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

( 23 )


A fresh, controversial, brilliantly written account of one of the epic dramas of the Cold War-and its lessons for today.

"History at its best." -Zbigniew Brzezinski

"Gripping, well researched, and thought-provoking, with many lessons for today." -Henry Kissinger

"Captures the drama [with] the 'You are there' storytelling skills of a journalist and the analytical skills of the political scientist." - General Brent Scowcroft

In June 1961, Nikita ...

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

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A fresh, controversial, brilliantly written account of one of the epic dramas of the Cold War-and its lessons for today.

"History at its best." -Zbigniew Brzezinski

"Gripping, well researched, and thought-provoking, with many lessons for today." -Henry Kissinger

"Captures the drama [with] the 'You are there' storytelling skills of a journalist and the analytical skills of the political scientist." - General Brent Scowcroft

In June 1961, Nikita Khrushchev called it "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. For the first time in history, American and Soviet fighting men and tanks stood arrayed against each other, only yards apart. One mistake, one overzealous commander-and the trip wire would be sprung for a war that would go nuclear in a heartbeat. On one side was a young, untested U.S. president still reeling from the Bay of Pigs disaster. On the other, a Soviet premier hemmed in by the Chinese, the East Germans, and hard-liners in his own government. Neither really understood the other, both tried cynically to manipulate events. And so, week by week, the dangers grew.

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

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

On June 4th, 1961, Nikita Khrushchev made a speech that made international headlines and sent frightened world leaders scurrying to meetings. The Russian Premier's call for an end to four-power jurisdiction over Berlin set off a face-off that threatened to escalate into nuclear war. On the 50th anniversary of this major power showdown, historian and veteran Frederick Kempe uses newly declassified documents and a wealth of personal accounts to deliver a definitive day-by-day, week-by-week chronicle of a crisis that changed the face of the Cold War. (P.S. Berlin 1961 has already gained strong accolades from Brent Scowcroft, Henry Kissinger, and Zbigniew Brzezinski.)

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.
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
Library Journal
In Cold War Berlin, the United States and the Soviet Union stood nose to nose, with the possibility of nuclear war just a misstep away. Kempe, a former Wall Street Journal editor/writer and currently president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, uses new documents and conducted his own interviews to bring that time back to life.
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.

The Barnes & Noble Review

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.

--Chuck Leddy

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780425245941
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 1/3/2012
  • Pages: 608
  • Sales rank: 395,796
  • Product dimensions: 6.04 (w) x 9.04 (h) x 1.10 (d)

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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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Frederick Kempe Author of BERLIN 1961

What led you to write this book?

The Cold War is still the least understood and worst reported of our three world wars. Berlin was its epicenter. The year 1961 was the most decisive. I wanted to tell the story of that year. And I wanted to tell it through its protagonists, as rich a cast of characters as history could provide. I also wanted to satisfy my own questions about whether the Berlin Wall could have been avoided—and whether the Cold War could have been ended much earlier. Might we have been able to help liberate a whole generation of Eastern Europeans—tens of millions of people—three decades earlier?

Then, after President Obama's election, I was even more motivated to finish my research. The reason is that this is also a story of a brilliant but inexperienced president dealing with issues far beyond his skill set. Kennedy's first year in office proved to be one of the worst of any modern presidency. U.S. presidents shape world history—and in this case it is not a positive story.

Much has been written about the Cold War in general and about this particular time and place. What's different about this book?

Two aspects are quite different from what has appeared before. First, I pull in all the strands about this historic year that haven't been in a single book: the Kennedy story, the Khrushchev story, the Ulbricht and Adenauer stories. I also draw upon recently released documents in Russia, Germany, and the U.S. that haven't yet been put into a single story. I weave these into a narrative that is both human and historic, as has been my instinct to do as a journalist. Second and more important, the book builds the best cases to date that Kennedy acquiesced to the border closure and the building of the Wall. The record shows that in many respects he wrote the script that Khrushchev followed—as long as Khrushchev restricted his actions to Soviet-controlled East Berlin and East Germany, Kennedy would accept his actions. Kennedy falsely believed that if East Germany could end its refugee stampede, Khrushchev might become a more willing negotiator on a set of other issues. It was a tragic misreading of the man and of the situation. Berlin paid for it—as did tens of millions of people.

Among the main points you highlight in this book are the self-reinforcing misinterpretations, miscommunications, and misunderstandings between the U.S. and the USSR. What examples stand out to you as the most important?

