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Authors: Frederick Kempe

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Khrushchev concluded beyond any doubt that the Vienna talks had “represented a defeat” for Kennedy. The Kremlin had decided to act and “there was nothing he could do—short of military action—to stop us. Kennedy was intelligent enough to know that a military clash would be senseless. Therefore the United States and its Western Allies had no choice but to swallow a bitter pill as we began to take certain unilateral steps.”

In a nod to his country’s national sport, Khrushchev spoke of himself as a skilled chess player. When the U.S. ratcheted up military pressure in Berlin, he moved in Marshal Konev. “To use the language of chess,” he said, “the Americans had advanced a pawn, so we protected our position by moving a knight.” Khrushchev enjoyed this turn of phrase, because he was also employing a play on words, as the Russian word for a knight in chess is
kon
, or horse, which was the root of Konev’s surname. The pawn referred to Kennedy’s later decision to bring Clay to Berlin.

What he was telling Kennedy, he said, was that “if you insist on holding up the shield of war against us and thwarting us in our intentions, then we’re ready to meet you on your own terms.”

In Vienna, Khrushchev recalled, the president had argued that under the Potsdam Agreement there was only one Germany, which a peace treaty would have to recognize. Yet now he had brought about a de facto Western recognition of two Germanys in as dramatic a manner as he could have imagined.

But Khrushchev was not done yet. Throughout August, encouraged by Kennedy’s inaction, the Soviet leader reinforced East German troop positions and took other actions to hammer home his victory and solidify his position ahead of his Party Congress. He launched Soviet military maneuvers on August 16 that for the first time included nuclear-tipped battlefield missiles in tactical exercises that simulated a potential war over Berlin access. So that the Kennedy administration would not miss his point, for the first time since 1936 the Soviets invited Western military attachés to observe their ground exercises.

The tactical maneuver involved a mobilized battalion of the sort operating around the Berlin Autobahn. The Soviet guide for the attachés told them the rockets were equipped with nuclear warheads. The Soviets even simulated a nuclear cloud over a hypothetical enemy position in the village of Kubinka, west of Moscow.

More dramatic yet, at the end of August, Khrushchev announced that he would break his three-year self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing. Then, two days later, the Soviet Union began new atmospheric blasts that were heard around the world from Semipalatinsk in Central Asia.

“Fucked again,” President Kennedy groaned when he received the news after an afternoon nap.

On August 30, the president met with his military advisers to discuss a potential response. In a gloomy mood, his brother Bobby worried that the Russians “feel strongly that if they can break our will in Berlin that we will never be good for anything else and they will have won the battle in 1961…. Their plan is obviously not to be most popular but to be the most fearsome and terrorize the world into submission.”

Bobby recalled what Chip Bohlen had said at the outset of 1961: “This was the year that the Russians were going to come the closest to nuclear war. I don’t think there is any question but that that is true.” After the meeting, when President Kennedy asked for his brother’s further thoughts, Bobby said, “I want to get off.”

The president didn’t understand him at first.

“Get off what?”

“Get off the planet,” Bobby said.

Bobby joked he was going to discard adviser Paul Corbin’s suggestion that he run against his brother in the 1964 elections. He didn’t want the job.

WEST BERLIN
WEEKEND OF AUGUST
18–20, 1961

It was not the first time Vice President Johnson had been displeased about an assignment from the president. The mission Kennedy wanted him to accept was to lead a morale-building trip to West Berlin with General Lucius Clay. Coming just five days after the border closure, Johnson immediately saw that what the mission lacked in substance it made up for in danger.

Just a few months earlier, Kennedy had made Johnson Chancellor Adenauer’s hand-holder at the LBJ ranch during the botched Bay of Pigs invasion. So when Kennedy phoned during his dinner on August 17 to make the Berlin request, Johnson had responded, “Is that necessary?”

“Yes, it’s necessary,” Kennedy had insisted. It would send the wrong message for the president himself to rush so quickly to Berlin. He had to send a message to the world that the U.S. would not abandon West Berlin, but at the same time he didn’t want to provoke a Soviet response. Kennedy could not publicly express his genuine relief that the communists had closed the border, but at the same time he didn’t want to express false outrage too loudly.

