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Walling People In and Freedom Out


When the Berlin Wall went up on August 13, 1961, U.S. diplomats watched human tragedies unfold as family members wept across barbed wire. Many wondered if the next war would start because of Berlin. Despite the Wall’s awful presence, Assistant Secretary Thomas Niles spoke for many when he recalled, “Once the Wall was built, it created a sort of stability. It imprisoned 17 million people in East Germany, but it did guarantee, in its perverse and obnoxious way, a stability in a potentially unstable area.”

They were losing huge numbers of East Germans…” Bruce Flatin

In 1961, Soviet Premier Khrushchev, emboldened after a meeting with the new and unseasoned President John F. Kennedy, threatened to sign a separate peace treaty with the harsh East German regime.

Hearing this, the number of refugees fleeing East Germany tripled. Director of Radio in the American Sector (RIAS) Robert Lochner observed, “It became increasingly apparent that the Soviets had to stop the depopulation of East Germany if they were not to lose total control.”

According to the Federal Ministry for All-German Affairs, from 1950 to 1961 more than 2.7 million refugees from East Germany flocked to freedom in West Berlin, many moving on to West Germany. The great majority were professionals; their loss greatly weakening the East German economy.

The Wall Goes Up

When workers divided Berlin on August 13, 1961, American diplomats discovered construction of the barrier underway during the night. U.S. radio, broadcasting live news segments, warned listeners who might want to escape. Allied protest against the Wall was delayed more than 48 hours, due in part to President Kennedy’s reluctance to provoke confrontation. This delay especially angered West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt. In response, Kennedy sent Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and General Clay to Berlin and mobilized U.S. troops. In October 1961, U.S. and Soviet tanks faced each other over a border crossing incident involving U.S. diplomats. The confrontation took place at Checkpoint Charlie, the U.S. crossing point, but both sides withdrew.

Consequences of the Wall

When completed, the Wall ran 26.8 miles across Berlin (96.3 miles, total across Germany) evolving from barbed wire into over 13 foot high parallel walls, with a “dead man’s zone” in between. Marksmen in towers had orders to shoot to kill escapees. Some daring West Berliners wrote “KZ,” meaning “concentration camp,” on the West side of the Wall.

Fleeing a repressive regime, many East Germans—at least 100 and likely more—died violently attempting to leave between 1961 and 1989. More fortunate escapees relied on tunnels, retrofitted cars, balloons and water craft. Throughout its existence, the hideous Wall disheartened and angered Germany’s non-communist populace.

Ich bin ein Berliner President John F. Kennedy

When John F. Kennedy visited Berlin in 1963, Ambassador's Staff Assistant Paul Cleveland described the President’s approach as a “ ‘political campaign’ to try to bolster German morale.” Speaking in a plaza named for him later after his death, Kennedy gained immense popular solidarity with the city uttering: Ich bin ein Berliner. Intelligence officer Thomas Hughes recalled how Kennedy turned from relative disinterest in Germany to making it a focus of his foreign policy. Kennedy’s successor, however, President Lyndon B. Johnson, pursued other diplomatic interests.