On October 27th, 2011 I attended a symposium held by the Central Intelligence Agency, in partnership with the National Declassification Center, hosted at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., to discuss the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and the subsequent construction of the Berlin Wall. Historians, intelligence experts, retired CIA officers, and policymakers from the Berlin Crisis era participated in the event.
You can obtain a scanned copy of the 52-page program presented to attendees containing essays, bios, photos, and selected documents at the link above.
The conference focused on events leading up to and following the Vienna summit between Khrushchev and Kennedy, the height of tension during August with the construction of the wall and the eventual standoff between the U.S. Army's Berlin Brigade and the Soviet Union 80th Tank Division.
At that time 370 declassified documents, totaling more than 4800 pages of material, were released from the records of multiple U.S. Government agencies. This collection marks the first time so many government entities have compiled their declassified documents on a single historic event in one place.
A multimedia presentation containing the documents, photos, and videos were presented to attendees. This DVD-ROM titled, "A City Torn Apart: Building the Berlin Wall," was designed and developed by the CIA's Imaging & Publishing Support division. A COPY OF THEfree DVD-ROM of this presentation can be ordered above. Limited quantities. One DVD-ROM per person/household/Company. The presentation should work with any computer capable of using flash.
"Eleven U.S. Government organizations contributed to the material being presented today – from intelligence reports to contingency plans to photographs to maps – all of these revealing the tremendous challenges U.S. analysts faced in predicting Nikita Khrushchev's intentions and actions during the Berlin Crisis," said Joseph Lambert, CIA's Director of Information Management Services (IMS). "These documents also afford a glimpse of the many differing opinions held by Kennedy Administration advisors and various military leaders about which tactics and strategies offered the most effective U.S. response."
The symposium featured a keynote address by Dr. William R. Smyser, the last person to cross the Potsdamer Platz in a car as the Berlin Wall was being erected. Dr. Smyser, who now teaches at Georgetown University, discussed his firsthand experiences serving as the special assistant to General Lucius Clay, President Kennedy's personal representative to Berlin, and as a political counselor at the American Embassy in Bonn. Smyser recalled at the conference Thursday that after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Khrushchev believed Kennedy was weak and could be pushed around. "Kennedy is a boy in small pants," Khrushchev said.
During a lighter moment, Smyser attacked the belief that Kennedy during his June 26, 1963, "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech accidentally said that he was a jelly doughnut, known in parts of Germany as a "Berliner", instead of saying that he was a citizen of Berlin.
Some say Kennedy should, have said Ich bin Berliner to mean "I am a person from Berlin", and that adding the indefinite article ein to his statement implied he was a non-human Berliner, thus, "I am a jelly doughnut". However, the indefinite article ein is omitted when speaking of an individual's profession or residence but is necessary when speaking in a figurative sense as Kennedy did. Since President Kennedy was not literally from Berlin but only declaring his solidarity with its citizens, "Ich bin Berliner" would not have been correct. Also, citizens of Berlin do refer to themselves as Berliner; they generally do not refer to jelly doughnuts as Berliner.
The military, historical, and diplomatic views of the crisis were explored in a panel led by CIA historian Dr. Donald P. Steury. Steury began his presentation with the usual overture required to be given by CIA staff when speaking outside the agency:
"All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or any other U.S. Government agency. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentication of information or CIA endorsement of the author's views. This material has been reviewed by CIA to prevent the disclosure of classified information."
The panel consisted of Dr. Don Carter, historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History; Dr. Hope Harrison, historian at the George Washington University and Woodrow Wilson Center; Lou Mehrer, a retired CIA officer; and Dr. Greg W. Pedlow, historian at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. Essays from the panelists can be found in the PDF file linked at the top of this page.
One document made available was a Special National Intelligence Estimate, which gauged possible Soviet reactions to U.S. diplomatic and military moves, including a discussion of the U.S. using tactical nuclear weapons in a display of strength against Soviet forces. CIA historian Steury was asked if a nuclear war was close during the crisis, Mr. Steury said: "I wouldn't say we were close, but all the options were on the table."
Steury expressed at the conference that the Berlin crisis took the form of a series of threatened ultimata, which never quite came off, with western observers attempting to anticipate Soviet actions that were never taken.
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