President Kennedy and the Berlin Wall

November 9, 2017 – 06:24 pm
By Michael O’Brien

After [the]Vienna [Conference], events turned sour for Khrushchev. Instead of retreating, Kennedy held firm. The Soviets were spending a fortune subsidizing the collapsing East German economy. The GDR’s leader, Walter Ulbricht, had few options as refugees took flight to the West, including physicians, engineers, teachers, and other professionals. Between 1945 and 1960 nearly 4.3 million Germans had fled the German Democratic Republic, and the problem was getting worse.

In July 1961, over thirty thousand East Berliners—“voting with their feet”—fled to West Berlin. East Germany was hemorrhaging. “I don’t understand why the East Germans don’t close their border, ” Senator William Fulbright mused publicly in early August 1961. At about the same time the President told Walt Rostow, “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. I can hold the Alliance together to defend West Berlin but I cannot act to keep East Berlin open.”

Khrushchev decided to fall back on Ulbricht’s earlier suggestion to erect a wall. Beginning after midnight on August 13, 1961, the East Germans constructed a physical barrier along the boundary with West Berlin using obstacles and barbed wire; construction of a concrete wall started six days later.

At Hyannis Port, the President and his guests were cruising on the Marlin when a messenger arrived at the Kennedy compound. “This looks important, ” he told Chester V. Clifton, handing over a brown envelope. Clifton read that the East German regime had just cut Berlin in two and was starting to build a barrier. Clifton contacted the Marlin, and Kennedy immediately returned to shore.

Kennedy scanned the message, then made phone calls. It surprised the President that no Soviet soldiers were seen in the streets; nor was there interference with access to West Berlin. The measures taken did not threaten vital interests of the Allies in West Berlin.

Some demanded that the Western Allies tear down the wall. Although Kennedy briefly pondered the suggestion, he realized it was impractical. “We could have sent tanks over and knocked the Wall down, ” he mused. “What then? They build another one back a hundred yards? We knock that down, then we go to war?”

Kennedy quickly realized that the wall was less a problem than a solution. “Why would Khrushchev put up a Wall if he really intended to seize West Berlin?” he said privately to his aides. “There wouldn’t be any need of a Wall if he occupied the whole city. This is his way out of his predicament. It’s not a very nice solution, but a Wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”

A few days after the East Germans started constructing the wall, Bundy offered three thoughts for the President: “(1) This is something they have always had the power to do; (2) it is something they were bound to do sooner or later, unless they could control the exits from West Berlin to the West; (3) since it was bound to happen, it is as well to have it happen early, as their doing and their responsibility.”


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