94. Memorandum of Conversation1



Paris, August 4-9, 1961


  • United States
    • The Secretary of State
    • Mr. Kohler
    • Mr. Nitze
    • Mr. Hillenbrand
  • United Kingdom
    • Lord Home
    • Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh
    • Sir Francis Festing
    • Mr. John Killick
  • France
    • M. Couve de Murville
    • M. Charles Lucet
    • M. Charles de Carbonnel
    • M. Jean Laloy


  • Tripartite Meeting on Berlin and Germany

Couve de Murville opened the first Tripartite Meeting by suggesting that, while the Germans should normally participate in discussion of the Berlin question, there were certain aspects of the matter about which the three could perhaps talk more frankly in their absence. After referring to the consultative work accomplished by the Four-Power Working Group, the Secretary stressed the importance of bringing the Germans into future work in the most intimate way. It was necessary to have them participate to the point where the German people could not make the charge that their Government was not fully informed or involved. If a crisis is to come, it would be important that the Germans be involved in the center of the matter rather than at the side. The U.S. hoped that they could be included as full partners in the Ambassadorial Steering Group in Washington. As a result of the present meetings and the subsequent NATO meeting, we hope to achieve a high degree of Allied unity demonstrating that the West is prepared to protect its vital interests. It is important that we confront Khrushchev with an impressive display of unity for this will heighten the chances of a peaceful settlement.

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After noting that the Working Group had produced a practical report2 for the Ministers, Lord Home agreed to bring the Germans fully in with the possible exception of their participation in early Ambassadorial talks in Moscow. We would not want, he thought, to press the Germans too much before their elections, particularly if such subjects as the de facto recognition of the GDR or UN involvement in the Berlin crisis were to come into the picture. Otherwise we could not bring the Germans in too much. Regarding the military build-up, the British would be prepared to call up the territorial army and to mobilize their reserves if necessary. They hope to join with the U.S., France, and Germany in obtaining the cooperation of the NATO countries, although it would be unrealistic to expect that the latter could produce much more strength on the ground.

Couve said he agreed entirely that the Germans must be completely in the picture. There might be a few things which could best be discussed tripartitely but this would not prejudice full German participation. One thing was certain. The Berlin question was much more a question of the future of the Federal Republic than of Berlin itself. While it was essential to save the liberties of two million Berliners, it was even more important to keep the Federal Republic attached to the West. Our main objective must be to avoid anything which could alter this and lead to German neutralism or an approach to the Soviets. In response to Home’s question as to whether there was really any danger of this, Couve emphasized Berlin was really crucial for our relations with Germany and the future of the Atlantic Alliance. If the West suffers a political defeat the work of fifteen years will be undone and the course of the future will be profoundly changed. This is the spirit in which the Allies must consider the problem. Whatever they did, the Federal Republic must be in full agreement.

Home broached the timing question, noting that it seemed certain that the West will have to negotiate with the Soviets and will be pushed into negotiations either by the UN or by other pressures. What would be the best point at which to take the initiative to propose negotiations? Couve responded that there were two aspects: the tactical problem of when to take the initiative and for what date to propose talks, and the substantive problem of the Western negotiating position. Before deciding to have negotiations, he felt the West must decide on its substantive policy. He did not have any question as to what it should be.

The Secretary said he thought there would be considerable value in a Western initiative on negotiations so as not to appear simply to be sitting back with reliance on the status quo until Khrushchev pulls the [Page 271] West into negotiations. The West should have proposals regarding convening negotiations before the meeting of neutrals by the end of this month and certainly before the UNGA session opened on September 19. Unless such negotiations are in prospect, others might take initiatives which would work to the West’s disadvantage. UN discussion of Berlin at this time is not likely to be to Western advantage. Therefore we want to discuss an early initiative for a Foreign Ministers meeting to take place in the autumn—perhaps the first week in October, or if the Soviets prefer a later date—the first week in November. Regarding a substantive position, he supposed the West might start with proposals on which we would not necessarily expect to end but which would improve the status quo. From these we might expect to move to some de facto regulation of the situation in conformity with our interests and consistent with the maintenance of something like the status quo.

