Berlin 1961 Kennedy, Khrushchev and the most dangerous place on Earth Mon, 20 Jun 2011 18:51:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The aftershocks of Kennedy’s bad year Mon, 20 Jun 2011 18:51:45 +0000 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:

  • The first would be longer-lasting: the freezing in place of the Cold War division of Europe for three more decades, with all of its human costs. The Wall’s construction not only stopped East Germany’s unraveling at a time when the country’s viability was in doubt; it also condemned another generation of tens of millions of East Europeans to authoritarian, Soviet-style rule with its limits on individual and national freedom.
  • The second aftershock would be more immediate: the Cuban Missile Crisis in late 1962 with its threat of nuclear war. Though history would celebrate Kennedy for his management of the Cuban crisis, Khrushchev would not have risked putting nuclear weapons in Cuba at all had he not concluded during the Berlin crisis in 1961 that Kennedy was weak and indecisive.

The world now knows what President Kennedy did not envision at the time: that the Berlin Wall would fall in November, 1989, that Germany and Berlin would be unified a year later in October 1990, and that the Soviet Union itself would collapse a year after that, at the end of 1991. Given the Cold War’s happy ending, it has been tempting for historians to give Kennedy more credit than he deserves for that outcome.  By avoiding undue risk to stop the Berlin Wall’s construction, their argument goes, Kennedy prevented war and set the stage for Germany’s eventual unification, for the liberation of the Soviet bloc’s captive nations, and for the enlargement of a free and democratic  Europe.

However, the record – informed by the new evidence in Berlin 1961 and a closer examination of existing accounts and documents – demands a less generous judgment. Perhaps the best judge of Kennedy’s poor showing in 1961 was the president himself. When, on September 22 – more than a month after the border closure – Detroit News journalist Elie Abel sought Kennedy’s cooperation for a book he wished to write on his first year in office, the president responded, “Why would anyone want to write about an administration that has nothing to show for itself but a string of disasters?”  He anticipated that Khrushchev would test him further following his performance at the Bay of Pigs in April, the Vienna Summit in June and during the construction of the Berlin Wall in August.

Kennedy ultimately changed history’s narrative through his response to the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, more than a year after the Berlin border closure. Then on the first and last trip of his presidency to Berlin on June 27, 1963, he delivered one of the most memorable speeches of his presidency – man lines added to the draft as he experienced the delirious crowd during his drive through the western part of the divided city.

Kennedy spoke for the first time during his presidency of the right to reunification that Germans had earned through their eighteen years of good behavior after World War II. He spoke of his faith that Berlin, the German nation and the European continent would someday be unified.  In one of the most powerful speeches of his presidency, Kennedy expressed all the outrage he had not shown during the border closure a little less than two years earlier:

“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 we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin…”

At that point, Kennedy threw in a German line that had not appeared in his original text, but one that he had practiced before the event with Robert Lochner, the head of Radio in the American Sector of Berlin, or RIAS, and Chancellor Conrad Adenauer’s interpreter Heinz Weber. “All free men, wherever they may live,” he said, “are citizens of Berlin and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Or as Kennedy had written phonetically on an index card, “Ish bin ine Bear-LEAN-er.”

Years later, amateur linguists would argue that Kennedy had misspoken and by using the article ein in front of Berliner, which was the name of a German pastry, had actually told the crowd, “I am a jelly doughnut.” Yet the president had discussed just that point with his two tutors, who had rightly concluded that by leaving out the article he would be suggesting he was born in Berlin and perhaps confuse the crowd, and thus lose the emphasis of his symbolic point. In any case, no one among the delirious Berliners had any doubt about Kennedy’s meaning.

Less than five months later, on November 22, 1963, an assassin’s shot would kill President Kennedy. Less than a year after that, on October 14, 1964, fellow communists would oust Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.  But during the Berlin crisis of 1961, their fates were cast in a city whose name would come to embody the central ideological and geopolitical struggle of the twentieth century’s second half. Ultimately, the story would end well, but only because in Cuba Kennedy would reverse the perilous course he had set the previous year in Berlin.

This is the final installment in a series of excerpts from Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth. Read all the excerpts here. For more about the book, go to

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Kennedy’s showdown at Checkpoint Charlie Tue, 14 Jun 2011 20:37:02 +0000 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.

