Berlin 1961 conjures a vision of Cold War stakes at their highest
Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth
By Frederick Kempe. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 579 pp, hardcover
To a lot of North Americans, memories of the Berlin Wall—if they surface at all—serve as a hazy reminder of a bygone era.
Fifty years ago this week, however, things were a lot different. The Cold War was heating up, and the construction of the Berlin Wall, overnight and in secret, brought tensions to the boiling point.
For the Soviets, the wall represented security and hegemony over Eastern Europe. For America, it represented oppression and a victory for Communism. And for East Germany—which had hemorrhaged more than 3.5 million citizens, 20 percent of the nation’s population, since 1945—it was a simple matter of political survival.
Quickly assembled in the early morning hours of Sunday, August 13, 1961, the barrier was initially just barbed wire. Before long, however, the wire had been replaced with a reinforced concrete wall, as well as guard towers and a no man’s land.
A thorn in America’s side, the wall spawned a period of political brinkmanship that culminated in American and Soviet tanks facing off across Checkpoint Charlie, and troops on both sides with rounds chambered, safeties off, and bayonets unsheathed. That summer, the world was truly just one itchy trigger finger away from a nuclear war.
In his new book, Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth, Frederick Kempe, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor and the current president of the Atlantic Council, revisits the genesis of the wall, the crisis surrounding it, and its long-term effect on East-West relations.
A scholarly and richly detailed account, Kempe’s book is also quick-moving and exciting. At times, it reads like a well-researched and well-footnoted spy novel, with its tightly-written fly-on-the-wall accounts of high-level manoeuvering, Cold War posturing, and clandestine back-channel meetings.
Kempe does an admirable job of recreating the mood of the time, and delving into the motivations—and misperceptions—of the major players. While it’s clear that U.S. president John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev were both looking for some form of peaceful coexistence, their inherent mistrust of each other proved a major stumbling block, and set in motion a number of dangerous events.
As Kempe illustrates, the lead-up to the crisis makes one thing abundantly clear: it’s no picnic being a world leader. Trying to decipher cryptic messages from your adversary, dealing with both hawks and doves in your own administration, and keeping your international allies happy was, and still is, a completely thankless job. It’s a great insight into the pressures of the job—at one point, Kennedy’s turmoil is palpable, as he tearfully tells his brother Bobby, “We bring these things on ourselves. The thought, though, of women and children perishing in a nuclear exchange, I can’t adjust to that.”
The problem with Kempe’s book is that, while he excels at recreating history, his analysis winds up falling flat. Although he goes through the motions of being impartial, it becomes evident that he’s part of the “Kennedy lost Cuba, Kennedy lost Berlin” crowd, convinced that if the president had only been tougher on the Russians we could have won the Cold War that much earlier.
A telltale sign comes when Kempe uses a quote (not just once, but twice) about Kennedy from hawkish former secretary of state Dean Acheson, a hardliner on Berlin: “They were watching a gifted young amateur practice with a boomerang, when they saw, to their horror, that he had knocked himself out.” From that point on, you know just where he’s headed.
And when one considers the fact that Kempe helms the Atlantic Council—a conservative think tank cofounded by Acheson—it’s not difficult to see where his beliefs, and loyalties, lie.
In reality, Kennedy was merely following accepted U.S. policy since the end of World War II, which had effectively ceded Eastern Europe to the Soviets. To Kennedy, the real danger lay in the continued spread of Communism (primarily in Asia and Latin America) than in what the East Germans were doing to their already sovietized population. Containment, not rollback, was already standard operating procedure.
His conclusions aside, Kempe is a masterful storyteller, and the highlight of the book comes in the 40-page chapter covering the period of August 9 to 13, 1961, detailing construction of the wall. It’s an enthralling account, presented with all the urgency of the actual events. If nothing else, Kempe brings the story to life, and reminds us just how important, both ideologically and strategically, the Berlin Wall was.
After all, as Kennedy tells an aide when the crisis breaks, “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”