Tag Archives: American History

Bad Start


Frederick Kempe, Berlin 1961:
Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth

          If you think there is already a sufficient body of hagiographic work on John F. Kennedy’s brief presidency, this may be the book for you. In “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth,” Frederick Kempe delivers a withering critique of Kennedy’s first year as President — “one of the worst inaugural-year performances of any modern U.S. president” (p.483), Kempe concludes. As his title indicates, Kempe focuses upon Kennedy’s handling of the crisis in Berlin in 1961 and his dealings with his primary adversary, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Relying upon recently declassified documents from the United States, Germany, and Russia, Kempe has produced a highly readable account of a time when the Cold War was very hot. Kempe divides his book into short “time-and-place” narratives (e.g., “The Kremlin, Moscow, 10:00 am, Saturday, January 21, 1961,” p.73; “Berlin, Sunday Afternoon, June 4, 1961,” p.253; “The White House, Washington D.C., October 18, 1961,” p.430). He intersperses these narratives with human-interest stories, showing the effects which the super powers’ wrangling over Berlin had upon ordinary people, helping to make his book entertaining as well as informative.

          Two central events shape Kempe’s chronicle: Kennedy and Khrushchev’s meeting in Vienna in June 1961, and the construction of the Berlin Wall in August of that year. After Kennedy’s razor-thin victory in the 1960 presidential elections, the consensus in the Kremlin was that the newly-elected president was a “lightweight, a product of American privilege who lacked the experience required for leadership” (p.39).  Kempe details how the young and inexperienced Kennedy, in an effort to appear tough, rebuffed numerous olive branches thrown his way by his older adversary after his election. Had Kennedy accepted these branches, Kempe suggests, much of the tension relating to Berlin could have been defused.

          Preceding the Vienna meeting by about 60 days was the Bay of Pigs debacle in April 1961, a CIA-led invasion of Cuba that had been planned during the Eisenhower administration, which Kennedy neither cancelled nor supported fully, and which failed miserably. To Khrushchev, Kennedy’s handling of the Bay of Pigs operation indicated that the young President was not resolute. “[N]ever in his fondest dreams had he anticipated such incompetence. In this first major test, the new U.S. president had lived down to Khrushchev’s lowest expectations,” demonstrating “weakness under fire” (p.177).

          The meeting in Vienna – what was termed a “summit” — was the first between the two Cold War leaders. Coming off the Bay of Pigs debacle, the young American President entered the “most important week of his presidency as a weary wounded commander in chief who was inadequately prepared and insufficiently fit for what would face him in Vienna. Khrushchev would be scanning for Kennedy’s vulnerabilities after the Bay of Pigs, and there were plenty for the picking” (p.211). The German weekly Die Zeit unkindly compared Kennedy on his way to Vienna to a traveling salesman “whose business had fallen on bad times and who was hoping to improve his prospects by negotiating directly with the competition” (p.197).

          There was no pre-set agenda for the Vienna meeting, but the future of Berlin dominated the discussions. Although Berlin was deep inside Soviet-controlled East Germany (the German Democratic Republic or GDR), the Allies’ agreement at Yalta in February 1945 had guaranteed Western access into and out of the Western sectors of the city. Khrushchev came to Vienna under great pressure from GDR leader Walter Ulbricht — perhaps the most Stalinist of the Eastern bloc leaders — to stem the tide of skilled workers fleeing East Germany through West Berlin. Too many East Germans were voting against Communism with their feet, exiting the socialist enclave for the decadent West. Khrushchev was very much aware that East Germany and the Soviet Union’s other Eastern European satellites had not reached a “level of moral and material development where competition with the West [was] possible” (p.329).

          In Vienna, Khrushchev reiterated an earlier threat he had made to conclude a separate treaty with East Germany and leave the West to negotiate directly with Ulbricht’s government on issues involving access roads and air routes to Berlin. Khrushchev let Kennedy know that he preferred to reach an agreement personally with the American President that would alter Berlin’s status. If that were not possible, however, Khrushchev said he would “act alone and end all postwar commitments made by the Soviets” (p.242). No force in the world, the Communist leader indicated, was capable of stopping Moscow from “moving forward on its peace treaty” (p.245). As Kempe notes dryly, Khrushchev was plainly threatening war.

