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The Cuban Missile Crisis 50th Anniversary: The Berlin Crisis, the Bay of Pigs, and the Soviet Bluff Called

Part 2 of a series on the anniversary of the 1962 confrontation

As if the unequal East-West strategic nuclear forces balance was not enough of a problem, Nikita Khrushchev was also dealing with a new U.S. president, and the relationship was immediately a bad one that got worse quickly. In January 1961, the even-handed, levelheaded, agile-minded President Dwight D. Eisenhower had handed over power to the brilliant, but reckless and aggressive, President John F. Kennedy. Younger than Khrushchev’s oldest son Sergei, John Kennedy was a committed anti-communist, more than willing to find ways in which to confront the USSR and its proxies around the globe, and even in outer space. In just six months, Kennedy approved the Central Intelligence Agency‘s (CIA’s) plans, developed during the Eisenhower administration, to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, had a confrontational summit with Khrushchev in Vienna, committed the U.S. to a space race to the moon against the USSR, and ramped up covert support against the Cubans and North Vietnamese, along with insurgencies in Laos and Cambodia. In Khrushchev’s eyes, Kennedy and the U.S. were behaving unpredictably in just what they might do next on the world stage.

“Let every nation know… that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

– President John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, Jan. 20, 1961

The Soviet leadership was about to find out.

President John F. Kennedy

President John F. Kennedy addressing the nation from the Oval Office during the Berlin Crisis on July 25th, 1961. John F. Kennedy Library photo by Cecil Stoughton

In Berlin that summer and fall, the East-West confrontation became face-to-face as East Germany erected a security wall around the entire perimeter of the Western Zone of the city. Designed to stem the flow of skilled workers from East Germany and the rest of the Warsaw Pact to the West, the Soviets viewed the “Berlin Wall” as a means to keep East Germany from imploding. The West saw it very differently, however, and treated the massive construction project as a major escalation in the East-West confrontation. Kennedy further escalated the crisis as he continued to call up National Guard and Reserve units, and proceeded to order the largest military buildup in U.S. history.

Kennedy further escalated the crisis as he continued to call up National Guard and Reserve units, and proceeded to order the largest military buildup in U.S. history.

And then, in the Fall of 1961, the Berlin Crisis went really bad….

Checkpoint Charlie

U.S. soldiers from the U.S. Army Berlin Command face off against East German police during one of several standoffs at Checkpoint Charlie in 1961. On several occasions that year, a U.S. quick reaction force of tanks and infantry soldiers stood watch as armed military policemen escorted U.S. personnel across the border into East Berlin. U. S. Army photo

On Oct. 22, two months after construction of the Wall began, the U.S. Embassy’s Chief of Mission was stopped entering East Berlin on his way to a theater, a major diplomatic violation of the original Berlin agreement from the Potsdam Conference in 1945. This led to a series of back and forth incidents, which culminated on Oct. 27 when the same diplomat attempted to again cross into East Berlin, this time escorted by an Army infantry battalion with tanks. The Soviets responded with their own tank battalion, and suddenly a horrified world was faced with pictures of American M48 Patton and Soviet T-55 main battle tanks facing off just yards apart at Checkpoint Charlie. U.S./NATO alert levels were raised, and the Strategic Air Command brought to a war footing. Just that quickly, the world was on the brink of World War III.

Suddenly a horrified world was faced with pictures of American M48 Patton and Soviet T-55 main battle tanks facing off just yards apart at Checkpoint Charlie.

Both the Americans and Soviets had to work quickly to keep events from spiraling out of control and armed conflict erupting. Kennedy in particular was having trouble within his own administration, with Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Gen. Lucius Clay, the popular U.S. military commander in Berlin, bickering on how to handle the standoff. The face off at Checkpoint Charlie was eventually resolved by negotiating through personal back channels. As a sign that both sides wanted to end the confrontation, the Soviets moved one of their tanks back five meters, followed with a similar withdrawal by one of the American tanks. Then, one-by-one, the tanks on both sides returned to their garrisons. This ended the “hot” portion of the 1961 Berlin Crisis, but the slow simmer of the Cold War continued through the fall and winter of 1961 and into 1962.

Berlin Crisis

U.S. Army soldiers from the U.S. Army Berlin Command face off against East German police at Checkpoint Charlie in 1961 during the midst of the Berlin Crisis. U.S. Army photo

In late September 1961, while the Berlin Crisis was reaching its climax, the CIA Board of Estimates delivered a long awaited assessment to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara: NIE 11-8/1-61. Entitled Strength and Deployment of Soviet Long Range Ballistic Missile Forces, NIE 11-8/1-61 stripped aside any remaining doubts about Khrushchev’s strategic missile Maskirovka. Within weeks, every important decision maker in the U.S. government had a copy of NIE 11-8/1-61 and had read it from cover to cover. On Oct. 21, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatrick gave a discreet speech in Hot Springs, Va., which laid out the basic points of NIE 11-8/1-61. The following week, McNamara himself gave a television interview that reiterated the findings of NIE 11-8/1-61. This sudden infusion of strategic insight immediately gave Kennedy and his “New Frontiersmen” a new willingness to take risks and push back against Soviet actions around the world. The face-to-face confrontation in Berlin was just the first of a yearlong string of aggressive U.S. acts that would force Khrushchev and the USSR into a strategic corner, and take the world into crisis on a small Caribbean island in October 1962.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...