The standoff at Checkpoint Charlie Soviet tanks facing American tanks, 1961 (1)

U.S. tanks facing Soviet Union tanks at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, 1961.

As assessments of the balance of power were being traded at one level and private correspondence at a higher one, a minor crisis erupted in the middle of Berlin. On 19 September 1961 General Clay had reappeared in Berlin, now as a special adviser to Kennedy, but clearly expecting to call the shots. He was a tough hard-liner, popular with the Berliners as one committed to their cause. His relations with all the other American generals in Europe with responsibility for Berlin, from Norstad down, were poor, and those with the State Department were no better. Clay did admire Acheson, and Kennedy may have wanted to use him in the same way, to demonstrate the participation of all shades of opinion, but like all his personal appointments that cut across formal bureaucratic and military lines of command, it sowed confusion and complicated policy making.

Clay also had a different attitude to risk taking than Kennedy. He outlined his theory to Rusk:

Harassments not in direct conflict with our basic rights do not worry me although I think they should be checked as they occur to the extent possible without show of force. To show force when we do not intend to use it is one thing we must avoid. However, I cannot accept the escalation theory that any reaction on our part leads to further actions and possible war. The complete acceptance of this policy would lead to the continuing erosion of an already eroded position.

On his return to Berlin Clay decided to prepare for a big confrontation by ordering the U.S. military commandant, General Watson, to get his engineers to build a replica section of the wall in a secluded part of West Berlin in order to experiment on various ways to break it down. When the Commander in Chief (CINC) Europe, General Bruce Clarke, heard of this, he demanded that the experiment be stopped and the replica dismantled, but not before it had been photographed by Soviet intelligence. The news reached Moscow on 20 October. It was in this context that the communists viewed Clay’s moves. Washington was ignorant of this episode.

Clay wanted to probe the limits of communist tolerance, just as Ulbricht wanted to do with the West. Khrushchev was blustering to obscure what was in effect a retreat, but the East German leader was still bent on eroding the Western position in Berlin. This was a gradual campaign, independent of Soviet direction, and the target of its next stage was the rights of allied civilian personnel to move in and out of East Berlin.

On 22 October the State Department’s Allen Lightner was stopped going to the opera in East Berlin with his wife. He refused to show identification. To assert his rights, Lightner returned, this time accompanied by military police, and went into East Berlin. Ulbricht then issued a decree stating that allied civilians would have to identify themselves. Though the British and French had already allowed their officials to show passports to East German guards, the Americans continued as before, with an armed patrol. On 25 October, as the latest American probe was following its customary procedure, Clay asked General Watson to place U.S. tanks on alert near the sector boundary at Checkpoint Charlie. This appeared in Moscow as potential confirmation of Clay’s intentions to move against the wall. Coupled with Gilpatric’s speech, this all began to look sinister in Moscow. Had easing the deadline emboldened Kennedy?

Civilians showing identification was not an issue upon which many others than Clay wanted to make a stand, yet he was allowed to continue. On 27 October American tanks once again drew up to back a patrol, but this time Marshal Ivan Konev, like Clay taken out of retirement to add weight to the Soviet military command, decided to respond by pushing his own tanks up to face the Americans. The East Germans announced that the checkpoint would be closed until the American tanks were removed. Clay responded by moving some tanks directly onto the demarcation line, to be followed by Soviet tanks moving to a hundred yards from the Americans. So on 28 October at Checkpoint Charlie, the new flash point of the cold war, American and Russian tanks pointed their guns at each other.

Kennedy rang Clay to compliment him on his nerve. The general responded that he had not lost his but he was worried about those in Washington. “I don’t know about those of my associates,” replied the president, “but mine are all right.” This was highly unlikely. This was the sort of situation Kennedy dreaded: a contrived incident over a secondary issue that could lead to a tank battle in the middle of Berlin with who knew what consequences to follow. It is likely that Clay was told that an opportunity to withdraw would soon come. The previous day Robert had got in touch with Bolshakov to pass on the message to Khrushchev that American tanks would withdraw if Soviet tanks did so, and that it would be possible for the two leaders to have a productive exchange of opinions. Soon Russian tanks were pulled back a bit, and American tanks followed suit. The communists did not, however, back down on their demand for identification.

Clay’s view was that the Soviet Union was not going to let the East Germans lead them to war barely fifteen years after the last one, and so he was looking for ways to limit the ability of the East Germans to operate unilaterally. The issue of who was in charge in Berlin was a sensitive one for the Russians, and in this incident they attempted to hide their role by obscuring unit markings on tanks and dressing the crews in overalls rather than uniforms. Reporters still noted that officers directing the tanks were wearing Soviet uniforms. In this way the exercise proved a point and may have sown distrust between the East Germans and the Russians. For their part the Russians may have felt that they had thwarted an American escalation of the crisis. Both leaders had noted the utility of “back-door diplomacy.”

The episode was an “exercise in military theatricality.” Ausland reports that American officials in Berlin believed that the conflict would have been contained but notes that “Kennedy and Khrushchev proceeded thereafter with even more caution regarding Berlin.” A lasting legacy of the dramatic images of confrontation left over from this episode was that Checkpoint Charlie became the starting point for war-gamers, novelists, and documentary makers when they were trying to work out how to start a third world war.


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