Customer Reviews for

Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth

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  • Posted May 12, 2011

    A Gripping New Take on the Cold War

    The history author's main challenge is to combine a persuasive and detailed argument with prose that engages and entertains the reader. With Berlin 1961, I believe Frederick Kempe has shown that he is one of the rare writers who can pull this off successfully. Not only does Mr. Kempe marshal new historical evidence to support a fresh and original critique of the first year of the John F. Kennedy administration, he does so through narrative descriptions of personalities and events large and small that make the reader want to keep turning the pages.

    The story that Mr. Kempe tells is both significant and timely. As the fiftieth anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall approaches, he has revealed the machinations, forces, and detailed planning that helped create the twentieth century's most visible symbol of political oppression. He presents vivid and startling character portraits of the main figures responsible: President Kennedy, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and East German leader Walter Ulbricht. In doing so, he reminds us of the large impact that the personal foibles and political burdens of world leaders can have on their societies.

    Kennedy, for example, is shown to be more naïve and inept in managing foreign policy in his first year in office than most historians have apparently cared to admit. And, in one of the book's richest historical anecdotes, Mr. Kempe convincingly demonstrates how President Kennedy's judgment may have been impaired during a key diplomatic summit with Khrushchev because of a motley assortment of medications and injections he was taking. So too Kennedy may have made a mistake in relying on a KGB spy to gain information about Soviet intentions and communicate with Khrushchev over the course of 1961.

    But for me, the most exciting and moving portions of the book are those surrounding the Wall's construction and the ensuing crisis two months later, when US and Soviet tank drivers could easily have started World War III. Against this suspenseful backdrop, Mr. Kempe presents the stories of those citizens of Berlin caught up in the Cold War struggle as innocent victims. I cheered for those who were able to escape East Berlin and felt for those who lost their lives in the attempt. Mr. Kempe does an excellent job showing how the fates of these individuals were shaped by their leaders' decisions.

    Most significantly, Mr. Kempe presents a strong historical case that President Kennedy could have taken more assertive action to disrupt the Wall's construction in its first days - and that Khrushchev would not have retaliated with the general nuclear war that Kennedy feared. In addition to the ensuing loss of freedom for those living in East Berlin, Mr. Kempe persuasively argues that one of the main consequences of this inaction was Khrushchev's willingness to test Kennedy's mettle a year later in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    For its masterful and vivid retelling of a vital moment in the Cold War saga, and for its original contribution to historical scholarship and the debate on Kennedy's foreign policy and Cold War diplomacy, I believe Berlin 1961 is one of the best history books to come out in recent years. Its lessons and conclusions, drawn from the twentieth century, merit careful scrutiny from those trying to defend and promote freedom and democracy in the twenty-first.

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 13, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A Fas­ci­nat­ing Book

    "Berlin 1961" by Fred­er­ick Kempe is a non-fiction book which fol­lows the polit­i­cal tur­moil in 1961, a defin­ing year in US-Soviet rela­tion­ship. Nikita Khrushchev called Berlin "the most dan­ger­ous place on earth", read­ing this book I found out why.

    The book is divided into 3 parts:
    Part I: "The Play­ers" - the author intro­duced Nikita Khrushchev, John F. Kennedy, Wal­ter Ulbricht and Kon­rad Ade­nauer. Mr. Kempe brings out their moti­va­tions and fear for the drama that is being staged.

    Part II: "The Gath­er­ing Storm" - After the failed Bay of Pigs inva­sion, Kennedy's polit­i­cal clout and respect among world lead­ers is at a low point, to say the least. Khrushchev sees this as his oppor­tu­nity to stop the mas­sive exo­dus from East Ger­many and closes the bor­der. Kennedy's admit­tedly poor per­for­mance is on dis­play while he tries to ensure that Khrushchev doesn't start a nuclear war.

    Part III: "The Show­down" - This, for me, was the high­light of the book. The deci­sions in Moscow which resulted in a stun­ning bor­der clo­sure and its aftermath.

