The twentieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall is a happy reminder of the great events to which it was the precursor: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberation of the people of Eastern Europe that came with it. We must not forget, however, that, in the 1940s and 1950s, the belief was widespread that nuclear war between the superpowers was likely, if not inevitable. Demands for unilateral disarmament and various forms of concession and appeasement were common on the left and even in more respectable quarters. For a period of time, retreat, styled as “détente,” was the preferred policy. It was only when the expansion of Soviet power under cover of such Western weakness led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that Americans returned to the more realistic approach of the Truman administration that this remarkable and unprecedented achievement became possible. But the long struggle that brought success was not easy, nor was adherence to the successful policy continuous. The memory of the great days when the Wall came down should not lead us to forget the grimmer days when it was erected, the policies that brought it about, or the dangerous consequences that followed its construction.

Early in June of 1961, President Kennedy met with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, where they discussed Berlin. Although World War II was long over, there was still no peace treaty dealing with Germany. West Germany had rearmed and was an important member of NATO. Khrushchev asserted, “This meant the threat of a third world war.” If the West did not agree to a treaty, the Soviet Union would sign one with East Germany alone, which would cancel all occupation rights and rights of access. When Kennedy resisted, Khrushchev threatened to sign a treaty with East Germany in six months: “If the U.S. wants to start a war over Germany, let it be so.” When Kennedy did not give way, Khrushchev delivered a “firm and irrevocable” ultimatum: “The Soviet Union will sign [the treaty] in December if the U.S. refuses an interim agreement.”

Reporting on the Vienna meeting, Kennedy told the American people that the “most somber” exchange concerned Germany and Berlin, urging that “We and our allies cannot abandon our obligations to the people of West Berlin.” He was not, however, forthcoming about Khrushchev’s language; in fact, he told them a lie, saying that there had been “no threats or ultimatums by either side.” Khrushchev could draw his own conclusions as to why Kennedy had chosen to suppress the truth.

Khrushchev’s threats about Berlin made a powerful impression on Kennedy. Since the end of the war, some four million people, perhaps one-fifth of the population, had fled the economic misery and political oppression of Communist East Germany and escaped to the West. By 1961, the Communists had tried to close off all escape routes, but Berlin, divided between Western and Eastern zones with a subway train connecting them, provided a loophole. After the Vienna meeting, Berlin became an even greater obsession with Kennedy. He knew that the defense of the city and access to it was an inescapable test of American will as well as its commitment to NATO and Western Europe. But Berlin’s geographical position well within Soviet-controlled East Germany made it seem difficult to stand firm in a crisis without risking a nuclear confrontation. “We’re stuck in a ridiculous situation,” he told his aide,

It seems silly for us to be facing an atomic war over a treaty preserving Berlin as the future capital of a reunited Germany when all of us know that Germany will probably never be reunited … it seems particularly stupid to risk killing millions of Americans over access rights on an Autobahn… . Before I back Khrushchev against the wall and put him to the final test, the freedom of all Western Europe will have to be at stake.

Khrushchev, however, could not ignore Berlin. For a long time Walter Ulbricht, the Communist dictator of East Germany, had been pressing him to take action to stop the flight of East Germans to the West. On June 10, Pravda published Khrushchev’s version of the meeting with Kennedy, revealing his six-months’ ultimatum on Berlin. In answer to this provocation, the influential Democratic Senator Mansfield came out in favor of making Berlin a “free city,” as Khrushchev had proposed at Vienna. Even Kennedy was compelled to separate himself from this soft response.

As early as March, Kennedy had called on Dean Acheson, Truman’s Secretary of State, to give advice on Berlin and the German problem. At a meeting of the National Security Council on June 29, Acheson argued that the pressure on Berlin was only part of a general effort to test the will of the United States. There could be no negotiation and no concession. He proposed a major increase in American nuclear forces, conventional forces in West Germany, and reserves in America ready for swift movement to Germany, and for the declaration of a national emergency.

Kennedy rejected the call for a national emergency and the refusal to negotiate. He meant to establish his and America’s determination, after which he would seek to reopen discussions with the Soviets. He made public his decision to increase American forces in Germany, call up reserves, and expend new funds for fallout shelters. His address to the American people spoke publicly of war, as Khrushchev had spoken privately of it at Vienna. The president, however, said nothing about the guarantee of free access between East and West that was part of the Potsdam agreement in 1945; he spoke of the boundary between the two sectors as a “frontier of peace,” and of the defense of “West Berlin,” not of “Berlin.” It was easy for a careful reader to see the speech as including an invitation to shut East Berlin off from the West.

