The Berlin Crisis of 1961: Why The USSR Built the Wall

The world had enjoyed a thaw in tensions after the replacement of Soviet premier Joseph Stalin with Nikita Khrushchev…but a crisis in Berlin would refreeze the Cold War.

May 18, 2024By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA

berlin crisis 1961


After World War II, the defeat of Nazi Germany resulted in the nation of Germany being divided in two. The British, French, and Americans claimed what soon became independent West Germany, and the Soviets claimed East Germany. Deep inside East Germany, the former German capital city of Berlin was also divided between West and East. West Berlin became an island of Western democracy within the Soviet sphere. In 1961, following the swift re-emergence of Cold War tensions following the U-2 Spy Plane Incident and the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, the Soviets retaliated against perceived American aggression by building the Berlin Wall. West Berlin and East Berlin were now separated by a menacing, heavily guarded wall.


Setting the Stage: Division of Germany in 1945

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A map showing the division of Germany into occupied zones after World War II. Source: Anne Frank House, Amsterdam


Unlike World War I, where Germany asked for an armistice before its borders were breached by any foreign power, World War II forced the Allied Powers to fight all the way to Berlin. On May 2, 1945, the Soviet Red Army captured Berlin, Germany’s capital. Six days later, World War II in Europe was finally over. After the Potsdam Conference in July, the defeated and occupied Germany was formally divided into occupation zones, as was Austria. Although Berlin was deep in the Soviet sector, it would also be divided between the USSR and the three Western Allies in Europe: Britain, France, and the United States.


The Cold War began shortly afterward when the Soviet Union reneged on agreements made at the earlier Yalta Conference, which had been held in February 1945. While Germany’s occupation had been accepted, the Western Allies wanted the formerly independent states in Eastern Europe to return to that status. Initially, the Soviets agreed that these states could hold free elections after the war. Unfortunately, this did not occur, and Soviet-aligned communist governments were set up in all states east of the dividing line between Germany and Austria. This prompted the famous Iron Curtain speech by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1946, which is often considered the beginning of the Cold War.


Setting the Stage: The Berlin Crisis of 1948

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Civilians in Berlin watching American and British planes deliver supplies to surpass a Soviet blockade of the city in 1948. Source: Cardiff University


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The unique status of West Berlin, a small island of Western democracy surrounded by Soviet authoritarianism, made it a geopolitical target for Soviet premier Joseph Stalin. By 1948, the Western Allies had begun giving their sectors of Germany more political independence. There were even rumors that these sectors would be allowed to form an independent German nation once more, angering the Soviets. Having suffered terribly during the war, the Soviets feared any potential rearmament of Germany. In June 1948, American and British authorities released the new Deutschmark to West Berlin, signaling a move toward financial independence for the city from the surrounding Soviet-controlled state.


In response, the Soviets blocked all roads, waterways, and railway lines to West Berlin. Attempts to breach the blockade might result in war. Instead of risking a direct confrontation on the ground, the United States and Britain decided to launch an airlift and run thousands of flights of food and other supplies to the city. Simultaneously, the United States transferred B-29 bombers, widely known for carrying atomic bombs, to bases in Western Europe. After almost eleven months of the successful airlift, the Soviets lifted their blockade. It was clear that the US and Britain could sustain the airlift, forcing the Soviets to decide whether to escalate the situation.


Setting the Stage: Khrushchev Thaw & Space Race

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Eastern bloc citizens enjoying relaxed social and economic standards during the late 1950s under Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


The tenuous position of West Berlin was noted, but tensions eventually cooled between the West and the Soviet Union in 1954, after the end of both the Korean War and the rule of Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, who had died in March 1953. Stalin’s eventual replacement, Nikita Khrushchev, relaxed many Stalinesque restrictions on entertainment and speech. Unlike Stalin, Khrushchev actively engaged with the West, often in a bombastic manner meant to show the supposed superiority of communism.


An era of competition began with Khrushchev’s administration, with the USSR and the United States trying to create the most modern jets and missiles. The arms race involved attempts to make longer-range and easier-to-launch ballistic missiles, with the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) created by 1957. Also in 1957, the Soviet Union won the first lap of the space race by successfully placing a man-made satellite into orbit. Sputnik 1 terrified the United States, with many worrying that the Soviets could weaponize space and strike America from above. Thus, despite the USSR becoming more relaxed internally, its technological growth and desire for competition frightened the West.


