246. Letter From the Ambassador to Yugoslavia (Kennan) to the Ambassador to the Soviet Union (Thompson)1

Dear Tommy: I have long been meaning to write you; but, as always in the case of letters in which I myself have the greater interest, I have put it off, hoping to find a moment of proper leisure. Now, I realize time has slipped up on me. We are leaving tonight for a few days skiing in Switzerland, with the two younger children. I am reduced, therefore, to the following brief comments on several matters.

First, my thanks for your telegram of November 3, to the Department, commenting on my 622 of October 14.2 Since that time, a good deal of water has gone over the dam, and the situation, of course, is somewhat different. The impression here (and it is one which, on the limited evidence available, I share) is that Khrushchev’s success at the Congress was more apparent than real; that it was limited largely to taking the Congress by storm with the attacks on Albania and on the symbols of Stalinism; that it is indeed having effects in the foreign communist parties, particularly some of those not in power, which may well be far-reaching; but that in Russia it has not been followed by any extensive personnel changes and has not effectively changed the situation within the Party; that there continues, accordingly, to be a strong admixture of dogmatist sentiment spread throughout the senior echelons of the apparat: a sentiment which does not express itself in any organized factional form, and which for this reason cannot be dealt with by methods of administrative reprisal, but which finds its expression, quite properly and correctly, in the Central Committee voting on important ideological pronouncements and in the normal day-to-day work of the Section for Propaganda and Agitation (or whatever it is now called) and the various sub-organs concerned with ideological matters. My impression is that it is this which accounts for the continued protrusion of unmistakeably dogmatist notes in some of the ideological and political material being put out by the Party organs (see, for example, the editorial in Pravda of December 6, with its underplaying of the XXII Congress and its strong tendency to relate current policy not to the Congress itself [Page 706] but to the declarations of the meetings of the Communist Parties in 1957 and 1960, in which the dogmatist view found strong reflection).

On the other hand (I am now giving you purely my own impression, though I think that the Yugoslavs who follow these matters would agree), the Khrushchevian and dogmatist hands are not the only ones which appear now to be involved in Soviet policy. It seems to me still that there is a third hand which also plays a part: a hand which is not concerned with ideology but is very strongly concerned with military readiness, which has considerable power over decisions on the governmental level, and which, as I have said before, appears to place considerations of readiness for war ahead of the concern for its avoidance. I note your contrary opinion, as expressed in your telegram of November 3, and I earnestly hope you are right; but the violence of various Soviet reactions to NATO policies, the incredible arrogance of the position taken on nuclear testing, and the sinister implications of the Finnish gambit, all continue to make me feel that there is an influence at work in Soviet policy which has nothing to do with ideology and to which Khrushchev finds himself obliged to defer, even though it is often in conflict with the political purposes to which he himself is devoted. I sometimes wonder whether if it could be that the deference he pays to these purely military considerations could be in effect, though probably on the basis of a wholly unspoken understanding, the price required of him for the support of certain elements in the Central Committee who have military interests at heart. However, that is only a speculation.

As I write these lines, I suppose that you will be approaching the first of your formal consultations with the Soviet Government on the Berlin problem. I must confess that so far as these matters are concerned, I have long since fallen by the wayside and am unable to follow what is occurring. I can only assume that I am the victim of some major misapprehension.

In the first place, I fail to understand how we could ever have gotten ourselves in a position where it takes a series of summit meetings with our allies to make it possible for us to conduct perfectly normal diplomatic exchanges which, so far as I can see, need not have been at any time omitted or interrupted. I feel there is something badly wrong with the diplomacy which gives to our allies the power to tell us with whom and when we may have the privilege of normal diplomatic discussion about matters which are not only of mutual interest but of greatest importance to world peace.

Secondly, I regret the wide publicity that has attended the inauguration of such consultations, and feel that, in the circumstances, it will be practically impossible to preserve the confidential character that would be necessary if they were to make real progress. In particular, I think it important, if we are ever to arrive at any tolerable agreement with the [Page 707] Russians over German matters, that we afford to the Russians some possibility of communication with ourselves through channels on which our allies would not listen in. I think it in the interests of these allies themselves that we should have the privilege of such confidential communication. Obviously this will not be the case in the exchanges you are about to inaugurate.

