Building Berlin’s Wall helped avoid a nuclear confrontation

November 7, 2014

West Berliners walk in front of the Berlin wall at the Allied checkpoint Charlie in Berlin

Twenty-five years ago Sunday, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev refused to use force when thousands of people from East and West converged to pull down the Berlin Wall. He taught us all a great lesson: No wall can hold back democracy. Since then, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin has taught another lesson: If a country’s people don’t want democracy enough, no Berlin Wall is needed to keep it out.

The Russian public strongly supports Putin’s argument that the West is to blame for the current hostility between Moscow and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He has undermined the rule of law in Russia, attacked the country’s free press, annexed Crimea and destabilized eastern Ukraine while insisting that NATO’s unwelcome expansion forced his confrontational policies.

Never mind that the Cold War’s ideological divide is long gone. Putin may be resolute on the West’s animosity toward Russia, but the ill will he talks about is largely imaginary — or even hypocritical. It reflects a hurt pride that the Soviet Union lost the Cold War rather than any real danger to his rule.

K-JFK (2)

“Russia strived to engage in dialogue with our colleagues in the West,” Putin complained in his March 17 Crimea annexation speech, “… and for our relations to be equal, open and fair. But… they have lied to us many times, making decisions behind our backs.”

This is far from the situation that Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev faced in 1961, when he built the Berlin Wall at the height of the Cold War. Then, the Soviet leader faced off against a genuinely hostile West.

Khrushchev, my great-grandfather, had seriously hoped that the Soviet Union could build more positive relations with the United States and Western Europe. He was not deterred even when relations were poisoned after Moscow shot down a U-2 spy plane over Soviet territory, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower lied about the affair. Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy, Eisenhower’s successor, still held a summit in Vienna to bridge the nations’ differences.

My great-grandfather sought to protect the Soviet Union from the serious military threat he believed Washington posed. At home I was told (unofficially) that Khrushchev was afraid the German region closest to the Soviet border might gain access to nuclear weapons. So he pushed for a peace treaty signed by the four powers that had occupied Berlin since the war — France, Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union — to give the city international legitimacy.

Handout image shows former U.S. President Kennedy meeting with former Soviet leader Khrushchev at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna

Washington could not accept his plan, however, fearing that if Berlin became a free demilitarized zone, the Soviets might later swallow it whole. Therefore, building a wall seemed a lesser risk to both sides — even if Kennedy was “officially” against it.

Yet Khrushchev was in fact reluctant to divide Berlin. He saw it as a defensive act — not as a show of force. He feared it would destroy his goal of ultimately improving relations with Western Europe – that instead of averting nuclear war, Kennedy might respond with a confrontation that could lead to it.

In addition, as a leader of world communism, Khrushchev had to support his East German counterpart, Walter Ulbricht, in his effort to save face. East Germany had already lost 4 million people who had fled to the West. Hundreds more were leaving Soviet Berlin every day.

Though improving relations with the capitalist West was Khrushchev’s aspiration, defense of international communism turned out to be his primary foreign-policy goal.

A general view shows the Berlin wall at the Potsdamer Platz square in Berlin

Years later, Gorbachev told me he learned a great deal from Khrushchev’s contradictions – since he was both a reformer and an enforcer. What he learned helped Gorbachev avoid taking harsh countermeasures as the Berlin Wall fell. He considered my great-grandfather a role model because he had pressed for reform. But Gorbachev also said he’d learned a vital lesson from Khrushchev’s harsh actions in Berlin — Moscow couldn’t maintain the Soviet empire at the barrel of a gun.

Just as Ulbricht had pushed Khrushchev for military support him, Gorbachev explained to me, Nicolai Ceausecu, Romania’s hardline communist leader, had asked Moscow to send tanks into Berlin to preserve the wall in 1989. “But,” Gorbachev recalled, “I already promised George [H.W. Bush] that the Kremlin wouldn’t intervene.”

Soon after Gorbachev assumed power in 1985, with the Cold War still raging, he spoke with Time magazine about the possibilities of creating alliances even in difficult times. “There was the Caribbean crisis [Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962], yet in 1963 we saw the partial test-ban treaty. Even though that was again a time of crisis, the two sides and their leaders [Kennedy and Khrushchev] had enough wisdom and the boldness to take some very important decisions.”


Today, Putin’s “important decisions” are a complete contradiction to the efforts of his predecessors. On Nov. 4, Russia announced it would boycott the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, citing the “changed political atmosphere.” Never mind that this petty move to punish the West for imposing sanctions on Russia endangers the world.

For trying to fit into a civilized world order, Gorbachev is now branded an American spy by many in Russia. Khrushchev fares even worse — Putin now charges that the former Soviet premier “robbed” Russia by handing Crimea over to Ukraine in 1954. (At the time, this was an administrative move that had little ideological significance because both were republics in the Soviet Union.)

Putin’s Russia looks like the definition of a historical paradox: Though the physical Berlin Wall was torn down 25 years ago, the psychological wall remains intact. Stronger than ever.


