The justification for the Wall
In a number of speeches and texts, Ulbricht and Khrushchev both gave clear justification for their action. The reasons given were interesting:
The Wall was built to protect East Germany and the socialist states of Eastern Europe from attack. It was claimed that West Germany was planning revenge attacks, and that some of the commanders of the West German army were former supporters of Hitler.
Many Western spies and secret agents were using West Berlin as an easy access point to Eastern Europe to carry out their activities. Again, East Germany needed to be protected from this.
Acts of sabotage were being carried out in East Germany by saboteurs crossing from the West through Berlin. Clearly, East Germany needed to guard against this. Interestingly, this claim may have been linked to the dire state of economic progress in East Germany.
‘White Slavery’: young East German girls were being enticed into prostitution by the dregs of West German capitalist life – these innocent young women had to be protected from this.
All of these, and other reasons, were repeated regularly by the East, as justification for the construction of the Berlin Wall. The reason for the action was overwhelmingly clear, they claimed – it was to protect East Germany.
No reference was ever made, by the communists, to the huge drain of population to the West. Moreover, they never released any figures showing how many West Germans were crossing to the East.
Why did NATO not take action?
Many West Germans asked this question – surely NATO, with its immense military power, should have been able to do something?
NATO could do nothing. To have used force, to have physically demolished the Wall, would have risked war with the USSR – possibly World War III – NUCLEAR war! This, of course, was the one development that, throughout the Cold War, the leaders of the Superpowers were always determined to avoid. Kennedy knew this, and so did Khrushchev.
In a strange, twisted and horrible way, Khrushchev’s action in authorising the building of the Wall even made sense. The Russians had a problem – one of their satellite states was in trouble – they would have to try and solve this problem, without starting World War III. Kennedy understood this fully, and feared that it would be impossible for them to achieve this outcome, and that
war might follow. The construction of the Wall solved the problem for the East – there would not be a war, to the immense relief of both sides.
NATO’s position was also fairly clear. NATO was above all a defensive alliance. It took effect if a NATO member was attacked … if force was used against a NATO state – if it was invaded.
No NATO member had been attacked … the Wall was on the Eastern side of the frontier – sometimes by only a couple of feet, but it was in East German territory. Consequently, there was no aggression for NATO to respond to.
1. Outline, in your own words, how the Western powers responded to the construction of the Berlin Wall.
2. Explain how East Germany justified the construction of the Wall.
3. In your opinion, how serious was the risk of war between the Superpowers over the Berlin Crisis of 1961?
The winner of the exchange?
So, which side had come out of the crisis as the winner? Clearly, the Russians and the East Germans could claim a victory. The Wall had been built, the borders with West Berlin had been closed, East Germany had been ‘saved’.
The United States and NATO had been powerless to stop them.
The communist bloc had achieved success – but, perhaps not a victory about which it would wish to boast.
Berlin was now a totally divided city, divided physically by the Wall. Families, friends, relations, communities were split apart by it. Attempts were still sometimes made to cross to the West – some of these attempts ended tragically, with the deaths of the would-be escapees at the hands of the East German guards.
The Berlin Wall lasted until the Cold War itself came to an end. Ugly, crude, and brutal, covered with graffiti on the Western side, it remained probably the most powerful symbol, in Europe at least, of the immense gulf between
the two rival ways of life, communism and capitalism. Perhaps the final comment can be left to President John F Kennedy, on his visit to West Berlin in 1963. He stated then that, if there were any who did not truly comprehend the differences between the two rival ways of life, then … ‘Let them come to Berlin’
From a Decree by the East German Council of Ministers, 12 August 1961 (printed in the New York Times 14 August 1961)
‘The interests of preserving peace demand that an end be put to the machinations of the West German revanchists (revenge seekers) and militarists …
The Adenauer government is systematically carrying out, with regard to the German Democratic Republic, preparations for a civil war.
The citizens of the GDR … are being increasingly subjected to terroristic persecution.
West German espionage organisations are systematically luring citizens of the GDR and organising regular slave traffic …
The West German revanchists and militarists are attempting to damage not only the GDR but also other states of the socialist camp by means of hostile propaganda and by sabotage …
To put an end to the hostile activities of the revanchists and militarist forces of West Germany and West Berlin, controls are to be introduced on the borders of the GDR, including Berlin … to block the way to these subversive activities.’
How fully does Source 1 explain East German and Soviet concerns about the situation in Berlin in 1961?
Reminder: You are being asked to place the source in its wider context.
From an address by Willy Brandt, the Mayor of West Berlin, to the Berlin Parliament, 13 August 1961
‘The measures decreed and introduced by the Ulbricht regime at the invitation of the Warsaw Pact States, for sealing off the Soviet Zone and the Soviet Sector from West Berlin are a scandalous injustice. They mean that not only a sort of State boundary but the outer wall of a concentration camp is drawn right across Berlin.
