Modern history



WHEN JOE ALSOP DROPPED by that high-octane Georgetown dinner party late on the evening of Saturday 12 August 1961, and told young Berlin journalist Lothar Löwe of the dramatic events in his native city, the veteran Washington communicator had taken his information from the American broadcast media. News was trickling out about the new Communist challenge in Berlin, even though, in the untidy way of information-gathering, few people, even on the spot, were sure exactly what that challenge consisted of.

A little later that same Saturday night, John C. Ausland, duty officer for the Berlin Task Force at the State Department, was woken by his bedside phone at his home in Washington. On the line was the night officer from the department’s recently established operations centre. The man informed Ausland that garbled news about some kind of Communist move in Berlin was starting to come over the wire services’ teletype network. There was talk of sector border crossings’ being ‘blocked’, but it was not clear what this entailed. Temporary restrictions by the East of cross-sector traffic within Greater Berlin had happened before, of course. Ausland told his caller to stay in touch and went back to sleep.

Around four a.m. Washington time on Sunday—already ten in the morning in West Berlin—the night-duty man called Ausland back. Military channels had confirmed that this was a total blockade between East and West Berlin. So, astonishingly, a full ten hours after ‘Operation Rose’ had begun, Washington started to get the message. Ausland called several different people, including Frank Cash, a former senior official at the embassy in Bonn, who was running the Berlin Task Force while German expert Martin Hillebrand was on summer leave. Cash said he had to take his family to the airport in a couple of hours, but promised he would be in later.

Ausland was soon joined by Colonel Showalter, the Pentagon’s liaison officer at the State Department, and more calls to Europe were made. However, the one thing they really wanted to do, they could not: call the American Mission in Berlin. This was because the phone line in question went right through East German territory. Any conversation would have been totally en clair and would assuredly have been tapped by East German intelligence. At six, with dawn breaking over Washington, Ausland picked up the telephone and found the White House duty officer on the line. Word had finally got through about events in Berlin, but the man expressed reluctance to wake the President, who was staying out at Cape Cod for the weekend. The White House official assured Ausland that he would start taking steps to alert Kennedy at the more civilised hour of eight a.m. EST.1

It was by now noon on Sunday in Berlin. ‘Operation Rose’ was twelve hours old, and still the American President knew nothing of it.

This hesitance to bother Kennedy may not have represented just the traditional reluctance of servants to displease their master. The President was in poor shape. As became known after his death, Kennedy’s public image as a young paragon of masculine power, glowing with health, was largely a sham. He had suffered since young adulthood from Addison’s Disease, a debilitating affliction of the auto-immune system, which among other unpleasant symptoms caused stomach problems, exhaustion and depression, and severe joint and back pain. For more than a quarter of a century, Kennedy had been on constant medication. In the summer of 1961, his health problems were especially severe. At that time, his personal physician was injecting him with procaine, a serious narcotic, two to three times a day to allay the pain. Cortisone shots were, moreover, a routine treatment for Addison’s, and the President was also regularly on drugs for colitis, weight loss (testosterone), and insomnia (Ritalin). On 9 August 1961 Kennedy had complained of ‘gut problems’, ‘cramps’, and ‘loose stool’; he had woken at five on the morning of Friday 11 August with severe abdominal discomfort. JFK was, as a doctor who later reviewed his medical records commented, ‘tired because he was being doped up’.2

That fateful Sunday, as the wires hummed with the news from Berlin, America’s most powerful elected official was indeed fast asleep. He was staying at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, where he and a small staff had joined the extended first family for the weekend, as the President liked to do in the dog days of summer. It was beautiful weather. A family trip on the Kennedys’ cabin cruiser, the Marlin, was planned for later that morning.

At this time of the year, the President usually left for the Cape on a Friday afternoon, travelling by helicopter to Andrews Air Force Base and from there to Cape Cod by plane. As usual, on that last morning in Washington he would have been presented by his senior military aide, Major-General Chester Clifton, with a folder containing CIA reports on developments in various parts of the world that day. The folder was known as the President’s ‘check-list’. Looking through this was part of Kennedy’s daily routine. Update folders would be flown to Hyannis Port on Saturday and then again on Sunday, along with any other material thought significant, so that the President could continue to keep up with current events. Urgent messages could be routed via a telex loop from the White House to the basement of the Yachtsman’s Motel in Hyannis Port, where a unit of the US Signal Corps was installed for the summer.3

On Sunday 13 August, the President finally awoke to blue skies and sunshine, a glorious Cape Cod morning. Despite the White House official’s promise, it seems that no clear message had arrived about the situation in Berlin. There was still no word when Kennedy set off to attend mass with the rest of the family at St François Xavier Church in Hyannis Port. The Kennedys returned a little less than an hour later and almost immediately embarked on the Marlin. They were heading for Great Island, where they had been invited to lunch with the director of Washington’s National Gallery of Art and his wife.

A short while later, a radio message came from General Clifton, who had remained behind at the Kennedy compound. A cable had been delivered from Washington. Berlin was being sealed off. Clifton recommended that the President return to shore.

The Marlin turned back. Kennedy was dropped off at the compound’s jetty, where Clifton met him in a motorised golf cart. At the President’s insistence, the first family continued with their cruise and their lunch. Clifton immediately showed Kennedy the cable, then drove him back across the dunes to the family’s holiday cottage. There the President put in a call to the State Department. Within a few minutes he was discussing the Berlin situation with Secretary Rusk.

The Secretary of State, in the calm, inscrutable tones that had earned him the nickname of ‘Buddha’, explained that he thought it was important to negotiatate, to ‘talk the fever out of this thing’. The President wanted to know what the Russians were up to. Rusk said it appeared they were taking military measures all right, but only defensive ones. Nothing indicated that Khrushchev was out to gobble up West Berlin.

That was the main thing. Now, a world war over access to and from East Berlin? Forget it.

The instinctive impulse of Rusk and his aides, and of everyone around the President was to play down the news—at least for public consumption. Phone calls from Kennedy to McNamara, Bundy and Attorney-General Robert Kennedy confirmed that this low-key approach reflected a general consensus. No one wanted to appear weak or unresponsive; on the other hand, they didn’t want to make it look as if the Soviet/East German measures were a casus belli or, anything like it.

None the less, some kind of official reaction had to occur. Walt Rostow, who was in Washington and had helped set up a ‘Situation Room’, joined Ausland in drafting a press release. This was cabled through to the President’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, at Hyannis Port, so that Salinger could field the media’s enquires and make whatever statements were considered necessary.

There was no talk of a ‘Wall’ or anything similar in the press release, only of ‘measures designed to halt the flow of refugees to West Berlin’. The East German moves were seen as a continuation of intimidatory actions undertaken earlier that weekend against travellers from Potsdam and East Berlin, thought to be aimed at ‘border-crossers’. The main tack would be to deny that the West had done anything to ‘induce’ the flood of refugees, which was due to ‘economic conditions in East Germany and the Soviet campaign against West Berlin’. From there Salinger went on to the offensive, pointing out that the restrictions were in ‘direct contravention’ of the four-power agreement and represented a ‘damning admission by the Soviets of the inability of communist society to compete with a free society’.4

The official State Department response—discussed and approved by the President—eschewed even such anodyne rhetoric. It declared merely that the action did not affect the ‘Allied position in West Berlin or access thereto’, though it violated existing agreements and would be subject to ‘vigorous protests through appropriate channels’.5

Soviet tanks might lurk on the outskirts of Berlin; machine-gun-wielding Communist goons might defy humanity and the world; Western crowds might come close to rioting at the sector border; the malevolent agents of the Stasi might be busy forcibly crushing resistance among recalcitrant East Berliners; but in Washington the State Department reacted with polite bromides.

