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Bad Start

Kempe

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

3 Comments

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

Caroline Moorehead, A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France


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This book was my parents’ 2011 selection from my annual Christmas “wish list.” It is really two short books in one, approximately equal in length. The first half depicts France under German occupation and the rise of the French Resistance movement. The second takes place outside occupied France, in hellish Nazi prison camps, first Birkenau, part of the Auschwitz complex, then Ravensbrück. Both halves revolve around 230 women who were part of the Resistance before being deported East in January 1943 on a “Train in Winter,” le Convoi des 31000. Forty-nine of the 230 survived a twenty-seven month ordeal, liberated in the spring of 1945. “Those who came back to France in 1945 owed their lives principally to chance,” Moorehead writes, “but they owed it too in no small measure to the tenacity with which they clung to one another, though separated by every division of class, age, religion, occupation, politics and education” (p. 7).

Moorehead’s story of the growing solidarity between the women prisoners begins with the early phase of German occupation in 1940. To the great relief of the French, this phase was relatively civil, not marked by the savagery that had accompanied the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. Indeed, the Nazis were initially “astonished by the French passivity” (p.13). The French government ended up in Vichy, a spa near Clermont-Ferrand in the heart of the Auvergne. Led by World War I hero Marshal Phillipe Pétain, the Vichy regime embarked upon a path of collaboration with the German occupiers. Pétain and his followers – “Catholic, conservative, authoritarian and often anti-Semitic,” as Moorehead describes them (p.15) — believed that collaboration would lead to a France:

purged and purified, returned to a mythical golden age before the French revolution introduced perilous ideas about equality. The new French were to respect their superiors and the values of discipline, hard work and sacrifice and they were to shun the decadent individualism that had, together with Jews, Freemasons, trade unionists, immigrants, gypsies and communists, contributed to the military defeat of the country (p.15).

Not all French adhered to Pétain’s vision of what he called la France éternelle. The resistance to the Vichy government and Nazi occupation included every class and ideology within French society. But members of the French Communist Party (PCF in French) were in the forefront of the movement, a useful reminder that, whatever else its failings, the PCF was way ahead of much of the rest of France in seeing the existential threat that Nazism posed to French civilization. 119 of Moorehead’s 230 women were PCF members or supporters and as such “already knew a good deal about survival and the clandestine life” (p.25).

In 1940, when the occupation began, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were allies, confusing the French Communists who nonetheless rallied to the cause of the Resistance. But when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the confusion ended and everything changed. In the summer of 1941, the chasse aux Juifs, the hunt for Jews, began in earnest, “so zealously pursued by the French collaborators that it was said that even the Nazis were impressed” (p.75-76). The final portions of the first part of Moorehead’s book reveal strong and heroic acts of resistance, along with betrayal of many of the resistants by their fellow countrymen. As the first half ends, the 230 women were placed in Romainville, a camp in France, before being sent East to Birkenau on the train in winter, le Convoi des 31000.

Throughout the second half of the book, Moorehead expounds upon how the solidarity among the French women imprisoned in the camps deepened and became a key to their survival. The French women “took pride in their closeness” and were “as kind, helpful and polite towards one another as they would have been back home” (p.212). They were helped by their “particular skills as women, caring for others and being practical,” making them “less vulnerable than men to harsh conditions and despair. Adaptability was crucial, resignation fatal” (p.220). The women became so cohesive, “so attuned to each other’s frailties, so watchful and protective, that planning how to keep the group alive had become a way of life” (p.215).

Nonetheless, two and a half months after reaching Birkenau, the initial group of 230 French women was down to eighty. “A hundred and fifty of them had died, from typhus, pneumonia, dysentery, from dog bites and beatings, and gangrenous frostbite, from not being able to eat or sleep, or from being gassed” (p.218). The ones still alive were the stronger women, “those neither too old nor too young, those sustained by belief in a new world order; or, quite simply, because they had been very lucky” (p.218).

Fifty-two of the 230 women survived the ordeal in Birkenau before being transported in early 1944 on another train in winter to Ravensbrück, north of Berlin. At Birkenau, the “primary goal had been to exterminate the inmates, with the majority being gassed as soon as they arrived, and the others worked to death” (p.254). Ravensbrück, although hellish, was set up as a commercial enterprise to fuel the German war machine, with death being “simply a by-product and not an end” (p.254).

There were 5,000 French women at Ravensbrück. Those who came from recognized groups, Moorehead writes, communists, Catholic Bretons, the intellectual bourgeoisie, were “team players, and the easiest to get on with” (p.255). As a national group, the French were more cohesive than the other nationalities, more prone to look after their own” (p.255). The friendship between them “stronger than anything they had known in their previous lives, had become their credo; it defined them” (p.254).

In addition to luck and solidarity, there were unanticipated keys to survival:

Discussion groups were started, on everything from raising rabbits to esoteric questions of philosophy. Despite the lack of books and paper, there was a huge hunger for knowledge, particularly the learning of languages, though very few women chose to learn German (p.250).

Forty-nine of the fifty-two who went from Birkenau to Ravenbrück lived to see the end of the war, thirty four of them communists (with four of the forty-nine still alive as Moorehead’s book went to press). Fourteen were widows, their husbands shot by the Nazis or dead in the concentration camps. The forty-nine went home “emaciated, haunted, grieving for the dead companions, but alive” (p.278). In their two years and three months in the camps, the survivors had:

witnessed both the worst and the best that life had to offer, cruelty, sadism, brutality, betrayal, thievery, but also generosity and selflessness. Their reserves of strength and character had been pushed to the very far limits of endurance and every notion of humanity had been challenged (p.288-89).

The return to France “proved as hard and as unhappy as anything they had known. Return, they said, was a time of ‘shadowy places, silences and things not said’” (p.289). The survivors had to face questions about how to remake their lives, and how to convey to their families what they had been through. The camps were “so extreme, so incomprehensible, so unfamiliar an experience, that the women doubted that they possessed the words to describe them, even if people wanted to hear; which, as it turned out, not many did” (p.293). When the women did talk about why they survived, they asked themselves repeatedly:

what it was in their particular story or character that enabled them to live, whether it was their optimistic nature, or because they had been able to use their skills as women, caring for others. In the end, they always came back to the same two reasons: they had lived because each of them had been incredibly lucky, and because of the friendship between them, which had protected them and made it easier to withstand the barbarity” (p.313-14).

The second half of Moorehead’s book is difficult to read, but a poignant reminder of the brutality and depravity which characterized the camps. With its emphasis upon the role of women in the Resistance and the camps, the book is a useful supplement to much of the literature on the subjects, heavily concentrated on men. Throughout the second half, I asked myself whether Moorehead might be overstating the extent to which friendship and solidarity were the women’s keys to survival; whether, in the end, it all came down to raw luck. But I was moved by her depictions of the “worst and best that life had to offer,” and understood how the valiant women who survived felt wiser, “in some indefinable way,” because they comprehended, as Moorhead writes, the “depths to which human beings can sink and equally the heights to which it is possible to rise” (p.314).

Thomas H. Peebles
Washington, D.C.
March 26, 2012

5 Comments

April 8, 2012 · 2:29 pm