70 of 75 people found the following review helpful
on May 10, 2011
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.
Kempe's account adds a depth and context to this key historical moment that enhances the reader's understanding of European and Russian relations today, whether the Wall is something you remember or learned from history books. It is not revisionist - most historians would agree that a year which saw the Bay of Pigs and the failed Vienna summit was already a disaster for Kennedy before the Wall went up on August 13. But Kempe documents how the best and the brightest failed to heed a hoary Dean Acheson, Truman's secretary of state, or a youthful Henry Kissinger, then an ambitious Harvard professor, to take a harder line against Soviet aggression.
And Kempe makes it all seem like it happened yesterday. His vivid descriptions of the personalities make them come alive on the page. His authoritative familiarity with both the big players and the small players allows the drama to come across. It seems like a time when titans walked the earth, as in a White House meeting of Soviet experts in February that brought together JFK, Lyndon Johnson, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, George Kennan, and Averell Harriman, among others. On the opposing side, the portraits of Krushchev and East German leaders Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker show how formidable the challenge was facing the administration.
The centerpiece of Kempe's account is the actual operation to seal off West Berlin in one daring maneuver executed in the middle of the night on a single day in August. The Soviet and East German officials planned and executed a monumental task of erecting concrete and barbed wire barriers around the Western enclave without tipping their hand either to intelligence agencies, the media or an unsuspecting German public. The open borders in Berlin, thought to be guaranteed by the postwar four-power agreements, were allowing an unsustainable flow of refugees from the peasant and workers' paradise of the German Democratic Republic to the capitalistic and prosperous Federal Republic. The ever greater number of refugees threatened the collapse of the East German economy and the unraveling of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe.
And so Ulbricht and Kruschev concocted the plan of building a Wall, willing to brave the flagrant violation of postwar treaties and the horrible publicity of imprisoning their own citizens in order to preserve their regime.
Kempe details the military precision of the operation, from the stockpiling of material, including hundreds of tons of barbed wire, to the top secret envelopes handed to military commanders on the eve of the operation itself. Kempe has marvelous details, like that fact that Honecker bought the barbed wire from West German and British suppliers and then removed and destroyed the labels showing the provenance in order to avoid a political backlash.
Kempe, the former editor and publisher of The Wall Street Journal Europe, recounts the story of the lone Reuters correspondent stationed in East Berlin, who had a source tell him on Friday, August 11, "If I were you, and were planning to leave Berlin this weekend, I would not do so." Reuters was thus alone in providing the world with some small foreshadowing that something was afoot.
The legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, in his capacity has director of the U.S. Information Service, just happened to be in Berlin that weekend. Murrow, Kempe relates, toured a despairing East Berlin on that fateful Sunday after the barbed wire shut off all exit routes and "doubted whether his friend Kennedy understood the seriousness of the situation that had been spawned by his inaction." Murrow cabled Kennedy that evening, predicting that the crisis would undermine confidence in the U.S. far beyond Berlin itself. "What is in danger of being destroyed here is that perishable quality called hope," Murrow wrote perceptively and poignantly.
The iconic moments are here - the East German border guard throwing aside his rifle and leaping across the barbed wire to freedom, Kennedy announcing to throngs assembled before the Berlin city hall, "Ich bin ein Berliner" - but the beauty of this tale are the many hitherto unknown or unappreciated details, the background that tells us why this action of building a Wall in the middle of Berlin prolonged the Cold War for another three decades.
Kempe, who now as chief executive of the Atlantic Council of the United States is in the thick of transatlantic policymaking, has succeeded brilliantly in recreating the drama of one of the most important moments in U.S.-European relations. Beyond its relevance to today's issues in transatlantic relations, his portrayal of political miscalculations in the fog of epoch-making events is truly cautionary given the critical global situations we face today.
27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
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.
Kempe shows a vulnerable Kennedy full of doubt and indecision. He also shows Khrushchev as an aggressive alpha male shrewd in international politics.
Also Mr. Kempe brings into play the actions of the new and the old. The new was the actions of Dr. Henry Kissinger and his advice given to Kennedy. The old were the actions of Dean Acheson and retired General Clay. He shows the insight of old "Cold Warriors" in trying to help Kennedy in this crisis. Also it shows the talents of Kissinger as it will play out in his rise to power in international politics.
The perception of Kennedy's youth and vigor along with the impression of his intellectual political savvy is shown as an illusion by Kempe. The author shows us in no uncertain terms the unvarnished truth of what really happened. This is not a historical book based on the jingoism as penned during the Cold War.
This book is an honest eye opening account which marks the high-water mark of that forty three year period known as the Cold War. The work is a well researched book of a complex time. Well done!
