Germany as divided by Allies following WW II

Note:  Sometime before the close of World War II decisions were made as to how the post war world would look and how the mechanism of conflict and war would continue to be used to direct the affairs of man for the benefit of the unseen decision makers. The immediate consequence of this was what would come to be known as the “Cold War”. Those of you familiar with World War II know that the Soviet Union was our ally in the fight against Nazi Germany. Germany fell to the Allies in May of 1945 and Germany’s ally Japan surrendered in early September of that year following the nuclear devastations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How could it be, then, that within less than two years the world would be so arrayed that our former ally Russia was now our earnest foe and that conflict would henceforth be carried forward as “freedom and capitalism vs. communism and totalitarianism.” As is the way with such things, what looks to be a spontaneous occurrence actually is rooted in earlier beginnings and causes. We will look at this more deeply in future articles in this series. The important thing to understand for our purposes here is that the conquered German nation was divided into administrative zones under each of the allied victors; the British getting the northwest zone, the French the southwest, the Americans the south and the Russians the northeast. The German capital of Berlin, though located in the Russian zone, was likewise divided with a sector going to each allied nation; the American, French and British sectors eventually comprising what would become known as West Berlin and the Soviet zone becoming East Berlin. From that point on Berlin would become a major focal point of the Cold War and  in 1961 came within an eyelash of triggering World War III…for the full story of how JFK once again averted disaster, with some help from a most unlikely source, please read on.. MA
The divided city: Berlin

The divided city: Berlin

It did not take long for Berlin to become one of the first flash points of this new “Cold War”. Plans had been laid before the end of the war as to how Germany would be administered and how it would be divided as described in the note above. What had not been agreed upon was how Germany should proceed economically. As a result there was no coordinated plan for the re-building of Germany or its economic system. France, the U.S. and Britain, therefore, ended up embarking on their own economic strategy for Germany, largely through what was known as the “Marshall Plan”, while the Soviets went their own way with their own plan. The “Marshall Plan”, named after General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the United States Army during World War II and U.S. Secretary of State from 1947 to 1949, was a program of economic assistance to help re-build war torn Europe and was first proposed by Marshall at a commencement address delivered at Harvard University in 1947. Within a few months the plan was approved by Congress and implemented with Marshall ultimately being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1953) for being the driving force behind it.
General George C. Marshall

General George C. Marshall

In early 1948, as part of their plan, the Western Allies decided to introduce a new currency into their sectors of Germany and Berlin. Since the war had ended Germany had largely been operating on a “chocolate and cigarettes” barter system and a functional currency was vitally needed to get the country going. The Soviets were not brought into the loop on this new currency, however, and so viewed it as a threat. The Russian people and country had suffered greatly at the hands of Germany and the Russian leader Joseph Stalin was not particularly interested in a revitalized German nation. As well, a relatively strong currency in West Germany and Berlin would undermine potentially what the Soviets were doing economically in their sectors in the East. Their response in the spring of 1948 was to start disrupting traffic to and from the portion of Berlin controlled by the Western Allies. After several interruptions of traffic and also of electricity and water, in late June, 1948 Stalin finally ordered a full scale blockade of the Western Allied sectors of Berlin, cutting all road and railroad access as well as water routes to and from the city, thus cutting Berlin off from the rest of the world. Stalin was hoping to force the Western Allies to give up on Berlin and leave it to the Soviets. The U.S. Commander in Berlin, General Lucius Clay, responded by ordering what has become known to history as the Berlin Airlift, by which the needed supplies for the western sector of Berlin were airlifted in to the city. The Berlin airlift was a massive operation that went on for nearly a year, peaking in April of 1949 with nearly 1400 flights made to West Berlin delivering 12,000 tons of supplies in a 24 hour period. Witnessing this, in May of 1949 the Soviets finally gave up on the blockade and the Berlin Airlift came to an end. Not so the Cold War stresses and confrontations regarding the city of Berlin, however.

Berlin Airlift

Berlin Airlift

I have given you this short history so that you have some of the background to the situation JFK faced in Berlin when he assumed the Presidency in 1961. In the 12 years since the end of the Berlin Airlift the Cold War had intensified into a standoff between two nuclear bomb wielding super powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The battles of the Cold War had been and were being waged mostly covertly in third world nations around the planet in places such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Guatemala, Laos and Korea. It was a new kind of warfare involving new kinds of tactics employed for the most part by “intelligence” agencies that really were specialists at insurgency, counter insurgency and paramilitary operations; the CIA and its Soviet counterpart the KGB. In Europe the Soviet Union dominated the Eastern part of the continent behind a border known to the U.S. and the West as the Iron Curtain. The Western Allied sector of Berlin, by 1961 simply called West Berlin, located as it was, deep behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany and still controlled by France, the U.S. and Great Britain, was a particularly troublesome area. Always simmering as a crisis, in fall of ’61, while Kennedy was wrestling with the situation in Laos, Berlin suddenly exploded into being the focal point of the Cold War with the two super powers confronting each other there in a deadly game of nuclear “Russian Roulette”.
The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall

The Berlin crisis was precipitated in August of 1961 when Russian Priemier Nikita Khrushchev ordered that a wall be built between Soviet controlled East Berlin and French, U.S. and British controlled West Berlin. East Berliners had been fleeing to the West for some time and Khrushchev wanted to stop the flow. Ironically, shortly after this Kennedy sent as his personal representative to West Berlin retired General Lucius Clay; the same Lucius Clay who had orchestrated the Berlin Airlift 12 years earlier. Almost immediately Clay escalated the crisis by ordering the U.S. military commandant in West Berlin to have his engineers build a duplicate of a section of the Berlin Wall in a forest. U.S. tanks equipped with bulldozer attachments then practiced destroying it. General Bruce Clark, the commander of all U.S. forces in Europe, on discovering what Clay was doing ordered it stopped. He challenged Clay to call the President and talk to him about it if he did not like the order. Clay declined to make the call and neither man ever informed Kennedy of Clay’s aborted wall destruction exercises.

 Khrushchev, on the other hand was informed almost instantly of the wall bashing being done by the U.S. tanks in the forest. The exercises were witnessed by Soviet spies who forwarded reports and pictures to Moscow. As a result Khrushchev and his advisers immediately made plans to be ready should the Americans move to take down the wall. That moment came in October when a flap took place over East German refusal to let an American official back into West Berlin through a checkpoint in the wall known as “Checkpoint Charlie”. That was all the prompting Lucius Clay needed. On October 27, ten American bull- dozer mounted M-48 tanks made their way to Checkpoint Charlie, only to be confronted almost instantly by ten Soviet tanks that had been waiting in side streets for just such a moment. The Soviets had used their advance notice and prepared well. Soon twenty more Soviet tanks arrived on the scene and the Americans brought up twenty more of their own. For the next sixteen hours the Soviet and American tanks confronted one another almost muzzle to muzzle in a tense standoff.

General Lucius Clay

General Lucius Clay

I was in 5th grade at Shorewood Elementary School in Seattle, Washington when all of this was happening in Berlin in October of 1961. I vaguely remember hearing about it on the news and being concerned about the threat of nuclear war. (The Cuban Missile Crisis of the following year is a much clearer memory to me actually.) My childhood fears notwithstanding, most of us in the United States today have no idea how close we came to actual nuclear war as a result of what occurred in Berlin in October ’61. Much later Khrushchev’s foreign affairs advisor, a man named Valentin Falin provided some insight. Falin was beside Khrushchev through the entire crisis. He reports that had the U.S. tanks advanced any further the Soviet tanks would have fired on them and events after that very likely would have escalated out of control. In Berlin in October of 1961 we were that close to disaster.

On getting the reports of what was occurring in Berlin an alarmed Kennedy employed a back channel communication line that he and Khrushchev had decided to set up at their Vienna summit earlier in the year. (The line was to be private and unofficial, bypassing the customary state to state formalities. Khrushchev had first used the line in September ‘61 prior to JFKs first address to the United Nations to express hope that he and Kennedy could set up a summit to address the tensions building regarding Berlin. Kennedy had responded that he would be open to the summit but first wanted a Soviet demonstration of good faith regarding the agreements made on Laos at the Vienna summit in June. The Kennedy/Khrushchev back channel line involved a message delivered by a trusted aide to a trusted aide. For Kennedy, in the case described above, that aide was his Press Secretary Pierre Sallinger. For the Berlin Crisis it was Robert Kennedy) JFK had his brother Robert deliver a message to Soviet press attaché Georgi Bolshakov for relay to Khrushchev. The message said that if the Russians would withdraw their tanks within 24 hours the Americans would do the same 30 minutes later. Kennedy then ordered Lucius Clay to prepare to carry out the American side of the withdrawal. The next morning the Soviet tanks withdrew followed shortly by the Americans and the Berlin Crisis came to a close.

US Tanks at Checkpoint Charlie

US Tanks at Checkpoint Charlie

By a whisker JFK had once again averted war.

The crisis in Berlin was resolved for the moment, but a question remains: why did Khrushchev trust that Kennedy would do as he promised in withdrawing the U.S. tanks if the Russians withdrew their tanks first? Why did he not insist that the Americans withdraw first? The answer to this is grasped when one realizes that Khrushchev apparently understood that Kennedy, if anything, was under more pressure from his military and intelligence people than he (Khrushchev) was. Because of their secret communication in September and because of JFK’s subsequent address at the U.N. which spoke hopefully of peace, Khrushchev thought he and Kennedy had been making progress on Berlin. He strongly suspected, therefore, that in Berlin, as well as other crisis zones, JFK was being undermined. By withdrawing first he gave Kennedy the “out” he needed to defuse the crisis.

Khrushchev, as we shall see, was tragically and uncannily accurate in his assessment that Kennedy was being undermined.

To be continued…
Copyright © 2013
By Mark Arnold
All Rights Reserved
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