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Kennedy and the Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall Crisis: Perspectives on Cold War Alliances
Houndmills Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002
The second Berlin crisis began with a speech by Khrushchev on 10 November 1958 and a Soviet ultimatum to the Western powers on 27 November in which the Kremlin demanded to ‘liquidate the occupation regime’ in Berlin and sign a peace treaty with the two German states and to agree to transform West Berlin into a ‘free city’ - all within six months. The new Berlin crisis was on.
Three years later, at the height of the crisis, on 13 August 1961 the Berlin Wall was erected. The Wall became the symbol of the Cold War, its key prize, and its collapse in 1989 was a crucial step towards the end of this war. For many scholars the second Berlin crisis has been a sujet célèbre and much studied for its lessons about the Cold War; and with recently uncovered and/or declassified documentation the results are very impressive. (1) We now know a lot more about this pivotal event.
For those who prefer a sort of ‘comprised’ version I recommend this Gearson/Schake-collection of essays, which grew out of an international research project, the Nuclear History Programme. Lawrence Freedman (with his chapter ‘Berlin and the Cold War’), John Gearson (‘Origins of the Berlin Crisis of 1958 – 62’; ‘Britain and the Berlin Wall Crisis, 1958 – 62’) and Hope Harrison (‘The German Democratic Republic, the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall Crisis’) are ‘old hands’ of the crisis and have written extensively about it. Their essays comprise their former findings. Kori Schake (‘A Broader Range of Choice? US Policy in the 1957 and 1961 Berlin Crisis’) and Cyril Buffet (‘De Gaulle, the Bomb and Berlin: How to use a Political Weapon’) enhance our understanding of the Americans and French during that crisis and the complex intra-alliance politics.
What then do we now know? The Eisenhower Administration’s position was ‘based on the premise that we will not move an inch from our rights . . . the status quo must stand and be recognized’. Eisenhower expressed the conviction ‘that the actual decision to all-out war will not come, but if it does come, we must have the crust to follow through’ (p. 102). For more than two years nothing happened. With Kennedy almost everything changed. Soon after his inauguration Kennedy received the first warning from his staff, notably Secretary of State Dean Rusk, that Khrushchev again would raise the Berlin issue in due course, ‘perhaps soon’. US Ambassador Thompson stressed that if there was no progress, Khrushchev would ‘almost certainly proceed with a separate peace treaty’ (p. 169). Thompson proposed an interim agreement for seven to ten years in order to gain time for both countries. The Berlin issue became increasingly important. Thompson, back in Moscow, thought that Khrushchev would sign a separate peace treaty with the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and create a Berlin crisis ‘this year’. This ‘could involve [a] real possibility of world war, [and] we would almost certainly be led back to [an] intensified Cold War relationship’ (p. 173). He also warned that, without any change in Berlin, the United States had at least to face that the East Germans would ‘seal off [the] Sector boundary in order [to] stop what they must consider intolerable continuation refugee flow through Berlin’ (p. 173). Behind the scenes a thorough review of Berlin was under way in Washington. The most amazing proposals were made by the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff: they included a tacit freeze on the status of Berlin; Western approval for the Oder- Neisse line; support for an active policy by the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) towards Eastern Europe expressed in non aggressive pacts; encouragement of closer relations between the FRG and the GDR with the possibility of at least de facto and perhaps eventually de jure recognition of the GDR. Kennedy himself had already proposed a summit meeting to Khrushchev, from which Berlin obviously could not really be excluded. The meeting in Vienna on 3/4 June 1961 turned out to be a disaster. Khrushchev confronted Kennedy with an ultimatum. At the end of the talks he made it clear that a peace treaty with the GDR would be signed in December if there was no agreement: ‘it was up to the U.S. to decide whether there will be war or peace’ (p. 224). This was an irrevocable decision, he concluded. Kennedy replied ‘it would be a cold winter’. The US President was upset; on ‘Air Force One’ on the way from Vienna to London, he called Khrushchev a ‘bastard’, a ‘son of a bitch’, who ‘just beat hell out of me’ (p. 225). In London Kennedy met Prime Minister Macmillan, who expressed little confidence in the president. He wrote in his diary: ‘I feel in my bones that President Kennedy is going to fail to produce any real leadership. The American Press and public are beginning to feel the same. In a few weeks they may turn to us. We must be ready. Otherwise we may drift to disaster over Berlin - a terrible diplomatic defeat or (out of sheer incompetence) a nuclear war’ (p. 175). Macmillan was the weakest link in the Western alliance, he never really wanted German reunification. He was not going to sacrifice the bones of one private soldier in the cause of Berlin or of German reunification. Neither was Kennedy, while Dean Acheson obviously was. On 29 June, Truman’s former Secretary of State, reactivated by Kennedy, presented his now famous 33-page ‘Acheson report’ to the National Security Council (NSC). He made clear that ‘the issue over Berlin . . . is far more than an issue over that city. It is broader and deeper than even the German question as a whole. It has become an issue of resolution between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., the outcome of which will go far to determine the confidence of Europe - indeed of the world - in the United States’ (pp. 201 – 12).

