1 Chapter 11 jfk, Berlin, and the Berlin Crises, 1961-1963

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1Chapter 11
JFK, Berlin, and the Berlin Crises, 1961-1963
Robert G. Waite
When John Kennedy addressed the nation at his swearing-in ceremony on January 20, 1961, he had nothing to say about Berlin, about the on-going crisis over the status of the occupied and divided city. Rather, the newly elected President spoke on other issues, especially “the quest for peace” and the “struggle against the common enemy of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”1 Berlin would soon, however, gain his attention. Tensions in the divided city had been growing since the end of World War II and the Berlin Question became a full-blown international crisis in 1958 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announced that the issue of Berlin had to be settled and that if the West did not agree to a peace treaty recognizing East Germany, the German Democratic Republic, his nation would. Access to Berlin would then fall to Walter Ulbricht and his communist government. Such actions meant that the allies would lose more than their strategic foothold in central Europe; their strength and determination to remain firm against the Communists would be thrown into doubt.2
Despite the absence of references to Berlin in his initial addresses as president, JFK had since his election victory begun to focus on Berlin, on the crises over the status of the divided city which could erupt at any time into a full-blown east-west confrontation. During his term of office as President, Kennedy took forceful and deliberate steps to reassure our European allies, West German leaders, and residents of West Berlin, that the United States would stand by them, that the commitment to the post-war settlement remained unshakable. The way JFK handled the on-going crises over Berlin, the manner in which he responded to East German and Soviet challenges, the words of his speeches and television addresses, his very public art of diplomacy, and the historic visit to West Germany and Berlin in June 1963 reveal much about his leadership, his style of governing, and his effectiveness as President of the United States.
Berlin emerged as a source of contention between the Western allies – Britain, France and the United States – and the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War when agreements divided the city into zones of occupation, each controlled by one of the allied powers.3 As tensions mounted over the post-war settlement and the seemingly steady advance and aggressiveness of Communism, the importance of Berlin as a flash-point between the world powers grew. Well before the 1960 presidential campaign, John Kennedy became aware of the sensitivity of the Berlin question. In 1959 he told an interviewer that Berlin was to be a “test of nerve and will.”4 While a Senator he served on the Foreign Relations Committee which held several hearings in 1959 on Berlin. Witnesses addressed the recent Soviet announcement of a deadline for a peace agreement with East Germany that would recognize its sovereignty. The Assistant Secretary for European Affairs told the Committee that it was imperative that the western nations, led by the United States, remain firmly committed to the maintenance of their “rights and position in Berlin, and access thereto” as specified in post-war agreements.5
In a speech on the floor of the US Senate on June 14, 1960, JFK elaborated his views on foreign policy, on dealing with the Soviets, on intentions for Berlin. Following the collapse of the U.S.-Soviet summit on May 10th and with the belligerence of Soviet Premier Khrushchev mounting, new approaches were desperately needed, the young senator told his colleagues. “The real issue of American foreign policy today...is the lack of long-range preparation, the lack of policy planning a coherent and purposeful national strategy backed by strength,” Kennedy explained.6 Only a militarily strong and powerful US could negotiate effectively with the Soviet leadership. Senator Kennedy offered a well thought out 12 point program for “long-term policies designed to increase the strength of the non-communist world,” and Point 8 called for a “long-range solution to the problems of Berlin,” a solution based on unshakable commitments to Berlin and Germany.7
During the 1960 presidential campaign, two West German leaders told the New York Times that they hoped both Senator Kennedy and Vice President Nixon “would take a firm position on Berlin” because they expected East German head of state Walter Ulbricht to “warm up the ‘cold war’.”8 In the week prior to the November 8th election East Germany acted and “made a new inroad on the West’s position at Berlin” when its troops held several trucks bound for West Germany. The unpredictable Ulbricht moved again a month later when he “threatened...‘serious disturbances’” in traffic to Berlin if a trade agreement was not ratified. The East German Communist leader “demanded that President-elect Kennedy attend a summit meeting next spring to resolve the Berlin crisis.”9 Sentiment in East Germany was decidedly hostile to the new president. “One is reluctant to call this event an election,” commented East Germany’s leading newspaper, Neues Deutschland. “The so very important decision of who will be presented to the American people as candidates at all is decided in the small conventions of both bourgeoisie parties. They are nothing other than the political arm of big capitalist interests.” The newspaper termed both candidates “apostles of American imperialism” and saw little difference between them.10 Walter Ulbricht’s East Germany was preparing to step up the pressure on Berlin.
