East German leader Walter Ulbricht had never written a letter of greater consequence. He wanted Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to quit making excuses, to quit dithering and to finally launch a bold Berlin move that would stop the refugee bleed and his country’s economic decline.
Though his letter to Khrushchev was marked SECRET, Ulbricht intended it to circulate among all the top Soviet leadership and communist allies around the world. Ulbricht argued the time was right for forceful Berlin action because President-elect Kennedy, who would be inaugurated in two days, would go to great lengths to avoid a confrontation during his first year in office. Adenauer would want to maintain peace as well before his September elections, Ulbricht wrote.
The East German leader then brazenly issued would he called his country’s “demands.” Writing more as the ruler than the ruled, he listed what he expected of Khrushchev in the coming year. He wanted him to end postwar Allied occupation rights in West Berlin, bring about the reduction and then withdrawal of Western troops, and ensure the removal of Western radio stations and spy services with all their subversive influences. His catalog of expectations was lengthy and detailed.
Back in Washington, it was fashionable to speak of Ulbricht and other Soviet clients as puppets. However, it was Ulbricht who had begun to pull the strings. His East Germany depended on the Kremlin for its existence, but the Stalinist Ulbricht looked down on Khrushchev as an ideologically weak and intellectually deficient. Khrushchev would have preferred the economically stronger West Germans as allies, but he was stuck with the impertinent, disloyal and inflexible Ulbricht.
Yet the two men were increasingly co-dependent. With each downward spin of the East German economy, with each additional day of the refugee exodus, their personal fates become more closely intertwined. The West German economic miracle wasn’t just creating a growth, export and job boom, it was at the same time making the Soviet system look ever less attractive. In Berlin–the only place where the two systems came together without intermediation–the result was that the best and brightest of East Germany were voting with their feet for freedom.
To Ulbricht’s increasing frustration, however, Khrushchev was still dithering, though through his Berlin ultimatum of 1958 he had threatened the West he would change the city’s status unilaterally within six months if the West would not negotiate a change. Now he was postponing action again, explaining to Ulbricht that he first wanted to meet with America’s new president and test his willingness to negotiate Berlin’s future.
Ulbricht argued that time had run out. “The booming economy in West Germany…is the primary reason that in the last ten years around two million people have left our republic,” he wrote. If Khrushchev did not provide him an additional emergency credit right away, Ulbricht threatened, “We would enter into such a serious situation in supplies and production that we would be faced with serious crisis manifestations.”
Ulbricht was combining maximalist demands with threats of dire consequences if Khrushchev failed to act. Khrushchev had barely survived a 1957 coup attempt that had followed the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Ulbricht knew the Soviet leader could not ignore that sort of warning.
Just for good measure, Ulbricht dispatched a high-level mission to visit China on the same day that he sent his letter to Khrushchev. Given Ulbricht’s insider knowledge of Khrushchev’s ugly, new dispute with China’s Mao Tse Tung, it was an unfriendly act in both timing and execution.
Fred Kempe is president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. His latest book, Berlin 1961, was published May 10. This blog series originally published by Reuters.