Kennedy was not alone in confronting the undoubted ugliness of ‘Operation Rose’ with extreme caution. Other major Western leaders were even less eager to confront the Communist machinations in Berlin head-on.

The crisis found Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister of Great Britain since 1957, hundreds of miles north of London, at Bolton Abbey, in Yorkshire. There he was celebrating, as he did every summer, the opening of the grouse-shooting season. Macmillan spent Saturday 12 August in the company of his nephew, the Duke of Devonshire—owner of Bolton Abbey and of much else besides—engaged in appropriate use of firearms against indigenous bird life. Even after hearing the news from Berlin, the Premier saw no reason why he should not continue to do so on 13 August also.

Meanwhile, 71-year-old General Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle, last active Allied leader of the Second World War and since 1958 once more President of France, was resting at his country home in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, south-east (in fact, rather a long way south-east) of Paris. So relaxed did de Gaulle seem about the Berlin affair that he failed to return to Paris until the following Thursday, 17 August.6

This caution was not due to mere indifference on the part of either leader. Each had problems of his own quite independent of Khrushchev’s and Ulbricht’s ploys.

Britain’s military and economic decline had lately accelerated to a point where even the traditionally imperialistic Conservatives realised they had to cut their cloth to suit new circumstances. A certain testy obsession with cost had crept into discussions about Britain’s military commitments. Even before this latest twist in the Berlin Crisis, plans had been put in motion by Defence Minister Harold Watkinson, not to increase Britain’s military presence in West Germany and Berlin, but to drastically reduce it.

Conscription for the British armed services was due to be abandoned in the early part of 1962. The strength of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) would accordingly fall from 52,000 to 44,000 by the end of that year. It seemed likely that even the 3,500 troops London maintained in the British sector of Berlin might be subjected to a quiet culling operation. Despite occasional sabre-rattling from America and the USSR, and the manifest failure of the Vienna summit in June, until 13 August the attitude in London was pretty low-key. Macmillan, in his wry way, expressed the general feeling among London’s élite in June 1961: ‘I still think we are more likely to be bankrupted than blown up’.7

Moreover, Britain had problems elsewhere in the world. In the Middle East the British faced confrontation with the newly radicalised republic of Iraq under its fiery strongman, Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qassem. Qassem had laid claim to the small, British-protected (and oil-rich) sheikhdom of Kuwait, and had spent most of June massing his army in the arid border zone. London had hastily withdrawn substantial forces from Germany, Cyprus and the Home Command to defend the Kuwait flashpoint. The cost of such a major, if temporary, movement of personnel and equipment, including ships and aircraft, was extremely painful for the British treasury.

Macmillan’s diplomats were still frantically occupied with arranging for peacekeeping forces from the Arab League to take over the long-term protection of Kuwait, while British conscripts sweated in temperatures of 50 degrees centigrade (120 Fahrenheit) opposite Iraq’s putative military might in the desert south of Basra.

Before 13 August, Berlin was therefore not high on London’s priorities list. This seemed, in any case, to be dictated by financial considerations rather than global strategy. For the past several years, Britain had been locked in a wrangle with West Germany. London wanted Bonn to share more of the cost of the British presence there, formerly an army of occupation but now part of the first line of defence against attack from the East. This had become a touchy point. In mid-July, during discussions about contingency plans in case of another Soviet blockade of Berlin, Macmillan had declared rather sourly that Britain ‘should make it clear that we will pay nothing’ toward the expenses of any new airlift.8

So trouble in Berlin was the last thing the British wanted. Even in the aftermath of the Wall, another personal communication to Macmillan from his Minister of Defence stated that

from our own domestic point of view, I am now convinced that we can no longer afford either from a military or from a foreign exchange point of view to keep anything like the present level of forces in Europe. A measure of disengagement or détente would, therefore, serve not only the cause of peace but our own special and urgent needs.

A scribbled comment on the memo by Macmillan declared ‘agreement with your thesis’ and added, ‘I think For Sec [presumably Foreign Secretary] is also in sympathy.’9

As for that other overstretched former imperial power, France still had several hundred thousand troops, mostly young conscripts, tied up in a vicious guerrilla war in Algeria. Talks to end the bloody Algerian struggle for independence from France had just begun in the spa town of Evian—a concession by de Gaullle that had already brought sections of his army and the Algerian white settlers out in open rebellion. It would be late the following spring before a cease-fire resulted. With France’s largest ‘overseas province’ in bloody uproar, diverting serious reinforcements to join the 45,000 French troops already in Germany (of which 3,000 were based at the Quartier Napoléon military complex in Berlin) was out of the question.

Although, unlike Macmillan’s hard-headed (and hard-up) Britain, de Gaulle’s France was prepared to make considerable sacrifices for ‘greatness’, this readiness did not apply, as would soon become clear, when it came to the unity of Berlin. When the American President passed through Paris on his way to meet Khrushchev in May 1961, General de Gaulle, playing the experienced father-figure, told Kennedy to ‘remain firm on Berlin’ and not let Khrushchev hoodwink him. De Gaulle tended to advocate a tough line over Berlin, both because he wanted to court the West Germans and because this was, in his experience, how one best dealt with the Russians and their puppets (he had a particular contempt for the East German regime). None the less, the French Defence Minister, Pierre Messmer, informed his British counterpart just weeks later that Frenchmen were not prepared to ‘die for Berlin’.10

Privately, the French élite still found the existing division of Berlin, and of Germany, perfectly satisfactory, although (in the delicate words of a recent French official publication) de Gaulle thought that ‘it was important to avoid dashing the hopes of the Germans’.11 Another great Frenchman, the Nobel Prize-winning author and biographer of de Gaulle, François Mauriac, would later make the classic quip that ‘I like Germany so much, I want two of her’.12 Only an attempt to encroach on existing Allied, and especially French, occupation rights would therefore provoke de Gaulle into unsheathing his sword.

Guarded remarks over the telephone line to and from Hyannis Port that August Sunday were therefore not just an expression of timidity on the part of Kennedy and his aides. The administration was walking a diplomatic tightrope-act. Its caution reflected the complexity not just of dealing with the Soviet Union and its puppets, but also, and simultaneously, with the Western Allies, whose needs, capabilities and national ambitions varied. Unlike Khrushchev’s satellites, the European democracies could not simply be browbeaten into place to suit their dominant superpower’s needs. They had to be persuaded into unanimity, and were not yet so convinced.

The administration and its advisers had sensed these problems in the period before the building of the Wall. Walt Rostow summed it up in a memorandum to the President on 22 July, which may have influenced the carefully calculated toughness of Kennedy’s television broadcast about Berlin three days later. The advice, self-consciously entitled ‘A High Noon Stance on Berlin’, argued that while the US should carry its allies with it into a firm position if possible (especially the Germans and the French—the British are not mentioned), it must be prepared, if necessary, to go the distance alone. Hence the High Noon stance. As Rostow added dryly: ‘You recall Gary Cooper dealt with the bandits alone’.

