US-Soviet Standoff at Checkpoint Charlie,1961

On the night of October 27, 1961, CBS News reporter Daniel Schorr stood at Checkpoint Charlie, in the divided city of Berlin, and warned his radio audience of the threat of war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union:

The Cold War took on a new dimension tonight when American and Russian fighting men stood arrayed against each other for the first time in history. Until now, the East-West conflict had been waged through proxies – German and other. But tonight, the superpowers confronted each other in the form of ten low-slung Russian tanks facing American Patton tanks less than a hundred yards apart…

Armageddon lurked on the horizon. But war would be avoided, if only narrowly, because President Kennedy was willing to stray from the strict anti-communist orthodoxy of official U.S. policy and pursue compromise with the Soviet Union through secret back-channel communications.

It was a time of staunch anti-communism in the West. This rhetoric dominated foreign policy discussions in the U.S. and animated the talking points of State Department personnel and foreign policy experts both in and out of Congress. Kennedy, himself, had campaigned on a harsh anti-communist platform as a presidential candidate and continued to espouse anti-communist orthodoxy in the early days of his administration.

But the realities of post-war European geography tested the efficacy of this doctrine. The threat posed by Soviet domination of land its armies had liberated from the Nazis in the East hung over Western Europe. There was an obvious need to reach an accommodation with the Soviet Union to avoid another costly war in Europe. The map of Europe dictated that it was only a matter of time before a Cold War crisis developed in Berlin.

Divided among the four allied powers into individual geographic sectors of occupation and control, like the German nation as a whole, the post-war arrangement for Berlin defied conventional concepts of governance and territorial defense. While intending to eliminate the threat of a resurgent Germany, the arrangement failed to take into account the aggressive European posture of the Soviet Union.

West Berlin, consisting of the city sectors under Western control, was completely surrounded by Soviet-controlled East Berlin and East Germany. Lying ninety miles inside East Germany, West Berlin was connected to the rest of West Germany by narrow highway and rail corridors. This “island of freedom,” the home of two million people, became a symbol of U.S. support for NATO and Western Europe and stood as a challenge to the Soviet claim of entitlement to the entirety of its East German sector.

Berlin was a strategic vulnerability for the Soviets. Between the end of the war in 1945 and 1961, approximately four million East Germans had fled to the West [most of them educated professionals], using West Berlin as their primary exit point. West Berlin had also become the focal point for anti-communist intelligence activities that targeted the Soviet Union.

Nikita Khrushchev and wife attend a state dinner hosted by President and Mrs. Eisenhower, 1959.

For Nikita Khrushchev personally, who had vaulted to leadership of the Soviet Union in 1958, resolving the status of Berlin was necessary to secure his position in power. Khrushchev needed to oust the West from Berlin in order to stem the flow of refugees, limit Western espionage, and solidify Soviet control of East Germany. Khrushchev was unflinching in seeking this outcome. Fearing his political rivals in Moscow, Khrushchev had repeatedly pressed the U.S. during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations for a withdrawal of Allied military forces from Berlin; but the status of post-war Berlin remained a festering problem that had defied solution.

Khrushchev and Kennedy in Vienna, June 4, 1961.

In January 1961, just days before President Kennedy was inaugurated, Khrushchev made new demands that the Allied powers cease their “occupational regime” in West Berlin. Back-channel communications between the parties culminated in a summit between Khrushchev and Kennedy in Vienna on June 4, 1961. In Vienna, Khrushchev demanded the Allied powers sign an immediate peace treaty to reunite Germany under Communist terms. Khrushchev threatened to sign a unilateral peace treaty with Germany if the Allied powers refused. Khrushchev claimed that the formal end of war with Germany would invalidate all post-surrender commitments made by all parties, including occupation rights and land and air access to Berlin, giving Khrushchev a lever to force the Allied powers out of West Berlin. These peace treaty proposals were rejected; but, in Vienna, Kennedy agreed to the permanent division of Berlin.

Vienna Summit.

