The Wall, 1958-1963
At a Moscow reception on 10 November 1958, Khrushchev launched a new round in the battle for Berlin. In a public speech he insisted that the military occupation of Berlin, which had lasted since the end of the Second World War, should now come to an end. He demanded that the Western powers join the Soviet Union in signing a peace treaty recognizing the existence of the two Germanys. Khrushchev further proposed that Berlin should become a "free city" - free, that is, from the presence of Western occupation powers. But the sting came in the tail. Two weeks later Khrushchev gave the West a six-month ultimatum. Get out of Berlin, or the Soviet Union would sign its own peace treaty with East Germany. In that case, all rights of the Western powers in Berlin and all access agreements would thenceforth be subject to negotiation with the sovereign state of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The message was clear: agree to withdraw, or be kicked out of Berlin altogether.
Khrushchev's ultimatum landed like a bombshell in the West. A nosurrender line had been drawn at Berlin. Ten years earlier the Berlin airlift had confirmed the West's determination to hold on to this advance base more than a hundred miles inside the Iron Curtain. The view then, and still in 1958, was that to hold Europe against communism it was essential to hold Berlin and prevent a permanent division of Germany into two separate states.
Khrushchev was known to act impulsively at times, but his new threats against Berlin had been carefully calculated. He was concerned about the lack of a formal German peace settlement thirteen years after the end of the war. West Germany was then in the midst of an "economic miracle" under Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who wanted to re-unite West and East Germany.
A unified, capitalist Germany, armed with nuclear weapons and backed by the United States, raised the spectre once again of an aggressor Germany laying waste to the Soviet Union. Memories of the horrors of the Second World War were still strong. Papers prepared for the Presidium warned the Soviet leaders of the danger of a revived Germany uniting with Poland, and the reorientation of the Polish economy westward, leaving the USSR with no buffer zone on its western border. The deployment of American intermediate-range missiles in Europe, and the buildup of nuclear weapons within NATO, further alarmed the Kremlin.
Added to this Khrushchev felt a passionate commitment to establishing a Communist state in East Germany. He was a supporter of Walter Ulbricht, the East German leader, whose hard-line Stalinist policies had nearly toppled the regime in 1953. Khrushchev believed that if the West Germans were heirs to Hitler's ambitions, then East Germany, as a Communist state in the centre of Europe, symbolically justified Soviet war sacrifices. Khrushchev's ideology told him that communism would inevitably prevail over capitalism, but he seemed blind to the obvious fact that West Germany was striding ahead economically and leaving East Germany far behind.
He was only too aware, however, that every year tens of thousands of East Germans fled to capitalist West Germany: more than 300,000 in 1953, and 156,000 in 1956. A nine-hundred-mile boundary ran between the two states, and along it the East Germans had constructed a formidable frontier with watchtowers, barbed wire, minefields, and armed patrols. But Berlin, deep inside the Eastern state, offered an easy escape route. Movement around the city, in and out of the four military zones of occupation, was virtually unrestricted. Many East Berliners worked in West Berlin, and members of the same family lived in different zones. The underground train system, the U-Bahn, and the elevated trains, the S-Bahn, moved through all sectors. East Germans who wanted to emigrate, or defect to the West, slipped into East Berlin and then crossed to the Western sector. They either settled there or went to a refugee assembly point, the best known of which was Marienfelde. This vast, barracks-like reception centre processed hundreds of refugees every day, providing meals and temporary accommodation. In long lines, the refugees waited to be screened and interviewed. Many who had carefully concealed their plans for escape were astonished to find, in the next queue, neighbours or workmates who had made equally secret plans. Eventually, many were flown out to other cities in West Germany, all at the expense of the West German state, where the economic boom was generating a continuous demand for labour.
