Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth

Publié le par Frederick Kempe

Berlin 1961A fresh, controversial, brilliantly written account of one of the epic dramas of the Cold War-and its lessons for today. "History at its best." -Zbigniew Brzezinski

"Gripping, well researched, and thought-provoking, with many lessons for today." -Henry Kissinger

"Captures the drama [with] the 'You are there' storytelling skills of a journalist and the analytical skills of the political scientist." - General Brent Scowcroft

In June 1961, Nikita Khrushchev called it "the most dangerous place on earth." He knew what he was talking about.

Much has been written about the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later, but the Berlin Crisis of 1961 was more decisive in shaping the Cold War-and more perilous. For the first time in history, American and Soviet fighting men and tanks stood arrayed against each other, only yards apart.

One mistake, one overzealous commander-and the trip wire would be sprung for a war that would go nuclear in a heartbeat. On one side was a young, untested U.S. president still reeling from the Bay of Pigs disaster. On the other, a Soviet premier hemmed in by the Chinese, the East Germans, and hard-liners in his own government. Neither really understood the other, both tried cynically to manipulate events. And so, week by week, the dangers grew.

Based on a wealth of new documents and interviews, filled with fresh- sometimes startling-insights, written with immediacy and drama, Berlin 1961 is a masterly look at key events of the twentieth century, with powerful applications to these early years of the twenty- first.

Fiche Technique

  • Author : Frederick Kempe
  • ISBN-13 : 9780425245941
  • Publisher : Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date : 03/01/2012

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

On June 4th, 1961, Nikita Khrushchev made a speech that made international headlines and sent frightened world leaders scurrying to meetings. The Russian Premier's call for an end to four-power jurisdiction over Berlin set off a face-off that threatened to escalate into nuclear war. On the 50th anniversary of this major power showdown, historian and veteran Frederick Kempe uses newly declassified documents and a wealth of personal accounts to deliver a definitive day-by-day, week-by-week chronicle of a crisis that changed the face of the Cold War. (P.S. Berlin 1961 has already gained strong accolades from Brent Scowcroft, Henry Kissinger, and Zbigniew Brzezinski.)


Informed...His chronology of memos and meetings dramatizes events behind closed doors...Kempe's history reflects balanced discernment about the creation of the Berlin Wall.

Jacob Heilbrunn

Kempe…has performed prodigies of research, consulting American, German and Soviet archives as well as interviewing numerous participants in the Berlin crisis. His reconstruction of the diplomacy and events leading up to August 1961 is spellbinding. —The New York Times

Alex von Tunzelmann

…Berlin 1961 has more virtues than flaws. It is engaging, it is a great story, and it is generally fair-minded. This is both an enriching history and a rollicking good read. —The Washington Post

Publishers Weekly

On the 50th anniversary of its construction, Kempe, President and CEO of the Atlantic Council and a former Wall Street Journal staffer, delivers a definitive history of the Berlin Wall. For years, citizens of Communist East Germany streamed across the open border into prosperous West Berlin: 200,000 in 1960 alone. It was an exasperating brain drain, and the danger that other eastern Europeans would cross over threatened to destabilize the Communist region. Assembling personal accounts and newly declassified documents, Kempe writes a gripping, almost day-by-day chronicle of colorful, often clueless leaders and their byzantine maneuvers. Still reeling from his Bay of Pigs humiliation, President Kennedy yearned to prove himself the stalwart leader of the free world. The more experienced but mercurial Khrushchev wanted better East-West relations despite hostility from his hard-line rivals and East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, an unreconstructed Stalinist who despised him. No meeting of minds occurred, and the wall went up, but Kempe concludes that it solved the problem and avoided a war. Berlin faded from the headlines for 28 years, until in 1989 both the wall and the cold war came to an end. (May)

Library Journal

The Berlin Crisis of 1961, on the heels of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, not only froze European Cold War borders but also became another nonprofile in courage for JFK, inciting Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to provoke the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later. So claims Kempe (associate publisher, Wall Street Journal, Europe edition; Father/Land: A Pivotal Search for the New Germany) as he skillfully weaves oral histories and newly declassified documents into a sweeping, exhaustive narrative. Although no love was lost between Khrushchev and East Germany's Walter Ulbricht, they both were committed to staunching the flow of well-educated, professional East Germans to the West; hence, the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961. Kempe is especially strong at recounting Khrushchev's bullying of Kennedy at the June 1961 Vienna Summit and on the Wall's political, social, and personal impacts. VERDICT Likely the best, most richly detailed account of the subject, this will engross serious readers of Cold War history who enjoyed W.R. Smyser's Kennedy and the Berlin Wall but appreciate the further detail. Both authors view JFK circa 1961 as a work in progress with weaknesses that did not remain the pattern. [See Prepub Alert, 12/1/10.]—Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA

Library Journal

In Cold War Berlin, the United States and the Soviet Union stood nose to nose, with the possibility of nuclear war just a misstep away. Kempe, a former Wall Street Journal editor/writer and currently president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, uses new documents and conducted his own interviews to bring that time back to life.

