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

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

by Frederick Kempe


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399157295
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/10/2011
Pages: 608
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 2.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Frederick Kempe is the president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, and previously spent more than twenty-five years as a reporter, columnist, and editor for The Wall Street Journal. This is his fourth book. He lives in Washington, D.C.

What People are Saying About This

Henry Kissinger

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


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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Berlin 1961 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 36 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.
CharlesSvec on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A really good read. I've always been interested in JFK and this era, and this book helps to detail what was going on during this time of the "Cold War". Definitely recommended for anyone interested in Berlin and 1961.
benpass4 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If one was to believe the blurbs and introduction for Berlin 1961, then one would expect this book to be the kind of definitive work that appears once in a generation to frame a particular historical period or event (Tony Judt¿s Postwar for example). Sadly, it falls well short of this goal, and in fact left me asking whether there was really much new here.Kempe¿s central thesis is that Kennedy¿s indecision and blunders led to the Berlin crisis ending with the creation of the Berlin Wall and the survival of Communist East Germany for another 28 years. He argues that if the door to the west had been held open that the DDR would have inevitably moved towards collapse, the Cuban Missile Crisis would have been averted, and Soviet influence effectively rolled back much earlier. He quotes Brent Scowcroft that ¿History, sadly, does not reveal its alternatives¿ (p 486) and thus the good outcome of the Cold war cannot be used to retroactively endorse the result of the crisis of 1961. Because Kennedy could not know the Wall would fall, Kempe holds, he cannot be credited with doing much more than not immediately starting nuclear war over Berlin.Kempe errs in his analysis and in his presentation on several levels. The first and most important is that he engages in exactly the sort of hindsight to endorse alternatives that he categorically rejects to justify Kennedy¿s actions. He, of course, makes his judgments from the safe distance of his Atlantic Council office in a world where even avowed Communists no longer believe that the radiant socialist future is coming. Kennedy charted his course looking forward and at the possibility of World War at a time when every one of his contemporaries could remember and easily imagine the consequences of a war far more destructive than the previous two. Kennedy was informed by Khrushchev¿s repeated willingness to intervene with powerful (indeed overwhelming) military force in both East Germany and Hungary, and knew with some degree of certainty that the Russians would fight for East Germany. What Kempe takes for indecision was in fact the maintenance of the kind of strategic ambiguity required to survive confrontations between nuclear armed nations. Much of this is supported by his interpretive description of the mannerisms and tone of the principal players in the crisis. One example illustrates the rhetorical technique, Ulbricht is seen to have ¿scratched his goatee unhappily¿ (p. 92). He comes across as a sinister but ingenious villain. Kempe places himself in the minds of the leaders and creates meaning out of actions and paints an emotional picture. I find this style of history suspect at best, the primary source materials simply do not support this kind of invention. His interpretation is driven not simply by a deep historical curiosity but also by something deeply personal which has driven him to apply that emotion to those he writes about. The author¿s closing acknowledgments suggest to me the source of this need to apply this approach to the Berlin Crisis. This was personal to Kempe and his family who originate from Berlin and who suffered for the perceived failure by Kennedy to ¿win¿ the Crisis. Much of the strength of Kempe¿s argument rests on accepting the ascribed motivations, attitudes, and even moods that he portrays. A cooler analysis certainly has to give Khrushchev ¿the win¿ in this crisis. However, given the very real threat of nuclear war, the success that the previous 15 years had brought the Communist enterprise and Kennedy¿s faith in the ultimate ability of the West to triumph, playing for time and stability (even at the cost of 17 million Germans staying under Communist rule) was a prudent and sustainable course. Kennedy¿s action during his short tenure as President did much to move the U.S. away from the nose-to-nose confrontation at every point of the globe that had typified Truman and Eisenhower¿s administration (even including ¿fighting¿ the Cuban crisis), his establishment
