96. Memorandum of Conversation1



Paris, August 4-9, 1961


  • United States
    • The Secretary of State
    • Mr. Kohler
    • Mr. Nitze
    • Mr. Hillenbrand
  • France
    • M. Couve de Murville
    • M. Charles de Carbonnel
    • M. Charles Lucet
    • M. Jean Laloy
    • M. Froment-Meurice
  • United Kingdom
    • Lord Home
    • Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh
    • Field Marshal Festing
    • Mr. Buxton
  • Federal Republic
    • Dr. Von Brentano
    • Dr. Carstens
    • Dr. Ritter
    • Major General Schnez


  • Second Quadripartite Ministerial Meeting on Berlin and Germany
[Page 292]

Couve began the meeting by reading a cable from Moscow reporting the Fanfani-Khrushchev conversation. He particularly noted that, after the Fanfani statement that the Soviets were raising a threat of general war and were acting dangerously, Khrushchev had claimed that this would not happen but had then added that maybe the Soviets would have to shoot first if the Allies attempted an airlift. Khrushchev said that they had already shot down a U-2 once and would repeat it.

The Secretary reported the contents of Ulbricht’s letter to President Kennedy delivered in Prague (reported Tosec 12)2 and noted that, in accordance with agreed procedures, we would take no further action with respect to the letter.

Military matters related to contingency planning were then discussed and are separately reported.3

The Secretary suggested that the Foreign Ministers might meet before leaving Paris after a text is available of Khrushchev’s speech scheduled to be made tomorrow night,4 since they might wish to consider if it made any difference to what is being said in the present meetings. After some discussion, the question of a further meeting was left open for later decision. All agreed nothing should be said publicly about the possibility.

The Secretary said that the question raised by the Working Group paper on tactics was how the Western Powers should explore a settlement of the Berlin problem by political means. He assumed all could agree that the primary objective must be to settle it by political means rather than by war. There will, at some point, have to be negotiations with the Soviets. The Soviets have made proposals which are before the world. We cannot lead democratic countries and the NATO Alliance into war unless they are convinced that war has been imposed upon us and that every reasonable step has been taken to settle the problem by peaceful means. The Working Group had considered various ways of raising the problem, for example: by convening of a peace conference, by Ambassadorial explorations in Moscow, and by a Foreign Ministers meeting. We were dubious, the Secretary continued, about the value of a peace conference whatever its composition. We were also skeptical about an early raising of the Berlin question in the U.N. which is filled with people not deeply seized with the problem before us and inclined [Page 293] to avoid war at any price. This situation gave considerable advantage to the side willing to press its case most vigorously. Experience had shown that, since the Soviets generally are unwilling to grant concessions, the U.N. countries applied pressure to the Western Powers to make them. Moreover, countries which favored self-determination elsewhere seem disinclined to apply it to Europe. The Bizerte problem also had consolidated the Afro-Asian Bloc and has created a mood antithetical to the Western position on Berlin. We had considered the idea of trying to get a standstill resolution in the Security Council, and we believed that if the crisis reached a critical point it would inevitably get into the U.N. We did not, however, propose to take a U.N. initiative at this time unless this should be necessary to head off U.N. action by someone else, for example Nehru. Despite the discussion of this possibility in the Working Group paper,5 we did not see an opportunity for the exploration of the merits of the question through Ambassadorial consultations in Moscow. Since at some stage there must be consultation with the Soviets, we are inclined to feel that a meeting of the Foreign Ministers would be most suitable and most likely to head off U.N. action. The timing of such a meeting is of considerable importance and we assume that it should not occur before the German elections. The Secretary said he had to confess that there were some divergent views on the U.S. side regarding the timing of a conference, but on balance he thought that a meeting scheduled to take place after the Communist Party Congress but publicly known before the Party Congress would be the best solution. If a Foreign Ministers meeting could be held later rather than earlier it might somehow defer Khrushchev’s timetable and it might also be followed by a possible Summit meeting or a peace conference.