Over the present weekend, the West could not expect to arrive at a detailed negotiating position and this is not desirable. Probably such a position could not be achieved before the German elections. He agreed that the West must eventually arrive at a unified substantive position but he questioned whether, if we were unable to give the Germans complete details of our proposals now, this should be a barrier to an initiative towards negotiations. In any event and apart from the question of German participation in preparations, there were grave disadvantages in going well into the autumn without such an initiative.

Lord Home queried whether the Secretary was saying that we must move towards negotiations with the Soviets but not yet decide on what we would negotiate except to the extent that the Ambassadorial probe in Moscow might proceed. The Secretary agreed but noted that some Ambassadorial contact in Moscow was in any event inevitable. What he had in mind was that beyond a possible Ambassadorial approach, we should propose a specific Foreign Ministers’ meeting to the Soviets and that this would become known publicly—hopefully with Soviet acceptance of such a meeting. If we did not do this, our friends and Allies including those in NATO would be unwilling to support what seemed like a military build-up and the need for related economic and propaganda measures unless these were accompanied by a move towards negotiation. Home mentioned that Nehru was getting restive. If the problem got into the UN now, the position of the West was likely to be weakened thereby. This was the reason for an initiative on a Foreign Ministers’ meeting before September 19 without revealing the substance of our position. In preparing the Western substantive position, Couve said there was a case to be made for the absence of the Germans if we actually have negotiations with the Soviets. The West could always advance something along standard lines combating the Soviet peace treaty proposal with proposals for German reunification on the basis of [Page 272] self-determination or for the unification of Berlin. Everyone on both sides knows that these are not practical. The discussion will inevitably move on to the status of Berlin and access thereto. He was not certain that agreement with the Soviets on these subjects was possible. If there is agreement on Berlin, this means that the status quo will not be maintained as such. What the Soviets want is to crystallize the existence of the GDR and to change the Berlin situation in such a way that it is no longer a factual part of the Federal Republic not merely in the economic and financial sense. It was the political absorption of West Berlin into the Federal Republic which particularly worried the Soviets. The West Germans had been “silly enough” to insist on holding Bundestag and other meetings, having visits of the Chancellor and other officials, and other activities there. There was the burning problem of the refugees. If the Soviets accept an agreement on Berlin, Couve continued, for the Allies this would somehow have to involve a guarantee of Western communications even if the continuation of the occupation status was not formally recognized. The Soviets would indubitably insist on the discontinuance of West German political activities in Berlin under cover of the occupation status. This is a fact which we and the Germans must face if there is to be any agreement with the Soviets. However, all purely German communications with Berlin are presently under GDR control. Any agreement would have to stop what the Western Powers are doing to help Federal Republic political activities in West Berlin. The Soviets will insist that GDR control of German traffic between the Federal Republic and Berlin include refugees. This is what a substantive agreement really comes to in the last analysis. As to tactics and the role of public opinion, he frankly did not see the problem in the same light as the Secretary. This was a vital issue. Our life and future depended on what came out of the crisis. It was essentially a test of strength between the Soviet Union and the U.S. He frankly did not see how, if this were the case, you could impress the Soviets by taking the same line on negotiations as the Soviets. Vital Western national interests were at stake. The role of the UN was not an essential fact in this situation. The only essential fact was our relationship to the Soviets and how we do or do not deal with them. If the present situation is a trial of strength, it is essential to show no weakness. Therefore, he could not help but agree with the Secretary in his emphasis on maintaining not only unity in fact, but the appearance of unity. But to take action in the way proposed would merely show what was really at the bottom of our hearts—fear of war. We must not be weak in our position. Khrushchev says this is an issue on which the West will not fight and that we will finally accept his position. Perhaps in the last analysis he is right but it would certainly be wrong to give him the immediate impression that he is right. Here Couve came [Page 273] back to his first point, that the entire future of the Federal Republic and our relationship to it was at stake.