chuck_ralston on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The book _Berlin 1961_ weaves the character strengths and flaws of USSR Premier Nikita Khrushchev, newly elected USA President John F. Kennedy, and their respective allies, East Germany's Walter Ulbricht and West Germany's Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, into the political power struggle between the two Cold War superpowers, both now armed with nuclear arsenals, that came to a head in divided Germany's post-World War II Berlin in the summer of 1961 with the construction by East Germany of a reinforced concrete wall separating the eastern Soviet from American, British, and French zones of occupation in the city to stop the flow of East Germans to the West. In his Introduction author Kempe lays out his book's structure in three parts, the first presenting the major players Khrushchev, Kennedy, Ulbricht, and Adenauer; the second, background events to include the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, Soviet agreement to a multinational conference on Asian flash point Laos, and the Kennedy-Khrushchev summit meeting in Vienna; and the third, the 'showdown' events of the construction of the Berlin Wall in August and the military face off at Checkpoint Charlie in October. In addition to in-depth analysis of the political interplay and intrigue, Kempe has included more intimate vignettes of personal tragedy and triumph. One example of which is an excerpt from Marta Hiller's memoir, first published 1959, about the rape of between 90,000 and 130,000 Berlin women by their Russian conquerors following the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945; another, the story of Marlene Schmidt, refugee from Jena in East Germany, who escaped to the West, entered a beauty contest and soon after became Germany's first and only Miss Universe to the embarrassment of Herr Ulbricht._Berlin 1961_ comes to us fifty years after the crucial events of the Cold War. The Wall went up in August 1961 and was torn down nearly thirty years later in November 1989. The reunification of Germany and dissolution of the Soviet empire soon followed. The tensions that existed in 1961 between the two ideologically different superpowers have dissipated, the reader senses, but only to have been replaced by another worldwide tension that we hope will find resolution in a similar manner.On a personal note, _Berlin 1961_ reminded me of the lingering thought of possible nuclear war felt when living in Orleans, France as an overseas brat. My father served with the Ordnance Supply and Control Agency, Communications Zone, US Army Europe (in military jargon ¿ USAREUR COMZ). The military and civilians had 'red' alerts monthly in preparation for expected NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict. The Franco-Algerian War was in play in Oran and in Paris. Yet, for me the most exciting times of the summer of 1961 were the home run streaks of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, and my liberation from riding the Army shuttle bus with the acquisition of a Lambretta motor scooter. The saddest event was learning of the death jazz bassist Scott LaFaro in an automobile accident just ten days after having been part of the now seminal recording, Sunday at the Village Vanguard / The Bill Evans Trio. And I remember the envy felt for one of my younger brothers, who as a member of the Explorer Scouts, went by train to Berlin for a week in July, and recounting to me his bus tour of East Berlin and give-and-take with the VoPos. This also is part of the story of 1961 in Berlin.
davidveal on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was in Germany throughout 1961, as a very green lieutenant in the 4th Armored Division, and have many memories of the tension and confusion of those times. I have puzzled over the absence of historical writing about that critical season and place. This book is a start. It is well-written, wonderfully descriptive, with fascinating imaginative dialogue and presumptions about attitudes and motivations of prominent persons , but too speculative and fictionalized, Michener-style, to be taken very seriously. Kempe¿s admiration for Soviet Premier Khrushchev is surprising. He is unable to hide the blunders of the Eisenhower administration in the lead-up to Berlin 1961, but he passes over them rather lightly. It is too bad that Kempe was unable to resist using this work as a vehicle to express his shallow contempt for President Kennedy. He has spoiled an otherwise stellar work by reducing much of it to the level of partisan Republican propaganda, something one would think beneath the dignity of a competent historian. But then, he is not an historian but a journalist, reporting on events he did not witness.
fredbacon on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
During the years of the Cold War, Berlin fully deserved Khrushchev's description (quoted in Frederick Kempe's new book) as the "most dangerous place on Earth." To the west, it was a tripwire for military intervention. To the east, it was a festering sore lodged deep in the communist flank. The armies of both sides faced off against each other in Berlin where the vast ideological and cultural gulf was reduced to an infinitesimally narrow geopolitical boundary separating the Soviet Zone of Occupation and the combined zones of the western allies--Britain, France and the United States.In the early years of the Cold War, Berlin was a microcosmic mirror of the larger world where the political passions of both sides ran as high as the stakes. Drawn on a smaller scale, there was little room for error by either side, and any miscalculation could have lead to a catastrophic global nuclear war. Frederick Kempe's new book, Berlin 1961, attempts to recapture the diplomacy and terror of the year 1961 when President Kennedy, during his first year in office, learned a series of hard lessons in international diplomacy. Kempe provides the reader with the illusion of being within the inner circles of both camps as they struggle to find a safe path through the darkness, each guessing at how the other side is likely to respond to their actions.One has to give Khrushchev his due. He was a shrewd politician with a keen eye for his opponent's weaknesses, whereas Kennedy was an inexperienced, if charismatic, newcomer. Khrushchev was bellicose and crude, but he had the sort of political keenness which only surviving for decades in Stalinist Russia could hone. He was one of only a handful of Central Committee members to survive the great terror of the late 1930's physically and politically intact. To pass through those years unscathed, as well as the war, is a testament to his survival skills. Here was a man, admittedly unpleasant and complicit in mass murder, who knew how to gauge the dangers he faced and plan an effective counter-stroke.Kennedy, on the otherhand, was