Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth
by Frederick Kempe.
New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011. 579pp, $29.95.

In 1946, Winston Churchill spoke of an “iron curtain” descending across the continent of Europe from Stettin to Trieste, separating the communist world from the free world. Churchill’s literary device memorably described the emerging postwar geopolitical and ideological division of Europe into two antagonistic blocs. Fifteen years later, Soviet and East German authorities erected a physical barrier in the occupied city of Berlin, known as the Berlin Wall, which stood for twenty-eight years to help maintain and support that division. Frederick Kempe, President of the Atlantic Council and the former Berlin bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal’s Europe edition, revisits the diplomatic maneuvers and human tragedies leading up to the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 in his new book, Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth.

Kempe’s book is revisionist history at its best. It attempts “to shed new light, based on new evidence and fresh insights, on one of the most dramatic years of the second half of the twentieth century.” In the process, Kempe further erodes the image of President John F. Kennedy as a skillful, tough crisis-manager and decision-maker—an image that Kennedy partisans and court historians created and promoted after the fact.

At the outset, Kempe identifies the unsettled questions of history that he attempts to answer:

  1. Was the Berlin Wall’s construction a positive outcome reflecting President Kennedy’s skillful diplomacy or the tragic result of Kennedy’s weak, amateurish, and indecisive leadership?
  2. Was Kennedy surprised by the Wall’s construction or did he anticipate and desire it as a peaceful, less dangerous resolution to a potential military conflict?
  3. Had Kennedy indicated that he would take concrete, forceful steps to resist the Wall’s construction—as both Lucius Clay and Dean Acheson recommended—would Khrushchev have backed down or would war have been more likely?

In attempting to answer those questions, Kempe gives due consideration to the history of the post-World War II four-power occupation of Germany and Berlin under the Potsdam Agreement; the impact of the conventional military and nuclear balance of forces; the personalities and domestic political positions of Kennedy, Khrushchev, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and East German leader Walter Ulbricht; and the influence of such other statesmen and advisers as French President Charles De Gaulle, West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt, Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson, former General Lucius Clay, and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson.

Berlin had been a flashpoint since the beginning of the Cold War. At Potsdam, the Allies had agreed to four-power (U.S., Britain, France, USSR) occupation of Germany and its capital. Berlin, however, was located well within the Soviet zone of occupation—a precarious position in the event of Cold War tensions and crises. The Soviets early on tested Western and U.S. resolve with respect to enforcing the access provisions of the Potsdam Agreement when they imposed the Berlin blockade in 1948, cutting off all road and rail access to the city. President Truman responded with a military airlift under the command of U.S. General Lucius Clay that successfully broke the blockade.

During the 1950s, Khrushchev repeatedly threatened to unilaterally “resolve” Berlin’s status, making it a “‘free city’ that would be demilitarized and guaranteed by United Nations observers.” President Eisenhower, though agreeing to talks about the issue, would not agree to a demilitarized Berlin nor surrender the U.S. right of access to East Berlin guaranteed by the Potsdam Agreement.

Kempe reveals that Khrushchev wanted Kennedy to win the 1960 election because he believed he could get the better of a man the Kremlin considered “a lightweight, a product of American privilege who lacked the experience required for leadership.” The Kremlin’s view of Kennedy was shared by West German Chancellor Adenauer, who believed Kennedy had a “dangerously flawed character and insufficient backbone”; by Eisenhower, who was “uneasy about Kennedy’s youth and lack of experience”; and by Acheson, who called him a “gifted young amateur” and “inexperienced.” Soon after taking office, Kennedy’s actions confirmed these judgments.

Five days into his presidency, Kennedy announced the release of two U.S. airmen who had been captured and held for several months after being shot down by Soviet forces. Although Kennedy proclaimed that there were no conditions for their release, in fact he had agreed to Khrushchev’s demand that the ban on spy fights over Soviet territory be extended.

More significantly, Kennedy botched his first foreign policy test when the Bay of Pigs operation failed to overthrow Cuban dictator and Soviet ally Fidel Castro. Kempe notes that Khrushchev expected that Kennedy would act in Cuba, but “never in his fondest dreams had he anticipated such incompetence.” Kennedy “lacked the backbone to cancel Eisenhower’s plans or the character to make them work as his own.” Most important, Kennedy “had lacked the resolve to bring to a successful conclusion an action of so much importance to American prestige.”

