Daniel Johnson reviews Frederick Kempe's "Berlin 1961"
By Frederick Kempe
Putnam, 608 pages
I was four years old when the Berlin Wall was built. I was 32 when it fell. My generation, the Berlin Wall generation, was not the first to be formed by the uncanny circumstances of the Cold War. The first was that of my parents who had already survived the Second World War. To most of that generation, the division of Europe into Soviet and Western spheres of influence seemed a price worth paying for peace. Indeed, the new threat of nuclear war, with the prospect of destruction on a scale even more terrible than that endured by their grandparents in World War I and their parents in World War II, was enough to attract many of them to join protests that eventually grew into the “peace movement” that lasted until the end of the Cold War.
In due course, my own generation was shaped by the attitudes of our elders. Many of us adopted their causes, from opposition to the Vietnam War in the 1960s to opposition to the medium-range cruise and Pershing missiles whose placement in Europe in the 1980s led to demonstrations that dwarfed anything seen during the protests against the invasion of Iraq. Hardly a moment’s thought was given to the hundred million or more East Europeans who had paid for our peace and prosperity with their liberty and poverty. The “People’s Republics” of the Eastern bloc were actually peopled with hostages: even those who had the opportunity to emigrate to the West dared not flee for fear of the consequences for their families and friends.
I was the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent in Eastern Europe in 1989 when, with the same kind of speed we saw in the collapse of Egypt, East Germany began to crumble. At a press conference on November 9, 1989, when the easing of travel restrictions on East Germans was announced, it fell to me to ask the final question: “What will happen to the Berlin Wall now?” This was the first time the wall itself had been mentioned in the press conference, and I remain astonished and proud that my eight words seemed to encourage the watching East Berliners to go out and demand to be allowed to pass through. Three days later, they began chipping at the wall with pickaxes as the guards who had kept them in bondage for nearly three decades watched, powerless and unwilling to intervene.
Who, though, was to blame for the fact that the suffering populace of East Germany had languished behind it for 28 years? After all, in the decade or so before the Berlin Wall was built, some two million East Germans emigrated to the West. Many more had been able to leave from the other Eastern bloc countries. Those who remained behind did so in part because, encouraged by broadcasts from the BBC, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, they hoped and believed that the West would not abandon them. The shocking conclusion of Frederick Kempe’s new book, Berlin 1961, is that responsibility for the fate of Eastern Europe lies with the president many Americans still revere as the man who saved them from nuclear war: John F. Kennedy.
Kempe knows a great deal about Berlin. His connections began in his mother’s womb: she was a Berliner who, like his father, emigrated from Germany and after the war sent care packages to relations in the East. Later, Kempe reported from the city for the Wall Street Journal, where he worked as a foreign correspondent, columnist, and editor for a quarter century. He is the best kind of old-fashioned journalist who makes sure to tell readers all they need to know, but never too much. As its title suggests, Berlin 1961 focuses on the city that was the only stage where the two superpowers confronted each other directly, but Kempe’s camera pans rapidly across to Washington, Moscow, Vienna, and the other theaters of the Cold War. The day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour account of how Kennedy and his circle of advisers handled the crisis of 1961 is surprisingly fresh, given the quantities of ink already spilled on this briefest of presidencies.
This is not one of those books about Kennedy that dwells in prurient detail on his private life but has nothing to say about his public life: instead, the former is firmly subordinated to the latter. Thus in Kempe’s description of the first Kennedy-Khrushchev encounter at the Vienna summit in June 1961, we learn much about the psychological effects of Kennedy’s ailments and medication, but only to explain how the youthful president was worn down and outmaneuvered by the aggressive tactics employed by Khrushchev. Likewise, the lack of personal chemistry between Kennedy and the octogenarian West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer would not have mattered, except that it caused the president to discount the chancellor’s pleas for German unity as a long-term goal and instead to complain about the cost of maintaining U.S. troops in West Germany. Fearing the danger of an accidental escalation to nuclear conflict, Kennedy had privately resolved there was no point in maintaining the fiction that he could prevent the Russians from building a wall to halt the exodus from East Berlin. That decision had momentous consequences for Europe, not least for Adenauer’s policy of refusing all dealings with East Germany. His younger rival Willy Brandt (whom Kennedy much preferred) would later pursue the now notorious policy of Ostpolitik in order to come to a mutually profitable arrangement with the Eastern bloc that froze the borders until 1989.
In spite of his attention to the foibles of the leaders, Kempe never loses sight of the bigger picture. He deploys his reporter’s vox pop technique to remind the reader of the impact of high diplomacy on lesser mortals. He tells the story of Günter Litfin, the first person to be shot and killed trying to escape East Berlin a few days after the border was closed on August 13—the first of hundreds to die at the wall over the next 28 years. But Kempe also tells the less tragic tale of Marlene Schmidt, the engineer who fled the East in 1960 and became West Germany’s first and only Miss Universe in 1961. Her celebrity was an acute embarrassment for the East German strongman Walter Ulbricht. His propagandists fulminated that whereas East Germans valued Marlene for her skills as an engineer, in America these were ignored: “Now all that matters are her bust, butt, and hips. She is no longer to be taken seriously.”
The overarching thesis of the book, however, is that Kennedy allowed Khrushchev to get away with turning East Germany into a gigantic jailhouse. Kempe argues that Kennedy proved so inept in his first few months as president that Khrushchev gave Ulbricht the go-ahead to build the Wall, thereby breaking the terms of the agreement between the wartime Allies that still governed Berlin. In speeches and other signals, Kennedy had hinted that he cared about the security of West Berlin but was not prepared to defend the right of free passage through Checkpoint Charlie.
The attempt to force such free passage by the use of tanks was made in October 1961 by U.S. General Lucius Clay. His tank formation was met near Checkpoint Charlie by an equal number of Soviet tanks, unmarked to allow for the possibility of retreat. Clay was determined to knock down the still rudimentary wall with bulldozer-mounted tanks. His counterpart, Marshal Konev, knew about Clay’s plans and feared war. World War III was postponed, however, when Kennedy’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, ordered Clay to sound the retreat. Through his brother Bobby, President Kennedy had sent the Kremlin a message: pull out your tanks and we won’t touch the wall.
This marked a historic shift in U.S. policy that allowed the Soviet Union a free hand in Eastern Europe. Only after the confrontation at Checkpoint Charlie did Kennedy realize that, next time, he would have to call Khrushchev’s bluff, and he did so effectively the following year during the Cuban missile crisis. In June 1963, he would travel to Berlin for what may have been his greatest triumph as president: the speech he gave there in front of an ecstatic mob in which he nobly declaimed: “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’?” With his untimely death, however, Kennedy bequeathed his country and the world two fatal legacies: the Vietnam War and the Berlin Wall.
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Must-Reads from Magazine
A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.