In the early hours of Aug. 13, 1961, I was called in my Berlin hotel room to come and see what was happening at the border between East and West Berlin. We had been expecting some move to stem the exodus of people from East Germany that was threatening the viability of the communist state.
What I saw was East German police sealing the sector border with rolls of barbed wire that would soon be replaced by a masonry wall. West Berliners gathered nearby in anger and anguish. For East Berliners, it was the closing of their escape hatch.
Closing the sector border violated the four-power occupation status of Berlin. West Berlin's mayor, Willy Brandt, demanded that the Western allies use tanks to challenge the border closing. But the reaction of the West, especially President Kennedy, was restrained. In Vienna two months earlier, there had been a confrontation with Nikita Khrushchev over Berlin, and the president had been expecting trouble. But not this — that East Germany would, in effect, seal itself in.
Some light on Kennedy's attitude is shed in a new book, Kennedy and the Berlin Wall, by Richard Smyser, who was in the U.S. Mission in Berlin then, and now teaches at Georgetown University.
On that Sunday when East Berlin was closed off, the president, at his home in Hyannis Port, Mass., said, "A wall is not nice, but it's a helluva lot better than a war."
And Assistant Secretary of State Foy Kohler added, "The East Germans have done us a favor."
After almost half a century, it is interesting to be reminded that Kennedy, who risked nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis, could also step away from a confrontation with Khrushchev over Berlin. But Kennedy did send a brigade of troops and Vice President Lyndon Johnson to reassure the jittery Berliners that America would not abandon them.
Two years later, he flew to the besieged city to declare, "Ich bin ein Berliner."
But as the Cold War wound down and President Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall," it became an increasing liability to the dying Soviet bloc. In 1989, the checkpoints were opened up and Berliners danced on the wall, which was soon leveled to the ground.
I visited Berlin a year later and, for the first time in 28 years, could walk through the Brandenburg Gate. And now, a little chunk of wall graces my office.