The next day Khrushchev told John McCloy, Kennedy’s disarmament adviser, that the United States had declared “preliminary war,” insisted that the Soviets would sign a German treaty “no matter what,” and rattled his rockets: “If you attempt to force your way through, we will oppose you by force. War is bound to be thermonuclear…” On July 30, J. William Fulbright, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested on national television that it might be a good thing if the Soviets closed the border in Berlin:

The Russians have the power to close it in any case… . If they chose to close their borders, they could without violating any treaty. I don’t understand why the East Germans don’t close their border because I think they have a right to close it.

The remarks caused outrage in West Berlin while the East German newspapers greeted it as a splendid formula that could resolve the crisis.

Fulbright’s comment brought to mind the remarks of Senator Mansfield, and some thought that both Democratic senators had been inspired to suggest a compromise favored by Kennedy, who did not dare to make the proposal himself. The president never rejected Fulbright’s remarks, and there is reason to believe that he agreed with them. Not long after Fulbright’s television appearance Kennedy told his foreign policy adviser Walt Rostow that Khrushchev “will have to do something to stop the flow of refugees. Perhaps a wall. And we won’t be able to prevent it. I can hold the Alliance together to defend West Berlin, but I cannot act to keep East Berlin open.”

Ulbricht pressed Khrushchev to stop the flow of refugees, urging him to take control of the air lanes to the West and even to seize West Berlin. He also asserted that the Americans would not act to prevent a border closing, citing Senator Fulbright’s belief that East Germany had the right to do it. On August 5, therefore, Khrushchev agreed to the construction of a barrier at the sector border the following weekend, at midnight of the night of August 12–13. First they would erect a barbed-wire fence. If, as they expected, the West did not use force against it, they would replace it with a solid wall. Apparently, Khrushchev had concluded that the Americans would resist any interference with West Berlin but that it was safe to close the border from the East. On August 9, he told his generals, “We’ll just put up the serpentine barbed wire, and the West will stand there like dumb sheep. And while they’re standing there, we’ll finish the wall”—which is exactly what happened.

On August 10, a reporter had asked Kennedy if the United States had any policy in regard to the flight of refugees from East Germany to the West. Here was the chance to reject the comments made by Fulbright and to deliver a warning, but Kennedy responded that “the United States does not attempt to encourage or discourage the movements of refugees.” If Khrushchev still had any doubts, he had every reason to take that answer as a signal that the United States would not challenge the closing of the Berlin frontier. The Soviets acted with the confident expectation that they would not be resisted.

At midnight of August 12, barbed wire fences separating West from East Berlin began to go up. The Western military commanders in Berlin took no action, despite the urging of West Berlin’s Mayor Willy Brandt, who told them, “You let Ulbricht kick you in the rear last night!” The only response from Washington was a statement that “the violations of existing agreements will be the subject of vigorous protest through appropriate channels,” a clear indication that the Americans would take no military action.

Brandt had also wanted a show of force, at least to reassure the West Berliners that they were not in danger. A Social Democrat who had been vehemently pro-American and a great admirer of Kennedy, he felt badly let down. “Kennedy is making mincemeat of us,” he said, and those who knew him best say that the failure of American reaction to the wall caused his subsequent turn toward accommodation with the Communist East and the advocacy of antinuclear and disarmament goals that opposed American policies. Brandt wrote a letter to Kennedy complaining of American inaction that made the president very angry. When he showed it to the reporter Marguerite Higgins, however, she said, “Mr. President, I must tell you frankly: the suspicion is growing in Berlin that you’re going to sell out the West Berliners.” That her perception was correct was proved by the 300,000 Berliners who crowded into the square in front of the Berlin City Hall carrying homemade signs that read “Betrayed by the West,” “Where are the protective [Western] powers?,” and “The West is doing a second Munich.”

Privately, the American position was that nothing need be done. The immediate reaction of America’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, Foy Kohler, was that “the East Germans have done us a favor. That refugee flow was becoming embarrassing.” The President looked upon the building of the wall as a way out of the Berlin dilemma. He told a trusted aide: “This is [Khrushchev’s] 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.”

Not everyone thought that way. Some were not so sure that resistance was so dangerous but feared, rather, that it was precisely a weak response that might lead to war. American officials in Germany and members of Kennedy’s own administration in Washington warned the president of sagging morale in Berlin and of the dangers of inaction. General Lucius Clay, the hero of the first Berlin Crisis of 1948–9 and the airlift, thought back to those days, convinced that if he had been allowed to send an armored column into Berlin then, “the Korean War never would have taken place. If he were President now, he’d tear the Wall down.”

Off the record, Vice President Johnson told reporters that the Berlin Crisis was the result of America’s weak performance in Laos and at the Bay of Pigs. Khrushchev, he said, “has tasted blood in Cuba and Laos and now Berlin, and he’s out for more. He thinks he can push a young President around and a new administration and is probing to see how far he can go.” Eisenhower was appalled by Kennedy’s failure to defend the Potsdam agreement. Dean Acheson and Lucius Clay thought that vigorous and swift American action could have prevented the erection of the wall without danger.

