Khrushchev’s Secret Speech on the Berlin Crisis, August 1961

From the Cold War International History Project


On 3-5 August 1961 an extraordinary meeting of the Warsaw Pact leaders took place in Moscow. The main issue on the agenda was the fate of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Almost three years earlier, Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev had provoked an international crisis by giving Western powers an ultimatum: negotiate a final settlement of the German Question with the Soviets, or else Moscow would sign a separate peace treaty with the GDR, threatening Western occupation rights in (and access to) Berlin. By the time he unleashed the crisis, Khrushchev knew that Soviet possession of nuclear weapons meant that West Germany was not such a big military threat, but he feared that the FRG’s economic and political prowess might eventually overwhelm the weak, unstable GDR. There would then be the danger of a peaceful Anschluss and the Soviets, with all their tanks and missiles, would face a fait accompli and the undermining of their whole European security system. Thus stabilizing East Germany became a top priority for the Kremlin—and for Khrushchev personally, for he had committed himself to the preservation of a “socialist GDR” during the post-Stalin succession struggle. (See James Richter, “Reexamining Soviet Policy Towards Germany during the Beria Interregnum,” CWIHP Working Paper No. 3.)

East German communists, led by Walter Ulbricht, masterfully exploited Moscow’s fears of an East German collapse, edging the Soviets toward a decisive confrontation with the West. For them the ultimate solution was the “liberation” of West Berlin, removing its subversive influence as a powerful magnet for East Germans and East Europeans in general. Recently declassified Soviet documents reveal how serious and effective was the GDR leadership’s pressure on Khrushchev. It seems that the idea of a German peace treaty, announced by Khrushchev in November 1958, was conceived by the GDR’s Socialist Unity Party (SED). [Ed. note: For further analyses of newly available Russian and East German materials on the Berlin Crisis, see CWIHP Working Papers No. 5 (Hope M. Harrison, “Ulbricht and the Concrete ‘Rose’: New Archival Evidence on the Dynamics of Soviet-East German Relations and the Berlin Crisis, 1958-1961”) and No. 6 (Vladislav M. Zubok, “Khrushchev and the Berlin Crisis (1958-1962)”).]

Soviet leaders obviously realized that Ulbricht’s solution would posed an unacceptable risk of war, and hoped similar calculations in Washington and Bonn would produce a compromise —such as recognition of two German states with a special settlement for Berlin. But FRG Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s tenacity, coupled with the disastrous turn in U.S.-Soviet ties after the May 1960 U-2 affair, left Khrushchev with little room for maneuver. He tried to gain time by postponing further action in Berlin until after the U.S. presidential elections in November, but any hope that John F. Kennedy would help him out of his predicament proved wishful thinking.

By Spring 1961, Khrushchev’s time was running out. The deepening Sino-Soviet rift rendered his authority as a communist leader more precarious than ever. Beijing and other militant communists blamed the Soviets for putting agreements with the West ahead of their internationalist revolutionary duty—and among the East German communists there was less sympathy for Moscow’s foreign policy than for the Chinese, who had only recently tried to “liberate” their own “imperialist-occupied” territory, the offshore islands in the Taiwan straits. In March, at a regular Warsaw Pact summit, Khrushchev promised to conclude a separate peace treaty with the GDR should a general settlement with the West prove impossible, and by early June it certainly looked this way from Moscow: Kennedy had attempted to “roll back” communism in Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and came to the Vienna summit with Khrushchev with nothing new to say on the German Question. In accord with his commitments Khrushchev pressed the Soviet position on a separate peace treaty and thereby catapulted the Berlin crisis into its most dangerous stage. Kennedy responded on July 25 with a speech that made it clear that unilateral Soviet or GDR actions to block Western access to West Berlin would mean war. Both leaders seemed to be heading toward an inevitable clash that neither desired.

The decision to cut off West Berlin from the GDR by a Wall thus came as a blessing in disguise both for Khrushchev and Kennedy. It stabilized the GDR regime for several decades and froze the status quo that both the Soviets and Americans came to prefer to the uncertainties and dangers of German reunification. From the Soviet viewpoint a divided Berlin was a lesser evil, but still an evil. All through the crisis the official Soviet line was to promote trade contacts with West Berlin and prepare the ground for drawing it, and ultimately West Germany, toward the East. The Wall meant that, in a 15 year tug-of-war for “the German soul” victory was with the West.

