May 28, 2011


When Kennedy Blinked: a review of Berlin 1961 By Frederick Kempe (CHARLES MCCARRY, 5/27/11, WSJ)

Readers skeptical of the Camelot myth may experience twinges of schadenfreude while reading this meticulously researched, elegantly written account of John F. Kennedy's mortifying encounters with the Soviet Union's Nikita Khrushchev during the first year of his presidency. Others, on coming to the end of Frederick Kempe's molecule-by-molecule deconstruction of the Kennedy reputation for toughness, vigor, smarts and unshakable cool, are more likely to breathe a sigh of relief that civilization somehow survived the confrontation.

"Berlin 1961" revolves around the question of whether Kennedy's decision to countenance the erection of the Berlin Wall was, in Mr. Kempe's words, "a successful means of avoiding war, or . . . the unhappy result of his missing backbone." On those terms, the book is a scholarly history of the crisis that culminated on Aug. 13, 1961, when East Germany, convinced that its economic and political survival depended on stopping the hemorrhage of refugees to the West, cut the city in two with the Berlin Wall, thereby imprisoning its people for the next 26 years. Since 1945, 2.8 million, or one in every six East Germans, had fled their benighted country.

On another level, the book is a richly detailed study of a primal scuffle for supremacy between Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev. The two men had little in common except the personal power to wage nuclear war and the realization that each had something to prove about his geopolitical manhood. The youthful, handsome and wealthy but secretly unhealthy American had attained the presidency by the hair's-breadth margin of a tenth of 1% of the popular vote but raised questions about his judgment and steadiness with his shaky handling of the Bay of Pigs debacle in April 1961. The Russian, an uncouth but shrewd peasant who had been illiterate into his 20s, was beset by enemies within the Soviet leadership who thought—with the encouragement of China's Mao Zedong—that he was insufficiently aggressive in his dealings with the United States. Khrushchev saw in Kennedy's weakness in Cuba an opportunity to correct this impression, solidify his leadership and advance Soviet prestige—by challenging Kennedy on the most dangerous and strategic ground of the Cold War. could learn from reading James Clavell.

Posted by at May 28, 2011 7:00 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus