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Digital National Security Archive (DNSA): The Berlin Crisis, 1958–1962

About this Collection

Beginning with documents from late 1953 when the Eisenhower administration began to formulate its Berlin contingency plans and closing with a series of newly declassified State Department histories from the late 1960s, The Berlin Crisis contains more than 11,500 pages from almost 3,000 documents.

Research Value of this Collection

The Berlin Crisis collection is significant for several reasons. First, it provides researchers for the first time with an organized, cataloged and fully indexed record--accompanied by an extensive chronology and set of glossaries--of the U.S. government's internal decision making process during one of the most serious crises of the Cold War era. Second, this collection provides one of the most complete sets of documents available to the public on the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations' approaches to the German problem, an issue that was then inseparable from the Berlin question, and that has been one of the central issues in modern U.S. foreign policy. Finally, the set includes newly declassified material that has been previously unavailable to scholars, researchers or the general public. The availability of this material will facilitate new, detailed investigations into the Berlin crisis.

One of the important features of this set is that it includes as full a record of presidential decision making during the Berlin crisis as can be assembled at present. As mentioned earlier, for the Eisenhower period the record consists of the memoranda of presidential conferences prepared by White House staff members Gen. Andrew Goodpaster and John Eisenhower. Although records of important meetings remain unavailable, this collection contains a full set of the most recently declassified materials on Eisenhower's discussions with his chief foreign policy and defense advisers. In addition, the set includes records of Eisenhower's telephone conversations with John Foster Dulles and Christian A. Herter. Although scholars will have to separate Eisenhower's "off the cuff" observations from considered statements of policy, the availability of this material in one collection will enable researchers to consider in its totality Eisenhower's thinking on Berlin and German issues during the crisis period.

For the Kennedy era, the set includes comparable records, mainly prepared by McGeorge Bundy or Lawrence Legere, of Kennedy's discussions with his chief advisers. Although these documents lack the range of the Goodpaster memoranda and are heavily excised, they are among the few extant primary sources on Kennedy's behind-the-scenes deliberations on Berlin and German issues.

Rather than focusing narrowly on documents specifically on Berlin, this collection puts the crisis in a broad context by depicting U.S. policy toward West Germany as a whole. This will help researchers elucidate policy on German reunification and its interconnections with U.S. Berlin policy. The collection documents such developments as U.S. decisions to establish nuclear weapons stockpiles in Western Europe during the late 1950s and the related decision to equip West German forces with nuclear-capable delivery systems, which are relevant because of the continued controversy over the impact of German rearmament and the nuclear question on Soviet motivations.

To a great extent, U.S. policy during the Berlin crisis involved two lines of approach, or tracks, each designed to reinforce the other. One track comprised negotiations--the effort to resolve or mitigate the Berlin issue through diplomacy. The other track involved contingency plans and military preparations, which were designed to reinforce the U.S. negotiating stance or to put the Allies in a position to protect putative interests in the event of a confrontation with the Soviets. An outstanding feature of this set is that it documents both tracks, showing the great extent to which U.S. policy at the highest levels integrated diplomatic and military components.

Another distinguishing feature of this set is that it includes a nearly complete record of the East-West negotiations over Berlin and Germany, including bilateral U.S.-Soviet "exploratory discussions," during the entire period. For the Eisenhower Administration, the set documents Allied efforts to develop a coordinated negotiating position during the first months of 1959 and the subsequent protracted talks with the Soviets at the foreign ministers' meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, during May-August 1959. In addition, the set includes a complete record of the September 1959 Eisenhower-Khrushchev talks at Camp David, as well as material on Western preparations for discussions on Berlin at the aborted four-power summit of May 1960. Moreover, there is a record of many of the conversations between Soviet and U.S. policy makers during the Kennedy Administration. Although records for certain crucial meetings during the fall of 1961 are not yet available, this set includes a nearly complete record of the Rusk-Gromyko, Thompson-Gromyko and Rusk-Dobrynin talks that took place during the course of 1962.

A noteworthy feature of this set, that will make it useful to both diplomatic and military historians, is the newly-declassified documentation on U.S. and Allied contingency planning during and after the 1958-1959 "deadline crisis." For the first time, researchers will be able to track in detail how Khrushchev's November 10, 1958, speech and the subsequent Soviet note led U.S. diplomats and policy makers to revise their thinking about current Allied contingency plans devised for use in a Berlin access crisis. This material gives a full picture of the inter-Allied agreements and disagreements over such issues as the use of force, military plans and informal or formal dealings with the GDR.

The newly declassified material on contingency planning also sheds light on the inception and organization of LIVE OAK, the codename for the secret tripartite military planning group that Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Lauris Norstad organized in April 1959. The group was disbanded in November 1989, the day after Germany was reunified. LIVE OAK records (which are held by the German archives) will continue to remain classified for more than 20 years. Nevertheless, the documents in this set provide considerable information on the scope of LIVE OAK planning and the role of inter-Allied politics in the group.

Of great importance to understanding the U.S. approach to Berlin is the role that nuclear capabilities played in the thinking and planning of policy makers. Recently released documents show the great extent to which policy differences over the danger of nuclear war and the role of nuclear deterrence shaped the thinking of the United States and its Allies on political strategy and contingency planning. These materials also help clarify the differences between the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations over deterrence strategies. While the Eisenhower Administration relied mainly upon the threat of general war as a deterrent, new documents suggest a close relationship between the Kennedy Administration's military planning for a Berlin crisis and the development of the flexible response strategy.

Another valuable feature of this collection is that it will enable scholars to track specific, significant events and developments relating to Berlin. These include the U.S. Air Force's high-altitude flights in the Berlin air corridors as well as major incidents at the autobahn checkpoints ranging from the episode at Babelsberg in mid-November 1958 to the "Tailgate Crisis" in the fall of 1963. The set also provides as full a documentary account of the "Wall Crisis" as is now possible, including material on the GDR refugee problem, the initial construction of the Wall and the Allied response to the morale crisis in West Berlin caused by the division of the city. Moreover, the collection documents the only moment in the Cold War when U.S. and Soviet forces directly confronted each other, at Checkpoint Charlie during the famous "tank confrontation" of late October 1961.

A further attribute of this set that will be especially valuable to scholars is the inclusion of a number of official historical reports prepared by U.S. government agencies. This material includes excerpts from annual histories prepared by U.S. military commands as well as special studies of military activities during the 1961 crisis. In addition, the set contains a formerly top secret, six-part Department of State internal history of the Berlin crisis. This history begins with the November 1958-May 1959 "deadline crisis" and concludes with the August 1961 Wall crisis and its immediate aftermath. (Unfortunately, the Department of State did not complete this project; the promised study on the background to the crisis and the concluding volume on October 1961-December 1962 were never completed.)