlin. The West should not fool itself. It could not improve the situation in Berlin but only make concessions. The only thing that mattered was the German question and this was the “real and only casus belli.” In response to a request by the Secretary that he elaborate, Couve said that, when it finally came to a showdown, this would be the point on which the West must fight because its life would be at stake. In response to a further question by the Secretary, Couve said he was referring not to signature of the peace treaty but to a situation where the Soviets would demand German withdrawal from NATO and removal of nuclear weapons from Germany. This did not mean the Berlin situation was not dangerous. He was aware of Western contingency plans but he did not think it would ever come to that.

[Page 653]

Lord Home said it was obviously correct to say that Communist strategy was to weaken the position of the Western world and democracy everywhere, but he did not think we could therefore argue that the West should never try to find areas of agreement with the Soviets or to negotiate on anything. Negotiations were already under way on Laos, nuclear tests, and would begin again on disarmament. The probability of success was another question. Couve was correct in putting Berlin in the context of Germany, Europe, and the entire world. This did not mean it could not be the subject of negotiations. There were compelling reasons for at least beginning them. It might well destroy German morale if negotiations on Berlin led to concessions which would damage Germany in the future, but the deterioration of Berlin as now proceeding could also affect Germany. In August he had argued that the chances of deterioration in Berlin were very real, and the experience since August indicates that the city might simply wither away. He did not see how West Berlin could have an effective life until the current situation of uncertainty was settled. Couve had said Khrushchev might do nothing, but the chances were he would make his peace treaty with the GDR, thus putting additional power in the hands of Ulbricht who had his own interests in nibbling away at West Berlin. This process would begin almost at once and lead inevitably to a loss of confidence in Berlin.

The reason for arriving at an agreement on negotiations in the next two days was that the NATO members regarded the military build-up and negotiations as complementary. They would be unwilling to continue their build-up of strength unless there were a prospect of negotiations. The situation might lead to a serious rift in the Alliance.

Couve had said that the Soviet and Western positions were far apart, Home continued, but this was likewise true of other matters about which the West was willing to negotiate with the Soviets, such as disarmament. How could the West tell whether the Soviets were willing to accept reasonable arrangements on access and the status of West Berlin without negotiations? The subject of Western rights could be left aside. The Soviets could say they were ended and the West could say they were continued. In addition, the Western Powers could say they were there because the West Berliners wanted them. As to contacts between the Federal Republic and Berlin, the Soviets had said they could accept economic and cultural ties. The question of political ties might involve giving up such items as Bundestag meetings and certain other contacts which the Federal Republic might find it possible to relinquish. As to contacts with the East Germans, many of these already existed between East and West Germans. It might be possible to find a formula to express these contacts. Thus the West would eventually be trading facts of life which already exist for some compensation from the Soviets.

[Page 654]

As to the nature of negotiations, Home added, the Foreign Ministers might have a wide-ranging global agenda including Germany and Berlin, or they could begin on the narrowest possible basis. If Khrushchev said the latter meant GDR must be recognized, the matter could be referred to deputies. Another possibility was that the Western Ambassadors in Moscow could make further probes with Gromyko. He did not favor this since the Soviets would merely say the Ambassadors did not have enough authority to discuss solutions, and might themselves ask for a Foreign Ministers’ meeting. Therefore, he now believed, the West should ask for a Foreign Ministers’ meeting either to discuss world affairs, including Germany and Berlin, or to begin on a narrow basis with a broadening out only if compensation were obtained from the Soviets each time a larger question were discussed.

In response to the Secretary’s query as to the circumstances under which French might consider a general discussion with the Soviets could profitably be held, Couve pointed to the period at the end of 1959 and beginning of 1960 when an atmosphere of détente was “generated.” On this basis a Summit meeting had been agreed. He was not now pleading for a Summit meeting but for the idea that discussion with the Soviets should only be held in that kind of atmosphere if it should be possible one day to create this. This was different from discussions under the present circumstances of threat, blackmail and 100 megaton bombs. He did not see how the West could make any kind of dignified response to the last speech of Khrushchev which brought the situation back to July. Home said this depended on the kind of negotiations which the West obtained. It was better to have the situation stabilized than to have tension continue and Berlin run down.

Schroeder said he understood the French fears that once negotiations began the danger of broadening them to include Europe existed. The best way to diminish this danger was to enter negotiations with a firm Western agreement to keep to the narrowest possible basis. Many had said to the Federal Government that if negotiations had then been under way the events of August 13 would not have happened. This was perhaps incorrect but could not be refuted. The problem existed that, if in the foreseeable time no negotiations were launched offering reasonable prospects, the psychological deterioration in Berlin would increase and the city would disintegrate under the eyes of the West. This was the strongest reason in the German view for seeking negotiation. He also accepted the argument that continuation of the NATO build-up required negotiations. His government, therefore, supported negotiations on a narrow basis with as much agreement in advance as possible to avoid slippage during them.

