It is the 50th anniversary of what has become know in the history books as The Berlin Crisis of 1961. As part of the terrorist-corporate media's rewriting of those American history books, we have lots of badly researched and false analysis in the Press (TV, radio, books, websites) of President Kennedy's handling of the political crisis. This weekend, our conservative pundists are slobbering all over the latest revisionist histoy book by Frederick Kempe.
President Kennedy faced crisis after crisis in the early 1960's as the military industrial complex fought to take hold of the reigns of power in America. By 1963, JFK was a different man, a different President than he was on his Inauguration Day. He had been through the fire of handling these crisis and by 1963, had become the great President we still honor today... just listen to his speeches from 1963... it would have been a very different America if he had not been assassinated in Dallas in November of that year.
Here is a post on The Berlin Crisis of 1961 by David Lifton (you can follow the comments thread by clicking here to Lifton's 50th anniversary post.)
Posted 21 June 2011 - 11:34 PM
This thread concerns Kennedy's "Berlin policy," and the recently published book by Frederick Kempe, "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth." The Kempe book revives a very important issue, one that author Richard Reeves analyzed in depth 18 years ago in his book, "President Kennedy: Profile of Power." I thought I'd start this thread, to put the matter in context.
In my opinion, understanding what happened in Berlin in the "summer of '61" (and in what is called "the Berlin Crisis") is critical to understanding what followed in the Kennedy administration in the area of JFK's foreign policy towards Cuba and--consequently--Berlin figures as another marker on the road to Dallas.
I have not read Kempe's book (just yet) but those interested in this subject should be aware that the basic situation JFK was facing in Berlin is narrated (and analyzed, in considerable detail), in author Richard Reeves' 1993 book "President Kennedy: Profile of Power." What is known as the Berlin crisis began on 6/4/61, when JFK met Khrushchev in Vienna (at what is sometimes referred to as the "Vienna Summit"), and Khrushchev delivered an ugly, fist-banging ultimatum: that he was going to sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany, that access to Berlin (located over 100 miles inside East Germany) would then be controlled by East Germany (and the Communist regime of Walter Ulbricht) and the west be damned.
Kennedy was faced with this ugly ultimatum and the problem of what to do about it. For a brief while, what actually happened in Vienna, and the full extent of Khrushchev's ultimatum was not made public.
What happened next: The hawks in JFK's administration clustered around former Secretary of State Dean Acheson who, on 6/28/61, wrote a critical memo that defined the parameters of the situation. Acheson decided that Berlin was the place to face down the Soviets,once and for all. Acheson's memo instructed Kennedy to "prepare for war. . .nuclear war." Siding with Acheson were the JCS AND Vice President Johnson--yes "and Vice President Johnson". Moreover, the JCS sought authority to use tactical nukes to defend West Berlin (can you believe that? Well, its true).
Kennedy sought to find a way to avoid war, and to maneuver around this dangerous situation, and convince Khrushchev that he meant business. His brain trust consisted of Sorenson, Schlesinger, Mansfield---and a young MIT whiz named Thomas Schelling, an expert in game theory. (You can buy his books on game theory on Amazon).
As events unfolded, Kennedy learned (to his distress) that Khrushchev did not care what Kennedy said--only what he did. So: Kennedy basically had to bluff Khrushchev--publicly--but the stakes were huge and the risks were terrible. A strategy had to be devised that projected the credible appearance that Kennedy would in fact go to war over Berlin, without actually going to war. For Kennedy, it was touchy, scarey, and just plain awful. He had to tread a very fine line.
JFK went on TV on July 25, 1961, calling for increased money, calling up reserves, increasing draft calls, etc. There were also very serious (and secret) back channel communications, involving Bobby Kennedy and the Russian spy Bolshakov.
The bottom line: Kennedy made the decision that what counted (i.e., what he ultimately wanted) was Western access to West Berlin--that he could not be responsible for what East German did in its zone (i.e., the Soviet Zone). In other words, JFK made the decision that the U.S. would not go to war to protect the "freedom" of East Berlin--just the freedom of West Berlin. That's where he drew the line.
Most important: JFK was able to "walk in the other guy's shoes." He understood that East Germany was hemorrhaging at the rate of 2,000 per day. So he understood that the East German government was going to have to do something about that.
Kennedy was (apparently) hoping that the East German government would simply seal off their own border, and solve their political problem that way. And in fact, Senator Fulbright, in a national TV appearance on "Issues and Answers," signaled that that would in fact be acceptable to the U.S.
The public response to JFK's 7/25/61 speech was very positive. Hugely positive, in fact.