While understanding why the Europeans, after two costly wars, would be less willing to risk conflict, Rostow also declared the unquestionable but unpalatable truth that‘…it is on the United States—its will and its power—that the Russians will ultimately focus…the final formula will be heavily determined by what we will take or not take’. He continued:

I may be quite wrong. It may be that the importance of Atlantic unity and the inescapable moral commitment to the West Berliners will see us all together, right down to the final test. (And, of course, the crisis may abort at a relatively early stage.) But I do believe we must be prepared in our minds for the possibility of a relatively lonely stage; and we should accept it without throwing our sheriff’s badge in the dust when the crisis subsides.13

And it wasn’t just the big Western Allies that America had to deal with. Washington also had to consider smaller NATO members such as Italy, Belgium, Holland, Norway, and so on down to tiny Luxembourg, who had no military presence in Berlin or West Germany, but who voted in the alliance’s councils.

The smaller NATO powers could reasonably argue that, in a war waged over Berlin with atomic weapons, they would suffer as much as those who were directly involved. Therefore they should have a say in America’s and NATO’s response to the Communist provocation of 13 August. The White House was acutely aware of this fact. It also was forced to ask a related question: having relied throughout the 1950s on the deterrent effect of America’s atomic arsenal to keep the Soviets from launching an all-out invasion of Western Europe, what role did the atomic arsenal have in handling the more insidious salami-slicing tactics that Khrushchev and his minions now tended to adopt?

Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, was a systems man, who had come to the administration straight from running Ford Motors. He liked to know where he stood. On assuming office, he was horrified to discover that the Eisenhower administration had not developed a coherent escalation policy, or at least not one that gave an acceptable flexibility of response. Previous policy seemed as follows: basically, you fought with inadequate conventional forces until it looked like you would lose (which, because NATO’s armies were no match for Soviet might, would probably be pretty soon), after which nuclear weapons would be unleashed, with terrible consequences for the world.

This policy, such as it was, was tailored to handling a situation like the North Korean invasion of South Korea; that is, a direct war between Eastern and Western client states. It fell into confusion when faced with Khrushchev’s and Ulbricht’s subtle and unpredictable tricks in Berlin. McNamara had already ordered a rethink. Escalation would be carefully calibrated in order to delay the use of nuclear weapons for as long as possible, thus giving time for a conflict resolution that might avoid nuclear war. Essential to this was an expansion of conventional American forces, so that the West would not be immediately overrun. It represented a partial reversal of the policy of ‘nuclearisation’ that had been generally accepted since 1945.

The Secretary of Defense’s ideas had already got him into trouble with senior commanders, especially US Air Force General Lauris Norstad. Since 1956, Norstad had been both commander of American forces in Europe and Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). The tall, chiselled-featured general, son of a Lutheran pastor from Red Wing, Minnesota, had been appointed as SACEUR by his wartime superior, Eisenhower. In 1961 he was fifty-three years old, an experienced soldier-diplomat. He believed that the Kennedy/McNamara axis was making a mistake by reasserting the importance of conventional weapons. Only, went the general’s reasoning, if the enemy knew that nuclear weapons would be used, first tactically and then strategically, if necessary at an early stage, would he be reliably deterred.

Nevertheless, Norstad also tended to agree with those European members of NATO who saw the use of nuclear weapons as a joint responsibility—a view that met with little favour in Washington. No one said any of these calculations were easy.

For all these reasons, as Rostow had surmised, the solitary ‘High Noon Stance’ might well be the position that America was forced to take over Berlin in the days and weeks that followed.

Depending, of course, on what the Russians and their East German comrades did next.

The Communists’ initial gambit, extreme and catastrophic as it appeared to the ordinary people of Berlin, was, in fact, carefully judged.

At least initially, East/West traffic in Berlin remained possible; or to be more precise, not specifically forbidden. For GDR citizens, it was simply made subject, from 13 August onward, to the issue of a visa by the East German authorities. The fact that those permits would not be granted to all but a handful of East German apparatchiks was in international-legal terms a technicality. The important thing was, the West could not say that its rights had been fatally infringed; only those of East Germans attempting to enter West Berlin from the Soviet sector were affected.

This point was picked up immediately and gratefully by the Western governments, just as the Communists had calculated. Also important to the Western governments’ perceptions were the observations made by their military missions operating in East Berlin and the wider GDR.

Staffed by trained intelligence officers, the military missions had been set up as liaison groups between the Allied military governments towards the end of the war. The missions’ notional headquarters were housed in grand villas at Potsdam, just outside East Berlin, but most operatives attached to them lived in and operated out of West Berlin. Soviet missions were likewise attached to individual headquarters in the three Allied zones. The missions’ chief role became to act as ‘mobile on-site inspection teams’14. They neither ‘ran’ agents in the East nor conducted active subversion. They simply looked over the other side’s territory, often in places where the other side would rather they didn’t look, and reported back to their own superiors.

The missions’ activities over the several decades of their existence included raiding Soviet and East German army waste-disposal areas, where careless army clerks might have left scrap documents, technicians broken equipment, and sanitary and medical staff (as the account delicately put it) ‘medical waste’. All these could be taken back to West Berlin and analysed to gain clues as to the fitness and well-being or otherwise of the Cold War enemy.15 Even unsurfaced roads and tracks used by military traffic could be examined to ascertain the weight of the vehicles that had passed over them and the nature of the tracks fitted, giving clues as to the extent and make-up of troop movements. The missions even kept an eye on the Stasi’s repressive activities, conducting regular forays into the ‘forbidden area’ in Hohenschönhausen.16

The military-mission officers and their drivers played a constant game of cat-and-mouse with the Soviet and East German military authorities, who tried, often illegally, to keep certain areas off limits and to intimidate mission representatives to keep away. It should be added that Soviet military missions attached to Allied military headquarters in the three Western zones of Germany played out a similar charade, and to the same purpose. East and West tolerated each other’s official spies because each gained advantage from the agreement.

The three Western missions were very busy during the night of 12/13 and the day of 13 August, using their privileged access to the East to track movements of security forces and military units, to photograph units and military buildings and vehicles, and to subject these to a certain amount of preliminary analysis.

It was thanks in great part to these intrepid officers that, within hours of the commencement of ‘Operation Rose’, the Allied representatives in West Berlin knew two things: first, that East Berlin remained relatively peaceful; and second, that although Soviet units had moved into position in a ring around the capital, the emphasis of that ring seemed to be defensive rather than offensive. It was a curious, and often ignored, positive aspect of spying during the Cold War that it could calm fears as well as raise the alarm. In the days following the border closure, the West’s officers and agents in East Germany made a powerful contribution to peace by their ability to discern and analyse the Soviets’ intentions.

A cable from the British commander in Berlin, General Delacombe, during the evening of 13 August, informed London that two Soviet divisions had deployed defensively on the approaches to West Berlin, ‘to prevent any attempt by dwellers in border areas to make a mass break for West Berlin’.17

Similar assessments came from Allan Lightner and his French counterpart.

Journalists, including Robert Lochner, the American-born and German-raised director of RIAS, had also found their way into East Berlin during the early hours and supplied eyewitness accounts of the tragic, sometimes chaotic scenes at the border crossings, especially the Friedrichstrasse station. Media people were also, being extremely mobile, and usually with fluent language skills and good local contacts, better able than the diplomats to judge the mood in both East and West Berlin.

Such free-ranging observers certainly enjoyed a huge advantage over the administration’s planners in Washington and at Hyannis Port. Dean Rusk, a farmer’s son from Georgia, had studied briefly in Berlin before the war, but had gained his political and military experience in wartime South-East Asia. He neither liked nor pretended to understand the Germans. Rusk was not alone in this within the cabal of decision-makers, and at that time the State Department’s European section, many of whose experts did understand (and even like) the Germans, was woefully understaffed.18 This information shortage, which caused a sensitivity gap, had serious short-term and even long-term effects on relations between America and the people of West Berlin and West Germany.

