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'Berlin 1961' takes closer look into the building of the Iron Curtain

By Mike Whitmer

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, May 7 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

"BERLIN 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth," by Frederick Kempe, Putnam, $29.95, 608 pages (nf)

John F. Kennedy's election as president of the United States in 1960 was cause for celebration for many throughout the world. Nikita Khrushchev was one unlikely individual who was especially elated with the results.

Feeling pressure after failures in economic, social and political policies, the supreme ruler of the Communist Party was struggling to hold his position. The savvy leader had pinned his hopes for the improvement of his position on a belief that he could maneuver the young and untested Kennedy in a way to benefit the Soviet Union.

Using recently released documents obtained from U.S., Soviet and German sources, author Frederick Kempe chronicles the events that led to the eventual construction of the infamous "Iron Curtain" between East and West Germany. Poring through memos, wire messages, letters and other documents from many levels of each government, Kempe paints a picture of a dangerous time in the relations between the two great superpowers of the world.

Kempe, a Utah native and University of Utah graduate, was expected to be at his alma mater's commencement this weekend and recieve an honorary degree on his mother's behalf.

Immediately after the inaugural address and celebrations for President Kennedy, Khrushchev played the first card in his dangerous game by calling in the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Tommy Thompson Khrushchev and handing him a memo to be delivered to Kennedy. The memo read:

“The Soviet Government, guided by a sincere desire to begin a new phase in relations between the Soviet Union and the U.S., has decided to meet the wishes of the American side in connection with the release of two American airmen, members of the crew of the RB-47 reconnaissance airplane of the U.S. Air Force, F. Olmstead and J. McKone.”

The two airmen had been captured the previous year when Soviet gunfire downed their plane on an information-gathering mission. Kennedy had his concerns about the offer but felt he had to accept despite the consequences. Khrushchev had won the first hand in the deadly game of intrigue that would culminate in the August 1961 construction of the Berlin Wall. Before things were settled, the world would pass inexorably close to its first – and possibly last – nuclear war between superpowers.

Kempe has crafted a well-documented and exciting volume, opening the window to the events that divided Berlin into two separate sides. With action that rivals some modern thrillers, Kempe leads the reader through the events that are the basis for a 28-year division of the city of Berlin. On the 50th anniversary of this historic event, “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” will be a welcome addition to any library where modern history is appreciated.

Mike Whitmer is an avid reader of history, loves fly fishing and welcomes comments at grundelwalken@gmail.com. He blogs at mtwhitmer.blogspot.com.

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