VI: The Berlin Crisis

By the mid-1950s the Soviets' Berlin strategy had changed. Although the expulsion of the Western Allies from the city undoubtedly remained a goal, after the suppression of the Berlin uprising in 1953 the Soviets gradually moved to at least a general acceptance of the status quo in Central Europe. For the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, in particular, the first priorities in Soviet German policy were the stabilization and legitimization of the Soviet-backed East German regime. Ironically, Khrushchev seems to have been primarily concerned that the rapid revitalization of West Germany would allow it to break free of American influence and pursue a conservative-led irredentist policy in Central and Eastern Europe. That the Bonn Republic might remain a pacific, democratic state seems to have been dismissed as an implausibility by the Kremlin. By the fall of 1958, the Soviet leadership had apparently convinced itself that Bonn was planning to displace Soviet influence in Eastern Europe by a strategy of far-reaching economic penetration. The possibility of West German military action was discounted but not precluded. 1

Khrushchev thus acted to prop up the East German regime and dislodge Western forces from Berlin before the West German regime could grow too strong and independent. As a curtain raiser, the Soviets resumed regular interference with military trains to and from Berlin early in 1958. That November, Khrushchev issued a demand that the Western powers renounce their rights in Berlin in favor of the DDR. On the 27th of that month, he threatened to transfer unilaterally Soviet control of East Berlin and of the access routes to West Berlin to the DDR within the next six months, thereby putting an end to quadripartite control of the city and forcing the Western Allies to deal directly with the East German regime.

But the willingness of the US, Great Britain, and France to negotiate a solution to the Berlin problem seems to have convinced Khrushchev that it would be possible to persuade the West to abandon its support of what he perceived to be Bonn's aggressive designs toward Eastern Europe. In January 1959, Khrushchev sent clear signals that he would not go to war over Berlin, but would not be part of an agreement that included the Bonn government--which then had as its Chancellor the Christian Democrat Konrad Adenauer--as a signatory. Khrushchev's subsequent willingness to submit the whole German question to a meeting of Foreign Ministers suggests that, by the following March, displacement of the Western powers from Berlin had moved into second place in Soviet priorities behind a draft German peace treaty. But this new plan fizzled: none of the Western Allies would agree to abandon Bonn and Khrushchev himself decided to defer the question, first until his trip to the US to meet with President Eisenhower that Fall and then until the Four-Power summit scheduled for the following May. In the meantime, he counseled patience to the East Berlin regime, but continued to pressure the Western Allies into a final settlement by threatening to sign a separate SovietÐEast German peace treaty. 2

By the spring of 1960 it must have become apparent to Khrushchev that this strategy had not worked; that Western solidarity remained intact, and that a peace treaty and a solution of the Berlin question on terms agreeable to the Soviet Union was not in the offing. He thus used 1 May shoot-down of Francis Gary Powers' U-2 spy plane as a pretext to kill the Paris summit, thereby avoiding being "outgunned and humiliated" on the Berlin question.3 In doing so he also bought time to await possibly favorable changes in the Western leadership constellation: West German Chancellor Adenauer was faced with elections that September; President Eisenhower certainly was going to be replaced the following November. Replacement of one or both of these key figures might produce a political environment more favorable to a Soviet-backed peace treaty.4 Or so it was possible for Khrushchev to hope.

The principal intelligence problem in this Berlin crisis was to understand Khrushchev's shifting motives and to gauge how far he would go--and in which direction. However, as was frequently the case in analysis of political events, the US Intelligence Community often had little more to go on than was reported in the open press. Under such circumstances, the CIA's role was primarily to serve as a clearinghouse for information brought in from every conceivable source. The value of the intelligence provided to policymakers thus generally derived more from the experience and expertise of the intelligence officers producing the reports than from their access to any special sources of information. In this situation, intelligence derived from clandestine sources frequently filled in important gaps, or contributed an added dimension that otherwise would not be present.

As can be seen from the following documents, policymakers were provided with a broad spectrum of intelligence reporting. The most comprehensive, long-range analysis generally appeared in the periodic NIEs or Special National Intelligence Estimates (SNIEs). But, as these could seldom be written quickly enough to keep up with developments, it was necessary to backstop and update this analysis with daily and weekly reports. These in turn provided much of the information used by the Board of National Estimates to draft the NIEs. Policymakers and senior officials also were kept apprised of events through daily briefings and--less frequently--other kinds of communications that do necessarily appear in the historical record.