The vast majority of these refugees were young and skilled. More than half were below the age of twenty-five, and three out of four were under fortyfive, the very people most needed to build the Communist state. Older people,
In 1960 Berlin was a tale of two cities. In West Berlin, with a population of
2 million, the rubble of war had mostly been cleared away. Lights shone at night down the Kurfursten Damm, which was lined with smart shops and street cafes. Kempinski's served famous ice cream sundaes. One of the first Hilton hotels in Europe dominated the skyline. Theatres, concert halls, and nightclubs were packed. Many loved the busy, throbbing, cosmopolitan air of the city; others found it hectic, frantic.
Through the Brandenburg Gate, East Berlin was another world. The vast boulevard of the Unter den Linden, still elegant, was largely deserted. The huge Soviet Embassy stood on one side. Farther along, the destruction the war had brought was still visible. Buildings
Stood derelict, next to empty spaces where others had been destroyed. Posters everywhere proclaimed, "Build the Socialist Fatherland." While everyone was fed and housed, the million people in East Berlin looked far from prosperous. In the drab new apartment blocks the services worked, but they were at a basic level.
An East Berliner who could afford the luxury of a refrigerator would have to wait
a year for one; for a washing machine, the wait was two years. Cars were not to be had on any waiting list. Consumer goods took no priority in an economy geared to earning necessary foreign currency through exports.
West Berlin had enjoyed the benefits of Western investment for fifteen years; in East Berlin, the Soviets had taken out everything they could from the economy. And it showed. on state pensions, were understandably less keen to start a new life in the West. The refugees numbered industrial workers, farm labourers, scientists, doctors, teachers, and other professionals. The entire law faculty of Leipzig University defected. Some came alone, some with their entire families, some even fled en masse as communities. Seventeen key engineers from one industrial plant left, taking the factory's blueprints with them. Thirty thousand students completed their studies (at state expense), received their diplomas, and then they fled. All were drawn to opportunities offered in the booming West, and the chance to escape the shortages and the restrictions of the Ulbricht regime, where every economic act was strictly controlled from the centre. Between 1949, when the GDR was created, and 1961, 2.8 million Germans crossed to the West in one of the biggest European migrations in history; one-sixth of the population abandoned the East for the good life they thought awaited them.
This exodus caused panic in the East. Not only was it a humiliating sign of the failure of the socialist utopia, but it created a serious labour shortage. Bosses, colleagues, friends were there one day and absent the next. Assembly lines were brought to a halt because a crucial worker had gone west. Skilled workers became more and more difficult to replace. Shoppers found there was no one in the store to serve them. In 1957 the GDR made Republikflucht, fleeing to the West, a criminal offence punishable with a prison sentence - if "the escapee could be caught. The Communist-controlled press painted a lurid picture of life in the West: slave traders were capturing innocent young East Germans and selling the women into prostitution, the men into a life of drudgery. Still they went. Those who remained, under even stricter economic discipline, were called upon to make greater sacrifices. The result: another flood of workers to West Berlin.
Khrushchev Tries Personal Diplomacy
To make threats over Berlin was, for Khrushchev, to play for high stakes. And for the United States to pledge to hold on to Berlin at all costs created difficult military problems. The Joint Chiefs of Staff talked of using "whatever degree of force might be necessary" to maintain the garrison in Berlin. Dulles and Eisenhower realized, however, that any military confrontation might quickly escalate into the use of nuclear weapons. And Adenauer, who knew that Germany would be no-man's-land in any nuclear escalation between the great powers, responded by exclaiming, "For God's sake, not for Berlin." Eisenhower knew it would be difficult to ask the American people to go to war over a city that had been the capital of their hated enemy little more than a decade before. But there was a commitment, which Khrushchev recognized: "Berlin is the testicles of the West.... Every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin."
Khrushchev decided not to push his ultimatum. The West had responded to his threats with a flurry of diplomatic activity, and with speeches guaranteeing that West Berlin would not be abandoned. A four-power foreign ministers conference was called for the summer of 1959 in Geneva. By this time Khrushchev had decided to avoid confrontation, and the meetings brought no agreement. The six-month deadline passed quietly into history.