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on May 15, 2011
Others have described how eminently readable and well-researched Berlin 1961 is, so I'll touch on a few other things:
The Passion. One of the beauties of Berlin 1961 is that Kempe brings a journalist's craft to the telling of history, while retaining a historian's eye on the facts. But this is also, in a way, a personal story. As Kempe says in the acknowledgements, his "association with Berlin began in the womb." The passion his parents, and especially his mother, instilled in him for Germany and for the city of her birth comes through clearly in this account.
The Vignettes. Berlin is obviously alive for Kempe, and he makes it, and its history, live for us in the many personal stories inserted as interludes into the drama of high politics. Stories of people like Marta Hiller, a journalist raped repeatedly by the occupying Soviet forces as World War II ended; of the Polish spy who came in from the cold in the first days of this fateful year; of the East German farmer who resisted collectivization and whose wife and son had to return to penury in the East after his attempt to flee failed; of Marlene Schmidt, an East German refugee who became Miss Universe less than a month before the wall went up; of the West Berlin student who got caught trying to bring in an ID card to help his friend escape. Added to these interludes are the stories Kempe weaves through his narrative of so many "normal" people, including of the soldiers manning the tanks that, in October, could have been the trip-wire to nuclear war. Indeed, one of the wonderful things about the book as a whole is that all the historical figures in it -- from Khrushchev to De Gaulle to General Clay to Walter Ulbricht - are real, living, people, people whose characters, courage, vanity and foibles come through clearly.
The Intrigues. The main drama in the book is of course Kennedy v. Khrushchev; Ulbricht v. Khrushchev comes a close second. And then there are the intrigues in Washington, among U.S. policy makers, including, as others have noted, the SLOBs (Soft-Liners on Berlin) v. Acheson, Nitze, Kissinger. But the intrigue that intrigued me was the relationship between the U.S. Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, and the Soviet spy, Georgi Bolshakov, whose reports to Khrushchev are one of the sources in the book. This may be well known to those who know this period of U.S. history, but it's clearly a story that needs to be told more.
The End Notes. All the previous reviewers remark on how well-researched the book is, building on newly published, and often unpublished, material (including, for instance, notes on Bolshakov's reports in the Archives of the Main Intelligence Administration of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation). All of this is documented extensively in the endnotes, which are often fun to look at while reading the book, as they give a sense of the richness of the resources behind the narrative. (Kempe doesn't use footnotes, which would have distracted as almost every sentence has a reference of some sort.)
It's easy to recommend an exceptionally good book, and an easy, informative read. My main critique: I would have loved more. One gets a good sense of, for instance, the tensions between Kennedy and the German and French leaders at the time, Adenauer and De Gaulle, but there's definitely more to those stories, or of their contemporary views of the Berlin crisis.
But if someone who doesn't habitually read non-fiction can leave a 500 page history book wanting more, that too is a compliment.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Historians of the Cold War have regarded as its worst crisis, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, often citing it as its most significant event. However, in his "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, And The Most Dangerous Place On Earth", former journalist Frederick Kempe has made a most compelling case instead for the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Berlin Wall's construction in the late summer and early fall of 1961, culminating in a standoff between American and Soviet tanks at Checkpoint Charlie in late October. Kempe has written such an extraordinary work of historical and political science scholarship that this book deserves ample recognition as an instant classic of Cold War history, and one which will be remembered by present and future generations of historians and political scientists. Moreover, Kempe tells such a compelling tale that readers might err in thinking that this is a Len Deighton or John Le Carre novel, not a substantial tome of historical nonfiction. Quoting from General Brent Scowcroft's elegant Introduction, "Fred Kempe's contribution to our crucial understanding of that time is that he combines the "You Are There" storytelling skills of a journalist, the analytical skills of a political scientist, and the historian's use of declassified U.S., Soviet, and German documents to provide unique insight into the forces and individuals behind the construction of the Berlin Wall------the iconic barrier that came to symbolize the Cold War's divisions."
