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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Change came first in West Berlin itself. The city provided a full-employment program for the conventional ideologues of the “free West.” However, since West Berlin was administered by the Allies and therefore not a full legal part of West Germany, its younger citizens could not be drafted. Thousands came to study at its universities — and to enjoy its mixed Turkish, working-class, and bohemian neighborhoods. An oppositional culture developed, from which both the Green Party and the peace movement grew. These were the benign consequences of the Berlin situation. Kempe’s book is a vivid record of days when the division of the city seemed anything but benign. What would have happened had Kennedy listened to Clay and tried to tear down the wall? No one can say, but the president’s warm reception in Berlin in June 1963 suggests that the West Berliners were quite satisfied with what he had accomplished. I happened to be visiting my wife’s mother in East Berlin that day, and I recall the massed Eastern border guards at Checkpoint Charlie laughing when my four-year-old daughter asked if they had assembled to see President Kennedy. They came to attention and saluted when he climbed the observation platform at the checkpoint. East Berliners, kept blocks away, cheered him. Survivors of danger, the Berliners on both sides knew a hero when they saw one.

Norman Birnbaum is a University Professor Emeritus at Georgetown University Law Center. In 1986, the government of the German Democratic Republic barred him from its territory for three years “for conspiring with enemies of the state.”

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