The Berlin Crisis of 1961 (4 June – 9 November 1961) was the last major politico-military European incident of the Cold War about the occupational status of the German capital city, Berlin, and of post–World War II Germany. The U.S.S.R. provoked the Berlin Crisis with an ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of Western armed forces from West Berlin—culminating with the city's de facto partition with the East German erection of the Berlin Wall.
The 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union—the last to be attended by the Communist Party of China—was held in Moscow during the crisis.
Emigration through Berlin "loophole"
After the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe at the end of World War II, some of those living in the newly acquired areas of the Eastern Bloc aspired to independence and wanted the Soviets to leave. Between 1945 and 1950, over 15 million people emigrated from Soviet-occupied eastern European countries to the West. Taking advantage of this route, the number of Eastern Europeans applying for political asylum in West Germany was 197,000 in 1950, 165,000 in 1951, 182,000 in 1952 and 331,000 in 1953. By the early 1950s, the Soviet approach to controlling national movement, restricting emigration, was emulated by most of the rest of the Eastern Bloc, including East Germany. Up until 1953, the lines between East Germany and the western occupied zones could be easily crossed in most places. Consequently, the Inner German border between the two German states was closed, and a barbed-wire fence erected. In 1955, the Soviets passed a law transferring control over civilian access in Berlin to East Germany, which officially abdicated them for direct responsibility of matters therein, while passing control to a government not recognized in the US-allied West. When large numbers of East Germans then defected under the guise of "visits", the new East German state essentially eliminated all travel between the west and east in 1956.
With the closing of the Inner German border officially in 1952, the border in Berlin remained considerably more accessible than the rest of the border because it was administered by all four occupying powers. Accordingly, Berlin became the main route by which East Germans left for the West. The Berlin sector border was essentially a "loophole" through which East Bloc citizens could still escape. The 3.5 million East Germans that had left by 1961 totaled approximately 20% of the entire East German population. The loss was disproportionately heavy among professionals—engineers, technicians, physicians, teachers, lawyers and skilled workers. The brain drain of professionals had become so damaging to the political credibility and economic viability of East Germany that closing this loophole and securing the Soviet-imposed East-West-Berlin frontier was imperative.
In November 1958, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev issued an ultimatum giving the Western powers six months to agree to withdraw from Berlin and make it a free, demilitarized city. At the end of that period, Khrushchev declared, the Soviet Union would turn over to East Germany complete control of all lines of communication with West Berlin; the western powers then would have access to West Berlin only by permission of the East German government. The United States, United Kingdom, and France replied to this ultimatum by firmly asserting their determination to remain in West Berlin and to maintain their legal right of free access to that city.
In May 1959 the Soviet Union withdrew its deadline and instead met with the Western powers in a Big Four foreign ministers' conference. Although the three-month-long sessions failed to reach any important agreements, they did open the door to further negotiations and led to Premier Khrushchev's visit to the United States in September 1959. At the end of this visit, Khrushchev and President Dwight Eisenhower stated jointly that the most important issue in the world was general disarmament and that the problem of Berlin and "all outstanding international questions should be settled, not by the application of force, but by peaceful means through negotiations."
Khrushchev and Eisenhower had a few days together at Camp David, the presidential retreat. There the leaders of the two superpowers talked frankly with each other. "There was nothing more inadvisable in this situation," said Eisenhower, "than to talk about ultimatums, since both sides knew very well what would happen if an ultimatum were to be implemented." Khrushchev responded that he did not understand how a peace treaty could be regarded by the American people as a "threat to peace." Eisenhower admitted that the situation in Berlin was "abnormal" and that "human affairs got very badly tangled at times." Khrushchev came away with the impression that a deal was possible over Berlin, and they agreed to continue the dialogue at a summit in Paris in May 1960. However, the Paris Summit that was to resolve the Berlin question was cancelled in the fallout from Gary Powers's failed U-2 spy flight on 1 May 1960.
Escalation and crisis
Meeting with US President John F. Kennedy in the Vienna summit on June 4, 1961, Premier Khrushchev caused a new crisis when he reissued his threat to sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany, which he said would end existing four-power agreements guaranteeing American, British, and French access rights to West Berlin. However, this time he did so by issuing an ultimatum, with a deadline of December 31, 1961. The three powers replied that no unilateral treaty could abrogate their responsibilities and rights in West Berlin, including the right of unobstructed access to the city.
