13 Aug 1961 - 09 Nov 1989
The Wall under construction in 1961
The Berlin Wall, a concrete barrier completely enclosing the city of West Berlin and separating it from East Germany, was built by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) of East Germany. Erected in the dead of night, the wall, for 28 years, kept East Germans from fleeing to the West.
The wall was more than a physical division between West Berlin and East Germany. It was a very visible symbolic boundary between democracy and Communism during the Cold War.
The wall was in place from Aug. 13, 1961 to Nov. 9, 1989 during which time around 5,000 people attempted to escape over the wall. Estimates of those who were killed by the East Germans while trying to escape vary between 100 and 200.
The destruction of the wall in 1989 paved the way for German reunification.
At the end of World War II, the Allied powers divided Germany into four zones each occupied by either the United States, Great Britain, France, or the Soviet Union (as agreed at the Potsdam Conference). The same was done with the city of Berlin.
In 1949 the three zones occupied by the United States, Great Britain, and France combined to form West Germany. The zone occupied by the Soviet Union became East Germany (the GDR). This same combining of zones occurred in Berlin. In that Berlin was situated entirely within the Soviet zone “West Berlin” became an island of democracy within Communist East Germany.
After the war living conditions in West Germany and East Germany varied significantly. West Germany, a capitalist society, experienced rapid growth. In East Germany the economy lagged. Consequently by the late 1950’s many East Germans emigrated to West Germany. By 1961 2.5 million people had left East Germany through West Berlin. In a desperate move to keep its citizens, East Germany decided to build a wall to keep them from crossing the border.
On the night of August 12-13, 1961, soldiers and construction workers began tearing up the streets that entered West Berlin, strung barbed wire along the entire border, and cut all telephone wires between East and West Berlin. The “Berlin Wall” stretched over 100 miles, running through the center of Berlin and wrapping around West Berlin. West Berlin was cut off entirely from East Germany.
On August 30, 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. In October mobilized Air National Guard units included 18 tactical fighter squadrons, 4 tactical reconnaissance squadrons, 6 air transport squadrons, and a tactical control group. On 1 November; the U.S. 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. In late November 60 Air Guard F-104 interceptors were airlifted to Europe.
The four powers governing Berlin had agreed at the 1945 Potsdam Conference that Allied personnel would not be stopped by German police in any sector of Berlin. However, on 22 October 1961 US Chief of Mission in West Berlin, E. Allan Lightner, was stopped while crossing at Checkpoint Charlie. As a consequence US Army General Lucius D. Clay (Retired), President Kennedy's Special Advisor in West Berlin, decided to demonstrate American resolve.
Clay sent Albert Hemsing an American diplomat to probe the border in a diplomatic vehicle. Hemsing was stopped by East German transport police who asked to see his passport. Once his identity became clear, US Military Police rushed in and escorted the diplomatic car as it drove into East Berlin. The car continued and the soldiers returned to West Berlin. On 27 October 1961, Mr. Hemsing again approached the zonal boundary in a diplomatic vehicle. Clay not knowing how the Soviets would respond had sent tanks with an infantry battalion to the nearby Tempelhof airfield. To everyone's relief the same routine was played out as before. The US Military Police and Jeeps went back to West Berlin, and the tanks waiting behind also went home.
Immediately afterwards, 33 Soviet tanks drove to the Brandenburg Gate. Ten of these tanks continued to Friedrichstrasse, and stopped just 50 to 100 meters from the checkpoint on the Soviet side of the sector boundary. The US tanks turned back towards the checkpoint, stopping an equal distance from it on the American side. From 27 October 1961 at 17:00 until 28 October 1961 at about 11:00, the respective troops faced each other with both groups of tanks loaded with live munitions. The alert levels of the US Garrison in West Berlin, then NATO, and finally the US Strategic Air Command (SAC) were raised.
Khrushchev and Kennedy agreed to reduce tensions by withdrawing the tanks. First a Soviet tank moved about 5 meters backwards, then an American tank followed suit. One by one the tanks withdrew. Kennedy later said: "It's not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war."
In a speech on June 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy declared, “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.” President Kennedy, identifying with the Germans’ quest for freedom and their desire to be reunited with their families said, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” (“I am a Berliner”).
At the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin on June 12, 1987 President Ronald Reagan delivered a speech to the people of West Berlin. Directing his comments to Mikhail Gorbachev he said: "There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
The Wall after it was decorated by the West Berliners
By the late 1980’s the ex-Communist countries of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia were opened to East Germans fleeing to the West. On November 9, 1989, the East German government declared all border checkpoints between the GDR and West Germany or West Berlin to be open.
The Wall was eventually cut up into smaller pieces which have become collectibles. East and West Germany were reunified on October 3, 1990.
The U.S.S. Little Rock was deployed in the Mediterranean Sea and in the North Atlantic on many occasions from February 1961 until September 1976.
The Crew Remembers:
John Roberts LTJG, M Div. 1960-1962
“....there is one other event that occurred during the 1961 Med cruise, and it wasn't that far away from us at the time. I'm referring to the first construction and erection of the Berlin Wall. This was a fairly hot time in the Cold War. I recall that several men in my division extended their enlistments, and the supposedly the Navy even looked into doing that to some ratings involuntarily.”
Were you there? Tell us about it!
Wikipedia's Berlin Wall Page