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A Battle of Wills in Berlin, 1959

Throughout the Cold War, Berlin was one of the main battlegrounds for the psychological warfare between the United States and the USSR. The city had been divided among the four Allied countries, France, Great Britain, the U.S., and the USSR, after WWII when it quickly became clear that the powers had very different intentions for the city. As living standards in the East worsened, millions of people fled Soviet-occupied countries, many going through Berlin. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev then announced that Western powers no longer could remain in Berlin, and issued an ultimatum for the city to be demilitarized and turned over to East Germany within six months.

Kempton B. Jenkins, who was posted in Berlin from 1958-1960, recounts his experiences with the Soviets’ “salami tactics,” whereby they attempted to dominate Berlin “slice by slice,” with a series of provocations to test the West’s will, and how  he was able to get his views across when the White House ignored State Department reporting.

Jenkins was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in February 1995.

Read other Moments on Berlin.


“The Soviets clearly were in the process of launching an attack upon our basic legal right to remain in Berlin”

JENKINS: The Berlin experience quickly became even more exciting as in October of 1959, the East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, in a speech, announced that the legal basis of Western presence in Berlin had expired. The chief of our division, the late Howard Trivers, a superb scholar of German history, quickly picked up on the Ulbricht speech, and we began a series of messages back to Washington, sounding the alarm bell that the Soviets clearly were in the process of launching an attack upon our basic legal right to remain in Berlin.

Crisis after crisis cascaded from that time. East Germans began to substitute for Soviet officers at checkpoints in an effort to force us to recognize their sovereignty and the division of Germany. Harassment of our convoys in the Berlin corridor increased regularly.

The elevated train system, which ran throughout the city in one of the anachronisms of the otherwise divided Berlin was maintained in East Berlin. The S-Bahn, as they were called, began to appear in West Berlin with flags of the so-called East German Democratic Republic on them. This led to action on our part to stop the trains and remove the East German flags before they could proceed.

Guards at the checkpoints in the presence of the Soviet officials would attempt to stamp East German visas into our passports. While these may seem petty, they were all part of clearly calculated policy to “salami-slice” the Western presence in Berlin. Underlying this decision and the timing of the effort was the fact that the Soviet Sponsored regime in East Germany was a complete failure in governing its section of Germany.

Living standards dropped as living standards in the West rose. The refugee flow from East Germany through Berlin to West Germany steadily increased until it reached a flood in 1959. It became increasingly apparent to us that the Soviets had to act to stop the depopulation of East Germany if they were not to lose total control over one of the gems of their empire.

The desperateness of their situation was dramatized by the particularly severe rate of departure by qualified doctors from East Germany. One of the things which I undertook in our political section was to monitor the refugee flow and attempt to compile statistics on the flow of doctors….

There were states in the Soviet zone of Germany which in fact were virtually without doctors. You can imagine the psychological impact on the population to see all their doctors leave. In a desperate effort the Soviets even began to import Vietnamese and Bulgarian doctors as an emergency measure, which had an even more dramatic negative effect on the East German population.

While we concentrated on alerting Washington to the dramatic changes we saw unfolding in our exposed position in Berlin, we also tried to stay on top of attitudes in West Berlin and in the East German population in every way possible in addition to monitoring the flight of doctors. Together with my British colleague, the late James Bennett, and my French colleague, Xavier De Nazelle, we would attend open-air district political communist rallies in the parks in East Berlin where we witnessed the population attacking party spokesmen for the dramatic deterioration of the situation and the contrast between their situation and the steadily rising standard of living in West.

Extra benefits with your PX card

On one occasion, when James and I walked into an outdoor restaurant where the local party was holding such a rally, the security goons who always tailed us as we went into East Berlin stepped to the dais where an East German party leader was speaking, with a note. He read it, stopped and said, “I understand that we are honored by the presence of representatives of the U.S. and British missions tonight. I wonder if they would like to come forth and contribute to our conversation?”

It was indeed tempting, but “exercising uncharacteristic restraint,” James and I decided it was better to sit tight, drink our beer and wait for the program to go on than to take this unsolicited opportunity to present Western views to an audience, which probably would have led to our being physically thrown out!

The freedom to move in East Berlin after going through a checkpoint, even though we were followed, led to several very interesting experiences. When [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev came to Berlin to speak to reiterate his ultimatum and turn up the heat on our presence in West Berlin, he spoke at an open air gathering of tens of thousands in Alexander Platz.