The President had to show Khrushchev that he had the resolution to go on, if necessary to nuclear war. Some NSC members were upset by Acheson’s seeming nonchalance about making nuclear war, some supported Acheson. Kennedy guided the discussion, did not take a stand, and directed further analyses. Acheson was scornful about the way things were going. He wrote to Truman: Kennedy’s performance worries and puzzles me. Somehow, he does succeed in being a president, but only in giving the appearance of one, though he did do well with Khrushchev Both Kennedy and Dean Rusk seem to me to be better when they make speeches than when they act. We have heard a lot about the necessity to make sacrifices but we haven’t been asked to make any. There are plenty to make if the Administration would just get started. Time is running out. (p. 175) On 25 July, Kennedy announced on television a military build-up, but made it clear he was open to negotiations - at the expense of the West Germans. He did not say it, but Secretary of State Dean Rusk made this clear when he met his British colleague Douglas Home in Paris on 5 August. He said that in the preparation of a basis for negotiation with the Russians about Germany and Berlin ‘the West Germans were going to have to swallow a lot of things that they had hitherto maintained were entirely unacceptable to them’ (p. 256). The Americans were in fact to be much tougher with the Germans than the British had thought.
The day after the wall had gone up, Rusk instructed Ambassador George F. Kennan in Belgrade to get in touch with his Soviet colleague to tell him that the US Government ‘is sincerely anxious to find a peaceful solution to the Berlin crisis’. No other government was to be informed about these talks: ‘in particular, it is not intended that the Germans shall have any knowledge of them’ (p. 124). When four weeks later Rusk talked with his Soviet colleague Gromyko even the defeatist British were startled and amazed at the pace of change in American attitudes. ‘They seem ready to consider almost anything’, Home wrote on 25 September to Macmillan (p. 190). West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer remained stubborn. He had ‘no faith in the President at all’ (p. 301), as old Pferdemenges, the Chancellor’s best friend, told British Ambassador Christopher Steel in Bonn. Adenauer turned to French President Charles de Gaulle, who supported him - and who was opposed to talks with the Russians. He declared that the West should never yield in the face of force. Khrushchev had launched the Berlin crisis with - probably - the following aims:

- stabilize the GDR as the linchpin of the Soviets cordon sanitaire against the West;

- recognition of the GDR for West Germany;
- and with that acceptance of the post-World War II status quo in Europe;
- no nuclear weapons for West Germany.
Hope Harrison reiterates her old thesis that the tail (the GDR) wagged the dog (the Soviet
Union). She is right in that an aggressive East German leadership persistently pushed the
Soviet leaders into building the Wall. But that is as far as it goes. When the ‘ideological
crackpot’, the East German leader Walter Ulbricht (p. 362), insisted on a ‘peace treaty’ and
even more, Khrushchev made it absolutely clear to him on 26 February 1962, with the
Wall ‘we achieved the maximum of what was possible’ (Harrison). He would not give
Ulbricht the opportunity to start a nuclear war on the Autobahn - neither would Kennedy
with regard to Adenauer and the West Germans despite their ‘incipient appetite for the
nuclear’ (p. 360). It was a simple doctrine: no nukes for the Germans.
Kennedy caught the absurdity of the situation when he complained, a few hours after his
confrontation with Khrushchev in Vienna: ‘It seems silly for us to be facing an atomic war
over a treaty preserving Berlin as the future capital of reunited Germany when all of us
know that Germany will probably never be reunited’ (p. 225).
In sum, this a very interesting collection of essays which also sheds new light on the role
of the small NATO ally Italy (‘nobody paid attention’) (Leopoldo Nuti and Bruna
Bagnato, ‘Italy and the Berlin Crisis, 1958 – 61’) and General Norstad, the Supreme Allied
Commander Europe and US Commander in Chief Europe. His views were unacceptable
to the new Kennedy Administration because he did not go far enough in postponing or
even rejecting the use of nuclear weapons (Gregory W. Pedlow, ‘Three Hats for Berlin:
General Lauris Norstad and the Second Berlin Crisis, 1958 – 62’).
With the Wall, Anglo-American policies regarding German reunification were
definitely dead. In effect, and without ever saying so to each other, much less to the public,
the Western Allies and the Russians agreed to a stalemate in Germany. Kennedy had
privately been sceptical on the question of reunification - not to mention the British. The
Kennedy White House decided very early that the phrase ‘German reunification’ could ‘no
longer be included in drafts for use by the President’ (p. 61). From early 1962 onwards, it
was Kennedy’s policy to put pressure on Adenauer so that - in Kennedy’s words - the
Chancellor would ‘put his hand upon the coffin [of the reunification policy] and help to
carry it’ (p. 346). And he told British Ambassador Ormbsy-Gore that the West Germans ‘if
they want to get their snouts into the Berlin trough I would be in favour of it’ (p. 329). That
was too much for Adenauer. He did not play along. The result was a severe crisis in US-
German relations. Adenauer turned to de Gaulle. One year later they signed the Franco-
German Treaty which launched a new crisis, with the United States.
[1] See e.g. Honore M. Catudal, Kennedy and the Berlin Wall Crisis (Berlin: Berlin Verlag, 1980);
Michael R. Beschloss, The Crisis Years. Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960 – 1963 (New York:
Edward Burlingame Books, 1991); John C. Ausland, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Berlin-
Cuba Crisis, 1961 – 1964 (Oslo et al.: Scandinavian University Press, 1996); John P.Gearson,
Harold Macmillan and the Berlin Wall Crisis, 1958 – 62 (Houndsmills & Basingstoke:
Macmillan Press, 1998); Rolf Steininger, Der Mauerbau: Die Westmächte und Adenauer in der
Berlinkrise 1958 – 1963 (München: Olzog Verlag, 2001).
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