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The Berlin Crisis (1958-1962)
By Martin J. Hillenbrandt

Viewed against the broader spectrum of the entire Cold War, the Berlin Crisis of 1958-1962 may now seem just one of a series of confrontations between the two superpowers and their allies. For NATO governments, however, and particularly the governments of the United States, France, Great Britain and the Federal Republic of Germany, the Soviet threat to Berlin during four intensive years became the major concern of Presidents, Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers, senior military officials, national embassies and the media. With the growing deployment of Soviet and American thermonuclear warheads, providing security for West Berlin necessarily raised difficult and morally complex issues of both strategy and diplomacy.

The Soviets had on many previous occasions shown their deep discontent with the existence of the free Western sectors of Berlin, and in 1947-1948 had actually blockaded land access to and from those sectors. However, Chairman Nikita Khrushchev's speech of Novem-ber 10, 1958, and the more formal and precise Soviet notes of November 27 to the three Western occupying powers constituted, in effect, an ultimatum claiming that because of their violation of the Potsdam Agreement they had lost their right to be in Berlin. At the end of six months, the Soviet authorities would turn over all the functions they had performed for those powers to the GDR (German Democratic Republic) and Berlin would become a demilitarized free city.

A basic reality about the Western position in Berlin was its military indefensibility. While the Allied garrisons could put up a gallant defense for a few days, overwhelming conventional Soviet mili-tary superiority in the GDR would inevitably prevail and take over the entire city. In such a case, only an American threat to use nuclear weap-ons would serve as a real deterrent - a classic example of the ultimate paradox of nuclear deterrence: The possibility of using nuclear weapons must be credible, but the horrible mutual consequences make such use incredible. Given the impelling logic of mutually assured destruction (MAD), though not yet official doctrine under that name, diplomacy necessarily became a vital part of dealing with the Berlin Crisis. On both sides, the normal (and sometimes not so normal) instrumentalities of diplomacy were applied with full force. The goal of the Western Powers was essentially to prevent the Soviets from doing what they had threatened to do - destroy the status, and thereby the freedom, of West Berlin.

This meant that Allied diplomacy became essentially a matter of buying time and of convincing the Soviet leadership that definitive unilateral action against West Berlin involved too great a risk and there-fore such action should not be taken. Thus it was that the Soviets extended their various ultimatums and frequently, with some notable exceptions, watered down their threats to take specific actions.

After the Soviet initiative of November 1958, intensive Western diplomatic activity finally led to the dilution of the six-month ultimatum and the Geneva meeting in May 1959 of the U.S., Soviet, Brit-ish and French Foreign Ministers. After some three weary months, the Geneva ministerial talks finally ended, to be followed by Khrushchev's visit to the United States in September. What emerged from his meet-ings with President Eisenhower was an agreement that negotiations on Berlin should be reopened without a time limit but should not be prolonged indefinitely.

The final major Berlin-related event of the Eisenhower presidency was the abortive Paris summit meeting of May 1960. The usual elaborate preparations had taken place on the Allied side (and pre-sumably on the Soviet side), but Eisenhower's public acknowledgment of responsibility for the American U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance plane that had been brought down over the Soviet Union gave Khrushchev the opportunity to break up the meeting before it got substantively started. Along with much invective in fiery speeches and press conferences, he did make the point that the existing situation in Berlin would apparently have to be preserved until a heads of government meeting, which he wanted, could take place within a time span of six to eight months.

There has been much speculation about what caused Khrushchev to launch and maintain the Berlin Crisis, but I fear that we are still far from having a clear and uncontested view of Soviet motivation. My own inclination is to think that several factors advanced by different experts to explain Soviet behavior were actually operative at the time. Thus the magnetic power of West Berlin and its destabilizing political and economic effect on the GDR (the bone in Khrushchev's throat); the desire to prevent the deployment of nuclear weapons in the Federal Republic and their eventual possession by the Germans; a serious underestimation of the symbolic importance of a free Berlin and of the broad sympathy in the world for the overall courage of the Berliners; pressure on Khrushchev from hard-liners in the Politburo such as Frol Kozlov and Mikhail Suslov; and a seri-ous underestimation of Western resolve in general and that of the United States in particular - all may have played a causal role.