Khrushchev personally took his measure of Kennedy in June 1961 at the Vienna Summit. “This man is very inexperienced, even immature,” Khrushchev told his interpreter. “Compared to him, Eisenhower is a man of intelligence and vision.” Kempe characterizes Kennedy’s approach to the summit as “naive, almost apologetic.” Kennedy admitted to misjudgments about the failed Cuban venture and suggested to the Soviet leader that the U.S. would not interfere in the Soviet sphere of influence, including East Berlin. Kempe reports that when U.S. officials reviewed the transcripts of the Kennedy-Khrushchev exchanges they were “shocked.” Kennedy had gone further than any previous Cold War president “in recognizing the division of Europe as acceptable and permanent.”

Kennedy reinforced the impression of U.S. unwillingness to enforce its right of access to all of Berlin in a televised speech to the nation on July 25. Kempe notes that the speech mentioned protecting West Berlin seventeen times, signaling again to Khrushchev that the U.S. would do nothing in response to Soviet or East German actions in East Berlin.

Kempe believes that both Khrushchev and East German leader Ulbricht understood that the survival of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe was potentially at stake in the crisis over Berlin. Since 1945, more than four million people had fled the communist-controlled eastern sector of Germany. “The exodus,” Kempe writes, “was emptying [East Germany] of its most talented and motivated people.” What is more, Kennedy apparently understood this, too. Kempe reveals that in early August, Kennedy suggested to Walt Rostow that the Soviets might build a wall in Berlin. “Khrushchev,” the President said, “is losing East Germany. He cannot let that happen. If East Germany goes, so will Poland and all of Eastern Europe. He will have to do something to stop the flow of refugees. Perhaps a wall.” Kennedy made it clear to Rostow that he was unwilling to act to maintain access to East Berlin and would do nothing if a wall was built.

The barriers that would become the Wall started going up during the early morning hours of August 13, 1961. Kennedy did nothing in response, despite the Potsdam Agreement which guaranteed unrestricted movement throughout Berlin, and the confirmation of that agreement in the wake of the Berlin blockade. “Kennedy,” Kempe writes, “would have had every right to order his military to knock down the barriers put up that morning by East German units . . .” But as Kempe notes, Kennedy considered the construction of the Wall as a positive development that would ease tensions over the city. Khrushchev had fully supported the East German move, judging correctly that Kennedy would not respond. This further emboldened the Soviet leader to conduct military maneuvers in mid-August, simulating a potential war over Berlin, and to announce at the end of the month that the Soviets would end their three-year moratorium on nuclear testing.

The “aftershocks” of Kennedy’s approach to the Berlin crisis, Kempe contends, were both immediate and long term. It was not long after Kennedy acquiesced in the Wall’s construction that Khrushchev decided to send Soviet combat forces and intermediate range nuclear missiles to Cuba, a decision that Kempe characterizes as a “calculated risk based on what he knew of Kennedy,” rather than the reckless gamble that it has been portrayed as by Khrushchev’s critics. The result was the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The long-term consequence, according to Kempe, was to stop the unraveling of East Germany and perhaps the other communist regimes in Eastern Europe. In other words, Kempe suggests that Kennedy’s diplomacy during the Berlin crisis likely interrupted a process that may have led to the decades-earlier weakening and dissolution of the Soviet empire. It is beyond dispute, writes Kempe, “that Kennedy’s actions allowed East German leaders to stop just the sort of refugee flow that would be the country’s undoing twenty-eight years later.”

With respect to Berlin, President Kennedy is perhaps most remembered for his famous speech at the Wall when he declared that all free people are citizens of Berlin. Kempe’s new history of the Berlin crisis of 1961 reminds us that it was Kennedy who “passively stood by” as communist dictators built a Wall that “for three decades and perhaps for all of history would remain the iconic image of what unfree systems can impose when free leaders fail to resist.”  

Francis P. Sempa is the author of the new book, book cover imageSomewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War (Hamilton Books), which recounts his father’s experiences in World War II from Omaha Beach to the Elbe River. He is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.