(COLD WAR: the KENNEDY YEARS – continued)

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COLD WAR: 1961-63 (4 of 7)

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Showdown at Checkpoint Charlie, October 1961

Kennedy continued to agonize over how to deal with Khrushchev and the Soviet Union. His advisors and those Kennedy was consulting were divided basically into two camps. Dean Acheson and Paul Nitze were on one side. Kennedy's advisor Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and his ambassador to the Soviet Union, E. Llewellyn Thompson, were opposed to Acheson and Nitze. Schlesinger, who had warned Kennedy against his Bay of Pigs adventure, was opposed to reducing relations between the Soviet Union and the United States to a game of chicken regarding the use of nuclear weapons. Schlesinger was also opposed to the idea that Khrushchev would be deterred only by a demonstration of US readiness to go to nuclear war. Acheson and Nitze worried that weakness demonstrated by the US concerning Berlin would make the West and particularly the United States look weak and encourage freedom's influential and mighty enemies to ratchet up their expansions.

Nitze was Kennedy's Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. He drew up a paper on preparation for another Berlin confrontation. Kennedy, his Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, Dean Rusk, and Robert McNamara agreed on a buildup of armed forces in Europe. The question of nuclear weapons arose. Nitze wanted a first-strike option to be considered. He opined that the US might lose in a nuclear exchange if the Russians were allowed to strike first. (Kempe, p. 439)

To counter any imagined weakness regarding US strength, Kennedy, on 21 October 1961, decided to make public previously secret details about the size, power and superiority of the US nuclear arsenal. It was goodbye "missile gap."

The Soviet Union's military establishment presented Khrushchev with evidence of what it thought was the US preparing for war. Meanwhile, the retired General Clay, hero of the Berlin airlift of 1948-49, was in West Berlin with permission from the Kennedy administration, and he was trying to get US forces ready for what he believed should be a demonstration of strength and assertion of US rights. Without authorization, Clay was practicing with tanks and bulldozer capabilities to charge and breakdown the barrier between the two Berlins, and Khrushchev learned of Clay's tank maneuvers.

Between October 17 and 31, Khrushchev was attending the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – 4,394 voting delegates and 405 non-voting delegates representing around 10 million Party members. Ho Chi Minh, Zhou En-lai and America's Elizabeth Gurley Flynn were welcomed visitors. The Congress was important to Khrushchev regarding his political survival. His major opposition was those critical of his armed forces reductions and his softness toward dangers from the capitalist West. At the Congress, Khrushchev predicted that the Soviet Union would be producing three pairs of shoes per person per year and that it would surpass the US economically by 1980.

At the Congress, Khrushchev announced a point of conciliation with the West, saying that he would drop his insistence on signing a peace treaty with East Germany because, he explained, in recent talks with Foreign Minister Gromyko, Kennedy had shown that Western powers "were disposed to seek a settlement" on Berlin. Then Khrushchev spoke of nuclear testing that was going well and announced that a hydrogen bomb was to be tested. The delegates shot to their feet and applauded.

On October 22, a US diplomat stationed in West Berlin, E. Allan Lightner Jr, with his wife, tried to enter East Berlin to attend a cultural event in East Germany as they were accustomed to doing. They were asked to show credentials – an unprecedented move by East Berlin's border guards. Lightner refused and tried to drive his little Volkswagen forward and was stopped by a gathering of more guards. In a couple of days Russian tanks of the East side of the border crossing – Checkpoint Charlie – were facing US tanks on the West side of the crossing.

Khrushchev backed away from the confrontation. He withdrew his tanks, saying that he was giving the US an opportunity to withdraw without losing face. The Americans withdrew, and matters in Berlin returned to what had become a new normal.

People in West Berlin remained disappointed with the West's response to the border closing incident, but hope in the United States remained. In June 1963 they gave Kennedy a hero's welcome. Kennedy gave his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, welcomed by Germans looking to the US as a force for freedom.


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