Johnson grew all the more reluctant to make the trip when he learned that part of his mission would be to receive a battle group of 1,500 soldiers in West Berlin, troops who would storm up the Autobahn from Helmstedt, West Germany, to reinforce the 12,000 Allied troops who were already there. Though their paltry numbers might do little to defend Berliners, LBJ knew their arrival would be fraught with risk.

“Why me?” he asked Kennedy’s aide Kenny O’Donnell. “There’ll be a lot of shooting and I’ll be in the middle of it.”

After some coaxing, the vice president took on the mission with a more willing Clay.

During their overnight flight on August 18 on an Air Force Boeing 707, Clay regaled Johnson with stories of his own Berlin heroics back in 1948. He told Johnson he had converted President Truman to that operation, which Clay had begun single-handedly. What he had learned, Clay told Johnson, was that the only way to deal with the Soviets was to stand up to them.

He would tear down the Wall if he were president, he told Johnson. He believed the Korean War might have been avoided if the U.S. had shown the Soviets it was willing to be more aggressive even earlier in Berlin, when Truman had at first refused to allow Clay to bring an armored column down the Autobahn to demonstrate American commitment.

Nothing could have demonstrated just how eager West Berliners were for U.S. reassurance than Johnson and Clay’s joyous reception at Tempelhof Airport, once the stage for the Berlin Airlift. Here they were, a largely powerless vice president and a retired general who commanded no troops, but a police band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” seven U.S. tanks fired a salute, and 100,000 Berliners shouted their approval.

To keep Johnson on message, the White House had scripted every word he would speak publicly with the usual Kennedy poetry. “Divided, you have never been dismayed,” Johnson told Berliners. “Threatened, you have never faltered. Challenged, you have never weakened. Today, in a new crisis, your courage brings hope to all who cherish freedom and is a massive and majestic barrier to the ambitions of tyrants.”

Speaking to the West Berlin city Senate later in the day, Johnson said, “To the survival and creative future of this city we Americans have pledged, in effect, what our ancestors pledged in forming the United States: ‘Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.’ These are the final words of our Declaration of Independence.”

His words electrified a city that had been drained of its energy since August 13. The crowd of 300,000 gathered on the square before City Hall were the same Berliners who had stood depressed and angry just three days earlier before Brandt. Now many of them wept for joy. Even Clay could not hold back tears.

As Johnson made his way from appointment to appointment, he turned from reluctant traveler to eager campaigner, often climbing out of his car to bathe in the glow of an adoring crowd. The intermittent rain could not dissuade him or tens of thousands of West Berliners, whose mood reminded
New York Times
correspondent Sydney Gruson of what he had witnessed during the triumphant liberation of Paris at the end of World War II.

“The city was like a boxer who had thrown off a heavy punch and was gathering stamina for another round….” he wrote. “The Vice President said nothing essentially new. That did not seem to matter. The West Berliners wanted the words said at this time in their city and, above all, they wanted his presence as a tangible expression of the link that sustains them.”

Johnson elicited a huge roar from the crowd when he said the men of the 18th Infantry, 1st Battle Group, were already rolling up the Autobahn to reinforce West Berlin’s garrison.

For Kennedy, the troop deployment was the first moment during the Berlin Crisis when he feared a violent exchange. Though the U.S. contingent was small, he had told White House special counsel Ted Sorensen that he saw the troops as “our hostage to that intent” of U.S. commitment to defend West Berlin.

Kennedy had postponed his usual weekend retreat to Hyannis Port in order to receive reports every twenty minutes during the night as the troops rolled toward Berlin. The Pentagon demanded to have every detail of the planned mission in advance, including each and every rest stop the soldiers would use to relieve themselves on the Autobahn as they drove through East German territory to West Berlin.

Kennedy’s military advisers, Joint Chiefs chairman Lyman Lemnitzer and White House military aide Maxwell Taylor, had opposed sending the reinforcements. British Prime Minister Macmillan considered the gesture politically provocative and military “nonsense.” General Bruce C. Clarke, the sixty-year-old commander of U.S. forces in Europe, who had helped swing World War II’s Battle of the Bulge in America’s favor, also didn’t like the looks of it.