For years, the Western governments and media had poured scorn on the bogus Communist regime in the East, promoted the legitimacy of German reunification, and emphasised the whole of Berlin’s integral importance to the German nation. And now? To the disgust of the West Berliners, the sealing of the border—an obvious first step towards the final division of Germany—was greeted by cowardly silence on the part of the Western Allies, especially the Americans.

Secretary Rusk was personally responsible for the failure of the Western commandants to issue a formal protest on Sunday 13 August.

After their meeting with Mayor Brandt, the three Allied commanders in Berlin weighed up their options, in the presence of their military and civilian advisers. They discussed the wording of a strong statement that might be sent to Marshal Konev’s headquarters in Berlin-Karlshorst. The French commander, General Lacomme, then decided, to the exasperation of his colleagues, that he could not sign such a direct protest without consulting his government. With the French Foreign Ministry all but closed for August, like the rest of Paris, and the minister himself, the aristocratic M. Couve de Merville, absent on vacation, this promised to be a lengthy process.

By the afternoon, however, the commandants had agreed on a basic text that they felt could be issued in the form of a press release. This would represent an indirect protest only, without mention of countermeasures, but it would give an early signal of solidarity with the West Berliners, just hours after the East German action, and would therefore be better than nothing. Lacomme agreed that he could go this far without recourse to his ministerial boss. The drafting of the press release began.

At this point, Ambassador Foy Kohler, Special Assistant to Dean Rusk for European Affairs, rang up from Washington and asked to speak with Allan Lightner. Although the line was an open one, and the call was therefore assuredly the subject of a Soviet/East German wiretap operation, they discussed events. Lightner mentioned almost as an afterthought that the Allied commandants planned to release to the press a general statement criticising the Soviets’ and East Germans’ outrageous activities. The minimum they could decently do, pending instructions.

Kohler asked Lightner to read the statement out over the line. America’s most powerful civilian representative in Berlin duly did so, for the benefit of Washington—and almost certainly the Stasi and the KGB. When he had finished, Kohler paused. ‘The Secretary is right here,’ he told Lightner in his gentle but insistent Ohioan tones. ‘Let me tell him about it.’

Lightner waited out a long, 3,000-mile silence. Finally Kohler returned. ‘I have strict instructions for you, Al, not to issue anything in Berlin,’ he said. ‘You can’t go ahead on this thing. Anything that’s going to be said on this issue has to come from the capitals. As a matter of fact, we’ll get something out ourselves this afternoon.’19

That ‘something’ was the super-cautious State Department press release. After authorising this, Rusk left the State Department to attend a baseball game.20

It is difficult to see why, apart from a control-freakish desire for first expression, Rusk’s more or less meaningless statement took precedence over an announcement by Allied representatives in Berlin. An informal protest on the part of the commandants, however non-binding and ultimately unthreatening, would have had the virtue of coming from officials who exercised military and political power on the spot, and might therefore have had a positive influence on West Berliners’ morale.

The result of Washington’s reluctance to commit would be a slow-burning outrage in both West Berlin and West Germany.

If the Western Allies swallowed this, the Germans’ reasoning went, what would they not swallow? It was a genuinely concerned question, which demanded a genuine and straight answer.

How to supply that answer?

The Berliners were fortunate that during that weekend help was at hand, in the shape of a very distinguished American opinion-former, Edward R. Murrow.

Fifty-three-year-old Murrow was America’s most famous broadcast reporter of the age, celebrated for his reports for CBS from beleaguered London in 1940 and for his war reporting from the European front after the D-Day landings. He had allowed himself to be poached by Kennedy earlier in 1961 for the directorship of the powerful United States Information Agency, spearhead of America’s Cold War information and propaganda offensive. Since assuming office, Murrow had travelled extensively to outposts of his worldwide information empire. On Saturday 12 August, the great broadcaster happened to arrive at his latest stop, Berlin.

Conspiracy theorists have since claimed that Murrow’s presence was no concidence, that it ‘proved’ the West—or at least the United States—had been forewarned of the sealing-off of the border. Somehow, the theory goes, the whole project had its origins in a secret compact between the American administration and the Soviet dictatorship, to create stability in Central Europe at the Germans’ expense. Why else would America’s foremost propagandist arrive at exactly that time, except to mastermind a propaganda smokescreen that would conceal the truth about Washington’s betrayal of Berlin?

The theory does not fit, as the actual events clearly show. Murrow’s host was the director of the American-backed RIAS radio station, Robert H. Lochner. Lochner had spent the whole night of 12—13 August back in his old journalistic role, observing events in East and West Berlin. Arriving, exhausted, back at RIAS headquarters, he picked up Murrow. They debated whether to change their plans for the day. Lochner had planned to invite an East Berlin student of his acquaintance to lunch, to give Murrow an ‘inside’ view of things ‘over there’. With the border closed, this was no longer possible. Moreover, a cocktail reception had been arranged for Sunday evening, at which the recently appointed USIA chief would get the chance to meet local broadcasters and media personalities, and military and civil officials. Should they proceed with what seemed like a mere social frippery?

It was decided that the reception should go ahead as planned. Any sense of ‘fiddling while Rome burned’ would be more than compensated for by the useful contacts Murrow would make. And in any case, why should Walter Ulbricht come between Americans and their cocktails?

Meanwhile, Lochner took Murrow first to see the border-sealing process from the Western side—and also the crowds of angry, frustrated West Berliners. Then they crossed into East Berlin:

We went first to the Brandenburg Gate on the Western side and we went to the then still-existing rear wing of the famous Adlon Hotel, which is right next to the Brandenburg Gate and in there with the windows open we heard the noise of the hammers pressing the door, the street open, making a tremendous noise, and the angry shouts of the hundreds of West Berliners who were confronting them. And drinking warm, lousy East Berlin beer, Murrow reminisced a little about the many times before the war that he’d been in Berlin as a correspondent.21

For the two ‘Americans on the spot’, it was a busy afternoon. They later dropped by the home of the powerful German newspaper magnate, Axel Springer, a grand villa on the Bernadottestrasse in Wilmersdorf. Springer’s tabloid Bild was the largest-selling newspaper in the country and a powerful mouthpiece for post-Nazi conservatism.

Springer was critical of America’s passivity. ‘You’ll have to clear away the barricades,’ he asserted. ‘I’ll guarantee that the Russians will accept it.’ According to Lochner, the USIA director seemed shaken by Springer’s words.22

Murrow was now convinced that he must alert America to the situation in Berlin. He called his deputy at USIA, Donald M. Wilson, in Washington and exhorted him to crank up the message on the border closure. The world should know how ugly this business was, and soon. Wilson complied—Murrow was the boss, after all—though like many others he still guessed that the measures were temporary. He was, however, struck by the passion that crackled down the transatlantic line. Murrow was usually unflappably professional in his judgements and behaviour.

Lochner asserts that Murrow also contacted the White House. Slipping away from the party at the High Commission, Murrow spoke with Kennedy from the phone in Lightner’s bedroom. He impressed on the President the seriousness of the situation. Not the danger of war so much, but the devastating impact that Western inactivity was having on West Berlin’s morale. Perhaps Murrow’s vivid, reporter’s analysis helped Kennedy to understand that he had to take firmer, or at least more definite, measures than Rusk and the State Department people had so far countenanced.23

All this would have been early Sunday afternoon in Hyannis Port, just after Kennedy had finished his round of phone calls with other members of the administration and had approved the (to many in Berlin) feeble initial response to the sector-border closure.