Kempe's book will be regarded by many as provocative, especially to those possessing a favorable view of John F. Kennedy's presidency. If nothing else, "Berlin 1961" is a most damning indictment of Kennedy's woeful inexperience and ignorance with regards to foreign policy; indeed, one could draw unflattering parallels between Kennedy's handling of American foreign policy in 1961, especially with regards to the Soviet Union and its allies, with those of the current President. Relying on recently declassified American, Soviet and German documents, as well as from other sources, Kempe demonstrates how Kennedy misinterpreted initial peaceful overtures from Khrushchev, and then how Kennedy was outwitted by Khrushchev, first at their ill-fated Vienna summit, and then, months later, as the crisis in Berlin pushed the United States and the Soviet Union toward the brink of nuclear war. Moreover, he explains how Kennedy's response to the Berlin Wall's construction was effectively, Kennedy's acquiescence in keeping the status quo, recognizing as permanent, a divided Germany and a Europe divided between the Western NATO democracies and the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact totalitarian dictatorships, or rather, as Kempe himself concludes, "What Kennedy could not undo was the Wall that had risen as he passively stood by, which for three decades and perhaps for all of history would remain the iconic image of what unfree systems can impose when free leaders fail to resist." He offers a most gripping portrayal of a Kennedy administration at war with itself, between "doves" and "hawks", between the likes of United States ambassador to the Soviet Union E. Llewellyn "Tommy" Thompson and former United States Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Equally compelling is Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's strained relationship with East German leader Walter Ulbricht, which demonstrates that it was Ulbricht, not Khrushchev, who was most responsible for the Berlin Wall's construction, having drafted its plans weeks before obtaining the Soviet leader's approval. And yet, readers may regard as most memorable, the graphic accounts of East Berliners who risked death, in their attempts at gaining freedom across the Berlin Wall during its construction.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on May 10, 2011
Fred Kempe's sage account of the 1961 Berlin crisis reads like a Greek tragedy. The prose is crisp, elegant, and literary and the fateful story of Kennedy's encounter with Khrushchev is fraught with hubris, weakness, nobility, the force of circumstance, and the inevitability of loss. Historians will long debate what could or should have been done differently to defuse the crisis and shorten the Cold War, but Kempe's book demonstrates that both Kennedy and Khrushchev were almost doomed to play out pre-assigned roles that could only end in tragedy. Human beings may make history, Kempe wisely suggests, but their room for maneuver is rather more circumscribed than they believe--by reality and by their own failings.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 28, 2011
The lens of history has shown that President Kennedy's misguided judgment in the Bay of Pigs fiasco led to his successful thwarting of further military build-up eighteen months later during the Cuban Missile Crisis. While these are rational points, what is often forgotten is the enormous part that Berlin played in the interim.
Frederick Kempe's astonishingly good new book, "Berlin 1961", covers not only the major aspects of the tensions that existed that year over Berlin but follows the course of the politics that lead to so many of the misguided assumptions on both sides. This is, of course, primarily a book about Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev and their constant tests of wills. After the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy walked into a Vienna summit meeting with Khrushchev in June of that year, unprepared for the bullying that the communist leader would give him. From that point on the stage was set for the Russians to test the west and its young president.
The author's narrative fairly crackles with excitement throughout. His volleys between Washington, Moscow and Berlin are reported with a depth of terseness that I'm sure mirrored the conversations that were happening. Had Berlin become a pawn? Most likely. Kennedy did not want war over Berlin and Khrushchev was so concerned about the brain drain from East Berlin that the wall would end up being one of his few defenses in keeping the eastern bloc from collapsing.
The astounding plan to erect the beginning of the wall in August, 1961 is the most telling part of the book. I have not heard the details before and this really brought home the cunning with which the East German leaders devised and carried out the plan for building the wall and the west's utter inabilty to respond. It's certainly one of the book's many highlights.
"Berlin 1961" is a carefully crafted and terrific book to read. I highly recommend it for its insight, depth and understandable conclusions.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on May 24, 2011
I have just finished reading "Berlin 1961," by Frederick Kempe. It is magnificent, terrifying and totally attention-seizing. Read the 500 pages over the weekend and wished for more. I then turned to the Amazon site to "tell the world" and found a dozen plus five star reviews, varied in their emphasis but uniform in their five star ratings.
I beg to differ. Amazon needs to add a sixth star to its rating system for this one.
"Berlin 1961" joins Dean Acheson's "Present at the Creation" and Henry Kissinger's "Diplomacy" as compulsively readable and re-readable accounts of 20th century history, the century that nearly killed us all. The author puts the reader in those rooms in the White House, Kremlin, Wilhelmstrasse, Elysee Palace, etc., etc., where world-threatening decisions are made on scanty evidence, faulty assumptions and overall "miscalculations" by bickering, position-jockeying hawks and doves, the young ones seeking influence, the old ones trying to hold onto it. Historical figures emerge totally transformed in one's memory. E.g., Walter Ulbricht remembered by this reader as a little gray man, emerges as having cattle-prodded Khrushchev to the edge of nuclear confrontation. Kempe forces the reader to ask himself what he would have done if the president or Soviet premier had asked his advice. Except, that over the course of the book, one's hypothetical response sways to and fro as the facts emerge and events roll forward, just as theirs did.