Two months later, on August 12, 1961, the mayor of East Berlin signed an order to close the border with West Berlin and erect a dividing wall. On the night of August 13-14, East German police and military units cut off all arteries leading to West Berlin. Train tracks were pulled up. Roads were obstructed with barriers topped with barbed wire. The entire city of West Berlin was surrounded with 97 miles of obstacles; and 27 miles of barricades divided the city, separating East from West Berlin.

Satellite image of Berlin. The yellow line notes the location of the Berlin Wall dividing East from West Berlin.

Three Soviet Army divisions in the Soviet sector of Germany were moved closer to Berlin. Kennedy made a show of force by ordering 148,000 National Guardsmen and reservists to active duty. [The primary purpose of the Berlin Wall was to prevent East Germans from fleeing to the West, while allowing others to continue to enter West Berlin.]

The city of West Berlin is completely surrounded by the Berlin Wall, shown outlined in yellow. The orange dots represent border crossings.


The East German authorities then increased the harassment of U.S. personnel traveling from West Germany, through the Soviet sector of East Germany, to Berlin, demanding that everyone show identity papers — a violation of established border procedures. U.S. military and diplomatic personnel, who had been guaranteed freedom of movement within the city of Berlin, were also harassed by East German police when attempting to move across the borders of East and West Berlin.

On October 22, 1961, the U.S. Chief of Mission in West Berlin, E. Allan Lightner, Jr., was stopped at Checkpoint Charlie by East German authorities. Lightner was in his car bearing diplomatic license plates. The East German police demanded that Lightner present his passport for identification — a violation of the guarantees of freedom of movement for Allied personnel in Berlin. [Checkpoint Charlie was a crossing point in the Berlin Wall. It was designated at the sole crossing point between East and West for foreigners and members of the Allied forces.]

Checkpoint Charlie in 1963.

The next day, the U.S. military commander in West Berlin, General Lucius Clay, who had commanded the 1948 airlift that had rescued West Berlin from a three hundred day Soviet blockade, sent an American diplomat to Checkpoint Charlie to test the resolve of the East German police. As was the case with Lightner, the second American diplomat attempting to cross the checkpoint was also stopped by East German police and asked to provide his passport. U.S. Military Police, whom Clay had stationed at the checkpoint, then rushed to the U.S. diplomat’s car. Bearing rifles with fixed bayonets, they escorted him through the checkpoint and into East Berlin. Similar standoffs between U.S. diplomats and East German authorities continued for the next three days, with twenty-six vehicle stops occurring on October 24. [Reports suggest that Clay was something of a free agent, who believed a show of force was needed to discourage further attempts by the Soviets to reduce the treaty rights of Allied personnel.]

East German border guards stop U.S. military personnel at Checkpoint Charlie, October 1961.

When East German border guards refused to allow two U.S. Army sight-seeing buses from crossing the checkpoint into East Berlin, the U.S. sent ten M48 Patton tanks to Checkpoint Charlie. On October 27, the Soviets matched this show of force by deploying ten T-54 tanks on the eastern side of Checkpoint Charlie. Another twenty Soviet tanks stood nearby. The opposing tank forces stood one hundred yards apart, on either side of Checkpoint Charlie. What had started as a low level border dispute with East German authorities had escalated into an open dispute between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Tank stand-off at Checkpoint Charlie, October 27, 1961.

As news of the standoff spread, the streets nearby filled with approximately five hundred West Berliners. The scene was tense. When an American helicopter flew low to the ground to survey the scene, an East German policeman yelled for everyone to drop face down on the street. And everyone did.

What was at stake in the standoff was the ability of the Allied powers to maintain troops and protect the freedoms of West Berlin derived through treaty agreements reached with the Soviet Union at the end of the war. West Berlin was a symbol of America’s commitment to NATO and to the defense of western Europe against communism. Abandoning West Berlin would also subject another two million people — the residents of West Berlin — to Soviet control.

Sign at Checkpoint Charlie.

But the geographic location of West Berlin — an island of Western control in a sea of Soviet dominion — made it difficult to defend the city without risking a war that could easily escalate to encompass much of Europe. While the U.S. had nuclear superiority over the Soviets, it did not have sufficient conventional forces deployed in Europe to mount a war with the Soviet Union. [The Soviet Union had approximately 350,000 troops within striking distance of Berlin while the U.S. garrison in West Germany had only 12,000 troops.]

