WASHINGTON -- The consensus of 40th-anniversary coverage of the building of the Berlin Wall went about as expected: Those terrible communists in East Germany stunned the world by dividing Berlin into eastern and western sectors, beginning on Aug. 13, 1961; they shot people who tried to cross from the East into Western Berlin; President Reagan demanded that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tear down that hateful Wall; he did in 1989 and the Cold War was over; we won!
That was all true -- and almost totally wrong.
These are among the many twists of the story that seem to have become conventional history:
-- The world was surprised.
No. It was pretty obvious that the communists were going to seal one border or another to prevent defections from East Germany and other satellite countries. Among those who generally knew what was coming was the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy.
-- Kennedy was outraged.
No. He was delighted, avoiding saying anything for more than a day.
-- We wanted to knock the damned thing down.
No. Some overzealous military types re-created the wall in West German forests to practice with tanks and bulldozers, but when the president found out he made them knock down the practice wall and put the tanks away. The wall was in Soviet-occupied East German territory -- it was cruel, but legal -- and the United States was not about to invade the Soviet Union, which was more or less what was required to destroy the Wall. In fact, if we had attacked, our ground troops would have been crushed, and we would have been left with the options of abandoning West Germany and perhaps all of western Europe, or destroying it all with nuclear weapons.
Yes, the Wall was ugly and so were the people who put it up, but it may have prevented World War III, a nuclear world war.
As early as March of 1961, one magazine, The Reporter, wrote in a cover story:
"The Soviet Union and its East German minions have finally drawn the ultimate conclusion: The only way to stop refugees is to seal off both East Berlin and the Soviet Zone by total physical security measures ... searchlights and machine gun towers, barbed wire and police dog patrols."
White House reaction to that was mild: "If Soviet Premier Khrushchev is prepared to offer concrete guarantees that no effort will be made by the East Germans to interfere with the free flow of traffic into Berlin, officials said, this would remove the immediate threat of a military clash."
In other words, the public signal was that if the bad guys allowed American, British and French military traffic to circulate in the city -- Checkpoint Charley and all that -- what the commies did on their side of the line was none of our business. That statement was issued five days before construction began.
The Wall was a brilliant solution to the political and military problems of both Khrushchev and Kennedy. The leader of the communist world could not stand by as more than 2,000 of his subjects -- the young and the educated, doctors and engineers -- fled each week to the West through Berlin. If the Soviets had done nothing, 1989 would have happened in the early 1960s. But the leaders of the free world had only 15,000 occupying troops in West Berlin -- West Germany was 110 miles away by roads and railroads controlled by communist units -- and they were surrounded by dozens of divisions of the Red Army.
The troops of the Americans, British and French might have held out for a day in Berlin, maybe two. What then? The options were being overrun in Berlin, then Germany, then all of the continent of Europe, or using tactical nuclear weapons to stop Soviet advances -- and demolish much of the continent and perhaps trigger strategic nuclear weapons on both sides.
What would you do? Unless you're nuts, and some were in those days, you would do what John Kennedy did: Say bad things about the Soviets and do nothing. It worked. The Wall became the great anti-Soviet advertisement, there was never an American-Soviet confrontation where it really counted, in Europe, and one day the Wall and communism fell without being pushed or nuked.
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