Berlin 1961

The aftershocks of Kennedy’s bad year

June 20, 2011

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.

Kennedy’s showdown at Checkpoint Charlie

June 14, 2011

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.

The Kennedy-Khrushchev nuclear poker

June 13, 2011

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.

The Berlin Wall’s first victim

June 9, 2011

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.

West Berlin’s impertinent mayor

June 7, 2011

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.

Kennedy writes the script, East Germany builds the Wall

June 6, 2011


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.

A Kennedy speech that was weaker than it sounded

June 3, 2011

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.

The Kissinger – Kennedy connection

June 2, 2011

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.

The East German refugee who became a beauty queen

June 1, 2011

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.

The worst day of JFK’s life

May 27, 2011

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.