In the growing confrontation over the status of Berlin, US President John F. Kennedy undercut his own bargaining position during his Vienna Summit negotiations with Khrushchev in June 1961. Kennedy essentially conveyed US acquiescence to the permanent division of Berlin. This made his later, more assertive public statements less credible to the Soviets. As the confrontation over Berlin escalated, Kennedy, in a speech delivered on nationwide television the night of 25 July, reiterated that the United States was not looking for a fight and that he recognized the "Soviet Union's historical concerns about their security in central and eastern Europe." He said he was willing to renew talks. But he announced that he would ask Congress for an additional $3.25 billion for military spending, mostly on conventional weapons. He wanted six new divisions for the Army and two for the Marines, and he announced plans to triple the draft and to call up the reserves. Kennedy proclaimed, "We seek peace, but we shall not surrender."
The same day Kennedy requested an increase in the Army's total authorized strength from 875,000 to approximately 1 million men, along with increase of 29,000 and 63,000 men in the active duty strength of the Navy and the Air Force. Additionally, he ordered that draft calls be doubled, and asked the Congress for authority to order to active duty certain ready reserve units and individual reservists. He also requested new funds to identify and mark space in existing structures that could be used for fall-out shelters in case of attack, to stock those shelters with food, water, first-aid kits and other minimum essentials for survival, and to improve air-raid warning and fallout detection systems.
Vacationing in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Khrushchev was reported to be angered by Kennedy's speech. John Jay McCloy, Kennedy's disarmament adviser, who happened to be in the Soviet Union, was invited to join Khrushchev. It is reported that Khrushchev explained to McCloy that Kennedy's military build-up threatened war.
Erection of the Berlin Wall
During the early months of 1961, the government actively sought a means of halting the emigration of its population to the West. By the early summer of 1961, East German President Walter Ulbricht apparently had persuaded the Soviets that an immediate solution was necessary and that the only way to stop the exodus was to use force. This presented a delicate problem for the Soviet Union because the four-power status of Berlin specified free travel between zones and specifically forbade the presence of German troops in Berlin.
During the spring and early summer, the East German government procured and stockpiled building materials for the erection of the Berlin Wall. Although this extensive activity was widely known, few outside the small circle of Soviet and East German planners believed that East Germany would be sealed off. This material included enough barbed wire to enclose the 96 mile circumference of West Berlin. The regime managed to avoid suspicion by spreading out the purchases of barbed wire among several East German companies, which in turn spread their orders out among a range of firms in West Germany and the United Kingdom.
On June 15, 1961, two months before the construction of the Berlin Wall started, First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party and Staatsrat chairman Walter Ulbricht stated in an international press conference, "Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten!" (No one has the intention to erect a wall). It was the first time the term Mauer (wall) had been used in this context.
On 4–7 August 1961, the foreign ministers of four Western countries (the United States, United Kingdom, France and West Germany) held secret consultations in Paris. The only question on the agenda was how to react to the Soviet provocations in Berlin. In the course of these meetings Western representatives expressed an understanding of the defensive nature of Soviet campaign in Germany, and unwillingness to risk a war.
In less than three weeks the KGB laid on Khrushchev's desk quite accurate descriptions of the Paris talks, well ahead of its rival, the GRU. The intelligence materials correctly noted that, in contrast to the West Germans, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk supported talks with the Soviet Union aimed at preservation of the status quo ante. However, the KGB and GRU warned that pressure in the alliance was forcing the Americans to consider economic sanctions against East Germany and other socialist countries, as well as to accelerate plans for conventional and nuclear armament of their West European allies, including the West German Bundeswehr.
The West had advance intelligence about the construction of the Wall. On 6 August, a HUMINT source, a functionary in the East-German Communist Party (SED), provided the 513th Military Intelligence Group (Berlin) with the correct date of the start of construction. At the 9 August weekly meeting of the Berlin Watch Committee, the Chief of the U.S. Military Liaison Mission to the Commander Group of Soviet Forces Germany predicted the construction of a wall. A 9 August 1961 intercept of SED communications informed the West that there were plans to begin blocking all foot traffic between East and West Berlin. The interagency intelligence Watch Committee assessment said that this intercept "might be the first step in a plan to close the border," which turned out to be correct. The Western mishandling of this intelligence is depicted in the novel The Day Before the Berlin Wall: Could We Have Stopped It? An Alternate History of Cold War Espionage  by T.H.E. Hill.
On Saturday August 12, 1961, the leaders of East Germany attended a garden party at a government guesthouse in Döllnsee, in a wooded area to the north of East Berlin, and Walter Ulbricht signed the order to close the border and erect a Wall.
