Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 23 – The Berlin Crisis

Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 23 – The Berlin Crisis

In 1994, Henry Kissinger published the book Diplomacy. He was a renowned scholar and diplomat who served as the United States National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. His book provides an extensive sweep of the history of foreign affairs and the art of diplomacy, with a particular focus on the 20th century and the Western World. Kissinger, known for his alignment with the realist school of international relations, inquires into the concepts of the balance of power, raison d’État, and Realpolitik across different eras.

His work has been widely praised for its scope and intricate detail. Yet, it has also faced criticism for its focus on individuals over structural forces, and for presenting a reductive view of history. Also, critics have also pointed out that the book focuses excessively on Kissinger’s individual role in events, potentially overstating his impact. In any case, his ideas are worthy of consideration.

This article presents a summary of Kissinger’s ideas in the twenty-third chapter of his book, called “Khrushchev’s Ultimatum: The Berlin Crisis 1958–63”.

You can find all available summaries of this book, or you can read the summary from the previous chapter of the book, by clicking these links.

During the Potsdam Conference, Berlin was agreed to be controlled jointly by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union, setting the stage for the city’s unique status separate from either East or West Germany. Berlin was carved into sectors managed by each of the Allies, creating a geopolitical anomaly deep within East Germany. This setup made West Berlin a beacon of Western prosperity and a gateway for East Germans desiring to flee the communist regime. The absence of clear protocols for access to Berlin led to the Soviet blockade in 1948, which was circumvented by the Western airlift, although legal ambiguities about access persisted.

Berlin’s continued growth as an industrial hub underscored its vulnerability; the transport links essential for its survival were easily disrupted. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev saw Berlin’s precarious position as a strategic pressure point against the West. His public threats and maneuvers in the late 1950s were aimed at ending the city’s four-power governance and pushing the West into negotiations that would legitimize the East German government.

Despite Western hopes of a Soviet shift towards peaceful coexistence, Khrushchev’s actions, such as the launching of Sputnik, suggested a Soviet advantage in the Cold War. He boldly predicted the superiority of the socialist system and initiated diplomatic offensives to exploit perceived Western vulnerabilities. Khrushchev’s demands for a new status for Berlin and East Germany in 1958 were a direct challenge to Western policies, threatening to hand over control of access to East Germany.

The Berlin crisis tested West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s commitment to aligning with the West against neutralist tendencies within Germany. Adenauer believed that any recognition of East Germany would undermine the Federal Republic’s political and strategic stance. He viewed Khrushchev’s ultimatum as an attempt to isolate West Germany and force it into disadvantageous negotiations that would either maintain the status quo or empower East Germany at the expense of German unification.

In essence, Adenauer resisted any change that would weaken West Germany’s ties to the West and argued for a negotiation strategy that demonstrated the benefits of Western alignment. He was staunchly opposed to making concessions in response to Soviet pressures, advocating instead for a firm stance that prioritized free elections and a strong Western alliance in shaping Germany’s future.

Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s insistence on the importance of Berlin and his fears about German reunification were not universally accepted among his Western allies, especially in Britain. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and the British people were hesitant to engage in potentially disastrous conflicts over Berlin, a city devastated by war and symbolic of past German aggression. Britain, having twice been dragged into global conflicts initiated by Germany, prioritized its alliance with the United States over European entanglements. Consequently, British officials viewed Adenauer’s concerns as an exaggerated display of nationalism rather than genuine strategic calculations.

In contrast to Britain’s cautious stance, President Eisenhower held the weighty responsibility of deciding whether the U.S. would engage in nuclear warfare over Berlin. The advent of nuclear weapons had initially offered the U.S. an unparalleled strategic advantage. However, as the Soviet Union developed its nuclear capabilities, the potential for mutual destruction limited American strategic options. The doctrine of massive retaliation, while effective in theory, lost credibility as both superpowers reached nuclear parity. The potential for catastrophic loss of life from nuclear conflict made aggressive military postures untenable, leading to a diplomatic impasse.