In September 1959 Khrushchev, at Eisenhower's invitation, became the first Soviet leader ever to visit the United States. He arrived in New York in the largest aircraft in the world, the Soviet Tu-114 airliner, a reminder of Soviet technological superiority. Barely three years earlier the American press had accused the Soviet leaders of committing "monstrous crimes" and "the foulest treachery" against the Hungarian people. But now Khrushchev attracted crowds wherever he went, some of them a bit frosty. In Hollywood the stars turned out to meet him. He made several television appearances. In Iowa
he was astonished to see the prosperity of a simple farming community. Thousands watched the Communist leader pass ,by in his motorcade. Khrushchev loved every minute of it.
The success of his high-profile trip made peaceful co-existence appear a real possibility. At the end of the visit, Khrushchev and Eisenhower had a few days together at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. There the leaders of the two superpowers talked frankly with each other. "There was nothing more inadvisable in this situation," said Eisenhower, "than to talk about ultimatums, since both sides knew very well what would happen if an ultimatum were to be implemented." Khrushchev responded that he did not understand how a peace treaty could be regarded by the American people as a "threat to peace." Eisenhower admitted that the situation in Berlin was "abnormal" and that "human affairs got very badly tangled at times." Khrushchev came away with the impression that a deal was possible over Berlin, and they agreed to continue the dialogue at a summit in Paris in the spring of 1960. Khrushchev felt that he got respect and recognition from Eisenhower, who made him believe he was the greatest Soviet statesman since Stalin. In Moscow propagandists applauded Khrushchev's personal diplomacy as the dynamic basis of Soviet foreign policy.
In October 1959 Khrushchev went to Beijing, to take part in the tenthanniversary celebrations of the People's Republic of China. Mao Zedong and the Chinese leadership were deeply insulted that Khrushchev came to China following a visit to the United States and not the other way around. Khrushchev, still glowing with the aura of his US tour, was beginning to believe he was infallible. However, since his denunciation of Stalin in 1956, the Chinese had grown cold to his leadership of the Communist world. As long as Stalin was alive Mao had deferred to Soviet leadership, but he had little time for Khrushchev. Mao thought his Marxism-Leninism was going soft and he was far too close to the Western imperialists. Now the Chinese leadership stormily accused Khrushchev of putting his relationship with the United States above his commitment to the Sino-Soviet alliance. After one particularly intense session of disagreement, Khrushchev shouted at foreign minister Chen Yi, "Don't give me your hand, because I won't shake it!" The minister riposted that Khrushchev's anger did not scare him. "Don't you try to spit on us," Khrushchev countered. "You haven't got enough spit." Khrushchev left Beijing furious. He had received more respect from Eisenhower, the leader of his enemies, than from his supposed comrades. But Chinese pressure on Khrushchev to display his credentials as leader of the worldwide socialist cause, and to take a hard-line stand, was an important influence on the behaviour of the Soviet premier throughout the years of crisis over Berlin.
The Paris summit that was to have resolved the Berlin question disintegrated before it began in the fallout from Gary Powers's failed U-2 spy flight. Khrushchev, ears still stinging from China's criticisms, now destroyed bridges he had built with the United States. Soviet-US relations once more took a turn for the worse.
Those most disappointed by Khrushchev's climbdown were the East Germans. Detailed preparations for a re-unification of Berlin now had to be put on hold. And the flood of citizens westward continued unabated; 144,000 in 1959, nearly 200,000 in 1960. The East German economy was being bled to death. Ulbricht again pressed Khrushchev to demand recognition for the GDR, and a peace treaty. The Soviet leader played for time; Ulbricht would set the pace in the next phase.
Kennedy Enters the Picture
Khrushchev followed the American presidential election
campaign of 1960 closely. Having fallen out with Eisenhower, he backed the
Democrats and was delighted when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected. Khrushchev
seemed to believe that he would get along well with Kennedy; he dropped several
hints that this presidency could usher in a new era in superpower relations. The
two leaders agreed on an early summit in Vienna, only four months after Kennedy
took office. A few weeks beforehand, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space,
and just days after that, the
The two leaders met at the beginning of June. There was no clear agenda. On the first day they spoke about the world in general and about issues of war, peace. and revolution, failing to connect on almost any level. A Russian historian has written that Khrushchev had then "the complete confidence of a man riding on the crest of history." Kennedy was astonished at how strongly the Soviet leader came at him. At the end of the first day, aides of Khrushchev asked his opinion of Kennedy as a statesman. Khrushchev waved his hand dismissively, saying that Kennedy was no match for Eisenhower.
