In 1961, a crisis brewed over the future of Berlin, which was marooned in the middle of Soviet-aligned East Germany and divided between Eastern and Western interests. To stem migration from east to west, the communists built the Berlin Wall: a stark manifestation of the Iron Curtain itself. U.S. president John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev could not find common ground. The Cold War heated up. By October 27, American and Soviet tanks were facing each other down, less than 100 yards apart.

Frederick Kempe’s compelling new narrative history of the Berlin crisis puts this political story center stage. Its most memorable moments, though, are those in which Kempe reveals the unexpected slapstick of international diplomacy. For instance, Mao Zedong scheduled a meeting with Khrushchev in a swimming pool, knowing he was a strong swimmer and Khrushchev was not. The Chinese leader performed laps around poor Comrade Nikita, who bobbed up and down unhappily in a life preserver. That says quite a lot about the personal bitterness behind the Sino-Soviet split. On the other hand, not much is revealed about the Berlin crisis by the tale of President Sukarnoof Indonesia dragging Khrushchev onto a Moscow dance floor for what Kempe calls “an awkward pas de deux” — but you would have to be actively fun-averse to want it left out of the book.

Kempe draws the personal and the political stories together in a fast-paced, dramatic narrative. He favors punchy, one-sentence paragraphs, which for full impact must be read aloud in the baritone of movie trailers. When Kennedy dismisses Khrushchev’s early overtures of friendship, we learn that “it would be the first mistake of the Kennedy presidency.” When a beauty queen from East Germany, then under the leadership of hardliner Walter Ulbricht, defects to the West, Kempe writes, “She was Walter Ulbricht’s ultimate humiliation.” When the Berlin Wall goes up, he allows himself two punchy one-sentence paragraphs in a row:

“It was a cool and clear night — perfect for the purpose.

“Perhaps Mother Nature was a communist.”

Occasionally, as in that last example, the effect of this potboiler tone is comic, but at least it’s entertaining. And “Berlin 1961” as a whole is certainly that.

Kempe’s portraits of Khrushchev and Kennedy are convincing and mostly fair. He caricatures the Soviet leader slightly more so than the American, but he also does not pull his punches in assessing Kennedy’s performance. Both men come across as well intentioned, at least on their own terms; but their personal insecurities are profound. Furthermore, their wildly differing cultural backgrounds make it difficult for them to communicate.

Kempe’s blow-by-blow account of the Vienna conference of June 1961, during which the two men met for the first time, is telling — and, in a classic sense, almost tragic. Kennedy was jumped up on amphetamines administered by a quack doctor for his back pain, which probably did little for his judgment. But neither leader came away with an accurate assessment of the other. Khrushchev saw an ailing young president in front of him and assumed that Kennedy was weak. Kennedy saw a blustering, theatrical Soviet leader in front of him and assumed that Khrushchev was crazy. Both men were trying to ensure peace by making careful but deliberate references to their nuclear deterrents. Instead, owing to errors of perception and judgment, they brought the world far closer to war.

Though most of the research here is solid, Kempe’s sketchy knowledge of the issue of Cuba — which he admits was “inextricably linked” with Berlin in the minds of Kennedy and Khrushchev — is occasionally a limitation. At one point, he confuses the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961 with Operation Mongoose, the CIA’s long-term covert campaign against Fidel Castro, begun six months later. Elsewhere, he asserts that Castro was not in the socialist camp by June 1961; yet Castro famously and very publicly declared the Cuban revolution to be socialist on April 16, 1961, on the eve of the Bay of Pigs invasion. These may be no more than bloopers, but it is too glib to state that what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (in a punchy one-sentence paragraph) was that “Kennedy’s Berlin Crisis had moved to Cuba.” Undoubtedly, the presence of missiles in Cuba had strategic relevance to Berlin. Yet Cuba had been a growing issue in and of itself since at least 1959, and for both Kennedy and Khrushchev it pulled in all sorts of regional, ideological and even personal considerations that had nothing to do with Berlin.

Nonetheless, “Berlin 1961” has more virtues than flaws. It is engaging, it is a great story, and it is generally fair-minded. This is both an enriching history and a rollicking good read.

Alex von Tunzelmann is the author of “Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean.”


Kennedy, Khrushchev,

and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth

By Frederick Kempe

Putnam. 579 pp. $29.95