1960: Communist Cuba Nationalizes US Property

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Cuban dictator Fidel Castro (pictured here in 1959) nationalized American property on the island in 1960, prompting American outrage. Source: WGBH Educational Foundation


The Berlin Crisis of 1961 traces its direct roots to Cuba, which had undergone a communist revolution in 1958. In 1959, after former dictator Fulgencio Batista fled on January 1, a new government was created under revolutionary Fidel Castro. Initially, Castro was popular with the United States and denied being a communist when he visited the US in April 1959. Upon Castro’s return to his island nation, he began land reform in May. This sounded alarm bells that Castro was, in fact, a devout communist.


In February 1960, talks regarding economic assistance and trade began between Cuba and the Soviet Union. After the US vowed to stop selling oil to Cuba, oil was provided by the USSR beginning in April. American oil companies in Cuba refused to refine this Soviet oil, resulting in those companies being nationalized by Cuba in June. In July, the rest of American property in Cuba was nationalized. This wave of nationalizations outraged the United States, especially since it was done without compensation. In retaliation, the US placed a full trade embargo on the island. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed on January 3, 1961.


1960: U-2 Spy Plane Incident

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A Lockheed U-2 jet, one of which was involved in the infamous U-2 Spy Plane Incident in 1960. Source: Palm Springs Air Museum


While the Soviet Union may not have been particularly alarmed about the brouhaha between the US and Cuba, the detection of an American spy plane high above the USSR on May 1, 1960 definitely created a stir. The U-2 Spy Plane Incident revealed that the United States had been secretly surveilling the USSR with high-altitude flights, prompting outrage in the Soviet Union. Attempting to glean information on Soviet nuclear weapons, the US had been flying U-2 jets at up to 70,000 feet, which was believed to be safely above the range of Soviet radar or missiles. Unfortunately for CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers, this was untrue. Powers’ U-2 was hit, and he had to parachute to safety.


Although the United States initially denied Khrushchev’s accusations of the spy flights, the Soviets dramatically produced both Powers and aircraft wreckage. US President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to apologize, and so an upcoming Soviet-American summit in Paris was called off. Francis Gary Powers was placed on trial and convicted of espionage, though he would be released early in exchange for a Soviet spy being repatriated by the United States. Khrushchev no longer wished to actively engage with Eisenhower after the incident and chose to wait for Eisenhower’s successor to take office the following January.


1961: Bay of Pigs Invasion

A CIA-trained invader is led away by Cuban troops after being captured during the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Source: US Naval Institute


When the term-limited Eisenhower was replaced by Democratic US Senator John F. Kennedy in January 1961, Khrushchev had little to gain: Kennedy was a staunch anti-communist. In fact, Kennedy doubled down on the United States’ rejection of Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. After it appeared that Castro was trying to export communism to other parts of Latin America, the Kennedy administration decided to try to remove Castro from power. Inspired by previous CIA successes at regime change in Iran and Nicaragua, the Eisenhower administration began training Cuban dissidents in military tactics to overthrow Castro in 1960.


On April 17, 1961, these 1,400 dissidents were used to invade Cuba, with the belief that their appearance would prompt a popular uprising against Castro’s regime. Kennedy wanted to keep American involvement secret, which minimized its support. Even before the invasion began, problems emerged, and Castro’s government quickly realized that the United States was behind the attack. Ultimately, promised US air support for the invading exiles did not arrive, and 20,000 Cuban troops quickly crushed the invasion. Roughly 1,200 of the 1,400 invaders were captured, and Cuba quickly turned to the Soviet Union for military support.


Kennedy vs. Khrushchev

US President John F. Kennedy (right) meeting with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961. Source: National Archives


In June, only two months after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, US President John F. Kennedy met with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, Austria. Things went poorly for Kennedy at the Vienna Summit, with the young president allegedly unprepared for a contentious encounter with Khrushchev. Critics felt that Kennedy had underestimated the diminutive Khrushchev and thought he could appeal to the older Russian through charm. Instead, Khrushchev was tough and uncompromising, likely emboldened by the failure of the US to support its CIA-trained invaders at the Bay of Pigs.