On the second day, the two men got around to the subject of Berlin. Khrushchev demanded a peace treaty and recognition for East Germany. Berlin was to become "strictly neutral"; the Western powers could have access to the city only with East German permission. Any violation of East German territory would be regarded as an act of aggression against the Soviet Union. The United States would have to withdraw by the end of the year. Kennedy was amazed. He said that the Western powers were in Berlin not on sufferance but as of right, having defeated Germany in the Second World War. He declared that the national security of the United States was directly linked to that of Berlin. Khrushchev exploded. "I want peace, but if you want war that is your problem," he shouted, banging his fist on the table. The meeting ended, ominously, with Khrushchev threatening Kennedy with the calamitous consequences of war. He announced that his decision to sign a peace treaty with East Germany in six months was irrevocable. Kennedy responded gloomily, "If that's true, it's going to be a cold winter." Neither man smiled as they shook hands for the official photographs. The two leaders never met again.
Kennedy was badly shaken by the encounter. He had been warned
that Khrushchev was likely to talk tough but not that he would demand American
surrender. He could scarcely believe that before even settling in at the White
House he was faced with the prospect of a nuclear war. A newsman who saw him
just as he left the summit said he looked "shaken and angry." Kennedy stopped in
London on the way home, and Prime Minister Macmillan observed that he "seemed
rather stunned -baffled would perhaps be fairer." The two men discussed the
possibility of defeat in the Cold War. On his return to Washington, Kennedy
ordered senior staff at the National Security Council, the State Department, the
Pentagon, and the
As the summer wore on, the heat increased. Khrushchev announced a substantial increase in his military budget, and a resumption of nuclear testing. At a press conference in Berlin, Ulbricht talked tough, but he commented that "no one intends to build a wall." Even broaching the idea provoked a flood of more than a thousand East Germans a day to cross the border, putting further pressure on Khrushchev for a resolution.
Government opinion in the United States was divided; hard-liners argued that caving in over Berlin would be to lose the Cold War; soft-liners wanted to avoid overreacting and urged further dialogue with Moscow. As refugees still arrived in vast numbers at the West Berlin reception centres, Kennedy retired for the weekend of 22-23 July to Hyannis Port on the Massachusetts coast. There, in the family beach house, he studied all the latest position papers and reviewed the options. It was time to make his position clear, and he worked hard on a speech to be delivered on nationwide television the night of 25 July.
Kennedy reiterated that the United States was not looking for a fight and that he recognized the "Soviet Union's historical concerns about their security in central and eastern Europe." He said he was willing to renew talks. But he announced that he would ask Congress for an additional $3.25 billion for military spending, mostly on conventional weapons. He wanted six new divisions for the army and two for the marines, and he announced plans to triple the draft and to call up the reserves. Kennedy proclaimed, "We seek peace, but we shall not surrender."
The response to his speech was, in the main, positive. Army recruiting stations reported a dramatic increase in enlistments. But the president's warning that a stronger civil defence programme was needed to minimize losses in the event of nuclear attack provoked immense anxiety. Local civil defence offices were besieged with enquiries about air-raid shelters, and the sale of prefabricated home shelters boomed. Major municipalities carried out surveys of public buildings to find suitable fallout shelters. They began to test airraid sirens regularly.
Vacationing in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Khrushchev was furious when he heard of Kennedy's speech. He invited John Jay McCloy, Kennedy's disarmament adviser, who happened to be in the Soviet Union, to join him. He shouted at McCloy that Kennedy's military buildup was tantamount to a declaration of war against the Soviet Union. If the Americans wanted war, Khrushchev bellowed, they could have it. But if there was a nuclear war over Berlin, Kennedy would be America's last president. In Berlin, the flood of refugees became a torrent.
