Book Review: Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, And The Most Dangerous Place On Earth

 

The following is a repost of a piece I wrote 3 years ago here. With all of the Russian Collusion kerfuffle I thought it apropos to revist it. You see, “collusion with the Russians” is hardly a new problem, and JFK himself actively and secretly colluded with Khrushchev, using his brother Bobby as a clandestine intermediary. JFK told no one in his cabinet, or in the Secret Service, that he was doing this. Why? Well, for starters Kennedy was not particularly keen on the continuing defense of West Berlin, and had practically no concept of its extraordinary value to NATO as a bastion right in the middle of the Warsaw Pact. In his mind, when he assumed the presidency, it was as best a distraction from his desired rapprochement with Moscow. Kennedy wanted to “reset” Soviet relations after 8 years of Eisenhower refusing to “play ball”.

Secondly, Khrushchev did actually interfere with the 1960 presidential election in his own way by managing international events such that he made Nixon look paranoid against Kennedy’s openness. Khrushchev therefore often claimed that he himself got Kennedy elected (Chicago notwithstanding, of course), and he thus felt Kennedy owed him. The Berlin Crisis of 1961, the precursor to the Cuban Missile Crisis, was in no small part of this mutual dalliance between Khrushchev and Kennedy. The passing of US intelligence secrets to the USSR via Bobby, the feeding of Soviet propaganda and misinformation back to Kennedy, and the dangerous near-loss of Berlin were all JFK’s doing. We should bear all this in mind today when we are so quick to decry what Trump may or may not have done, just as we should remember that JFK learned from his early mistakes. It hardly need be mentioned that many historians today, in their near-saintly portrayal of Kennedy, or in their endless vituperation against Trump, have ignored this episode when the US nearly bungled one of its most valuable protectorates in the Cold War.

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The parallels between Kennedy’s first year as president and Obama’s entire first term are eerie: presidencies preceded by divisive campaigns against the “old way of doing things,” rejections of lessons already learned about the use of power, and the dangers of a rudderless America trying to retreat from the world stage. There is no doubt that Jack Kennedy allowed the permanent division of Berlin to appease Khrushchev, and to put to rest an issue that Kennedy himself thought irrelevant. As Kempe himself puts it,

Throughout 1961, Berlin was an unwanted, inherited problem for Kennedy, and never a cause that he wished to champion. Speaking [in a private suite in Paris] during a break in his talks with de Gaulle, Kennedy complained… “It seems silly for us to be facing an atomic war over a treaty preserving Berlin as the future capital of a unified Germany when all of us know that Germany will probably never be unified.” (pp. 490-491)

Berlin 1961 is a detailed historical analysis of the Berlin Crisis of 1961, when East Germany erected the Berlin Wall in a sudden and meticulously timed operation while the Allied occupying forces stood immobile – never interfering. The wall, with its attendant armed guards and shoot-to-kill orders, would stand for the next 28 years, cordoning off the only free outpost in Europe east of the Elbe.

It is difficult to study the past without bringing a number of fallacies of thought with us. We see past events as inevitabilities, we assign a determinism to the course of events that blinds us to the real possibilities of the times, to the terrors and uncertainties of years past. We also bring a damaging historicism to our understandings of events, ascribing modern thoughts, sensibilities, and knowledge that would be foreign to our predecessors.

The Berlin Wall feels inevitable, a foregone conclusion, a brief insane interlude in the history of Europe, yet the Wall might have been mitigated, halted altogether, perhaps never even attempted had Kennedy acted with more assurance. It is also possible that Kennedy or Khrushchev could have misread the course of events and triggered a nuclear war. These are the real possibilities presented in the unfolding of the crisis.

berlinwall

Kempe presents research culled from both US and Russian declassified archives, quoting heretofore secret or private communications to give the actors of the time their own voices. He quotes at length from declassified communications, private letters, diaries, and meeting transcripts to tell the story as it happened. Interspersed in the book are many first-hand and second-hand anecdotes from the civilians and front-line soldiers in Berlin, from the 1945 Soviet occupation and rape of Berlin’s women to the East-Germans who escaped as the wall’s security tightened.

Kempe focuses his history on several key actors in Berlin: Khrushchev and Kennedy of course, Walter Ulbricht (the head of East Germany), Konrad Adenaur (the president of West Germany), Willie Brandt (the mayor of West Berlin), and their lieutenants and representatives (each of whom had their own agendas). Bobby Kennedy, for instance, was having clandestine meetings with a KGB spy, acting as a messenger directly between his brother and Khrushchev, unbeknownst to anyone else in Kennedy’s cabinet. The story that emerges is of a resolute Ulbricht maneuvering a cautious and vulnerable Khrushchev into conflict with an irresolute Kennedy over the Berlin Question.