young, charismatic, privileged, and completely out of his depth when faced with Khrushchev. For Kennedy, whose political experience was confined to the US Senate, international diplomacy was a something of a gentlemen's game of poker. So, he was completely taken aback by the pugilistic nature of negotiating with Khrushchev. As Kempe describes their confrontation at Vienna, one is almost tempted to look away to avoid the facing the pummeling given to Kennedy.Kempe gives a clear, journalistic vision of each side's options and actions throughout the boook. The story is told in a lively manner, but lacks the sort of historical depth necessary to produce a penetrating analysis of the crisis, it's causes and it's consequences. He never sets forth any ideas beyond the most mundane of commonplace theories. He offers no new insights and only weakly defends those he does offer.In his conclusion, Mr. Kempe asserts that a firmer response over Berlin would have prevented the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 (as though Kennedy, sporting high heels and a short skirt, was somehow to blame for luring Khrushchev into temptation). However, he offers no credible, realistic response which could have seriously altered the outcome of the Berlin crisis of 1961. Both sides knew that the risk of a conflict was higher than they were willing to pay if it came down to a shooting war, but for the Soviets and the East Germans, the cost of doing nothing was sufficiently high to make the risk worthwhile. From a game theory point of view, Kennedy made the most rational choice available to him. Perhaps he could have pushed harder and won a few minor concessions in some areas, but the Soviets were willing to ratchet the tension up much higher than NATO would have been willing to tolerate merely to keep East Berlin open. East Germany was losing thousands of skilled and and unskilled workers daily via migration
odrach on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Very well researched with lots of info and insights into the decisions made shaping the Cold War. According to Krushchev, Berlin was "the most dangerous place on earth" .
LamSon on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A lot of history writing can be excruciatingly boring, but Berlin 1961, by Frederick Kempe, is not among them. Berlin 1961 is a detailed, yet not tedious, look at one of the most dangerous showdowns between the United States and the Soviet Union during the entire Cold War. The chronological format allows the reader to easily keep track of the sub-events that were happening at various locations around the world. As this book shows, Kennedy's handling of his Berlin crisis was just one more knot on a string of foreign policy failures. If one could read only five books about the Cold War, Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe should be on the list.
robertmorrow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The quality I have admired most in President Kennedy was his ability to grow, to learn from his mistakes. This is the story of many of his early mistakes. The source of those mistakes was brilliantly identified by the author as Kennedy not wanting to deal with the problem he had inherited in Berlin (much like President Obama not wanting to deal with the problem he had inherited in the economy), but almost trying to wish it away so he could deal with what he considered more important issues.Kempe is a fine writer who is not afraid to spice up the narrative with wry, ironic humor from time to time. At times the book is a genuine page turner, particularly those dealing with the construction of the wall and the historic faceoff at Checkpoint Charlie. For the most part, the book is an engrossing, intelligent analysis of the relationships and thinking of the four key players and how the chess game played itself out. The final analysis is a bit disappointing in terms of certain what-ifs, but I do not want to spoil the author's conclusion.
carlym on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be an engaging and highly-readable account of a very tense time. The author seems to have done extremely thorough research, which certainly made me trust his account. He even occasionally puts in amusing details, like the fact that the head of the Stasi, Erich Mielke, had "a passion for Prussian hunting music . . . and the success of the security forces' soccer team . . . which would regularly win championships with the help of his manipulation of matches and players." Details like that add color and depth to his portrayal of the East Germans generally and of specific individuals. As a historical account, I highly recommend this book.My only problem with the book is its insufficiently-explained criticism of Kennedy's handling of the situation. I think Kennedy is an overrated president, so I don't disagree with the author's general point, but he fails to explain what Kennedy should have done--he just says Kennedy was weak and inexperienced. However, the facts he sets out are that Kennedy decided it wasn't worth going to war over East Berlin, Kennedy let Khruschev know his position, and Khurschev stuck pretty faithfully to the bounds Kennedy set rather than pursuing more extensive action. Also, given the author's description of East German politics and Khruschev's own domestic troubles, it seems unlikely that the East Germans and Soviets were going to let the refugee flow from East Berlin continue indefinitely--something was going to happen, and the question is whether it was worth risking nuclear war to allow that refugee flow to continue. To convince me of his position, the author needed to present a viable alternative to Kennedy's actions. (Also, the Germans, both East and West, really came off as whiners in this account. They were upset that the U.S. did not prevent the Wall, but they didn't take action themselves, and the East Germans just built the Wall as directed rather than attempting any resistance: they wanted the U.S. to risk the lives of U.S. soldiers and potentially millions of people in nuclear war but were unwilling to take any risks of their own.)
