Monument to Human Discord
A Review of The Berlin Wall:
Kennedy, Krushchev, and a Showdown in the Heart of
by Norman Gelb
Norman Gelb was born in Britain during the
1930s since he covered the Berlin Crisis as a young news
correspondent from 1961 to 1963. He worked for the Mutual
Broadcasting Network based in London, New Leader magazine, and
has continued to spend his time in journalistically related
jobs. He has written nine books relating to European and
American history. He maintains his work in London.
Contrived in 1961, the Berlin Wall resulted from years of
tensions between the Communist East and the Democratic West.
Standing as a symbol of the struggle between two diverse
ideologies, the wall separated the city, the people, and the
culture. After the capital was divided in the 1940s by the
Four Powers—the powerful postwar nations that shaped the
world— it served as a battleground, and tested the
confidence of leaders including notably John F. Kennedy and
Khrushchev. As refugees fled to West Berlin—the democratic
city surrounded by communist territory—the Soviets had to
create the only thing that would stop them: the wall. Norman
Gelb overviews the history of Berlin from the last weeks of
the Second World War to three years before the wall was
destroyed. The Berlin Wall examines how the structure served as
a divider and not as a peacekeeper among the superpowers.
The city was an embarrassment behind the Iron Curtain, but
also represented the “testicles of the West,” a diplomatic
Achilles’ heel.1 Berliners were left to decide
whether to remain in the forefront of nuclear disaster or to
leave their beloved city.
Before talking about the creation of the wall, Gelb includes
the history that transformed the relations between the
United States and the Soviet Union. As the Eastern Allies
approached the Nazi capital in the Second World War, they were
determined to punish the enemy that had caused millions of
casualties. Yet they waited outside the city for orders since
this was a crucial decision to be approved by all Four
Powers. Supreme Commander of the Allies, Eisenhower didn’t like
to mix politics with military decisions; however,
Churchill’s advice for a Western attack dissuaded him.
“postwar world would be strongly influenced by developments
in the final stages,” but Eisenhower made his decision based
on the possible casualties of his own men.2 He
gave Stalin permission to attack the city. The innocence with
which the United States thought of the Soviet Union was
critical. Americans saw Stalin as a “kindly national leader”
seeking “peace and freedom for his people” which sharply
contrasted French and British opinions.3 Not until
the city was divided into four sectors under the Four-Power
Agreement did the Soviets begin to put pressure on the
Americans. Their demands for Western removal followed by a
blockade of routes leading from West Germany to Berlin
changed Washington’s thought in Gelb’s early chapters. The
United States eventually prevailed against their new
adversary through the airlift fiasco, transporting materials
to runways in West Berlin. Undeterred, the Soviets clamped
down on their East German territory by molding it into the
Socialist doctrine and crushing the only mass uprising in
1953. Accordingly, the “relentless human leakage” of workers
swept into West Berlin from across East Germany and turned
the economy into a near failure.4 Peace
negotiations were unsuccessful because the Soviets always
concessions but never compromised for them. Khrushchev used
the U-2 spy plane incident as an excuse to cancel the Paris
Summit where he wouldn’t get his claims. With no deals, the
Western powers remained a sore in the communist side.
At Kennedy’s turn in office, Khrushchev attempted to
withdraw concessions from the young president but faced an
unwavering opponent. Already embarrassed by the Bay of Pigs
disaster, the politician vowed to educate himself more on
international decisions. He prepared consequently for the
Vienna Summit in June 1961 to talk with the explosive
Khrushchev; the meeting didn’t fail to meet expectations.
The Soviet leader’s outburst, insisting that the Americans
leave West Berlin within six months deeply shocked Kennedy.
Gelb highlights the president’s visible anxiety over Berlin
despite his firm reaction to the premier. Kennedy’s response
to the American people was for increased defense spending
and negotiations over the Western city alone. The stress on
West Berlin would influence the Soviets into thinking that
East Berlin was their own, not a shared leadership. They
called the president’s speech “saber-rattling,” but Kennedy
had affectively laid out his position.5 Though,
the young leader was disgusted with internal divisions
between departments which delayed the arrival of
information. The Berlin Task Force was therefore set up to
information to the White House and to create
counter-measures against possible Soviet actions. However, a
Warsaw Pact leaders “force[d] the pace” of events by
allowing any means to stop the deflation in
Scarcely anyone knew what was about to occur. On August 13,
1961, East German forces swiftly set up a fence to separate
West Berlin from East Berlin. Transportation and
communication were cut off. American officials in the city
and were unsure of the event’s magnitude. Most foreboding of
all was the absence of Soviets in Berlin. This was a ploy
designed to make the wall construction appear like an
“exclusively East German affair” and detract communist
puppetry.7 The importance of this event would be
crucial to Allied support in Germany.