Reporting from the scene, CBS News reporter Daniel Schorr, with all the drama of his authoritative baritone, declared to his radio listeners, “The Cold War took on a new dimension tonight when American and Russian fighting men stood arrayed against each other for the first time in history. Until now, the East-West conflict had been waged through proxies – German and other. But tonight, the superpowers confronted each other in the form of ten low-slung Russian tanks facing American Patton tanks less than a hundred yards apart…”

General Lucius Clay, President Kennedy’s new special representative in Berlin, had set the confrontation in motion a week earlier over an issue most of his superiors in Washington did not consider a war-fighting matter. Breaking with established four-power procedures, East German border police had begun to demand that Allied civilians present their identity cards before driving into the Soviet zone of Berlin.

It was an arcane issue, but General Clay saw it as one of several he was ready to defend to win back some America’s eroded position in the divided city following President John F. Kennedy’s acquiescence to the construction of the Berlin Wall two-and-a-half months earlier.  From his own experience in leading the legendary Berlin airlift in 1948, which had broken a Soviet blockade of West Berlin, Clay was convinced that the Soviets would back down once they were convinced of U.S. resolve.

So Clay, to re-enforce the rights he felt the Kennedy administration had been ceding, ordered armed escorts to muscle civilian vehicles through. Soldiers carrying bayoneted rifles and backed by American tanks had flanked the vehicles as they wound their way through the checkpoint’s low, zigzag, red-and-white striped concrete barriers. At first, Clay’s approach was vindicated: the East German border guards had backed down each time Clay ran one of his convoys through the checkpoint.

After several days, however, Khrushchev ordered his troops to match U.S. firepower tank for tank and to be prepared to escalate further if necessary to stop the U.S. procedure.  In a curious if ultimately unsuccessful effort to preserve deniability, Khrushchev ordered that the Soviet tanks’ national markings be obscured and that their drivers wear unmarked black uniforms.

However, when the Soviet tanks rolled up to Checkpoint Charlie, they transformed a low-level border conflict with the East Germans into a war or nerves between the world’s two most powerful countries. U.S. and Soviet Commanders operating out of emergency operation centers on opposite sides of Berlin weighed their next moves as they anxiously awaited orders from President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

At about midnight in Berlin, or 6:00 p.m. in Washington, Kennedy reached Clay on a secure line in his map room in West Berlin.

“Hello, Mr. President,” Clay said loudly, abruptly ending the buzz behind him in the command center.

“How are things up there?” Kennedy asked in a voice designed to be cool and relaxed.

Everything was under control, Clay told him. “We have ten tanks at Checkpoint Charlie,” he said. “The Russians have ten tanks there, too, so now we’re equal.”

An aide then handed General Clay a note.

“Mr. President, I’ve got to change my figures. I’ve just been told that the Russians have twenty more tanks coming up, which would give them exactly the total number of tanks that we have in Berlin. So we’ll bring up our remaining twenty. Don’t worry about it, Mr. President. They’ve matched us tank for tank. This is further evidence to me that they don’t intended to do anything,” Clay said.

Kennedy could do his own math. Should the Soviets escalate their numbers further, Clay lacked the conventional capability to respond. Kennedy scanned the anxious faces of his advisers in the room. He propped up his feet up on the table, attempting to send a message of composure to men who feared matters were spinning out of control.

“Well that’s all right,” said the president to Clay, “Don’t lose your nerve.

“Mr. President,” responded Clay with characteristic candor, “we’re not worried about our nerves. We’re worrying about those of you people in Washington.”

Clay’s instincts proved correct. Even as the Soviets were escalating their tank presence, Clay received new instructions from Washington to retreat.  “In the nature of things,” Rusk wrote, “we had long since decided that entry into Berlin is not a vital interest which would warrant determined recourse to force to protect and sustain. Having for this reason acquiesced in the building of the wall we must recognize frankly among ourselves that we thus went a long way in accepting the fact that the Soviets could, in the case of East Berlin, as they have done previously in other areas under their effective physical control, isolate their unwilling subjects.”

For General Clay, it was the most revealing message he had received revealing President Kennedy’s thinking in accepting the Berlin Wall.

What Clay would never know was that Kennedy was so unnerved by the Checkpoint Charlie showdown that he had dispatched his brother Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, to solve the crisis with his regular interlocutor of the past six months, the Soviet spy Georgi Bolshakov. At the same time, he was working a second, more traditional channel through his ambassador in Moscow.

