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Dale Banham

Student Question: Berlin

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My Year 10 (aged 14-15) are now starting on a piece of coursework: 'Why is JFK remembered so positively?'. I have attached the questions they came up with in groups. Answers and different views from experts would be great for when we start back in September or for pupils to look at over the Summer.

Question: How dangerous was the disagreement between the Soviet Union and the USA over Berlin? Was this potentially more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis?

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My Year 10 (aged 14-15) are now starting on a piece of coursework: 'Why is JFK remembered so positively?'. I have attached the questions they came up with in groups. Answers and different views from experts would be great for when we start back in September or for pupils to look at over the Summer.

Question: How dangerous was the disagreement between the Soviet Union and the USA over Berlin? Was this potentially more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis?

I don't think it was as dangerous, though it could have been had either side used poorer judgement than they did. As it was, the Soviets did grave damage to their image with the Berlin Wall, and Kennedy was wise enough to underline that rather than respond militarily. Reagan used the symbolism of the wall to great effect in the 80s as well. The most dangerous time in Berlin was in 1948--after the Berlin Airlift, things largely remained in a state of suspension until the end of the Cold War in 1989.

Martin Shackelford

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My Year 10 (aged 14-15) are now starting on a piece of coursework: 'Why is JFK remembered so positively?'. I have attached the questions they came up with in groups. Answers and different views from experts would be great for when we start back in September or for pupils to look at over the Summer.

Question: How dangerous was the disagreement between the Soviet Union and the USA over Berlin? Was this potentially more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis?

JFK evidently believed that the Cuban Missile Crisis and Berlin were one and the same. The belief was that the Russians knew we would not stand by while they put the missiles in Cuba. He suspected that what the Russians were after was a compromise whereby we would withdraw from Berlin or where we would invade Cuba and they would use that as a pretext to invade Berlin. He also was aware that if he sacrificed Berlin it would mean the end of NATO, and would represent a tremendous loss of prestige for the U.S. and would signify that the U.S. was retreating from the global advance of communism. This is why he sent the Navy to blockade Cuba. His ability to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the crisis without sacrificing Berlin was probably his greatest moment as a world leader, although one holds back from saying it was his greatest achievement due to the fact that his earlier weakness had helped encourage Khruschev's aggressive behavior.

Edited by Pat Speer

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The issue of Berlin was extremely important and potentially extremely dangerous for the entire world. JFK was never willing to initiate use of nuclear weapons over Vietnam or even Cuba, but would have used nuclear weapons, if necessary, if pressed into a corner over Berlin, if the choice had been between total war or capitulation and appeasement.

Berlin was Kruschev's Big Bluff, in which he (incorrectly) sensed weakness and lack of resolve in the West, and thought he could "rub our blister" by demanding that Berlin instantly become part of Communist East Germany...or else, "there would be war!"

JFK was very wary of the possibility of a non-nuclear confrontation or crisis quickly escalating into an unintentional nuclear war...this was what Kruschev misinterpreted as weakness. What Kruschev did not understand was that JFK, who knew his father, our Ambassador to Britain in 1940, was wrong about Nazi Germany's "inevitable" triumph and had been a defeatist, and a supporter of Chamberlain's appeasement policy, was determined NOT to be viewed as an appeaser, as his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was.

JFK also realized the primacy of NATO and America's European allies in our foreign policy. Twice in the 20th Century America had been sucked into World Wars which originated in Europe, and had to "cross the big pond" to pull English and French chestnuts out of the fire. America had far fewer troops in Europe than did the Soviets, and had a quiet but firm policy to use nukes if necessary to stop any massive Soviet invasion of the West.

JFK correctly felt that caving in on the Yalta agreement for 4-power occupation of Berlin after Germany's defeat, and simply handing Berlin over to the East German State at the demand of a bullying USSR, would have signaled a moral collapse in the West, a lack of spine and resolve that would only have encouraged other Soviet adventurism. To JFK, caving in to Kruschev's demand on Berlin would have been equivalent to Chamberlain giving the Czech Sudetenland to Hitler's Germany in 1938.

JFK often stated that the small numbers of U.S. and allied troops in Berlin were essentially "hostages." What he meant by this was that they were a trip-wire which could initiate a nuclear war to defend the West's resolve and overall interests in Europe, if the Soviets were so bold as to take Berlin by force.

JFK was extremely cautious over the Cuban Missile Crisis because he was very much concerned that any actions he took against Cuba (where the U.S. had the overwhelming superiority of forces) might stimulate a Soviet counter-response against Berlin (where the West was militarily relatively weak).

"Allowing" East Germany (read: the USSR) to build the Berlin Wall (on East Germany's own territory) defused the entire Berlin crisis, because it ended the East German brain drain, and its public embarrassment over the large numbers of fleeing citizens.

