The buzz words—Berlin access crisis, Checkpoint Charlie, the Cold War, the Berlin Wall—don't carry the zing they used to. It's difficult to remember that only 45 years ago, these words in newspaper headlines filled Americans with terror, real terror. After all, when Soviet and American tanks faced off across the line in Berlin in the late summer and early autumn of 1961, the threat of nuclear war was very real. The Americans had six submarines with nuclear-armed missiles cruising in the Baltic. The Soviets had their missiles, also sporting nuclear warheads, aimed at Western Europe. A miscalculation meant world war and annihilation. That was genuine terror.
Today Berlin—and Germany—are united. The Berlin Wall and the tanks are gone, as are the Soviet Union and East Germany for that matter. Aside from Oktoberfest and the World Cup, Germany is considered boring. But for more than a quarter of a century, Berlin was the dangerous crucible where the East and West faced off at very close quarters. In his new book, The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961–1989, Frederick Taylor, a British expert on Germany and the author of Dresden, an excellent study of the bombing of that city, reminds us how perilous those times were. But Taylor's admirable book is a vivid narrative of a dangerous era. He benefits from the perspective of the intervening years since Berlin was a hot spot and from access to newly opened archives in Germany and Moscow.
An excellent historian, Taylor starts with a quick but satisfying history of Berlin over the centuries. The city had its earlier walls, its sackings at the hands of invaders, its glories under Frederick the Great, and, of course, its seeming Gotterdammerung at the end of World War II. In 1945, the Russians got to Berlin first, and the Allies were slow—and lead-footed—in arranging agreements and borders. Still, despite their head start, the Soviets were not able to close out the game and secure all of Berlin for their sphere. On the contrary, by 1961, East Germany was hemorrhaging thousands upon thousands of people each month. Eager for good jobs, the new D-mark, and freedom, they fled to the West through Berlin. The East German economy was in a shambles. Walter Ulbricht, the leader of East Germany, and Nikita Khrushchev, newly installed boss of the Soviet Union, both wanted to stabilize the East. But, writes Taylor, the two leaders did not always work in harmony. Both were loose cannons, Khrushchev eager to continue to score points against the West. "Every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin," he said. Ulbricht was proud and independent and realized that he was the tail that wagged the Soviet dog. He often acted alone, much to the annoyance of Moscow. The possibility of mistakes was high.
When the East Germans moved into action on the night of August 12–13, 1961, and sealed the border with barbed wire, the precursor of the Berlin Wall to follow, they caught the West completely by surprise. President John F. Kennedy was aboard his motorboat on the way to lunch on Cape Cod when the word reached him. He turned around and returned home to Hyannis Port to follow events. Britain's Harold Macmillan was hunting grouse and did not return to London for three days to deal with the crisis. Charles de Gaulle was also on vacation in the countryside and took a week to come back to Paris. The British, struggling with a bad economy, and the French, mired down in a war in Algeria, were not eager for a new confrontation. They left it to the Americans to deal with the problem. Much to the annoyance of the West Germans, the Americans dallied. JFK dispatched Lyndon Johnson and General Lucius Clay, the hero of the Berlin airlift, to soothe nerves, but by October, tensions were still high as the Wall took a solid shape and the East Germans began limiting Allied access to the Eastern sector. Tanks faced off, but ultimately both sides backed down and compromised.