Berlin was an anomaly in the division of Europe between Soviet and free nations. It had originally been divided into four occupations zones modeled along the administrative partition of Germany as a whole, with the initial intent of keeping Germany subjugated as punishment following WWII (Austria had been similarly divided, though Khrushchev had assented to a reunification in the 1950’s). Berlin lay in the middle of the Soviet sector of Germany, and following the consolidation of the communist dictatorships in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s Berlin remained the solitary free point within the entirety of the Warsaw-Pact bloc. Under Stalin in 1948 and 1949 the Soviets had attempted to starve the other allies out of the city, but given both the success of the Berlin Airlift and the threat of nuclear strike by the USA, Stalin eventually lifted the blockade and allowed Berlin to resume its earlier status as a jointly-occupied open city. As the Iron Curtain locked the borders of all other Soviet nations, Berlin alone retained a relatively open border, an aberration and a temptation to the citizens of East Germany. West Berlin grew in prosperity in the midst of communist economic sterility. –

“Between the establishment of the East German state in 1949 and 1961, one of every six individuals – 2.8 million people – had left as refugees… The exodus was emptying the country of its most talented and motivated people.” (page xxi)

Berlin, at the start of 1961, was still relatively open. Residents of the Allied zone could freely enter and leave the Russian sector, and residents of the Russian sector could travel (with sufficient documentation) to the Allied sectors for employment or for entertainment. This porous border was therefore the best place for East-Germans to cross into freedom. According to the book, at the start of 1961 hundreds of East Germans fled this way each day. By the Summer of 1961 this number was in the thousands.

Kempe brings in the population drain as just one of many other political and geo-strategic factors in the buildup to the crisis. Khrushchev, attempting to cast himself a moderate and forward thinker, fought the militaristic and war-mongering Mao Zedong for control of world Communism. At a time when Khrushchev risked his internal reputation to attempt a moderate approach to Kennedy, Kennedy meddled in and botched the Bay of Pigs invasion, giving Khrushchev’s enemies leverage. Kennedy agreed to a summit with Khrushchev in Vienna, but allowed himself to be maneuvered (against advice from multiple allies) into a rhetorical debate and haranguing, then proceeded to refer to a distinct and separate “West Berlin” for the very first time.

When Walter Ulbricht put up the wall, in open violation of all post-war 4-power agreements, Kennedy prevented the US military from responding. Only when the outcry from Germans, and Berliners in particular, threatened US prestige did Kennedy respond. He asked retired general Lucius Clay, the hero of the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49, to return to Berlin to advise and to boost morale. Yet Clay had a different agenda from Kennedy, and despite his retired status he effectively took command of the belated US response. President Truman had backed Clay in 1948 against the wishes of much of his administration. In 1961 Kennedy restrained Clay to performing the bare minimum actions required stabilize the Allied position in the city. Kennedy would never allow him to push the Communists back or contest the legality of their actions, in the process losing the initiative in Berlin for the remainder of the Cold War.

President Kennedy would come to regret his weakness of 1961. In the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Kempe reveals how Khrushchev was hoping to tempt Kennedy into swapping Cuba for the remainder of Berlin – such a swap was one of the primary goals of the crisis, and Khrushchev would likely have gladly sold out Castro to attain the rest of Berlin. Berlin’s position in the heart of East Germany would ensure that as the Cold War progressed, East Germany (arguably the strongest of the Warsaw Pact nations) would have an ever present visible reminder of Communism’s economic and social failures. It is telling that in 1989, while Hungary opened the first gaps in the Iron Curtain, it was in Berlin where the entire system truly collapsed. When the Wall came down, East Germany could no longer hold itself together.

All told, Berlin 1961 is a fascinating look into one of the seminal moments of the Cold War, and a detailed account of the interplay of governmental politics both in the US and the USSR. For all of the memories our history books recount of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Kempe makes a compelling case that the more important events occurred in Berlin, and that it was in Berlin where Kennedy and America set the tone of the remainder of the Cold War.