          Kennedy looked upon Berlin primarily as an inherited inconvenience. During his first year in office, according to Kempe, Kennedy was “not focused on rolling back communism in Europe, but instead was trying to stop its spread to the developing world” (p.486). Although he publicly took a hard line on Western commitments to Berlin, Kennedy’s primary interest was in “preserving West Berlin’s status and access to the city (p.381)” and “avoiding instability and miscalculations that would lead to nuclear war” (p.486). According to recently declassified notes, Kennedy told Khrushchev in the Vienna meeting that “West Europe is vital to our national security and we have supported it in two wars. If we were to leave West Berlin, Europe would be abandoned as well. So when we are talking about West Berlin, we are also talking about West Europe” (p.243).

          With that pronouncement, Kempe contends, Kennedy went further than any previous American president in differentiating “so clearly between his commitment to all of Berlin and to West Berlin” (p.243, Kempe’s emphasis). In Vienna, Kennedy tacitly let the Soviet leader know that he could do “whatever he wished on the territory he controlled as long as he didn’t touch West Berlin or Allied access to the city” (p.488). Vienna thus produced a de facto deal which Kennedy was prepared to strike with Khrushchev: “He would give Khrushchev a free hand to seal Berlin’s border in exchange for a guarantee that the Soviets would not disrupt West Berlin’s continued freedom or Allied access to the city” (p.489).

          During his time with the avuncular Khrushchev, Kempe concludes, the young President:

failed to challenge the Soviet leader where he was most vulnerable. He had not condemned the Soviet use of force in East Germany and Hungary in 1953 and 1956. Worse, he had not posed the most important question of all: Why were there hundreds of thousands of East German refugees fleeing to a better life in the West (p.233).

Kennedy’s Vienna performance confirmed Khrushchev’s growing impression that Kennedy “could be easily outmaneuvered, and from that point forward Khrushchev would act more aggressively in the conviction that there would be little price to pay” (p.259).

          Kennedy returned to the United States badly weakened after his lackluster performance in Vienna. An aide compared the return trip on Air Force One to “riding with the losing baseball team in the World Series. Nobody said much” (p.258). In what Kempe terms “one of the most candid sessions ever between a reporter and a commander in chief,” Kennedy told the journalist James Reston that Khrushchev had “savaged” him (p.257).

          Two months later, early in the morning of August 13 of that year, East Germany commenced construction of a barbed wire wall between the Soviet and Western sectors of Berlin, implementing a plan Ulbricht had devised which Kempe compares to Nazi blueprints for building and operating concentration camps. Though Ulbricht’s project was less murderous, “its execution would be no less cynically exacting” (p.325). Under the 1945 four-power agreements, the American, Soviet, British and French military governments of Germany had agreed that they would ensure unrestricted access throughout Berlin, a point reconfirmed in 1948 by another four-power agreement that ended the Berlin blockade. Thus, when the wall went up, Kennedy would have had “every right to order his military to knock down the barriers put up that morning by East German units that had no right to operate in Berlin” (p.359).

          But Kennedy had already signaled in Vienna and made clear through several other channels that he would “not respond if Khrushchev and the East Germans restricted their actions to their own territory” (p.359). Just a few days prior to construction of the wall, Kennedy had told Walt Rostow, his Deputy National Security Advisor:

Khruschev 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. 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 (p.293).

Then, when the wall went up, Kennedy “could not publicly express his genuine relief that the communists had closed the border, but at the same time he didn’t want to express false outrage too loudly” (p.383-84).