Home said that since the East Germans presently control all civilian traffic to West Berlin except air communications, if we were to get a reasonable de facto arrangement because Khrushchev wants no war, we would not be much worse off than at present except that Allied air access could not be used to move refugees. Couve agreed that 95% of Berlin traffic was now controlled by the GDR but he emphasized that the other 5% is the crucial traffic. It was not really pure military traffic which caused trouble, but a use of military rights as a camouflage for essentially German traffic. It was natural from their viewpoint that the GDR would want to control this. A neutralized West Berlin to the Soviets would mean that no German could enter or leave Berlin except with GDR permission. The result would be a progressive adjustment of the Germans in West Berlin to the factual situation. Home mentioned that the East Germans could achieve this effect now. Couve said the point was that the refugees are transported by air. This was the real issue. He wanted to say this now while Von Brentano was not present when it was awkward.

The Secretary commented on the trial of strength to which Couve had referred. We agreed this was involved here but this strength had many components. We should like not to discount too much the value of world reactions and the importance which this has both to Khrushchev and to ourselves. The Sino-Soviet bloc has extensive objectives in other parts of the world and is making large efforts in non-Communist countries. If we can show up their Berlin position before the rest of the world this would be a political factor they must take into account. If we can not convince most UN countries that our position is reasonable and that we are not just being stubborn, the pressure will be towards some position which will be difficult for us. In democratic societies people do not think much of war as an instrument of policy unless they believe war is unavoidable. We believe nuclear war to be possible in the Berlin crisis although we do not say this is inevitable. If we ask our peoples to take a risk of this magnitude, we must make clear that every feasible effort is being made to achieve our objective by other means. Democracies must be led to conflict with clear consciences.

Couve said he did not want to give the impression that he underestimated what the Secretary had said. The support of public opinion and of the noncommitted countries was very important. But when our very lives are at stake, this is not essential. The substance of our vital interests is essential. He also agreed concerning the importance of public opinion within the Western Alliance and the necessity that people be willing to follow their governments. It is essential that we explain and be understood, but this cannot change our basic position because Berlin is linked [Page 274] to our vital interests. It was not impossible that the crisis would lead to nuclear war but we must accept this risk. If what we accept instead weakens our position and our unity, it will be possible to avoid nuclear war in 1961. But this would merely lead to nuclear war in 1962 or 1963. This is not a policy. We have learned that in the past and must evaluate the present situation in that light.

In response to the Secretary’s query as to whether Couve detected significant substantive differences between us and the Germans on these matters, Couve said he did not know. They obviously could not accept certain things which the other three might wish to propose. When it came to the real trial, he did not really know what their stand would be and he suspected they likewise did not know.

Home said that he did not think we should press the Germans too hard at this time. However, the fact was that Khrushchev was saying things which seemed reasonable to the rest of the world. A peace treaty did not sound bad and Khrushchev would certainly offer guarantees before he made a peace treaty. If he did this, the West could not avoid negotiations. Therefore, as the Secretary had said, we must consider how we turn negotiations to our best advantage. If they come after a peace treaty is signed, then we must take account of the new position of the GDR. If they come before a peace treaty, Khrushchev might say he will make a peace treaty anyway but it will be subject to prior arrangements with the Allies. Home said he could see that if we surrendered the basic rights of West Berlin this would shake NATO and turn the Germans toward the East. The West must insist on the freedom of West Berliners including their freedom of movement to West Germany, but this inevitably involved some measure of recognition of the GDR. The Secretary noted that the fact that 95 percent of the present traffic to Berlin is controlled by the East Germans in itself is a sort of de facto recognition of their existence and of the need to deal with them. Home said two points on which agreement is necessary with Khrushchev would involve status of the GDR and our position on Berlin. On the second point, if Khrushchev did not want war, he might be willing to accept some compromise for at least sometime ahead. He had no objection to asking for a conference soon on Germany and Berlin without revealing our real negotiating hand. The Secretary said we might do this through diplomatic channels.

When Home repeated that the apparent reasonableness of the Soviet position for the rest of the world would make it impossible for the West to go to war without negotiations, the Secretary said this also had some relation to the “test of firmness”. In the past he had sometimes felt the West was too nervous about negotiations as if the Soviets were 12 feet tall. We should have more confidence in ourselves and in our ability to talk to them even if we might never agree. By the first week in October [Page 275] many things which we were undertaking in the military, economic and propaganda fields will have begun to make their impression on Khrushchev in terms of underlining Western seriousness of purpose. By that time, the West should not be in a disadvantageous position to talk. If we did not show willingness to negotiate, our position would be eroded by the feeling that we should have explored every possibility before Allied traffic is actually turned back at the barriers.