Meanwhile, three and a half thousand miles away, the reception at the US High Commission in Berlin continued. More news kept pouring in all the time. More protests at the border. A major speech by Mayor Brandt. The hurried arrival from Bonn of a key political ally of Chancellor Adenauer, West German Parliamentary President Eugen Gerstenmaier. Lochner was approached by a senior West German intelligence official, with whom he was on friendly terms. The man was seriously upset. He drew Lochner into a corner. ‘Isn’t it incredible?’ he wailed. ‘Our secret services are so lousy that we had no inkling of this coming on!’

Mayor Brandt had spent the afternoon touring the sector border. At 6.30 p.m., he addressed the West Berlin city parliament. After reciting with great precision and in full detail all the ways in which the East Germans’ action in sealing off East Berlin gratuitously transgressed against existing agreements, he called for urgent Western action to reverse these illegal acts. He referred to ‘powers of darkness’ and to ‘the barrier fence of a concentration camp’ that was being erected through the heart of the city. He requested Allied reinforcements for the beleaguered half-city he ruled. The mayor called, in effect, for moves that would show the East that America took what was happening seriously, and that the West meant business. None the less, Brandt also called for restraint from his own population. No provocations. No giving the enemy excuses to become even more blatant in their outrages.24

Brandt’s speech was that of a passionate politician and a great leader-in-the-making. He expressed the Berliners’ fury and pain, while at the same time channelling their feelings away from futile revenge. It was, however, also the speech of a man with very little actual power. As a mere mayor, words remained his only weapon.

Kennedy was said to have been irritated by the speech as it was summarised to him in his next ‘check-list’. ‘Look at this!’ the President bristled, reading Brandt’s demands. ‘Who does he think he is?’25

Monday 14 August dawned. The Eastern side of the sector border still teemed with East German military activity. The big anxiety, for the Ulbricht regime, was that large numbers of ‘border-crossers’ might attempt to flood across into the West. For whatever reason, they didn’t. The numbers sneaking across the border through thinly guarded areas and as yet unblockaded features such as canals and lakes amounted, by comparison with what the Communists had feared, to a mere trickle.

Back in Washington from the Cape, Kennedy conferred with his aides. General Maxwell Taylor, the President’s recently appointed liaison with the chiefs of staff, was opposed even to a reinforcement of the Berlin garrison. In strict military terms, he may have been right, but Berlin was not strictly or even mainly a military crisis. The morning wore on, but no practical measures were decided. There was vague talk of flag-showing activities, but the administration continued to veto statements by the American commandant. The President, although swayed by Murrow’s dramatic report from Berlin, was still concerned that no one on the other side of the Atlantic should be allowed to force his hand.

In a way, this was understandable. As Egon Bahr, Brandt’s press secretary, would later comment, the reality remained one of ‘big Kennedy and little Brandt’.

And ‘big Kennedy’ was perfectly clear where he stood, despite Murrow’s warnings and the ‘Berlin Mafia’s’ pleas. Kenneth P. O’Donnell, a major figure in the Boston-Irish political establishment and now ‘special assistant’ to the President, heard the President’s conclusions at the end of his first morning back in the Oval Office. Kennedy asked,

‘Why would Khrushchev put up a wall if he really intended to seize Berlin? There wouldn’t be a need of a wall if he occupied the whole city. This is his way out of his predicament. It’s not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.’

He leaned back in his chair and tapped his teeth with his fingers, the way he always did when he was reflecting. And then he said: ‘This is the end of the Berlin crisis. The other side panicked—not we. We’re going to do nothing now because there is no alternative except war. It’s all over, they’re not going to overrun Berlin.’26

The President’s conclusion was pure, cold realpolitik.

The British were even less inclined to let the Germans dictate policy. On 14 August Sir Christopher Steel, Her Britannic Majesty’s ambassador to West Germany, cabled London to cast doubt on the West Germans government’s response to the sealing of the border. They had declared it a Soviet/East German plot to gobble up West Berlin, a view that was, Steel said, ‘at variance with the obvious facts of the situation’. ‘The Federal Government,’ Steel wrote to his masters in London, ‘are not really interested in reunification and their attitude is all politics.’ He continued:

I must say that I personally have always wondered that the East Germans have waited so long to seal this boundary. I think that hitherto it has been the fear of West German and Allied sanctions which stopped them doing so (as last winter) but the cumulative defections of the past month have forced them to action. I should think that in any settlement it would be almost impossible for us to re-establish a situation where East Germans are more or less free to leave the Communist world at will. We ought really, therefore, to get together with the Americans as soon as possible—albeit cautiously—to ensure that they, no more than we, regard this as the issue on which we break.27

The British ambassador’s dry scepticism reflected the views of diplomats and politicians throughout the Western world. The East was not out to swallow Berlin. It was out to rearrange the situation there to its advantage, and in particular to secure East Berlin. As long as this was all the East did, the Allies would undertake no military counter-measures. The only exception, for the moment, was the French, who had their own fish to fry. Though Paris took an unenthusiastic, even hostile, view of German reunification, it was none the less keen to prise West Germany from the USA’s embrace and bind it in a French alliance. Appearing to support a ‘hard line’ on Berlin was a cost-free way for de Gaulle to pile up brownie points in Bonn.

All the same, time was passing, and doing absolutely nothing was not an option. In Berlin itself, there was increasing popular outrage in the Western sectors. Demonstrations continued. The German popular press began to turn restless and critical.

Possibly with Murrow’s encouragement,28 Willy Brandt decided to make direct contact with the President of the United States. He must, he decided, make clear to the most powerful man in the Western world what was at stake. Brandt told Egon Bahr to draft a letter to Kennedy.

The problem with such a letter was twofold. First, there was the ‘little Brandt and big Kennedy’ dilemma. Then there was the perhaps even more important fact of the German election campaign. Brandt was running for chancellor, and a direct relationship with Kennedy would have indicated to some that the American administration favoured his candidacy.

The German hustings were, and remain, a pretty robust environment. Less than forty-eight hours after the border closure, Adenauer upped the stakes, for Brandt and by implication for Kennedy. At an election rally in Bavaria on 14 August, the old man brutally referred to the West Berlin Mayor as ‘Brandt alias Frahm’.

This jibe constituted a double insult. First, it reminded his audience that Willy Brandt had been born with the name Herbert Frahm, in Lübeck, of an unmarried mother. Second, it underlined the fact that his current name, by which the great Social Democrat leader would go down in history, was actually a nom de guerre acquired as a political exile in Norway. There he had worked with the local anti-Nazi resistance, returning to Germany only in the autumn of 1945, and even then wearing the uniform of a Norwegian officer. Adenauer was reminding his supporters (especially the nationalistically inclined ones) both that Brandt was born a bastard and that he was—by some interpretations—a ‘traitor’ who fought against Germany during the war.

The old man had decided to play hard ball. Brandt was deeply hurt, so much so that he felt constrained to abandon an evening sitting of the city parliament.29

Meanwhile, Bahr worked on, drafting the letter to Kennedy on behalf of his wounded and frustrated boss. With the continuing absence of any clear Allied action to oppose the ‘security barriers’ that the East Germans had erected, something needed to happen. At midnight on Monday, forty-eight hours after the first construction squads had moved in on the sector border, Berlin would enter its third full day as a divided city. Time was not on the side of those who wished to reverse that process.