          Kempe pinpoints two “aftershocks” to Kennedy’s mishandling of Berlin in 1961: the long-term “freezing in place of the Cold War division of Europe for more than three decades;” and the more immediate Cuban Missile Crisis in late 1962, with its threat of nuclear war. “The Wall’s construction not only stopped East Germany’s unraveling at a time when the country’s viability was in doubt,” Kempe writes. It also “condemned another generation of tens of millions of East Europeans to authoritarian, Soviet-style rule with its limits on individual and national freedom” (p.485). For 28 additional years, the Berlin Wall “would remain the iconic image of what unfree systems can impose when free leaders fail to resist” (p.502). As to the Cuban missile crisis the following year, although history would celebrate Kennedy’s management of that crisis, “Khrushchev would not have risked putting nuclear weapons in Cuba at all if he had not concluded from Berlin in 1961 that Kennedy was weak and indecisive” (p.485).

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
January 27, 2013



Filed under German History, Soviet Union, Uncategorized, United States History

Old New World Order

Walter Russell Mead,

“God and Gold:

Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World”

[Introductory note: this is another comment initially written in 2009, slightly revised]

In “God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World,” Walter Russell Mead takes a sweeping look at the last 400 years of history, through an Anglo-American lens.  Mead contends that the “biggest geopolitical story in modern times” is how the English and the Americans, between them, have dominated world history since the mid-1600s. “First Britain and then the United States rose to a global power and cultural dominance never before seen.  It is perhaps bad manners to say so, but that does not make it less true. . . Nothing in the history of the modern world is as enduring or as important as the development and rise of the Anglo-American world order” (p.80-82).

Mead thus advances a version of what the British historian Herbert Butterfield termed the “Whig interpretation of history” – an interpretation which, roughly speaking, sees history (particularly English history) as a progressive evolution toward every greater ordered liberty – and he does so on a very broad scale.  In my view, Mead overstates the commonalities between Great Britain and the United States.  Looking forward, Mead sees an America ruling the seas and much of the rest of the world for the foreseeable future, a comforting view in this pessimistic era, but hardly an inevitable outcome.  Yet, Mead expounds his grandiose theory with zest, using wry humor and clever sub-titles, suggesting that he may be provoking the reader into a conversation on the role of Anglo-American institutions in creating the present and shaping the future.  It is a worthwhile conversation.

The foundation for Mead’s Anglo-American world order is a culture based on a robust, transformative capitalism, and a favorable mix of religion, geography, and political and legal institutions – a culture “uniquely well positioned to develop and harness the titanic forces of capitalism as these emerged on the world scene” (p.14).  Mead contends that Anglo-American capitalism has bested its rivals through continual transformation and adaptation to changing global requirements (the Dutch were the first in the modern era to figure out global capitalism, Mead argues, but by Cromwell’s time had ceded the lead role to the English).  Throughout the centuries, the English-speaking world has been “less bound by tradition, more willing to embrace change, tolerate dissent, and, above all, allow the chaotic and sometimes painful transformations that capitalism creates and demands” (p.174).

Mead explains how Anglo-American religiosity has bolstered its capitalist dominance.  Great Britain finished its religious wars early, in the 17th century.  Thereafter, clashes between faith and reason were far more muted than those on the continent.  Britons could take in and accept the Enlightenment’s scientific worldview, while not turning their backs on the moralizing power of religion.  In contrast to continental Europe, the English-speaking world “managed to reconcile a pragmatic and skeptical approach to history and philosophy with profound religious faith and a sense of God’s providential care.”  Consequently, the “chasm between religion and secular reform and modernization that dominated politics in much of Europe until the twentieth century  . . . was never as deep in the English speaking world” (p.205).  British reconciliation of religion and reason created a pluralistic society that was “at once unusually tolerant, unusually open to new ideas, and unusually pious” (p.14).  Throughout English history,  doctrine and practices shifted with “every passing wind from the age of the Stuarts to our own times.  .  .The heresy of today is the orthodoxy of tomorrow – and perhaps the heresy of the day after that” (p.203).  This “persistence of religion” seems to Mead to be “related to its ability to coexist and even thrive on a kind of skepticism that is . . . characteristic of the increasingly dynamic religious orientation of the English-speaking world” (p.203).