An Old Plan Implemented
When Khrushchev's fury abated he realized he would have to climb down once again. Intelligence reports indicated that Kennedy's threats to use his nuclear arsenal were no bluff. He had warned Kennedy, "Only a madman would start a war over Berlin," and now this applied to himself But there was still the problem of East Germany's population drain. Plans to build a wall to surround West Berlin and stop the exodus had been made many years earlier. No one in the Kremlin liked the idea of fencing off West Berlin; it reflected badly on the Communist way of life. Nevertheless, Ulbricht was called to Moscow. At a secret meeting of Warsaw Pact leaders he was told to go ahead and prepare to close the border with a wall. He appointed Erich Honecker, a loyal party man, to head the team that would do it.
Meanwhile, signals were coming from Washington that the United States would not interfere with their closing borders to stem the refugee outflow, so
long as West Berlin was left intact. The president in his television speech had spoken only about defending West Berlin, not the whole city. Kennedy told his aide Walt Rostow, "I can hold the (Western] alliance together to defend West Berlin, but I cannot act to keep East Berlin open."
In the early hours of Sunday, 13 August 1961, Berliners were awakened by the clatter and clanking of military vehicles and the noise of barbed-wire coils and concrete posts being unloaded in the streets. Late-night revellers unexpectedly found the S-Bahn railway system closed, for trains were no longer crossing the border. On Bernauer Strasse, where the border between the French and Soviet sectors ran down the middle of the road, a line of army trucks gathered on the eastern side of the street, their headlights blazing, as workmen started to erect barbed-wire barricades. At Potsdamer Platz, the busiest of all the EastWest crossing points, men with pneumatic drills began to pierce cobblestone streets and set in place concrete pillars.
The light of dawn revealed that East German workers, under armed guard, were slowly erecting a barbed-wire fence that zigzagged its way through the city, strictly following the borders of the American, British, and French military sectors. The fence ran down the middle of streets, it even bisected cemeteries. As the first East Berliners turned up, as usual, to go to their work in West Berlin, they were turned back. "Die Grenze ist geschlossen," they were told; "The border is closed." Bewildered, they were dispersed by the police. As the morning wore on, groups of West Berliners began to gather, to watch and jeer. West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt was concerned that the situation might get out of hand. The East German government also feared public protests, like those that nearly had brought down the regime in 1953. Construction of the barrier was carried out entirely by East German public works gangs, supervised by militias mobilized from all parts of the state. A few miles back, ringing the city, Soviet tanks openly took up positions - and waited. Their presence sent a message to the West not to intervene and to the East Germans not to attempt a protest. The streets of East Berlin remained eerily empty.
The moment picked to divide the city could not have been better chosen. By the time it was clear what was going on, it was still the middle of the night in Washington. As reports poured in, the three Allied military commanders in West Berlin quickly met, but they realized that nothing could be done until their political masters decided what response to make. The American commander had it drilled into him that he must take no action that might spark trouble. He and the British commander felt they ought to issue a protest to their Russian counterpart in East Berlin, but the French commander would not support even this without instructions from Paris. However, the French were in the middle of their traditional August vacation, and the foreign ministry on the Quai d'Orsay was virtually empty. It might take days to get a response.
Crossing the Wall
Throughout the summer of 1961 Berlin witnessed extraordinary scenes as the Wall was completed. The dividing line ran alongside and even through several old tenement buildings, sometimes with doorways in the East and back windows looking out onto the West. As other crossing points were closed, people in despair resorted to these tenement windows as a route to escape. One fifty-nineyear-old woman threw a mattress out of her window and leapt after it. She died of her injuries. When anyone appeared ready to jump, the West Berlin fire department sent firemen with blankets to catch them. In full view of news cameras, a surreal tug-of-war took place over one lady; the East German police tried to drag her back through the window of her border tenement, while West Berlin firemen tried to pull her safely to the street below. To cheers, she eventually reached the Western sector. Slowly, all of the tenement windows on the border were bricked up. Whole areas, up to a hundred yards behind the Wall, were levelled. A nightmarish world of searchlights, desolate watchtowers, machine-gun posts, and minefields came into being. Soon the first East German was shot dead trying to escape. There would be dozens more.