Behind the scenes, much of JFK's strategy was dictated by his conferring with Thomas Schelling. (All this is spelled out in Reeves).
During this very dangerous period, after the July 25, 1961 nationwide TV address (but before the Wall went up [8/14/61] which marked "the end" of the Berlin Crisis ), Bobby Kennedy thought the chances of a major nuclear war were one in five. Yes, one in five. It was that serious.
The "resolution" of the crisis was the erection of the Berlin Wall on 8/14/61. As explained by Reeves, that avoided a nuclear war in Europe. No question about it.
Its all spelled out in Richard Reeves; and you've got to read BOTH the text, AND the footnotes.
The Berlin Crisis --starting on 6/4/61 and ending on 8/14/61--is every bit as hair raising as the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year. But Kennedy played it down, after it was over. No proclamations were made. Just two key news stories--one in the NY Times and the other in the Washington Post--explaining the "real-politik" of the situation, and that the Wall marked the end of what had been a dangerous situation.
From a memo in my files that I wrote three years ago. . .:
QUOTE: I've read through Reeves' chapters (and all the footnotes) very carefully, and now have a much greater understanding of what happened between June 4 and August 14 (1961) It seems clear to me that "the Berlin Crisis" is almost as dramatic as the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the details are not known because many of the most fundamental documents (including the official record of the JFK-Khr meeting of June 4, 1961) were not available until the 1990s, and both Schlesinger AND Sorenson hid the true nature of the frightening way Khrushchev behaved on June 4, in delivering his ultimatum. (So did Hugh Sidey, who also--apparently--had access to the official notes of the meeting.) Again, Reeves' book was not written until 1993, and the other key sources on which he relies. . .. UNQUOTE
Here's another passage:
Anyway, nuclear war was avoided because of some very sophisticated maneuvering by JFK (and Sorenson, and Schlesinger, and probably RFK, too) that was on a par with-and completely equivalent to--the strategic maneuvering and tactical thinking that JFK again employed during the much more well known Cuban missile crisis, which commenced fourteen months later, and lasted for the famous period known as "13 days." UNQUOTE
QUOTE: "However, in the lead-up to the climax--which extended through must of June, and into July (and which ended with a major nationwide TV address by JFK on the address of 7/25)--former Secretary State Dean Acheson (who was called in as an adviser) weighed in with a critical memo (6/28/61)--a very hawkish document recommending that JFK prepare for nuclear war over Berlin. The JCS wanted to use nukes, too. In the key meetings, LBJ sided with Acheson and the JCS.
In this [memo], I cannot possibly adequately summarize the complex situation, but the story of how JFK maneuvered through this diplomatic and military minefield is all laid out in Reeves' 1993 book--IF you not only read the text, but also the footnotes.
What I learned from this is that its not possible to understand how JFK/RFK approached Cuba (with Mongoose, starting in October/Nov 1961) if one does not understand what happened in the 10-week period between June 4 and August 14, and which must have been a thoroughly terrifying experience (and a prelude, of course, to what happened in October 1962, when the Soviets put missiles in Cuba). UNQUOTE
Here's some more background. During the crisis (and apparently as part of the strategy), JFK authorized Joseph Alsop to air his personal views in a Saturday Review article. The headline of the Alsop Saturday Review article: "The Most Important Decision in U.S. History—And How the President is Facing It"
Now, focus this language (QUOTING ALSOP, reporting Kennedy's thinking):
* * * The decision, as Alsop phrased it, was “Whether the United States should risk something close to national suicide in order to avoid national surrender.” UNQUOTE
Kennedy knew he had to avoid appeasement, or even the appearance of it. "What he said to insiders: If he wants to rub my nose in it. . its over."
"It's over" meant just that--that if, after all JFK did, Khrushchev insisted on "taking" Berlin (via the use of its proxy, the East German government) there would indeed be war.
From my notes on JFK's 7/25/63 Berlin Speech:
JFK addresses the nation—and played his hand, to show how serious he was, designed to make Khrushchev "pay attention":
--tripled draft calls
--Personal sacrifice neccessary
--More $ for military (put in details)
I don't know how this data is treated in Kempe's book (my copy is on order from Amazon). What I'm laying out here is how author Richard Reeves dealt with this remarkable situation in his really excellent 1993 book--and remember, that was 18 years ago.
There's little question in my mind that the prospect of nuclear war was very serious--as I said above, Bobby Kennedy estimated the chances at 1 in 5.
