Monument to Human Discord

A Review of The Berlin Wall: Kennedy, Krushchev, and a Showdown in the Heart of Europe
by Norman Gelb

Author Biography

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 Nikita 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. Indeed the “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 demanded 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 relay information to the White House and to create counter-measures against possible Soviet actions. However, a decision among Warsaw Pact leaders “force[d] the pace” of events by allowing any means to stop the deflation in population.6 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 couldn’t act 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 inactive in 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 Berlin 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 for 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 of the 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 surpass 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 people. In 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 only the 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 Gelb’s 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 make it 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 modern society.

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 years. The 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 sad pattern of intervention that was repeated by the nation year after year and has ruined a reputation critical to history.

review by Jeffrey Kuruvilla

  1. Gelb, Norman. The Berlin Wall: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and a Showdown in the Heart of Europe New York: Times Books, 1986, 6.
  2. Gelb, Norman 13.
  3. Gelb, Norman 16.
  4. Gelb, Norman 44.
  5. Gelb, Norman 106.
  6. Gelb, Norman 100.
  7. Gelb, Norman 149.
  8. Gelb, Norman 190.
  9. Gelb, Norman 215.
  10. Gelb, Norman 275.
  11. Gelb, Norman 195.
  12. Gelb, Norman 289.
  13. Markham, James M. “A Lot Better Than War” The New York Times. February 8, 1987.
  14. Joseph, Michael “Real Life Thriller” Sunday Times. August 24, 1986.
  15. Joseph, Michael
  16. Gelb, Norman 109.
  17. Gelb, Norman 111.
  18. Gelb, Norman 215.
  19. Gelb, Norman 283.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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