The August meeting in Moscow coincided with the moment when Khrushchev grudgingly agreed to bite this bullet. At the same time he warned Ulbricht, “not a millimeter further,” thus dashing his hopes for strangling and ultimately capturing West Berlin. Transcripts of this meeting were found by archivist Zoia Vodopianova and this author in the SCCD files during research for the CWIHP conference. I have translated selected excerpts from Khrushchev’s concluding speech at the conference, as they convey most vividly the mood and dilemma of the Soviet leader at the peak of the crisis. His address graphically reveals the contortions he had to go through when taking the decision to build the Wall. But one thing that stands out in this text is Khrushchev’s political realism even at the moment of his boldest gambling. He did not want to drive Kennedy into a corner, cognizant of domestic pressures on him and confident he could get away with dividing Berlin. Introduction, commentary, and translation by Vladislav M. Zubok, formerly of the USA/Canada Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, currently a visiting scholar at the Norwegian Nobel Institute, Oslo.

* * * * *

The Conference of first secretaries of Central Committees of Communist and workers parties of socialist countries for the exchange of views on the questions related to preparation and conclusion of German peace treaty, 3-5 August 1961.

Second session. 4 August. Morning. Present on the Soviet side: Nikita S. Khrushchev, Frol Kozlov, Anastas Mikoyan, Andrei Gromyko. Foreign guests: Walter Ulbricht (GDR), Todor Zhivkov (Bulgaria), Janos Kadar (Hungary), Wladyslaw Gomulka (Poland), Antonin Novotny (Czechoslovakia), Georgi Georgu-Dej (Rumania).

[Excerpts from Khrushchev’s comments:]

“Our delegation agrees completely with what Comrade Ulbricht has reported...We must wring this peace treaty...They [the Western powers] had hauled Germany into the Western bloc, and Germany became split into two parts. The peace treaty will give legitimacy to this split...it will weaken the West and, of course, the West will not agree with it. Their eviction from West Berlin will mean closing of the channels for their subversive activities against us.” (p. 139) “.

..I believe there are people in our countries who might argue: was it worth a cost to push this issue and let the heat and international tension rise... We have to explain to them that we have to wring this peace treaty, there is no other way... Every action produces counteraction, hence they resist fiercely...” (p. 140)

[There was always an understanding, Khrushchev continued, that the West] “would intimidate us, call out all spirits against us to test our courage, our acumen and our will.” (p. 140) “As for me and my colleagues in the state and party leadership, we think that the adversary proved to be less staunch [zhestokii] that we had estimated...We expected there would be more blustering and...so far the worst spurt of intimidation was in the Kennedy speech [on 25 July 1961]...Kennedy spoke [to frighten us] and then got scared himself.” (p. 141)

“Immediately after Kennedy delivered his speech I spoke with [U.S. envoy John J. McCloy]. We had a long conversation, talking about disarmament instead of talking, as we needed to, about Germany and conclusion of a peace treaty on West Berlin. So I suggested: come to my place [Black Sea resort in Pitsunda] tomorrow and we will continue our conversation.” (p. 141)

“On the first day [in Pitsunda] before talking we followed a Roman rite by taking a swim in a pool. We got our picture taken, embraced together...I have no idea whom he is going to show this picture to, but I don’t care to appear on one picture with a Wall Street representative in the Soviet pool.”

“I said [to McCloy]: ‘I don’t understand what sort of disarmament we can talk about, when Kennedy in his speech declared war on us and set down his conditions. What can I say? Please tell your president that we accept his ultimatum and his terms and will respond in kind.’” (p. 142)

“He then said...[that] Kennedy did not mean it, he meant to negotiate. I responded: ‘Mr. McCloy, but you said you did not read Kennedy’s speech?’ He faltered [zamialsia], for clearly he knew about the content of the speech.” (p. 143)

“’You want to frighten us,’ I went on [to McCloy]. ‘You convinced yourself, that Khrushchev will never go to war... so you scare us [expecting] us to retreat. True, we will not declare war, but we will not withdraw either, if you push it on us. We will respond to your war in kind.’” (p. 143)

“I told him to let Kennedy know...that if he starts a war then he would probably become the last president of the United States of America. I know he reported it accurately. In America they are showing off vehemently, but yet people close to Kennedy are beginning to pour cold water like a fire-brigade.” (p. 144)