Kempe concludes with a quotation from Kennedy’s Rathous Schöneberg speech of 1963:There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that Communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere that we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that Communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lasst Sie nach Berlin kommen. (pp 499-500)

personal postscript:

I first visited Berlin myself in the Summer of 1993, a scant 4 years after the wall came down. Many sections remained, and many scrapyards were selling graffitied chips from the wall slabs. The path of the wall still remained like a scar through the town. The eastern half of the city was a time capsule, frozen in 1961. Apartment blocks decayed, drab Soviet architecture dominated the main avenues, and even pockets of WWII war rubble remained uncleared. Pottsdammer Platz was a wide open field of grass by the Brandenburg Gate.

I visited again in the Summer of 1999, and old East Berlin had changed beyond recognition. Where rubble and empty fields had been, massive corporate headquarters and shopping centers rose. Where the streets had been empty of most cars, and Trabants had been parked down alleyways, there were Mercedes and BMW sedans everywhere. 10 years on and most of the wall was long gone, save where it was preserved deliberately. In 1992 you could still feel haunted by history at Checkpoint Charlie, even seven years later it seemed a quaint museum piece amidst the din and bustle of Berlin.

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Members have made 13 comments.

  1. Profile photo of Gary McVey Member

    A good review, Skip. Kennedy was weak at his first meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna, and even he admitted it later. But I don’t think it’s fair to nail him for the Berlin Wall. I don’t see what Eisenhower would have done differently.

    “Kennedy would never allow him (Gen. Lucius Clay) to push the Communists back”. Well, yeah. It’s a fantasy to think Clay had the means to do that. The Russians had far more troops and equipment on hand, and like us, were ready to use nukes.

    • #1
    • July 17, 2017 at 11:28 am
    • Like1 like
  2. Profile photo of skipsul Moderator
    skipsul Post author

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    A good review, Skip. Kennedy was weak at his first meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna, and even he admitted it later. But I don’t think it’s fair to nail him for the Berlin Wall. I don’t see what Eisenhower would have done differently.

    “Kennedy would never allow him (Gen. Lucius Clay) to push the Communists back”. Well, yeah. It’s a fantasy to think Clay had the means to do that. The Russians had far more troops and equipment on hand, and like us, were ready to use nukes.

    Actually, one of Kempe’s arguments is that Khrushchev wouldn’t dared have used nukes at that point, and there were orders in effect that if the US intervened then the DDR would be reined in.

    The other thing to remember is that Khrushchev would not have allowed Ulbricht to pull the job if Eisenhower had been around, especially as Eisenhower had made it point to occasionally send armed US patrols through East Berlin, as was our right under the 4-Powers agreement. Kennedy did no such thing.

    • #2
    • July 17, 2017 at 11:34 am
    • Like4 likes
  3. Profile photo of Gary McVey Member

    That may be one of Kempe’s arguments, but JFK couldn’t treat the question as abstractly as Kempe would. The whole reason we had the nukes in Europe was the Soviets had far more conventional arms than we did (not surprising–they live there, we don’t–plus the Germans did manage to kill 20 million Russians). Clay had no credible plan to beat the Russians.

    Unless the reader assumes that after a show of gutsy strength, the Russians would have folded like a house of cards. That’s not a bet I would have taken 16 years after WWII.

    • #3
    • July 17, 2017 at 12:08 pm
    • Like2 likes
  4. Profile photo of skipsul Moderator
    skipsul Post author

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    A good review, Skip. Kennedy was weak at his first meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna, and even he admitted it later. But I don’t think it’s fair to nail him for the Berlin Wall. I don’t see what Eisenhower would have done differently.

    “Kennedy would never allow him (Gen. Lucius Clay) to push the Communists back”. Well, yeah. It’s a fantasy to think Clay had the means to do that. The Russians had far more troops and equipment on hand, and like us, were ready to use nukes.

    One other point to add: It still took Kennedy weeks to show sufficient nerve over Berlin, even once the wall went up. Had he not finally dug in his heels, there very likely could have been a repeat of the 1948 blockade. Ulbricht especially was keen to pressure NATO into abandoning the city entirely, seeing the Wall as merely step 1 of reclaiming the entire city without stoking a war. Had Kennedy not stiffened up when he did, the crisis may well have deepened. That he did step up gave Khrushchev enough heartburn to rein Ulbricht in from even more activity.

    • #4
    • July 17, 2017 at 12:09 pm
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  5. Profile photo of skipsul Moderator
    skipsul Post author

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Clay had no credible plan to beat the Russians.