In response to Couve’s query as to whether to answer the last Soviet note,3 Home said that in the last Soviet note Khrushchev had given us an opening by showing sensitivity on self-determination. This suggested a Western offer of a plebiscite. Couve commented that, speaking of tactics, it seemed to him that for some months now Khrushchev had been very self-confident and believed that the Soviet Union would not have to face a real crisis. The U.S. military decisions were good and could not fail to make some impression with the Soviets as evidence of U.S. firmness. If we now went to Khrushchev and said we wanted to negotiate, he would immediately conclude that we were not serious. An Ambassadorial approach in Moscow along the lines envisaged would also lead him to conclude that he could proceed. The minimum the West could do is to let the situation develop a little to see if Khrushchev can come to be persuaded that this is a serious matter. Home disagreed and said that the UNGA was convening on September 19. Someone would undoubtedly come forward and ask for negotiations. If we had to respond, the West would be in a weaker position than if we took an initiative ourselves. Couve commented that he did not think it would be India, Ghana or Indonesia that would be the decisive factor in the Berlin situation.

The Secretary referred to the President’s speech to the U.S. people.4 We recognized that there were several audiences as well as the U.S. people. Not only the U.S. people, but our Allies—more than 40 countries—and not just NATO—they all had a direct interest if we got into war with the Soviets. We felt it important to make two points that we were prepared to fight for our vital interests if necessary but if they could be protected by peaceful means so much the better. The President had strongly emphasized that a Western initiative be taken on negotiations and that we did not have to detract from our position of strength. Instead it was an essential part thereof. We attach more importance to U.N. countries and the effect their attitudes might have on Khrushchev. We also had interests in other parts of the world which we want to further and regarding which we need to think in the Berlin context. By early October the seriousness of the U.S. steps could have impressed Khrushchev that [Page 276] we are facing a war possibility. Khrushchev had certainly read the President’s speech in full. A lack of interest in negotiation could scarcely make him feel we were more serious than otherwise. In fact, it might have the opposite effect. In the past, he has recognized that to scare the West he need only suggest negotiations. We are arming, but part of our purpose for this is to support us in negotiation.

Couve said that what Khrushchev says is clear in the Soviet note. He is prepared to talk purely on his own grounds. Our position has always been that we are willing to negotiate but not be subject to preconditions or threats. This had been discussed at great length two and one-half years ago before the Geneva Conference.

Home said he had to agree with the Secretary that the general effect of military measures would be enhanced by an offer to negotiate. Otherwise people would say the West had gone over completely to a military solution. He suggested that in late August or early September we might reply to the latest Soviet notes; in early September we could conduct the Ambassadorial probe in Moscow; following the German elections we could make a proposal just before the UNGA opening and before Khrushchev had reached his own decision on a peace treaty. Couve said that it was clear that Khrushchev had already decided to convene a peace conference after the October 12 Party Congress—perhaps in early November. Home responded that the question was whether he told the GDR whether the peace treaty is to be unconditional or to take account of a prior understanding with the Allies.

The Secretary hoped that we could take political steps to upset Khrushchev’s timetable for signature of the peace treaty. If a Foreign Ministers’ meeting were scheduled for early in October or November, it would be hard for him to go ahead. It would certainly be more difficult for him to persuade non-Communist countries to attend a peace conference. At this point, there was some inconclusive discussion over which countries might conceivably be invited to a Soviet peace conference.

In response to the Secretary’s query as to how, in the absence of negotiations, Couve saw developments for the rest of the year, Couve said he did not exclude negotiations, but he did not like the way they were presently being proposed. This seemed to him to be the way of weakness coming too soon after a show of strength. We should answer Khrushchev’s note saying that we are always ready for negotiations but cannot negotiate on his terms but only under reasonable, open conditions. This might go forward in 2 or 3 weeks and the American Ambassador might then emphasize the seriousness of the Berlin situation and whether he has drawn all the conclusions possible from developments he has now in motion.

