Europe

When JFK embraced the Berlin Wall

FILE - The Nov. 20, 1961 photo shows 12 feet high boards hiding the work as East German troops erect a new concrete wall at the Brandenburg Gate, marking the East-West border in Berlin. In background is the former Reichstag building which is in West Berlin.  (AP Photo/file)

FILE - The Nov. 20, 1961 photo shows 12 feet high boards hiding the work as East German troops erect a new concrete wall at the Brandenburg Gate, marking the East-West border in Berlin. In background is the former Reichstag building which is in West Berlin. (AP Photo/file)  (The Associated Press)

During his first visit to a divided Berlin in 1963, President John F. Kennedy signalled his strong support for the embattled citizens of that city, less than two years after its infamous Wall arrived.  Next to "ask not what your country can do for you," Kennedy's most frequently cited quote surely is something he spoke not even in English that day: Ich bin ein Berliner

Contrary to popular belief, however, JFK and other top U.S. officials might have been more relieved than enraged when the Wall went up.

Since shortly after World War II, a wavy line on the map had separated the two German states, even before they took the names German Democratic Republic (GDR) and Federal Republic of Germany (FRG).  West Germany was divided into sectors occupied by the Americans, the French and the English. In 1955, its economy booming and jobs plentiful, West Germany achieved full sovereignty, even as the occupying forces remained. The Communists in the East, meanwhile, scrambled to stem an embarrassing refugee crisis.  From the late-1940s to 1961, some 2.8 million East Germans fled West.

Most of this human tide, nearly twenty percent of the East German population and a high concentration of the country's skilled professionals, exited via Berlin, which remained, in most ways, one city, with inter-connected telephone service, subway, train, tram and bus lines. Many East Berliners with official passes -- as many as 60,000 overall -- crossed into the West every weekday to work or attend classes at the Technical University or the Free University. They were known as Grenzganger -- border crossers. Many never returned. By 1961, West Berlin's population of 2.2 million doubled that of the eastern sector.

The Soviets were alarmed. Premier Nikita Khrushchev considered West Berlin "a bone in my throat," even as he also likened it to testicles he could squeeze whenever he wanted the West to scream. Running for President in 1960, John F. Kennedy predicted Berlin would continue to be a "test of our nerve and our will."

The first Kennedy-Khrushchev summit took place on June 4, 1961, in Vienna.  As the summit ended, Kennedy privately called it "the worst thing in my life. He savaged me."  JFK told aides there was little the U.S. could do for the East Berliners--the sole goal now was to defend the interests of those already in the West. He assured a top aide, "God knows I'm not an isolationist, but it seems particularly stupid to risk killing a million Americans over an argument about access rights on an autobahn...or because the Germans want Germany reunified." After all, he added, "We didn't cause the disunity in Germany."

Amid the growing tensions, the number of East Germans arriving at Berlin's refugee center, a colony of twenty-five buildings in its Marienfelde district, spiked. The rate had already averaged 19,000 a month for 1961, and this more than doubled in early August. East Germans had never been allowed to participate in free elections but they were voting with their feet.

Walter Ulbricht, the 68-year-old East German leader with a Lenin goatee, had seen enough. With Khrushchev's blessing, he had weeks earlier ordered the stockpiling of massive quantities of barbed wire, fencing, and concrete blocks, his fantasy of a permanent barrier encircling West Berlin suddenly about to come to life. Somehow, despite their vast investment in intelligence operations in Berlin, the Americans knew little about any of this. President Kennedy's daily CIA briefings mentioned nothing.

Not that it likely mattered. American leaders were profoundly ambivalent about the prospect of any sealing of the border. Ulbricht took heart from a well-publicized July 30 television interview with J. William Fulbright, the influential Democratic senator. Asked if the Communists might reduce tensions by barring refugee flight, Fulbright answered, "Next week, if they chose to close their borders, they could without violating any treaty. I don't understand why the East Germans don't close their border...I think they have a right to close it at any time." West German media and American diplomats in Bonn, the capital, excoriated Fulbright. Some called him "Fulbricht."

President Kennedy said nothing in public. But at the White House he told an adviser, "Khrushchev is losing East Germany. He cannot let that happen. If East Germany goes, so will Poland and all of Eastern Europe. He will have to do something to stop the flow of refugees. Perhaps a wall. And we won't be able to prevent it."  Khrushchev meanwhile, assured Ulbricht, "When the border is closed, the Americans and West Germans will be happy." He claimed that the American ambassador to Moscow had told him the increasing intensity of the refugee flight was "causing the West Germans a lot of trouble. So when we institute these controls, everyone will be satisfied." Ulbricht assigned his security chief, Erich Honecker, to make sure the operation succeeded.

