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June 10, 2011 10:03 pm

Berlin 1961

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Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth, by Frederick Kempe, Putnam, RRP$29.95, 608 pages

 

For two years we have watched with mingled hope and anxiety as a young, personable, Harvard-educated president of the US undertakes a crash course in brutal geopolitical realities. Frederick Kempe’s fascinating book, Berlin 1961, describes how, half a century ago, another Harvard charmer entered the White House and faced the same challenge.

Unlike Barack Obama, John Fitzgerald Kennedy came from a background steeped in wealth and power, but the shock of responsibility that hit him on taking office in January 1961 seems to have been no less jarring. Still, at least JFK knew where his problems would come from. There was basically one external threat in those days and that was communism.

In 1961, it was still possible to speak of a unified “communist world”. Communism was run from Moscow and had a face. That face – pudgy, deceptively twinkly, topped by a shiny, grey-fringed dome – belonged to Nikita Khrushchev, general secretary of the Soviet Communist party. Khrushchev, at 67 – 23 years older than Kennedy – could not have been more unlike him. Grandson of a serf, son of a miner, the Soviet leader fizzed with ruthless energy and unschooled native intelligence. A CIA profile supplied to Kennedy, cited by Kempe, chief executive of the Atlantic Council think-tank and a former journalist, described Khrushchev as “a chronic optimistic opportunist”.

Khrushchev had, it seemed, much to be optimistic about. The Soviets had beaten America into space. Twice. First with an unmanned satellite, Sputnik, and then – two months after Kennedy’s inauguration – with the first manned space flight. They were stockpiling nuclear weapons. The switch to a more consumer-friendly post-Stalinist economy seemed to be bringing benefits for long-suffering Soviet citizens. Khrushchev bragged that, within 20 years, communism would overhaul capitalism.

By contrast, as Kempe makes painfully clear, Kennedy’s early months in office were possibly the least promising of any modern president. First, in April 1961, came the fiasco of the US-sponsored invasion of Cuba and then, in June of that year, the disastrous Vienna summit, where Khrushchev’s pugnacity overwhelmed the inexperienced American. Dean Acheson, secretary of state under Truman and prominent “democratic hawk”, reported acidly that America was “without leadership”. Another veteran diplomat described Vienna as “Little Boy meets Al Capone”.

At the end of the second world war, the four-power occupation of Berlin, marooned in the middle of the Soviet-controlled zone, was supposedly a temporary measure, pending a peace treaty and the re-establishment of a German state. Co-operation broke down quickly. In 1948, Stalin blockaded the city, hoping to drive out the western allies and absorb Berlin into the communist sphere. The blockade failed. Two Germanys came into being – a down-at-heel communist east and a booming capitalist west – divided by a fortified border. Berlin, however, remained under four-power control, with more or less free traffic between the western and Soviet sectors. Disgruntled East Germans could escape via West Berlin. Two million of them, often the brightest and best, did so before 1961. The Soviets’ German satellite was bleeding to death.

Khrushchev had reactivated the Berlin issue at the end of 1958, announcing his intention to sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany, transferring Soviet occupation powers in Berlin to his own set of Germans and consigning four-power rule to the scrapheap. President Dwight Eisenhower brushed off the challenge and Moscow let it ride. Two years later, sensing weakness in the new president and under pressure from Walter Ulbricht, the increasingly beleaguered East German communist leader, Khrushchev decided again to go for the west’s jugular over Berlin, reviving the peace treaty gambit and allowing Ulbricht to seal off the western sectors with a wall.

Kempe’s narrative of the consequent crisis is a fine example of intelligent popular history. In concentrating on the clash between JFK and Khrushchev, he does not crudely personalise the conflict. Rather he uses the differing (and, over time, changing) situations of these two extraordinary men to strip away appearances and reveal the power realities.

Khrushchev started out apparently the stronger. Kennedy, struggling at first, slowly realised that he held more cards, some of them aces, than he initially thought. It also became clear that Khrushchev was in a less sure position politically and militarily than he pretended – in fact, that much of his apparently compulsive aggression arose from a need to conceal weakness and placate his internal critics.

Kennedy did not roll back the Berlin Wall but he held on to West Berlin. By October 1962, when the “optimistic opportunist” in the Kremlin tried another coup by placing missiles on Cuba, the president knew he must resist, no matter the cost. The world held its breath. This time, it was Khrushchev who conceded.

Kennedy had learnt the necessary harsh truths about the burden of power in a nuclear age but he would die in November 1963 from an assassin’s bullet. Less than a year later, dogged by his failure in the Cuban missile crisis, Khrushchev succumbed to his enemies and was despatched into embittered retirement. For all the policy documents and crisis meetings and military briefings that crowd these pages, the genius at the heart of this gripping work resembles that of a play by Schiller or Shakespeare. Character as fate. And, for both leading actors, ending in tragedy.

Frederick Taylor is author of ‘The Berlin Wall’. His latest book is ‘Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany’ (Bloomsbury)

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