On the morning after the Bolshakov meeting, the Soviets began to withdraw their tanks. Robert Kennedy would later say that his exchange with Bolshakov demonstrated that the Soviet spy “delivered effectively when it was a matter of importance.”

Though he didn’t record the details of their talks, from that point forwarded, the U.S. stopped its military escorts of civilians, and Clay no longer challenged East German authority at the border points.  Though it had been the U.S. side that had retreated on the principle, it would be Soviet tanks who would withdraw first at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, October 28. Some of them were covered by flowers, garlands put on them that morning by members of the Freie Deutsche Jugend, the party’s youth organization.

After a half hour’s wait, the U.S. tanks pulled back as well.

With that, the Cold War’s most dangerous moment ended with a whimper. However, the aftershocks of Berlin would be dramatic and long lasting. They would shake the world a year later when the Soviets would try to install nuclear missiles in Cuba  — and they would shape the world for another three decades, until the Berlin Wall finally collapsed of its own weight in 1989.

For more on the book, go to

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The Kennedy-Khrushchev nuclear poker Mon, 13 Jun 2011 17:19:06 +0000 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.

Khrushchev had regained a greater hold on power during 1961 through favors, factional purges, and visits throughout the country with local party leaders. He had been able to neutralize would-be opponents as well by putting the first man in space while outmaneuvering Kennedy at their Vienna Summit and during the Berlin border closure. Time magazine wasn’t far off when it said, “In 44 years and 15 Party Congresses since the October 1917 Revolution, Communism’s inner hierarchy has never seemed more stable or more successful.”

In jocular and self-satisfied mood, Khrushchev jolted his listeners with a revelation that he would conclude successful nuclear weapons tests by detonating a hydrogen bomb by October’s end with a yield of fifty million tons of TNT.  Encouraged by the cheering crowd, Khrushchev confirmed that he also had developed a hundred megaton bomb, but would not explode it “because even if we did so at the most remote site, we might knock out all of the windows.”

It was classic Khrushchev. On the final day of the Congress, the Soviet Union would detonate the most powerful nuclear weapon every to be constructed. The “Tsar Bomba,” as it would later be nicknamed in the West, had the equivalent of ten times the explosives used in the World War II bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Again caught flat-footed, Kennedy knew that he had to respond.

Kennedy was accelerating work to finalize his own nuclear war contingency plans for Berlin, fearful that the border closure was not Moscow’s last word. Senior Pentagon official Paul Nitze had produced a document that laid out four detailed scenarios that would gradually escalate from small-scale conventional action to nuclear war.

In drafting it, Nitze had seen “permutations expanded like possible successive moves in a game of chess,” until someone suggested it would take a piece of paper the size of a horse blanket to write them all down. It was then that the group came up with an abbreviated military response plan for Berlin that they called the “Pony Blanket.”

Kennedy approved all the recommendations, to be forwarded to his NATO commander, as well as a significant, new military buildup in Europe.  However, worried that Khrushchev might take military action before these new conventional forces could be in place, Kennedy opted to launch a preemptive nuclear public relations strike that would reach Khrushchev at his party congress.

Kennedy approved that a speech be given by the Defense Department’s number two official, Roswell Gilpatrick, at which he would make public previously secret details about the size, power and superiority of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Kennedy’s intelligence was making increasingly clear the extent of American nuclear dominance, but he reckoned Khrushchev lacked similar insight into U.S. capabilities.

Gilpatrick would tell a business audience in Hot Springs, Virginia, that “our real strength in Berlin” was “a nuclear retaliatory force of such lethal power that any enemy move which brought it into play would be an act of self-destruction on his part.”  The details he provided stunned his local audience and also the most important target, Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow.

Kennedy could not undo the Berlin border closure, but he was calling Khrushchev’s bluff in the  highest stakes game of nuclear power imaginable.

For more on the book, go to

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The Berlin Wall’s first victim Thu, 09 Jun 2011 22:24:32 +0000 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.

He worked out of an atelier near West Berlin’s Zoo Station, where he had already become a tailor to the city’s show-business greats: Heinz Rühmann, Ilse Werner, and Grete Weiser. Actresses in particular were drawn to his boyish manner, dark eyes and curly black hair. At night, he retreated to a comfortable East Berlin apartment in the Weissensee district, which he rented cheaply for those plentiful Ostmark.