Once again, James and I had driven through the checkpoint and then taken to foot to walk to where the rally was going to occur. There were East German police everywhere, questioning the right of people to participate. We feigned ignorance of German and kept emphasizing that we were there from the United States and England to witness this historic event.

We finally had worked our way to within a few hundred yards of the platform from where Khrushchev would speak when a particularly hostile police guard stopped us cold and said, “No one may pass beyond this point without special identification.”

Sort of as a lark, James and I took out our PX [Army Post exchange] cards and held them up to the man who to our astonishment displayed the traditional German respect for documents and without understanding what he was observing, waved us through. The result was that we stood in the second row right in front of Khrushchev and observed the interplay between Ulbricht and other officials on the platform as Khrushchev spoke.

Khrushchev was a dramatic and even theatrical speaker. His voice was shrill and threatening as he denounced the Western presence in Berlin as illegal and declared that we had six months to depart or take the consequences. The nervous excitement of his East German minion on the dais with Khrushchev was palpable. Needless to say, this made for interesting reporting telegrams back to Washington.

East Germans seize U.S. Army convoy

Perhaps the most dramatic confrontation of this period occurred slightly later when East German guards, in an effort to force our acknowledgment of the so-called German Democratic Republic and its sovereignty over West Berlin, instead of just harassing our army convoys, actually seized one on the autobahn.

Since each of these convoys was equipped with a radio, we received word in the mission almost immediately. The convoy leader reported that instead of just being delayed, the East Germans were in the process of taking possession of our six-truck convoy.

General Hamlet instructed the officer in charge of the convoy to sit fast in the truck and refuse to leave, which they did. The East Germans stood on the running boards outside the truck, but did not attempt to use force to evict the American soldiers who were driving them. This deadlock continued for several hours.

Meanwhile, General Hamlet and Minister Al Lightner were on the phone to Washington and Bonn as were their French and British colleagues. From where we sat in Berlin, this was clearly one more desperate effort by Moscow to frighten us out of our rightful position in West Berlin.

In Washington, the situation quickly created near panic and anxiety that general war could erupt over such an incident. General Hamlet called together the mission team and we debated for a short time what to do.

Meanwhile the call of nature was having a predictable effect on the beleaguered American soldiers in the trucks and it was clear that they could not hold out indefinitely. Abandoning the trucks would constitute the first acceptance by the West of the suggestion that we did not have a full legal right not only to be in West Berlin, but to transverse the autobahn from West Germany to West Berlin to sustain our presence there.

It was decided that Findley Burns, who was the number three man in the U.S. mission, a career diplomat, should go to [Soviet Military Administration in Germany at] Karlshorst at Soviet headquarters with two military officers and a Russian-American enlisted man, as an interpreter, to present a demarche to the Soviets:  If the trucks were not released within two hours, we would use force to retrieve them.

And, bless his courage, while Washington continued to debate nervously, General Hamlet instructed our tank units to load up with live ammunition, start their motors, and begin to assemble to drive down the autobahn to free the U.S. convoy.

This action, arming the tanks with live ammunition and moving them out of their assembly point toward the autobahn was, of course, closely observed and reported on by Moscow spies who monitored all of our military activities in Berlin constantly. Faced with the threat of the use of force, the Soviets backed down, the trucks were released and the convoy continued.

Subsequently, we filed a very strong protest with Karlshorst, in Moscow, and with the Soviet embassy in Washington warning them against such irresponsible and dangerous activity in the future. For the time being, our point had been made. The Russians had to allow for the possibility that we might actually risk war in order to maintain our rights.

U.S. commitment to Berlin questioned

It was this perception which was central to our ability to remain in Berlin over subsequent years until in fact the Wall eventually came down.

Throughout the two years we were in Berlin, there was an uneasy relationship between the mission, Bonn and more so Washington and as well between our British and French colleagues and their respective foreign offices at home.

We were convinced almost viscerally that the name of the game in Berlin was willpower. If the Soviets we felt were persuaded that we could be threatened and forced out of Berlin or that we would lose our determination for the long pull they could by salami slice tactics wear away our rights and our determination to maintain our position.

The net result if they were successful would have been the permanent advance of the border Soviet empire and help persuade our allies that our commitment to Europe would not stand the test of time.