The Secretary commented that if we try to avoid negotiating on terms Khrushchev has suggested it was all the more important that we [Page 277] initiate negotiations on terms we want. Another factor relating to timing was that precisely because we take the Berlin situation so seriously in terms of our vital interest, we want to ensure to the extent possible that events themselves did not take control. Beyond a certain point, prestige and other elements would assume new proportions. The need for talks with the Soviets grows not only out of the problem of Berlin but out of our approach to it. Talks were not a sign of weakness; but we will talk because we understood what was at the end of the trail.

Home said he always kept coming back to the Soviet position that after the peace treaty, we must arrange access with the GDR. Our position then might well force on us a degree of de facto recognition of the GDR beyond what we want to concede. He agreed with the Secretary, that in the future the longer negotiations are postponed, the more rigid positions will be. Our objective should be to get prior guarantees from Khrushchev, before he signs a peace treaty, regarding the effect of the peace treaty on our position. He agreed, of course, that we must not give away West Berlin and lose West Germany in the process. Couve said that he had not precisely meant that. We obviously had to try to make a deal and this involved giving something away.

Lord Home said such a deal would be much more difficult in the post-treaty situation. He agreed we wanted to wait until September 17 before indicating we wanted a Foreign Ministers meeting. Couve reiterated his proposed timetable for answering the note, saying we should negotiate but only under reasonable conditions. Delivery of the note could be accompanied by a warning from the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow and in September the Western Foreign Ministers might meet again and assess the situation and the steps to be taken. This would still be a month before the Party Congress and we would be rid of the German elections. In any case, a conference with the Soviets could not take place before the end of October or early November. After expressing a lack of enthusiasm for another Western Foreign Ministers meeting, Home said such a meeting could not take place before the German elections. Although Couve had said it should take place before the UNGA session, he hoped agreement could be reached that September 19 would be a good date on which to make the Western offer on negotiations. Another Western Foreign Ministers meeting would make it appear that the Western Powers were running after negotiations. He thought agreement on when to offer negotiations should be reached now. The Secretary asked why it was necessary to wait until September 19. He did not object to answering the Soviet note if we had something quite specific in it about negotiations and if it were to be made public before the UNGA session, but there seemed to be a disadvantage in continuing a note exchange if we just said we were willing to negotiate but showed no sign of doing something specific. Home commented that we did not really need to answer [Page 278] the note until mid-September. The Secretary said the longer we delay in offering negotiation the more we run risk that the Soviets will take an initiative before the Party Congress along the lines intended for after the Party Congress, and then we should be reacting to their terms.

Couve said that this would mark a change in the Soviet position. The Secretary said that the Soviets were making real headway with their proposals on a peace treaty and guarantees. We do not have anything in front of them to counter their proposals and this puts us in a weak position. We would have great difficulty in the U.S. in going ahead with a military build-up including the calling up of reserves, tripling the draft call, and pushing the civil defense program unless people knew diplomacy was at work trying to find out if all this were necessary. It would tend to undermine the present economy at Home and in the Alliance unless other members of the UN knew we were exploiting every resource of diplomacy to protect our vital interests. Home noted his agreement. Couve, however, said this argument worked both ways. If you announce the conference at an early date, the world would inevitably relax and say it is all over and the West is going to make a deal with the Soviet. U.S. newspapers were right now commenting on a conference leading to a solution. This was the idea of the NATO allies and had been expressed in the recent WEU meeting. What, however, if the negotiations do not succeed? Then the pressure on the West will be the same as now. What do we do then if the crisis continued? He would hate to propose negotiations without first knowing what the Western substantive positions would be and this is not discussed in the Working Group Report. Home observed that this could be worked out in a later Working Group session and then the Western Foreign Ministers would have to meet and settle policy. If we delay too long and are exposed to pressures, this presumably will weaken our position.

The Secretary said the pressure and eventual disunity arising from a failure to offer negotiations would actually weaken the West in Khrushchev’s eyes. He has gambled on Western disunity before. If negotiations are postponed until later, there may be false hopes about their outcome. If they failed there would be too little time left to educate the people regarding the seriousness of the issue which could not be resolved. We should begin to find out sooner rather than later whether negotiations are likely to settle the issue and what the real Soviet position is.