The border closure overnight dramatically altered tens of thousands of lives in the city of 3.2 million. Sons and daughters were separated from parents, lovers were separated from lovers, and people like Günter Litfin were separated from their livelihoods and their dreams.  Some would quietly accept the new world, but a few like Litfin thought it was worth risking flight as they saw the East German regime gradually closing all escape hatches.

With each successive day, Litfin had grown more convinced that the Americans would not rescue East Berliners. And the communists had begun replacing the temporary barriers of sawhorses and barbed wire with a ten-foot high wall built of prefabricated concrete sections and connecting mortar. So Litfin decided it was time to get out himself before it was too late.

He had closely followed the reports on Western radio about the many escapes that had succeeded after August 13. Since then, some 150 East Germans had swum to their liberty across the Teltow Canal, many towing children. In a single action, a dozen teenagers had made it across the waterway in a group sprint. One daring young man had driven his Volkswagen right through one border section’s barbed wire safely into the French sector.

Encouraged by these success stories and despite a heart condition, Litfin decided to act. At just after four in the afternoon on Thursday August 24, wearing a light brown jacket and black pants, he jumped into the warm waters of the Spree Canal at the Humboldt Harbor. He wasn’t a particularly good swimmer, but he reckoned that he was strong enough to make it across the thirty meters or so of water to freedom.

Standing above him on a nearby bridge, a transit policeman, or Trapo, shouted five times at Litfin to stop. But the tailor only swam with more determination. The officer fired two warning shots that struck the water just beyond Litfin’s head. When he continued to swim, the Trapo sprayed machine gun fire all around him. The first bullets struck the tailor when he was still ten meters short of the shore.

Günter Litfin would be the first person shot dead while trying to escape East Berlin, a victim above all of bad timing. What he couldn’t have known was that police that morning had received their first shoot-to-kill orders to stop all those attempt to flee.  Had Litfin fled a day earlier, he likely would have succeeded.

For more on the book, go to

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West Berlin’s impertinent mayor Tue, 07 Jun 2011 15:46:34 +0000 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.

In the letter, Brandt called the Communist encroachment “the most serious in the postwar history of this city since the (1948) blockade.”  In a surprisingly direct rebuke of Kennedy’s acquiescence, he wrote, “While in the past Allied Commandants have even protested against parades by the so-called National People’s Army in East Berlin, this time, after military occupation of the East Sector by the People’s Army, they have limited themselves to delayed and not very vigorous steps.”

He charged that the Allies, and thus Kennedy, had thus endorsed the “illegal sovereignty of the East Berlin government.” Brandt protested, “We now have a state of accomplished extortion.”

Brandt warned Kennedy that West Berlin could become “like a ghetto” and that, instead of suffering a flood of East German refugees westward, the city might soon experience the beginning of the flight from West Berlin of citizens who were losing confidence in the city’s future.

Brandt’s letter then set out a series of proposals, writing more in the voice of a national leader than a city mayor. He called upon Kennedy to introduce a new, three-power status for West Berlin that would exclude the Soviets but include the French and British. He wanted Kennedy to bring the Berlin question before the United Nations, as the Soviet Union “has violated the Declaration of Human Rights in most flagrant manner.” Finally, he said, “It would be welcomed if the American garrison were to be demonstratively strengthened.”

Brandt closed with the line, “I consider the situation serious enough, Mr. President, to write to you in all frankness as is possible only between friends who trust each other completely.” Then he signed it, “Your Willy Brandt.”

Kennedy fumed. The letter was political dynamite.  “Trust?”  Kennedy spat as he angrily waved the letter at his press secretary, Pierre Salinger. “I don’t trust this man at all. He’s in the middle of a campaign against old Adenauer and wants to drag me in. Where does he get off calling me a friend!”

For all his outrage, however, Kennedy wrote back Brandt two days later that he planned to dispatch to Berlin both Vice President Lyndon Johnson and General Lucius Clay, the hero of the Berlin Airlift of 1948, to buck up Berliner spirits. He would also take Brandt’s advice that he send troop reinforcements to Berlin, though his letter would make clear this was his own decision after “careful consideration” and not a result of Brandt’s letter.

