The Day Berlin Was Divided: Kennedy Surprised by 'Such Strong American Outrage to the Wall'

US diplomat William R. Smyser was stationed in Berlin when the Wall went up in 1961. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, he explains how President John F. Kennedy was initially relieved by the construction -- and even tried to sell it as a success for the West.

An elderly East German couple is prevented from crossing the border from East Berlin to West Berlin on Aug. 13, 1961, the day the Berlin Wall went up. Zoom
AP

An elderly East German couple is prevented from crossing the border from East Berlin to West Berlin on Aug. 13, 1961, the day the Berlin Wall went up.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Smyser, when the construction of the Berlin Wall began in August 1961, you were serving as a US diplomat in Berlin. What reaction were you expecting from Washington?

Smyser: We all expected President John F. Kennedy to react very strongly to this violation of Allied rights. After all, the Wall -- or the barbed wire that was put up first -- limited our ability to move around Berlin. We were very disappointed when there was no sharp reaction at all from the White House. But the President had gone through the Vienna summit with Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev a few months before, in June of 1961, where the Soviet leader had told him that he wanted to block all Western access to Berlin and wanted the American troops to leave the city. Kennedy feared such a blockage of transit, which might have led to war over Berlin.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So Kennedy was actually relieved when he "only" saw the Wall going up?

Smyser: Kennedy thought to himself that day: Ah, that is the way Khrushchev will solve the refugee problem in East Germany -- where many thousands of people had fled to the West in the previous months. The President said to aides, this is not a very nice solution but it is a hell of a lot better than war. After Kennedy left Vienna, he thought that war was on the horizon. What the Wall showed him was that Khrushchev was solving his refugee problem in a way that would not violate American rights.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The State Department in Washington even tried to frame it as a success for the West.

Smyser: That was one of the craziest things US diplomats ever did. We tried very hard to tell them that this was exactly the wrong message. Dean Rusk, Secretary of State at the time, wanted to say the construction of the wall represents a victory for the West because it showed that the Communists had to imprison their own people. But they only said it once or twice and when everybody scoffed, they retracted it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: To what extent was the West German government aware of Kennedy's thought process?

Smyser: Not at all. But they knew that the Western powers had agreed shortly before that if there was only a stoppage of the refugee problem, for example by the installation of barbed wire or the construction of a wall, that would not trigger a war.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Because Kennedy did not care first and foremost about the people in East Berlin.

Smyser: He was concerned about American lives in Berlin. The President said: German reunification is not an issue. What he worried about in Berlin was Khrushchev's effort to force the Americans out or to shoot down an American plane flying there. He thought that might be a reason for war since he could not accept such hostility due to the strategic importance of Berlin during the Cold War. Kennedy was very concerned about a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, much more than his predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was the first US president who had to cope with the fact that the Soviets could reach America with a nuclear missile.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did Kennedy fear Krushchev?

Smyser: He thought that Khrushchev was irrational. He feared that Krushchev might do something that would lead to war -- and he seemed to Kennedy like a man he couldn't deal with. After the Vienna summit, the President refused several invitations to meet with him again.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: When did Kennedy begin to realize that his initial reaction to the construction of the Wall had been too muted?

Smyser: About 48 hours later. He realized it because in the two days after the construction, almost every American newspaper wrote that this was unacceptable and that it was a big defeat for the United States. They accused Kennedy of appeasement. Leading diplomats cabled the President from Europe: Hope is dying here, you have to do something. That was a real blow to Kennedy. Finally he decided he had to send a brigade to Berlin to avoid a public relations disaster. He did not anticipate American outrage over the construction of the Wall to be so strong.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And the Russians relented. They treated the incoming American brigade with the utmost courtesy and did not seek any further escalation.

Smyser: Khrushchev thought he could not go further at that point. Only later, during the Cuban missile crisis, did he dare to provoke the Americans again. Khrushchev would have even been happy with just the construction of barbed wire. He called the Wall "this hateful thing." The Soviet leader was a strong believer in the glorious future of Communism. And such a future did not include a Wall. When the barbed wire was put up, he did not want more, for fear of economic retaliation by the West.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Kennedy recovered, too. When he travelled to Berlin in the June of 1963, he got a rock star reception. Hundreds of thousands of people cheered him on and listened to his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech.

Smyser: By then, the people in Berlin had obviously not forgotten the Wall and Kennedy's silence about it. But they had begun to learn that Kennedy would defend them and would defend the right of the city to be as it was. They had seen that in the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, which they had perceived as a Russian effort to threaten Kennedy and challenge him on Berlin. When the US President stood up to Khrushchev to force out the Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, people in Berlin told me: "It's all about us." They felt that the Cuban missile crisis had solved the Berlin crisis. Kennedy would have had a very different reception in Berlin just a year earlier. But by 1963, the citizens said: He is a good man, he fought for us. Of course, that only applies to the people in West Berlin. The people in the East continued to be disappointed in him.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Today, we see another young, rather inexperienced president in the White House, Barack Obama. What can Kennedy's early test and his early stumble teach him?

Smyser: Kennedy himself said about the presidency: This job is overwhelming. The situation is somehow different for Obama, he does not have a Khrushchev or a Cuban missile crisis to deal with. But still, he faces other problems like Afghanistan and Iran. The learning curve for a man that age in the White House is enormous. It is easy to make a wrong decision first, because you don't see the complexities and you are simply not experienced enough. Afghanistan and also Iran will be questions where Obama has to figure out what he can or cannot do. Foreign affairs should be the same kind of test for him as it was for Kennedy. Obama is following the Kennedy model of a young inexperienced president who has to learn really fast on the job.

Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz

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About William R. Smyser
William R. Smyser
William R. Smyser is the author of the book "Kennedy and the Berlin Wall: A Hell of a Lot Better than a War" (Rowman and Littlefield, August 2009). The former diplomat held senior positions in the State Department and the White House. He also served as a senior advisor to Henry Kissinger. As an employee of the US Embassy in Berlin, he experienced the events surrounding the construction of the Berlin Wall first hand. Today, Smyser is a professor at Georgetown University and one of the foremost experts on Germany in the United States.


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