Couve said once again this cuts two ways. There was an obvious way we could get NATO unity and that was to imply that negotiations would settle the problem. This would be applauded. The harder and more realistic way was the better one. Home commented that obviously everybody wished that negotiation would settle the problem. If not, “we shall not have a meeting again”.

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Regarding contingency planning, Couve said that if it came to a real crisis and our communications were blocked, it was essential that we arrange things so that we were not obliged to be the first to shoot. Here he entirely shared the Secretary’s preoccupation. In practice, the only way to do this is to use the air corridors. We should attempt to continue military transport by air and not begin with land operations.

The Secretary said we agreed. Our general attitude has been that since Berlin crisis may be a real one and cannot be eliminated by incantations such as the phrase “nuclear deterrent”, we should try to force the other side to take the initiative with military measures. If we get to the situation where we have to fight, gaining time by an airlift to let our troops get into position might be desirable even if we could not sustain the city of Berlin by air for an extended period of time. We would also wish to bring economic sanctions and other measures to bear.

Home said he agreed on airlift question. As to economic sanctions, he also agreed but felt that detailed plans for various situations involving escalation to a total blockade needed to be worked out. We should develop a variety of economic weapons and study their consequences. The Secretary noted that we had just received a cable from Moscow reporting that the Italians had told our Ambassador that the Fanfani-Khrushchev talks5 had largely covered the same ground as the Vienna aide-mémoire and the McCloy talks. However, Khrushchev had made the point that, after the conclusion of a separate peace treaty, the Soviets were prepared to use force to prevent unauthorized air access to Berlin. Couve noted that Khrushchev had already said that. The Secretary observed that Ulbricht had said it. Couve said that in any event, an airlift as in 1948 was not possible because of nuclear balance. It would not last more than one day.

Home asked, looking at October 12 as a final date for Soviet decision, and even assuming Khrushchev makes up his mind October 1, when would Couve set a date for the conference? Couve said he was not sure Khrushchev had not now made up his mind. He thought he had. Home commented that if he agreed to make an agreement with us on Berlin, he would have to incorporate its terms in the treaty. Couve said that Khrushchev had already made up his mind and knows we will ask for negotiations. All he has to do is read the newspapers.

Home said if he knows we are going to do it sooner or later, isn’t there some reason for doing it sooner?

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The Secretary said that he doubted whether we should consider talking about our ultimate substantive position in the near future. It seemed impossible to prevent leaks, and thus our first word would become our last word. There was some merit in postponing discussion of the Western substantive position and not disclosing it too early in advance.

Home said we could, of course, work out a position on the all-German question opposing our self-determination principle to their peace treaty. We would get stuck on this. We would then work out our position on Berlin based on the three essential conditions in the Working Group Report. This would not be too hard to do. Perhaps new ingredients like the frontier question could be added. The Secretary said if we do not establish a substantive framework for negotiations now with the Soviets, the alternatives available to us later might be even worse. He observed that discussions were both frequent and unavoidable in Moscow. It was better to have a unified discussion than to have individual discussions on a non-unified basis initiated through diplomatic channels. Khrushchev might take the initiative or other Governments might do it. He could not guarantee that we would not talk to Khrushchev during the rest of August.

Couve observed that if the Soviets can speak to the U.S. Ambassador that will be enough for them. If this is done, care should be taken that nothing comes out to the German public. Home observed that if we know the Foreign Ministers are going to meet, the Moscow probings need not be started so urgently.

The Secretary ended on the note that if nothing is happening there is always danger of tinkerers and meddlers attempting to intervene.

  1. Source: Department of State, Conference Files: Lot 65 D 366, CF 1940. Secret. Drafted by Hillenbrand and approved in S on August 7. The meeting was held at the Quai d’Orsay.
  2. See Document 93.
  3. For text of the August 3 Soviet note, see Documents on Germany, 1944-1985, pp. 766-769.
  4. See Document 81.
  5. Telegram 403 from Moscow, August 4, repeated to Paris as telegram 91. (Department of State, Central Files, 762.00/8-461)