[Khrushchev said he had met Italian Prime Minister Amintore Fanfani, who came to Moscow ostensibly at his own initiative, but in fact at Kennedy’s prodding.] “How we could possibly have invited him in such a tense moment... We would have exposed our weakness immediately [and revealed] that we are seeking a way out, a surrender. How [could it be] you would ask, [that] Kennedy advised Fanfani to go to Moscow, and Rusk did not know about it...Why? Kennedy must be in a difficult situation, for Kennedy represents one party and Rusk another.” (pp. 145-46) [Khrushchev reports that he told Fanfani:] “We have means [to retaliate]. Kennedy himself acknowledged, that there is equality of forces, i.e. the Soviet Union has as many hydrogen and atomic weapons as they have. I agree with that, [although] we did not crunch numbers. [But, if you recognize that] let us speak about equal opportunities. Instead they [Western leaders] behave as if they were a father dealing with a toddler: if it doesn’t come their way, they threaten to pull our ears [natrepat’ ushi]. (p. 148) We already passed that age, we wear long trousers, not short ones.” (p. 149)

“I told Fanfani yesterday: ‘...I don’t believe, though, there will be war. What am I counting on? I believe in your [Western leaders’] common sense. Do you know who will argue most against war? Adenauer. [Because, if the war starts] there will not be a single stone left in place in Germany...’” (p. 150)

[War between the USSR and the United States, Khrushchev allegedly told Fanfani, is] “hardly possible, because it would be a duel of ballistic intercontinental missiles. We are strong on that... American would be at a disadvantage to start a war with this weapon... They know it and admit it... America can unleash a war from its military bases they have on [Italian] territory. Consequently we consider you as our hostages.” (p. 151)

[British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan visited Moscow in 1959 and told Khrushchev that war was impossible. Khrushchev presumes that Western leaders continue to act on that conviction.] “Macmillan could not have lost his mind since then. He considered war impossible then and, suddenly, now he changes his mind? No, no. The outcome of modern war will be decided by atomic weapons. Does it make sense if there is one more division or less? If the entire French army cannot cope with the Algerians, armed with knives, then how do they expect to scare us with a division? It is ludicrous, not frightening. [De Gaulle admitted to our Ambassador a couple of weeks ago, Khrushchev says, that he did not want the reunification of Germany.] He pays lip service to it [reunification] because it is in Adenauer’s interests. Nobody wants reunification of Germany —neither France, nor England, nor Italy, nor America.” (pp. 151- 52)

[Khrushchev said he told McCloy:] “Listen, why is it that you cannot shake hands with Ulbricht? I shook hands with Adenauer and I am ready to do it again. Do you believe that your Adenauer is better than our Ulbricht? We praise our commodity.” (p. 153)

[If Western powers refuse to sign a treaty with the GDR, then, as Khrushchev said to McCloy:] “You will have no access [to West Berlin]. If you fly and violate [the aerial space over the GDR], we will down your planes, you must know it.” (p. 155)

“Why we were so blunt? Comrades, we have to demonstrate to them our will and decisiveness....” (p. 156)

[What is the difference between the two parties of “monopoly capital,” the Democrats and the Republicans? Khrushchev admitted that real difference is small ] “but some distinctive features exist, one cannot deny it, since otherwise we wouldn’t have been politicians, but agitators, who say, that there is capitalism and working class, so one has to blame damned bourgeoisie and that’s it. Only Albanians understand it this way....” (p. 156)

“Can we clash? Possibly...I told Fanfani, that [the American state] is a barely governed state... Kennedy himself hardly influences the direction and development of policies [politiki] in the American state...The American Senate and other [state] organizations are very similar to our Veche of Novgorod... One party there defeated the other when it tore off half of the beards of another party... They shouted, yelled, pulled each other beards, and in such a way resolved the question who was right.” (pp. 156-57)

“Hence anything is possible in the United States. War is also possible. They can unleash it. There are more stable situations in England, France, Italy, Germany. I would even say that, when our ‘friend’ [John Foster] Dulles was alive, they had more stability [in the United States]. I told McCloy about it.” (p. 157)

[Dulles was the enemy who] “resolved to bring us down to submission [sognut v baranii rog], but he was afraid of war. He would reach the brink, as he put it himself, but he would never leap over the brink, and [nevertheless] retained his credibility.” (p. 158)

“If Kennedy says it, he will be called a coward. But Dulles had never been called this way, [and people believed when he said] it had not to be done in American interests. Who could suspect Dulles? The man was anything but a coward. As for Kennedy, he is rather an unknown quantity in politics. So I feel empathy with him in his situation, because he is too much of a light-weight both for the Republicans as well as for the Democrats. And the state is too big, the state is powerful, and it poses certain dangers.”