Since it was obviously not an occupying power in Berlin, the Federal Republic could not from the outset formally participate in related Allied diplomacy with the Soviets. Senior West German rep-resentatives did, however, fully participate in the elaborate Allied preparations for the three-month long meeting of Foreign Ministers in Geneva during the summer of 1959. As the crisis went on, it became more and more obvious that full German involvement in three-power diplomacy and contingency planning was essential short of actual German presence at Western talks with the Soviets. The Four Power Working Group meetings in Paris, London, Washington and Geneva, the Bonn Group and the Washington Ambassadorial Group all had full German membership.

Khrushchev did not give the new Kennedy Administration much time for adjustment and began renewing his threats against the Western position in Berlin in fairly standard quasi-ultimatum form. The President accepted his invitation to meet him in Vienna on June 3-4, 1961-a summit that ended with a harsh verbal con-frontation over Berlin between the two leaders. Meeting in Paris in July the four Western Foreign Ministers, despite differences of em-phasis, finally emerged with tacit acceptance of the formula that Secretary of State Dean Rusk might engage in exploratory talks with the Soviets to determine whether a basis for negotiations existed. These talks, involving principally Rusk and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, dragged on for the better part of a year but ended in stale-mate. However, they did provide the Soviets with a further pretext for abstaining from new ultimatums.

The construction of the Berlin Wall began on August 13 dur-ing the summer of 1961. It reflected East German, and ultimately Soviet, inability to tolerate further the massive outflow of refugees from the GDR. While technically a violation of the four-power status of the city, our definition of vital interests in Berlin as well as our military position in the city ruled out direct intervention. The Wall was a mon-strosity, a hideous monument to the oppressive needs of a communist state, but it did seem to relieve some of the pressure from the Eastern side for rapid change in the status of Berlin. Ironically, during its survival for some 28 years, it became a major tourist attraction for visitors to West Berlin, while continuing to provide a dramatic object lesson about the discontent of an important segment of the East German population. The immediate shock of the Wall to West Berlin morale required a number of quick improvisations such as a visit to the city by Vice President Lyndon Johnson, increases in the size of the British and American garrisons and the assignment of General Lucius Clay to Berlin as the personal representative of the President (he remained there until the end of the year).

While all this was going on, we experienced a series of Soviet harassments such as those leading to the tank confrontation in Berlin of late October 1961; attempts in early 1962 to preempt all space in the three established Allied air corridors to West Berlin from the Fed-eral Republic; and various other initiatives aimed at making the West-ern positions in Berlin uncomfortable or, if persisted in, impossible.

By the summer of 1962 Khrushchev obviously had other things on his mind as the Soviets moved ahead with plans for the deployment in Cuba of medium-range missiles with nuclear warheads. How related this action was to frustration over Soviet inability to make any progress on Berlin remains unclear. Certainly, at the time most American officials saw such a connection and were seriously concerned about possible Soviet retaliatory action against West Berlin if we interfered militarily with their deployments in Cuba.

Although many have seen the Berlin crisis as essentially over in the aftermath of Soviet abandonment of its initiative in Cuba, harassment of Allied access to Berlin actually continued until early September of 1963. Khrushchev again made a speech in early 1963 repeating his position on the need for a peace treaty with the GDR but omitted any deadline. In any event, whatever the precise chronology, West Berlin came through its period of trial to face the new problems of the turbulent 1960s along with other major Western allies. Its basic security, however, would never again be threatened as it was during those tumultuous years of crisis.

Ambassador Martin Hillenbrand is Dean Rusk Professor Emeritus at the University of Georgia. During a distinguished Foreign Service career of more than 30 years, he served several tours in Germany. He was U.S. Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany from 1972 to 1976. His latest book is Frag-ments of Our Time (University of Georgia Press, 1999).

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