The casual reader of historian Frederick Kempe’s Berlin 1961 should prepare for a bit of a surprise. This impressively-researched narrative, which chronicles the dramatic months leading up to the August 13, 1961 middle-of-the-night construction of the Berlin Wall offers a bracing portrait of how an untested, idealistic President John F. Kennedy botched a brutal game of Cold War politics against Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev. Based on unrivaled “access to personal accounts, oral histories, and newly declassified documents,” Kempe meticulously recreates a diplomatic chess game, during which Khruschev came to regard his American counterpart as weak-willed, somebody so afraid of nuclear war that he’d appease Soviet aggression in exchange for peace.
Kennedy’s missteps in this early showdown may have emboldened the Soviet leader, inviting him to test the inexperienced president. The failed, U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion damaged Kennedy’s international credibility, as did his glaring lack of resolve at the Vienna Summit meeting. “The consistent message [Kennedy] had sent Khruschev was that the Soviet leader could do whatever he wished on the territory he controlled as long as he didn’t touch West Berlin.” At their fateful meeting in Vienna, the charismatic Kennedy foolishly believed he could charm his Soviet counterpart. Instead, Khruschev’s “raw energy” and unmatched verbosity overpowered “Kennedy’s more subtle charms,” writes Kempe.
Readers are taken deep inside the dynamics of the entire Berlin crisis, as thousands of East Germany’s “best and brightest” escaped across the border. At Vienna, Kennedy had unwisely conceded Soviet control over East Berlin. Kempe believes that Khruschev ultimately authorized the Berlin Wall because Kennedy’s rhetoric signaled that the U.S. would do nothing to oppose it. His eye-opening account should trigger a serious re-evaluation of President Kennedy’s tumultuous first few months of leadership.