Among those closest to him, President John F. Kennedy did not hide his relief after East German forces, with the approval of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, sealed the Berlin border in the early morning hours of August 13 in an operation of stunning speed and German efficiency.
After all, in many respects Kennedy had written the script for how Khrushchev had executed the operation – staying strictly within the bounds of what the U.S. President had made clear he would accept. From the time of their meeting at the Vienna Summit two months earlier, Kennedy had been sending clear messages that he could live with a border closure in Berlin if the Soviet leader didn’t disrupt West Berlin access or freedom.
And during the August 13 border closure and the hours that followed, the East Germans had been careful to erect their barbed wire barriers entirely within East Berlin territory – leaving checkpoints through which allied personnel were allowed to pass. For both Kennedy and Khrushchev, the flood of refugees out of East Germany, which the border closure was designed to stop, was more of a political inconvenience than a point of difference.
For Kennedy, the refugees – leaving by July at a rate often of more than 2,000 a day, reaching a total of 2.8 million since 1945 — were so destabilizing the fragile status quo of a divided Europe that they stood on the way of potential negotiations with the Soviets on a nuclear test ban and other matters Kennedy considered of greater importance than East Berliners’ freedom, which he felt he couldn’t defend anyway. For Khrushchev, addressing the refugee threat was existential: to the viability of East Germany, to Communist ideology, and to his own hold on the power.
In the week before the August 13 border closure, Kennedy had said to Walt Rostow, a White House economic adviser, “Khrushchev is losing East Germany. He cannot let that happen. If East Germany goes, so will Poland and all of Eastern Europe. He will have to do something to stop the flow of refugees. Perhaps a wall. And we won’t be able to prevent it.”
Kennedy would later say of Khrushchev to his friend and aide Kenny O’Donnell, “This is his way out of his predicament. It’s not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”
However, if Kennedy thought he was reducing tensions with the Soviets by acquiescing to the Wall, he instead achieved the opposite.
Khrushchev congratulated himself on having outmaneuvered the U.S, the British and the French without military conflict, political backlash, or even the most modest of economic sanctions. His son Sergei saw him initially sigh with relief and then grow more delighted over time as he reflected upon his achievement.
Encouraged by Kennedy’s inaction, Khrushchev pushed his advantage. The Soviet leader reinforced East German troop positions and, on August 16, launched Soviet military maneuvers that simulated war over Berlin, which for the first time included nuclear-tipped battlefield missiles. More dramatic yet, Khrushchev announced he would break his three-year self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing and then launched atmospheric blasts that were heard around the world from Semipalatinsk in Central Asia.
When he received the news after an afternoon nap, Kennedy groaned, “Fucked again.”
Some 14 months later, Kennedy would face the nuclear showdown over the Cuban Missile Crisis he had hoped his acquiescence in Berlin would help him avoid. Instead, it had encouraged Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that he could move nuclear weapons within close reach of Washington and New York with impunity.