Review: Berlin 1961

January 20, 2012 at 6:13 pm Leave a comment

Berlin 1961
Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Berlin crisis of 1961 included the East German-inspired erection of the Berlin Wall and the face-off between Soviet T-54 and American Patton tanks at Checkpoint Charlie. Author Frederick Kempe believes the Berlin Crisis was perhaps the defining moment of the Cold War, rather than the Cuban Missile Crisis which occurred the following year. Kempe believes that Kennedy failed in allowing the Wall to be built and in acquiescing to later East German refusal of free access of all four powers to the Soviet zone, the action that provoked the Checkpoint Charlie crisis. Kennedy’s inaction, according to Kempe, stabilized the Iron Curtain for 30 years – until 1989, when the Wall finally fell.

However, Kempe also asserts that Kennedy understood that the first year of his administration was a failure on the foreign policy front, and learned from it. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy understood that West Berlin could be used by Soviet Premier Kruschschev as either a bargaining chip in negotiations, or would invade West Berlin in the case of an American invasion of Cuba. He therefore took Berlin into consideration in his handling of the crisis. Furthermore, the Missile Crisis taught Kennedy once and for all that only the certain threat of force would deter the Soviets, a lesson he was uncertain of when faced with the specter of nuclear conflict over the status of Berlin. By 1963 and Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech, there was to be no mistake that Kennedy and henceforth the United States regarded the freedom of West Berlin as a vital national interest which would demand all-out war.

While Kempe suggests that the thirty-year imprisonment of East Germans behind the Iron Curtain might have been averted had Kennedy acted more decisively, the larger narrative also grants that the lessons of history, especially considering the new threat of mutual assured destruction, were not obvious at the time and had to be learned. Both hawks and doves will continue to argue over the merits of Kennedy’s handling of the crises of 1961-62, while arguing over the handling of crises in the present day which will call for more judgments based on incomplete information which will affect lives of millions all over the world.

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