At the State Department in Washington, officials were called out of their beds early on Sunday morning, but a decision was made not to react. The president was not even officially informed until midmorning, late afternoon Berlin time. By this point the barbed-wire fence had been largely built. Kennedy regarded the barrier as despicable, but what angered him more was that no one had anticipated this outcome. "Why didn't we know?" he asked McGeorge Bundy, his national security adviser. Closing the borders violated four-power agreements over Berlin, but once it became clear to Washington that neither the East Germans nor the Soviets were going to move against West Berlin itself, there was a collective sigh of relief. Kennedy and his secretary of state, Dean Rusk, agreed that so long as the access routes to West Berlin were left open and the city was still free, whatever might occur in East Berlin was no cause for war. It was decided to protest "through appropriate channels" to Moscow and to do nothing more.
Fencing West Berlin's 103-mile perimeter with barbed wire took most of Sunday. During that time many East Germans decided "now or never" and made a last-minute dash to the West. Some swam across the Teltow Canal, which made up part of the border, and arrived dripping in the West with nothing but their underwear. A Volkswagen crashed through the barbed wire before it reached too high. Even a few policemen leapt to freedom as the barbed-wire barricade was being built. Dividing the city separated families in a brutal way. Some who had gone to relatives in East Berlin for the weekend now found they could not return to the West. Others could only gather along the wire barrier and wave to relatives on the opposite side.
Three days after the barbed wire went up, additional East German workers arrived and began constructing a more permanent concrete structure. Set a few yards back from the wire fence, this was the real Berlin Wall. Five to six feet high, topped with barbed wire, and eventually buttressed by gun positions and tank traps, the Berlin Wall became an obstruction almost impossible to cross. It tore the city down the middle.
The West Let Off the Hook
For a week Kennedy made no public comment. Willy Brandt was furious at the American failure to react. At a huge public rally he appealed to the West, proclaiming, "Berlin expects more than words. Berlin expects political action!" Brandt wrote directly to Kennedy, saying that the Wall "has not altered the will to resist of the population of West Berlin, but it has succeeded in casting doubt upon the capability and determination of the Three Powers to react."
Some American newspapers responded that no "mere mayor" could dictate US policy. But in any case, as it became clear that there would be no Communist threat against West Berlin itself, and no action against the access routes to the city, the Western powers felt they had been let off the hook. The leakage of the East German population had been sealed off by a crude and bizarre structure, but war had been avoided.
Kennedy sent General Lucius Clay, the bullish commander of the American sector during the 1948 airlift, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to visit Berlin. They were rapturously received by the West Berliners. In front of a giant crowd outside the town hall, Johnson affirmed America's pledge "to the freedom of West Berlin and to the rights of Western access." At the same time, an American combat unit of 1,500 well-armed soldiers was sent up the East German autobahn from West Germany to reinforce the Allied garrison in West Berlin. The Soviets stopped and counted them but then let them pass. On arriving, they paraded down the main street of West Berlin, the Kurfiirsten Damm, amidst cheering, weeping crowds. The unit's commander said it was the most fabulous reception he had experienced since the liberation of Paris in 1944. West Berliners now felt assured they would not be abandoned.
Most of the old crossing points were closed. The East Germans allowed the use of only seven. Although West Berliners were not denied continued access to East Berlin, they needed special permits. And only one crossing point would permit other Westerners to cross into the East. This gateway would enter Cold War mythology as the place where East met West: Checkpoint Charlie, the exchange point for spies.
