Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Berlin Crises (1958–1961)

Continual disagreement over the control of Berlin between the Soviet bloc and the Western Allies had begun in earnest in the late 1940s, culminating in the Berlin Blockade (1948–1949). Then, following a period of relative—if tense—calm, renewed Cold War tensions transformed the city into one of the world's potential flash points during 1958–1961.

With Soviet prestige dramatically boosted by the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to revive the issue of Berlin. On 10 November 1958, he sought to end the joint-occupation agreement in the city by demanding that Great Britain, France, and the United States withdraw their 10,000 troops from West Berlin. He also declared that the Soviet Union would unilaterally transfer its occupation authority in Berlin to the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) if a peace treaty were not signed with both East and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) within six months. West Berlin would then become a free city. Khrushchev couched his demands by portraying West Berlin's proposed free-city status as a concession because it lay in East German territory and therefore properly belonged to the GDR. None of the Western powers, however, formally recognized East Germany, viewing it as a mere subsidiary of the Soviet Union.

The United States flatly rejected Khrushchev's demands, although other Western powers initially tried to meet some of the Soviet leader's demands by proposing an interim Berlin agreement that placed a limit on Western forces and curtailed some propagandistic West Berlin activities, such as radio broadcasts that targeted East German audiences. These Allied proposals would have given the Soviets and East Germans some measure of power in West Berlin, a concession that many West Berliners viewed as a highly dangerous step toward neutralization and, ultimately, abandonment. In December 1958, the Allies issued a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) declaration rejecting Soviet demands and insisting that no state had the right to withdraw unilaterally from an international agreement.

Khrushchev gradually retreated from his hard-line stance on Berlin. American U-2 overflights of the Soviet Union indicated that the West had an accurate count of the comparatively small number of Soviet nuclear missiles, and the Soviet leader obviously feared starting a war that he could not win. The Soviets now envisioned a gradual crowding out of the Western powers without bloodshed. In the meantime, the economic situation in East Germany continued to deteriorate, with vast numbers of refugees continuing to flee to the West.

In 1961, the newly elected U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, abandoned the demand for German unification that had been part of the U.S. policy since the 1940s. His foreign policy team had drawn the conclusion that such a policy was not only impractical but might actually provoke a U.S.-Soviet war. Kennedy and his advisors decided that only three interests were worth the risk of nuclear war: the continued Allied presence in West Berlin, Allied access to West Berlin by land and by air, and the continued autonomous freedom of West Berlin. Realizing that a rather inconsequential event and a sequence of mutually threatening and unnecessary mobilizations had led to World War I in 1914, Kennedy worried constantly that a relatively minor incident in Germany could escalate into World War III.

Meanwhile, GDR leader Walter Ulbricht decided to close the East Berlin borders in an attempt to exercise control over all traffic to and from Berlin, including Allied military as well as German civilian travelers. On 13 August 1961, East German authorities began the construction of the Berlin Wall, essentially sealing off East Berlin from West Berlin and permanently bifurcating the city. Ulbricht sought to control not only what went into East Berlin but also what came out as well, including thousands of East Germans who sought refuge in West Berlin. The Soviets and the East Germans had wagered that the West would not react to the construction of the Wall. Kennedy, in accordance with his policy, offered little resistance. Emboldened, Ulbricht began to take further measures to assert control over Berlin.

Ten days after closing the border, the GDR allowed tourists, diplomats, and Western military personnel to enter East Berlin only via the crossing point at Berlin Friedrichstrasse. The only other two checkpoints into East Germany were Helmstedt at the West German–East German border and Dreilinden at the West Berlin–East Germany border. According to the military's phonetic alphabet, the Helmstedt checkpoint became Alpha, Dreilinden was nicknamed Checkpoint Bravo, and the checkpoint at Friedrichstrasse was famously dubbed Charlie. Checkpoint Charlie would soon become one of the best-known symbols of the Cold War.

At all of the East German checkpoints tourists were fully screened, but the postwar occupation agreement prevented East German authorities from checking any members of the Allied military forces. On 22 October 1961 Allan Lightner, chief of the U.S. Mission in Berlin, attempted to pass through Checkpoint Charlie to attend the opera in East Berlin. East German police stopped Lightner and asked him for identification. Lightner, following long-standing instructions, stated that he was a member of the U.S. occupation authority as shown by his U.S. Mission license plate and that he therefore did not have to provide identification. The East German police refused to let Lightner pass. General Lucius D. Clay, the hero of the Berlin Airlift and now President Kennedy's personal representative in West Berlin, immediately dispatched a squad of U.S. soldiers to the site. With that, Lightner's car went through the checkpoint, backed up, and went through it again and again to make the point that U.S. officials were going to move freely. Although Kennedy was reluctant to precipitate a crisis over a somewhat trivial affair, Clay nonetheless ordered tanks to the checkpoint, while the Soviet military brought in its own tanks to oppose them on the other side.

The 1961 Checkpoint Charlie incident thus proved that the Soviets, not the East Germans, were actually in charge of East Germany. The photos of American and Soviet tanks facing each other at the checkpoint on 25 October became one of the most memorable images of the Cold War. The confrontation boosted the morale of West Berliners because it clearly showed that the Allies, particularly the United States, would not yield to East German or Soviet pressure tactics. It also unmasked the charade of an independent and autonomous GDR that could deal on an equal basis with the Western powers.

Caryn E. Neumann


Further Reading
Bamberg, James. British Petroleum and Global Oil, 1950-75: The Challenge to Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.; Murphy, David E., Sergei A. Kondrashev, and George Bailey. Battleground Berlin: CIA vs. KGB in the Cold War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.; Smyser, W. R. From Yalta to Berlin: The Cold War Struggle over Germany. New York: St. Martin's, 1999.
 

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