Eisenhower’s approach during the Berlin crisis reflected a preference for calming domestic fears over aggressive posturing. His public statements downplayed the likelihood of military conflict over Berlin, emphasizing a diplomatic resolution and rejecting the use of nuclear force. This stance was in part influenced by the belief that Khrushchev, despite his bluster, was primarily focused on domestic issues and sought coexistence to enable economic reforms within the Soviet Union.

French President Charles de Gaulle, having recently returned to power, did not share the Anglo-American perspective. De Gaulle saw the Berlin crisis as an opportunity to strengthen France’s bond with West Germany and to position France as a central player in European politics. Unlike his counterparts, de Gaulle dismissed the utility of negotiations that seemed to accommodate Soviet demands without real benefits for the West. He argued that the Soviet challenges were not about specific grievances but reflected deeper systemic weaknesses within the Soviet Union. De Gaulle believed that accommodating Soviet demands would only embolden their foreign policy adventures and potentially drive Germany to seek solutions in the East, undermining Western unity.

De Gaulle’s strategy was shaped by a traditional French policy that aimed to prevent a unified and powerful Germany, a policy that had dominated French foreign relations for centuries. However, his position during the Berlin crisis indicated a shift towards engaging Germany as a strategic partner rather than a historical adversary, reflecting a complex interplay of diplomatic strategy and national interest. This stance allowed de Gaulle the freedom to advocate for firm resistance to Soviet demands, positioning France as a decisive and independent force within the Western alliance.

Charles de Gaulle’s commitment to Franco-German friendship was not a sudden change of heart but a strategic pivot reflecting the shifting geopolitical landscape post-World War II. Historically, France aimed to keep Germany divided or weak, a stance necessitated by the repeated threats Germany posed to European stability. The devastation of the world wars and the new reality of a Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe forced de Gaulle to reconsider France’s long-standing policy towards Germany. Seeing the futility in antagonism, de Gaulle sought to secure France’s future through a partnership with Germany, betting that a strong alliance could better manage European affairs and counterbalance Soviet influence.

De Gaulle used the Berlin crisis to assert France’s role as a protector of European identity and align closely with German interests without encouraging an independent German approach that might align with Soviet interests. He proposed that France would support German unification and acknowledge Germany’s military and economic strengths, in exchange for Germany recognizing France as the political leader in Europe. This was a calculated move to strengthen Europe under French leadership rather than an emotional commitment to German unity.

Meanwhile, American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles sought to manage the escalating tensions through legal complexities and tactical maneuvers, reminiscent of his approach during the Suez Crisis. Dulles explored subtle adjustments to the access procedures for Berlin without conceding any substantial ground. He suggested that East German officials could act as agents for the Soviets, maintaining the facade of Soviet control while interacting with less controversial GDR functionaries. Dulles’s proposals were intended to diffuse the situation without altering the fundamental U.S. stance on German unification, yet they raised concerns among German leaders, particularly Willy Brandt and Konrad Adenauer, who viewed such suggestions as undermining the goal of German reunification through Western support and free elections.

The differing perspectives among the Allies became evident as Adenauer resisted Dulles’s hints at alternative paths to unification, fearing they would lead to a weakening of the Western commitment to a reunified Germany based on democratic principles. The German response to Dulles’s explorations underscored the deep misgivings about any shift in policy that might empower the East German regime or accommodate Soviet demands.

The crisis underscored the complex interplay of national strategies, with Britain’s Prime Minister Harold Macmillan seeking negotiations to avoid conflict, while Eisenhower and Dulles navigated the American response, balancing between diplomatic engagement and maintaining a firm stance against Soviet demands. Macmillan’s unilateral exploratory talks in Moscow reflected a willingness to discuss potential concessions, a move that seemed to validate Soviet perceptions of Western weakness.