Kennedy was trapped between the need to defend a symbol of freedom but not risk nuclear war at a time when the use of nuclear weapons was still considered a bona fide military option. The use of nuclear weapons to resolve the Berlin standoff would have been perceived around the world as disproportional response and would have brought discredit to the U.S. Despite its symbolic value to the West, Kennedy had no desire to resort to nuclear weapons to defend the city of West Berlin.

Dean Rusk and President Kennedy.

President Kennedy’s secretary of State, Dean Rusk, would later write, “we had long since decided that [Allied] entry into Berlin is not a vital interest which would warrant determined recourse to force to protect and sustain. Having for this reason acquiesced in the building of the wall we must recognize frankly among ourselves that we thus went a long way in accepting the fact that the Soviets could, in the case of East Berlin, as they have done previously in other areas under their effective physical control, isolate their unwilling subjects.

Unknown to General Clay, in Berlin, and to virtually all of Kennedy’s advisors was that, while Kennedy continued to work for a peaceful resolution of the Berlin crisis through offical State Department channels, Kennedy had sent his brother, Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, to meet secretly with a Soviet intelligence agent named Georgi Bolshakov. Bolshakov was a colonel in the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence agency, and was posted in Washington. Bolshakov’s cover story was that he was the editor of an English language publication on Soviet life, and he had a White House press pass. Bolshakov had first approached Robert Kennedy the previous April, representing himself as an emissary from Khrushchev and seeking a face-to-face meeting. It was Bolshakov who had worked with Robert Kennedy to set up the Vienna summit between President Kennedy and Khrushchev in June.

Robert Kennedy and his family, 1963.

Bolshakov and Robert Kennedy met to discuss the Berlin Wall stand-off on October 27. It is surmised that a variety of compromise proposals were discussed, but what was said in this meeting was never recorded and is presumed to have been discussed privately with President Kennedy. But at 10:30 the next morning, the Soviets began to withdraw their tanks from Checkpoint Charlie. The American tanks withdrew a half hour later and the U.S. military ceased its military escorts of civilians attempting to cross checkpoints.

Georgi Bolshakov, GRU.

The crisis was averted, but the American acquiescence to the Berlin Wall and Soviet domination of East Berlin was nevertheless underscored. The Berlin Wall would remain the dividing line between East and West for another twenty-eight years.

Grandmother waves to family members on the other side of the Berlin Wall, 1961.

During the next nineteen months, Robert Kennedy and Bolshakov would meet privately on approximately thirty-five occassions. While virtually no contemporaneous records of any of these meetings exist, Robert Kennedy once said that Bolshakov had “delivered effectively when it was a matter of importance.” The back-channel with Bolshakov would later prove instrumental in avoiding war the following October, during the Cuban missile crisis.

President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, 1963.

What lessons can be drawn from this incident?

  • Don’t let fear of the past cloud your vision. When the post-war agreements for Germany were put into place, perhaps too much emphasis was placed on thwarting a resurgent Germany and too little attention was paid to the emerging threat of Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe.

  • Geography dictates what is possible. The division of the Nazi capital city of Berlin, a punitive measure, proved to be a tactical mistake. The division created an indefensible symbol of anti-communism — the city of West Berlin — that the U.S. could not easily abandon without looking weak or unprincipled.

  • Nuclear weapons are an ineffective military deterrent in regional conflicts. War was avoided by Kennedy’s willingness to acknowledge the limited gains that would come from a military defense of West Berlin.

  • Compromise, rather than strict adherence to doctrinal orthodoxy, resolved the crisis. Kennedy dropped the strident, anti-communist line in his back-channel communications with Khrushchev — a flexibility that was at variance with the standard U.S. public policy of the day. His was a forward-looking approach that was unsullied by personal political motivations and had, as its sole purpose, the advancement of the national interest.

  • Back-channel communications can be a good thing. If implemented by wise people who are motivated solely by the nation’s best interests, back channels enable nimble exploration of compromise positions that might deviate from stated public policy but nevertheless prove effective in forging satisfactory resolutions of conflicts.

Robert Kennedy and President Kennedy outside the Oval Office.

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