With the approval of the Eastern Bloc States, the Ulbricht regime is making the Berlin situation much worse, and is overriding yet again legal obligations and the needs of humanity.
The Berlin Parliament protests in the face of the world against the illegal and inhuman measures taken by the partitioners of Germany, the oppressors of East Berlin, and the menacers of West Berlin.’
Compare the views expressed in Sources 1 and 2 on the construction of the Berlin Wall.
Reminder: Try to make an overall comparison, and then a point-by-point comparison.
From the speech given by President John F Kennedy in West Berlin, 26 June 1963
‘I am proud to come to this city as the guest of your distinguished Mayor who has symbolised through the world the fighting spirit of West Berlin …
There are many people in the world who really don’t understand … what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin …
There are some who say ‘We can work with the Communists’. Let them come to Berlin …
While the Wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failure of the Communist system, all the world can see that we take no satisfaction in it, for it is … an offence not only against history, but an offence against humanity, separating families, dividing husbands and wives and brothers and sisters, and dividing a people who wish to be joined together …
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.’’
To what extent does President Kennedy in Source 3 explain US attitudes towards the Berlin Crisis?
Reminder: Here you are being asked to place a source in its wider context.
Section 8: The Cuban Missiles Crisis, 1962
‘13 days that shook the world’
The Cuban Missile Crisis lasted from 16 to 28 October 1962.
It was the closest that the world ever came to nuclear war between the USSR and the USA.
Cuba is a medium-sized island in the Caribbean – it is 90 miles from Florida.
For many years, Cuba had been ruled by a military dictatorship led by General Fulgencio Batista.
Batista’s government was highly corrupt and inefficient – opposition movements were suppressed ruthlessly.
The majority of Cubans lived in poverty, with low standards of living, and poor education and health services. Batista and his supporters lived in great wealth and luxury.
American business had invested heavily in Cuba, particularly in sugar cultivation. Organised crime in the USA, the Mafia, had powerful influence in Cuba, and influence over members of Batista’s government.
Fidel Castro was a lawyer who became actively involved in opposition to the Batista regime. In 1953, he made an unsuccessful attempt to seize power, and was arrested and imprisoned – and later expelled from Cuba.
In the later 1950s, Castro returned to Cuba, and this time began to build up support among the poor peasant farmers. Castro was a skilled and intelligent political leader and, gradually, he began to achieve success. By 1959, Castro
had built up powerful guerrilla forces, and was driving back Batista’s army. In January 1959, Castro’s forces entered Havana, the capital of Cuba – Batista fled.
Castro in power
Castro began a major programme of reforms in Cuba, aiming to redistribute the country’s wealth more fairly, and to improve standards of health and education. Schools and hospitals were built, and living standards improved for ordinary Cubans.
He also ordered a major distribution of land to the peasant farmers. This involved seizing the large sugar plantations owned by US business interests.
This led to a serious deterioration in relations with the United States, which began to denounce Castro as a communist. In 1961, Cuba and the USA ended diplomatic relations. The USA also refused to buy the Cuban sugar crop, causing big economic problems for Castro, who desperately needed funds to support his social reforms.
The Bay of Pigs Crisis
When he became president in January 1961, John F Kennedy was informed of a plot to overthrow Castro. This had been organised by the US Central Intelligence Agency, with the collaboration of a group of Cuban exiles opposed to Castro. These exiles had received military training and weapons from the USA. Kennedy was assured that Castro was deeply unpopular and hated by the Cuban people, and would easily be toppled from power.
In April 1961, the Cuban exiles staged their invasion at the Bay of Pigs, on the west coast of Cuba. The scheme was a disastrous failure. Castro’s forces easily defeated the invaders and it became clear that his government had the support of the Cuban people.
Effects of the Bay of Pigs
This was a major embarrassment for the USA and for President Kennedy. An attempt had been made to interfere in the affairs of a neighbouring country – and it had failed disastrously. Kennedy was strongly criticised by his political opponents inside the USA. In Russia, Khrushchev began to regard Kennedy as a weak and ineffectual leader, who followed bad advice.
In Cuba, the USA was now regarded as a major threat. Castro was genuinely concerned at the possibility of further American attempts to remove him, and
began to look for support elsewhere. He soon found out that the USSR was very willing to help him.
The Russians agreed to supply aid, and to buy the Cuban sugar crop. Russian advisers, technicians, and engineers were sent to Cuba, and were warmly received.
In effect, the Americans had driven Castro towards the Russians.
