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Albert Hemsing
Berlin, Bonn

We arrived in Berlin in August 1958. The city was quiet and green. But things heated up in November with the Khrushchev ultimatum giving the Western Allies six months to get out of town or else. During the ultimatum period Berliners required a lot of reassurance. We Americans were highly prized and made to feel welcome in every way possible. Governing Mayor Willy Brandt was at his best in those six months. A later crisis occurred with the flood of refugees crossing into West Berlin, which reached its height in 1961. Much of this was a response to the forced collectivization of agriculture in the GDR, when thousands of farm families were added to the usual flow of urban refu-gees.

The Western Allies speculated on what the GDR would do. We got word that new identity cards would be printed for East German citizens, color-coded according to the citizen's home. This would allow the GDR authorities to seal off East Berlin by keeping non-Berliners out. Of course, that is not what happened. Instead, on the night of Saturday to Sunday, August 13, 1961, the GDR cut off East Berlin from West Berlin, first with barbed wire, then with a wall. The timing could not have been better. President Kennedy was vacationing in Hyannis Port, as was Prime Minister Wilson in northern England, and de Gaulle was at his country home in France. Willy Brandt was campaigning in West Germany.

Let me recall some of the events of that time. Edward R. Murrow, the new director of USIA, came to Berlin on the night of August 12, 1961. Before I went to the airport to meet him, I had received two puzzling telephone calls, both from journalists who were new to Berlin. Both had been to East Berlin and had observed an unusual number of VOPOS (Volkspolizei) and sensed tension in the air. On coming home about midnight, I had more calls of the same kind. About one in the morning I got a call that RIAS had picked up an East German radio announcement that East Germany was taking measures to protect its borders-including the one between East and West Berlin. Soon I had dozens of calls from reporters telling me that barbed wire was being strung along the downtown sector border, and presumably elsewhere, and about the angry reaction of the crowds there. I never did get to bed that night.

In the morning I attended a misery-filled Western Commandants meeting with a bleary-eyed Willy Brandt, who had spent most of the night trying to get back to Berlin. On Sunday evening I found Murrow smoking even more heavily than usual, having decided to send a personal telegram to the President urging action to restore confidence. We helped draft a message that Murrow made his own in an hour of ruminations at the typewriter. I took the message to the Mission code room. To this day, I think Murrow's cable helped tip the scale in getting the President to act. He sent Vice President Johnson to Berlin the following weekend, accompanied by General Lucius Clay, hero of the Berlin airlift, and an army battle group of 1500 men. The soldiers arrived tired and unshaven, looking like real fighting men. Their march through West Berlin was sheer theater.

General Clay's very presence (he stayed in Berlin for ten months) reassured people enormously. His not-so-secret agenda was to make it clear that the Soviets continued to be responsible for all of Berlin. That opportunity came on October 22, when the U.S. Minister and his wife were held up by VOPOS at Checkpoint Charlie. I was notified and rushed over. Clay persuaded the Minister that, if necessary, he should enter East Berlin with an armed escort of foot soldiers with drawn bayonets. I got into the car, and we drove into East Berlin twice, each time with an escort. A few days later a similar incident at Checkpoint Charlie evolved into a tank confrontation. We called our tanks, and other tanks appeared from the East; they were poised nose to nose at the checkpoint. The tank drivers spoke Russian, as the press duly noted. So Clay had made his point - it was the Russians who were still responsible for things in the East.

Albert Hemsing was born near Wuppertal. He worked for the Office of War Information Film Division and for the Marshall Plan Film Division. His career with USIS included posts in England, India and Germany.

From: A Vision Fulfilled. 50 Jahre Amerikaner am Rhein. United States Embassy Bonn, 1949 - 1999. Edited by Christine Elder and Elizabeth G. Sammis. Published by United States Embassy Bonn. © Department of State, 1999.

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Updated: August 2001