- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009


By W.R. Smyser

Rowman & Littlefield, $39.95, 256 pages, illus.

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden

Veteran presidency watchers quivered when President Obama embarked on his summer visit to Russia, mindful of the disastrous results of a meeting between President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khruschchev in Vienna in 1961. Mr. Khruschchev thought so little of the young American — 20 years his junior — that he called him a “boy in short pants.” The result was not only the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, but a 1961 crisis over Berlin that dominated the Kennedy years. The stakes were high.

In “Kennedy and the Berlin Wall,” W.R. Smyser writes, “The Berlin crisis represented the first time that any state tried to use the open threat of nuclear war to force its own solution to an international problem.”

Mr. Obama, fortunately, fared better in his sessions with the bifurcated Russian leadership, although a deliberate refusal of courtesy handshakes by his hosts provided jarring visual images. Thankfully, diplomatic slights no longer warrant putting the fleet to sea.

Mr. Smyser observed the Berlin crisis from his vantage point in the U.S. Mission to Berlin 1960-64, serving under Gen. Lucius D. Clay. And it is Gen. Clay who emerges as the hero of the standoff, persuading Mr. Kennedy not to yield to Soviet demands even when White House aides such as McGeorge Bundy advised compromise.

Mr. Khruschchev had pushed for years for the Western powers to vacate West Berlin and cede that part of the city, and access rights, to the puppet German Democratic Republic. The West’s position was that Berlin must be part of an overall settlement of German reunification. At Vienna, Mr. Khruschchev gave Mr. Kennedy a six-month ultimatum.

As he flew home, Mr. Kennedy told aide Kenneth O’Donnell, “God knows I’m not an isolationist, but it seems particularly stupid to risk killing a million Americans in an argument about access rights on an Autobahn in the Soviet zone of Germany. … Before I back Khruschchev against the wall and put him to a final test, the freedom of all Western Europe will have to be at stake.”

For his part, Mr. Khruschchev sensed that he could bully Mr. Kennedy into yielding. He so blustered to a number of visitors to Moscow, at one point telling Interior Secretary Stuart Udall, “As a president, he has understanding, but what he lacks is courage.” Allies had little faith in Mr. Kennedy’s resolve, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan commenting, “I feel in my bones that President Kennedy is going to fail to produce any real leadership.”

In August, East Germany made the first move by mounting barbed-wire barriers to keep its citizens from going West; within days, the wire became the infamous Berlin Wall. Washington took the action calmly; Secretary of State Dean Rusk, after reading the cable traffic, went to a baseball game. Mr. Kennedy commented to Mr. O’Donnell that “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”

With “appeasement” criticism mounting — Richard Nixon accused Mr. Kennedy of a “Hamlet-like psychosis” of indecision — a stung Mr. Kennedy ordered a battle group of 1,500 troops to West Berlin. He also sent Gen. Clay, a former military governor of West Germany, to Berlin as his “personal representative.”

Based on his past dealings with the Soviets, Gen. Clay counseled, “We can lose Berlin if we are unwilling to take some risk in using force to bring about Soviet confrontation even if we withdraw immediately when confronted with superior forces. We could easily be backed into war by failing to make it evidently clear that we have reached the danger point.”

To demonstrate U.S. determination, Gen. Clay ordered regular armed convoys to travel through East Germany to Berlin, as well as helicopter reconnaissance flights. White House aides worried about “provocation,” but Gen. Clay said firmly, “There is no longer time for either caution or timidity when our basic rights are threatened.” He did not think Mr. Khruschchev really wanted war, and firmness would call his bluff.

As Mr. Smyser writes, “Clay needed to make Khruschchev feel insecure. If Khruschchev believed that he could control the temperature of the Berlin crisis, he would keep it boiling. If he feared it would boil over, he would turn down the heat.”

The critical point came in August. When East German guards refused to permit a U.S. diplomat to cross into the East — as he had the right to do — Gen. Clay dispatched 10 tanks to the checkpoint. A squad of soldiers then escorted the American’s car in and out of the checkpoint. Mr. Khruschchev responded by taking security away from the East Germans and dispatching tanks of his own to the checkpoint. As Mr. Smyser writes, “It was the only time during the Cold War that American and Soviet armor confronted each other directly at point-blank range.” It was Mr. Khruschchev who backed down, withdrawing his settle-or-else ultimatum. Air-corridor spats continued for months, but tank-to-tank confrontations were no more.

Mr. Smyser considered Berlin to be a valuable learning experience for the young president: “His handling of the Berlin crisis helped him handle the Cuban crisis. His decision to send a brigade to Berlin in August 1961, his refusal to pull back at Checkpoint Charlie, and his readiness to defy Soviet corridor ‘reservations’ must have showed him that he did not need to yield to Khruschchev … Kennedy had not pushed as hard as Clay would have liked, but he had at least learned that he could react firmly to Soviet moves.”

More important, Mr. Kennedy’s resolve, even if caused by political pressure, told West Berliners the West could not abandon them, which Mr. Kennedy reiterated in his 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, which was an emotional highlight of his presidency.

This is a good read on a crisis even more dangerous than the Cuban missiles.

Joseph Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence.

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