Khrushchev’s fluctuating approach to the Berlin ultimatum, marked by bluster and intermittent conciliation, mirrored the internal contradictions within the Soviet leadership and foreshadowed the systemic indecisiveness that would later characterize the Soviet Union. His failure to press his demands or to engage in meaningful negotiations left the crisis unresolved, inadvertently buying time for the West to regroup and reassess its strategies without making irreversible concessions. This period of inaction and negotiation exemplified the complex dynamics of Cold War diplomacy, where bluffs, threats, and the search for diplomatic off-ramps shaped the interactions between the superpowers and their European allies.

The 1959 visit of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to the United States was marked by a high level of public enthusiasm reminiscent of the goodwill during the 1955 Geneva Summit. The visit, highlighting cultural exchanges and scientific cooperation, was largely seen as a success despite the lack of progress on critical issues like Berlin. This underscored a prevailing American belief that international conflicts stem from misunderstandings rather than fundamental differences in national interests. Many Americans hoped that Khrushchev’s exposure to U.S. culture and values would soften his stance toward the West.

Despite the optimistic public reaction, the substantive geopolitical issues, particularly the status of Berlin, remained unresolved. President Dwight D. Eisenhower maintained his stance that Berlin’s situation needed a peaceful resolution, possibly involving the city becoming a demilitarized, U.N.-guaranteed “free city” integrated with West Germany. However, Khrushchev did not pursue any substantive discussion on these proposals, allowing the Western allies to gain time by default.

The subsequent delay in addressing the Berlin issue continued with plans for a summit in Paris in May 1960, which ultimately collapsed following the U-2 spy plane incident. This event provided Khrushchev with a pretext to derail the summit, thwarting discussions that might have included Eisenhower’s ideas about Berlin’s status. Khrushchev’s reaction to the U-2 incident highlighted his preference for rhetorical confrontation over actual conflict, a pattern that repeated throughout his handling of the Berlin crisis.

As the Berlin situation temporarily stabilized, global attention shifted following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the U.S. hesitance in Laos, which seemed to confirm to Khrushchev that the new U.S. President, John F. Kennedy, could be pressured. This led to a renewed intensity in the Cold War, with Khrushchev setting another deadline for resolving the German question and flexing Soviet military might by resuming nuclear tests.

The erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 dramatically symbolized the division of Europe and the Cold War tensions. The wall, built overnight, physically and ideologically split Berlin, trapping East Germans in a communist regime characterized by stark repression. The Kennedy administration’s subdued response to the wall’s construction, emphasizing strategic restraint over military confrontation, reflected the complex calculations of Cold War diplomacy. Kennedy increased U.S. military readiness but avoided direct military engagement over Berlin, focusing instead on broader strategic goals.

Kennedy’s approach to Berlin and the Cold War differed significantly from Eisenhower’s. While Eisenhower had aimed to manage and contain Soviet expansion, Kennedy sought a more transformative resolution to the Soviet-American rivalry, aiming to address the underlying issues directly through negotiations. This shift towards direct engagement with the Soviet Union marked a significant change in U.S. foreign policy, moving away from reliance on multilateral negotiations to a more unilateral U.S. approach that prioritized direct dialogue with the Soviet leadership.

In the Nuclear Age, both the United States and the Soviet Union faced a unique dilemma: their nuclear arsenals were sufficient to ensure mutual survival, but these weapons were not suitable for achieving specific diplomatic objectives without incurring unacceptable risks. The potential for catastrophic consequences made even a minimal risk of nuclear conflict intolerable, essentially paralyzing both sides from using their military might to effect diplomatic change. This stalemate was evident during the Kennedy administration, which found itself unable to break the deadlock with the Soviet Union through diplomatic means without either weakening the NATO alliance or making concessions that seemed insufficient to the Soviet hard-liners.

Amid these challenges, the White House sought to navigate a path that could possibly accommodate some of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s demands without undermining Western strategic interests. This effort, however, struggled to gain traction as both sides appeared locked into their positions. The U.S. floated ideas like recognizing the GDR and other Soviet demands, but these proposals lacked a clear return benefit, making them hard to justify domestically and internationally.