Berlin became the forefront of United States foreign affairs
in the following two years as Gelb reports adeptly in these
chapters. The mistake of the nation came in understanding
the significance of the Berlin Crisis. The time difference and
summer month both contributed to the delay in knowledge of
what was conspiring. Once the information trickled to the
right superiors, it wasn’t taken too seriously since crisis
occurred in East Berlin territory and Soviet forces didn’t
threaten West Berlin. Kennedy himself was on his normal
weekend vacation, so he was sheltered from the news by his
aides. His eventual response was along the same lines in the
early stages. Many outside of Berlin didn’t understand
other consequences which the author points out such as the
separation of families, the derision to city harmony, and the
loss of East Berlin workers in West Berlin. Surprisingly,
the Berlin Task Force had not predicted this as they developed
“tunnel vision” with communist ideas.8 Most
believed a wall was too costly and violated the Four-Power
Agreement. The wavering French and British recommended that
the U.S. react with equal proportion since they were in no
position to take action. Because none of these
recommendations were logical, the American forces remained
Berlin to the disgust of many. As media attention built up
against the Americans’ lack of “energetic diplomatic
activity”, Washington realized that the Soviets were
providing them with too great an opportunity to turn
down.9 By the end of the week, Kennedy had sent
Lyndon Johnson, General Clay, and a regiment of troops as
symbols of Western commitment to stopping the communists. It
seemed the U.S. would do anything to defeat communism when
faced with a challenge.
Yet Kennedy had more struggles ahead as the Soviets
infringed upon the rights of the Western Powers. The East
police grew bolder in their attempts to stop East Germans
from crossing the wall. As fortifications grew, so did death
tolls. West Germans, including Mayor William Brandt and
Chancellor Adenauer, were upset by these measures and called
action. Clay was sent back to West Berlin but agitated the
Soviets more than Washington liked by making bold and
forbidden moves on the border. Nuclear tensions rose when
the Test-Ban Treaty expired and threats were made. The Soviets
flew their planes through the air space reserved for the
Allies and caused confusion for commercial planes. All of these
factors led up to the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
When Kennedy blockaded the island, Khrushchev was forced to
back down. The Soviet leader, humiliated, acquired no
concessions as the end of the Cuban Crisis “spelled the end
Berlin Crisis."10 After the two leaders escaped
from the political scope in the next two years, so too did
Berlin from the world’s attention.
Norman Gelb stresses the people of Berlin as much as the
history of the superpowers since he reported on the crisis for
two years in the city. His thesis sites Berliners as the
ones being tossed about in the diplomatic war between the
Soviet Union and the United States. Gelb points out that
they were caught in a rough situation where their protectors
ignored them on the West side, and their oppressors were
frustratingly unstoppable on the East side. These were a people
without self-determination and always under influence,
communist or not. The wall was merely a postponement, “a lot
better than war,” between two sides that couldn’t find a
solution.11 Gelb favored action, like Berliners,
because people were dying everyday trying to get across that
wall. The author, however, analyzes the East Berliners in
an overly sympathetic manner as people missing out on the
gains of material wealth. This particular loss doesn’t appear
immense, but the envy of neighbors truly feels
disheartening. He viewed the wall as a disgusting
structure, not as a
peacekeeper. Though the United States early on bore with it,
Gelb felt as though there were other outcomes that no
outsider saw. He shared the belief with Berliners that the
separation of a people tore the city’s fragile unity apart.
Nevertheless, the author never excessively favors one point
of view and never lets emotions overwhelm his writing.
Gelb’s view of the common people before the leaders doesn’t
match the Reagan conservatism of the 1980s which downplayed
social aid. Impending activity with the wall likely
influenced his writings, and the mood of the times couldn’t
his strong pro-Berliner feelings. The author presents the
facts of the event and lets the reader decide what’s fair.