PHOTO (TOP): West Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie in 1963.  REUTERS/Norbert Bensch

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Nikita Khrushchev, John F. Kennedy.  REUTERS/Files

PHOTO (INSERT 2 ): President John F. Kennedy (R) meets with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the U.S. Embassy residence in Vienna, Austria, in this June 1961 handout image. REUTERS/Evelyn Lincoln/The White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

PHOTO (INSERT 3): West Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie in 1963.  REUTERS/Norbert Bensch

PHOTO (INSERT 4): Mikhail Gorbachev, October 19, 1999. REUTERS/Archive


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I did submit a comment for Ms Kruscheva

Posted by pravbank | Report as abusive

what is called democracy in the west today, is nothing more than fascist crony capitalism…. if Putin wants to keep that out of Russia, for all his other faults, he is most certainly correct in that regard.

Posted by raywolfson | Report as abusive

Putin is just this century’s Hitler. His tools are the ignorant Russian people who are isolated away from the truth by basically a new totalitarian dictator.

Posted by norcalguy101 | Report as abusive

aren’t these just power struggles where both sides are hypocrites?
Putin wouldn’t have gathered so much momentum if the West really ‘did nothing’, Russians are smart people.
but no matter, it’s only relevant which side eventually comes up on top for better or worse.

Posted by lancew | Report as abusive

So, the west continues the cold war by trying to annex one of Russia’s neighbors — and assume that that is OK because the west is ‘the good guy’. And, now we criticize Russia for objecting?

Posted by GeorgeBMac | Report as abusive

Summary of article: Putin is bad; no oligarchy in US, only pure democracy; Putin made Russia worse, it was better in the 90s when people were lining up for toilet paper.

Posted by Navalny | Report as abusive

In this artcle, 2nd paragraph, NATO that A stands for Atlantic not American.

Posted by Reader89109 | Report as abusive

Right from the start: Is John McCain Putin? Do they have the same resentment? The same inner and outer poison?

Posted by SixthRomeo | Report as abusive

It is the Hawks in Congress that want to resurrect the Cold War. America’s fear of Communism – the “Reds under the bed” syndrome – is daily stimulated by the Republican Party right wing in order to condition the American people to support these views.

America acts like one of HG Wells alien spacecraft towards planet Earth, but unlike the novel, America will not change her foreign policy toward Russia and for that matter China. The buildup of the American Navy in the Pacific clearly underlines this intention.

Posted by expat75 | Report as abusive

First of all, for the journalist Nina Khrushchevna it is not NATO for North AMERICAN Treaty organisation but ATLANTIC (although there is no difference). Secondly one must be realistic and stated that WE are so got used to American bombing other countries, destroying their economies and annexing their treasures like Iraq’s oil, that it seams so normal when the US and its allies – read slaves – decide to impose their will on other nations. Now, facing great power China, the US fleet is there to “dictate” which island belong to Japan and not China. Taiwan, all inhabited by Chinese, is dictated by the US against main land China. There is no Putin who is now popular amongst ALL FREEDOM LOVING PEOPLE around the world – not only “isolated” Russians, that attack anything or anyone but just stood firmly in defending what it is his and his people’s – including parts of so called Ukraine territory – which in fact is an artificial – Russian made state. (No Ukrainians would be capable historically to gain such a large territory if it were not Stalin – annexed half Poland, parts of Slovakia, Hungary and Romania to Ukraine, Khrushchev – annexed Crimea to Ukraine and Lenin – the whole Novorossia was “given” to Socialist Republic Ukraine). So, let us just be realistic about the WEST, NATO, USA – EXPANSIONISTIC WORLD RULE and those who oppose this – while the worst human rights are actually broken not in North Korea but UNITED STATES WITH ITS “COLOURED” population of some 35% being treated as lower humans, not to mention 1% of rich ruling 99% of others. WAKE UP PEOPLE, THERE IS HITLER SITTING IN WHITE HOUSE, not in Kremlin.

Posted by Govornik | Report as abusive


Posted by Govornik | Report as abusive

In the second paragraph, the author wrote “North American Treaty Organization.” I believe this needs to be corrected to “North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

Posted by YertleTheTurtle | Report as abusive

I read in a book, I believe it was the Art of War, that the first thing you need to do is understand your enemy before you go to war with him on any level. I woud not be surprised to know tht Mr. Putin has read the book but did not fully learn from it.

I deeply suspect that he is maintaining himself in the age of profound suspicion that was originally fostered when he was running about as an appartchik with the Commettiee for State Security looking at the West as something just to the left of the Great Satan. Perhaps an incognito visit to the West might be in order to see what the West really is would be of benefit. While it is doubtful there would be a monumental change of heart in Mr. Putin’s mind, at least he could see the West without the filters and blinders of the supposed advisors he has surrounding him.

Posted by visailian | Report as abusive

The dismemberment of the USSR was handled badly, and there are millions of people who keep being damaged by that.

What is the harm in letting people vote?

Scots voted and everyone respects that, Taiwan and Hong Kong are trying to vote and we are trying to respect that.

If people in eastern Ukraine want to join Russia and be poor, who are we to judge?

Posted by DrewPalmerFL | Report as abusive