Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > Berlin 1961

Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe
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it was amazing

Frederick Kempe's Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth ably tells the story of the only time in the long and often-harrowing Cold War--aside, say, from the Soviet "volunteer" MiG pilots of the Korean War or the occasional shoot-down of American reconnaissance aircraft along the borders of the U.S.S.R.--that U.S. and Soviet military forces actually faced each other down directly. Of course, even then, however, at that iconic moment photographed across Checkpoint Charlie, Kempe reminds us that in a nod to "plausible deniability," the Red Army's tanks had their national insignia painted over and their crews' uniforms replaced with black garb similarly without markings.

Sandwiched between President Kennedy's humiliating Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961 and his triumph in the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Crisis of 1961 is, I think, significantly less remembered. Europe, however, of course was the focus of U.S. Cold War policy and planning, from the Marshall Plan and the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, through another forty years of standoff along the Iron Curtain, when any incursion by numerically superior Soviet forces would have required U.S. use of tactical nuclear weapons...which, indeed, even aside from civilian death and radioactive contamination in that highly populated region, could have led to general nuclear war.

Kempe puts the 1961 Berlin Crisis into perspective with Kennedy's irresoluteness in Cuba just the year earlier, and yet he does not neglect to remind us either of the Berlin Blockade of 1948 and '49, which General Lucius Clay broke with his unprecedented airlift, or the Soviet repressions of rebellion in East Germany in 1953 or in Hungary in 1956. The world was a perilous place, and although Nikita Khrushchev may have been rather less brutal then Josef Stalin, the Eastern Bloc still was no haven of socialist peacenikism; Communism was on the march in the postwar and postcolonial world, and the increasing hemorrhage of refugees, especially those of the skilled and professional classes, from East Berlin into the Western sector, and thence into the thriving West Germany, was more than embarrassing--it was dangerous to the continuation of the repressive yet so-called German "Democratic" Republic.

Indeed, Kempe notes that, contrary to the notion at the time that the Soviets pulled all the strings of their puppet, it was East German leader Walter Ulbricht who advocated the closure of the border with West Berlin and ultimate construction of the Berlin Wall, with Khrushchev finally agreeing after a fair bit of convincing. The final decision, naturally, was clinched by the Soviet leader's shrewd evaluation of Kennedy's weakness of resolve, as demonstrated by either failing to nix a Bay of Pigs invasion scheme that he should have known would not work or following up and actually using U.S. military force to win. Had Soviet tanks scrupled in East Germany in '53, after all, or in Hungary in '56?--no. Khrushchev thought he had sized up his mark correctly--a judgment Kempe shares--and if eventually the weak-willed West let its treaty rights to Berlin be narrowed and narrowed such that at last they might leave West Berlin altogether, well, then so much the better.

The Western thought, though, was that if the United States would not guarantee the island of freedom that was West Berlin, as was its right and duty under the current four-power treaty, then neither would it hold the line when the Communists, first with niggling little economic and political nibbles and then perhaps even by military force, pushed at West Germany, then the Low Countries, then Italy, and maybe even nuclear-armed France and Britain, and so on. The Soviet thought, it was clear from previous and also contemporary behavior, was similar. Khrushchev's talk was big and bold and bluff, and no one wanted full-scale nuclear war over what was already mostly a fait accompli...but the West had to stand for something, did it not? For otherwise the West ultimately would fall.

In his account Frederick Kempe covers the large and the small, the broadly known and the obscure, from big players like Kennedy and Khrushchev, Adenauer and Ulbricht, Macmillan and de Gaulle, and Rusk and Acheson, to the stories of East Berliners who did and did not escape, and Americans who faced down Soviet tanks and even slipped across to confirm the Cyrillic on the unmarked vehicles' controls. We will learn of Kennedy's request to retailor the traditional U.S. "massive retaliation" war plan for a possible limited preemptive strike against Soviet nuclear forces, of Bobby's always-oral "back-channel" discussions with a Soviet spy who had a direct line to Khrushchev, and, perhaps even more surprisingly, and of the President's first, rather private reaction, that, Western rights under the four-power treaty be damned, the unprecedented closure of the East-West border in Berlin was not really of much concern at all; this latter is particularly eye-opening and disheartening.

Occasionally a mistake might slip through, as when Kempe claims that the 50-megaton Tsar Bomba that Khrushchev tests is only 10 times more powerful than the combination of Hiroshima and Nagasaki weapons rather than over 2,500 times, or when he refers to fully loaded rounds of ammunition merely as bullets. None of these very few instances, however, truly detracts from the exciting and informative Berlin 1961, which shows how the Kennedy--and the nervous world at large--got from the indecisiveness and naivety and failure of early 1961 to the proud "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech of 1963.

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Reading Progress

July 1, 2017 – Started Reading
July 7, 2017 – Finished Reading
July 8, 2017 – Shelved

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