However, he rejected Brandt’s other suggestions. His logic was that the Soviet action was too serious for an inadequate response, and thus any action short of war fell short, and he wouldn’t go to war. Thus, he told Brandt, he had objected to all the remedies he had heard thus far, including “most of the suggestions in your own letter.”

Though Brandt would later take credit for Kennedy shifting to a more active defense of Berlin, perhaps more decisive were the words of his friend Marguerite Higgins, a well-known U.S. war reporter, when he showed her the Brandt letter in disgust. “Mr. President, I must tell you quite openly,” she said, “that in Berlin the suspicion is growing that you want to sell out the West Berliners.”

For more on the book, go to

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Kennedy writes the script, East Germany builds the Wall Mon, 06 Jun 2011 15:08:54 +0000 Washington

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.

And during the August 13 border closure and the hours that followed, the East Germans had been careful to erect their barbed wire barriers entirely within East Berlin territory – leaving checkpoints through which allied personnel were allowed to pass. For both Kennedy and Khrushchev, the flood of refugees out of East Germany, which the border closure was designed to stop, was more of a political inconvenience than a point of difference.

For Kennedy, the refugees – leaving by July at a rate often of more than 2,000 a day, reaching a total of 2.8 million since 1945 — were so destabilizing the fragile status quo of a divided Europe that they stood on the way of potential negotiations with the Soviets on a nuclear test ban and other matters Kennedy considered of greater importance than East Berliners’ freedom, which he felt he couldn’t defend anyway. For Khrushchev, addressing the refugee threat was existential: to the viability of East Germany, to Communist ideology, and to his own hold on the power.

In the week before the August 13 border closure, Kennedy had said to Walt Rostow, a White House economic adviser, “Khrushchev is losing East Germany. He cannot let that happen. If East Germany goes, so will Poland and all of Eastern Europe. He will have to do something to stop the flow of refugees. Perhaps a wall. And we won’t be able to prevent it.”

Kennedy would later say of Khrushchev to his friend and aide Kenny O’Donnell, “This is his way out of his predicament. It’s not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”

However, if Kennedy thought he was reducing tensions with the Soviets by acquiescing to the Wall, he instead achieved the opposite.

Khrushchev congratulated himself on having outmaneuvered the U.S, the British and the French without military conflict, political backlash, or even the most modest of economic sanctions. His son Sergei saw him initially sigh with relief and then grow more delighted over time as he reflected upon his achievement.

Encouraged by Kennedy’s inaction, Khrushchev pushed his advantage. The Soviet leader reinforced East German troop positions and, on August 16, launched Soviet military maneuvers that simulated war over Berlin, which for the first time included nuclear-tipped battlefield missiles. More dramatic yet, Khrushchev announced he would break his three-year self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing and then launched atmospheric blasts that were heard around the world from Semipalatinsk in Central Asia.

When he received the news after an afternoon nap, Kennedy groaned, “Fucked again.”

Some 14 months later, Kennedy would face the nuclear showdown over the Cuban Missile Crisis he had hoped his acquiescence in Berlin would help him avoid. Instead, it had encouraged Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that he could move nuclear weapons within close reach of Washington and New York with impunity.

For more about the book, go to

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A Kennedy speech that was weaker than it sounded Fri, 03 Jun 2011 20:15:32 +0000 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 result was a speech whose rhetoric was far stronger than its underlying message.  If Khrushchev were looking for it, this was a timely signal to him that if he didn’t touch the access or freedom of West Berlin, he could do virtually anything he wanted on his own side of the Berlin border.  Coming less than three weeks before the historic Berlin border closure, that message may have been decisive.

“The immediate threat to free men is in West Berlin,” Kennedy said, using visual teaching aid of a map for the American people to show West Berlin an area of white floating 110 miles inside the black of Communist East Germany. He said West Berlin was “more than a showcase of liberty, a symbol, an island of freedom in a communist sea. It is even more than a link with the Free World, a beacon of hope behind the Iron Curtain, an escape hatch for refugees.”

Perspiring under the heat of the camera lights, the air conditioning having been shut off to avoid undue noise, Kennedy said, “West Berlin is all of that. But above all it has now become – as never before – the great testing place of Western courage and will, a focal point where our solemn commitments stretching back over the years since 1945, and Soviet ambitions now meet in basic confrontation.”

