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Berlin Crisis

During the 1950s a steady outflow of refugees from the Soviet occupation zone to the West consisted primarily of young people of working age. By 1950 some 1.6 million had migrated to the western zones. Between 1950 and 1961, the refugee flow continued at a rate of 100,000 to 200,000 annually. Workers were attracted by the economic opportunities open to them in West Germany, and in the early 1950s, they and their families formed the majority of emigrants. By the late 1950s, a growing proportion of those leaving were professional people and students whose skills were sorely needed for internal development. In 1959 about 144,000 persons fled; in 1960 the figure rose to 199,000; and in the first seven months of 1961, about 207,000 left the country.

In November 1958, Soviet Premier Khrushchev issued an ultimatum giving the Western powers six months to agree to withdraw from Berlin and make it a free, demilitarized city. At the end of that period, Khrushchev declared, the Soviet Union would turn over to East Germany complete control of all lines of communication with West Berlin; the western powers then would have access to West Berlin only by permission of the East German government. The United States, Great Britain, and France replied to this ultimatum by firmly asserting their determination to remain in West Berlin and to maintain their legal right of free access to that city.

In 1959 the Soviet Union withdrew its deadline and instead met with the Western powers in a Big Four foreign ministers' conference. Although the three-month-long sessions failed to reach any important agreements, they did open the door to further negotiations and led to Premier Khrushchev's visit to the United States in September of 1959. At the end of this visit, Khrushchev and President Eisenhower stated jointly that the most important issue in the world was general disarmament and that the problem of Berlin and "all outstanding international questions should be settled, not by the application of force, but by peaceful means through negotiations."

During the early months of 1961, the government actively sought a means of halting the emigration of its population to the West. By the early summer of 1961, East German President Walter Ulbricht apparently had persuaded the Soviets that an immediate solution was necessary and that the only way to stop the exodus was to use force. This presented a delicate problem for the Soviet Union because the four-power status of Berlin specified free travel between zones and specifically forbade the presence of German troops in Berlin. Although it is not known who made the actual decision to erect the Berlin Wall, it is generally accepted that overall operations were directed by Marshal Ivan Konev, commander in chief of the GSFG. Apparently Konev appointed Major General Martin Blek of the NVA as the operational commander.

During the spring and early summer, the East German regime procured and stockpiled building materials for the erection of the Berlin Wall. Although this extensive activity was widely known, few outside the small circle of Soviet and East German planners believed that East Germany would be sealed off. Approximately 32,000 combat and engineer troops were used in building the Wall. Once their efforts were completed, the Border Police assumed the functions of manning and improving the barrier. The Soviet Army was present to discourage interference by the West and presumably to assist in the event of large-scale riots.

In June 1961 Premier Khrushchev created a new crisis over the status of West Berlin when he again threatened to sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany, which he said, would end existing four-power agreements guaranteeing American, British, and French access rights to West Berlin. The three powers replied that no unilateral treaty could abrogate their responsibilities and rights in West Berlin, including the right of unobstructed access to the city.

As the confrontation over Berlin escalated, on 25 July President Kennedy requested an increase in the Army's total authorized strength from 875,000 to approximately 1 million men, along with increasse of 29,000 and 63,000 men in the active duty strength of the Navy and the Air Force. Additionaly, he ordered that draft calls be doubled, and asked the Congress for authority to order to active duty certain ready reserve units and individual reservists. He also requested new funds to identify and mark space in existing structures that could be used for fall-out shelters in case of attack, to stock those shelters with food, water, first-aid kits and other minimum essentials for survival, and to improve air-raid warning and fallout detection systems.

On 30 August 1961, President John F. Kennedy had ordered 148,000 Guardsmen and Reservists to active duty in response to Soviet moves to cut off allied access to Berlin. The Air Guard's share of that mobilization was 21,067 individuals. ANG units mobilized in October included 18 tactical fighter squadrons, 4 tactical reconnaissance squadrons, 6 air transport squadrons, and a tactical control group. On 1 November; the Air Force mobilized three more ANG fighter interceptor squadrons. In late October and early November, eight of the tactical fighter units flew to Europe with their 216 aircraft in operation "Stair Step," the largest jet deployment in the Air Guard's history. Because of their short range, 60 Air Guard F-104 interceptors were airlifted to Europe in late November. The United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) lacked spare parts needed for the ANG's aging F-84s and F-86s. Some units had been trained to deliver tactical nuclear weapons, not conventional bombs and bullets. They had to be retrained for conventional missions once they arrived on the continent. The majority of mobilized Air Guardsmen remained in the U.S.

East Germans, stirred by the crisis, fled to West Berlin in increasing numbers. In July alone there were some 30,000. The construction of the Berlin Wall started at 2:00 A.M. on August 13, 1961. The Wall effectively sealed off the best escape route open to disenchanted East Germans, thus halting the mass movement of people to the West. After its construction, the number of refugees entering West Berlin and West Germany fell drastically.

The Soviets also tried to prevent Allied access to the eastern half of the city. In response, the United States deployed men and planes to Europe. Numerous USAF Reserve and Air National Guard units were mobilized to increase Tactical Air Command [TAC] combat strength and in November, TAC deployed more than 200 Federalized ANG airplanes and thousands of personnel under "Operation Stair Step" to France, Germany, and Spain to augment units already on duty in Europe. During "Operation Stair Step," the largest overseas movement of a fighter force since WWII), not a single plane was lost.

The Berlin Crisis saw US Army troops facing East German Army troops in a stand-off, until the East German government backed down. The crisis ended in the summer of 1962 and the personnel returned to the United States. President Kennedy who visited the city in June 1963 and said:

                                       "All free men,
                                       wherever they may live,
                                       are citizens of Berlin.
                                       Therefore, as a free man,
                                       I take pride in the words
                                       'Ich bin ein Berliner'." 

Though intending this final phrase to mean "I am a Berliner," in one of the memorably humorous footnotes to Cold War history, Kennedy's words would be more accurately translated as "I am a donut" since a "Berliner" is a popular German pastry.


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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 14:05:11 ZULU