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Berlin 1961 Hardcover – May 10, 2011

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Editorial Reviews Review

Author Q&A with Frederick Kempe

Q: What led you to write this book?

A: The Cold War is still the least understood and worst reported of our three world wars. Berlin was its epicenter. The year 1961 was the most decisive. I wanted to tell the story of that year. And I wanted to tell it through its protagonists, as rich a cast of characters as history could provide. I also wanted to satisfy my own questions about whether the Berlin Wall could have been avoided—and whether the Cold War could have been ended much earlier. Might we have been able to help liberate a whole generation of Eastern Europeans—tens of millions of people—three decades earlier?

Then, after President Obama’s election, I was even more motivated to finish my research. The reason is that this is also a story of a brilliant but inexperienced president dealing with issues far beyond his skill set. Kennedy’s first year in office proved to be one of the worst of any modern presidency. U.S. presidents shape world history—and in this case it is not a positive story.

Q: Much has been written about the Cold War in general and about this particular time and place. What’s different about this book?

A: Two aspects are quite different from what has appeared before. First, I pull in all the strands about this historic year that haven’t been in a single book: the Kennedy story, the Khrushchev story, the Ulbricht and Adenauer stories. I also draw upon recently released documents in Russia, Germany, and the U.S. that haven’t yet been put into a single story. I weave these into a narrative that is both human and historic, as has been my instinct to do as a journalist. Second and more important, the book builds the best cases to date that Kennedy acquiesced to the border closure and the building of the Wall. The record shows that in many respects he wrote the script that Khrushchev followed—as long as Khrushchev restricted his actions to Soviet-controlled East Berlin and East Germany, Kennedy would accept his actions. Kennedy falsely believed that if East Germany could end its refugee stampede, Khrushchev might become a more willing negotiator on a set of other issues. It was a tragic misreading of the man and of the situation. Berlin paid for it—as did tens of millions of people.

Q: Among the main points you highlight in this book are the self-reinforcing misinterpretations, miscommunications, and misunderstandings between the U.S. and the USSR. What examples stand out to you as the most important?

A: They began years before Kennedy took office. The U.S. never fully recognized or acted upon how dramatic was the break between Khrushchev and Stalinism at the 20th Party Congress in 1956. Khrushchev’s call for peaceful coexistence with the capitalist West was never fully explored. Nor did we ever answer or reward his support for Finnish and Austrian neutrality and his reductions in military personnel and spending. During Kennedy’s presidency, the misreading began when Khrushchev released captured U.S. airmen and Kennedy failed to recognize the potential importance of the gesture. It continued when he misinterpreted a relatively unimportant hard-line propaganda speech by Khrushchev as a declaration of an even more aggressive Soviet challenge aimed at him. From Khrushchev’s side, he often listened more to his own insecurities than what was warranted by the situation. He was enormously vulnerable to perceived slights—he would respond excessively to moments like the U-2 incident and Kennedy’s State of the Union speech and the U.S. Minuteman missile test. However, there was one moment when Khrushchev listened closely to Kennedy’s communication—and that regarded what the president would be willing to accept in Berlin. Then Khrushchev acted very much according to the clear messages he received.

Q: Do you think we could have ended the Cold War earlier if Kennedy had managed his relationship with Khrushchev differently?

A: As General Brent Scowcroft says in the foreword to the book, history doesn’t reveal its alternatives. My own view is that the Soviet empire would have begun to unravel earlier had Kennedy held the line—but we will never know. It is unclear how the Soviets would have responded to that without a Gorbachev and a Yeltsin in charge. Would they have backed down, as they did during the Berlin Airlift of 1948, or would they have defended what they controlled, as they did in Budapest in 1956? The key difference between those two events was a demonstration of resolve by the U.S. with its nuclear superiority. I am certain of one thing: East Germany would have collapsed if the communists hadn’t put up the Wall to stop the refugee flow—and that would have had severe consequences for the rest of the Soviet bloc. After all, it is the refugee flood that prompted its collapse twenty-eight years later. Whether or not the Cold War would have ended earlier, Kennedy certainly saved Khrushchev from a lot of trouble then by acquiescing to the building of the Wall.

Q: Berlin 1961 is described as being based on a “wealth of new documents and interviews.” Please tell us about the research you did. What sort of new documents did you uncover, and what new interviews did you conduct?

A: Some of these were new documents I was able to find through additional research in Berlin, Moscow, and the United States. Some were new interviews with witnesses of the time— and the unearthing of interviews and oral histories that had previously received little notice. However, the real wealth of new material came from documents that had been released in all three countries that hadn’t been brought together in a book that explained their meaning and their connections. Almost all of the most significant players from 1961 are no longer living; however their memoirs, oral histories, and documents recounting some of their most crucial meetings have either gone unnoticed or have attracted too little notice. Sadly, much of what we still need to know remains classified. But this book does make clear what we should be watching for most intensively when new documents are released, particularly those of President Kennedy’s brother Robert.