In addition to religion, Mean underscores the contribution of geography and mastery of the seas to the Anglo-American world order.  The English Channel separating Britain from the continent created a barrier protecting Britain from predatory continental powers, a barrier that even Hitler couldn’t overcome.  The United States is even more blessed, protected on two sides by oceans.  With the shield of the channel, Britannia ruled the waves for almost two centuries, from the early 18th century until well into the 20th, creating an Empire that at its height encompassed almost a fourth of the world’s population.  As Britain declined as a world power after World War II, the United States was in a position to assert maritime supremacy and, with it, mastery of the global capitalist game.

Mead draws upon Admiral Alfred Thayer  Mahan, a renowned 19th century American sea power advocate, to contend that “sea power is more than a navy. . .more than control of strategic trade routes.”  Sea power means:

using the mobility of the seas to build a global system resting on economic links as well as on military strength . . .using the strategic flexibility of an offshore power, protected to some degree from the rivalries and hostilities of land powers surrounded by powerful neighbors, to build power strategies that countries cannot counter [and] . . . using command of the seas to plant colonies whose wealth and success reinforce the mother country (p.95).

If there is a single overarching “plot” to the story of world power politics over the last centuries, Mead argues, that “plot” is the “long and continuing rise of the maritime system as its center shifted from the United Provinces [of the Netherlands] to the United Kingdom to the United States” (p.173).  Once established, this global capitalist system based on sea power has proven “extremely difficult to dislodge” (p.95).

           Mead spends less time than one would expect on the core political institutions of the Anglo-American world order.  But he is clear that the Anglo-American models of liberal capitalist democracy – British parliamentarianism and American constitutionalism – are demonstrably more conducive to economic growth and expansion than any existing rival.  Similarly, he finds the English common law, the base of both countries’ legal systems, ideally suited to buttress global capitalist mastery through gradual adoption of old principles to new and changing circumstances.  English jurists and public opinion saw early on the “great value in the unplanned, organic growth of their common law” (p.299), Mead contends.  Here, too, Britain and the United States have followed a distinctly different approach from that on the European continent, where more sweeping legal systems following the Napoleonic model have proven less capable of adapting to new and changing circumstances.

My professional experience working on criminal justice reform in Eastern Europe confirms Mead’s point.  The legal systems in this part of the world are based on the Napoleonic model, and remained more or less intact throughout the Cold War era.  As former communist countries strive to become functioning democracies, most are faced with serious organized crime and public corruption problems.  In confronting these related challenges, many have adopted common law practices – for example, use of cooperating witnesses and plea bargaining – which have proven to be better adapted to counter modern forms of criminality than those which continental legal systems afford.

Mead slights but does not ignore other English-speaking peoples in his analysis.  He argues that the “greatest difference between the British Empire and the tentative ventures of other states” was the “rise of the self-governing, English-speaking colonies” (p.115).  In a reference intended to include Australia, New Zealand and Canada, Mead says that the “ability of the overseas English-speaking societies to welcome and assimilate vast numbers of immigrants from all over the world remains a key factor in the continuing strength of the United States (and other countries) to the present day” (p.118).  Curiously, Britain’s closest English-speaking neighbor, Ireland, receives almost no attention in Mead’s analysis, and it is unclear whether in Mead’s view Ireland’s dominant Catholicism and unique traditions impede its full participation in the Anglo-American world order.

Mead does not overlook the failings of the Anglo-American world order.  In particular, he emphasizes that Britons and then Americans have been unable to understand why the rest of the world — continentals across the channel and the billion or so Muslims in the Islamic world – has been reluctant to embrace the Anglo-American model.  Britons and Americans “consistently underestimate the difficulty of establishing the global democratic and capitalist peace they want” (p.271).  Citing Woodrow Wilson, Paul Wolfowitz and Tony Blair, Mead notes that liberal utopia “continues to elude us” (p.272).  Outlanders who reject the Anglo-American style of capitalism ask whether it stands for anything more than the accumulation of material wealth, with the ethos of pursuing business, efficiency and the ever-rising standard of living, “unconnected to any deeper vision of life or meaning” (p.236).

