Fifty years ago, a metaphor became concrete. Beginning on Aug. 13, 1961, along West Berlin’s 27-mile border, the Iron Curtain became tangible in a wall of precast slabs of concrete. It came down 22 years ago, but the story of how it rose, as told in Frederick Kempe’s book “Berlin 1961,” compels an unflattering assessment of John Kennedy. His serial blunders that year made it the most incompetent first year of any presidency.
In a State of the Union address just 10 days after his inauguration, Kennedy seemed exhilarated by hysteria. He said that “in this brief 10-day period” he had been “staggered” by “the harsh enormity” of the “trials” ahead:
“Each day the crises multiply. Each day their solution grows more difficult. Each day we draw nearer the hour of maximum danger, as . . . hostile forces grow stronger. . . . Our analyses over the last 10 days make it clear that . . . the tide of events has been running out.” Lunging for an equivalence with Lincoln, Kennedy said that during his term Americans would learn whether a nation such as ours “can endure.”
Actually, since Election Day he had learned that the “missile gap” he had accused President Eisenhower of allowing to develop was fictitious. And the coming months of danger would begin with the staggering stupidity of the Bay of Pigs invasion. It convinced Nikita Khrushchev, the 67-year-old grandson of a serf and son of a coal miner, that Kennedy, the 43-year-old son of privilege, was too callow to recognize the invasion’s risks and too weak to see it through.
Khrushchev knew that the steady flow of East German refugees — 2 million in a decade, disproportionately the most educated, productive citizens — to West Berlin was making that drab nation into a mendicant and revealing socialism’s moral bankruptcy. But candidate Kennedy had said that “our position in Europe” depends on not being “driven from Berlin” and “is worth a nuclear war.”
On May 25, six weeks after Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit Earth, Kennedy said that “extraordinary times” demanded a second State of the Union address. In it he proclaimed “the whole southern half of the globe” a “great battleground,” especially emphasizing a place on few Americans’ minds: Vietnam. Then he flew to Vienna to meet Khrushchev — “Little Boy Blue meets Al Capone,” a U.S. diplomat said.
Khrushchev treated Kennedy with brutal disdain. In excruciating pain from his ailing back and pumped full of perhaps disorienting drugs by his disreputable doctor (who would lose his medical license in 1975), Kennedy said that it was the “worst thing in my life. He savaged me.” British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said, “For the first time in his life, Kennedy met a man who was impervious to his charm.” Kempe writes, “From that point forward Khrushchev would act more aggressively in the conviction that there would be little price to pay.” Kempe says that when Robert Kennedy met with his brother back in Washington, “Tears were running down the president’s cheeks.”
As Khrushchev turned up the temperature on Berlin, Kennedy studied the modalities of conducting a nuclear war. On July 25, he gave a nationally televised address, referring 17 times to the U.S. commitment to West Berlin, although the entire city was under four-power (U.S., Soviet, British, French) rule.
On July 30, in a Sunday morning television interview, Sen. William Fulbright said: “I don’t understand why the East Germans don’t close their border because I think they have a right to close it.” He was wrong regarding the four powers’ rights, and five days later he apologized for giving “an unfortunate and erroneous impression.” But Kennedy, who did not dispute Fulbright’s mistake, evidently welcomed it.
After Aug. 13, an unsympathetic Kennedy, who never asserted the indisputable legal right of free movement of people throughout Berlin, told New York Times columnist James Reston that East Germans had had 15 years to flee to the West. Reston wrote that Kennedy “has talked like Churchill but acted like Chamberlain.” Clearly, there was a causal connection between Kennedy’s horrible 1961 and the Cold War’s most perilous moment — Khrushchev’s 1962 gamble on putting missiles in Cuba.
The Cold War ended 27 years later, when the Iron Curtain suddenly became porous and the Wall crumbled. Tens of millions of East Europeans might have been spared those years of tyranny, and the West might have been spared considerable dangers and costs, if Kennedy had not been complicit in preventing the unraveling of East Germany.