Ben de Alvarez
Research on the Global Cold War
18 September 2017
Western Reaction to the Berlin Wall
Perhaps the most critical moment of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall crisis of 1961 presented a precarious quandary for John F. Kennedy and his administration. Since the division of Germany post World War II, thousands of East Germans fled the Soviet controlled German Democratic Republic to seek economic opportunity in West Germany. Berlin was the main route of passage to the West because it was occupied by all four controlling powers (France, Great Britain, United States and Soviet Union). Many of these emigrants were young, well-educated citizens attracted to the growing capitalist economy in the West. The exodus of vital professionals from East Germany prompted Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev to order the building of the Berlin Wall, which prevented migration between East and West Berlin. Construction of the wall took place on August 13th, 1961, just four months after the Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba. If the Kennedy Administration wished to avoid another defeat in the struggle against Communism, why did they not intervene to prevent the construction of the Wall? This essay will draw upon Manfred Wilkes’ The Path to The Berlin Wall and W.R. Smyser’s Kennedy and the Berlin Wall to help examine the reasoning behind the United States’ tolerance of the Wall. Kennedy did not want to act too impulsively and cause another World War, but also did not want to appear weak and encourage further aggression from Khrushchev. While the threat of another World War was a central reason for allowing the Wall to stand, it also represented a moral victory for the West and prevented another devastating war in Europe.
As tensions increased between the United States and USSR, Khrushchev and Kennedy met face to face for the first time at the Vienna Summit on June 4th, 1961. The meeting quickly turned contentious when Khrushchev revealed his intention to sign a separate peace treaty with the GDR. The treaty would grant the GDR control of Berlin, forcing the Western Allies to negotiate with Ulbricht and the GDR for control of West Berlin. Kennedy viewed this treaty as a “belligerent act”, stating that “We are not in Berlin by agreement of East Germans but by contractual rights” (Wilke 217). Despite Kennedy’s strong stance on the U.S. retaining its position in West Berlin, Khrushchev insisted that “the decision to sign a peace treaty is firm and irrevocable and the Soviet Union will sign it in December if the US refuses an interim agreement” (Wilke 218). The Vienna Summit ended with U.S.-Soviet tensions at an all-time high. If Khrushchev followed through with the treaty, the U.S. would have likely been forced into military action to retain their contractual rights to West Berlin and maintain the world’s respect as a super power. Thus, Kennedy felt relieved when the Wall appeared a few months later because “Khrushchev had solved his most urgent problem without...