Richard Reeves

We Should Celebrate the Building of the Berlin Wall

NEW YORK -- The fireworks and music marking the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall are certainly justified as a dramatic symbol of the collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War. But we should celebrate, too, the building of the wall, beginning on Aug. 13, 1961. That cruel division of Berlin into two cities was possibly the single action that prevented nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

If there were to have been a nuclear world war, it would have begun not in Korea or Cuba or Vietnam. The trigger would have been pulled in Europe, where Americans and our allies confronted the armies of communism led by the Soviets.

Both sides had their problems in those days. The communists' problem was that East Germans were fleeing west through the open border between East and West Berlin at a rate that reached more than 3,000 a day in that summer of 1961. The best and the brightest of the East, the young and the educated, the engineers, doctors and teachers, were escaping impoverished totalitarianism to begin anew in what we proudly called the Free World.

Our problem was that the communists might choose to move militarily to solve their problem by taking over West Berlin, an enclave 110 miles inside East Germany. In that island in a Red sea, under the agreements which ended World War II, there were only 15,000 American, British and French troops, surrounded by dozens of divisions of the Red Army.

If the Soviets, frustrated by the hollowing out of their most prosperous "captive nation," decided on a military solution, they could have blocked the road and rail line to West Germany and taken West Berlin in 24 hours, taken all of Germany in a couple of weeks, and all of Western Europe in a couple of months. Unless ...

Unless the Americans decided to use nuclear weapons to stop them. U.S. (or North Atlantic Treaty Organization) policy was to use nuclear weapons in that case -- and presumably the Soviets would have retaliated in kind.

"West Berlin," said the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, "has become -- as never before -- the great testing place of Western courage and will. ... We are clear about what must be done -- and we intend to do it. ... An attack on West Berlin will be regarded as an attack on all of us. ... We shall not surrender."

That was on Aug. 3, 1961 -- in public.

In private, Kennedy said of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev: "This is intolerable for Khrushchev. East Germany is hemorrhaging to death. The entire East bloc is in danger. He has to do something to stop this. Perhaps a wall. And there's not a damn thing we can do about it."

A wall, a divided Berlin, in fact, was what Kennedy wanted -- though God knows he could not say that in public without risking impeachment or a disastrous defeat in the 1964 election. He had to talk and act tough, even as he signaled to Khrushchev that the bottom line for the United States was no interference with allied occupation rights to enter East Berlin. That became Checkpoint Charlie, a military police entry point at a gap in the wall.

The erection of the wall was not the great surprise we present it as now. Among many other public discussions of the possibility was a cover story in The Reporter magazine on March 16, 1961, which Kennedy read, that said: "The only way to stop refugees is to seal off both East Berlin and the Soviet Zone by total physical security measures. ... Khrushchev will ring down the Iron Curtain in front of East Berlin -- with searchlights and machine gun towers, barbed wire and police dog patrols. ... The West's main problem is to provide some way out for the Soviets with little loss of face ..."

That is exactly what happened five months later. The wall was built, legally so to speak, totally in East German territory. If we had wanted to knock it down, allied troops would have to have crossed the line, invading the Eastern zone. When Kennedy heard the first news of East German troops stringing barbed wire, he went sailing. He did not comment for more than 24 hours.

In private, he said: "This is the end of the Berlin crisis. ... They're not going to overrun Berlin." The wall was a great victory for Kennedy, but of course no American leader could say that until it fell 30 years later.

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