Recognizing the growing tensions over Berlin, commentators and pundits in the US called upon president-elect Kennedy to begin addressing them immediately. Roscoe Drummond wrote in the Washington Post that Berlin merited special attention during the months prior to the inauguration.11 John Kennedy did spend time studying carefully two lengthy memoranda on foreign policy, one by Paul Nitze on “national security” issues and a second by Adlai Stevenson on foreign policy. Each identified Berlin a central issue because “the chances are that among their [leaders of the Communist nations meeting at the Kremlin] decisions will be efforts to test the mettle of the new American President - perhaps on Berlin early next year.”12 By early January, the newly elected President and Secretary of State-designate Dean Rusk “decided to look to this country’s most eminent Sovietologists for advice in helping frame policy for the years immediately ahead,” the New York Times reported.13
West German political leaders spoke up and they urged President-elect Kennedy to act forcefully on the Berlin question. Already on November 10th, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer “suggested” a meeting between JFK and Khrushchev to address a number of issues. Adenauer also anticipated a visit to Germany by President Kennedy the next spring and that he “to put West Berlin on his itinerary,” making him the first US president to visit the divided city.14 For the German Chancellor a Presidential visit was urgent because he “expects a serious Berlin crisis in the spring and wants to talk it over with Mr. Kennedy.”15 Adenauer and the leaders of France and Britain wanted a strong statement on the continuing presence of American forces in Europe, much as Eisenhower had provided. Shortly after the inauguration, the American ambassador to Germany “declared [that] the United States will not abandon its commitments to Berlin,” as he moved to offer reassurances16
Berlin came to be one of the most persistent and troublesome international issues faced by President Kennedy. It was, however, one of more than half a dozen hot-spots around the globe that threatened to push the US and Soviet Union to nuclear conflagration. During the first months in office, JFK had strikingly little to say about Berlin.17 West German leaders sent notes of congratulation to the president-elect. In a joint telegram, Chancellor Adenauer and Federal President Lübke congratulated JFK and assured him of the friendship and trust of the German people. They emphasized the “bond of fate” linking the two nations in their commitment of freedom and applauded the United States for its unflagging leadership, thereby strongly reminding the newly elected president of West Germany’s needs and expectations in the coming years, namely unyielding support and backing at any cost.18 In a radio broadcast West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt applauded JFK and assured listeners that “our faith in the future is also the result of the determination and clarity that President Kennedy stated that America is prepared at all cost to maintain freedom and to ensure the victory of freedom.”19
At a February 1, 1961, press conference the President was asked specifically about Berlin and he answered succinctly: “There is no change in our view on Berlin.” His statements reflected the views of the State Department which in a spring 1961 memorandum asserted: “However impelling the urge to find some new approach to the Berlin problem, the facts of the situation strictly limit the practical courses of action open to the West.” Of foremost importance was “the maintenance of a credible deterrent against unilateral Soviet action” on Berlin.20
JFK explained his silence on Berlin to the West German foreign minister at a February 19th meeting. “The President was anxious to have the Germans understand the reason why his Administration had so far been silent on the Berlin question except for a comment made in answer to one question during a press conference,” a memo of the discussion noted. “This did not by any means signify a lessening of United States interest in the Berlin question,” the President insisted. “As long as there was a lull, however, he had not wanted to provoke either action or comment in the matter,” largely because JFK “expected renewed pressure by the Soviets in the coming months.”21 Hoping to clarify the stand of the US, West German Chancellor Adenauer came to Washington in April 1961 for a series of discussions with the President and members of Congress. The talks were fruitful, and in a joint communiqué the two leaders “reaffirmed the position of their Governments that only through the application of the principle of self-determination can a just an enduring solution be found for the problem of Germany including Berlin.” Furthermore, “they renewed their pledge to preserve the freedom of the people of West Berlin pending the reunification of Germany in peace and freedom and the restoration of Berlin as the capital of a reunified country.”22
Soviet Premier Khrushchev did not remain quiet for long. In early January 1961 he reiterated the call for a separate peace agreement with East Germany. Khrushchev made it clear, once again, that “he would not shrink from war if the ‘capitalist’ and ‘imperialist’ powers resist a Communist victory” in the divided city, the New York Times reported. The expulsion of US, British and French footholds in Berlin was “the immediate objective.” Khrushchev acted at this time for several reasons, including the fact that Berlin was a convenient point for leveraging and pressuring the West, that his prestige was involved, that pressure from Ulbricht was a real concern to him, and that the current Berlin situation threatened the stability of East Germany.23 As tensions rose in the spring, JFK directed the Department of Defense to “report to him promptly on current military planning for a possible crisis over Berlin.”24
The next crisis came in June 1961 at the summit meeting in Vienna with Khrushchev, when the two heads of state addressed seven trouble spots.25 At the conclusion of the summit, the Soviets handed US officials an aid memoire, outlining their position on Berlin which also attacked the West German government for its “saber-rattling militarism” and its advocacy of “the revision of the German frontiers and the results of the Second World War.” The Soviets called once more for a peace treaty making Berlin a “demilitarized free city.”26 The summit concluded with “a sharp three-hour disagreement on all questions concerning Germany and Berlin,” wrote James Reston in the New York Times. JFK left Vienna “in a solemn...mood,” largely because “on the big disputes between Washington and Moscow he had found absolutely no new grounds for encouragement.”27 A joint statement issued on June 4th, at the end of two days of “useful meetings,” noted simply that the leaders had discussed Germany and other issues. The statement contained no mention of Berlin.28

After consulting with the French and British governments, the President responded on July 19, 1961, to the Soviet aide memoire on Berlin, dismissing it as “a document which speaks of peace but threatens to disturb it.” JFK stated that the “the real intent” was to have East Berlin “formally absorbed into the so-called German Democratic Republic while West Berlin, even though called a ‘free city’, would lose the protection presently provided by the Western Powers and become subject to the will of a totalitarian regime.”29 The President’s resolve stiffened and he started to fully articulate his stand on Berlin in terms that the public could respond to. His rhetoric began to play a key role in shaping the mounting crisis over Berlin.
