Berlin 1961

Kennedy, Khrushchev and the most dangerous place on Earth

The aftershocks of Kennedy’s bad year

Berlin and Havana
Mid-August, 1962

A year after President John F. Kennedy acquiesced to the communist construction of the Berlin Wall, two dramas occurring five thousand miles apart illustrated the high cost of one of the worst inaugural year performances of any modern president.

The first unfolded under the spotlight of a Berlin summer sun, when eighteen-year-old bricklayer Peter Fechter and a friend began their sprint to toward freedom across the so-called death strip, the no-man’s land that lay before the Wall. Two bullets pierced Fechter’s back and stomach as he watched his more agile friend leap to freedom over strands of barbed wire that adorned the barrier’s crown. Fechter collapsed backwards in a quivering heap at the base of the wall, where he bled through multiple wounds while U.S. soldiers watched helplessly, obeying orders not to assist any escapees until they had left East Berlin territory.

At about the same time and more than an ocean away, Soviet ships had begun landing secretly at eleven different Cuban ports with combat forces and the components for some twenty-four medium-range and sixteen longer-range launchers, each of which would be equipped with a nuclear warhead and two ballistic missiles. Once they were installed, the Soviet Union for the first time would have a reliable capability to hit New York and Washington, D.C. in a nuclear exchange.

On first reflection, there would seem to be little to connect the East German killing of a teenage bricklayer and the Soviet clandestine landing in Cuba. Yet, taken together, they dramatically symbolized the two most significant aftershocks of President Kennedy’s mishandling of the events surrounding Berlin in 1961:

Kennedy’s showdown at Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin

Friday, October 27, 1961

There had not been a more perilous moment in the Cold War.

Undaunted by the damp, dangerous night, Berliners gathered on the narrow side streets opening up onto Checkpoint Charlie. The next morning’s newspapers would estimate their numbers at about five hundred, a considerable crowd considering that they might have been witnesses to the first shots of a thermonuclear war.

After six days of escalating tensions, American and Soviet tanks were facing off just a stone’s throw from one another – ten on each side, with roughly two dozen more in nearby reserve.    Much has been written about the Cuban Missile Crisis that would come a year later, but the Berlin Crisis of 1961 was more decisive in shaping the Cold War – and was more perilous.

The Kennedy-Khrushchev nuclear poker

Palace of Congresses, Moscow

Tuesday, October 17, 1961

Nikita Khrushchev would celebrate his Berlin triumph at the 22nd Communist Party Congress in Moscow — and through it send the most powerful message imaginable that President John F. Kennedy had failed to create a more peaceful planet through his acquiescence to the construction of the Berlin Wall two months earlier.

Never had so many communist party leaders met in one place at the same time, nearly 5,000 in all from eighty communist and non-communist countries.  For Khrushchev, the capacity crowd was intentional. He had entitled each party organization to send additional delegates to create the right  theater for the message he wished to send.

The Berlin Wall’s first victim

Humboldt Harbor, East Berlin

Thursday, August 24, 1961

Günter Litfin, a twenty-four-year-old tailor whose boldest acts until that point had been performed with a needle and thread, summoned the courage to flee East Berlin eleven days after the communists had sealed the border.

Until August 13, Litfin had lived divided Berlin’s ideal life, taking maximum advantage of each side’s benefits as one of the city’s 50,000 Grenzgänger, or “border jumpers.” By day, he worked in West Berlin earning hard Westmark, which he exchanged on the black market at a five-to-one rate for East Germany money, or Ostmark.

West Berlin’s impertinent mayor

Oval Office, The White House

Wednesday Morning, August 16, 1961

President Kennedy was enraged.

He considered the letter from Mayor Willy Brandt that had landed on his desk that morning, three days after the Berlin border closure, to be insulting and impertinent. Even given the gravity of Berlin’s crisis, it overstepped the sort of language any city mayor should use with the American president. With each line that he read, Kennedy grew more certain that the letter’s primary purpose was to serve Brandt’s campaign against West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer for national elections a month later.

Worse yet, Brandt had revealed the contents of the ostensibly confidential letter that day to a rally outside his city hall with more than 250,000 West Berliners, who had grown as angry at the Americans about their role in condoning the border closing operation as they were with the East Germans and their Soviet minders for conducting it.  West Germany’s most-read newspaper, Bild-Zeitung, with its circulation of 3.7 million, had covered the entire top half of its front page with a headline that captured the public mood: THE EAST ACTS – AND THE WEST? THE WEST DOES NOTHING.

Kennedy writes the script, East Germany builds the Wall


August 13, 1961

Among those closest to him, President John F. Kennedy did not hide his relief after East German forces, with the approval of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, sealed the Berlin border in the early morning hours of August 13 in an operation of stunning speed and German efficiency.

After all, in many respects Kennedy had written the script for how Khrushchev had executed the operation – staying strictly within the bounds of what the U.S. President had made clear he would accept.  From the time of their meeting at the Vienna Summit two months earlier, Kennedy had been sending clear messages that he could live with a border closure in Berlin if the Soviet leader didn’t disrupt West Berlin access or freedom.

A Kennedy speech that was weaker than it sounded

The White House, Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, July 25, 1961


In the late afternoon, President Kennedy retreated to the Lincoln Bedroom to read through the latest draft of a speech he would deliver live at ten o’clock that evening to a national television audience. It was rare for any president to use the Oval Office for such a purpose, and workmen had been there all day, laying cables and wires.

Kennedy knew how high the stakes had become. At home, he had to reverse a growing impression of foreign policy weakness, which made him politically vulnerable. After mishandling Cuba and Vienna, he had to convince Khrushchev that he was willing to defend West Berlin even while he left the door open for negotiations.

The Kissinger – Kennedy connection

The White House, Washington, D.C.

Friday, July 7, 1961

Henry Kissinger spent only a day or two each week in Washington working as a White House consultant, commuting from his post at Harvard University, but that had proved sufficient to put him at the center of the struggle to shape Kennedy’s thinking on Berlin.

At age 39, the ambitious professor would happily have worked full-time for the president: that, however, had been blocked by his former dean and now D.C. boss, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. Though Kissinger had mastered the art of flattering his superiors, Bundy was more immune to it than most. Along with the president, Bundy regarded Kissinger as brilliant also tiresome. Bundy imitated Kissinger’s long, German-accented discourses and the rolling of the president’s eyes that accompanied them.

The East German refugee who became a beauty queen

Miami Beach, Florida

July 5, 1961

She was East German leader Walter Ulbricht’s ultimate humiliation in a year when a hemorrhage of refugees was threatening the existence of his Communist state.

As Ulbricht maneuvered behind the scenes to win Soviet approval to close his Berlin border, one of his refugees was strutting down the catwalk of a Miami Beach stage in her shimmering Miss Universe gown. Amid the flashing of camera bulbs, Ulbricht’s most intractable problem had assumed the unmistakable shape of former East German electrical engineer Marlene Schmidt, someone judges had declared “the world’s most beautiful woman.”

The worst day of JFK’s life

Vienna, Sunday, June 4, 1961

President John F. Kennedy was brutally honest about what would prove to be one of the worst performances of an American leader with his leading global counterpart of his time – his two-day summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

As he drove away from the Soviet embassy with Secretary of State Dean Rusk in his black limo, Kennedy banged the flat of his hand against the shelf beneath the rear window. Rusk had been shocked that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had used the word “war” during their acrimonious exchange about Berlin’s future, a term diplomats invariably replaced with any number of less alarming synonyms.