Twenty Years After -- Part 2: The U.S. and the Berlin Wall

Posted by Peter A. Kraemer
November 8, 2009

About the Author: Dr. Peter Kraemer serves as a Historian at the U.S. Department of State.Part 1: The Rise of the Berlin Wall | Part 3: The Fall of the Berlin Wall

The original response of the U.S. government was cool. As you know, President John Kennedy was president at the time. Kennedy’s reaction first was, he said, “…It’s a hell of a lot better to have a wall than a war.” It was fairly clear early on that the United States was not willing to go to war over Berlin. Now, if the Soviets had marched into West Berlin, things might have been different. But simply the construction of a wall was not enough to provoke a U.S. military response.

On the other hand, there was a history that the United States had to live up to. In 1953, there was an East German uprising in the city of Berlin and across Germany that was violently put down by what was called a “fraternal intervention” by the Soviet Union. In 1956, the same thing happened in Hungary. And Chancellor, I’m sorry, Mayor Willy Brandt, who was at the time the mayor of the city of Berlin, was very agitated by the lack of a robust U.S. response to the crisis. And so, one of Kennedy’s first actions -- we don’t talk about it a lot or it’s not well remembered -- but, Kennedy appointed Lucius Clay, who was the former military governor for Berlin from 1945 to 1949. This person essentially administered occupied Germany after World War Two. He appointed Clay as an ambassador and sent him to Berlin with Vice President Johnson as goodwill ambassadors.

And then, what followed is from West Germany, Kennedy ordered the Berlin brigade to be relieved. So, there was a movement of troops across the frontier into East Germany on the autobahn to West Berlin to strengthen the garrison there. And this garrison was relieved, I think, steadily until 1967. So, there was a show of force and an attempt to demonstrate that the western powers had rights of access to West Berlin. That was a very important response.

The response we most often associate though, I think, was the political response that Kennedy made in June of 1963 when he traveled personally to Berlin and he stood at the square in front of the town hall of Berlin. It’s often said that he stood in front of the Berlin wall, but that’s not true. He stood in front of the town hall and made his famous speech in which he declared himself in solidarity with the Germans. He said, “All free people of the world looked to Berlin.” And he said, “As a free person, I take pride in the words ‘ich bin ein Berliner.’” (I am of Berlin. I am one of you.) Which was, certainly must be one of the high points of American political rhetoric of all time.

The fall of the Berlin Wall is one of these things; it’s an interesting meeting point of what one would say high politics and politics from below. In the United States, very often, we associate the fall of the Berlin wall with the trip made by President Reagan to Berlin in June of 1987 when Ronald Reagan gave his famous challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev. He said, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate and tear down this wall.” He made that statement in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

There are two ways to read that statement. One is, it is a challenge. That is, it is standing up to the dictatorship of communism and challenging them to tear down this wall. But you also have to remember that Ronald Reagan in his second term as President was the negotiator. He was someone who was actively working with Mikhail Gorbachev who wanted to bring openness and reform to the Soviet Union and to the Eastern Bloc. One of his famous statements is “glasnost then perestroika.” Reagan was a negotiator. So, one way to tear down this wall is, come and join us; join the open and free world. And so, there are two ways of reading that.

But nonetheless, Reagan’s part in this is not the only part in this. I mean, one of the greatest parts of this story is that governments were in fact behind the people, as it were, behind the curve of the people, I think, on this whole issue. And, the more and more the Eastern Bloc countries, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries, liberalized, the more and more freedoms people wanted to take. And, even in the summer of 1989… You have to remember that in October of 1989, the East German, the German Democratic Republic, East Germany, was celebrating its fortieth anniversary as an establishment, as a state. And so, it was a time when Gorbachev visited the city. There was, there were a lot of ceremonies surrounding that. It was a very important public propaganda opportunity for the East German regime.

So, in the summer of 1989, no one could have imagined that -- despite all of this growing openness in the Eastern Bloc in 1989 -- no one could have imagined that this was going to lead to the collapse of the Berlin Wall or to the opening of borders. You only have to look at what happened, say for example, in China in the summer of 1989 at Tiananmen Square. There was very much a possibility that a popular uprising, a democratic uprising, could very well be met with force as it was in China and, in fact, the way it was Germany right after Gorbachev left in October of 1989. When he left East Germany, there were uprisings across the East that were met with police as counterforce. So, there was no guarantee that this was going to happen. And what eventually happened with the fall of the wall is that East Germans made a declaration that there would be an ability to travel freely between East and West and the people seized that opportunity. The heroes in this story were not necessarily the politicians but were the people themselves who took this opportunity, I think, to express the strength of their convictions, their confidence in the need for democratic reform.

Related Information: Voices of U.S. Diplomacy and the Berlin Wall Online Exhibition



Rocky P.
November 19, 2009

Rocky P. writes:

Thanks for sharing this information. I found it very informative as I have been researching a lot lately on practical matters such as you talk about.


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