A Monstrous Rebuke to Freedom

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East Berliners unload prefabricated concrete plates to reinforce the wall

It was 40 years ago this week that East German soldiers, equipped with shovels and concrete blocks and barbed wire, began to build the Berlin Wall. It was yet another dark development in the crisis-ridden first summer of John Kennedy's Presidency. There had been the Bay of Pigs in April, then the June summit in Vienna where Soviet boss Nikita Khruschev pounded the table in Kennedy's face and declared that partitioned Berlin was "a bone in my throat" he intended to be rid of soon.

Early on the morning of August 13, thousands of frightened East Germans were fleeing across the flimsy boundary into free West Berlin. At 2 a.m. there were sirens, then the rumble of tanks on the East Berlin cobblestones. East German troops carrying rolls of barbed wire, concrete pillars, stone blocks, picks, and shovels leapt out of their trucks. Four hours later, millions of Berliners lived in a huge communist pen which over the next decade would be broadened and built into an automated armed fortress of steel and concrete —a fortress which stood as a monstrous rebuke to freedom.

The wall would become the greatest public relations disaster of our age, with endless pictures of desperate men and women, rushing the barrier and being shot down, and then left to die on the concrete no man's land. Kennedy and other Presidents would use it as a stage to unmask the what Ronald Reagan called "the evil empire."

This wall was no symbol

When it happened we were all caught off guard — including Kennedy. He was on board his yacht, the Marlin, pushing off from the family dock in Hyannis Port, Massachussets, preparing for a well-deserved cruise with family and friends and a couple of bowls of fish chowder, his favorite dish. A military duty officer rushed down to the beach with the first flash. He walked into the surf in full uniform to deliver the grim news to Brig. Gen. Chester Clifton, the Presidents military aide who signaled the Marlin back to port. He handed the dispatch to Kennedy who read it in silence. "You go ahead," Kennedy told the family as he got into a golf cart with Clifton to ride back to his house.

Kennedy remained silent for several minutes. Then he blurted, "Why in hell didn't we know about it?" Clifton responded that out of more than 40 contingency plans he had read for Berlin he could not recall a single one that dealt with the possible construction of a barrier.

In Berlin, hostile tanks lined up on both sides, television crews mounting cameras under the menacing muzzels to show the world this latest indignity. As a reporter rounding up opinion back in Washington, I can recall the sense of real fear among many of the experts. Should we allow such an affront to humankind to stand? Should there be a showdown between East and West right then?

What JFK learned from the wall

I asked to see Kennedy and talk about Berlin and was surprised when he agreed. I found him cool and cautious, but also patient, a trait we would see more of as he journeyed through the Cold War. "We could have sent tanks over and knocked the wall down," he said. "What then? They build another one back a hundred yards. We knock that down and then we go to war." He speculated that the wall would stay until the Soviet Empire tired of it. Some experts predicted it would stand 50 years or more.

In fact, the wall lasted only 28 years. And one man who saw its frailty was Richard Nixon, the man defeated in 1960 by Kennedy. In a strange, short interview with me some 20 years after the wall was built, Nixon described the Soviet Union as a "basket case" which would come apart soon and take the wall down with it. His was a lonely voice but, and in this case, a true one.

Now, the wall is a fractured and fading memory. Great slabs of it stand in museums all over the world. I've watched kids pass hurriedly by these ugly, jagged remnants covered with the graffiti from a joyous moment of freedom. It is no longer so easy to grasp the wall's meaning. Junior high school students now read about the Berlin Wall in their history texts. But it was built, flaunted, condemned and destroyed before they were born. But in my time, it was far more than just a barricade, far more than a mere symbol, it was a a very real threat to freedom for all the years it endured.