ebethe on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A page turner, showing a new side of Kennedy (indecisive, manipulated, weak) that I hadn't read of before. There are some possibly gratuitous certainly unsubstantied observations on the Kennedys, and definitely a slant to the writing, but overall, Kempe explained why Berlin was so important to Krushchev, and supported his observations that the U.S. (and allies) just plain mid-read and thus didn't appropriately deal with Berlin.This edition was from an Early Review award and appears to be an advance edition with several typos still to be eliminated. Interesting to see how indexing, endnotes, etc. are accounted for in a an advance edition. I probably would have rated this book a 4 after a good final edit.
foof2you on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What makes this book unique is that it focuses on the events in one year, with a little background on the history of Berlin. Kempe, gives enough of an overview to describe the action during this year in Berlin's history which culminates in the building of the wall. If one is inclined to learn more about the various details of events leading up to or after 1961 there are many books that can help fill in the details. I found the book to be engaging.
Schmerguls on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a well-written account of 1961, which most must agree was a year that Kennedy had a rough time in. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight the author indicates what he belives were errors Kenney made, and even Kennedy's admirers, of which I confess I am one, must agree that history shows it was not a good year for Kennedy--though whether it was as dire as Kempe indicawtes other historians may not agree. I found the book unfailingly excitng reading and well-written, dismaying as some of it is.
Chatterbox on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war"That was John F. Kennedy's verdict on the prolonged foreign policy crisis of 1961 surrounding the status of Berlin, still in limbo 15 years after the end of the Second World War, which had left both the city and Germany itself split into rival factions that gave dramatic shape to the Cold War confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States. At the beginning of 1961, the year that Fred Kempe chronicles so painstakingly in this excellent diplomatic, political and social history, it was fairly straightforward for residents of Soviet-occupied East Berlin to cross into West Berlin, made up of the British, French and American sectors. So straightforward, in fact, that thousands of refugees -- including the young and able-bodied that East Germany's new Communist leaders needed to stay put -- were using Berlin as a way to simply walk across the border and take refuge in the West. East Germans may not have had free elections, but they were exercising their right to vote with their feet and fleeing at an ever-faster rate.As this book opens, Ullbricht, the East German leader, is determined to halt this flow and enlists Khruschev, himself fed up with the need to subsidize the ailing German economy. On the other side of any negotiations about Berlin's status was Kennedy, just elected, who seemingly has never encountered a figure of importance whom he couldn't charm or a problem that was truly intractable. He saw Berlin as a sideshow at the time of his inauguration; for Khruschev, it was clear that the city was the most dangerous place in the world.Kempe's chronicle of the events of 1961, which culminated in the building of a wall that would divide the city for nearly three decades, is a delicate balancing act. Just when the risk that the reader might bog down in too much diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing reached perilous levels, he injects a short three- or four-page tale focusing on a particular character whose life was affected by the division of the country and the city. These examples of how real lives were brutally affected by the great power talks were well chosen and force the reader to stop and remember the thousands of individual tragedies that preceded and followed the wall's construction. This isn't just a diplomatic history -- although it's that par excellence -- it's the story of real-world confrontation, misunderstandings, mistakes and missteps. Many of these were on the part of Kennedy, Kempe points out: while Khruschev may have looked like a buffoon to Americans when he slammed his shoe on the rostrum at the UN to win attention, he was a wily street fighter whom Kennedy was ill-prepared to confront. For his part, Kennedy may have been smart as a whip, but as Dean Acheson wryly remarked (and Kempe pointedly quotes), "brains are no substitute for judgment." The Bay of Pigs debacle, followed by a disastrous performance at the Vienna summit, put Kennedy at a diplomatic disadvantage that Kempe points out the Soviet leader ruthlessly exploited in 1961 in Berlin.This probably won't be a book for all readers. It's a hefty tome, with 502 pages of text that require close scrutiny. On the other hand, it's been a long time since I've read a book about the Cold War years that engaged me as much as this one did. I grew up in a world where the Berlin Wall was simply a fact of life (I was born months after its construction; educated at schools in a rigidly divided Europe and honestly had little hope of seeing anything different) and it was fascinating to realize that while we may now see this as a simpler era -- one easily identifiable enemy, taking the shape of a nation state -- at the time policymakers were grappling with the unknowns of their situation in the same way they do today. It's also a sharp reminder that the process of making policy isn't simply a matter of what seems logical or wise, but what is politically expedient or what is dictated by the personalities and biases of t
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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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