On the evening of July 25th the President stated his position to the American people in a lengthy radio and television broadcast. After summarizing the discussions with the Khrushchev and Soviet leaders, JFK stated that strong measures - a far-reaching military buildup - would be undertaken to ensure “our legal rights to be in West Berlin and ... to make good on our commitment to the two million free people of that city.” The President viewed the threat to Berlin as a “threat to free men” everywhere, thereby universalizing the danger.30 Not wanting to over react, he chose his words carefully, determined to state in unmistakable terms the US commitment to Berlin, but also careful “not to drive the crisis beyond the point of no return,” advisor Arthur Schlesinger Jr. recalled.31 On this occasion as well and other crucial moments in the on-going crises over Berlin, JFK was unwavering in his stand. “We cannot and will not permit the Communists to drive us out of Berlin, either gradually or by force,” he asserted in the radio and television address. “West Berlin...has many roles. It is more than a showcase of liberty, a symbol, an island of freedom in the Communist sea. It is...a beacon of hope behind the Iron Curtain.”32
As these strong statements make clear, the President made rhetorical choices, using carefully chosen expressions and phrases to rally support at home, to assure allies abroad, and to demonstrate convincingly to the Soviets that the US would stand firm on Berlin, even at the risk of nuclear war. His words resonated through West Germany and Berlin. In the address to the American people, JFK employed “rhetorical juxtapositions,” the pairing of opposite terms to make his points.33 Speaking directly to the American people, the President sought, first, to reassure and express his solidarity with the audience by voicing their concerns as well, concerns that the US operate through strength and preparedness while at the same time the country strongly desired a peaceful solution. “We seek peace - but we shall not surrender.”34 Second, JFK contrasted the sharp differences between the polices of the West and the Soviet Union on Berlin. All of the Soviet’s actions were anthesis to those of the West and he presented the current situation as a standoff between the evil East and virtuous West. Third, JFK made Berlin relevant to his audience by placing the city in a broader context, insisting that the “isolated outpost” was “not an isolated problem.” His immediate call for bolstering the military, clearly a direct result of the current Berlin crisis, was tied to long-term plans and the recent announcement by the Soviets that they were significantly increasing the size of their armed forces. Being strong militarily and showing an unwillingness to back down was crucial to the maintenance of peace, the President maintained.35 Fourth, JFK linked individual with collective action as he urged Americans to be willing to “pay their fair share, and not leave the burden of defending freedom entirely to those who bear arms.” These burdens, the President stated, “must be borne if freedom is to be defended – Americans have willingly borne them before – and they will not flinch from the task now.” The President also called upon Congress to allocate the funds needed for the military build-up. These moves were essential to the US having “a wider choice than humiliation or all-out nuclear action.”36
Following the Vienna summit, tensions persisted and events in Berlin threatened to boil over. During the night of August 12th, East German forces from the police and army descended upon the tenuous border with the western sectors. The troops acted quickly, stretching barbed wire, closing the border and halting all traffic with the West. The East German regime took this drastic measure for a number of reasons,37 and it claimed that the fence was necessary because the border had been “abused for espionage purposes” and because of “continuing provocations.”38 West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt was outraged by the border closure and in a speech to a rally of an estimated 250,000 individuals called upon the West to respond “not merely [with] words but political action. Woe to us if through indifference or moral weakness we do not pass the test,” Brandt warned. “Then the Communists will not stop at the Brandenburg Gate. They will not stop at the zone border. They will not stop on the Rhine.”39
The construction of the Berlin Wall was a serious blow to Allied policy, and it threatened to erode the faith of West Berliners in the promises of the western powers to protect and guarantee the city. That “both West Berlin and West Germany might lose confidence in the West” had become a real “danger,” the New York Times commented.40 JFK responded with strong but limited action including troop reinforcements for Berlin, measures short of direct confrontation with the East Germans or Soviets. On August 18, 1961, he directed Vice President Lyndon Johnson to travel to Berlin on “an important mission,” telling him, “The main purpose of your mission is to reassure the people of West Berlin.” In a letter to West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt, JFK expressed his “revulsion” at “the measures taken by the soviet Government and its puppets in East Germany.” The President called for strong measures and “decided that the best immediate response is a significant reinforcement of the Western garrisons,” a strengthening of Allied troops in Berlin.41 Mayor Brandt had wanted a stronger response from the American president. JFK’s letter, calm in tone, went far in clarifying for Brandt and other West German political figures the position of the United States, that it supported West Berlin42
