JFK’s Berlin Wall mistake
- Last Updated: 3:48 AM, August 13, 2011
- Posted: 10:47 PM, August 12, 2011
On the morning of Aug. 13, 1961, residents of West Berlin woke up to find themselves in a sea of barbed wire: The Soviet Union had split a city of four million in two. A week later, they’d start replacing the barrier with what would become a 100-mile concrete wall with 300 watch towers.
The Berlin Wall would forever symbolize the Cold War -- and the split between Communism and freedom.
But in the tumultuous days 50 years ago, the wall also symbolized a growing divergence in the fates of the United States and Europe. The consequences are still with us -- and in the violent streets of Greece and London.
The Berlin crisis came because a new, inexperienced American president, whom events had made to appear weak, confronted a relatively new Soviet premier determined to appear tough.
John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev met for the first time in June only months after Kennedy’s debacle at the Bay of Pigs. The summit was “the roughest thing in my life,” Kennedy confessed to columnist James Reston afterward.
Khrushchev, on the other hand, thought he had the measure of the American -- and knew where to trounce him next: “Berlin is the testicles of the West. Every time I want to make the West scream,” he liked to boast, “I squeeze Berlin.”
Deep in the Soviet zone, divided Berlin had been the flashpoint between Russia and the West since the end of World War Two -- and the escape hatch for thousands of refugees fleeing Soviet tyranny. At the end of July, Khrushchev decided to close down both by sealing off West Berlin behind a wall and daring the Americans to do anything about it.
They didn’t. Kennedy, who’d once said that the unity of Berlin would be “a testing place of Western courage and will,” decided to go sailing. His secretary of state went to a baseball game. They weren’t going to risk a confrontation that might plunge the United States into nuclear war.
Germans in the West were shocked. “Berliners expect more than just words,” cried Berlin Mayor Willi Brandt. But words were all they got.
France and Britain were actually relieved by Kennedy’s non-action: They agreed with him: “A wall’s not a nice thing, but it’s a helluva lot better than a war.”
In fact, Russian generals were terrified the Americans would call Khrushchev’s bluff: When a convoy of 1,500 US troops drove straight into West Berlin a month later, the Soviets did nothing.
The wall became the boundary of the westernmost advance of Soviet Communism. Europe could forget about the Cold War -- and ignore their captive-nation brethren languishing under Communist police states. France would quit the military wing of NATO in 1966, and when America found itself bogged down in Vietnam, Europe would stand aloof and even criticize. Let the Americans build up their arsenals and carry on the fight against global Communism, if they want.
Instead, in the shadow of the wall and safely tucked under the US nuclear umbrella, France, Britain, Italy and the rest were free to spend their time and money building their cushy welfare states -- the source of their current looming fiscal catastrophe.
The Cold War waxed and waned; Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” (a vow he failed to make good on) would be followed decades later by Ronald Reagan’s, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” In the event, the Wall started coming down Nov. 9, 1989 -- amid the collapse of Soviet Communism.
The lesson, 50 years later, is that America’s choices of where to stand and where to fold have lasting consequences. That’s true in the Middle East, in Asia -- but also in Europe today. The spreading crisis there may yet enmesh us, despite President Obama’s aloofness.
The threats to Western freedom then were Soviet tanks and barbed wire. Today, it’s growing anarchy in the streets and economic meltdown, harbingers of a new Dark Age for Europe. America isn’t immune from the same thing.
We need a president who is ready and willing to confront those threats, whether here or over there, and to stand up for liberty and civilized values everywhere. Instead, we get empty words -- and a blank wall of indifference.
Arthur Herman’s “Gandhi and Churchill” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2009.Follow @NYPostOpinion