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
January 27, 2013