Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth

In This Review

Berlin 1961
By Frederick Kempe
Putnam Adult, 2011
608 pp. $29.95
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Coming 50 years after 1961, with Berlin now the capital of a unified German state, Kempe’s compelling, lively (and unusually well-illustrated) account is a reminder that the city was once at the heart of a crisis that almost turned the Cold War hot. The awkward division of Germany in 1945 left West Berlin as a Western strategic outpost behind the Iron Curtain and a bolthole for Germans stuck in the communist East. The crisis grew as more and more of them escaped during the first half of 1961, in part because they feared that the Soviet Union and its East German clients might succeed in controlling the city. The crisis ended with the construction of the Berlin Wall, leaving East Germans stuck but making possible an uneasy coexistence between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Kempe demonstrates the interplay of character and calculation as he describes how the main protagonists, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy, tried to manage a conflict that seemed to have no resolution other than war but was not really worth a war. Some irritating muddles on the associated conflict over Cuba aside, this is a skillful work of Cold War history.