Q: What surprised you most as you worked on the book, and what do you think will most surprise readers?

A: What most surprised me is the body of evidence that Kennedy not only was relieved by the Berlin border closure, but in many respects wrote the script for it. Reading the documents, I was also struck by how refreshingly self-aware Kennedy was about the failure of his first year as president and the danger that Khrushchev would consider him weak. On the Soviet side, what interested me most was the power of a weak client and his failing state, Walter Ulbricht and East Germany, to influence the actions of a great power. The greatest mystery to me remains the Georgi Bolshakov–Bobby Kennedy relationship, which I’m now confident played a larger role than can be documented.

Q: What do you want readers to get out of this book?

A: I want Americans to understand how the decisions of their presidents—then and now—shape world history in ways we don’t always understand at the time of a specific event. I want readers to know that Kennedy could have prevented the Berlin Wall, if he had wished, and that in acquiescing to the border closure he not only created a more dangerous situation—but also contributed to mortgaging the future for tens of millions of Central and Eastern Europeans.

The relatively small decisions that U.S. presidents make have huge, often global, consequences. Though most U.S. analysts and even historians have forgotten the events around Berlin in 1961, I want to start a debate about whether the U.S. actually could have ended the Cold War earlier. I also want to remind Americans of the cost to the world of perceived American weakness. Luckily, we escaped a nuclear conflict—both over Berlin and over Cuba—but the greatest danger came not because we overreached but because our adversary had concluded that we wouldn’t act to defend our interests.


"Berlin 1961 is a gripping, well-researched, and thought- provoking book with many lessons for today."
(-Dr. Henry Kissinger )

"Good journalistic history in the tradition of William L. Shirer and Barbara Tuchman."
(-Kirkus Reviews )

"Frederick Kempe's compelling narrative, astute analysis, and meticulous research bring fresh insight into a crucial and perilous episode of the Cold War."
(-Strobe Talbott, President, Brookings Institution )

"History at its best. Kempe's book masterfully dissects the Cold War's strategically most significant East-West confrontation, and in the process significantly enlightens our understanding of the complexity of the Cold War itself."
(-Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter )

"Berlin 1961 takes us to Ground Zero of the Cold War. Reading these pages, you feel as if you are standing at Checkpoint Charlie, amid the brutal tension of a divided Berlin."
(-David Ignatius, Columnist, The Washington Post )

"Informed...His chronology of memos and meetings dramatizes events behind closed doors...Kempe's history reflects balanced discernment about the creation of the Berlin Wall."
(-Booklist )

"Kempe...skillfully weaves oral histories and newly declassified documents into a sweeping, exhaustive narrative...Likely the best, most richly detailed account of the subject, this will engross serious readers of Cold War history who enjoyed W.R. Smyser's Kennedy and the Berlin Wall but appreciate further detail."
(-Library Journal ) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 608 pages
  • Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons; 1St Edition edition (May 10, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780399157295
  • ISBN-13: 978-0399157295
  • ASIN: 0399157298
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.4 x 2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (119 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #728,428 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Fred Kempe has held the position of President and Chief Executive Officer of the Atlantic Council since December 1, 2006. Under his leadership, the Council has achieved significant growth while considerably expanding its staff, work and influence in areas that include international security, business and economics, energy and environment and global issues of transatlantic interest ranging from Asia to Africa.

He comes to the Council from a long and prominent career at the Wall Street Journal, where he won national and international recognition while serving in numerous senior editorial and reportorial capacities. He is the author of three books, and a regular commentator on television and radio both in Europe and the United States.

Mr. Kempe left the Journal following more than a quarter century of distinguished work. His last position with the paper was in New York, where he served as assistant managing editor, international, and "Thinking Global" columnist. Prior to that, he was for seven years the longest serving editor and associate publisher ever of the Wall Street Journal Europe, simultaneously functioning as European editor for the Global Wall Street Journal from 2002 to 2005. During this time he managed six news bureaus, several satellite offices, a Brussels news desk operation, and he oversaw European and Middle Eastern reporting.

Throughout his tenure as editor and associate publisher, the newspaper won a number of awards including the prestigious Harold Wincott Award as U.K. Business Journal of the Year, the Media Tenor Award as the top international paper in Europe, and multiple "Business Journalist of the Year" prizes from the World Leadership Forum in London. His teams participated in two Pulitzer Prizes.

In 2002, the European Voice, a leading publication following EU affairs, selected Mr. Kempe as one of the 50 most influential Europeans, although he is American, and one of the four leading journalists in Europe. He has been a frequent television and radio commentator for, among others, CNBC, the BBC, and German radio and television. As managing editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe from 1992-1997, he founded and managed the Central European Economic Review (CEER), which covered the countries of the former Soviet bloc. In 1993 he also co-founded Convergence, a magazine on Europe's digital economy.

