I came across Frederick Kempe’s new book, Berlin 1961 (Putnam, 2011), on GoodReads.com and thought it sounded interesting. So I clicked the link to enter the raffle. A few weeks later I won a copy!
After 500+ pages, I’m left wondering more than ever if the bulk of the Cold War was just one big misunderstanding.
Kempe began with the tank stand-off on both sides of Berlin in October, 1961 and filled in the story with bios of the American, Soviet, West German, and East German heads of state.
It also examined the Sino-Soviet rift; Khrushchev’s break with Stalinism; infighting among Kennedy’s top advisors; Bobby Kennedy’s secret meetings with a mid-level Russian spy; and the independent spirits of the people in charge in Berlin (on the US, Soviet, East German, and West German sides).
Some of my favorite excerpts in the book include:
…Mao told Khrushchev the Chinese would simply produce more babies than ever before to replace the dead. Khrushchev came to consider Mao “a lunatic on a throne.” (page 42)
And this one:
While soldiers in East Germany were secretly loading trucks with tank traps, barbed wire, pillars, and sawhorses, Kennedy drove his white golf cart into Nantucket village, where he bought Caroline and four of her cousins some ice cream at a local candy store. Jackie looked like something out of a fashion magazine in her blue blouse and red shorts. (page 342)
According to Kempe, Kennedy was happy to go about his leisurely days while the East Germans–with the Soviet Union’s approval and funding–sealed off the East-West Berlin border (which was to become the Berlin Wall). Kennedy supposedly hoped such a wall would be built.
And even though Kennedy received a 70+ percent approval rating during his first year, his presidency was full of disasters from a foreign policy standpoint: the failed Bay of Pigs mission, the Berlin Wall, the tank stand-off in Berlin, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
During all of these events, Khrushchev only wanted to discuss Berlin with Kennedy. When JFK finally stood up to Nikita Sergeyevich during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet backed down. Kennedy then gave that 1963 speech in Berlin and was catapulted into international stardom.