At midnight the army, police, and units of the East German army began to close the border and by morning on Sunday August 13, 1961 the border to West Berlin had been shut. East German troops and workers had begun to tear up streets running alongside the barrier to make them impassable to most vehicles, and to install barbed wire entanglements and fences along the 156 km (97 mi) around the three western sectors and the 43 km (27 mi) which actually divided West and East Berlin. Approximately 32,000 combat and engineer troops were used in building the Wall. Once their efforts were completed, the Border Police assumed the functions of manning and improving the barrier. The Soviet Army was present to discourage interference by the West and presumably to assist in the event of large-scale riots.
On 30 August 1961, President John F. Kennedy had ordered 148,000 Guardsmen and Reservists to active duty in response to Soviet moves to cut off allied access to Berlin. The Air National Guard's share of that mobilization was 21,067 individuals. ANG units mobilized in October included 18 tactical fighter squadrons, 4 tactical reconnaissance squadrons, 6 air transport squadrons, and a tactical control group. On 1 November, the Air Force mobilized three more ANG fighter interceptor squadrons. In late October and early November, eight of the tactical fighter units flew to Europe with their 216 aircraft in operation "Stair Step", the largest jet deployment in the Air Guard's history. Because of their short range, 60 Air Guard F-104 interceptors were airlifted to Europe in late November. The United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) lacked spare parts needed for the ANG's aging F-84s and F-86s. Some units had been trained to deliver tactical nuclear weapons, not conventional bombs and bullets. They had to be retrained for conventional missions once they arrived on the continent. The majority of mobilized Air Guardsmen remained in the U.S. 
KGB subversion and disinformation plan
On 29 July 1961, KGB chief Alexander Shelepin sent a memorandum to Khrushchev containing an array of proposals to create a situation in various areas of the world which would favor dispersion of attention and forces by the USA and their satellites, and would tie them down during the settlement of the question of a German peace treaty and West Berlin. The multifaceted deception campaign, Shelepin claimed, would show to the ruling circles of Western powers that unleashing a military conflict over West Berlin can lead to the loss of their position not only in Europe, but also in a number of countries of Latin America, Asia and Africa.
Khrushchev sent the memo with his approval to his deputy Frol Kozlov and on August 1 it was, with minor revisions, passed as a directive. The KGB and the Ministry of Defense were instructed to work out more specific measures and present them for consideration by the Central Committee.
The first part of the deception plan must have pleased Khrushchev, who in January 1961 had pledged, before the communists of the whole world, to assist movements of national liberation. Shelepin advocated measures to activate by the means available to the KGB armed uprisings against pro-Western governments.
The destabilizing activities started in Nicaragua where the KGB plotted an armed mutiny through an internal revolutionary front of resistance; in coordination with Fidel Castro's Cubans and with the Revolutionary Front Sandino. Shelepin proposed to make appropriations from KGB funds in addition to the previous assistance $10,000 for purchase of arms. Shelepin planned also the instigation of an armed uprising in El Salvador, and a rebellion in Guatemala, where guerrilla forces would be given $15,000 to buy weapons.
The campaign extended to Africa, to the colonial and semi-colonial possessions of the British and the Portuguese. The KGB promised to help organize anti-colonial mass uprisings of the African population in British Kenya, the British Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and Portuguese Guinea, by arming rebels and training military cadres.
Shelepin suggested to bring to attention of the USA through KGB information channels information about agreements between the USSR, the People's Republic of China, North Korea and North Vietnam about joint military actions to reunify South Korea, South Vietnam, and Taiwan in case of the eruption of armed conflict in Germany. The Soviet General Staff, proposed Shelepin, together with the KGB, should work out the relevant disinformation materials; and reach agreement with Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese friends about the demonstration of military preparations in those areas.
Shelepin also planned to cause uncertainty in government circles of the United States, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Iran about the stability of their positions in the Middle and Near East. He offered to use old KGB connections with the chairman of Kurdistan Democratic Party, Mustafa Barzani, to activate the movement of the Kurdish population of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey for creation of an independent Kurdistan that would include the provinces of aforementioned countries. Barzani was to be provided with necessary aid in arms and money. Given propitious developments, noted Shelepin, it would become advisable to express the solidarity of Soviet people with this movement of the Kurds. The movement for the creation of Kurdistan, he predicted, will evoke serious concern among Western powers and first of all in the UK regarding their access to oil in Iraq and Iran, and in the United States regarding its military bases in Turkey. All that will also create difficulties for Iraqi Prime Minister Gen. Abdul Karim Kassim who had begun to conduct a pro-Western policy.
