Diplomats on Khrushchev’s speech on Berlin (1958)

Four days after Nikita Khrushchev‘s November 1958 speech on West Berlin, the US ambassador in Moscow sent the following telegram to the State Department:

[Moscow, November 14th 1958]

“In meeting with British and French Ambassadors this morning re: Khrushchev’s speech, we agreed as follows: We consider [the] most likely reason for Khrushchev’s action was concern over [the] weakening internal situation in East Germany, together with strengthening particularly in [the] military field of West Germany.

We disagree with [the] German Ambassador’s estimate that [the] motive was Khrushchev’s desire to strengthen his position at 21st Party Congress. We do not see that he has need for such tactics, nor [the] likelihood that this action would, in fact, strengthen his position…

We are all three baffled by what Khrushchev may expect to accomplish by this manouvre. There is [the] possibility that he may have so misjudged Western reaction that he thinks he can get away with it. We are more inclined to think he has some subsequent step in mind, after having built up tension to very dangerous point.

We think one possibility may be that he has changed his estimate that a settlement of German problem could be put off indefinitely and that he is aiming at a summit meeting, possibly without an agenda other than to deal with threat to peace. I suggested this approach might enable him to get around commitment which he has undoubtedly made to East Germans not to discuss German problem on four power basis.

We were generally agreed that a firm warning to [the] Soviet government is necessary and that this should probably be made on a confidential basis. I expressed personal opinion that the problem was whether or not we should make clear that we would be prepared to use force to maintain land, particularly road, communications. I said I deplored talk of [resuming the] airlift, since [it] appeared to me that if Soviets thought we would settle on such a basis they would be encouraged to push ahead. We would then be saddled with [an] airlift indefinitely, and East Germans would then be in position to take measures to weaken or at least bring strong pressure on West Berlin. [I] believe my colleagues were impressed by this argument.

We also agreed that [it] would be advisable to reiterate our willingness to discuss [the] German question on four power basis. I suggest this offer be made publicly, possibly in connection with publication [of the] German note. Appears to me that Khrushchev’s speech makes it all the more important that German note be a firm one.”

Llewellyn Thompson
US Ambassador to the Soviet Union