However, Gelb also lets people know his opinion in his final
quote resembling Berliner’s back thoughts: “the cynical
Americans sold the Germans down the river to the Russians on
August 13, 1961."12 Although the quote is not
his own, the author supports the people’s critical beliefs
over the neural leaders. James J. Markham’s New York Times
article questions the possibilities of the wall’s creation
or demise. He understands it’s necessity to be built to
prevent East Germany from being “bled white” of all its
citizens but also knows of the international consequences for
building it.13 Rarely mentioning the author
himself, Markham compliments Gelb’s style of switching from
Washington action to the Berlin struggle as the crisis came
to a near halt by his time. Michael Joseph’s Sunday Times
article is more critical citing the author’s theme and plot
as weak. He states that Gelb never takes a position on the
wall’s ability to do good or evil. This is due to the
author’s choice to have a “pacy, upbeat account of ‘what
happened’” instead of arguing the two sides’
positions.14 Joseph seems neutral enough on the
Berlin issue and
understands Gelb’s journalistic approach to the book. The
author thus gains favor from both critics.
The emphasis on Berliners and their city wasn’t
inappropriate since the Berlin Crisis revolves around the
this manner, Gelb can develop an entirely different view
which historians used to ignore. He correctly balances the
story of politics with the story of the everyday people. The
reminiscent descriptions of Berlin are interesting, but the
language he uses to describe East Berlin is overly
depressing and critical of the Communist system. He treats
people fairly, not the system. Also, the author remarkably
creates chapters of material from only a week of events.
However, the positions taken by officials in
nations—especially by Khrushchev—are repetitive at times in
writings. The Soviets always threatened hazardously, and the
Americans always tediously analyzed the situation only to
respond weakly with protests or increased defense. The
events jump back and forth, yet the author finds a way to
suspenseful. His first-hand experience “spawned a specter”
that greatly adds to the writing.15
The Sixties and Seventies had an aura of transformation
about them. The nation and world were emerging into the modern
era mold and leaders were changing their thoughts on
national crises. For one, the United States no longer had its
“finger poised over the nuclear button” when dealing with
the Soviets.16 There was a fear that the enemy had
created a missile gap in weaponry and could annihilate the
nation at any point. Leaders in both countries knew the risks
if tensions boiled to a certain level, thus negotiations
took a greater role. They were taking steps in the right
direction of diplomacy instead of making blatant threats
like in the past. Although not always successful, conferences
cleared up at least the most basic of discrepancies. Kennedy
and Khrushchev got an idea of each other at the Vienna
Summit and continued to have respect for one other even as
leaders of rival nations. With these steps, the countries
would move less in the direction of “massive retaliation”
and more toward the preservation of themselves.17
As the country looked at overseas conflicts involving
American troops, people understood that international affairs
would become more critical in their lives. Berlin was only
one example of the nation being involved in clashes on
foreign soil “endangering world peace.”18 The
United States was expanding its influence across the world; the
nation’s eyes followed. Americans weighed their opinions on
presidencies from this point on and pressured the decisions
of many of them. Leaders depended on public opinion and used
it to secure popular support for measures. However, the
citizens of the nation got something out of foreign conflict
too: compassion for different groups of people. Involvement
meant the need to help others; thus, more people could aid
the helpless caught in disaster. The isolationist feelings
vanished for a better cooperative cause that resembled
Manifested in the sixties, the Berlin Wall captured the
attention of millions for two years. However, it disappeared in
the news as quickly as it emerged, leaving a fortified
barrier dividing a once unified people for thirty more
political battles were as riveting as the physical ones, but
they accomplished nothing for the people of Berlin.
Concessions aided the superpowers and cleared meaningless
discrepancies. Only Ronald Reagan’s salute to his legacy would
actually “tear down that wall”. Norman Gelb includes this
feeling in his writings and tries to instill an aura of
injustice in the reader. In reality, it was an injustice for
alien powers to occupy a city and stake out a confrontation
for decades to the depressing point that it “no longer
[aroused] passions” amongst Berliners.19 It was a
pattern of intervention that was repeated by the nation year
after year and has ruined a reputation critical to history.
review by Jeffrey Kuruvilla
- Gelb, Norman. The Berlin Wall: Kennedy, Khrushchev,
and a Showdown in the Heart of Europe New York: Times
Books, 1986, 6.
- Gelb, Norman 13.
- Gelb, Norman 16.
- Gelb, Norman 44.
- Gelb, Norman 106.
- Gelb, Norman 100.
- Gelb, Norman 149.
- Gelb, Norman 190.
- Gelb, Norman 215.
- Gelb, Norman 275.
- Gelb, Norman 195.
- Gelb, Norman 289.
- Markham, James M. “A Lot Better Than War” The New York
Times. February 8, 1987.
- Joseph, Michael “Real Life Thriller” Sunday Times.
August 24, 1986.
- Joseph, Michael
- Gelb, Norman 109.
- Gelb, Norman 111.
- Gelb, Norman 215.
- Gelb, Norman 283.