In the U.S. we had a problem about the timing of public knowledge that such negotiations would occur. The U.S. people as well as the Alliance were waiting for some initiative. There were disadvantages in waiting indefinitely, as if we feared negotiations, until the Soviets presented us with an initiative. This spoke for public knowledge of an offer to negotiate before the Soviet Party Congress, the convening of the UNGA and possibly before the Belgrade neutralist congress. Some had felt that an offer of negotiations could be interpreted as a sign of weakness. He was not sure, the Secretary observed, that the measures being taken in the military field necessarily would become more impressive with the passage of time than at the point of announcement revealing Allied unity in the decision to take them. He felt that some time in early September we should suggest that a meeting of Foreign Ministers take place late in October or early in November. This involved the possibility, [Page 294] of course, that the Soviets would make a counterproposal for a meeting in early October before the Party Congress.

As to substance, the Secretary said that he did not believe we could now write down a complete negotiating position. On the other hand, our Governments were not without many ideas on which they could promptly consult and agree. The Secretary reviewed two basic categories of proposals which the West should consider:

Those proposals directed to improving the situation from our viewpoint as opposed to Soviet proposals to their advantage. These might include emphasis on the principle of self-determination in Germany, a simplified Western Peace Plan, and an all-Berlin proposal perhaps with presence of U.N. observers at the critical points of access. Perhaps we could include certain security arrangements in Europe along the lines already discussed.
Those proposals for the inevitable point at a conference when it became clear that there was no basis for a meeting of the minds on the proposals noted. We must assume Khrushchev will probably sign a peace treaty with the GDR and will press for some sort of GDR recognition. He could have his peace treaty and his theory of the case, provided he did not put it into practice. This would not be the first time two incompatible theories have lived together if not pressed to their logical conclusions. The question of whether any aspect of general security arrangements would be pertinent at this point should be studied.

Home said he completely agreed with the Secretary’s analysis. There will clearly be negotiations with the Soviets, and the question was what kind would be to our best advantage. Unless the West were very careful during the next weeks, the Soviet position would become more plausible to the outside world with its emphasis on a peace treaty and the likely offer of guarantees of access to West Berlin. Since the Western stress was now on the military buildup, the danger was that we shall appear to world opinion as the side moving towards a warlike solution of the Berlin problem. Concerning the substance, he said that he, too, was not sure how far in the next few weeks agreement had to be reached on a negotiating position on Berlin. Our aim was not to weaken Western rights but to improve our situation. He could therefore see an advantage in taking the initiative fairly soon toward negotiations. This might help Khrushchev to postpone a peace treaty or at least to make it conditional on the GDR’s acceptance of a Berlin solution agreed by him and the Western Powers. Obviously, the meeting itself could not take place until after September 17.6 In reply to the latest Soviet note,7 the Western Powers could offer negotiations. The reply could go forward in a week or [Page 295] two, or in any event before the UNGA met. He was not too concerned with the meeting of the neutralist countries. Moreover, while he could understand the point that, if a Western offer were made too soon after the President’s speech people would relax, the Western presentation could be put in a way to avoid this effect.

Von Brentano acknowledged the danger that the Soviets may achieve some psychological success with their emphasis on a peace treaty and a free city of Berlin with guarantees. Many people believe more in words than in what is behind them. Moreover, the West must not give the impression that it is seeking a purely military solution. He also recognized that some countries might raise the Berlin question in the U.N. and this had to be watched carefully. If such an initiative threatened, the West would have to act promptly, but apart from this he agreed that a Western initiative to raise the Berlin question in the U.N. was not desirable. The U.N. Missions must be instructed to watch developments carefully. He said that [Page 296] he had certain reservations about the report received from the U.N. Missions and the German observer,8 particularly respecting the overly optimistic estimates. This report could, however, serve as a basis for further studies.