The second component of Shelepin's grand plan was directed against NATO installations in Western Europe and aimed to create doubts in the ruling circles of Western powers regarding the effectiveness of military bases located on the territory of the Western Germany and other NATO countries, as well as in the reliability of their personnel. To provoke the local population against foreign bases, Shelepin contemplated working with the East German and Czechoslovakian secret services to carry out "active measures" to demoralize servicemen in Western Europe (by agents, leaflets, and brochures), and even by terrorist attacks on depot and logistics stations in West Germany and France.
One of the more imaginative strands in the web of Soviet strategic deception concerned the number and even existence of new types of arms and missiles. Along with the General Staff, the KGB long practiced a dubious combination of super-secrecy and bluffing, thereby producing a series of panicky assessments in the West about a bomber gap and then a missile gap. This time Shelepin asked Khrushchev to assign to his organization and the military the task of making the West believe that the Soviets were absolutely prepared to launch an attack in retaliation for Western armed provocations over West Berlin. The disinformation package included the following tasks:
- to convince the West that Soviet land forces were now armed with new types of tanks; equipped with tactical nuclear weapons;
- to create a conviction among the enemy about a considerable increase of readiness of Rocket Forces and of the increased number of launching pads-produced by the supply of solid liquid ballistic missiles of medium range and by the transfer from stationary positions to mobile launching positions on highways and railroads which secure high maneuverability and survivability;
- to spread a false story about the considerable increase in the number of nuclear submarines with solid-fuel SLBMs;
- to bring to Western attention information about the strengthening of anti-aircraft defense;
- to disorient the enemy regarding the availability in the Soviet Air Forces of new types of combat-tactical aircraft with air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles with a large operational range.
On November 10, Soviet Defense Minister Rodion Malinovsky and KGB Deputy Chief Peter Ivashutin asked the CPSU Central Committee Secretariat to approve, in addition to the crisis contingency planning by the military forces, deceptive steps directed at producing in the adversary's mind "a profound conviction that the Soviet Union firmly intends to use force in response to military provocations of Western powers and has at its disposal all necessary combat means". The KGB took upon itself the task to inform Western intelligence through unofficial channels that the Soviet Union has taken necessary measures to strengthen its troops in Eastern Germany and to arm them with more modern tactical missiles, newer tanks, and other armaments sufficient for the delivery of a quick and crushing response strike on the adversary. Through the same channels KGB intended to increase the adversary's belief in the high maneuverability and mobility of Soviet armed forces and their readiness, in case the West unleashes an armed conflict in Germany, to move within a minimal time up to the battle lines of the European theater and to convey as a proof thereof that this summer, during the exercises in the Near-Carpathian and other military districts, some divisions demonstrated an average speed of advancement of about 110–130 km per day.
Along the lines of Shelepin's proposal, the KGB's military-industrial consultants suggested other disinformation steps. Perhaps echoing Khrushchev's boast that his missiles could hit a fly in the sky KGB proposed to convey to U.S. intelligence the information that during its recent series of atomic tests—in September–October 1961—the Soviet Union successfully tested a super-powerful thermonuclear warhead, along with a system of detecting and eliminating the adversary's missiles in the air.
The KGB laboratories fabricated evidence for U.S. intelligence about the solution in the Soviet Union of the problem of constructing simple but powerful and user-convenient atomic engines for submarines which allow in the short run increasing considerably the number of atomic submarines up to fifteen.
Finally, the KGB received instructions to promote a legend about the invention in the Soviet Union of an aircraft with a close-circuited nuclear engine and its successful flight tests which demonstrated the engine's high technical capacities and its safety in exploitation. On the basis of the Myasishchev M-50 bomber, with consideration of the results of those flight tests, according to this disinformation, a strategic bomber with nuclear engines and unlimited range had been designed.
Stand-off between US and Soviet tanks
The four powers governing Berlin (Soviet Union, United States, United Kingdom, and France) had agreed at the 1945 Potsdam Conference that Allied personnel could move freely in any sector of Berlin. But on 22 October 1961, just two months after the construction of the Wall, the US Chief of Mission in West Berlin, E. Allan Lightner, was stopped in his car (which had occupation forces license plates) while crossing at Checkpoint Charlie to go to a theater in East Berlin. The former Army General Lucius D. Clay, U.S. President John F. Kennedy's Special Advisor in West Berlin, decided to demonstrate American resolve. Clay sent an American diplomat, Albert Hemsing, to probe the border. While probing in a vehicle clearly identified as belonging to a member of the U. S Mission in Berlin, Hemsing was stopped by East German police asking to see his passport. Once his identity became clear, US Military Police were rushed in. The Military Police escorted the diplomatic car as it drove into East Berlin and the shocked GDR police got out of the way. The car continued and the soldiers returned to West Berlin. A British diplomat—British cars were not immediately recognizable as belonging to the staff in Berlin-was stopped the next day and showed his identity card identifying him as a member of the British Military Government in Berlin, infuriating Clay.
