While America's seemingly contradictory approach––stockpiling weapons while Eisenhower was warning about the military-industrial complex––was taking place in the late 1950s, the Soviets had serious issues of their own to deal with, primarily in Germany and China. Beginning in 1958 and lasting into the early years of the Kennedy presidency, the USSR again brought the issue of East Germany [the GDR] to the forefront of world politics, eventually leading to the creation of a wall to separate East from West Berlin.
By 1958, the west had still refused to recognize the GDR as an independent country, so the Soviets continued to underwrite the East German government while trying to contain West Germany [the FRG]. Khrushchev, however, was reluctant to continue that relationship, both because it was costly to support the GDR, whose economy was in distress, and because he feared that the FRG would acquire its own nuclear weapons arsenal, separate from NATO. Moreover, Konrad Adenauer, the West German president, was publicly appealing for a reunification of the two Germanys, which would be a huge blow to the Soviets, both in terms of prestige and security.
By late 1958, the USSR feared that the FRG might take some drastic actions against the East, either politically, economically, or militarily. Thus Khrushchev felt he had to take action, and in a series of speeches in November 1958 he presented the west with a hard dilemma, calling on the western states with occupation rights––the Unite States, Britain, and France––to sign the German peace treaty, or else the USSR would reach a separate treaty with the GDR granting it independence, and giving it full control over all of Berlin, and he set a six month timetable for such actions. Khrushchev was serious about the German issue, but also cautious. In a talk with the Polish leader Gomulka, he observed "war will not result from it. There will be tensions, of course, there will be a blockade. They might test to see our reaction. In any case we will have to show a great deal of cold blood in this matter." At the same time, Khrushchev sought a high-level U.S.-Soviet conference, invited Vice-President Richard Nixon to Moscow, and passed along a backchannel note telling Nixon "Don't worry about Berlin. There is not going to be any war over Berlin." The Soviet Premier similarly sought to temper the more militant GDR leadership, telling them "do not hurry. The wind does not blow in your face . . . . The conditions are not ripe as yet for a new scheme of things."
By 1959, the crisis seemed to be in flux. In June, the Soviet leader did not close off the possibility of German reunification, but stressed that the Germans themselves, not outside forces, would have to make that decision. Still he demanded that the FRG stop any subversive activity, propaganda, and espionage in the East but also was willing to agree to the status quo until 1961. "Why are we doing this," Khrushchev asked rhetorically. "It would be very attractive to all pacifists, since we will show them that we are acting without an ultimatum, but searching for a way for the resolution of these issues." After Khrushchev had extended the deadline for a decision on the GDR , in September he visited the U.S. presidential retreat at Camp David to meet with Eisenhower to discuss Berlin. Prior to visiting Washington, he spoke at the UN and proposed "general and complete disarmament in three years" and, despite claims that communism would "bury" capitalism, pledged "peaceful coexistence" between the superpowers. "You may live under capitalism," he observed, "and we will live under socialism and build communism. The one whose system proves better will win."
At Camp David, the Eisenhower and Khrushchev compromised and seemed to ease the Berlin crisis: the president promised the Soviet leader a summit meeting in the near future, and Khrushchev agreed to rescind his ultimatum over the timing of a decision on Berlin. Eisenhower, however, also signaled that he was still considering providing nuclear arms to the FRG, prompting Khrushchev to imply that he might likewise arm China with atomic weapons. On the political front, Eisenhower, despite his friendliness with the Soviet leader at Camp David, was not ready to change policy on Berlin, and his views were shared by the governments of Britain and France, the other occupying forces in Germany, as well. The Paris conference promised by Eisenhower no longer held any promise of progress and, after the Soviets shot down an American U-2 reconnaissance plane on May Day 1960, Khrushchev canceled the meeting altogether.
A year later, in Vienna, the Soviet premier finally met the president, the recently-inaugurated John F. Kennedy. By this time, the GDR faced a crisis similar to 1953 as about 30,000 East Germans were fleeing to West Berlin each month. Khrushchev insisted on ending American occupation of the west and wanted Berlin to become a "free city"; if Kennedy did not comply Khrushchev said he would sign a separate treaty with the GDR, thus giving Ulbricht's government full authority over the Berlin decision and abrogating the USSR's occupation role there. Khrushchev believed the west was particularly vulnerable on Berlin. It was, he joked, "the testicles of the West. Every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin." Kennedy, a committed Cold Warrior himself, would not budget. "That son of a bitch won't pay any attention to words," he said of Khrushchev, "he has to see you move."
The president thus decided to turn up the heat in Berlin, asking congress for an additional $3 billion for the military budget, seeking authority to call up reserves, and seeking additional civil defense funds. In August, the East Germans responded, building a barbed wire barricade and then a concrete wall between the two Berlins. American tanks took positions near the wall, prepared to break it down, and were met with Soviet tanks on the other side. Kennedy finally defused the situation, recognizing that a wall was better than a war against the USSR. The Berlin crisis finally dissipated toward the end of 1961, with the Americans agreeing that neither West nor East Germany should produce nor be provided nuclear weapons and that the size of armies in both Germanys should be reduced. The Wall, however, would be the most visible symbol of the cold war for the next three decades.
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