In July 1962, Castro visited Moscow to increase links with the USSR, and to negotiate defence agreements in case of further hostile action by the USA. A Russian military base was established in Cuba, with Castro’s full and enthusiastic agreement.
1. Why did Fidel Castro succeed in gaining power in Cuba in 1959?
2. Explain why relations deteriorated so badly between Cuba and the United States in the period from 1959 to 1961.
3. Imagine that you are an agent for the CIA, who has just returned from an undercover mission to Cuba, following the Pay of Pigs incident. Prepare a memo to President Kennedy, informing him why the Bay of Pigs incident is likely to cause serious problems for the USA in its relations with Cuba.
In 1962, the USSR had fallen well behind the USA in the nuclear arms race. In the most powerful missiles, the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), the USA had a clear lead. The Russians had more Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs) but, based in Russia, they could not reach the USA. This concerned Khrushchev greatly as he knew that it would be some time before the USSR would be able to draw level with the USA in terms of the longer-range ICBMs.
Khrushchev developed the idea of placing a number of MRBMs in Cuba where they would be in range of the USA. He did not foresee any adverse reaction from the USA – the Americans had already stationed nuclear weapons in a number of foreign countries.
This would allow the USSR to draw level with the USA in the nuclear arms race, and would also strengthen Khrushchev’s position inside Russia. Castro agreed to the Russians’ plans and construction of the missile base began in the summer of 1962.
The American reaction
For some time, the USA had been running reconnaissance flights over Cuba with U-2 spy planes. On 16 October, one of these missions, over the San Cristobal area, identified the missile base under construction. At the same time, it was discovered that a number of Russian merchant ships were on their way to Cuba with the missiles on board
President Kennedy had now to make some very serious decisions. His advisers presented him with a number of options.
1. Do nothing – after all, the USA had nuclear missiles in NATO countries quite close to the USSR, and the Russians had not protested.
This was not an option for Kennedy, for political reasons. He had already suffered a number of setbacks in relations with the USSR: the Berlin Wall, and the Bay of Pigs. There were important Congressional
elections due in November, and Kennedy’s opponents would exploit any perceived weakness. Kennedy urgently needed to demonstrate some success in American foreign policy.
2. Launch an air attack on the missile base, and destroy it – the so-called ‘surgical strike’. This would mean an attack on Russian armed forces, and would certainly lead to a Soviet response. A possible Soviet response to this might involve action against West Berlin.
3. Invade Cuba – a full scale invasion by US land, sea, and air forces – to topple Castro and establish US authority. This would be an act of war. As Cuba was a Russian ally, there was a clear risk of nuclear war if this course of action was taken.
4. Blockade Cuba – the US navy would surround the island and prevent the Russians bringing the missiles to Cuba. At this time, Russian ships were at sea, and, very clearly, were carrying missiles on their decks. A blockade was serious action: if the Russians tried to get past the blockade, then American warships would have to stop them – a clear risk of war again. However, the declaration of a blockade would give a very clear signal to the Russians that the USA was serious. In addition, time would elapse before US forces would have to take action, and this would increase the chances for negotiations and a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
Kennedy opted for the blockade.
1. By establishing the Soviet missile base in Cuba, what was Khrushchev attempting to achieve?
2. Make up a table showing the options considered by President Kennedy. Make up the arguments for and against each option.
3. Explain why Kennedy decided on the Blockade.
The crisis develops
On 22 October, Kennedy appeared on US television to announce the American action.
He told the American people that the Russians had set up an offensive missile base on Cuba, and that the USA was setting up a blockade line. The situation had now become extremely serious, and the entire world now waited to see how things would work out. At some point, Russian ships would approach the US blockade line … and then?
Inside the USA, a major build-up of US forces was under way. B-52 bombers were put onto Red Alert: ICBM missiles were prepared for launching; US paratroopers were moved to Florida, in preparation for a possible invasion of Cuba.
24 October: The first Soviet ship approached the US blockade line, and came to a halt. The Russians did not want the crisis to get any worse. A Russian tanker was stopped and boarded by US sailors….and was allowed to proceed because it was only carrying fuel oil. Other Russian ships were shadowed by American warships and planes. There was now a real risk of an incident, where a US ship or plane fired on one of the Russian ship … and possibly triggered World War III.
25 October: Kennedy received an angry letter from Khrushchev, accusing the USA of piracy, and reckless aggression. The USA responded by publishing photographs of the missile sites.
26 October: Kennedy now ordered US flights over Cuba – leaflets were dropped explaining the US position.
Flashpoint: 27 October 1962
It was on this date that the world came closest to nuclear war between the USA and the USSR.
