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Books: Berlin, 1961: The Most Dangerous Place On Earth

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BERLIN 1961: KENNEDY, KRUSCHEV AND THE MOST DANGEROUS PLACE ON EARTH ($29.95; GP Putnam's Sons) *** 1/2 out of ****
BY FREDERICK KEMPE

In 1961, the United States and the Soviet Union -- allies together during World War II -- faced off militarily for the first time over the fate of Berlin. The young John F. Kennedy (reeling from the Bay of Pigs) and the peasant turned politician Nikita Kruschev (who kept one eye on opponents in the Politburo and another on China) knew that Berlin was crucial.

If the US couldn't hold fast here, the countries that depended on it for protection from the ever-growing communist empire would lose faith. If the Soviet Union couldn't stop the bleeding (all of the best and brightest in East Germany were fleeing to the more vibrant West Germany literally by the thousands each and every day) then the ability to keep the Eastern bloc stable and secure was threatened. Even the USSR itself might not last if countries like Poland and Germany and Hungary began to peel off one by one.

Literally everything was at stake in Berlin, including the prospect of nuclear war. The US didn't have nearly enough troops to match the boots on the ground that the Russians deployed in East Germany. And now that the Soviets could boast of their own nuclear capability, Kruschev was certain Kennedy would never risk a nuclear winter just to keep Berlin free and open. Kennedy was just as certain he had to convince Kruschev the US would use nuclear weapons or the only way to keep the Soviets at bay would be to literally launch Armageddon.

This tense turning point of the Cold War is captured effectively with Frederick Kempe's page-turning book, a solid work of popular history that should be one of the breakout titles of the year. First and foremost, Kempe dives into his rich narrative that plots the back and forth between the superpowers month to month and day to day. Quick, vivid sketches of the state of the mind of the two world leaders are interspersed with dramatic details of the men and women caught up in history.

Kempe shows us the nervous young student who takes a risk and smuggles a passport into East Germany so a friend can escape; the old woman who dangles from a window towards freedom because her front door opens onto East Germany but her back window looks out to the West; and the tragic people caught on the wrong side when the Berlin Wall is thrown up overnight, the ones who realize they planned to leave one day too late.

We also get the secret backdoor channel that went from a mid-level Soviet spy to Bobby Kennedy and the loose cannon of a US general who knows the commies won't back down until you punch them in the nose and he's just the guy to do it.

Kempe's analysis draws on reams of material and solidly places the decisions of Kennedy and Kruschev in convincing context. Kennedy struggled to prove to Kruschev that he was hard-nosed. But no matter how often Kennedy said Berlin was of vital importance, Kruschev refused to believe it could be that important to them. That meant they edged closer and closer to the brink. Still, from the context of today, Kennedy's take on events seem reasonable and balanced from the start.

He was famously overshadowed by Kruschev at a summit meeting that led into the Berlin crisis. Aides were aghast to hear all the concessions Kennedy blithely offered up. But in fact, everything Kennedy said and the stance he took became the de facto US position throughout the Cold War. Kennedy repeatedly made clear the US wouldn't interfere with whatever the Soviet Union did in East Germany. He acknowledged the facts on the ground of Eastern Europe and accepted it as a fait accompli. Kennedy knew the people of the US weren't remotely ready to go to war over unifying Germany, the country they had just defeated after it launched a world war. And Kennedy was right.

Kempe details the almost miraculous feat of East Germany throwing up a barrier overnight throughout the entire city of Berlin, a barrier that would soon become the Berlin Wall. It's a remarkable moment bursting with tragedy and small moments of grace. As callous as it may seem, Kennedy was relieved by its appearance. He knew the Soviets had to stop the flow of refugees that were soon going to cripple East Germany for good and threatened its entire bloc. If the USSR hadn't allowed the wall, war might very well have come about.

This doomed East Germany and indeed the Eastern bloc to decades of Soviet control. But it also stabilized a dangerous military showdown. Kennedy also knew it symbolized defeat for the totalitarian regime of communism. Any country that must wall in its own citizens and threaten to shoot them if they try to leave is doomed to fail. Thirty years might seem a long time to wait for that to happen, but in historic terms it's a blink of the eye. Kennedy was right.

Kempe captures this dramatic moment with skill and verve, showing how the Berlin crisis arose out of the turmoil of recent months and why it led to the white knuckle events of the Cuban missile crisis soon thereafter. Entertaining and insightful, Berlin 1961 offers all the pleasures of John Le Carre with the added frisson that the dangers were all too real and the stakes never higher.

*****
Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.