Von Brentano admitted that public opinion exercised pressures for direct negotiations, and that the idea could not be repudiated. However, as the President had said, we cannot negotiate on the basis of “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable”. There was no indication that the Soviets were thinking in any different terms. Negotiations under such conditions could only lead to a worsening of the status quo which is already bad enough. Events were moving swiftly. The receipt of the Soviet notes9 had already overtaken the Working Group report in one respect. He did not think that the German elections were an important factor in the timing of a bid for negotiations and the neutralist countries were too divided to make their conference of much relevance. However, he was concerned that an expression of willingness to negotiate under current conditions would be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Khrushchev’s statements were getting stronger, not weaker, and he was stating his maximum program in ultimative terms. Accordingly, negotiations should not be proposed but also they should not be refused.

Von Brentano recapitulated the possible substance of Western proposals. A plebiscite on the all-German question emphasizing self-determination was a good idea and will be painful for the Soviets. While he had certain reservations regarding an all-Berlin proposal, he personally did not object in principle. If the Soviets refused it, it might be easier for the West to refuse the discussion of partial solutions. The Western Peace Plan might be revised to eliminate obsolete portions and to simplify it for better public understanding.

Couve repeated essentially the same arguments on negotiations as he had advanced the day before.10 He argued that while the problem is one of tactics and of substance, substance must command tactics. Khrushchev keeps repeating the same line publicly and privately. Everyone seemed to be prepared to repeat the 1959 Geneva performance11 for the first half of the conference, but the West had to be realistic. If it raised the all-German question first, the discussion would not last more than twenty-four hours. The concept of a protracted meeting with the Soviets on a German settlement seemed utterly unrealistic. The only thing that can really be discussed with the Soviets is the problem of Berlin, and this did not mean the reunification of Berlin [Germany?]. He could not be as optimistic as Lord Home and talk in terms of “improving” our position. It was irresponsible to propose negotiations without knowing what the West is prepared to do. This was a difficult and disagreeable responsibility which had to be faced. The first step is to reply to the last Soviet note and to express the view that for the West, negotiation is the proper way to settle this important problem. However, he did not think we should say we are prepared to negotiate on a German settlement since the Soviets would merely say: “Let us call a peace conference.” Perhaps the West might indicate that it is prepared to discuss all the problems at issue between us without preconditions. The Western Foreign Ministers should meet again in mid-September before taking any final decision. Meanwhile, however, we must study what is negotiable with the Soviet Union. The Secretary’s timetable for actual discussions might be correct, but he did not think that we should now proclaim that we are going to propose negotiations.

Home said that he agreed that we should insist on the absence of preconditions in offering negotiations, but we could not expect Khrushchev to retract publicly. He referred to a cable just received from Ambassador Roberts in Moscow stating that unless the West had definite proposals, any Ambassadorial approach would only bring from Khrushchev a repetition of the standard position in harder terms or persuade him that we were threatening him and he should act. As to substance, Home agreed that a debate on the all-German question would not last long, but it might be of considerable value to the West in exposing Soviet [Page 297] opposition to self-determination. As to Berlin improvements, he was not sure, if Soviet guarantees on presence and access were obtained, that the West would not be better off than it is now.

The Secretary said that, as the first order of business, we would want to work out the details of counterproposals on Germany and Berlin. We had agreement on general principles and these could be put together quickly. It will be more difficult to work out a fall-back position. He did suppose, however, that we could spin out the discussion on public proposals more than twenty-four hours. It would not be a negotiation in the classic sense, but a debate in which we could discuss both their proposals and ours showing the hollowness of Soviet claims compared to their performance since 1944. He hoped that we would not have to leave to a Western Foreign Ministers’ meeting just before the UNGA the question of whether there would be negotiations, though the final preparation of proposals might be left for such a meeting. When the West looked down the path leading to a possible nuclear combat (at this point the Secretary suggested that the other Foreign Ministers might usefully be briefed on the implications of this), he doubted that the Soviets are not aware of the true situation, and he could not be worried that they would feel that we were weak. They knew better.

