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

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

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by Frederick Kempe
     
 

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In June 1961, Nikita Khrushchev called Berlin "the most dangerous place on earth." He knew what he was talking about.

Much has been written about the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later, but the Berlin Crisis of 1961 was more decisive in shaping the Cold War-and more perilous. It was in that hot summer that the Berlin Wall was constructed, which

Overview

In June 1961, Nikita Khrushchev called Berlin "the most dangerous place on earth." He knew what he was talking about.

Much has been written about the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later, but the Berlin Crisis of 1961 was more decisive in shaping the Cold War-and more perilous. It was in that hot summer that the Berlin Wall was constructed, which would divide the world for another twenty-eight years. Then two months later, and for the first time in history, American and Soviet fighting men and tanks stood arrayed against each other, only yards apart. One mistake, one nervous soldier, one overzealous commander-and the tripwire would be sprung for a war that could go nuclear in a heartbeat.

On one side was a young, untested U.S. president still reeling from the Bay of Pigs disaster and a humiliating summit meeting that left him grasping for ways to respond. It would add up to be one of the worst first-year foreign policy performances of any modern president. On the other side, a Soviet premier hemmed in by the Chinese, East Germans, and hardliners in his own government. With an all-important Party Congress approaching, he knew Berlin meant the difference not only for the Kremlin's hold on its empire-but for his own hold on the Kremlin.

Neither man really understood the other, both tried cynically to manipulate events. And so, week by week, they crept closer to the brink.

Based on a wealth of new documents and interviews, filled with fresh-sometimes startling-insights, written with immediacy and drama, Berlin 1961 is an extraordinary look at key events of the twentieth century, with powerful applications to these early years of the twenty-first.

Includes photographs

Editorial Reviews

Booklist
Informed...His chronology of memos and meetings dramatizes events behind closed doors...Kempe's history reflects balanced discernment about the creation of the Berlin Wall.
From the Publisher
"Berlin 1961 is a gripping, well-researched, and thought- provoking book with many lessons for today." — Dr. Henry Kissinger

"Good journalistic history in the tradition of William L. Shirer and Barbara Tuchman." — Kirkus Reviews

"Frederick Kempe's compelling narrative, astute analysis, and meticulous research bring fresh insight into a crucial and perilous episode of the Cold War." — Strobe Talbott, President, Brookings Institution

"History at its best. Kempe's book masterfully dissects the Cold War's strategically most significant East-West confrontation, and in the process significantly enlightens our understanding of the complexity of the Cold War itself." — Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter

"Berlin 1961 takes us to Ground Zero of the Cold War. Reading these pages, you feel as if you are standing at Checkpoint Charlie, amid the brutal tension of a divided Berlin." — David Ignatius, Columnist, The Washington Post

"Informed...His chronology of memos and meetings dramatizes events behind closed doors...Kempe's history reflects balanced discernment about the creation of the Berlin Wall." — Booklist

"Kempe...skillfully weaves oral histories and newly declassified documents into a sweeping, exhaustive narrative...Likely the best, most richly detailed account of the subject, this will engross serious readers of Cold War history who enjoyed W.R. Smyser's Kennedy and the Berlin Wall but appreciate further detail." — Library Journal