Couve conceded that a great state of uncertainty existed in Berlin, with many planning to leave. This was almost inevitable in the circumstances, [Page 655] but he did not see how negotiations ending in failure with a big crisis, or in agreement on a change of status of the city would hearten the Berliners and keep them there. Speaking of the Western substantive position, he continued, the Working Group paper contained an ambiguity on the status of Berlin in saying that the source of rights would be maintained. What would be the legal authority of the so-called Occupation powers, who at present are sovereign and on this basis in 1949 opposed certain articles of the Basic Law? In the final analysis Berlin morale depended on the Western guarantee. Any acceptance of the new status which Soviets want would make Berlin morale disappear. This, in his view, was more important than the garrisons themselves. He did not say the occupation could be maintained forever, but it was the essence of the problem.

Home said that, from the viewpoint of West Berliners, if agreement on access underwritten by the West and the Soviets could be obtained, and attached to their peace treaty, this would be an improvement if the occupation status were not dropped on our side. The Soviets could say it was dead, but we could claim it remained. He wondered whether Couve would agree to a Foreign Ministers’ meeting with a world-wide agenda which admittedly would quickly get to Berlin but might put the Soviets in a defensive position. Perhaps some compromise between the German and French positions on broad and narrow negotiations might thus be found, or there might be a series of meetings of Foreign Ministers. Couve said his concern was not the question of a broad or narrow agenda but that any negotiation, unless broken off (which the West would not accept the responsibility for), would lead to concessions the Soviet counterparts for which he did not see.

Home said that Gromyko in the New York talks had stressed recognition of the GDR. We could not accept this, but perhaps could use some formula which the GDR might find satisfactory. Gromyko was interested in frontiers. He did not want to say much about this now but he wondered why, in the same way as de Gaulle had previously put it, the Western Powers could not link a commitment on frontiers to eventual reunification, whether or not the Germans felt they could say something on the subject themselves. Such items dealt with the facts of life and did not concede anything if the West obtained an access arrangement which would help Berlin and West German morale. Couve observed that he saw nothing which the other side was willing to give which would be in the Western favor or provide assurance for the future. Facts of life on the Western side were that the Federal Republic is part of the West and a member of NATO and that West Berlin is also a part of the West, but the Soviets did not accept these facts. There must be a balance in acceptance of the facts of life, and the right of the Federal Republic and West Berlin to remain in the West must be the basis of any modus vivendi. Home [Page 656] commented that these were facts of life to which the West would stick through thick and thin. Other facts were also access and freedom of the city. He did not see how the facts of life as the basis of a deal made by the West need put us at a disadvantage.

The Secretary said he thought the Western world was confronted with a crisis in its contest against the Sino-Soviet Bloc of historical proportions. The Communists have made clear that they are serious about world revolution and will press for it where they can. In this sense we will be under pressure for a decade or longer and they from us. We will be exchanging threats and taking action against each other, and there will be periods of greater and lesser tension. Tensions will be reduced prior to negotiations and increased if negotiations fail. A serious problem which the Ministers had to think about was whether a lack of mutual confidence did not exist among themselves. To what extent were their problems not in regard to the Soviet Union but due to a lack of mutual confidence as to intentions and willingness and ability to work together? There was a crisis of the Alliance. He had thought the Western Powers were agreed that their basic position in West Berlin was a vital one, which, if challenged, would be a casus belli. If this were not agreed, we must find it out. The US position started with this premise. We did not look upon negotiations as involving a compromise giving away what otherwise would be a casus belli. We estimate, but do not know for sure, that the Soviets will not wage nuclear war over Berlin, but we could not assume that the Soviets would not risk war over Berlin. The Soviets may very well risk war over Berlin and he had assumed we would likewise. One of the quickest ways to have a nuclear war is to have the two sides persuaded that neither will fight. Precisely because a casus belli is involved in this situation it would be irresponsible for governments that have nuclear weapons under their control not to be in contact with each other even up to the last few seconds before the holocaust. If the West did not come away from these meetings with genuine unity the Soviets will indeed erode our position and the unity of the Alliance is unlikely to be repaired subsequently. He did not equate negotiations with surrender or concessions, the Secretary continued. In a certain sense the status quo is not negotiable and in an equal sense the Soviet proposals are not negotiable. To negotiate with the Soviets and to fail to reach agreement would still leave the status quo which could not be disturbed without war. The fact of negotiations does not commit the West to yield vital aspects of its position. The Western Powers had talked about Solution C. Perhaps there might be some way, in the face of important disagreements, to find a modus vivendi to avoid war. On the question of broad or narrow approach to opening negotiations, we have no strong or complete commitment but would be glad to work with our Allies to obtain a common view. We would be willing to start with narrow [Page 657] position, recognizing that the Soviets will almost inevitably raise broader questions. He wondered, the Secretary repeated, whether the difficulty was with the Soviets or lack of confidence in each other . When security questions arose in his talks with Gromyko, rumors regarding US disengagement intentions began to spread, although he had specifically told Gromyko this was not involved. We were willing to consider the wide-ranging negotiations Home had suggested, including, for example, Communist penetration of Southeast Asia, nuclear weapons, disarmament, and Germany and Berlin. Perhaps such a broad review by Foreign Ministers would be worthwhile. We had thought we could come to quicker agreement by starting on a narrow basis. We also agreed the Soviets could not try to sell us the same horse over and over again. The Jessup-Malik agreement in 1949 had recognized Western rights in Berlin without Western concessions. The situation had changed since then, but with great seriousness he wanted to point out that, apart from the need to keep in responsible contact with the Soviets on more dangerous subjects, we faced the problem of leading the West to maintain its strength and to unify its policies so as to deal effectively both with the Berlin situation and the broader long-run conflict with the Sino-Soviet bloc. He was quite sure that we could not call upon our own people to make a substantially increased effort and to face a great crisis if the impression were given that we were diplomatically sitting on our hands and not trying to find out what the alternatives were. This was also true of the Alliance as a whole which was being asked for extra effort.

