Up Against the Wallby Norman Birnbaum
At midnight on Sunday, August 13, 1961, three siren blasts roused the East German border police. They gathered before their company commander and got their orders. An hour later, Berlin’s dark streets filled with armed soldiers and police officers, unspooling barbed wire and stretching it between wooden sawhorses and concrete posts. Subway and trolley lines were cut. At dawn, a wall began to rise. The US chief of mission in West Berlin, in hapless understatement, told his colleagues, “Something seems to be happening in East Berlin.”
Families waved pathetically to one another across the demarcation line; East Berliners jumped from apartment houses on the border into the nets of West Berlin firemen; desperate swimmers under gunfire made a dash for the western bank of the River Spree. West Berliners, stunned to find themselves imprisoned, had to be held back by their own police from attacking East German forces. President Kennedy, vacationing in Hyannisport, kept an increasingly loud silence as West Berliners went from dismay to outrage: why did the Americans not demolish this wall?
Thereby hangs a tortuous tale, well told by Frederick Kempe, the onetime Berlin bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal. In Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth, Kempe ’77JRN conveys the anxieties of the period as Berlin became a crucial site of struggle between the superpowers. This drama played out in human terms as a fraught confrontation between two men who could not have been more different in background and disposition. Khrushchev was a self-made Soviet man, the son of a coal miner, who had risen to power as a protégé of Stalin. He had risked much in speaking out against Stalin’s legacy after his death and instituting internal reforms and a policy of peaceful coexistence with the West. But results had been mixed: Khrushchev’s ambitious plan to raise Soviet living standards through agricultural production had amounted to little, and he had let his temper sabotage a summit with President Eisenhower. Alternating aggression and conciliation, Khrushchev was impulsive and obsessed with his nation’s standing. The Stalinist old guard saw him as weak, ripe for removal. Kennedy was an American patrician who in his first seven months in office had yet to acquire the respect of the nation’s elites. His fluent charm concealed a great deal of inner doubt and physical pain requiring constant medication, as Robert Dallek ’64GSAS explored in a 2003 biography.
Two months before Khrushchev ordered the construction of the wall, at the German Communist regime’s urging, Khrushchev and Kennedy met in Vienna. Kennedy was seeking a modus vivendi in the Cold War, but he also needed short-term successes to shore up his standing in Washington and on the world stage. Khrushchev thought Kennedy weak for having accepted defeat in April 1961 following the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
The Vienna summit began cordially enough, but it soon unraveled. When Kennedy asserted the Allied claim to West Berlin, Khrushchev reddened and waved the threat of war. “The US is unwilling to normalize the situation in the most dangerous spot in the world,” he sputtered. “The USSR wants to perform an operation on this sore spot — to eliminate this thorn, this ulcer ... Any violation of [East German] sovereignty will be regarded by the USSR as an act of open aggression.” Kennedy, who had hoped to make progress on nuclear arms control, was shocked by Khrushchev’s intransigence. He had ascertained that there was no middle ground between refraining from using nuclear weapons and destroying the entire planet. When the New York Times reporter James Reston asked him how the summit had gone, Kennedy told him, “Worst thing in my life. He savaged me.”