Timely and topical book

I just completed Berlin 1961, a fascinating new book by Frederick Kempe on the crisis of 1961 in East Germany and the building of the Berlin Wall.  I wasn't sure what to expect since this is one area of historical knowledge I am lacking.  However, Kempe has done excellent research and pulls no punches in his critique of JFK and his first year in office from a foreign policy perspective.  From his vacillation and dropping the ball on the Bay of Pigs invasion, when a few Navy planes may have saved America and the Western Hemisphere from 50 years of Cuban mischief, to his shellacking by Khrushchev at the Vienna summit of June 1961, Kempe does an excellent job placing the superpower rivalry over Berlin into the greater context of Cold War American foreign policy in the early 1960's.

The book is also a scathing indictment of Communism and the cynical ploy by the East German communist leadership to imprison their own people.  The leaders in East Germany had a real concern that their "worker's paradise" was slipping away as people voted with their feet and fled to West Berlin and freedom in astounding numbers.  JFK's weakness in not stopping the wall, when he might have had the active or tacit support of many East Germans in keeping the border crossing open, condemned not only East Germany, but Poland and the rest of the so-called Warsaw Pact countries to another 30 years of misery in the failed socialist experiment.  More importantly, Kempe makes a compelling case that JFK's mishandling of the Berlin Crisis of 1961 led directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Finally, Kempe paints an exceedingly unflattering portrait of JFK and the whole Camelot mystique peddled by liberals like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, JFKs pet historian .  Kempe pretty much calls Kennedy a womanizing light-weight who abused doctor prescribed drugs to treat a number of maladies, in particular a  chronic bad back that were never made public, and almost questions JFK's mental and emotional stability at the Vienna Summit.  Not to be a revisionist historian (you know how much I hate those), but a more fair and balanced look at the Democratic Party deity of JFK and the "Best and the Brightest" shows a bunch of politicians that were really no better or worse than previous or succeeding Administrations, even before the whole Vietnam thing starts to enter the picture.  I agree with Kempe that JFK often gets a pass from historians and the public not only for his "martyrdom" at the hands of an assassin, but his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Notwithstanding the implicit swap for withdrawing American missiles from Turkey that was not told to the general public for years after the crisis, recent scholarship has shown the Cuban Missile Crisis came much closer to disaster than previously understood.

Why is this book timely as well?  Another neophyte President with minimal foreign policy experience is in the White House, and the missteps and blunders of this Administration are no less serious than the ones created by the great John F. Kennedy.  Dealing with tyrants and dictators is no easy matter, to be sure, but this book certainly shows that trying to reason or negotiate with cynical strong men is not always a sure thing.  To be sure, the Soviets were rational in their own way and wanted to avoid a war, having just lost 20 million people in World War II, but sadly, I am not so sure of the current leadership in Iran and other hot spots in the Middle East.

So, if you have a chance, read this book to understand the Cold War mentality and crisis facing the United States and our NATO allies in 1961 and why the Berlin Wall came to be one of the major symbols of Communist repression.