Rusk and Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko continued to talk, into the fall, about finding a political solution to the Berlin stalemate. Khrushchev even invited Kennedy to Moscow. The president declined the invitation but agreed to set up a confidential back channel through which personal views could be exchanged. Kennedy decided to ask General Clay to return to West Berlin as his special representative, but McGeorge Bundy warned him that "Clay will be a burden to you if he takes a line more belligerent than yours." Kennedy insisted that his appointment would reassure Berliners. Clay, on the other hand, believed he was being sent to Berlin to take on the Soviets. As soon as he arrived he ordered the building of a concrete wall at a military training school, so his soldiers could practice knocking it down.
Towards the end of October a senior American diplomat and his wife were denied access to East Berlin to attend the theatre, because they refused to show the East German border guards their passports. The four-party agreements that governed the city guaranteed free movement of Allied and Soviet personnel without passport formalities, so Clay sent a squad of armed US soldiers to force the issue and accompany the diplomat in his car into East Berlin. Over the next few days, American jeeps started to convoy US civilians on pointless excursions into East Berlin, each jeep full of battle-ready soldiers ostentatiously flaunting rifles. Ten American M-48 tanks were pulled up near Checkpoint Charlie.
On the morning of 27 October, thirty-three Soviet tanks rolled into East Berlin and halted at the Brandenburg Gate, the first Soviet armour in the city since the uprising of 1953. Ten tanks drove on to Checkpoint Charlie and lined up facing the American armour barely a hundred yards away. For the first time in the Cold War, American and Russian tanks directly faced each other across a tense border. The American gunners loaded their cannons and awaited orders. An alarmed Kennedy spoke with Clay from the White House but assured him of his full support. As the hours passed the situation grew even more tense. The US garrison in West Berlin was on full alert, then NATO was put on alert, then Strategic Air Command. The Soviet military commander had a direct line to the Kremlin. Khrushchev told him that should the Americans use force, he must respond with force. Commanders on both sides were worried that, in all the tension, some nervous soldier would fire his weapon and trigger a shoot-out. A petty dispute over showing passports at a border Ltrossing threatened to escalate into a global conflict.
Both sides realized that the situation had got out of hand. Through the back channel just set up, Kennedy sent a message directly to Khrushchev asking that the Russians withdraw and assuring him that the Americans would do the same.
At Checkpoint Charlie, after a sixteen-hour standoff, the first Soviet tank started up its engine and withdrew five yards. The tension was broken. A few minutes later, an American tank pulled back the same distance. One by one the tanks withdrew. There was another sigh of relief. Clay, however, was done for. General Bruce Clarke, commander of US forces in West Germany, demanded, "What in the hell did Clay think he was doing? You don't spit in the face of a bulldog." NATO's commander was furious that an unplanned dispute had threatened to engulf his forces in a conflict that could not be won. Clay remained in Berlin a few months longer and then was called home. And, without publicity, Washington ordered civilian officials not to visit East Berlin for the time being.
Both sides had decided that the dispute over Berlin was an issue of principle at the heart of their Cold War stance. This threatened the world with nuclear holocaust. Neither side had wanted the Wall, but building it was a way of avoiding direct military conflict. Kennedy said, "It's not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war." Khrushchev too defused the situation; his threat to sign a peace treaty with East Germany was quietly forgotten. He told Ulbricht, the disappointed East German leader, "Steps which would exacerbate the situation, especially in Berlin, should be avoided." The world was left with a concrete symbol of the cruel divisions of the Cold War.
In June 1963, at the end of a trip to West Germany, President Kennedy made a visit to West Berlin. He looked at the Wall, and over it into East Berlin, and then addressed a crowd of a quarter of a million Berliners from the balcony of the town hall, which overlooked the square that later would bear his name.
"There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system but it permits us to make economic progress. Lasst sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.... Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free. When all are free, and we look forward to that day, when this city will be joined as one, and this country, and this great continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe, when that day finally comes, as it will, the people of West Berlin can take sober satisfaction in the fact that they were in the front lines for almost two decades. All free men, a wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore as a free man, I take pride in the words Ich bin ein Berliner." All cheered. Some smiled. Ein Berliner is what they called a popular local doughnut.