This is beyond "You are There;" more like "You are really there and what are you going to do, now?"
Read this book.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 2011
It has taken nearly fifty years to complete the full story on the Berlin Crisis of 1961, and modern author and journalist, Frederick Kempe, has done it with accurate and spell-binding detail. Kempe has taken a critical chain of geopolitical events back in the middle of the Cold War and put them under the microscope of historical analysis as to their long-term impact on humankind. The setting was Berlin, a divided city, that came to symbolize the deep ideological and militaristic rift beween the communist and the free worlds; the issue was who was going to influence the future of Germany and central Europe. What makes "Berlin 1961" such an extraordinary read is the way in which Kempe brings together all the key elements of this international crisis to allow me to relive the tensions of the moment when Soviet tanks faced off against American ones at Brandenburg Gate in October 1961. It was this showdown or moment of truth that will forever define how close both sides came to exercising the nuclear option. It was this confrontation that Kempe believes saved JFK's struggling presidency, which up to this point had been mired in indecision and naivete, while enticing his boastful and sometimes bombastic counterpart, Khrushchev, to eventually overextend himself. As premier and First Party Secretary, this old-guard Stalinist, in a calculated attempt to consolidate his leadership by silencing his critics at home and in the Eastern Bloc with a major coup on the international front, thought he'd found the issue in Berlin and a pushover in Kennedy. What he got instead was a locked-in position that forced the Soviet Union to support an inept Ulbricht regime build and defend the Berlin Wall for years to come. Kempe's book is full of fascinating and humorous details that describe how various key people in the two camps like Gromyko, Ulbricht, Mikoyan, Rusk, Acheson, RFK, Adenauer, and Brandt tried to influence the outcome of the crisis. To offer the most complete picture possible of this unfolding drama, Kempe provides a lot of insights into the lives of everyday Berliners on the streets near the infamous wall. This story is truly an account of contrasting and opposing views - dove vs. hawk - which makes for an intriguing and gripping read.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Frederick Kempe's "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" is a thorough history of the background, development, and eventual resolution of the Berlin Wall Crisis of 1961, an event that the author argues brought the world closer to nuclear war even than the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later. Kempe first provides profiles of the four leaders most intimately involved in the Berlin Crisis: John Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, Conrad Adenauer, and Walter Ulbricht, and explains how their individual experiences and domestic political and foreign entanglements interwove to create the Berlin situation. The author puts forth the view that JFK's inexperience and vacillation resulted in a serious defeat for the US on the international level (and set the stage for the Cuban confrontation a year later) the year had already been marked by the dismal Vienna Summit and the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion -- yet at the same time Kennedy achieved something he desperately wanted: stability on the German question. Indeed, Kempe contends that Kennedy at least strongly hinted to Khrushchev, if not actually told him in plain language, that erection of a wall around West Berlin (to prevent East Germans seeking refuge there) would be acceptable to the US, as long as Western Allied access to West Berlin remained unimpeded. The creation of the Wall gave Khrushchev what he most needed - a way to stop the population and economic drain upon East Germany - but it also gave Kennedy what he most needed - time.
Kempe's book vividly recreates one of the most critical moments of the 20th century in unblinking detail. The "big picture" of the main canvas is illuminated by the stories of particular "ordinary people"at various moments as the crisis unveiled.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Berlin in 1961 was arguably the scariest place on Earth. It was where the two great superpowers brushed up against each other. It truly was where east met west.
1961 was also the very early days of the Kennedy administration. Kennedy was young and probably naïve. He came face to face with Nikita Khrushchev who was more than his match. Khrushchev was a survivor of the Stalinist purges; a wily politician who regarded Kennedy as simply not being up to scratch. Thus, Khrushchev seemed to be dealing from a position of strength. Kennedy was like putty in his hands.
When push came to shove in August 1961, Kennedy blinked and the Berlin Wall was constructed. It was to last until 1989 and serve as a reminder to all of the failure of eastern European communism.
Frederick Kempe has written a wonderful blow by blow account of these events. It is a great read and should be read by the broader community. This is not some dreary history book. It is history writing at its best.
Yet for all the political bluster of 1961, the failure communism should have even been visible at the time. Communism just didn't work. It's a pity that it took so long to collapse under its own weight. However, Kempe alludes to its problems in passing when he says of Soviet soldiers that "GIs would flick burning cigarettes to the ground just to watch the Russians scramble to recover then for a few drags. ....their gear was of poor quality, their boots flimsy, their field jackets old; they looked like hand-me-downs from previous conscripts". If only we could understand the meaning of these signs at the time.