Kirkus Reviews

A tale of missed opportunities just might have ended in nuclear war. Former longtime Wall Street Journal editor Kempe (Father/Land: A Personal Search for the New Germany, 1999, etc.) recounts a curious series of episodes in which the Russians appeared to be bearing olive branches, the Americans arrows. When John F. Kennedy came into office, Nikita Khrushchev made unexpectedly conciliatory gestures—for instance, he allowed Radio Free Europe to be broadcast behind the Iron Curtain, released American fliers who had been shot down while spying in Soviet airspace and even published Kennedy's inaugural address inPravda. Kennedy, however, mistrusted Khrushchev, who was "vacillating between his instinct for reform and better relations with the West and his habit of authoritarianism and confrontation." Given this suspicion, Kennedy failed to encourage the Soviet leader's good moments. Meanwhile, Khrushchev faced a difficult problem. He had defanged his most dangerous rival, Stalin-era secret policeman Lavrentiy Beria, but still faced considerable opposition from hardcore Stalinists—and competition from Mao's China, which was jockeying for position as the world's leading communist power. He was also embroiled in a bad situation in East Germany, which seemed in danger of collapsing in the wake of his post-Stalin reforms and which was serving as a gateway through which other Eastern Europeans could easily escape to the West. The climax of the difficult year 1961, as Kempe demonstrates, was the building of the Berlin Wall following one misreading of Soviet cues after another on the part of the Kennedy administration. In the end, Kennedy had to swallow his pride and accept the fact of the wall, which "had risen as he passively stood by." That failure notwithstanding, Kempe concludes that, ultimately, Kennedy was able to regain advantage with his successful handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year.

A bit too long, but good journalistic history in the tradition of William L. Shirer and Barbara Tuchman.

The Barnes & Noble Review

The casual reader of historian Frederick Kempe's Berlin 1961 should prepare for a bit of a surprise. This impressively-researched narrative, which chronicles the dramatic months leading up to the August 13, 1961 middle-of-the-night construction of the Berlin Wall offers a bracing portrait of how an untested, idealistic President John F. Kennedy botched a brutal game of Cold War politics against Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev. Based on unrivaled "access to personal accounts, oral histories, and newly declassified documents," Kempe meticulously recreates a diplomatic chess game, during which Khruschev came to regard his American counterpart as weak-willed, somebody so afraid of nuclear war that he'd appease Soviet aggression in exchange for peace.

Kennedy's missteps in this early showdown may have emboldened the Soviet leader, inviting him to test the inexperienced president. The failed, U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion damaged Kennedy's international credibility, as did his glaring lack of resolve at the Vienna Summit meeting. "The consistent message [Kennedy] had sent Khruschev was that the Soviet leader could do whatever he wished on the territory he controlled as long as he didn't touch West Berlin." At their fateful meeting in Vienna, the charismatic Kennedy foolishly believed he could charm his Soviet counterpart. Instead, Khruschev's "raw energy" and unmatched verbosity overpowered "Kennedy's more subtle charms," writes Kempe.

Readers are taken deep inside the dynamics of the entire Berlin crisis, as thousands of East Germany's "best and brightest" escaped across the border. At Vienna, Kennedy had unwisely conceded Soviet control over East Berlin. Kempe believes that Khruschev ultimately authorized the Berlin Wall because Kennedy's rhetoric signaled that the U.S. would do nothing to oppose it. His eye-opening account should trigger a serious re-evaluation of President Kennedy's tumultuous first few months of leadership. --Chuck Leddy


Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Frederick Kempe Author of BERLIN 1961

What led you to write this book?

Kempe FrederickThe Cold War is still the least understood and worst reported of our three world wars. Berlin was its epicenter. The year 1961 was the most decisive. I wanted to tell the story of that year. And I wanted to tell it through its protagonists, as rich a cast of characters as history could provide. I also wanted to satisfy my own questions about whether the Berlin Wall could have been avoided—and whether the Cold War could have been ended much earlier. Might we have been able to help liberate a whole generation of Eastern Europeans—tens of millions of people—three decades earlier?

Then, after President Obama's election, I was even more motivated to finish my research. The reason is that this is also a story of a brilliant but inexperienced president dealing with issues far beyond his skill set. Kennedy's first year in office proved to be one of the worst of any modern presidency. U.S. presidents shape world history—and in this case it is not a positive story.

Much has been written about the Cold War in general and about this particular time and place. What's different about this book?

Two aspects are quite different from what has appeared before. First, I pull in all the strands about this historic year that haven't been in a single book: the Kennedy story, the Khrushchev story, the Ulbricht and Adenauer stories. I also draw upon recently released documents in Russia, Germany, and the U.S. that haven't yet been put into a single story. I weave these into a narrative that is both human and historic, as has been my instinct to do as a journalist. Second and more important, the book builds the best cases to date that Kennedy acquiesced to the border closure and the building of the Wall. The record shows that in many respects he wrote the script that Khrushchev followed—as long as Khrushchev restricted his actions to Soviet-controlled East Berlin and East Germany, Kennedy would accept his actions. Kennedy falsely believed that if East Germany could end its refugee stampede, Khrushchev might become a more willing negotiator on a set of other issues. It was a tragic misreading of the man and of the situation. Berlin paid for it—as did tens of millions of people.

