INTERVIEW WITH McGEORGE BUNDY-10.9.1996
INTERVIEWER: It's the tenth of September 1996. This is Roll 10333, interview with McGeorge Bundy and thank you very much, Mr Bundy, for agreeing to contribute to the Cold War series. Our programme is about the Berlin Crisis 58 to '61 or '63. Could I start by asking you the extent of the West German Adenauer influence on the US approach to the Berlin Crisis?
McGEORGE BUNDY: Adenauer was obviously a very important person from the point of view American policy. He was the recognised, strong, popular leader of the Federal Republic and he was a major partner of any President of the United States in dealing with questions that affected both Germany and the United States. Berlin, obviously, was such a question.
INT: How strong was his influence on the US government thinking?
MB: Very strong, in the sense that what he thought and where he stood were important parts of the American of the situation that the Americans had to consider and act on, but if the question is whether he controlled American policy, of course he didn't.
INT: Could I ask you that again very briefly and could you mention Adenauer's name in your answer.
MB: Oh, I beg your pardon. I see your problem.
INT: Just tell me the influence of the Adenauer government on US thinking with regards Berlin.
MB: In thinking about the Berlin Crisis the Americans had to take account of many opinions of many statesmen but few were more important than Chancellor Adenauer because he was the leader of the Federal Republic and the Federal Republic was deeply concerned, its citizens and its government, with Berlin.
INT: I know that you were not part of the Eisenhower administration but in your book "Danger and Survival" you give a very succinct view of the Eisenhower Administration's response to the 1958 Berlin ultimatum. Could you describe that and could you compare it..
MB: I better read it!
INT: It's really the comparison with Eisenhower.. the Eisenhower..
MB: I don't remember what it said there. I can look it up, then repeat it for you.
INT: Well, if you could maybe tell us a bit about the Kennedy response to Soviet threats over Berlin.
MB: Well, the Berlin Crisis was created by Khrushchev, and by his effort to persuade the Western countries that terrible things would happen if they did not accept his view of what should happen to Berlin which was, in essence, that it should be unified under the control of the East Germans.
INT: How much was the Kennedy Administration eager to build up conventional forces whereas the Eisenhower Administration was more reliant on nuclear?
MB: I think to some degree, the Kennedy Administration increased the emphasis on the capacity for conventional resistance and conventional defence. I think however that both Administrations were aware of, all of us concerned with the crisis as far as I can remember were aware that there was an element of nuclear danger in crisis no matter what else you did.
INT: How much of that from Khrushchev's point of view was bluff?
MB: Well, we know that he didn't go through with any of the threats to execute his one unilaterally, his own preferences and I think we all believed then and I believe now that he was aware that there was danger of escalation even to a nuclear level and that held him back or helped to hold him back. How much, is anyone's guess.
INT: Was he thinking, do you think, in terms of it was a dangerous game to be able to play but it was a bluff.
MB: I don't think any of us can tell exactly how the balance between conscious bluff and try it and let's see, how that went on inside his head. We do know that he held back from violent action in Berlin.
INT: That's exactly what I want to hear but could I ask you mention Khrushchev again. The name Khrushchev in your answer.
INT: I'll ask you again to what degree was Khrushchev bluffing, do you think?
MB: Well, everyone can make his own guess about Khrushchev and his state of mind at various stages in the Crisis. The evidence of what happened is he was not prepared to take the matter to a direct military encounter at any level. So he clearly was aware of the built-in danger that a situation of direct conflict could get out of control and the fact that it could get out of control meant that one had to take account, he had to take account of the fact that he was in an environment in which both sides had more than enough nuclear weapons.
INT: Just moving on in time to the Vienna Summit of June 1961, what sort of preparations did Kennedy make for that? What did he hope to achieve at the Summit?
MB: The Vienna Summit was an effort on both sides to see what happened and what could be gained from direct communication. I think the most important concern on the American side was that Khrushchev should not be left in doubt about the determination of the United States to maintain the basic Western position in Berlin, and Kennedy I think also felt a certain pressure on himself personally to demonstrate to Khrushchev that he was not going to be pushed around.
INT: What did he you make of Khrushchev? What was his assessment of the meeting?
MB: Well, he found Khrushchev adamant on his formal position and not responsive to, in any direct way, to arguments about the importance of avoiding a direct conflict. In that sense, it was not a productive meeting.
INT: It was quite a tough meeting. On the second day of that meeting, when Kennedy remarked that it was going to be a cold winter in the future. Can you reflect a little bit on that second day when they met at the Soviet Embassy?
MB: The meeting was unproductive and, the longer it went on, the more that became apparent. I was not in the meetings with Khrushchev so I only know what I was told afterwards but I think President Kennedy was increasingly impressed by the fact that the meeting was not producing any hopeful signals about understanding an agreement over Berlin or for that matter almost any other subject.
INT: Was he shocked in any way by the encounter because it was quite a tough session. I think the remark to James Wreston afterwards was that it was one of the roughest days he'd had in his life as President.
MB: Oh, I did not myself think that Kennedy was in any kind of state of shock after the Vienna meeting. It was difficult. It was disappointing. It left us with a Berlin Crisis that was still active and in which no progress had been made. But I myself don't think that Kennedy was shaken, or pushed off course by that experience.
INT: Did it in any way change his willingness to stand firm? His approach to the Berlin issue?
MB: I know of no such connection.
INT: Could you make that into a ......
MB: (Interupts) I don't think the experience in Vienna had any large impact on the way Kennedy conducted the American side of the crisis.
INT: You told that Khrushchev did use nuclear threats throughout the Crisis. How did you Kennedy respond to this?
MB: Well, I don't think I did say that he used nuclear... The nuclear threat was a kind of existential reality. Both sides had nuclear weapons in considerable numbers. Each had to take account of the danger that if there was conflict between them, it could become nuclear but I do not recall any strong feeling on the American side that in fact the Crisis was becoming nuclear in terms of an immediate likelihood that either side would move in that direction.
INT: I think as things got quite tough in the summer of '61 before the barrier went up in Berlin and Khrushchev made a speech at one point to the Romanian Friendship Society about the bomb that could fall on the Acropolis, the orange groves of Italy. What do you make of that?
MB: Hot air.