Two years after the construction of the Berlin Wall, President Kennedy paid a historic visit to Berlin to challenge Soviet oppression and offer hope to the people of the divided city.
At the end of World War II, the main Allied powers—the United States, France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union—divided Germany into two zones.
The Soviet Union occupied East Germany and installed a rigidly controlled communist state. The other three Allies shared the occupation of West Germany and helped rebuild the country as a capitalist democracy. The City of Berlin, located 200 miles inside East Germany, was also divided. Half of the city—West Berlin—was actually part of West Germany.
Many East Germans did not want to live in a communist country and crossed into West Berlin, where they could either settle or find transportation to West Germany and beyond. By 1961, four million East Germans had moved west. This exodus illustrated East Germans' dissatisfaction with their way of life, and posed an economic threat as well, since East Germany was losing its workers.
A Summit with the Soviets
In June 1961, President John F. Kennedy traveled to Vienna, Austria, for a summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Not only was the summit unsuccessful in its goal of building trust, but it also increased tensions between the two superpowers—particularly in discussions regarding the divided city of Berlin.
During the summit, Khrushchev threatened to cut off Allied access to West Berlin. Kennedy was startled by Khrushchev's combative style and tone and unsettled by the threat. In an address to the American people on July 25, President Kennedy announced that the United States might need to defend its rights in Berlin militarily:
So long as the communists insist that they are preparing to end by themselves unilaterally our rights in West Berlin and our commitments to its people, we must be prepared to defend those rights and those commitments. We will at times be ready to talk, if talk will help. But we must also be ready to resist with force, if force is used upon us. Either alone would fail. Together, they can serve the cause of freedom and peace.
President Kennedy ordered substantial increases in American intercontinental ballistic missile forces, added five new army divisions, and increased the nation's air power and military reserves.
The Berlin Wall
In the early morning hours of August 13, 1961, the people of East Berlin were awakened by the rumbling of heavy machinery barreling down their streets toward the line that divided the eastern and western parts of the city.
Groggy citizens looked on as work details began digging holes and jackhammering sidewalks, clearing the way for the barbed wire that would eventually be strung across the dividing line. Armed troops manned the crossing points between the two sides and, by morning, a ring of Soviet troops surrounded the city. Overnight, the freedom to pass between the two sections of Berlin ended.
Running across cemeteries and along canals, zigzagging through the city streets, the Berlin Wall was a chilling symbol of the Iron Curtain that divided all of Europe between communism and democracy. Berlin was at the heart of the Cold War.
In 1962, the Soviets and East Germans added a second barrier, about 100 yards behind the original wall, creating a tightly policed no man's land between the walls. After the wall went up, more than 260 people died attempting to flee to the West.
Though Kennedy chose not to challenge directly the Soviet Union's building of the Berlin Wall, he reluctantly resumed testing nuclear weapons in early 1962, following the lead of the Soviet Union.
"Let Them Come to Berlin"
In the summer of 1963, President Kennedy visited Berlin and was greeted by ecstatic crowds who showered his entourage with flowers, rice, and torn paper. In the Rudolph Wilde Platz, Kennedy gave one of his most memorable speeches to a rapt audience.
There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass'sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.
No other American politician had met with such joy and enthusiasm on a visit to Germany. Shortly after President Kennedy's death in November of 1963, the square where he had made his famous speech was renamed the John F. Kennedy Platz.