Up Against the Wall

by Norman Birnbaum
Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth
By Frederick Kempe
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 579 pages, $29.95
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Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on EarthKempe tells the story with knowledge and flair, but the book is skewed by his disdain for Kennedy, whose first year in office was defined, in Kempe’s words, by “inconsistency, indecision, and policy failure.” Kempe excuses Khrushchev in light of the constraints working against him, without acknowledging the parallel constraints on Kennedy. True, Khrushchev was limited by a faltering economy and Chinese Communist opposition, but Kennedy was buffeted not only by his Republican critics but by US military commanders and many Democrats. Kempe describes Kennedy’s bargaining as capitulation: “The consistent message he had sent Khrushchev ... was that the Soviet leader could do whatever he wished on the territory he controlled as long as he didn’t touch West Berlin or Allied access to the city.” But in defending West Berlin, Kennedy was defending a Cold War border. In fact, as Khrushchev continued to insist that the Allies leave West Berlin, Kennedy asked his advisers to plan a limited nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.

“A wall,” Kennedy famously told his aides, “is a hell of a lot better than a war.” Kempe argues that Kennedy’s acceptance of the wall was weakness, not strategy. He tells the story of a dramatic October 1961 face-off at the legendary crossing point Checkpoint Charlie as an example of the sort of conflict that the wall failed to prevent: an armored ballet of opposing US and Soviet tanks, which backed down only after discreet negotiations. More accurately, it was an event precipitated by Soviet fear that the US might try to tear down the wall. With the wall accepted, both sides reduced their armed forces in East and West Berlin to token contingents.

Kempe depicts Khrushchev’s reckless act of sending nuclear missiles to Cuba in 1962 as a consequence of Kennedy’s failure to demolish the wall and praises Kennedy for finding the courage to face down Khrushchev in 1962 as he had failed to do in 1961: “Khrushchev backed down in Cuba once challenged by a decisive Kennedy, exactly as General Clay had predicted he would a year earlier in regard to Berlin.” But this is the wrong lesson: there is no evidence that Khrushchev would have backed down in 1961 if the US had attempted to demolish the wall. Both men had learned from the past year. Kennedy’s success in Cuba was greatly aided by Khrushchev’s realization that he had started something that he could not finish. Khrushchev and Kennedy looked into the abyss — and pulled back.

The German Communists saved their state. But in the end, Gorbachev’s reforms, the abdication of the Polish Communists, and the East German regime’s endorsement of Chinese repression in 1989 generated the protest that swept the regime aside. Before that, Willy Brandt, then West Berlin’s mayor, had persuaded the West Germans to accept the new map of Europe and to work for change through contact and not confrontation.

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