October 4, 1999
BERLIN CRISIS OF 1961-62
By: Lawrence K. Furbish, Assistant Director
You asked for a brief background description of the Berlin Crisis of 1961-62. Your inquiry relates to provisions of PA 99-272, which use the term "Berlin Airlift."
The Berlin Crisis of 1961-62 was provoked by the construction of the Berlin Wall by the East German Democratic Republic (GDR), the communist government, which was headed at the time by Walter Ulbricht. The Wall divided the city into two sections, West Berlin, which was governed by mayor Willy Brandt and the three "western" powers from World War II (France, Great Britain, and the United States) and East Berlin, which was governed by the communist GDR government with the backing of the Soviet Union.
Berlin had been a divided city since the end of World War II with each of the four allies responsible for governing a section of the city. Tensions between the Soviets and Western allies began soon after the war ended. These grew in early 1948 as the Soviets hampered and harassed transportation from the western zone of Germany into Berlin. The "Berlin Airlift" occurred in 1948-49 when the Soviets blockaded the city in an attempt to deny the West access to West Berlin for re-supply and other purposes. (Berlin was physically located in the midst of East Germany, completely surrounded by GDR property.)
The blockade began on June 21, 1948 when the Soviets kept a U.S. military freight train from proceeding to Berlin. In response to the Soviet blockade, the Western allies initiated an airlift and flew necessary supplies into the city. General Lucius Clay, deputy military governor in Germany, came up with the idea of the airlift and Lieutenant General Curtis LeMay, commander of the U.S. Airforce in Europe, organized it with flights beginning on June 26. Almost 3 million families had to be fed and the logistics of the airlift were daunting. Everything needed to keep the city operating was flown in by C-45 cargo planes, mostly flown by American and British pilots. By May 1949 the Soviets gave up and the blockade was lifted.
From the start of the Cold War, West Berlin had been the major escape route for people defecting from the Eastern European communist block countries. Due to a variety of political considerations the flood of refugees arriving in West Berlin increased significantly in 1961. What became know as "Operation Chinese Wall" by western intelligence services began just after midnight on August 13, 1961. East German troops sealed off the sector boundary and engineers under the direction of Erich Honecker, the head of state security, began stringing barbed wire across the city. They tore up paving stones and placed obstacles at intersections. East Berliners who worked in West Berlin were prohibited from crossing the border, and East German police began stopping traffic at a series of crossing points between East and West Berlin.
The Western allies were caught off guard (British Prime Minister Macmillan was grouse hunting in Scotland, President Kennedy was sailing in Hyannis, and Charles De Gaulle was vacationing in the countryside). The Kennedy administration was split over how to handle the Soviets. One side wanted to avoid a nuclear confrontation at all costs and the other wanted to confront the soviets at every occasion. The latter group saw Berlin as a key testing ground. Mayor Brandt wanted the U.S. to use its tanks to keep the East Germans from building the wall. When the West initially showed a disinclination for military confrontation, the East Germans proceeded with building the wall and reduced the number of crossing points between the two zones.
Finally, deciding that it had to act, the Western military allies sent troops with tanks to take up positions near the Wall. President Kennedy sent Vice President Lyndon Johnson and retired General Clay to Berlin. Clay stayed as an advisor to the U.S. military commander in Berlin. A series of planned confrontations began with the West sending diplomats in State Department cars into the eastern zone. When East German troops stopped them, American troops and tanks were dispatched and the cars were usually allowed to proceed. The West felt that the Soviets would not chose to become involved directly.
In October, when the Americans decided to mount another such probe, the result was different as Soviet tanks appeared. On October 28, 1961 at "Checkpoint Charlie" on Berlin's Friedrichstrasse, Soviet and American tanks, 200 yards apart and with their ammunition chambers loaded, faced each other in what some historians have called the hottest confrontation of the Cold War. After a brief battle of nerves, the Soviets took the first step to deescalate the confrontation by elevating their gunbarrels to a non-hostile position and the U.S. followed suit.
With the end of this confrontation the worst of the crisis was over, although troops stayed in positions near the wall for several months. But it continued in other forms. In March Soviet fighter planes began buzzing Western commercial air traffic flying into Berlin, and tin-foil chaff was scattered to interfere with radar communications. General Clay recommended fighter escorts for the commercial flights but was overruled by Washington. The commercial flights continued without serious incident and the Soviet harassment soon ended.
Some historians have connected the events of the Berlin crisis and the West's actions to protect its interests there with Soviet Premier Khrushchev's decision to deploy missiles in Cuba to protect communists' interests there. In June 1963 President Kennedy made a state visit to Berlin and made his famous speech saying "All free men, wherever they live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, "Ich bin ein Berliner.""