    It wasn’t about beating them, it was about stubbornly holding to the 4-Power Agreement by doing such things as having a few jeeps full of US soldiers driving back and forth between the sectors, putting a couple of US patrols into East Berlin, and demonstrating that we were not letting the Soviets unilaterally abrogate the treaty. Clay knew that if the Soviets fired that there would be a war, as did Khrushchev, and Khrushchev knew darn well that we had a lot more nukes and better delivery systems at that time, so a hot war would be suicidal for them. Clay was thus willing to dare the Soviets to either back up their threats or back down. Kennedy instead chose to back down.

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Unless the reader assumes that after a show of gutsy strength, the Russians would have folded like a house of cards. That’s not a bet I would have taken 16 years after WWII.

    It wasn’t about making them fold, it was about making them lose face on a risky gamble. Really, it took a tremendous amount of persuasion on the part of other US and European officials to convince Kennedy to do anything at all.

    • #5
    • July 17, 2017 at 12:16 pm
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  6. Profile photo of Gary McVey Member

    I’m no Kennedy worshipper–hell, I’m a Nixon man–but I still resist singling him out as if he were Neville Chamberlain. Eisenhower did not intervene in Hungary in 1956 even when Radio Liberty had encouraged the Hungarians to revolt, even as Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest. Ike was not in fact a coward. But he was no Wilsonian either. he recognized that, contrary to the JFK inaugural, for any nation there will in fact be prices we won’t pay.

    • #6
    • July 17, 2017 at 1:55 pm
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  7. Profile photo of skipsul Moderator
    skipsul Post author

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    I’m no Kennedy worshipper–hell, I’m a Nixon man–but I still resist singling him out as if he were Neville Chamberlain. Eisenhower did not intervene in Hungary in 1956 even when Radio Liberty had encouraged the Hungarians to revolt, even as Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest. Ike was not in fact a coward. But he was no Wilsonian either. he recognized that, contrary to the JFK inaugural, for any nation there will in fact be prices we won’t pay.

    Kennedy was no Chamberlain, it’s that he came into office with a really wrong-headed notion of the US/Soviet relationship. Like Obama later would repeat, he really thought that he could work with the Russians. He was horribly wrong on this and misjudged Khrushchev very badly. But… (unlike Obama) he learned from his early mistake over Berlin and did not let himself get taken in again over Cuba.

    Hungary, though, is not a fair comparison to Berlin. We had no troops there, we had tacitly allowed the Soviets to run it, and to save Hungary in 1956 would have required mobilization and a counter-invasion. It would have meant war. Berlin was different. We had already held onto it against the 1948/49 blockade, and moreover we were still there in 1961. It was also subject to the 4-Powers Agreement with a clear delineation of rights.

    • #7
    • July 17, 2017 at 2:05 pm
    • Like3 likes
  8. Profile photo of The Reticulator Member

    I’ve added it to my Kindle queue. Thanks!

    • #8
    • July 17, 2017 at 2:30 pm
    • Like1 like
  9. Profile photo of Chuck Enfield Thatcher

    I’m content to read Gary and Skip going back and forth. Who needs the book?

    • #9
    • July 17, 2017 at 2:39 pm
    • Like7 likes
  10. Profile photo of skipsul Moderator
    skipsul Post author

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I’ve added it to my Kindle queue. Thanks!

    I also highly recommend The Candy Bombers for a great look into the 1948 Blockade.

    https://www.amazon.com/Candy-Bombers-Untold-Airlift-Americas/dp/0425227715

    DeGaulle was right, God rescues the fools, the idiots, and the US.

    • #10
    • July 17, 2017 at 2:41 pm
    • Like3 likes
  11. Profile photo of I Walton Member

    Thanks. Really good. The Cuban Missile crisis comes out of Khrushchev accurately reading of Kennedy from this and other episodes. There was lots of collusion and fawning which Khrushchev used back when it was a life or death issue for us.

    • #11
    • July 18, 2017 at 6:58 am
    • Like1 like
  12. Profile photo of Pugshot Member

    Thanks for the thought-provoking review, @skipsul – the book is now in my Amazon cart.

    • #12
    • July 18, 2017 at 8:31 am
    • Like1 like
  13. Profile photo of Bob Thompson Member

    That ‘Berlin Crisis’ is what got me drafted and I was in for the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’, of course. Too young for Korea and too old for Viet Nam. I’m one of the fortunate ones.

    • #13
    • July 18, 2017 at 5:55 pm
    • Like2 likes