Late on the previous day, a message had been received from Khrushchev. The Russians stated that they were willing to remove the missiles from Cuba in exchange for a promise by the USA not to invade. This seemed to suggest a readiness by the Russians to negotiate, to do a deal.
Some hours later, a second message was received. This was much less conciliatory, stating that the missiles would only be removed if the USA removed missiles from Turkey, which the Russians regarded as a threat. The USA was now uncertain as to what the Soviet position actually was.
Then a report came in stating that an American plane had been shot down over Cuba, and the pilot killed – technically, this could be seen as the start of hostilities, since the missile had been fired by Russian personnel.
Finally, there was a new crisis, this time in the Arctic. A second American plane had accidentally strayed into Soviet air space. It was a simple navigation error but, at this time, could have been fatally misinterpreted by the Russians as an attack by US bombers.
In the White House, Kennedy’s staff wondered if they would still be alive the following day.
Resolution – the crisis comes to an end
Robert Kennedy, the President’s brother, took the key initiative. He suggested that the Americans should ignore the second, more hostile message, and reply to the original one – removal of the missiles in exchange for a US guarantee not to invade.
The American response was well received by the Russians, who were frantically looking for a way out of this terrifying crisis, just like the Americans!
The Russians responded quickly and accepted the US proposals. At a secret meeting between Robert Kennedy and Anatoly Dobyrinin, the Soviet ambassador, the USA agreed that, once the Soviet missiles had gone from Cuba, the USA would remove its Jupiter missiles from their bases in Turkey (these missiles were actually obsolete). The Cuban Missiles Crisis was over.
Khrushchev could claim some success: Cuba was safe from invasion – this allowed the Russians to save face. Kennedy could claim a major victory: he had faced up to a major threat to the security of the USA, and the Russians had backed down. By the end of the year, the missiles had been removed from Cuba, and the base abandoned.
1. Make up a diary showing the main events of the Missiles Crisis, and when they took place.
2. Explain how, between them, the Americans and the Russians managed to resolve the Cuban Missiles Crisis.
In terms of winners and losers, the outcome was clear victory for the USA – the USSR had backed down, and removed the missiles. Kennedy was regarded as an outstanding US President, and became very popular in the country.
The USA had won… but had taken the world to the edge of disaster in order to achieve success.
We now know that things were actually more serious than was realised at the time. As the crisis developed, there were already substantial Russian forces on Cuba. Among their weapons were a number of tactical nuclear weapons, designed for use on battlefields. If the USA had carried out its invasion of Cuba, it is more than likely that these weapons would have been used against US forces. We can only guess what the outcome of such a conflict would have been.
In October 1962, the world was closer to disaster than anyone at the time realised. The Americans and the Russians were in a face-to-face confrontation with a very real chance of war between them. Mistakes, which could have led to disaster, were made by both sides: the shooting-down of the American plane over Cuba (not authorised by Khrushchev); and the American plane accidentally entering Soviet airspace (the Russians could have assumed that it was an American bomber making an attack).
There were serious difficulties with communications between the two sides, as there was no direct contact between Kennedy and Khrushchev.
Communication had frequently to work through each side’s ambassadors, and this, inevitably, took time – something that neither side could afford to waste.
The Superpowers had given each other, and the entire world, a serious fright. The Cuban Missiles Crisis is in the history books as the time when World War III, the unthinkable, nearly happened. Both the USA and the USSR learned serious lessons. In the years that followed, they began to look for ways of avoiding situations like this, and of heading off crises before they became really serious and world-threatening.
1. ‘On the Edge.’ Here, your task is to prove that you have understood how serious the Cuban Missiles Crisis. Create a revision guide to help you remember the main details of what happened, setting out clearly how the Crisis nearly led to World War III.
From Memories, by Andrei Gromyko, 1989. Gromyko was Foreign Minister of the USSR for many years.
‘US foreign policy led to a new upsurge of tension, with Cuba as the centre. Even after the defeat of American mercenaries at the Bay of Pigs, Washington had not changed its course. Instead, on the pretext that Cuba was being turned into a ‘base for communist penetration’, a loud propaganda campaign about the ‘Soviet threat’ was launched.
On 4 September 1962, President Kennedy made a statement in which he cast doubt on the legitimacy of measures being taken by the Cuban government to secure the defence of its own country. The statement contained direct threats to Cuba if she did not back down. On 11 September, the Soviet government called on the USA ‘not to lose its self-control and soberly to assess where its actions could lead’.
The preparations for imperialist intervention continued, however, and therefore the Soviet and Cuban governments reached agreement on the further reinforcement of Cuba’s defences. The appropriate arms were installed, including rockets. This was purely a defensive measure.’
To what extent does Source 1 explain the reasons for the establishment by the USSR of the missile base in Cuba?