Jacob Heilbrunn
Kempe…has performed prodigies of research, consulting American, German and Soviet archives as well as interviewing numerous participants in the Berlin crisis. His reconstruction of the diplomacy and events leading up to August 1961 is spellbinding.
—The New York Times
Alex von Tunzelmann
Berlin 1961 has more virtues than flaws. It is engaging, it is a great story, and it is generally fair-minded. This is both an enriching history and a rollicking good read.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
On the 50th anniversary of its construction, Kempe, President and CEO of the Atlantic Council and a former Wall Street Journal staffer, delivers a definitive history of the Berlin Wall. For years, citizens of Communist East Germany streamed across the open border into prosperous West Berlin: 200,000 in 1960 alone. It was an exasperating brain drain, and the danger that other eastern Europeans would cross over threatened to destabilize the Communist region. Assembling personal accounts and newly declassified documents, Kempe writes a gripping, almost day-by-day chronicle of colorful, often clueless leaders and their byzantine maneuvers. Still reeling from his Bay of Pigs humiliation, President Kennedy yearned to prove himself the stalwart leader of the free world. The more experienced but mercurial Khrushchev wanted better East-West relations despite hostility from his hard-line rivals and East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, an unreconstructed Stalinist who despised him. No meeting of minds occurred, and the wall went up, but Kempe concludes that it solved the problem and avoided a war. Berlin faded from the headlines for 28 years, until in 1989 both the wall and the cold war came to an end. (May)
Library Journal
The Berlin Crisis of 1961, on the heels of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, not only froze European Cold War borders but also became another nonprofile in courage for JFK, inciting Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to provoke the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later. So claims Kempe (associate publisher, Wall Street Journal, Europe edition; Father/Land: A Pivotal Search for the New Germany) as he skillfully weaves oral histories and newly declassified documents into a sweeping, exhaustive narrative. Although no love was lost between Khrushchev and East Germany's Walter Ulbricht, they both were committed to staunching the flow of well-educated, professional East Germans to the West; hence, the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961. Kempe is especially strong at recounting Khrushchev's bullying of Kennedy at the June 1961 Vienna Summit and on the Wall's political, social, and personal impacts. VERDICT Likely the best, most richly detailed account of the subject, this will engross serious readers of Cold War history who enjoyed W.R. Smyser's Kennedy and the Berlin Wall but appreciate the further detail. Both authors view JFK circa 1961 as a work in progress with weaknesses that did not remain the pattern. [See Prepub Alert, 12/1/10.]—Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA
Kirkus Reviews

A tale of missed opportunities just might have ended in nuclear war.

Former longtime Wall Street Journal editor Kempe (Father/Land: A Personal Search for the New Germany, 1999, etc.) recounts a curious series of episodes in which the Russians appeared to be bearing olive branches, the Americans arrows. When John F. Kennedy came into office, Nikita Khrushchev made unexpectedly conciliatory gestures—for instance, he allowed Radio Free Europe to be broadcast behind the Iron Curtain, released American fliers who had been shot down while spying in Soviet airspace and even published Kennedy's inaugural address inPravda. Kennedy, however, mistrusted Khrushchev, who was "vacillating between his instinct for reform and better relations with the West and his habit of authoritarianism and confrontation." Given this suspicion, Kennedy failed to encourage the Soviet leader's good moments. Meanwhile, Khrushchev faced a difficult problem. He had defanged his most dangerous rival, Stalin-era secret policeman Lavrentiy Beria, but still faced considerable opposition from hardcore Stalinists—and competition from Mao's China, which was jockeying for position as the world's leading communist power. He was also embroiled in a bad situation in East Germany, which seemed in danger of collapsing in the wake of his post-Stalin reforms and which was serving as a gateway through which other Eastern Europeans could easily escape to the West. The climax of the difficult year 1961, as Kempe demonstrates, was the building of the Berlin Wall following one misreading of Soviet cues after another on the part of the Kennedy administration. In the end, Kennedy had to swallow his pride and accept the fact of the wall, which "had risen as he passively stood by." That failure notwithstanding, Kempe concludes that, ultimately, Kennedy was able to regain advantage with his successful handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year.

A bit too long, but good journalistic history in the tradition of William L. Shirer and Barbara Tuchman.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780425245941
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
01/03/2012
Pages:
608
Sales rank:
282,451
Product dimensions:
6.04(w) x 9.04(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

Henry Kissinger
Berlin 1961 is a gripping, well-researched, and thought- provoking book with many lessons for today.

Meet the Author

Frederick Kempe is the editor and associate publisher of The Wall Street Journal Europe and the founding editor of the Central European Economic Review. A well-known American commentator in Germany, he is also the author of Divorcing the Dictator, a book about America and Noriega featured on the cover of Newsweek, and Siberian Odyssey.

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Berlin 1961 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
ColdWarrior83 More than 1 year ago
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.
Man_Of_La_Book_Dot_Com More than 1 year ago
"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
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
alinn More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a very interesting book. Must read if you enjoying studying the cold war
rcbn More than 1 year ago
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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Anne Williamson More than 1 year ago
It is a great book. However, cannot see video, only get the audio.
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Igor Pyanin More than 1 year ago
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