The timing for this book is exquisite. Fifty years ago this summer, an embattled Soviet leader in a power struggle with an inner-circle hardliner was pushed to offer a young, inexperienced American president an ultimatum—which, if not met, would drastically heat up the Cold War. Nikita Khrushchev, looking over his shoulder at Frol Kozlov and his allies in the Presidium, offered John F. Kennedy an ultimatum on Berlin. And something similar happened much more recently: Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, looking over his shoulder at Vladimir Putin and his allies, offered an ultimatum to Barack Obama on the building of missile defense shields in Central Europe, warning that if Russia is not accommodated the Cold War may be renewed.

Frederick Kempe, a veteran Wall Street Journal editor and reporter and now president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, has written an engaging study of the 1961 Khrushchev/Kennedy standoff over Berlin, presenting the drama in the journalistic, anecdotal, episode-by-episode mode made popular by the late Cornelius Ryan (The Longest Day, The Last Battle). With a chronology that runs from New Year’s Eve 1960 to late October 1961, Kempe provides documentary-style vignettes, ranging from Kennedy’s summit with Khrushchev (“Little Boy Blue Meets Al Capone”) to ordinary people escaping across the Berlin Wall (including the East German soldier dropping his rifle as he leaps into a famous photograph). This moment-by-moment presentation underlines the urgency of events and makes for a readable narrative.

Kempe’s book is the longest second look at the Berlin Crisis in some time—Robert Slusser’s study The Berlin Crisis of 1961 (1973) being its equivalent—although Michael Beschloss widened the topic in 1991 with The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev 1960-63, in which he judged the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 to be an outgrowth of the Berlin crisis a year earlier, a point Kempe agrees with in a lengthy epilogue (“Kennedy’s Berlin crisis had moved to Cuba.”). Slusser was mainly interested in establishing that Khrushchev, who had survived a coup attempt in 1957, was not the rampaging dictator fully in charge of an aggression against the West but was under unbearable pressure from Kozlov and his group of hardliners, from Mao in China, and, especially, from the East German leader Walter Ulbricht, a fundamentalist Marxist who combined the discipline of a Calvin with the true-believer convictions of Lenin. Ulbricht was outraged that hundreds of thousands of East Germans were escaping to West Germany from West Berlin, which was open to East Berlin.

Both Kempe and Slusser confine their studies to a 1961 calendar; but the crisis really began in 1958—as Jack Schick made clear in The Berlin Crisis 1958-1962 (1971)—and the origins go back even further, to the 1948 Berlin airlift when Stalin (then lacking nuclear weapons) tried to cut off West Berlin. Indeed, the real origins go back to World War II, when postwar occupation zones were being arranged. President Franklin Roosevelt, en route to the Tehran conference of 1943, picked up a National Geographic map and drew an enormous American occupation zone in Germany, extending across Northern Germany to Berlin. This large expanse might have made the Berlin crisis impossible. But among other things, a three-power commission (unmindful of FDR’s map) agreed in 1944 on occupation zones closely resembling those that actually developed at the end of the war, with Berlin 110 miles within the Soviet zone. Roosevelt objected, but to no avail: Berlin itself was to be occupied by the allies with each having a zone of occupation there.

In March/April 1945, it became apparent that either the British and Canadians (Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group) or the Americans (General William Simpson’s Ninth Army) could make it to Berlin ahead of the Russians, who were meeting fierce resistance east of the capital. Simpson thought he had the go-ahead from General Omar Bradley; but Bradley and the supreme commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, decided to stick with the Allied military objectives and avoid the massive losses endured by the Red Army. Ike told Stalin and Simpson that the Allies were not headed for Berlin, and while a big chunk of what would eventually become East Germany was overrun by Allied troops who drove to the Elbe River, Berlin was not a part of it.

In late 1958, Khrushchev presented an ultimatum to the Eisenhower administration almost identical to the one he thrust at Kennedy in June 1961: Within six months sign a German peace treaty to fix the boundaries of East Germany and end Allied occupation rights in Berlin prior to its transition to “free city” status. Kempe makes the point that Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, were seasoned, mature men not about to be intimidated by Khrushchev. So they ignored the Soviet leader’s bluster but indicated a willingness to negotiate—a process that fell apart in 1960 when the U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russian territory, embarrassing Khrushchev and Eisenhower alike as they arrived for a summit meeting in Paris. Moreover, both Kempe and Beschloss make the corollary point that Kennedy was lacking in the steadiness, wisdom, and experience required for the trial he faced: Kennedy, wrote Beschloss, “lacked Eisenhower’s consistency, his determination to avoid alarming the American people .  .  . his understanding of the arms race and his domestic political strength.”

Kempe describes a Kennedy badly shaken by the Bay of Pigs fiasco of April 1961. Most historians now maintain that Kennedy rushed unwisely into an early summit with Khrushchev, in Kempe’s view to make up for the Bay of Pigs: “[T]o veteran diplomats, the president’s haste looked restless and naïve.” In bad health, and rattled by the Cuban disaster, Kennedy was “a weary, wounded commander in chief who was inadequately prepared and insufficiently fit for what would face him.” What faced him was the human volcano of the Russian strongman: “Khrushchev’s raw energy was overpowering Kennedy’s more subtle charms.”

Indeed, JFK’s much-advertised charm was no more effective with Khrushchev than FDR’s charm had been with Stalin. “This man is very inexperienced, even immature,” Khrushchev told his interpreter after the first day of the Vienna summit in June. Kennedy left Vienna battered and verbally beaten, threatened, and bullied—a state he admitted to members of his inner circle in frank language. “Kennedy was in over his head,” Kempe writes, describing how the president cried when recalling the event to his brother, Robert. Kempe also considers the state of Kennedy’s health, as manifested during the state visit to France just before the Khrushchev summit, closely following Beschloss’s descriptions of procaine injections from one physician (for excruciating back pains) and amphetamine injections from another. Disagreeing with Robert Dallek—who believes that JFK’s health problems did not affect his presidency—Kempe echoes Beschloss in suggesting that they did, in fact, hinder his performance. Kempe calls his chapter on the Bay of Pigs “Amateur Hour” and mentions Kennedy’s “greater comfort at appearing tough than actually being so,” concluding that Kennedy’s first year in office was “one of the worst inaugural year performances of any modern U.S. president.”

Besides a bungled summit and the Bay of Pigs disaster, Kennedy took the fatal steps, within weeks of assuming office, of escalating American involvement in South Vietnam. Kennedy also went public with his panic, calling for large increases in the defense budget and in military manpower. Yet it was the building of the Berlin Wall in August that got him off the hook, a slap in the face that JFK accepted with relief. But not for long: Khrushchev remembered Kennedy’s fear of nuclear war, which persuaded him to secretly ship offensive nuclear missiles to Cuba the following year, setting off yet another crisis.

James Delmont is the author of the forthcoming The Great Liberal Death Wish.

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