He did not want to claim that much was achieved by the Rusk-Gromyko talks but several points emerged: a) Gromyko understood clearly there would be no GDR recognition and appeared to accept this. Their discussion of alternative proposals was based on such an understanding. This discussion was not satisfactory but Gromyko understood there would be no de facto or de jure recognition. b) Gromyko recognized that we are not going to talk with the East Germans but that any arrangement must be between Moscow and the West and the Soviets would impose it upon the GDR. c) The situation was helped by removal of the deadline. Whether or not the talks accomplished this, they did give the Soviets a pretext to explain their postponement of the year-end date. These items were procedural in character, and he must say that on the substance of their free city proposals the Soviet position had not changed. The Soviets know we will not accept their troops in West Berlin or interruption of access. Our problem here is to get Western agreement on a position, then to establish responsible contact with the Soviets to avoid getting beyond the point where governments could lose control of the situation.

Home said he agreed with the points made by the Secretary regarding Russian understanding of the non-negotiable aspects of the Western [Page 658] position. He did not think negotiations necessarily had to collapse or involve major concessions. The West might get something satisfactory out of them. Referring to Couve’s citation of Khrushchev, the Secretary said he frankly wondered whether an impartial umpire, examining both recent Soviet and US statements on nuclear strength, particularly our capacity to destroy the Soviets even after a first strike against us, could decide who was being the most threatening.

Couve said he wanted to explain that as to the casus belli the French were in basic agreement with the US. The reason for any confusion was that the French did not think it very likely that the Soviets would go to war on Berlin. If it came to that, it would come to that. It was true to say that France did not want to go to war, and when he said the real casus belli is the future of Germany, that is where our real vital interests lie. He could agree that Berlin was where the Soviets had to be stopped, for this was a question of West Germany. The danger of negotiations is to be drawn into concessions, or if negotiations collapse, the situation would become worse than ever since there would be no further recourse. The Secretary argued that, if we did not talk, our position would be weakened, since we would be seeming to let the crisis develop without clarifying before the world our respective positions. Pressures would build up which, bit by bit would tend to break up the Alliance. Trying to get Allied agreement on contingency plans has proved difficult enough. Soviet salami tactics would further strain Allied unity. If we engage the other side in discussions and explain our position, then we can better maintain unity among us.

In response to a query from the Secretary, which he at first did not completely understand, Schroeder strongly maintained that neutralization is the last thing in the world the Germans want. The Federal Republic started from the viewpoint that it was permanently an integral part of the Western Alliance. This was the consistent policy of present and previous governments. The German attitude on negotiations had nothing to do with any fear that they would lead Germany away from the West which was the known Soviet goal. He indicated that, in revising the official government policy statement, he had in several places stricken the word “neutralization” and substituted “isolation.” It was true, of course, that certain proposals in the military field were believed to have a tendency to lead towards neutralization. As to Home’s remarks on the Oder-Neisse Line, he added, these did not belong in this context. The occupying powers were bound by their 1954 agreements with the Federal Republic to discuss this question only with an all-German Government. The Secretary commented that the Soviets had as an objective just as much splitting off the US from the rest of Europe as the neutralization of Europe. The decision on these matters is clearly in our hands.

[Page 659]

Home said he was glad that Schroeder had made such a strong point on neutralization and he hoped that this would remove one of Couve’s fears. He wanted to reiterate again that the four must have agreed proposals to put to the NATO Ministerial Council on Wednesday along with a clear idea of what they hoped to get out of NATO. Otherwise, the Alliance would appear in a state of disarray.

  1. Source: Department of State, Conference Files: Lot 65 D 366, CF 2000. Secret; Limit Distribution. Drafted by Hillenbrand and approved in S on December 15. The meeting was held at the Quai d’Orsay.
  2. For text of Khrushchev’s address to the Fifth World Congress of the WFTU, December 9, see Pravda or Izvestiia, December 10, 1961.