It has been said that an assault on the wall, however early, even when the barrier was only barbed wire, would not have been useful. The Communists could always have drawn further back and built another, and the Western forces could hardly penetrate the border at any great depth to keep knocking down barriers. Firm action, however, might also have demonstrated the strength of American will, backed, as it was at the time, by overwhelming nuclear superiority. Keeping the Berlin escape route open might have undermined the Soviets’ grip on the states behind the Iron Curtain and brought the collapse of their empire sooner. If, as some believe, there was some risk of war over the issue, events soon showed that there were serious risks, too, in permitting things to take their course.

Kennedy had refused conspicuous opportunities to warn the Soviets away from their unilateral violation of the Potsdam agreement, thus appearing to invite such an action as a way of buying a relaxation of the tension over Berlin. Years later, Kennedy’s adviser McGeorge Bundy admitted that the president’s speech of July 25 might have encouraged Khrushchev to close the frontier. Such a speech could have been “more broadly deterrent to Khrushchev.” But that was the opposite of Kennedy’s approach. He sought “definition and clarity,” always fearing that war would come by miscalculation. He did not appear to consider that, when clear definitions might signal weakness and retreat, they could lead to the miscalculation that such a retreat would continue indefinitely. After the building of the wall, moreover, an action that could fairly be characterized as “secret, swift and extraordinary,” a “sudden, clandestine decision,” a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo (these are the words he would later use to describe the introduction of nuclear missiles into Cuba), he made no public statement for over a week and barely mentioned the matter for the rest of his life.

It was open to both friend and foe to interpret his behavior as part of a policy of appeasement under duress. It might be thought, especially by the man who had treated him so harshly at Vienna, that the American president was a man who was tough in his public speeches and military gestures but soft and accommodating in his thoughts and policies—someone whose political weakness did not permit him to make concessions publicly in open negotiations, but who was willing to permit a fait accompli and to accept it without retaliation; someone who could be pushed to abandon positions taken by tougher predecessors in his search for peaceful accommodation.

Kennedy’s failure to support the Bay of Pigs invasion suggested a lack of will and determination, a fear of Soviet action elsewhere—an unwillingness, perhaps, to risk a war against a weak opponent in his own neighborhood, even at the cost of personal and national humiliation. At Vienna the president had backed away from American commitments, undercut the positions taken by allies, and put up with unprecedented bullying. His acceptance of the Berlin Wall was powerful and tangible evidence of his timidity. As one historian has put it, “If the President had not used his nuclear superiority to dictate terms on Berlin, where the United States had treaty commitments, why should he use it over Cuba?”

Kennedy, moreover, had displayed a willingness to swallow unwelcome Soviet actions without protest and even to conceal what had happened from the public to avoid political embarrassment. He publicly denied that Khrushchev had delivered an ultimatum on Berlin at Vienna, only to be embarrassed when Khrushchev revealed the truth. Khrushchev’s messenger Bolshakov led Kennedy to expect a test ban treaty as a reward for the summit meeting in Vienna. When none was forthcoming, Kennedy made no protest about the deception. At the same meeting, Khrushchev promised not to be the first to resume nuclear testing and then broke his promise without warning. Again, Kennedy did not complain.

Other signals tended to confirm Khrushchev’s estimate. During the summer of 1961, Kennedy carefully indicated which American rights in Berlin the Americans would defend, but he laid down no similar line in regard to Cuba. In June, Senator Fulbright made another statement: “I suppose we would all be less comfortable if the Soviets did install missile bases in Cuba, but I am not sure that our national existence would be in substantially greater danger than is the case today.” Once again, Kennedy did not contradict the senator anymore than he had rejected Fulbright’s invitation to the Communists to seal the border in Berlin a year earlier. Khrushchev could easily believe that the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was speaking for the president once again.

The signals of weakness provided by Kennedy’s actions both before and after, but especially in the course of, the construction of the Berlin Wall, provided support for a belief that the president would accept missiles in Cuba without great risk to the Soviets. He would probably respond to the “sudden and secret” installation of missiles in Cuba just as he had responded to the “sudden and secret” installation of the barbed wire: he would claim surprise, send Moscow a formal protest, and then tell the American people that this was not an issue on which the West was prepared to go to war. There is every reason to believe that Kennedy’s lack of nerve in the Berlin Wall crisis played a critical part in convincing Khrushchev to bring about the most serious risk of nuclear war the world has yet seen. The Wall did not come down for decades, not until a very different president with a firmer policy demanded that it must.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 3, on page 10
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