Just after midnight on August 13, the first barbed wire was unrolled along major boulevards at the border, the first step in sealing off the ninety-six-mile circumference of West Berlin. Thousands of Soviet troops stood in reserve in case demonstrators in the West tried to stop it. Khrushchev had wisely advised Ulbricht to make sure the wire did not extend even one inch across the border.

When Secretary of State Dean Rusk heard the news later that morning, he ordered that no U.S. official issue any statement beyond a mild protest. Any American response at the border, he feared, would trigger an escalation on the Communist side. Then he left his office to attend a Washington Senators baseball game. U.S. diplomats in Bonn hoped West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt would not hear about that, nor the reaction of Foy Kohler, one of Rusk's aides: "The East Germans have done us a favor."

More than ever, East Berlin was "an armed camp," CBS correspondent Daniel Schorr reported that day. Troops were needed, he added, to hold back a "sullen population."  (Indeed, many in the East would soon attempt daring, often deadly, escapes.  When Schorr attempted to cover the largest organized escape, Kennedy and Rusk would succeed in getting his CBS boss to kill his story, as I explore in my new book The Tunnels.) That night, legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, now in charge of the U.S. Information Agency, cabled his friend Jack Kennedy from Berlin, comparing Ulbricht's move to Hitler marching into the Rhineland. He warned JFK that if he didn't show resolve quickly he might face a crisis of confidence both in West Germany and around the globe.

Residents in the East had adapted long ago to the arbitrary division of their city, but the character of that division had changed, for the worse, on the morning of August 13. Tens of thousands previously resigned to tedious border crossings suddenly lost their jobs and a chance to complete their studies, as well as any chance to visit friends, family and lovers in the West. Finishing their routes in East Berlin, the U-Bahn subway and S-Bahn elevated trains now discharged passengers at the border.

On August 14, Kennedy told aides that "a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war." In the same discussion, he said, "This is the end of the Berlin crisis. The other side panicked -- not we. We're going to do nothing now because there is no alternative except war. It's all over, they're not going to overrun Berlin."

American intelligence was almost sanguine. Kennedy's CIA briefing on August 14 dryly referred to new "travel limitations" and "restrictions" in Berlin. The next day the CIA claimed that the East German and East Berlin populations were "generally reacting with caution" with only "scattered expressions of open criticism and a few instances of anti-regime incidents." The agency may not have known that at least ten East German border guards had already fled to the West.       

The administration's Berlin Steering Group, meeting in Washington, focused more on public relations than on countering the Soviet move with sanctions. Secretary of State Rusk stated that while the border closing was a serious matter, "in realistic terms it would make a Berlin settlement easier. Our immediate problem is the sense of outrage in Berlin and Germany which carries with it a feeling that we should do more than merely protest." Attorney General Robert Kennedy simply called for a boost in anti-Soviet propaganda.

On August 16, the front page of the popular West German newspaper Bild Zeitung screamed, "The West Does Nothing!" President Kennedy, it complained, "stays silent." Mayor Willy Brandt cabled a forceful message to Kennedy. He criticized the "inactivity and pure defensiveness" of the allies, which could lead to a collapse of morale in West Berlin while promoting "an exaggerated self-confidence in the East Berlin regime." If nothing was done, the next step was for the Communists to turn West Berlin into an isolated "ghetto" from which many of its citizens would flee. Kennedy must reject Soviet "blackmail." At a giant rally in Berlin that evening, Brandt cried, "Berlin expects more than words! Berlin expects political action!"

Kennedy was unmoved, partly because he thought Brandt's anger was motivated as much by electoral politics as anything else. He referred to Mayor Brandt as "that bastard from Berlin."  A year later, in a discussion with his aide McGeorge Bundy, JFK affirmed the country's commitment to protect Brandt's half of the city but added flatly, "Well, we don't care about East Berlin."  In October 1962, Kennedy and Rusk again attempted to suppress a major U.S. television network report, this time on NBC, on an escape tunnel under the Berlin Wall. 

The following June, the president would visit the Wall for the first time, and famously declare, "Ich bin ein Berliner."  The barrier would stand until 1989. 

Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books, including his latest, The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films JFK Tried to Kill (Crown, on-sale October 18, 2016).