There's also no question that JFK's key adversary, politically, was former Secretary State Dean Acheson (supported by the JCS AND Vice President Johnson). Acheson, in the aftermath, viewed Kennedy as an "uninformed" young man, who was "out of his depth," etc. When Kennedy navigated the dangerous Cuban Missile Crisis, 14 months later, he (Acheson) called the positive outcome "pure dumb luck."
(If you want to understand the nature of "political forces" that were allied against Kennedy, it wasn't just people like Lyman Lemnitzer and Curtis Lemay. One cannot ignore Acheson.)
So much for what you will find in Reeves book. . now, here are some of my own views.
DSL PERSONAL VIEWS ON RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN BERLIN CRISIS AND SUBSEQUENT CUBA POLICY
FIRST: Kennedy's failure to "knock down the wall" (and other such crazy ideas) was viewed, by the top political/military leadership, as on a par with his failure to send in the Marines in connection with the Bay of Pigs. So to those people, by August, 1961, Kennedy was an out and out appeaser, and it looked this way:
--March 1961: Kennedy failed to go into Laos with troops, as advocated by Sec State Dean Rusk
--April 1961 Kennedy failed at the Bay of Pigs
--August 1961 Kennedy failed to knock down the Berlin Wall
To me, this kind of "analysis" is sheer lunacy, but. . and here's where I am heading. .
SECOND: when it came to Cuba, and the fall of 1961. . I don't believe that John Kennedy was going to risk another brush with thermonuclear war because of what he viewed as a revolutionary out-of-control Marxist in the Caribbean, whose associate, Che Guevara, was fomenting revolution in South America.
Consequently--and this is just my opinion--understanding what happened in Berlin (circa 6/4/61 - 8/14/61) is essential to understanding the "moral calculus" or "ethical calculus" that motivated Kennedy in deciding --if necessary--to treat Castro (personally) as a military target and overthrow his regime, rather than risk a rerun of the frightening experience he (and brother Robert) had just had in Berlin. (And can you blame them?)
So that, imho, explains his calling in Tad Szulc, and asking: "What would you say if I gave the order to assassinate Castro?" etc. He simply had no intention of losing his presidency by being "tolerant" of a Marxist regime 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
What's amazing to me, once you read Reeves, is how Sorenson played it down, in his book, and even in Counselor, his recently published memoir published just a year or so prior to his death. I think that he simply didn't want to let the world know that Kennedy had played nuclear poker. Again, that's my opinion.
Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading Kempe's book, but I don't think I will agree with his conclusions, at all.
There's little question in my mind that, as historian Robert Dallek correctly has said (and Dallek probably has pored over all the same documents that Reeves had, and to which Kempe had access) that this was THE single most dangerous crisis (other than the Cuban Missile Crisis).
I really do not believe that how JFK viewed the "world stage" and the rapidly evolving events, and the problem posed by his own recalcitrant military can be properly understood without appreciating the super-charged Berlin crisis (6/4-8/14/61), and how it ended without a war (on 8/14/61) BECAUSE OF "the wall."
As JFK said on 8/14/61: "Better a wall, than a war" (from memory).
I agree. We're here today, and the map of Europe looks the way it does, because of how that crisis was handled.
ON A PERSONAL NOTE
Kempe talks of his visit to East Berlin, and his traverse through Checkpoint Charlie. I had the same experience, but at a much earlier time. As I write this post, I have in front of me my passport from 1961, when I was briefly living in Paris, and in general, was touring Europe in a VW "bug" that I purchased when I first arrived. The Wall was big news--all over the world--and I and a companion, a Fulbright Scholar, set out from Paris and went to Berlin. We entered East Germany on August 30, 1961 (at Helmstedt) and were in Berlin in a few hours. As U.S. citizens, we had the right to go into the "eastern zone," and that's what we did. I have some vivid memories of that day--just two weeks after the Wall went up. Checkpoint Charlie--the crossing point on the Frederichstrasse, looked exactly as it did in the movie "The Spy That Came in from the Cold." Parked nearby were the U.S. tanks, that had been involved in the famous standoff. As we passed through Checkpoint Charlie, off to one side were men with microphones, taking down everyone's license number. We spent several hours in East Berlin (which was akin to a poor section of Brooklyn) with some buildings emblazoned with large posters of Soviet astronaut Yuri Gargarin, and then returned to the glass and steel beauty of West Berlin. It was a memorable experience.
Of course, at the time I had no idea of the behind the scenes policy debates that were going on. Or how close the world had come to the outbreak of a nuclear war in Europe.
6/21/11 5:45 PM PDT
Los Angeles, CA