Finally, I am at a loss to understand what it is that we think we are going to discuss with the Russians. So far as I can see we have already undertaken, in the talks with Adenauer, not to discuss anything which could be of interest in Moscow. Laboriously, we have persuaded the French and Germans to permit us to go down for a swim, and even to hang our clothes upon a limb, but we have carefully assured mother Adenauer that we would not go near the water.

I cannot understand, in the face of these circumstances, what it is that we think we are going to explore with the Russians. It would appear to me that if all we propose to offer is in effect a continuation of the present situation—if, that is, there is no concession of any consequence which we contemplate making at any stage of the game—then I fail to see why we think the Russians should have any interest in arriving at any agreement with us at all. If this is all that is involved, the Russians do not need to sit down at a table with us in order to assure its realization: they need only let things go on as they are.

My bewilderment is completed by our repeated statements that we are determined to find out whether the Russians are seriously interested in negotiating. It is now well over three years since Khrushchev began his efforts to get us to the negotiating table. I should have thought their interest in negotiation had been far more liberally documented than our own. And if the answer to this is that the proposals they have put forward in this connection were not acceptable to us, I would like to ask at what point, and why, we began to take the Soviet asking-price, publicly stated before negotiations were even begun, as a firm criterion of what Moscow would finally agree to and to draw our conclusions accordingly about the usefulness of negotiation. You yourself could judge how far we would have got with the Austrian peace treaty or the Trieste problem if we had taken the initial Soviet demands as the final evidence of their position in these problems and had therefore thrown up our hands and said we cannot go to the negotiating table because these demands were not acceptable from our point of view.

Actually, I suspect that we have now delayed too long; that things have changed in Moscow; that the possibilities for negotiation, to which we are now making so laborious and unpromising an approach, may actually have ceased to exist. Had we done last summer, quietly and without the fanfare of publicity, what we are now about to do, I think there might still have been a chance, although even then to preclude [Page 708] such things as the Oder-Neisse line and the recognition of the GDR from the scope of negotiation, and to do this on the basis of a widely publicized agreement with our allies, would always have represented a heavy burden on negotiation. Today, I strongly suspect that the moment is past for even these slender possibilities. The Russians have solved half their problem by the construction of the wall; a measure which need never have been taken had we, instead of shillyshallying with this problem for three years, gone into negotiations at a much earlier date with imaginative and constructive proposals. And whatever may have been the nature of the internal political considerations which moved Khrushchev to push this matter so insistently in the three years beginning with the early autumn of 1958, it seems fairly evident that they are no longer operable. He appears to have absorbed whatever humiliation this failure may have brought him and to have paid whatever price it involved. I should be much surprised, therefore, though pleasantly so, if the initiative you are about to undertake should meet with any very positive response. I should think it more likely that we might soon be confronted with unpleasant unilateral manifestations of Soviet policy reflecting a complete absence of interest in discussing the Berlin problem with us at all.

Forgive me for putting these thoughts to you with such frankness. There may, as I say, be something very basic that I have missed.

I was grateful for your comments on my recent piece about Yugoslav-Soviet relations and find them well taken.

Subject to your own frank judgment, I am thinking of paying a visit to Moscow at some time in the next two or three months. My thought would be simply to go in by train from here and spend four or five days, to get a smell of the atmosphere of Moscow in the 1960s. During recent years, the Russians have sent one person after another to me with the question: “Why don’t you come to Moscow?” A year or so ago the Soviet Embassy in Washington demonstratively invited me all the way from Princeton to be present at the reception for Kozlov. Khrushchev has made it clear that he has no grudge against me, and only four days ago the Soviet Chargé took occasion to give me the last of many assurances that Khrushchev had a high opinion of me personally. All these gestures I take as reflecting a desire on Moscow’s part to stress that the unpleasantness of 1952 was purely Stalin’s doing, and is not to be regarded as constituting a proper source of discussion today.

Annelise joins me in affectionate regards to you all for the New Year.


George K.

P.S. We shall be skiing at Crans-sur-Sierre until about January 10.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 762.00/12-2661. Secret; Informal. Copies were sent to Rusk and the White House.
  2. In telegram 622 Kennan had offered his appraisal of the forces driving Soviet foreign policy including pressure from the military. (Ibid., 762.00/10-1461) In his reply Thompson said that he would not reject any hypothesis “concerning this unpredictable place,” but disagreed with Kennan’s reasoning. He did support Kennan’s thesis that Khrushchev intended to carry the Berlin question to the “extreme edge” of the brink. (Ibid., 663.001/11-361)