US-Soviet relations have been driven by a complex interplay of ideological, political, and economic factors of two distinct systems, leading to postwar tensions and alternating periods of cautious cooperation and bitter superpower rivalry over the duration of the ‘Cold War’ (1945-1990). This often prevented them from reaching a mutual understanding on key policy issues, e.g. regarding Post-World- War II Germany and in the case of the Berlin Wall, brought them at the verge of a confrontation over Berlin, ending in a potential nuclear war. Howbeit, there is no doubt among historians that the Berlin Wall not only marked a key moment in history but can be viewed as a hallmark of the change in direction-US-Soviet relations took. Yet, to what extent did the erection of the Berlin Wall impact upon US-Soviet relations?
The Berlin Wall acted as a barrier which silenced a ‘…subsequent international crisis, that threatened the world with the risk of a military conflict, one that could escalate at any time into nuclear confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union.’1 According to post revisionist historian Gaddis it eased postwar tensions between the US and the Soviet Union as it halted a confrontation over Berlin, escalating into a potential nuclear war ‘Even fraternal socialist solidarity, had its limits. To die for Berlin- or even to sacrifice greatly for it-was no more attractive an option in Moscow than in Washington’.2Clearly, it was of interest to them to avoid such a conflict since it would be costly on their economies on the one hand, and requires popular support on the other- at a time where both seemed difficult to attain. Especially the Soviet Union found itself in an atmosphere of economic recovery from the effects of World War II, unlike the US which was nearly untouched afterwards. To Hachette, however the Berlin Wall even represented a means ‘…of preventing that a Third World war does not burst.’3 So, the Berlin Wall allowed the emergence of an immediate military conflict that could escalate into nuclear confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union-to be silenced.
Although the Berlin Wall might have eased postwar tensions between the US and Soviet Union, there’s no denying the fact that it did less to improve their relations. Quite on the contrary, it showed evidence of divergent views regarding their policy. In that respect, it is thought that the US as much as the Soviet Union attempted to maintain their part of Berlin under their sphere of influence to exert –either capitalist or communist influence there. There was no sense of cooperation as both acted in accordance with their interests-and in isolation of one another. This reflected the Soviets’ vision of peaceful coexistence. Thereby, it is argued for instance that ‘…The objectives of the USSR remained the same ones - fight against capitalism and export of Communism -, the strategy, only, had changed’4This strategy is the build-up of the Berlin Wall since it not only presented them with the opportunity to ‘…fight against capitalism’ in their sphere of influence-East Berlin -but also to ‘…export communism’ to their sphere of influence. Considering the Berlin Wall divided East Berlin from West Berlin, it similarly posed to the US an opportunity of creating an entirely capitalist-dominated West Berlin. This may have suited US-interests. The US-President Kennedy admittedly said himself in a dramatic television address on the 25th July, 1961 that ‘…we cannot and will not permit the Communists to drive us out of Berlin, either gradually or by force.5’ It is implicated through this that Kennedy wanted to prevent the growth of an entirely communist-dominated Berlin and to ensure that the US remained in control of West Berlin by any means necessary. The Berlin Wall consequently marked a turning point in US-Soviet relations since it became a symbol of mutual mistrust& distance.
Most importantly, the Berlin Wall in fact was more or less a convenient solution to both as it gave assurance on the Berlin-question that had been subject to heated discussions in the past, e.g. in a meeting between US-President Kennedy and Soviet leader Khrushchev at the Vienna Summit in 1960. Historian Taylor emphasizes that the wall was indeed an exemplar of mutual convenience when he stresses that it ‘…was more convenient to the Western democracies than their rhetoric suggested’6and further raises the question whether ‘…the leaders of the West genuinely loathed the Wall, or was it – whisper if you dare – actually rather convenient to all the powers concerned?’7 Gaddis on the contrary regards the Berlin Wall as a temporary solution as to his mind both were driven into accepting its erection due to their unwillingness, or one might say incapability to ‘…attack one another’ but rather demonstrate a ‘…kind of redirected aggression certain animal species go through when they want to intimidate but not attack one another: they make loud noises, but rarely go much beyond that’.8 In this sense, the wall can be interpreted as having liberated both the Russians of the fear of a ‘…unified, capitalist Germany, armed with nuclear weapons…backed by the United States, raising the specter once again of an aggressor’9and the Americans of a communist-dominated Berlin.
Conclusively, the question to what extent the erection of the Berlin Wall actually impacted upon US-Soviet relations can be answered in acknowledging its ability to ease postwar tensions between the US and Soviet Union as acting as a barrier silencing the risk of a military conflict that was on the brink of escalating into a nuclear war. At the same time, it nevertheless proved that US-Soviet relations did not improve with the Berlin Wall but took the opposite direction since the US and the Soviets perceived their own ideological interests regarding Berlin-and most importantly functioned in isolation of the other. The Berlin Wall thus became to symbolize a continuous division between the US and Soviet Union in the course of the ‘Cold War’.
3 Hachette, Peaceful Coexistence, Memo-Travel through History, 2008 http://memoonline.com/en/article.aspx?ID=CON_LGF_003
4 Hachette, Peaceful Coexistence, Memo-Travel through History, 2008 http://memoonline.com/en/article.aspx?ID=CON_LGF_003
5 John F. Kennedy, Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Berlin Crisis, John F. Kennedy - Presidential Library and Museum, 25th July 1961 http://www.jfklibrary.org/Historical+Resources/Archives/Reference+Desk/Speeches/JFK/003POF03BerlinCrisis07251961.htm
6 Frederick Taylor, The Berlin Wall: A Secret History, History Today, UK, February 2007, pp.43-49
7 Frederick Taylor, The Berlin Wall: A Secret History, History Today, UK, February 2007, pp.43-49
8 John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, Oxford University Press, UK, 1998, p.148
9 Jeremy Isaacs& Taylor Downing, Cold War, Transworld Publishers Ltd., UK, 1998, p.166