Perhaps this contributed to Hemsing's decision to make the attempt again: on 27 October 1961, Mr. Hemsing again approached the zonal boundary in a diplomatic vehicle. But Clay did not know how the Soviets would respond, so just in case, he had sent tanks with an infantry battalion to the nearby Tempelhof airfield. To everyone's relief the same routine was played out as before. The US Military Police and Jeeps went back to West Berlin, and the tanks waiting behind also went home.
|US tanks (foreground) face Soviet tanks at Checkpoint Charlie, on October 27-28, 1961|
|US Tanks facing Soviet Tanks in Berlin October 27, 1961|
Immediately afterwards, 33 Soviet tanks drove to the Brandenburg Gate. Curiously, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev claimed in his memoirs that as he understood it, the American tanks had seen the Soviet tanks coming and retreated. Col. Jim Atwood, then Commander of the US Military Mission in West Berlin, disagreed in later statements. As one of the first to spot the tanks when they arrived, Lieutenant Vern Pike was ordered to verify whether they were indeed Soviet tanks. He and tank driver Sam McCart drove over to East Berlin, where Pike took advantage of a temporary absence of any soldiers near the tanks to climb into one of them. He came out with definitive evidence that the tanks were Soviet, including a Red Army newspaper.
Ten of these tanks continued to Friedrichstraße, and stopped just 50 to 100 metres from the checkpoint on the Soviet side of the sector boundary. The US tanks turned back towards the checkpoint, stopping an equal distance from it on the American side of the boundary. From 27 October 1961 at 17:00 until 28 October 1961 at about 11:00, the respective troops faced each other. As per standing orders, both groups of tanks were loaded with live munitions. The alert levels of the US Garrison in West Berlin, then NATO, and finally the US Strategic Air Command (SAC) were raised. Both groups of tanks had orders to fire if fired upon.
It was at this point that US Secretary of State Dean Rusk conveyed to General Lucius Clay, the US commanding officer in Berlin, that "We had long since decided that Berlin is not a vital interest which would warrant determined recourse to force to protect and sustain." Clay was convinced that having US tanks use bulldozer mounts to knock down parts of the Wall would have ended the Crisis to the greater advantage of the US and its allies without eliciting a Soviet military response. His views, and corresponding evidence that the Soviets may have backed down following this action, support a more critical assessment of Kennedy’s decisions during the crisis and his willingness to accept the Wall as the best solution.
With KGB spy Georgi Bolshakov serving as the primary channel of communication, Khrushchev and Kennedy agreed to reduce tensions by withdrawing the tanks. The Soviet checkpoint had direct communications to General Anatoly Gribkov at the Soviet Army High Command, who in turn was on the phone to Khrushchev. The US checkpoint contained a Military Police officer on the telephone to the HQ of the US Military Mission in Berlin, which in turn was in communication with the White House. Kennedy offered to go easy over Berlin in the future in return for the Soviets removing their tanks first. The Soviets agreed. In reality Kennedy was pragmatic concerning the Wall: "It's not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war."
A Soviet tank moved about 5 metres backwards first; then an American tank followed suit. One by one the tanks withdrew. But General Bruce C. Clarke, then the Commander-in-Chief (CINC) of U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR), was said to have been concerned about Clay's conduct and Clay returned to the United States in May 1962. Gen. Clarke's assessment may have been incomplete, however: Clay's firmness had a great effect on the German population, led by West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.
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- Berlin Crisis of 1961
- The Wall, 1958-1963
- Forty Years Crisis
- First strike options and the Berlin Crisis
- The 1961 Berlin Crisis and Soviet Preparations for War in Europe
- Khrushchev’s Secret Speech on the Berlin Crisis, August 1961
- Khrushchev and the Berlin Crisis (1958-1962)
- Conference: "From Vienna to Checkpoint Charlie: The Berlin Crisis of 1961"
- The short film Big Picture: Operation Readiness is available for free download at the Internet Archive [more]
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