Reflecting on the anniversary of the Tanks of October – Southgate News Herald
Etched into history is the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, the tense 13 days when President John F. Kennedy drew the line in the Cold War by forcing the now-defunct Soviet Union to cease and desist placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba.
Kennedy made it clear to Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev that basing missiles 90 miles off the coast of Florida was intolerable. The incident has come to be known as the Missiles of October (a made-for television movie starring William Devane and Martin Sheen).
Much retrospective is afforded the Cuban Missile Crisis. Less retrospective is paid to what might be called the Tanks of October the year before, when U.S. and Soviet forces also came head to head in the divided German city of Berlin.
Despite favorable polls extending him a 70% approval rating, 1961 was not a good year for President Kennedy, especially in terms of the Cold War. In April of that year, Kennedy had to take the blame and suffer the humiliation of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the ill-fated U.S.-backed attempt by Cuban exiles to depose communist leader Fidel Castro of Cuba.
Festering throughout 1961 was the Berlin Crisis in which Khrushchev, prompted by communist leader Walter Ulbricht of East Germany, made noises about cutting off U.S. access to Berlin, access which had been established by agreement at the Potsdam Conference at the end of World War II. Because he was being very careful, Kennedy was accused of inaction.
The criticism became more acute in August of that year when the Soviet-backed communist government of East Germany erected a wall around East Berlin to curb flight to democratic West Berlin. An estimated 10,000 refugees per week (out of a population of 17 million) were fleeing East Germany for the democratic west at this time.
As Khrushchev had made threats to close East Berlin, he had also insinuated that he would unite Berlin into one city and grant East Germany exclusive power over access. Kennedy was accused by many of being indecisive for not making clear how far he was prepared to go to secure West Berlin and maintain access to East Berlin.
In other words, the question was whether Kennedy would resort to nuclear war. Truth be told, Kennedy had actually made himself very clear. He asserted that he was committed to maintaining the democratic integrity of West Berlin and ensuring western access to the communist sector in East Berlin. And the fact that the U.S. was at an acute disadvantage in conventional forces in Europe implied that Kennedy was prepared to use nuclear deterrence.
Moreover, it was really not clear how far Khrushchev was prepared to go. He made the mistake of viewing Kennedy as weak, a mistake Kennedy’s critics in the west had also made in the wake of the Berlin Wall being erected. But Khrushchev was smarter than both the press and Kennedy’s western critics. Though Kennedy had received low marks from the media for his performance at the Vienna Conference in June of that year (in the wake of the Bay of Pigs), Khrushchev garnered from the conference an unmistakable message that West Berlin was to remain free and within the orbit of the democracies.
Perhaps the one mistake Kennedy made during the Berlin Crisis was to imply that the Soviets were free to take any measures they wished in communist Europe, as long as they ceased to threaten West Europe and West Berlin. It was not wise to accept the division of Berlin (or communist domination of Central Europe) as a fait accompli.
But maintaining the status quo in Berlin was no small accomplishment. We must remember that Khrushchev envisioned for Berlin not just a maintenance of Soviet domination of East Berlin, but a Soviet advance into West Berlin. That this Soviet goal was not realized speaks well of Kennedy.
Most retrospectives treat erection of the wall as the culmination of the Berlin Crisis. But this treatment neglects the profound aftereffects of the wall. U.S. officials and their British and French allies still maintained the right to enter and leave East Berlin. And by October 1961, East German authorities resorted to harassment of western access into East Berlin.
U.S. forces thus initiated military escorts of western officials bound for East Berlin (60 years ago this month). This led to the deployment of Soviet tanks at the East-West border which then led to a stand-off on Oct. 27, 1961, between the Soviets and the U.S.
And the Soviets blinked. Khrushchev ordered his tanks to retreat and access to East Berlin was restored in full. Kennedy’s critics on the right (to this day) accuse him of capitulation. But Khrushchev is the one who backed down.
Khrushchev would push the envelope the following year during the Cuban Missile Crisis (only to again back down to Kennedy’s resilience). But the Berlin Crisis of 1961 has earned its place in history. The incident deserves to be referred to as the Tanks of October. And in retrospect, it is clear that the U.S. and the democratic west were in good hands.
John O’Neill is an Allen Park freelance writer. He has a degree in history from Wayne State University.
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