A memo on the Vice President Johnson’s meeting with the West German Chancellor commented that “the real situation in Germany was reflected in the warm, friendly, enthusiastic greeting the Vice President had received.”43 Newspaper accounts echoed that sentiment. “Mr. Johnson’s presence and his words had an electric effect on the city,” observed a reporter for the New York Times. “There were tears and cheers as he spoke to a crowd estimated at 300,000.” Although he said “essentially nothing new,” the visit and powerful words of support had their desired effect. The Vice-President directed some carefully chosen remarks to listeners in East Berlin, telling them: “Do not lose courage, for while tyranny may seem for the moment to prevail, its days are counted.”44 East German radio answered his call with a terse announcement: “Here is the latest weather report: Hurricane Johnson turned out to be harmless.”45
In his report to the President, Lyndon Johnson wrote: “From my opening statement to my message of farewell it was my constant purpose to remove doubts and anxieties about American policy in the face of the new communist challenge.” The Vice President added that Germans regarded the present crisis as “essentially a confrontation of power between the Soviet Union and the United States.” Johnson saw an opportunity to raise support among Americans for the administration’s strong stand on Berlin. “While the whole world is watching Berlin we have a greater opportunity than we have ever had to drive home the unforgettable contrast between despotism and a free society.” The record of Soviet presence is “a record of shame, of repression.”46
Tensions did not ease. During August and September, East German police and military confronted US soldiers on several occasions.47 In a November 1961 interview with a Soviet journalist, President Kennedy stated bluntly: “Berlin and Germany have become, I think, areas of heightened crisis since the Vienna meeting, and I think extremely dangerous to the peace.”48 JFK went on to explain his opposition to a peace treaty between Russia and the German Democratic Republic, an agreement he described as “dangerous” because “the treaty will deny us our rights in West Berlin, rights which we won through the war, rights which were agreed to by the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain and France at the conclusion of the war, and which should be continued.” The President also voiced his deep concern that an agreement turning control of access to Berlin to East German authorities would permit, even encourage, them to “interfere with that right of access.” That would not to be tolerated or permitted to happen.49 By stating his position to a Russian journalist, JFK was certain that his warnings would be heard loudly in the Kremlin.
During 1962 friction between East and West persisted and Khrushchev made repeated calls for a peace treaty and threatened to enact such an agreement with East Germany, the same cards played against former President Eisenhower. On May 20th, for example, the Soviet premier “warned the United States...that it would be dangerous to allow Chancellor Adenauer to delay an agreement on Berlin and Germany.” President Kennedy responded the next day with renewed pledges to Bonn “that West Germany’s interests will be safeguarded.”50 In June, the Soviets protested “provocative” incidents along the wall dividing Berlin, and in fact both super powers grew concerned, fearful “that serious incidents could get out of hand and involve military units of the big powers.” These incidents included a series of four explosions that “tore holes in the Communist built wall” and a West Berlin police official identified as responsible “an active movement to get down the Eastern border fortifications.” East German officials warned that such incidents “could bring military clashes.”51 Khrushchev issued a statement on June 9th, voicing his concern over “several dangerous provocations on the part of the West Berlin police.” He noted also that on at least three occasions explosions have ripped the wall. The Soviet premier condemned these as the work of the “revanchists and militarists in West Berlin” and called for the actions to be taken to ensure “that no dangerous provocations are allowed against the G.D.R.”52 By the end of the year little had changed, with Khrushchev continuing to press for a peace treaty and President Kennedy stating yet again “that a solution of the German question can be found only in the preservation of the right of self-determination and that the freedom and viability of Berlin will be preserved in all circumstances and with all means.”53
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