At one point, Mead asserts that the English language should also be counted among the “blessings the Anglo-Saxons would bring to the world” and the “instruments that would allow them to rule it” (p.53).  I wish Mead had treated at greater length the contribution of the English language to the present world order.  There is no doubt that English is today’s global language, our era’s lingua franca.  English dominates commerce, international media, travel, entertainment, and much else.  No other language is close.   In those countries where English is not the national language (i.e most of the world, encompassing probably 95%+ of the world’s population), it is the key to transcending local boundaries and being part of the larger world.  I have attended numerous regional conferences in Southeast Europe where Albanians, Bulgarians, Croatians, Moldavians, Romanians, Serbs and Turks transcend centuries of mistrust and conflict to come together to discuss common problems – in English.

Difficult as it might be to prove empirically, one could argue that English-speaking countries should be at an advantage in the global capitalist game if the rules governing that game are set forth, interpreted and discussed in their national language.  This doesn’t mean that Japanese or German entrepreneurs, for instance, think like Americans or Britons or revere our countries because they speak our language fluently (often far better than the average American).  Indeed, one could also argue that Japanese or German entrepreneurs who speak English fluently, as many do, have an edge on their British or American counterparts.  Mastery of the English language provides insight into how their Anglo-American competitors think, whereas few American or British entrepreneurs are likely to speak Japanese or German.  Still, if the rules of the global capitalist game are written in the first instance in English, as they usually are, that seems to give the English-speaking world an edge in the global capitalist game (similarly, the cultural milieu in which the global game is played, as manifested by films and popular music, is also heavily weighted in favor of English).

As the book progresses closer to the present and begins to look ahead, it becomes clear that today’s Anglo-American world order is mostly American.  Mead acknowledges no handoff point, where Americans found themselves primarily responsible for preservation of this world order.  But one assumes that the handoff occurred sometime after World War II, as Great Britain found itself exhausted and bankrupted by its own war heroics, unable to maintain an empire or act as a great power.  Looking forward, this book is very much about the place of the United States in the first half of the 21st century, not the United Kingdom.

But even when it made sense to speak about an Anglo-American world order, it is worthwhile asking whether the two countries had as much in common as Mead suggests.  Britain and the United States have hardly marched in lockstep in the years since American Independence.  They fought a second war in 1812, dodged another during our Civil War when England threatened to take the Confederate side.  Notwithstanding winning two World Wars together, much separated the United States and Britain in the 20th century.  The United States was never particularly supportive of the British Empire.  The countries were on opposite sides during the Suez crisis of 1956 and did not see eye to eye on Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s.   Britain retains a monarchy and established church – institutions antithetical to our notions of democracy — as well as a class system that remains more rigid than what we know in the United States.  Moreover, despite common Protestant roots, it is difficult to argue that religion has “persisted” in the United Kingdom.  When it comes to organized religion, Britons today are much more like their continental neighbors, far more blasé than Americans.  There is no Bible Belt in today’s Britain.

Further, as Mead looks to the future, I found his pronouncements on the “enduring” nature of the Anglo-American world order to be an invitation to complacency.  Endurance is today almost wholly dependent on the United States, and only the most stalwart optimist would argue that the United States has a lock on domination in the cutthroat global capitalist game of the 21st century.  A country counting on borrowing money indefinitely from China, and appearing likely to buy oil indefinitely from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Nigeria, Venezuela and other countries which share few of our values hardly seems poised to stay ineluctably ahead of the global curve.  Despite Mead’s endearing thesis, Americans assume at their peril that they will dominate the world economy in the first half of the 21st century in the same way they dominated the second half of the 20th century.

When I first read this book in 2009, I thought it was potentially another of the serious works that occasionally manage to become best sellers, allowing Mead to take his place with such non-fiction writers as Paul Kennedy, David McCollum, or Margaret MacMillan who have made money by producing books which challenge readers.  Mead’s “God and Gold” seemed to be precisely the type of work that the chattering classes, left and right, would gobble up.  Regrettably, the work never gained this traction.  Although I found his interpretation to be an overreach, Walter Russell Mead  provides much worth chattering about in this exuberant, provocative work.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

October 21, 2012

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Filed under History, United States History