JFK wanted a nuclear war less than anyone, but was locked into a U.S. committment to use nukes if necessary to defend Western Europe...and Berlin was the weakest spot (militarily) in Western Europe.

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That was on Harry Truman's watch, not JFK's. HST was determined to do all that he could to prevent cold war crises from escalating into a global war. The only thing I know about this crisis that isn't public knowledge is something Bill Pawley told me. Because of his strong opposition to Fidel Castro, Pawley is portrayed by the left as some sort of arch reactionary, which is, of course, a misepresentation of the facts. Pawley was close enough to FDR to be given covert presidential authority to go to US air bases shortly before Pearl Harbor and recruit young American flight officers to serve as volunteers in the Chinese (Nationalist) air force and thus created the Flying Tigers. He became a US Ambassador. Upon FDR's death, he became a crony of HST, had unlimited access to the White House and was one of HST's small clique of poker players. When the Berlin crisis erupted, Pauley urged FDR to use the occasion to "liberate" the USSR by an invasion which he believed would have overwhelming Russian support and at minimal cost change the world for the better. Truman replied, he told me, that he wouldn't do it because he wasn't going to start World War Three, suggesting that HST had more common sense than GWB.

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Berlin was a center of tension throughout the Cold War. NATO battle plans assumed that the Soviet response to an overflowing of tension elsewhere in the world would probably lead to a conventional strike on the GDR/West German border where the Soviet superiority in armour was if not overwhelming, at least very significant.

The Berlin Airlift Crisis is one of the great "what if" questions of Cold War history. I think it's clear that neither side wanted to start a war. Truman had ordered Gen. Clay not to attempt to force a land route through to the city using his armour. Soviet warplanes were ordered not to shoot down Allied aircraft. However, the possibility of an "accidental" outbreak of war was ever-present. What if one of the Soviet aircraft "buzzing" the Allied aircraft got so close as to cause it to crash? What if some aircrew -- from one side or another -- either accidentally or on purpose opened fire without official authorization?

However, on balance, I don't think any of the series of Berlin Crises brought us as close to war as did the Cuban Missile Crisis. Why?

(1) When the Berlin Airlift was taking place, the hardware needed to Nuclear Holocaust was not yet in place. The USSR didn't explode her first atomic device until August 1949 and even then had few planes with which to deliver them. Even the United States couldn't be sure that its atomic strike force would be effective. US Intelligence reported to Truman that his existing capability would not enable him to cripple the USSR either industrially or militarily. Any engagement would, therefore, have had to have been largely conventional, at a time when both sides were under great pressure to reduce the size of their conventional forces.

(2) Later "crises" were caused in large part by Soviet posturing. At no time until the Brezhnev era did the USSR achieve anything like nuclear parity with the West. The "missile gap" never existed (and there's even evidence to suggest that JFK knew it didn't exist even as he was using it as a major weapon in his election campaign!) and the frequent Soviet response to a PR failure anywhere, or to the need to demonstrate "leadership" in the face of growing Chinese hostility was to provoke a "crisis" in Berlin. There's no evidence that the USSR was ever willing to escalate such incidents to dangerous levels, although, as in the case of the Airlift, errors and miscalculations could always have led to war...

(3) In Cuba, Khruschev was under a lot more pressure. His agricultural and educational reforms had been unsuccessful and had prompted unheard of criticism within the CPSU. Mao seemed to be winning the propaganda war and was also becoming a serious military threat. K felt he had to take risks to bolster his position at home and within the international communist movement. And he underestimated the risks involved. Kennedy was young and inexperienced, and his performance in Geneva had failed to impress. Surely he could be persuaded to accept Soviet intervention in Cuba as being no more of a threat to the USA than was the presence of US missiles in Turkey... Of course, once he had taken the risk, it was even more difficult for him to climb down -- "We were eyeball to eyeball and the other guy just blinked" -- without losing face...

(4) The US crisis management team also underestimated the threat. At the conference held in Havana to mark the 40th Anniversary of the Crisis, the old protagonists met together, some of them for the first time. When the Soviet commander of the defence force in Cuba told the conference that he already had tactical nuclear weapons at his disposal and, even more important, had received authorization to use them without further reference to Moscow, the US contingent apparently blanched visibly. They hadn't been aware of this when they were examining the options open to them during the crisis...

As with most of the crises of the Cold War, MAD saved us. I don't think any side -- with the obvious exception of the Chinese!! -- ever seriously contemplated the first use of nuclear weapons. The constant danger was the Dr Strangelove scenario whereby the world would be cremated as the result of error or miscalculation...

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