President Kennedy and the Berlin Wall

Posted on August 12, 2011
By Michael O’Brien

After [the]Vienna [Conference], events turned sour for Khrushchev. Instead of retreating, Kennedy held firm. The Soviets were spending a fortune subsidizing the collapsing East German economy. The GDR’s leader, Walter Ulbricht, had few options as refugees took flight to the West, including physicians, engineers, teachers, and other professionals. Between 1945 and 1960 nearly 4.3 million Germans had fled the German Democratic Republic, and the problem was getting worse.

In July 1961, over thirty thousand East Berliners—“voting with their feet”—fled to West Berlin. East Germany was hemorrhaging. “I don’t understand why the East Germans don’t close their border,” Senator William Fulbright mused publicly in early August 1961. At about the same time the President told Walt Rostow, “Khrushchev is losing East Germany. He cannot let that happen. If East Germany goes, so will Poland and all of eastern Europe. He will have to do something to stop the flow of refugees—perhaps a wall. And we won’t be able to prevent it. I can hold the Alliance together to defend West Berlin but I cannot act to keep East Berlin open.”


Khrushchev decided to fall back on Ulbricht’s earlier suggestion to erect a wall. Beginning after midnight on August 13, 1961, the East Germans constructed a physical barrier along the boundary with West Berlin using obstacles and barbed wire; construction of a concrete wall started six days later.

At Hyannis Port, the President and his guests were cruising on the Marlin when a messenger arrived at the Kennedy compound. “This looks important,” he told Chester V. Clifton, handing over a brown envelope. Clifton read that the East German regime had just cut Berlin in two and was starting to build a barrier. Clifton contacted the Marlin, and Kennedy immediately returned to shore.

Kennedy scanned the message, then made phone calls. It surprised the President that no Soviet soldiers were seen in the streets; nor was there interference with access to West Berlin. The measures taken did not threaten vital interests of the Allies in West Berlin.

Some demanded that the Western Allies tear down the wall. Although Kennedy briefly pondered the suggestion, he realized it was impractical. “We could have sent tanks over and knocked the Wall down,” he mused. “What then? They build another one back a hundred yards? We knock that down, then we go to war?”

Kennedy quickly realized that the wall was less a problem than a solution. “Why would Khrushchev put up a Wall if he really intended to seize West Berlin?” he said privately to his aides. “There wouldn’t be any need of a Wall if he occupied the whole city. This is his way out of his predicament. It’s not a very nice solution, but a Wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”

A few days after the East Germans started constructing the wall, Bundy offered three thoughts for the President: “(1) This is something they have always had the power to do; (2) it is something they were bound to do sooner or later, unless they could control the exits from West Berlin to the West; (3) since it was bound to happen, it is as well to have it happen early, as their doing and their responsibility.”

On August 14, Kennedy urged Rusk to take steps “to exploit politically propaganda-wise” the closing of the border: “This seems to me to show how hollow is the phrase free city and how despised is the East German government, which the Soviet Union seeks to make respectable. . . . It offers us a very good propaganda stick which if the situation were reversed would be well used in beating us. It seems to me this requires decisions at the highest level.”

“Vibrant with emotion,” recalled Donald Wilson, Kennedy urged the U.S. Information Agency to exploit the propaganda advantage of the wall to the “maximum.” “It was an enormous plus for the West,” said Wilson, the agency’s deputy director, “an enormous minus for the Communist nations. [Kennedy] recognized it as such. In effect, what he said was everything must be done in terms of pictures—pictures particularly . . . to describe what a dreadful thing this was in terms of bottling up a whole nation and preventing them from leaving.”

At first Kennedy’s quiet public reaction to the wall didn’t redress West Berlin’s sagging morale. Subsequently he dispatched Vice President Johnson to demonstrate U.S. concern and resolve, and ordered 1,600 American troops to travel down the autobahn. Worried that something might go wrong with the high-risk move, he insisted on being kept informed of every detail of the convoy’s progress. The troops arrived safely “to great popular acclaim.”

The Berlin wall, viewed with some reason as a crisis in West Berlin and West Germany, did not turn into one for Kennedy. Republicans were not critical, nor were the media, and hard-line columnists mostly supported the President.

As Kennedy and his advisers discreetly reconciled themselves to the benefits of the Berlin wall, American policy on Germany broke loose “from what was, in effect, West Germany’s domination of it,” noted historian John Gaddis. The wall transformed the Cold War. “From this point on it is possible to trace the start of the European détente, based upon a shift in West Germany’s foreign policy to a tolerance of the territorial status quo and a readiness to open up lines of communication to the East,” wrote Lawrence Freedman. “Almost casually, Kennedy tended to write off East Berlin, paying little attention to allied rights there. The communists were in control and nobody was suggesting a direct challenge. Though he had obligations to the whole city, it was already divided in Kennedy’s mind.” Most U.S. political leaders agreed.


 Excerpted from John F. Kennedy: A Biography by Michael O’Brien.

Copyright © 2005 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

MICHAEL O’BRIEN is a retired professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley. He is the author of John F. Kennedy: A Biography and other acclaimed profiles of individuals such as Joe Paterno, Vince Lombardi, and Joseph McCarthy.

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