More striking, but entirely unnoticed by the media, was the  speech’s mention seventeen times of the qualifier “West” in front of Berlin when speaking of U.S. commitments, a departure from U.S. presidents’ ritual commitment to the freedom of the city as a whole.  Another paragraph recognized “the Soviet Union’s historical concerns about their security in Central and Eastern Europe, after a series of ravaging invasions, and we believe arrangements can be worked out which will help to meet those concerns …”

Just the previous day at lunch, James O’Donnell, a top official of the U.S. Information Agency and a Kennedy family friend, had complained to speechwriter Ted Sorensen at lunch about the emphasis on “West” Berlin in a final draft of the speech. He feared the Soviets would see the omission as a message that they now had a free hand in East Berlin, though the city technically still remained under four power rule. He also worried Kennedy’s language on eastern Europe would be interpreted as ceding forever to the Soviets the captive countries of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

Sorenson argued to O’Donnell that the speech was merely recognizing reality.  Americans would be reluctant enough to accept a military buildup to safeguard two million West Berliners, which Kennedy would announce in the speech, but it would expect too much of Americans to risk their lives for the lot of a million East Berliners caught on the wrong side of history.

Sorenson protested When O’Donnell suggested an easy fix, simply omitting the word “West” in most of the places where it appeared before “Berlin.”

“This is the final version,” Sorenson said. “This is the policy line. This is it.”

For more on the book, go to

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The Kissinger – Kennedy connection Thu, 02 Jun 2011 17:27:46 +0000 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.

For his part, Kissinger would complain that Bundy had put his considerable intellectual talents to “the service of ideas that were more fashionable than substantial.” Kissinger biographer Walter Isaacson concluded that their differences were a matter of class and style: the tactful, upper-class Bostonian condescending to the brash German Jew.

Still, being so near the center of American power was a heady experience for Kissinger, and an early introduction to the White House infighting that would become such a part of his extraordinary life. Kissinger worried that Kennedy’s aides, and perhaps the president himself, might be naïve enough to be tempted by Khrushchev’s “free city” idea, under which West Germany would fall under United Nations control. Kissinger was also concerned about Kennedy’s distaste for the great West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. He believed the traditional U.S. commitment to eventual German unification through free elections was fanciful, and should be negotiable.

Kennedy, Kissinger feared, didn’t sufficiently realize that inattention to Berlin could breed a crisis for the Atlantic Alliance that would hurt U.S. security interests far more than any deal with Moscow could justify. So he put his warning to Kennedy in unmistakable language:

The first task is to clarify what is at stake. The fate of Berlin is the touchstone for the future of the North Atlantic Community. A defeat over Berlin, that is a deterioration of Berlin’s possibility to live in freedom, would inevitably demoralize the Federal Republic. Its scrupulously followed Western-oriented policy would be seen as a fiasco. All other NATO nations would be found to draw the indicated conclusions from such a demonstration of the West’s impotence.

As would become his hallmark, Kissinger put Berlin in its global context at a time when he believed the Soviets had built up a dangerous momentum:

For other parts of the world, the irresistible nature of the Communist movement would be underlined. Coming on top of the Communist gains of the past five years, it would teach a clear lesson even to neutralists. Western guarantees, already degraded in significance, would mean little in the future. The realization of the Communist proposal that Berlin become a “free city” could well be the decisive turn in the struggle of freedom against tyranny. Any consideration of policy must start from the premise that the West simply cannot afford a defeat in Berlin.

What Kissinger and Kennedy did not know at that time was the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev already was moving forward with his own decisive policy to close the Berlin border. Even as different factions in the Kennedy administration were dithering over how to respond to Khrushchev threats at the Vienna Summit, the Soviet was providing his green light for the Berlin Wall.

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The East German refugee who became a beauty queen Wed, 01 Jun 2011 14:13:24 +0000 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.”

There are so often moments in the rush of history that one freeze frame speaks volumes.  And during 1961, there were plenty of such images:  Kennedy in top hat during his inauguration, Kennedy and Khrushchev facing off in Vienna, and the iconic image of an East German border guard leaping over the barbed wire with arms outstretched like wings.

Yet for every little girl in every Communist country, the pictures relayed around the world of the new Miss Universe spoke of a world of unimaginable glamour and opportunity. For their Communist masters, however, the crowning of Marlene Schmidt would play into their propaganda about the superficiality of a commercial society.  What no one had in doubt was that the judges had intended just the ideological message that her crowning symbolized.