In response to a query from Couve, the Secretary said that, if we responded to the Soviet notes by the end of August or early in September, we might in our reply propose the time and the form of negotiations. This could be followed by a meeting of the Western Foreign Ministers just before the UNGA meeting. This seemed a reasonable combination. He was not enthusiastic about engaging in merely another polemical exchange with the Soviets. This added nothing and was not dignified for the Four Great Powers. The responsible Governments had to move the situation somewhat if they were to preserve the support of Western opinion. Home asked whether it might not be a good idea to propose negotiations for sometime in November and say at the same time that the Western Foreign Ministers would meet after the German elections to consider their position. He suggested that the formula “negotiation on the outstanding problems between us” without preconditions could be suggested. The Secretary said he did not know if the West wanted to get into such matters as the stationing of forces abroad, foreign bases, or Laos or disarmament which is being discussed elsewhere.

Couve continued to oppose the idea of suggesting a date for negotiations. He suggested a short reply to the Soviets, perhaps of one or two pages, avoiding repetitive arguments and ending by saying that the West is always prepared to examine the possibility of coming to an agreement on questions in dispute, taking account of the positions of all concerned and under conditions of equality and mutual respect. If the West made specific all-German proposals in a note, they would certainly [Page 298] be rejected and the Soviets would answer with their peace treaty line. Home said that he did not much like a general reference to the willingness to negotiate. People would question Western sincerity since that has been said so often before.

Couve said he was not certain that the Soviets would accept a conference without conditions. The Secretary responded that Soviet rejection would be a demonstration that the Soviets, after talking about negotiations, were now refusing them. Couve argued that, rather than be rebuffed, it would be better for the West to state its position in a general way not involving questions of prestige or substance. The notes could be sent before the end of the month and the West could then see how the Soviets react.

Von Brentano observed that the West did not have to use the exact words in the Soviet notes but could merely state that the Soviet statements showed great differences to exist on the problems of Germany and Berlin and that, taking account of the general state of tension, the Western Powers thought this should be discussed in negotiations.

The Secretary noted one possibility, which he was not sure he thought well of. The Western replies might end with a statement along the lines suggested by Couve and Von Brentano but add that the Western Foreign Ministers are planning to attend the UNGA and would take advantage of the presence of Foreign Minister Gromyko to discuss possible arrangements for negotiations. This might be enough to head off Nehru. Home said he was not sure this was not a good idea. The Foreign Ministers agreed to consider this idea further at the afternoon session.

  1. Source: Department of State, Secretary’s Memoranda of Conversation: Lot 65 D 330. Secret. Drafted by Hillenbrand on August 7 and approved in S on August 8. The meeting was held at the Quai d’Orsay.
  2. Dated August 5. (Ibid., Conference Files: Lot 65 D 366, CF 1942) In the letter Ulbricht denied that he was attempting to end West Berlin’s communications with the West, but stated that disputes would arise as long as U.S. occupation forces remained in West Berlin and Germany.
  3. US/MC/6, Document 97.
  4. For text of Khrushchev’s August 7 speech, see Pravda, August 8, 1961, or Izvestiia, August 9, 1961. An English translation is in Soviet News, August 8, 1961. For a report on the speech, see The New York Times, August 8, 1961.
  5. See Document 93.
  6. The date of the West German elections.
  7. For text of the August 3 Soviet note, see Documents on Germany, 1944-1985, pp. 766-769.
  8. A copy of this report was transmitted in telegram 354 from USUN, August 4. (Department of State, Central Files, 762.00/8-461)
  9. The Soviet Union had sent notes to the British and French similar to the one sent to the United States on August 3.
  10. See Document 94.
  11. For documentation on the Geneva Foreign Ministers Meeting May-August 1959, see Foreign Relations, 1958-1960, volume VIII.