“I think you will not suspect I am sympathetic to Dulles, only for the fact that he is no longer with us, so my sympathy cannot seek any goals.” (p. 159)

“I understand, comrades, and share this state of mind, that our enthusiasm for peaceful construction acts as poison, weaken our muscles and our will.” (p. 160)

“We got ourselves carried away with peaceful construction and, I believe, we are going too far. I will not name countries. This is the internal matter of each of the socialist states.” [But the Soviet Union had had to bail out some of them in the past by] “taking gold out of its coffers.” Khrushchev called all participants to live on principle, “Pay as you go.” [Po odezhke protiagivai nozhki], [and said a change of plans is necessary, a mobilization]. (pp. 160, 165-66)

“So I would consider us bad [statesmen] if we do not now make conclusions [to]...build up our defense...our military forces.” (p. 160) “If we do not have these measures worked out, then Americans, British, French, who have their agencies among us, will say, that we, as they put it, are bluffing, and, consequently, will increase their pressure against us.” (p. 161)

“On our side, we have already mapped out some measures. And we are considering more in the future, but short of provocations.”

“I told McCloy, that if they deploy one division in Germany, we will respond with two divisions, if they declare mobilization, we will do the same. If they mobilize such and such numbers, we will put out 150-200 divisions, as many as necessary. We are considering now... to deploy tanks defensively along the entire border [between the GDR and the FRG]. In short, we have to seal every weak spot they might look for.” (p. 162).

[Khrushchev doubted that Western powers would risk to force their way to West Berlin, because it would surely mean war. (pp. 163-65) But he said that chances of economic blockade of the GDR and, perhaps, of the entire Eastern bloc were “fifty-fifty.” That led him to comment ruefully on the dependence of socialist economies on Western trade and loans:]

“We have to help the GDR out...Everybody is guilty, and the GDR too. We let down our guards somewhat. Sixteen years passed and we did not alleviate pressures on the GDR....” (p. 167)

[Khrushchev praised Ulbricht for “heroic work since 1945” and approved his collectivization campaign. “You cannot build socialism without it.”] (p. 168) [He conceded that the GDR, if not helped, will collapse.] “What will it mean, if the GDR is liquidated? It will mean that the Bundeswehr will move to the Polish border,...to the borders with Czechoslovakia, ....closer to our Soviet border.”

[He then addressed another point of criticism, why it was necessary to help the GDR to raise its living standard, already the highest among the countries in the Eastern bloc:] “If we level it [the GDR’s living standard] down to our own, consequently, the government and the party of the GDR will fall down tumbling, consequently Adenauer will step in...Even if the GDR remains closed, one cannot rely on that and [let living standards decline].” (p. 170)

[Khrushchev admitted the GDR cost the Soviets much more than they needed for their own defense.] “Each division there costs us many times more, than if it had been located [on the Soviet territory].” “Some might say, why do we need the GDR, we are strong, we have armaments and all, and we will stand on our borders. This would have really been a narrow nationalist vision....”(p. 171)

“I wish we could lick the imperialism! You can imagine what satisfaction we’ll get when we sign the peace treaty. Of course we’re running a risk. But it is indispensable. Lenin took such a risk, when he said in 1917 that there was such a party that could seize power. Everybody just smirked and snorted then...World public opinion now is on our side not only in the neutral countries, but in America and in England.” (p. 178)

[He returns again to Kennedy’s dilemma.] “Presidential aide on mass media [Pierre] Salinger invited one day our journalists [to pay a visit to Kennedy]. He picked [Alexei] Adzhubei and [Mikhail] Kharlamov. [In presence of Adzhubei and the Soviet interpreter only, Kennedy admitted,] ‘If I do what Khrushchev suggests, my senators will arrest [impeach?] me.’ He is seeking my sympathy, isn’t he? So that I will spare him that? He said it so that I understood and let you know that he is in a bind, because his good will and decision was not enough. The situation is very grave there. It looks as if I am a propagandist for Kennedy, to make you less stern about him....You might turn on me for that, but I will survive....” (p. 183)

“Summing up, our Central Committee and government believe, that now preparations are proceeding better, but there will be a thaw, and, more importantly, a cooling down...We have to work out our tactics now and perhaps it is already the right time.” (p. 184)

(Source: SCCD, miscellaneous documents of the CC CPSU International Department.)


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