At age twenty-four, Marlene Schmidt was intelligent, radiant, blonde, a little shy, and a lot statuesque. West Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine described her as someone with an engineer’s brain atop a Botticelli figure. But her real draw – the one that was getting her headlines around the world – was the story of her fairy tale flight to freedom.

Marlene’s triumph was projected to the world in Technicolor from a pageant organized and produced by Paramount Pictures, with then game-show host Johnny Carson acting as master of ceremonies and actress Jayne Meadows as color commentator. Tens of thousands of East Germans watched as well, helped by thousands of jerry-rigged antennae on rooftops that allowed many to pull down the West German television signals.

The Communist youth paper Junge Welt called Marlene Schmidt’s Miami triumph one of those short-lived pleasures of capitalism that would quickly fade away, to be followed by a hard life in an unfriendly land. “You will only reign one year, after which the world will forgot you,” it said.

In this case, East German propaganda proved partially right. In 1962, she would become the third among the eight wives of Hollywood actor Ty Hardin, star of the Western television series Bronco. She divorced him four years later, and only after that ran up eleven movie credits as an actor, writer and producer, but they included little of note aside from female nudity

“I learned that life in Hollywood wasn’t for me,” she said, reflecting on her choice to move back home and work on electrical engines in Saarbrucken.

Still, when she left East Germany, her choice had been between freedom and prison, as she was being investigated on suspicion that she had helped her mother and sister escape. Hollywood had its disappointments, but the flight to the West had been her salvation.

Marlene Schmidt had only been wearing her Miss Universe crown for less than a month when the Communists moved to close the escape hatch through which she and hundreds of thousands of others had passed since World War II.

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The worst day of JFK’s life Fri, 27 May 2011 19:58:02 +0000 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.

Despite all the president’s pre-summit briefings, Rusk felt Kennedy had been unprepared for Khrushchev’s brutality. The extent of Vienna Summit’s failure would not be as easy to measure as the Bay of Pigs fiasco six weeks earlier. There would be no dead, CIA-supported exile combatants in a misbegotten landing area, who had risked their lives on the expectation that Kennedy and the United States would not abandon them.

However, the consequences could have be even bloodier. A little more than two months after Vienna, the Soviet would oversee the construction of the Berlin Wall. That, in turn, would be followed in October 1962 by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Already in Vienna Kennedy was distraught that Khrushchev, assuming that he was weak and indecisive, might engage in the sort of “miscalculation” that could lead to the threat of nuclear war.  He didn’t know then that his prediction would become prophesy.

Kennedy carried with him from Vienna to London, for his follow-up meeting with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, the Khrushchev aide-memoire delivered in Vienna that detailed the Soviet demands for a German settlement within six months, “or else.” If the Soviets made it public, as Kennedy had to assume they would, his critics would accuse him of having walked into a Berlin trap in Vienna that he should have seen coming.

Before leaving Vienna himself, Kennedy met in a private room, behind closed blinds, at the U.S. ambassador’s residence with New York Times columnist James “Scotty” Reston.  He wanted to get across to Reston the seriousness of the situation, and then use him as a conduit to paint a grim picture for the American people.  He spoke to Reston in the tone of the confessional.

Kennedy wore a hat pulled low on his forehead as he sunk into the sofa. It would be one of the most candid sessions ever between a reporter and a commander-in-chief.

“How was it?” asked Reston.

“Worst thing in my life,” said Kennedy. “He savaged me.”

Reston jotted in his notebook: “Not the usual bullshit. There is a look a man has when he has to tell the truth.”

“I’ve got two problems,” Kennedy told Reston.  “First, to figure out why he did it, and in such a hostile way. And second, to figure out what we can do about it.”

Because of the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy said, Khrushchev “thought that anyone who was so young and inexperienced as to get into that mess could be taken. And anyone who got into it and didn’t see it through had no guts. So he just beat the hell out of me…I’ve got a real problem.”

Reston rightly concluded in his New York Times report, which carefully protected his source, that Kennedy “was astonished by the rigidity and the toughness of the Soviet leader.” He said Kennedy “definitely got the impression that the German question was going to be a very near thing.”

Even Kennedy, however, underestimated just how quickly Khrushchev would act.

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