    "Berlin 1961" by Fred­er­ick Kempe fol­lows the events that shaped the course of the Cold War. The author jux­ta­posed between four of the major play­ers - Nikita Khrushchev, John F. Kennedy, East Berlin mayor Wal­ter Ulbricht and West Berlin mayor Kon­rad Ade­nauer.

    Kennedy and Khrushchev were, to me, the most inter­est­ing view points of the book. Khrushchev's bul­ly­ing the young Pres­i­dent while fak­ing diplo­macy should prob­a­bly be stud­ied in all polit­i­cal sci­ence courses. Read­ing how Nikita Khrushchev danced in diplo­matic cir­cles around the inex­pe­ri­enced Kennedy, who was just learn­ing his job at the time was faci­nat­ing. Kennedy break­ing his diplo­matic chops on a very seri­ous mat­ter is an aspect which helped him tremen­dously when it came to other diplo­matic break­ing points such as the Cuban Mis­sile Crisis.

    Mr. Kempe pro­vides in depth analy­sis on the intrigue which occurred dur­ing 1961 as well as more inti­mate moments of tri­umph and anguish on all sides of the polit­i­cal spec­trum. For Kennedy, 1961 was a stren­u­ous year. Kennedy described that year as "a string of dis­as­ters" start­ing with the fail­ure of the Bay of Pigs inva­sion, the failed Vienna Sum­mit, the Berlin Wall put under his nose as well as a dan­ger­ous tank show­down in Check­point Char­lie.
    I found it fas­ci­nat­ing that Kennedy, for all intents and pur­poses, allowed Khrushchev to con­struct the wall as long as he did not dis­rupt West Berlin or access to Free­dom.
    Of course, the wall did both.

    Mr. Kempe argues that one of the most sig­nif­i­cant out­comes of 1961 was the per­ceived weak­ness Khrushchev found in Kennedy. That weak­ness prompted him to place mis­siles in Cuba think­ing the young Pres­i­dent would cave as he did in Berlin.

    This is a fas

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2012

    Living History

    A well researched and well told history of the Berlin Wall and the confrontation of Kennedy vs Kruschev. Written in a "you are ther" style its both exciting and insightful. Kruschev comes across as the shrewd but buffoonish gangster and Kennedy comes across as indecisive and in way over his head. The "on the ground" look at life in Berlin as the wall goes up is the real treat in this book however, from escapes to the west to the contrast between poorly working communism and fearful West Berliners you get a real feel for what life was like in that divided city. The wall came down not long ago but the memories of that strange monument to socialist failure are already fading, this book goes a long way towards remidiating that. A nicley paced and exciting book for those looking for a good read about a pivotal moment in the Cold War thats worth the money.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 30, 2011

    Fascinating and insightful.

    I'm not a big non fiction reader but loved this book. The depth of information was impressive and the story behind the story was truly fascinating. Highly recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in better understanding this period of world history and the impact events had upon the last two decades of the 20th Century.

    I also liked that the author seemed to approach the story without a political bias or agenda. Refreshing.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 25, 2011

    Brilliant

    The author sets out to demonstrate that Berlin 1961 had far greater potential to bring about a devastating nuclear catastrophe than did the Cuban Missile Crisis just a year later -- and he succeeds in bringing to life the major political players and leaders of the day and the pieces they maneuvered on the world chess board. I don't think I have enjoyed a book more in the past few years. It is important to understand Berlin and what brought it about if one is to understand the Cold War. The reader from the United States who was raised during the cold war to think of the Soviets as the evil empire is finally allowed to understand what motivates the Soviet leadership. The treatment of the Kennedys is balanced and straightforward, yet pulls no punches in criticizing the president often praised for avoiding a nuclear war.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 6, 2012

    History does teach us valuable lessons!

    I was shocked to learn how an inexperienced Pres. Kennedy almost brought us into an atomic war and how he remained ( even to me ) an extremely popular President with a very poor performance.
    How movie star like popularity doesn't necessarily translate to good judgement on the part of the "people".

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  • Posted September 29, 2011

    Good book

    It is a great book. However, cannot see video, only get the audio.

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  • Posted July 27, 2011

    Test

    Test

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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