Books: Berlin 1961

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It comes as no surprise that the son of a Nazi appeaser was himself a Communist appeaser when he became president of the United States. Journalist Frederick Kempe offers what amounts to a scathing assessment of the Kennedy administration in his new book, Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth (Putnam, $29.95). On the 50th year marking its construction, Kempe shows that President John F. Kennedy was always a step behind the Soviets as they put up a wall between East and West Berlin. Moreover, he indicts Kennedy, who outrageously told aides that “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.” Kempe suggests with facts and evidence that Kennedy may have knowingly collaborated with the Soviets in building the Berlin Wall.

Showing rare photographic evidence of Kennedy meeting with a Soviet spy at Hyannis Port, Kempe points to declassified transcripts of JFK’s meeting with Soviet dictator Nikita¬†Khrushchev at the Vienna, Austria, summit of 1961 for evidence that JFK demonstrated an unprecedented willingness to sacrifice Europe to Communist dictatorship in exchange for some degree of stability. JFK’s delusion would be smashed the following year when the Soviets brought the West to the brink of nuclear war by putting nuclear missiles in Cuba, aiming them at American cities. Records of the meeting with the Soviet spy curiously were not kept, and Kremlin and Soviet intelligence archives remain closed, but Kempe argues that Soviet aims and Kennedy’s appeasement are so close as to be “more than coincidental.” He also observes that JFK knew that Poland and all of eastern Europe would fall under Soviet control if East Germany fell, and that this was acceptable to JFK, who had abandoned Cuban freedom fighters in his botched Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961.

Khrushchev, pictured in Berlin 1961 with Josef Stalin, knew from the failed invasion of Cuba and the Vienna summit that Kennedy was weak and indecisive, so he struck what amounts to an unspoken (or unrecorded or expunged) compromise with the Kennedy administration and built the Berlin Wall, enslaving millions of people behind what Winston Churchill called the Iron Curtain. The wall collapsed in 1989. From the Soviet perspective, it had been deemed necessary to imprison East Germans because between 1949 (the year East Germany was established) and 1961, one of every six individuals fled the East German state and that doesn’t include the millions who fled the Soviet-occupied zone between 1945 and 1949. Kempe writes that the exodus “was emptying the country of its most talented and motivated people.”

Peter Fechter, whose corpse is pictured at left, is the name of an 18-year-old man who, while trying to escape with a friend (who made it over the wall), was shot in the back by Communist guards. Kempe writes that, “for most of an hour, his failing voice cried out for help as his life bled out through multiple wounds.” West Berliners, who had witnessed the horror of Communism in practice, gathered to protest. They screamed that the East Germans were murderers and the Americans guarding West Berlin, who had listened to Fechter’s cries and did nothing while the young man died, were cowards. When a U.S. military police lieutenant told one of them, “It’s not my problem,” he was merely voicing the Kennedy administration’s short-sighted foreign policy toward Soviet Russia’s aggression. The threat of Communism was real to those in West Germany, and, contrary to JFK’s distorted reputation as a hero of West Berlin, Fechter’s blood was on President Kennedy‘s hands. As a New York Times reporter wrote at the time, according to Kempe: “More than any single event since the wall was built, Peter Fechter’s lonely and brutal death has made the West Berliners feel a sense of helplessness in the face of the creeping encroachment being worked so subtly by the Communists.” Many sought to escape Communism at the Berlin Wall and many, like the young refugee, were caught, trapped, and murdered.

I don’t claim to know if Berlin 1961 is, as Publishers Weekly says, a definitive history of the Berlin Wall, but Kempe offers new material on a crucial appeasement of the most evil dictatorship of the 20th century. He concludes that Kennedy passively stood by while the Soviets built a prison wall which became “the iconic image of what unfree systems can impose when free leaders fail to resist.” To his credit, John F. Kennedy, whose presidency Communist refugee Ayn Rand rightly denounced as “the fascist new frontier,” sensed that he was a rotten president. Kempe reports that when a Detroit News journalist asked Kennedy about writing a book on JFK’s first term, the President replied: “Why would anyone want to write a book about an administration that has nothing to show for itself but a string of disasters?”

That’s true, especially for Peter Fechter.

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