- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2001

Forty years ago, in August 1961, the construction of the Berlin Wall gave the Cold War its most emotionally powerful symbol. Thanks to photos of East Germans trying to escape over the Wall and speeches of American presidents lauding freedom in its shadow, the free world looked forward to the Berlin Wall's collapse as proof of the victory of democracy over communism.
The long wait lasted until November 1989. Memories of the Wall's ambiguous Cold War origins have faded since then, for we are rapidly forgetting a 40-year conflict that neither began with a Pearl Harbor nor ended with American troops occupying enemy soil. As its paradoxical name suggests, the Cold War is not easy to film or describe to your kids.
The Berlin crisis of 1961 was a close call, not as close as the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later, but closer than most Americans realized at the time. Soon after the disastrous June summit talks in Vienna between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader increased military spending along with threats to resolve Berlin's divided status by December. In July, the word "crisis" was on everyone's lips. Khrushchev rejected pending U.S. proposals for a ban on nuclear testing and warned that any attempt by the West to enforce its rights in Berlin would trigger nuclear war. President Kennedy compared West Berlin to Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge and obtained congressional approval for emergency military measures, such as extending tours of active duty and calling up reserves. The Pentagon considered options for defending West Berlin, among them the use of nuclear weapons, from tactical warheads against Soviet and East German forces to an all-out pre-emptive strike on the Soviet Union.
No American or NATO contingency plan anticipated what the Soviets and East Germans actually did they closed the border between West and East Berlin on Aug. 13 and started building a wall on the east side of it in order to stop what had become a flood of East Germans fleeing to the West.
Surprised by this anti-climax to what they had feared, but unsure what Khrushchev intended to do next, Kennedy's advisers recommended everything from force to inaction. The president chose middle ground, sending a political mission headed by Vice President Lyndon Johnson to West Berlin on the 19th and ordering an American military column to drive across East Germany on Sunday the 20th to reaffirm Western rights of access to West Berlin. (French President Charles de Gaulle, more hawkish than Kennedy throughout the crisis, shifted a number of French units from Algeria to France in combat readiness.) American combat units stationed in Germany were put on stand-by alert until the column reached West Berlin safely, and next day the secretary of the army stated, "If there were to be war it would have started yesterday. If there were to be war, that battle group would not have arrived ." The crisis began to subside, each camp claiming victory of sorts, and the Berlin Wall quickly became a rallying cry that Khrushchev had not intended to give the West. No one knew that this would be the Cold War's last major confrontation in Europe or that Vietnam would soon eclipse Germany in American strategy.
The Berlin crisis illustrates several attributes of the Cold War that are worth pondering. First, most of the military and civilian leaders who directed American policy during the Cold War were members of the generation that fought in World War II, and they frequently, sometimes wrongly, applied the lessons of that war to this very different one: Negotiation smacks of appeasement and we must not appease Soviet leaders as Britain and France did Hitler and Mussolini; the construction of the Berlin Wall is similar to Hitler's remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936; Khrushchev is Stalin, East German leader Walter Ulbricht is Hitler; Khrushchev must be warned not to repeat Hitler's mistake and underestimate the American people.
Second, the Cold War often lived up to its ironic name. On Aug. 20, 1961, the American column heading for West Berlin paused at the inter-German border for Soviet authorities to check the convoy manifest. A West German spectator, well aware of the Eastern Bloc's vast superiority in armor, eyed the American vehicles skeptically and asked, "Where are the tanks?" An East German jeep preceded the American convoy, holding it to 25 miles-per-hour.
Finally, according to the calculus of NATO strategy, incidents might escalate into nuclear war, the most frightening uncertainty of the Cold War and the one hardest to convey to those who did not live through much of it. I was an artillery lieutenant stationed in Germany during the Berlin crisis, my platoon in charge of the nuclear warheads that my "Honest John" rocket battalion would have been ordered to fire if war had broken out. I remember the stand-by alert of Sunday, Aug. 20 as if it happened yesterday. The atmosphere was full of suspense and foreboding, and I wondered how nerves connected to missiles.

Gaines Post Jr. is a professor emeritus of history at Claremont McKenna College and author of "Memoirs of a Cold War Son."


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