Among the main points you highlight in this book are the self-reinforcing misinterpretations, miscommunications, and misunderstandings between the U.S. and the USSR. What examples stand out to you as the most important?

They began years before Kennedy took office. The U.S. never fully recognized or acted upon how dramatic was the break between Khrushchev and Stalinism at the 20th Party Congress in 1956. Khrushchev's call for peaceful coexistence with the capitalist West was never fully explored. Nor did we ever answer or reward his support for Finnish and Austrian neutrality and his reductions in military personnel and spending. During Kennedy's presidency, the misreading began when Khrushchev released captured U.S. airmen and Kennedy failed to recognize the potential importance of the gesture. It continued when he misinterpreted a relatively unimportant hard-line propaganda speech by Khrushchev as a declaration of an even more aggressive Soviet challenge aimed at him. From Khrushchev's side, he often listened more to his own insecurities than what was warranted by the situation. He was enormously vulnerable to perceived slights—he would respond excessively to moments like the U-2 incident and Kennedy's State of the Union speech and the U.S. Minuteman missile test. However, there was one moment when Khrushchev listened closely to Kennedy's communication—and that regarded what the president would be willing to accept in Berlin. Then Khrushchev acted very much according to the clear messages he received.

Do you think we could have ended the Cold War earlier if Kennedy had managed his relationship with Khrushchev differently?

As General Brent Scowcroft says in the foreword to the book, history doesn't reveal its alternatives. My own view is that the Soviet empire would have begun to unravel earlier had Kennedy held the line—but we will never know. It is unclear how the Soviets would have responded to that without a Gorbachev and a Yeltsin in charge. Would they have backed down, as they did during the Berlin Airlift of 1948, or would they have defended what they controlled, as they did in Budapest in 1956? The key difference between those two events was a demonstration of resolve by the U.S. with its nuclear superiority. I am certain of one thing: East Germany would have collapsed if the communists hadn't put up the Wall to stop the refugee flow—and that would have had severe consequences for the rest of the Soviet bloc. After all, it is the refugee flood that prompted its collapse twenty-eight years later. Whether or not the Cold War would have ended earlier, Kennedy certainly saved Khrushchev from a lot of trouble then by acquiescing to the building of the Wall.

Berlin 1961 is described as being based on a "wealth of new documents and interviews." Please tell us about the research you did. What sort of new documents did you uncover, and what new interviews did you conduct?

Some of these were new documents I was able to find through additional research in Berlin, Moscow, and the United States. Some were new interviews with witnesses of the time— and the unearthing of interviews and oral histories that had previously received little notice. However, the real wealth of new material came from documents that had been released in all three countries that hadn't been brought together in a book that explained their meaning and their connections. Almost all of the most significant players from 1961 are no longer living; however their memoirs, oral histories, and documents recounting some of their most crucial meetings have either gone unnoticed or have attracted too little notice. Sadly, much of what we still need to know remains classified. But this book does make clear what we should be watching for most intensively when new documents are released, particularly those of President Kennedy's brother Robert.

What surprised you most as you worked on the book, and what do you think will most surprise readers?

What most surprised me is the body of evidence that Kennedy not only was relieved by the Berlin border closure, but in many respects wrote the script for it. Reading the documents, I was also struck by how refreshingly self-aware Kennedy was about the failure of his first year as president and the danger that Khrushchev would consider him weak. On the Soviet side, what interested me most was the power of a weak client and his failing state, Walter Ulbricht and East Germany, to influence the actions of a great power. The greatest mystery to me remains the Georgi Bolshakov–Bobby Kennedy relationship, which I'm now confident played a larger role than can be documented.

What do you want readers to get out of this book?

I want Americans to understand how the decisions of their presidents—then and now—shape world history in ways we don't always understand at the time of a specific event. I want readers to know that Kennedy could have prevented the Berlin Wall, if he had wished, and that in acquiescing to the border closure he not only created a more dangerous situation—but also contributed to mortgaging the future for tens of millions of Central and Eastern Europeans.

The relatively small decisions that U.S. presidents make have huge, often global, consequences. Though most U.S. analysts and even historians have forgotten the events around Berlin in 1961, I want to start a debate about whether the U.S. actually could have ended the Cold War earlier. I also want to remind Americans of the cost to the world of perceived American weakness. Luckily, we escaped a nuclear conflict—both over Berlin and over Cuba—but the greatest danger came not because we overreached but because our adversary had concluded that we wouldn't act to defend our interests.

Meet the Author

Frederick Kempe is the editor and associate publisher of The Wall Street Journal Europe and the founding editor of the Central European Economic Review. A well-known American commentator in Germany, he is also the author of Divorcing the Dictator, a book about America and Noriega featured on the cover of Newsweek, and Siberian Odyssey.

Publié dans Bibliothèque

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