They began years before Kennedy took office. The U.S. never fully recognized or acted upon how dramatic was the break between Khrushchev and Stalinism at the 20th Party Congress in 1956. Khrushchev's call for peaceful coexistence with the capitalist West was never fully explored. Nor did we ever answer or reward his support for Finnish and Austrian neutrality and his reductions in military personnel and spending. During Kennedy's presidency, the misreading began when Khrushchev released captured U.S. airmen and Kennedy failed to recognize the potential importance of the gesture. It continued when he misinterpreted a relatively unimportant hard-line propaganda speech by Khrushchev as a declaration of an even more aggressive Soviet challenge aimed at him. From Khrushchev's side, he often listened more to his own insecurities than what was warranted by the situation. He was enormously vulnerable to perceived slights—he would respond excessively to moments like the U-2 incident and Kennedy's State of the Union speech and the U.S. Minuteman missile test. However, there was one moment when Khrushchev listened closely to Kennedy's communication—and that regarded what the president would be willing to accept in Berlin. Then Khrushchev acted very much according to the clear messages he received.

Do you think we could have ended the Cold War earlier if Kennedy had managed his relationship with Khrushchev differently?

As General Brent Scowcroft says in the foreword to the book, history doesn't reveal its alternatives. My own view is that the Soviet empire would have begun to unravel earlier had Kennedy held the line—but we will never know. It is unclear how the Soviets would have responded to that without a Gorbachev and a Yeltsin in charge. Would they have backed down, as they did during the Berlin Airlift of 1948, or would they have defended what they controlled, as they did in Budapest in 1956? The key difference between those two events was a demonstration of resolve by the U.S. with its nuclear superiority. I am certain of one thing: East Germany would have collapsed if the communists hadn't put up the Wall to stop the refugee flow—and that would have had severe consequences for the rest of the Soviet bloc. After all, it is the refugee flood that prompted its collapse twenty-eight years later. Whether or not the Cold War would have ended earlier, Kennedy certainly saved Khrushchev from a lot of trouble then by acquiescing to the building of the Wall.

Berlin 1961 is described as being based on a "wealth of new documents and interviews." Please tell us about the research you did. What sort of new documents did you uncover, and what new interviews did you conduct?

Some of these were new documents I was able to find through additional research in Berlin, Moscow, and the United States. Some were new interviews with witnesses of the time— and the unearthing of interviews and oral histories that had previously received little notice. However, the real wealth of new material came from documents that had been released in all three countries that hadn't been brought together in a book that explained their meaning and their connections. Almost all of the most significant players from 1961 are no longer living; however their memoirs, oral histories, and documents recounting some of their most crucial meetings have either gone unnoticed or have attracted too little notice. Sadly, much of what we still need to know remains classified. But this book does make clear what we should be watching for most intensively when new documents are released, particularly those of President Kennedy's brother Robert.

What surprised you most as you worked on the book, and what do you think will most surprise readers?

What most surprised me is the body of evidence that Kennedy not only was relieved by the Berlin border closure, but in many respects wrote the script for it. Reading the documents, I was also struck by how refreshingly self-aware Kennedy was about the failure of his first year as president and the danger that Khrushchev would consider him weak. On the Soviet side, what interested me most was the power of a weak client and his failing state, Walter Ulbricht and East Germany, to influence the actions of a great power. The greatest mystery to me remains the Georgi Bolshakov–Bobby Kennedy relationship, which I'm now confident played a larger role than can be documented.

What do you want readers to get out of this book?

I want Americans to understand how the decisions of their presidents—then and now—shape world history in ways we don't always understand at the time of a specific event. I want readers to know that Kennedy could have prevented the Berlin Wall, if he had wished, and that in acquiescing to the border closure he not only created a more dangerous situation—but also contributed to mortgaging the future for tens of millions of Central and Eastern Europeans.

The relatively small decisions that U.S. presidents make have huge, often global, consequences. Though most U.S. analysts and even historians have forgotten the events around Berlin in 1961, I want to start a debate about whether the U.S. actually could have ended the Cold War earlier. I also want to remind Americans of the cost to the world of perceived American weakness. Luckily, we escaped a nuclear conflict—both over Berlin and over Cuba—but the greatest danger came not because we overreached but because our adversary had concluded that we wouldn't act to defend our interests.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 23 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 23 Customer Reviews
  • 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


    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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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 22, 2014


    This is a very interesting book. Must read if you enjoying studying the cold war

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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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