Lochner, talking in an interview with the wisdom of hindsight, told the sad truth, both for Brandt and the ‘Berlin Mafia’:

At that time in our various post mortems of course we thought oh well, what could we have done? And one of the unrealistic scenarios was if we had immediately sent some tanks to remove the barbed wire—that’s how the wall started out, they simply started putting barbed wire across the major thoroughfares—and immediately at the same time and publicly [we had] called the Russians and said, ‘we realise that Saturday night till Sunday you had nobody on duty, so we took the liberty. Your East German henchmen are running wild here, they’re clearly violating the free circulation of all of Berlin, so since we couldn’t reach any of you we took the liberty on behalf of all four occupation powers to remove this silly effort to interfere with traffic.’

Well, that was theoretically possible, but no two star Generals could take such a decision. Any such decision required checking with Washington, London, Paris and Bonn—by that time,’61, you couldn’t leave the Germans out. And that obviously was totally impossible within the span of a weekend. If any such measure had been taken later, that might have provoked a war or whatever, because only it could be done under this guise of actually coming to the help of the Soviets the very first night and within hours…30

Tuesday 15 August saw the working week advance. Every hour that passed without a challenge to the East German barrier spoke more loudly of its permanence.

There were more disturbances on the Western side of the border, more calls for action. Finally, there came the long-awaited note of protest from the Western commandants, delivered to their Soviet counterpart, Colonel Andrei I. Soloviev, at his headquarters by the three powers’ liaison officers. It chided the East Germans for erecting an ‘arbitrary barrier’. It complained that East Berlin had been turned into an ‘armed camp’, violating Berliners’ right to free movement and employment. ‘We must protest,’ it concluded, ‘against the illegal measures introduced on August 13 and hold you responsible for the carrying out of the relevant agreements’.

It would not have escaped Soloviev’s notice that the one thing the protest did not contain was an ultimatum demanding the border barrier’s removal.

In Washington, the Berlin Steering Group met at 10.45 EST (mid-afternoon in Germany) on 15 August. Present were the Secretaries of State, Defense, Commerce, and Agriculture, the Under-Secretary of the Treasury, the Attorney-General (Robert Kennedy) and the Director of the CIA, plus the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Wilson, Edward Murrow’s deputy, and a clutch of the President’s assistants, including Maxwell Taylor and McGeorge Bundy.

Short of an additional appearance from the President, this was about as heavyweight as a meeting got. So heavy that this one ended up muscle-bound. They discussed not how to reverse the closure of the sector border, but how to deal with the public-relations aspect. According to the minutes, Rusk was even more frank about the realities of the situation than Kennedy had been in talking to O’Donnell:

The Secretary of State noted that while the border closing was a most serious matter, the probability was that in realistic terms it would make a Berlin settlement easier. Our immediate problem is the sense of outrage in Berlin and Germany which carries with it a feeling that we should do more than merely protest. It was not easy to know just what else we should do.31

‘We must keep shooting issues and non-shooting issues separate,’ Rusk declared.

Again, no sanctions against the Soviet Union and its allies were announced. True, at the BSG’s meeting, the Secretary of Commerce had proposed that the US should publicly rule out sending subsidised food exports to Soviet-block countries (negotiations with Poland along these lines were already in progress). After discussion, however, such a statement was deemed unwise. Boycotting East Germany’s great international trade window, the Leipzig Fair, was likewise ruled out. The same went for restrictions on the until now almost automatic issuing of Temporary Travel Documents (TTDs) for Easterners visiting West Berlin. The only suggested counter-measure that met with the approval of most present—though not of Secretary McNamara—was the idea of reinforcing the US garrison in Berlin. Plus a stepping-up of the propaganda offensive. Robert Kennedy in particular pressed for more forceful efforts in this area.

The world was still not even certain exactly what Ulbricht and Khrushchev were up to. At the meeting of the Berlin Steering Group the previous day, reference had been to a ‘fence’ rather than a wall. In the night, however, telephone contact between East and West was suddenly cut, and movement of mail restricted.

None the less, all that really occurred during the third day after the sealing-off of East Berlin was that Washington officials briefed energetically to the press. As the New York Times reported:

The Kennedy administration set out today to portray East Germany’s closing of the border between East and West Berlin as a dramatic confession of Communist failure.

The highest officials here indicated that this would be the extent, for the time being, of the Allied response to Communist moves in Berlin. As long as Western rights of access to the divided city are respected, the officials said, protest and vigorous propaganda will be their primary form of retaliation.32

This was all perfectly rational. The first paragraph expressed the line originally proposed in the first, hasty cable to Pierre Salinger at Hyannis Port the previous Sunday. The second paragraph, while engagingly frank and representing the reality of the matter, was the kind of thing that the West Germans and West Berliners were horrified to hear. Their anxiety all too easily led to a kind of prickly bewilderment that could easily tip into a peculiarly ambivalent anti-Americanism, a nervous biting of the protective hand.

Moreover, who could deny that the ‘Berlin Mafia’ and their German friends were in part right to be anxious? Was it not possible that the East was at heart concerned to do more than just defend itself? If one looked closely, even during these early days of Berlin’s isolation, the Communists had already started to slice off some more juicy little morsels of the notorious salami.

In their original declaration of intent, issued during the small hours of Sunday, the East Germans assured the world that once the border had been ‘protected’, access to East Berlin would not be restricted, except for ‘provocateurs’ and the like. None the less, within a day of ‘Operation Rose’, individuals had been forbidden access. On 15 August, Willy Kressmann, district mayor of Kreuzberg, attempted to drive into East Berlin and was denied entry as a potential troublemaker. This colourful Social Democrat—known as ‘Texas-Willy’ because during an American trip he had been made an honorary citizen of San Antonio—planned to distribute funds to ‘border-crossers’ who were resident in East Berlin but employed in Kreuzberg. These had been unable to collect their wages because of the border closure.33

There would soon be other cases. Sometimes unwelcome would-be visitors were only allowed into East Berlin on foot. The East could choose to interpret the word ‘provocateur’ exactly as it wished.

Initially, in order to avert a violent Western response to the securing of the border, the Communists’ impositions had been modest. Western chanceries had greeted this with relief and had drawn conclusions that profoundly influenced their crisis planning.

These first impressions, however, would indeed prove deceptive. There would be further challenges to West Berlin and the Allied presence. Were these steps in a ruthless, planned escalation that would see West Berlin swallowed by the GDR? Or were they merely attempts to keep the Allies permanently on the defensive in the inevitable negotiations, enabling Khrushchev to dictate from a position of strength? This was the uncertainty that began and would continue to plague decision-makers in the West for the duration of the crisis.

Willy Brandt’s letter to President Kennedy arrived at the White House by cable (via Lightner at the US Mission) late on the afternoon of 16 August (Washington time). The Berlin mayor described its contents as ‘personal and informal’.

Be that as it may, it was impossible for Kennedy to ignore Brandt’s clear criticism of the West in general and the US government in particular.

‘The illegal sovereignty of the East Berlin government,’ the mayor told Kennedy, ‘has been recognised by default, so far as the limitation in the number of crossing points and the restriction in access to the Eastern sector is concerned.’ He wrote of ‘inactivity and pure defensiveness’ on the part of the Allies, which could lead to a crisis of confidence among West Berliners, and ‘to an exaggerated self-confidence in the East Berlin regime, which already today is boasting in its newspapers of the success of its demonstration of military might’. The East had achieved the first part of its plan, to isolate and cut off West Berlin. Now the second step was only a matter of time, in which the island city would become an isolated ‘ghetto’. If that happened, then instead of people fleeing to West Berlin, they could begin to flee from it. The Soviet Union should stand accused before the United Nations, on the West’s initiative. Moreover, the three Western occupying powers should abandon the fiction of four-power rule and guarantee West Berlin’s freedom and security formally without reference to the Russians.