One major issue at the Vienna Summit was the question of West Berlin. The Soviets disliked that West Berlin was used as an avenue for dissidents and refugees to flee the Soviet bloc, which they could do through West Berlin’s guaranteed travel access to the West. To get around this guaranteed access and perhaps even erase West Berlin’s independence, the USSR wanted to sign an independent peace treaty with East Germany. This new peace treaty, which Khrushchev indicated he would pursue in six months, would supersede the ones from the 1940s and give Soviet-allied East Germany control over all access to Berlin.


Soviets Build the Berlin Wall

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Workers construct the Berlin Wall in August 1961 between West Berlin and East Berlin. Source: UK Government


In the pre-dawn hours of August 13, 1961, just two months after the Vienna Summit, Soviet-backed East Germans began construction on a concrete barrier. Thousands of soldiers and armored vehicles surrounded all of West Berlin, frightening residents. This Berlin Crisis of 1961 was prompted by several things: retaliation for the Bay of Pigs, an opportunity to press an advantage against a supposedly weak American president, and a physical attempt to stem the brain drain from thousands of skilled workers fleeing the Soviet bloc. Quickly, the Western powers met to determine Soviet intentions. Would West Berlin be seized?


Soldiers in Berlin, East Germany, in 1961. Source: The Wall Museum, Berlin


With war a real possibility, as the West had an obligation to defend West Berlin, militaries were placed on high alert. Fortunately, tensions cooled as analysts determined that the Soviets did not want to seize the western half of the city. However, the possibility of a shooting war remained as Western troops continued to travel to West Berlin through Checkpoint Alpha and Checkpoint Bravo.


In October, Soviet and East German forces escalated tensions by stopping vehicles of Western military leaders heading into West Berlin, violating treaties. For a week, provocations continued as East German authorities tried to stop Western vehicles, resulting in US military vehicles escorting them. On October 27, 1961, this reached a peak when Soviet tanks arranged themselves on the eastern side of Checkpoint Charlie, directly facing off against American tanks. Thankfully, cooler heads on both sides prevailed, and all tanks were recalled.


Aftermath: A Cold War Symbol

US President Ronald Reagan visiting West Berlin in 1987, when he made his famous appeal to Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Source: National Archives Foundation


For the next twenty-six years, the Berlin Wall stood as a stalwart symbol of communist resolve. US President Ronald Reagan, also a staunch anti-communist, had been aggressive in boosting American defense spending in the early 1980s to stare down the Soviet Union. By invading Grenada in 1983, giving weapons to the Mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan, and funding the Contras in Nicaragua, Reagan pushed back against communism more strongly than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.


On June 12, 1987, Ronald Reagan visited West Berlin while in Europe for a tour of visits, including an economic summit in Venice. He visited the Berlin Wall and, in what became one of the most important speeches by an American president, urged: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” At the time, few believed that the wall would come down anytime soon—the Soviet Union was believed to be one of the strongest and most stable nations on Earth. Internally, however, economic problems and reforms allowed by Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev had created cracks in the foundation.


Aftermath: Germany Reunited in 1990

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People tearing down sections of the Berlin Wall in 1989, with East and West Germany reuniting the following year. Source: University of Virginia


In 1989, the Soviet bloc began to crumble. Economic problems had emerged, and with them, the socialist spirit of collaboration had waned. In November 1989, massive demonstrations in Berlin led to the (in)famous wall being dismantled. Fortunately, the communist governments chose not to use force to try and quell the protests. Across Eastern Europe, for the most part peacefully, communist governments were overthrown. The Soviet Union did not attempt to prop up these governments with force.


After the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, West Germany and East Germany rapidly worked on the diplomatic front to reunite. On October 3, 1990, the two nations were formally reunited for the first time in 45 years. Initially, there was still some hesitation about a reunified and re-armed Germany, and the Soviet Union was not a fan of the reunification. Fourteen months later, the Soviet Union dissolved into Russia and a handful of smaller states. Many historians consider the Fall of the Berlin Wall to be the de-facto end of the Cold War, as the lack of Soviet resistance meant it could no longer afford to maintain its Cold War military status.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.