Jim Broderick looks at the crisis management of two moments when the spectre of nuclear war shadowed relations between the superpowers
The status of Berlin had been an ongoing problem to the Allies since the conferences of Yalta and Potsdam in 1945 when the `Big Three' (Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union) had agreed to divide the defeated Germany into four occupied zones. They also split Berlin, which was located some 110 miles inside the Soviet zone, into four sectors each governed by a military commander from the respective victorious powers. But divisions among the Allies soon emerged concerning the future of Germany in general and Berlin in particular. Instead of treating Germany as a single economic entity -- as decided at Potsdam -- the Soviet Union governed its zone as if it were an independent unit and opposed Western moves for German reunification along democratic lines.
These disagreements led to the first of the Berlin crises, when in March 1948 the Soviet Union announced a series of measures aimed at curbing access to West Berlin, culminating in the suspension of all rail passenger and freight traffic on June 24th. The ostensible reason for the Soviet blockade was in response to plans for currency union in the newly merged Western sector, but its deeper purpose was to test the commitment of the US to West Berlin. In response, President Truman applied counter-sanctions to Eastern Germany and undertook a massive operation to supply West Berlin by air. The next few months witnessed futile diplomatic negotiations, but the airlift and counter-blockade did eventually cause the Soviet leadership to reconsider its strategy and on May 4th, 1949, after a series of secret meetings of their ambassadors at the UN, the two superpowers agreed to a mutual lifting of restrictions.
Nevertheless, Berlin remained a thorn in the side of US-Soviet relations and the next ten years witnessed an increasing isolation of the Eastern and Western sectors from each other. Then, suddenly in 1958, Soviet premier Khrushchev precipitated the second Berlin crisis when he demanded that a formal German peace treaty be negotiated which legitimised the permanent division of Germany and transformed West Berlin into a `demilitarised free city'. Moreover, he insisted that the transformation be completed within six months or the Soviet Union would seek an independent solution.
President Eisenhower rejected the demands, observing the United States did not recognise the Eastern German regime and, therefore, could not conclude any separate agreement with it; thus Allied routes and access to Berlin were still governed by agreements concluded at the end of the Second World War. In May 1959 the two sides met in Geneva to hammer out a compromise. However, a stalemate resulted in which the Soviet Union insisted that the Berlin question must be resolved within the next eighteen months. Already, it seems, the Soviet leaders were eyeing the prospect of a new, inexperienced president succeeding Eisenhower.
Having tied his personal prestige to removing this `splinter from the heart of Europe', Khrushchev used his first meeting with newly-elected J.F. Kennedy at the June 1961 summit meeting in Vienna to restate his position on Berlin. On the second day, the Soviet leader told Kennedy a formal end to the Second World War was needed and recognition should be given to the existence of two separate Germanies. If the Allies could not agree to such a position, the Soviet Union would act unilaterally and sign a peace treaty with East Germany. This would mean an end to the state of war which still existed on paper, abrogating those commitments arising from the terms of the German surrender -- including occupation rights, access to West Berlin and the use of land corridors through East Germany. Kennedy responded that Berlin was of the highest concern for the United States and a key national security issue. To lose the right of access would undermine the credibility of US commitments elsewhere and put an end to any hope of German reunification. …