Mr. Kempe joined Journal in 1981 in London before opening the paper's Vienna bureau in 1984. He transferred to Washington, D.C. in 1986 as chief diplomatic correspondent, and in 1990 opened its Berlin bureau. As a reporter, he covered a number of significant stories, including the rise of Solidarity in Poland and the growing resistance to Soviet rule, the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia and all his summit meetings with Ronald Reagan, war reporting in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon in the 1980s and the American invasion of Panama. He also covered the unification of Germany and the collapse of Soviet Communism.

Mr. Kempe has written three books that have been published in several languages: Divorcing the Dictator: America's Bungled Affair with Noriega; Siberian Odyssey: A Voyage into the Russian Soul; and Father/Land: A Personal Search for the New Germany. His next book Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth will be published on May 10, 2011. Until recently, he was a regular columnist for Bloomberg News.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

71 of 76 people found the following review helpful By Darrell Delamaide on May 10, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Longtime journalist Frederick Kempe has turned the old saw about journalism being the first draft of history on its head - he has written an impressive historical account that reads like today's newspaper.

Drawing on newly declassified archival material, Kempe has recreated in unprecedented fashion one of the most pivotal moments in postwar history - the building of Berlin Wall in August 1961. A wealth of American, German and Russian documents - diplomatic cables, transcripts, memoranda, letters - provided the author with rich source material. What makes the book such a compelling read, however, is Kempe's skill in extracting the drama, the telling detail, and the colorful quote from this archival material.

Kempe, whose previous books include a personal account of his descent from German immigrants and the narrative of a trip through Siberia, is an accomplished storyteller, and he grips the reader with his opening accounts of Nikita Krushchev's mercurial character and doesn't let go. He casts the building of the Berlin Wall as a pas de deux between the embattled Soviet leader and a youthful and inexperienced President Kennedy.

The author documents step by step how miscues in the Kennedy administration led to the blunder of the Wall being built and becoming the symbol and mainstay of an escalated Cold War. It was Kennedy's impotence in the face of this master-stroke of communist brazenness, Kempe argues, that emboldened the Soviets to send missiles to Cuba and led to the famous confrontation between Kennedy and Krushchev in the following year.
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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Richard C. Geschke VINE VOICE on May 10, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Frederick Kempe tells us the story of the Berlin crisis of 1961. It's as if he was a fly on the wall that was privy to all the insiders' thoughts, fears and doubts during the most volatile time of the Cold War. East Berlin during this time still had bombed out buildings and shrapnel pocked structures. The inhabitants of East Berlin lived in the veil of the grayness of Communism. In West Berlin the economy was thriving with new buildings and a renewed infrastructure as the sunshine of democracy showed the vivid colors of freedom. The basic problem stemmed from the fact that East Germany was losing thousands of people that were crossing over to West Berlin and not coming back. In essence it was becoming an economic disaster for East Germany.
As a young infantry second lieutenant, nine years after the time Mr. Kempe writes about, I saw the vivid contrasts of East and West Berlin. I went through Checkpoint Charlie followed by the East German police and entered into the grayness of a Communist state. In returning to West Berlin the full color palate returned. I'm sure the nine years since the wall was constructed that East Berlin had changed very little from what I saw in my three visits there.
Kempe goes into great detail in telling the stories of intrigue from both the perspectives of the Communists and Khrushchev's strategies to the American side led by a young and inexperienced President Kennedy. The author carefully sets the scene of the confrontation. He gives a complete background to all the key players from both sides of the spectrum. He shows the purpose and also the misconceptions of the leaders and analysts. The show of America's lack of intelligence as it was shown completely surprised by the quick construction of the Berlin Wall was detailed by the author.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By RMonteverdi on June 8, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This should have been a terrific book. Instead, it is hamstrung by excessively poor editing and factual errors. It's author - Frederick Kempe - himself a former reporter and editor, has sought to tell the story of Berlin in 1961 in a narrative, feature-journalism sort of style. But all too often sentences are cramped and convoluted, necessitating two or even three readings to get their meaning straight. The many editorial errors are glaring. Lines like "Arizona senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona applauded enthusiastically . . ." (pages 65-66) and the substitution of the word "Berlin" for "Bissell" (CIA director of plans Richard Bissell) (page 173) leave this reader shaking his head in dismay. More disheartening are the sorts of obvious factual errors that, unfortunately, call into question Mr. Kempe's credentials as a historian. For example, on page 181 we read in reference to Berlin's Frankfurter Strasse, "During World War II's final days, Soviet soldiers had hung Nazis from trees that lined the street, often fastening to their corpses identifying papers with the inscription: HERE HANGS SO-AND-SO, BECAUSE HE REFUSED TO DEFEND WIFE AND CHILD." It was, of course, the Nazis themselves who hung their own comrades, not the Soviets. Likewise, the map depicting the Berlin Wall inside the book's front and back covers is inaccurately drawn, and places the Brandenburg Gate - that single most important German nation-defining monument - as being in the Western Sector, and not in the Eastern Sector, where indeed it was.

All in all, a disappointment.
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