August 13, 1961—As more and more of their own citizens chose to vote with their feet rather than live under Soviet domination, the German Democratic Republic (GDR)—a contradiction in terms if there ever was one—acted swiftly to stop the mass emigration by building the Berlin Wall. In a move that must have taken weeks to plan but only 24 hours to implement, the GDR tore up streets, erected barricades of paving stones, placed tanks at strategic junctures and interrupted subway and local rail service. In virtually no time, the estimated 1,500 people fleeing East Germany daily came to a halt.
The move capped a spring and summer of escalating tensions between the U.S.S.R.’s leader, Premier and First Secretary of the Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev, and American President John F. Kennedy. It was the first season of what historian Michael Beschloss would call “The Crisis Years” of confrontation between the American—elegant, aristocratic, young, inexperienced, and battling ill health—and the Soviet—crude, of peasant stock, aging, wily, and eager to exploit the slightest sign of weakness in an adversary.
Still less than half a year in office, JFK had hoped to ease the tensions mounting between the two nations since the end of the Eisenhower presidency by meeting Khrushchev in Vienna in early June. But that summit was disastrous, for reasons barely understood at the time.
To relieve the ferocious pain and exhaustion springing from a longstanding degenerative back problem and Addison’s Disease (a condition in which the patient’s adrenal glands don’t produce the adrenaline needed to get through the day), the President had been secretly receiving injections from Dr. Max Jacobson, the quack of preference for such celebrities as Yul Brenner, Mickey Mantle, Truman Capote, Eddie Fisher, and Nelson Rockefeller. JFK requested more of these “medical cocktails” from “Dr. Feelgood” so he wouldn’t seem exhausted to Khrushchev. He was cavalier about the side effects of these injections on his physical and mental health, telling brother Robert: “I don't care if it's horse piss. It works."
The upshot was that Kennedy encountered his Soviet counterpart, in arguably the most high-stakes summit of the Cold War up to that time, relatively high on speed.
Kennedy should have asked for his money back. Khrushchev went at him with no holds barred, blustering in every way possible, climaxing with a threat: settle Berlin’s future with an agreement within six months, “or else.”
Later, JFK confided his serious concern to New York Times columnist James Reston. The Soviet, Kennedy reasoned, thought that "anyone who was so young and inexperienced as to get into that mess [the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba] could be taken. And anyone who got into it and didn’t see it through had no guts. So he just beat the hell out of me…I’ve got a real problem.”
Summing it up, the young father, brother, and leader who had already lost a brother and sister to death, a baby in his wife’s miscarriage, and sailors under his watch in the South Pacific—not to mention more days of sickness than he cared to admit—called the bullying at the hands of the Soviet “the worst thing in my life.” Given what would happen over the next year and a half—especially the Cuban Missile Crisis—the normally cool, ironic Kennedy was not exaggerating.
What Kennedy, not to mention the American public, did not realize was that Khrushchev was operating from a position of considerable vulnerability himself. Some members of the Soviet Union’s Central Committee had been plotting his ouster for several years. By the late 1950s, China’s Mao Tse-tung was openly challenging Soviet leadership of worldwide Communism.
Now, the pressure was being exerted against him immediately in Berlin, with that massive outflow. GDR leader Walter Ulbricht begged for something to be done to reduce this threat to the size of the East German labor force (not to mention the country's image to the willfully ignorant as a workers‘ paradise). Khrushchev granted the request by putting into motion plans for The Wall.
In a way, it was appropriate that the Berlin Wall ran across cemeteries, for it represented a form of death: death to hundreds of thousands who hoped for a better life in the non-Communist West, death to the hope that Khrushchev could transform the Soviet Union from the mold created by Lenin and Stalin, and the death of illusion.
Kennedy had been so concerned about the possibility of war coming from the Soviet threat to cut off access to West Berlin that, at first, he was relieved by the building of the wall. It might have been a wall, he said, but at least it wasn’t a war.
The issue didn’t receive itself quite so easily, however. Kennedy was so determined to show Khrushchev that he couldn’t be intimidated that he authorized Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric to deliver a speech that frankly contradicted the claim made by the JFK Presidential campaign the year before: that the U.S. was facing a “missile gap” as it confronted its adversary.
On the contrary, Gilpatric claimed in his October 21, 1961, speech, “The Iron Curtain is not so impenetrable as to force us to accept at face value the Kremlin's boasts."
There are certain points and people in history that deserve to be better known because of their subsequent impact on far-more-famous matters. Gilpatric’s speech in Hot Springs, Va., was one of these. It exposed Khrushchev to the world as a bluffer, at the exact moment that the Communist Party Congress was meeting. Three events followed, in escalating order of importance:
* Khrushchev immediately authorized plans to detonate the largest hydrogen bomb ever tested;
* An American diplomat was blocked on his way to an opera in East Berlin, creating a situation in which 30 tanks from each side faced each other at a distance of only 100 yards from each other, before Kennedy and Khruschchev finally resolved the matter through back channels;
* In 1962, welcoming the opportunity of “ throwing one of our hedgehogs down the pants of Uncle Sam,” Khrushchev ordered that missiles be secretly shipped to Cuba, triggering the closest the war has come to Armageddon: the Cuban missile crisis.
Even after the resolution of that threat, the Berlin Wall lasted till the end of the larger Cold War. It became a visible reminder to objective people all over the world that the Iron Curtain regimes could only maintain their grasp on power, not to mention their economies, by restricting their own citizens’ freedom to move. It also provided two American Presidents--one Democratic, one Republican--the opportunity for some of the most memorable moments of their years in office.
In 1987, the world was transfixed by Reagan’s simple demand of Mikhail Gorbachev: “Tear down this wall!” But 24 years before, JFK--who had endured “the worst thing in my life” over Berlin--now electrified an enormous crowd on the West Berlin side of the wall with four words of his own: “Ich bein ein Berliner.”
Most of the fragments of the Berlin Wall remain in the city, but some have landed in unusual places. One is in West Point, but another, surprisingly enough, is in Paley Park, a "vest-pocket" urban oasis on East 53rd Street in New York City. When I used to work across the street from there in the 1990s, I was astonished not simply to see it but also to observe that virtually nobody in the park paid any attention to this hideous structure that, for nearly 30 years, represented for all too many totalitarianism, the failure of international politics, and death.