This period marked a cooling of relations between Washington and Bonn, with the U.S. increasingly urging West Germany to acknowledge the reality of two German states—a stance that created significant tension with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. The U.S. was caught in a bind: it could neither afford to go to war over Berlin, as the risks were too great, nor could it impose a policy on Germany that might fragment the Western alliance.

Throughout this time, I served as a consultant to the National Security Council, observing the intricate dynamics and the often conflicting strategies within the White House. Traditionalists like Dean Acheson were resistant to any negotiation that seemed to accommodate Soviet demands, preferring a more steadfast approach. Meanwhile, I advocated for proactive American leadership in crafting a future plan for Germany to avoid being reactive to Soviet moves and to maintain alliance cohesion.

My engagement with Chancellor Adenauer during this period underscored the deep mistrust that had developed between the U.S. and Germany. Despite the strains, Adenauer’s commitment to principled leadership was evident. He valued the confidentiality of discussions, particularly regarding sensitive subjects like nuclear strategy, which was emphasized when he ensured that all records of a particular briefing were destroyed to maintain the integrity of the promises made.

These experiences during the Kennedy administration highlighted the complexities of Cold War diplomacy, where nuclear deterrence paradoxically both restricted and necessitated diplomatic negotiations, setting the stage for a tense and precarious balance of power.

By April 1962, the friction between the United States and Germany had escalated significantly. A leaked American proposal for an International Access Authority, intended to manage traffic to and from Berlin, stirred controversy. This plan, involving equal representation from Western and Communist parties and neutral countries potentially swayed by Soviet influence, was seen by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer as a threat to Berlin’s delicate status and an undermining of Western commitment to Germany. Adenauer was particularly concerned that the balance of power within this proposed authority could lead to decisions influenced by the Soviet-aligned members and the neutrals, rather than a firm Western stance.

In a bold move, Adenauer publicly criticized this American initiative, questioning the neutrality and decision-making role of Sweden, Austria, and Switzerland in managing Berlin’s access. He underscored his disapproval by highlighting his broader disapproval of U.S. foreign policy priorities, particularly the emphasis on development aid at the expense of German interests in East Germany. These sharp disagreements culminated in a public rejection of the proposed Access Authority, emphasizing Adenauer’s severe reservations about its implications for German sovereignty and the security of Berlin.

As tensions mounted, President Kennedy continued to explore the structure of the access authority as a potential diplomatic tool in discussions with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, despite Adenauer’s clear opposition. This exploration hinted at a willingness to challenge German positions on key issues, potentially straining the Atlantic Alliance. Khrushchev, observing these developments, might have anticipated a rift within the Alliance that could have been exploited to Soviet advantage.

However, Khrushchev’s decision to deploy missiles in Cuba in 1962 dramatically shifted the international focus. This gamble backfired, as Kennedy’s resolute response not only forced the withdrawal of the missiles but also significantly weakened Khrushchev’s position in Berlin negotiations. In early 1963, Khrushchev declared that the Berlin Wall’s effectiveness in containing East German emigration made a separate peace treaty unnecessary, effectively ending the immediate Berlin crisis. This marked a retreat from his earlier aggressive strategies, having failed to leverage his Cuban maneuvers into a stronger bargaining position over Berlin.

The Berlin crisis highlighted the inherent limitations of nuclear diplomacy. Both sides grappled with the dangerous implications of nuclear war, which stifled more aggressive strategies. Khrushchev’s missteps in Berlin and Cuba ultimately reinforced the division of Europe into Western and Soviet spheres, a status quo that remained largely unchallenged until the end of the Cold War. The Soviet leadership, chastened by the outcomes of the Berlin and Cuban missile crises, refrained from direct confrontations with the United States, turning instead to support for wars of national liberation as a means of extending their influence.

The eventual recognition of East Germany by the West, culminating in the Quadripartite Agreement of 1971, was achieved through negotiations that confirmed ironclad access procedures to Berlin and reaffirmed its four-power status, without the Soviet Union gaining the upper hand. This steady approach underscored the effectiveness of containment as a long-term strategic policy, contributing to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification in 1989.

You can read the summary of the next chapter of the book by clicking this link.




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