Brandt’s sharpest words came from the knowledge that, after refusing so long to talk to Khrushchev about his plans for a peace treaty, the West was suddenly eager to negotiate with the East, as a direct consequence of the sealing of the sector border.

I…cannot think without bitterness of those declarations that rejected negotiations with the Soviet Union on the grounds that one could not deal under duress. We now have a situation of total blackmail, and already I hear that we shall not be able to refuse to negotiate.34

Brandt ended up with a pointed request for reinforcements to the American garrison in Berlin as a symbol of Western determination.

It would have been a frank communication even between equal heads of state. From a municipal leader in Central Europe, however prominent, to the President of the most powerful nation on earth, it was astonishing in its boldness. Or insolence.

Brandt went even further in putting Kennedy on the spot. Addressing an enormous mass rally in front of Schöneberg Town Hall that same evening, just a few hours after Washington had started its day’s work, the mayor went public on his letter to Kennedy.

‘We are not afraid,’ Brandt told the huge crowd. ‘Today I expressed my opinion to the President of the United States, John Kennedy, in all frankness. Berlin expects more than words. Berlin expects political action!’

The applause exploded, and went on in great waves for some minutes. It was what Berliners wanted to hear. And maybe the entire West German electorate, too.

However, Kennedy’s instinctive reaction was to judge Brandt’s speech and letter as facets of his bid to become chancellor of West Germany. Since he first drew breath, the President had lived and thrived in the ruthless atmosphere of Boston politics, where any event, however tragic, was fair political fuel. ‘That bastard from Berlin’, he declared, had decided to use the border tragedy as an electoral ploy.35 At America’s expense.

That Brandt was acting, in the broadest sense, as a politician, there can be no doubt. Running for the highest office in the land, he wanted to show he could stand up for Berlin and for Germany. As West Berlin mayor, he was also aware that bad feeling, potentially anti-Western and especially anti-American, was on the increase. He needed to head it off. It would not be the first time in the history of democracy that a politician harboured multiple motivations for a necessary act.

The Berlin press, moreover, was starting to turn nasty. Axel Springer had insisted to Murrow on the afternoon of 13 August that the East would back down if the West rolled back the barbed wire. The press magnate was obviously displeased that the Allies had ignored his advice. That morning, 16 August, Springer’s Bild ran a banner headline attacking Western inaction. ‘The West does nothing!’ the front page bellowed. ‘President Kennedy stays silent…Macmillan goes hunting…and Adenauer hurls abuse at Brandt.’ Another paper claimed that Marshall Konev had warned the Allied commandants about the coming border restrictions before 13 August. This was immediately denied, but the rumour found plenty of credence among anxious, increasingly disillusioned West Berliners.

So, Brandt had to channel all this negativity and frustration, neutralise its effects. His speech must be seen as a high-wire performance that, at least so far as his immediate aims were concerned, succeeded triumphantly.

Whether Brandt also understood the effect that his letter and his speech might have on the White House is still not clear. He was encouraged to send the letter, not just by his German colleagues, but by Allen Lightner and Ed Murrow, the latter having acquired temporary membership of the ‘Berlin Mafia’. The air had to be cleared, the city’s plight presented in stark terms that would shake official Washington from its August torpor. He would probably have sent the letter anyway, even had he been able to predict the President’s displeasure. Willy Brandt might occasionally have lacked judgement, but he was never short of courage.

Kennedy’s reply to Brandt arrived a little less than forty-eight hours later. It was wrapped up in a much more dramatic exercise of power. The American leader’s letter was hand-delivered to Brandt by Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, who by way of further reinforcement was in turn accompanied, on the President’s order, by one of the great figures of the immediate post-war period: the former Governor of the American Zone of Germany, General Lucius Dubignon Clay.

The idea of yoking Johnson, the low-born Texas career politician, with the aristocratic army general from Georgia (son of a US senator), in a grand public gesture over Berlin, seems to have been floating around even before Brandt’s letter arrived in Washington.

‘LBJ’, the renowned congressional horse-trader, and Clay, the renowned American war-horse, were personally and politically about as unlike as could be imagined. Clay, concealing his toughness beneath a low-key, polite façade, was also, politically, a lifelong Republican; Johnson was rough-mannered and extrovert, a combative New Deal Democrat from the first hour. Talk at the Steering Group meeting on 15 August of a military figure may have seemed vague, but in fact there is reason to believe that the ‘drafting’ of Clay was already under way. It may even have preceded the selection of Vice-President Johnson.

Eyewitness testimony from the time indicates that the ‘Berlin Mafia’ played a crucial role in engineering this move in the crisis. Influential journalists James O’Donnell and Marguerite Higgins, both fiercely anti-Communist old ‘Berlin hands’ now living in Washington, seem to have concocted the idea as early as Monday 14 August. Higgins lived near Clay and knew him well. Her husband, General William Hall, had served as General Clay’s Air Intelligence Officer in the post-war period and they remained on friendly terms. Contacting each other shortly after the news of the border closure came through, O’Donnell and Higgins regretted that the State Department ‘appeasers’ seemed to have control of the situation.

How to provide a counterweight, someone who might turn the situation their way? Higgins had already discussed things on the telephone with Clay, and knew that he shared her distrust of the State Department. She suggested to O’Donnell that the general could be their man. After talking with O’Donnell, Higgins called Clay again; he agreed to volunteer for a mission to Berlin if the administration could be persuaded of its usefulness. Finally, Higgins spoke with Robert Kennedy. RFK accepted the idea in principal but was concerned that Clay represented a leftover from the Eisenhower era. This may have been when the idea of sending Johnson with him, to provide political balance, fell into place. Certainly by Wednesday, the teaming of these two powerful, charismatic men was being actively pursued.

The crucial session of the Berlin Steering Group, on the morning of 17 August, was attended by the President. It agreed on a combined trip to Berlin by Johnson and Clay. It also approved the almost inevitable strengthening of the American garrison in Berlin. This would involve withdrawing a battle group (1,500-1,800 men) from the Army’s 8th Division, based near Frankfurt.36 The detachment to go to Berlin would also include a battery of 105mm. Howitzers, the first artillery force—an essentially fighting rather than a mere occupation unit—to be sent through Soviet-controlled territory since 1945.37

Both the President’s decisions were opposed from within the military-governmental apparatus by powerful voices. Senior officers—contrary to the cliché—showed themselves to be ultra-cautious in the sudden crisis, rather than warmongering. Generals Norstad and Maxwell Taylor continued to see any raising of the American military profile in response to the sector-border closure as potentially provocative and therefore dangerous. As for the plan to send Johnson, Norstad sounded just like a State Department ‘dove’. He cabled the Chief of Staff, General Lemnitzer:

The delivery of the President’s reply to the Brandt letter by the hands of the hero of the Berlin crisis of an earlier day, General Lucius Clay, would appear to me to be a brilliant stroke; but to add to this the great stature of the Vice President would be overdoing it, and would run the risk of exciting great expectations in West Berlin and possibly also among the unhappy East Germans. This is a big gun which we may need and need badly in the weeks and months to come.38

But finally someone was present at a meeting who knew really Berlin and was aware of the fragility of the Berliners’ morale. David E. Murphy was a senior CIA man who just weeks earlier had returned to the US after years as Deputy Director and then Director of Berlin Operations Base. He had been summoned to Washington from home leave in San Francisco.

Recognising a potential member of the ‘Berlin Mafia’ when he saw one, the President warned Murphy that he was interested exclusively in hearing about morale in West Berlin. ‘Our writ does not run to East Berlin,’ he told the CIA man. The border closure itself was not up for discussion. This must be accepted as fait accompli. Thirty years later, Murphy would recall his advice to Kennedy:

The problem, I explained, was one of West Berliners’ perceptions. Although they realized that since 1948 there was little the Allies could do to counter Soviet and East German actions in East Berlin, in essence Berlin remained for them one city. East Berliners could shop and attend the theater in West Berlin while relatives and friends in both sectors exchanged regular visits. Whereas over the years there had been frequent crackdowns at border-crossing points, the actual closure of 13 August came as a deep emotional shock. This shock, plus the perception of Western inaction, caused many to fear that the Allies intended gradually to withdraw their protection from West Berlin. Thus, it seemed essential that steps be taken to restore confidence and rekindle the spirit of the West Berliners.39

This cool, measured contribution from Murphy seemed to crystallise resolve. The President’s mind was made up. He would send Clay and Johnson to Berlin, and reinforce the garrison there without delay, sending this force along the road route through East Germany.

Kennedy’s decision indicated that he had moved away from the passive, safety-first attitude promoted by some in both the State Department and the military, and shifted towards a measured show of determination, though still of a largely symbolic sort. To those who criticised the ‘aggressive’ tactic of reinforcing the garrison, Clay himself would retort that sending a force of 1,500 men, bringing the Allied garrison in West Berlin up to around 12,000, could not possibly indicate a plan to attack the Soviet/East German forces exceeding a quarter of a million that surrounded the city. Not even the most skilful Communist propagandist could make that accusation stick.

By late on 17 August the Johnson-Clay mission was a reality. Kennedy invited Marguerite Higgins into the White House for an informal briefing the next morning, and smilingly told her, ‘I have good news for you. Not only have we decided to send General Clay to Berlin; we are sending the Vice-President too’.

Actually, the President’s revelation came as no surprise to the formidably well-informed Herald Tribune columnist. She had been at dinner the previous evening with Clay, Vice-President Johnson, and Sam Rayburn, a Texan congressman and Johnson confidant, when LBJ was called to the phone to get his marching orders from the White House. Johnson was not pleased. Unfamiliar with foreign policy and no great traveller, he not only doubted the usefulness of his mission, but complained: ‘There’ll be a lot of shooting, and I’ll be in the middle of it. Why me?’40 After dinner resumed, all the persuasive powers of his companions, especially his old ally Rayburn, had been required before Johnson accepted the presidential command with something like good grace.41

On 18 August, Kennedy’s note to Brandt was duly entrusted to General Clay, with instructions that it must not be made public.

This was understandable. The note would not have assuaged the populace of West Berlin or West Germany. The President’s answer to the mayor’s plea was polite and superficially positive, but Kennedy coolly refused every concrete action that Brandt asked for—except the reinforcement of the Berlin garrison, which had been already agreed in Washington. So, no three-power status for West Berlin, no appeal to the UN, no economic or military sanctions. And where Brandt had referred to the American as ‘friends’, in Kennedy’s reply the West Berliners were ‘partners’:

Dear Mayor Brandt:

I have read with great care your personal informal letter of August 16th and I want to thank you for it. In these testing days it is important for us to be in close touch. For this reason I am sending my answer by the hand of Vice President Johnson. He comes with General Clay, who is well known to Berliners; and they have my authority to discuss our problems in full frankness with you.

The measures taken by the Soviet Government and its puppets in East Berlin have caused revulsion here in America. This demonstration of what the Soviet Government means by freedom for a city, and peace for a people, proves the hollowness of Soviet pretensions; and Americans understand that this action necessarily constitutes a special blow to the people of West Berlin, connected as they remain in a myriad of ways to their fellow Berliners in the eastern sector. So I understand entirely the deep concerns and sense of trouble which prompted your letter.

Grave as this matter is, however, there are, as you say, no steps available to us which can force a significant material change in this present situation. Since it represents a resounding confession of failure and of political weakness, this brutal border closing evidently represents a basic Soviet decision which only war could reverse. Neither you nor we, nor any of our Allies, have ever supposed that we should go to war on this point.

Yet the Soviet action is too serious for inadequate responses. My own objection to most of the measures which have been proposed—even to most of the suggestions in your own letter—is that they are mere trifles compared to what has been done. Some of them, moreover, seem unlikely to be fruitful even in their own terms. This is our present judgment, for example, on the question of an immediate appeal to the United Nations, although we shall continue to keep this possibility under lively review.

On careful consideration I myself have decided that the best immediate response is a significant reinforcement of the Western garrisons. The importance of this reinforcement is symbolic—but not symbolic only. We know that the Soviet Union continues to emphasize its demand for the removal of Allied protection from West Berlin. We believe that even a modest reinforcement will underline our rejection of this concept.

At the same time, and of even greater basic importance, we shall continue and accelerate the broad build-up of the military strength of the West upon which we are decided, and which we view as the necessary answer to the long-range Soviet threat to Berlin and to us all.

Within Berlin, in the immediate affairs of the city, there may be other specific appropriate steps to take. These we shall review as rapidly and sympathetically as possible, and I hope you will be sure to express your own views on such measures clearly to Vice President Johnson and his party. Actions which effectively demonstrate our continued commitment to freedom in Berlin will have our support.

I have considered with special care your proposal of a three-power status for West Berlin. My judgment is that a formal proclamation of such a status would imply a weakening of the four-power relationship on which our opposition to the border-closing depends. Whatever may be the immediate prospects, I do not believe that we should now take so double-edged a step. I do agree that the guarantees which we have pledged to West Berlin should be continuously affirmed and reaffirmed, and this we are doing. Moreover, I support your proposal of an appropriate plebiscite demonstrating the continuing conviction of West Berlin that its destiny is freedom in connection with the West.

More broadly, let me urge it upon you that we must not be shaken by Soviet actions which in themselves are a confession of weakness. West Berlin today is more important than ever, and its mission to stand for freedom has never been so important as now. The link of West Berlin to the Free World is not a matter of rhetoric. Important as the ties to the East have been, painful as is their violation, the life of the city, as I understand it, runs primarily to the West—its economic life, its moral basis, and its military security. You may wish to consider and to suggest concrete ways in which these ties might be expanded in a fashion that would make the citizens of West Berlin more actively conscious of their role, not merely as an outpost of freedom, but as a vital part of the Free World and all its enterprises. In this double mission we are partners, and it is my own confidence that we can continue to rely upon each other as firmly in the future as we have in the past.

With warm personal regards,


John F Kennedy

Meanwhile, at the interrogation prison in the ‘forbidden district’ of East Berlin, young Klaus Schulz-Ladegast had just spent his first night as a bewildered captive of the Stasi. If he or any other persecuted East German had expected that the West would take steps to reverse what happened on 13 August, then by this morning at the latest their disappointment would have been assured.

On 18 August, before Clay and Johnson boarded their plane for Germany, the East Germans quietly began to build a solid, breeze-block obstruction between the Brandenburg Gate and the Potsdamer Platz. Its aim was clearly to reinforce and replace the barbed wire they had set up in those first hours of ‘Operation Rose’. An improvised ‘border closure’ was about to become a permanent, impassable physical barrier through the middle of a great city, a fortification without parallel in history.

Ulbricht’s men had begun to build what the whole world would soon know as the ‘Berlin Wall’.

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