We saw several policy debates in Washington particularly when John Foster Dulles was the Secretary [of State, pictured] which led us to believe that the reliability of the U.S. commitment to Berlin was in question. Dulles, an astute corporate lawyer, seemed to be seeking always a legal means of reducing our engagement and eventually extricating ourselves from “an indefensible position.”

When the Kennedy Administration arrived, we began to feel this same unease even though the indications we were receiving were clothed in more liberal and internationalist tone the statements by White House officials including those closest to Kennedy persuaded us that the Kennedy Administration was even more dedicated to extricating the United States from our commitment in Berlin than Dulles had been.

“The White House tended to ignore the State Department experts and rely on the brilliance of White House staff who were frequently under-informed about real conditions”

We felt that somehow our strong consistent political reporting was simply being ignored by the White House and those around him who, as so often is the case in the last 50 years, tended to ignore the State Department experts and rely on the brilliance of White House staff who were frequently under-informed about real conditions. Cleverness seemed to rate a higher priority than reliability.

One of the tactics which we evolved almost by happenstance to deal with this was to develop our own channels of communication. In my case, I built a very close friendship with Dr. Otto Frei, a highly respected Berlin reporter for the equally highly respected NZZ [Neue Zuericher Zeitung], a Swiss newspaper which is probably the most respected paper in Europe even today.

Among other things the NZZ we knew was read first thing every morning by Germany’s Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer (pictured). Thus while we might have trouble persuading our own government in Washington to stand tough occasionally and our British colleagues were wringing their hands over the waffling nature of the then British government. (This was before Lord Hume became Foreign Minister.) Then the French were never quite certain where [President Charles] de Gaulle was standing (although it was usually very solid and very helpful), we were able by working with Otto Frei to communicate our views about developments in Berlin directly to the German Chancellor.

This may seem a bit irreverent if not worse but in fact we of course did not divulge classified information while we did engage in mutual discussions with Frei about our assessment of Soviet and East German intentions and activities and in return received from Frei very impressive and timely assessments of the attitudes in West Berlin and among Western correspondents.

The net result of this was that when a four-power [U.S., USSR, France, and the UK] discussion would take place on how to deal with the latest salami slice initiative by Moscow, Adenauer would always be up to speed on our view and assessments of those actions and vigorously defend standing fast in the face of the Soviet threat. This was heady stuff. We of course kept our direct superiors informed of the discussions we had with Frei but basically it was in many ways the most effective communications channel that we had….

“They were testing us, convinced that we didn’t have the willpower”

The Soviets were always trying to lower the air corridor, harass our planes. We also had social events with them. However, once Khrushchev delivered his ultimatum, it became deadly serious and there was no more joking, no more socializing. With the exception of the tanks and the convoy, they were all obvious harassment. They tried to use our trips through the check-point to take our passport and stamp an East German visa in it which would be a sort of recognition of East German sovereignty over all Berlin.

So we refused to show our passports. Washington, always seeking to defuse or compromise confrontations insisted that we hold our passports up to the window, so we had to do that. We in Berlin never wanted to give them an inch….

The city was so pro-American. When we received orders to go to Moscow, and we went out to the stores we always encountered a warm reception. I took an old Harris Tweed overcoat in to see if I could get a fur lining for it, to wear in Moscow. I walked in to this tailor whom I had dealt with but didn’t know particularly, told him that I had been posted to Moscow, etc., and I wondered if I could have a rabbit skin lining.

He said, “Absolutely.” He did a beautiful job and when I went to pay for it….It was going to cost $100, a lot of money in those days…

He refused to accept payment. He said, “You have defended my city. You’re going to Moscow to continue to defend my city, it’s my contribution.”

And my wife went in to get some jewelry, and the same thing happened to her. When people learned that we were going to Moscow, and they had known what we were doing in Berlin, they refused to accept payment. They were right; we were all “saving Berlin”…

They were testing us, convinced that we didn’t have the willpower. They were pushing and slicing constantly, we called it salami slicing, to see how far they could get. The goal was to eventually force us out of Berlin. They seemed convinced that we would pick up our marbles and go home, because it was too scary to continue the confrontation.

And if that had happened, in my judgment, the psychological impact in Europe would have been decisive. And I think instead of the Cold War going our way, it would have at least temporarily gone their way.