The operation’s commander, Colonel Glover S. Johns Jr., was a proud Texan himself, a former commandant of the Virginia Military Institute and decorated World War II combat commander. Tall, blond, German-speaking, and with a flair for the theatrical, Johns knew his mission had no military value and posed considerable risk. Kennedy had handpicked him because he had heard this was a man who would not lose his cool commanding a small battle group of 1,500 through hostile terrain surrounded by at least a quarter of a million Soviet soldiers.

For all the details his superiors had demanded, none of them had said how Johns should respond if he was fired upon. Without any specific instructions about what weaponry to carry, he had decided himself what to put in the ammunition boxes of each vehicle. As was his habit, Johns also carried his own antique Colt pistol. If hostilities did start, Johns knew, “we were in for certain destruction.” If the Soviets didn’t want them heading up the Autobahn, they would be like lambs heading for slaughter.

While Johns was working out his defense plan, Johnson was working on his footwear. Johnson looked down at Brandt’s fashionable loafers and issued a challenge to the mayor while the two men toured Berlin in an open Mercedes convertible, standing and waving at crowds. “You’ve been asking us for action instead of words,” he said. “I’d like to see whether you can act, too.”

He pointed to the shoes. “Where do you get a pair like that?” he asked.

“I can get a pair like that for you right here in Berlin,” said Brandt, reckoning Berlin’s defense was worth a pair of shoes for America’s vice president.

Shortly after noon on Saturday, August 19, the U.S. embassy in Bonn reached General Bruce Clarke in Heidelberg and informed him that Vice President Johnson would be leaving for home from Berlin at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, whether or not U.S. troop reinforcements had arrived in the city. Clarke protested angrily through his Berlin commander to Washington that Johns and his men could not risk so much if Johnson would not even stay in place to greet them.

National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy phoned Clarke on Saturday night at 7:00 p.m. “General, I understand you’re chewing out everybody in sight because you’re not happy with the vice president leaving before the troops get in.”

“That puts it mildly, Mr. Bundy,” replied Clarke. “The men will go all-out to get there to be received by the vice president.” He couldn’t imagine anything Johnson had to do in Washington that was more important “than to be receiving the troops with all the world watching.” Clarke knew nothing of Johnson’s concerns about the possible dangers.

“What time are you going to have all the men in Berlin?” asked Bundy.

Clarke shot back, “If I could guarantee that, we wouldn’t be having a crisis, would we? Who can say where we may get stopped?”

Bundy replied, “General, I’ll see what we can do.”

At 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, August 20—6:30 a.m. in the White House—and just a week after the border was closed, the first sixty trucks carrying the American soldiers crossed into Berlin without incident. Khrushchev had stood by his commitment not to impede Allied access, aside from a three-hour delay at a checkpoint while Soviet troops head-counted the number of troops who were entering Berlin.

West Berliners greeted Johns’s men like conquering gladiators; thousands waited along bridges and roads. A few hundred Berliners stood with Vice President Johnson, who had opted to delay his departure, at the U.S. checkpoint at Dreilinden, where the Autobahn entered West Berlin. Flowers rained upon them from all directions, surprising and delighting the weary soldiers in their soiled vehicles and battle dress.

Colonel Johns had never seen anything like it, “with the possible exception of the liberation of France.” Johns’s men had been on the road for four days without relief, having been pulled from field maneuvers in West Germany since they were the only fully equipped battle group that was capable of getting to Berlin with such speed. Even as they cruised through a city of cheers, many slept off their exhaustion.

The Soviet response was muted. The Kremlin dismissed the reinforcement as being of “no military significance,” and said it merely put more men “in West Berlin’s mousetrap.” An article in
Pravda
signed “Observer”—which denoted a commentary reflecting Soviet government opinion—said it was “a provocation that cannot be ignored.”

Among the troops stationed in Berlin who watched the show, Military Police Lieutenant Vern Pike was displeased, but for another reason. Like most U.S. soldiers in Berlin, he thought Kennedy and Johnson could have simply pushed the Wall down before it was built without the Soviets’ doing much more than whimpering in retreat.

BOOK: Berlin 1961
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