(COLD WAR: the KENNEDY YEARS – continued)

home | 1945-21st century

COLD WAR: 1961-63 (3 of 7)

previous | next

The Berlin Wall Goes Up

After Vienna, Kennedy told columnist James Reston that Khrushchev had attacked him on American imperialism and thought him young and inexperienced because of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. "If he thinks I'm inexperienced and have no guts, until we remove those ideas we won't get anywhere with him. So we have to act." (Kempe, p. 258)

In a speech delivered on nationwide television on July 25th, Kennedy told the American people that he recognized the "Soviet Union's historical concerns about their security in central and eastern Europe" and said he was willing to renew talks. He also announced that he would ask Congress for an additional $3.25 billion for military spending, mostly on conventional weapons. He announced that he wanted six new divisions for the Army and two for the Marines and announced plans to triple the draft and to call up the reserves. Kennedy proclaimed, "We seek peace, but we shall not surrender."

On August 13, 1961, East Germany began closing the border between West and East Berlin, beginning with barbed wire. Ulbricht made a speech blaming his action on West Germany's "systematic plans for a civil war" which he said were "being executed by "revenge-seeking and militaristic forces." Ulbricht said he was closing the border for the "sole purpose" of providing security for East German citizens. The official name for the "Berlin Wall" was the "Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart." (Berlin Wall map with checkpoints)

In Moscow, Khrushchev was looking at what he didn't realize would in the years ahead be a great propaganda defeat for what people in the West called "communism." Khrushchev said that he was aware that critics, "especially in bourgeois societies," would describe the Soviets as having locked down the East Germans against their will, but he excused the border closing as only a "temporary defect," and he drew from ideology in blaming Ulbricht for having failed to more effectively tap "the moral and material potential that would someday be harnessed by the dictatorship of the working classes." (Kempe, p. 329)

There was a rush of people to get out before the border was completely sealed. Families had become separated, and people accustomed to daily crossing into the West to work or pursue their businesses were suddenly more than inconvenienced. Some succeeded in swimming the 30 meters across the Spree Canal.

On the morning of August 24, border police were given instructions to fire warning shots and then shoot to kill. The first of the 100 or so people who were to die trying to cross into West Berlin died that afternoon. He was Gunter Litfin, a twenty-four-year-old tailor who had been living in East Berlin and had his shop in West Berlin. He was shot after failing to stop while trying to swim across the Spree Canal. Another killing that outraged Berliners would come a year later when Peter Fechter was shot and left to bleed to death.

Kennedy asked an aide, Kenneth O'Donnell, "Why would Khrushchev put up a wall if he really intended to seize West Berlin?" Kennedy did not hide his relief and added: "A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war." (Kempe, p. 379)

Khrushchev saw himself as akin to a skilled chess player. He said that war might have broken out if he had miscalculated. He had concluded that Kennedy was not planning to contest Soviet policies regarding East Germany, including the Soviet Union ignoring the agreement at Potsdam that free elections would at some point unite Germany.

Khrushchev pushed what he thought was his advantage. On August 16 he launched military maneuvers that simulated an eruption of war over Berlin, maneuvers that included nuclear-tipped battlefield missiles. He announced that he was ending his three-year moratorium on atmospheric nuclear testing, that the testing would begin in September. Kennedy groaned and said, "F***ed again."


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.