On this day in 1961, in efforts to stem the tide of Cold War refugees attempting to leave East Berlin, the communist government of East Germany begins construction of the Berlin Wall. Physically and emotionally dividing East and West Berlin, advent of the wall caused a short-term logistical crisis in US–Soviet bloc relations; the wall itself came to symbolize the Cold War for nearly 30 years.
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had become emboldened upon seeing US President John F. Kennedy’s youth and inexperience as weakness against Khrushchev’s bellicose aggression. At the 1961 Vienna summit, Kennedy made the error of admitting the US wouldn’t actively oppose the building of a barrier, and Khrushchev elected to test the theory, stem the East German brain drain and flex his Bolshie muscle.
When the US intelligence apparatus got word of the Soviet moves to seal off East Berlin, JFK was actually relieved that the East Germans and the Soviets were only to divide Berlin without taking any action against West Berlin’s access to the West. However, he denounced the Berlin Wall, whose erection worsened relations between the United States and Soviet Union. Responding to the erection of the Wall, retired US Cold War General Lucius D. Clay was appointed by Kennedy as a special adviser, and sent to Berlin with ambassadorial rank, taking Vice-President Johnson in tow for the show.
Fashioning his own robust response, on Sunday morning, August 16, per Kennedy’s order, US troops marched from West Germany through East Germany, bound for West Berlin. Lead elements, arranged in a column of 491 vehicles and trailers carrying 1,500 men, divided into five march units. At Marienborn, the Soviet checkpoint next to Helmstedt on the West German-East German border, US personnel were counted by guards. The column was 99 miles long, and covered 110 mi from Marienborn to Berlin in full battle gear. East German police watched from beside trees next to the autobahn all the way along.The front of the convoy arrived at the outskirts of Berlin just before noon, to be met by Clay and LBJ, before parading through the streets of Berlin in front of a large crowd.
In the main, the Wall proved a public relations disaster for the communist bloc as a whole. Western powers portrayed it as a symbol of communist tyranny, particularly after East German border guards shot and killed would-be defectors; such fatalities were later treated as acts of murder by the eventually reunified Germany. The Wall’s demise did indeed arrive on November 9, 1989, when East German officials opened the gate, allowing travel from East to West Berlin. Within hours, celebrating Germans, nicknamed Mauerspechte (wall woodpeckers) used all manner of tools to chip off souvenirs, demolishing lengthy parts of the wall in the process, opening several unofficial border crossings, and reveling in new-found freedoms and fantastic live television.
Long the starkest embodiment of Soviet dominion, as President (Premier) Mikhail Gorbachev continued glasnost and perestroika, a general loosening of the fist, the wall’s physical and political fate had slowly sealed. Unlike 1956 and 1968, when Soviet forces ruthlessly crushed protests in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, respectively, Gorbachev actually encouraged the East German action. As such, the destruction of the Berlin Wall was one of the most stunning acts of the 20th Century, marking the defacto end of the Cold War’s bilateral world and the dawn of a multi-lateral muddle we bravely endure every damn day.
And here the lesson endeth.