As the crisis developed over 1959, the status of the Soviet military presence in East Berlin was seen to be a key indicator of Soviet intentions. The KGB base in Karlshorst thus was closely monitored. Throughout the spring of 1959, there was much movement of Soviet personnel, but by the end of June it became obvious that, although the Soviets had delegated control of the sector crossings and access routes to the DDR, there would be no significant diminution in the Soviet presence in East Berlin.5 This fact helped Western analysts gauge Khrushchev's threats of a separate peace and decide how best to respond. Actually, it is still far from clear whether Khrushchev had ever intended a Soviet pullout from East Berlin--but then had been dissuaded by Western persistence--or whether it had all been a sham all along.

VI-1: CIWS: USSR Threatens Western Position in Berlin, 13 November 1958 (MORI No. 45621). [PDF Only 270KB*]

A near-contemporaneous analysis of Khrushchev's actions, largely from open sources, this report supplements the publicly available information with additional material from diverse sources-- such as an appraisal of East Germany's ability to provide trained air traffic controllers.

VI-2: CIWS: Internal Situation in East Germany, 11 December 1958 (MORI No. 45626). [PDF Only 776KB*]

Much like a newspaper, CIA often supplemented its daily reporting with longer, more in-depth analyses, such as this piece on the internal situation in the DDR that provides background on the situation in Berlin. Such reports generally reached a wider audience than if they were written in an NIE.

VI-3: SNIE 100-13-58: Soviet Objectives in the Berlin Crisis, 23 December 1958. [PDF Only 983KB*]

In this, the first Estimate to appear on the 1958 Berlin crisis, the Board of National Estimates takes advantage of its relative "distancing" from events to summarize and analyze developments before projecting future Soviet actions.

VI-4: CIWS: The Berlin Situation, 15 January 1959 (MORI No. 144339). [PDF Only 361KB*]

This excerpt from the weekly summary reports on the Soviet Peace Proposal announced five days previously and places it in context with concurrent developments in Germany and elsewhere.

VI-5: Cable: Current Status Report Soviet Compound Karlshorst. . ., 16 January 1959 (MORI No. 144340). [PDF Only 263KB*]

VI-6: Cable: Current Status Report Soviet Intelligence Services East Germany, 21 January 1959 (MORI No. 144341). [PDF Only 138KB*]

VI-7: Cable: B[e]rl[i]n Sitrep, 11 February 1959 (MORI No. 144342). [PDF Only 261KB*]

These reports show the Soviets making preparations for a large-scale evacuation of military personnel from Berlin, but also provide evidence that the KGB intended to remain. These three documents represent raw intelligence reporting--a key source for both current intelligence reports and the longer range Estimates. Only in exceptional circumstances would a policymaker receive intelligence in this form.

VI-8: CIWS: Communist Tactics Against West Berlin, 5 February 1959 (MORI No. 28210). [PDF Only 494KB*]

With Khrushchev more-or-less quiescent on Belin in February 1959, the Current Intelligence Weekly Summary took advantage of the opportunity to summarize Soviet tactics to date. Such reporting supported and anticipated NIEs and SNIEs then in production or scheduled to appear--almost as a kind of "interim Estimate" (see below, Document VI-11).

VI-9: CIWS: Flight of Refugees From East Germany, 12 February 1959 (MORI No. 45580). [PDF Only 183KB*]

The DDR's biggest problem--and a major factor in the Berlin crisis--was the steady hemorrhage of defectors to the West. CIA tracked East Germany's refugee problem and reported on it periodically.

VI-10: SNIE 100-2-59: Probable Soviet Courses of Action Regarding Berlin and Germany, 24 February 1959. [PDF Only 1.35MB*]

Written in response to a request from Secretary of State Christian Herter, this Estimate addresses a series of questions concerning probable Soviet actions concerning Berlin and likely responses to proposed US actions. Compare it with Document VI-9, above. Estimates are, of course, generally much longer than current intelligence reports, but also are far more predictive in format and general subject matter.

VI-11: CIWS: USSR Prepares To Vacate East Berlin, 5 March 1959 (MORI No. 45584). [PDF Only 209KB*]

With Khrushchev threatening to turn over to East Germany all Soviet rights in Berlin as well as control of the access routes to the western half of the city, the status of the Soviet garrison in Berlin was seen as a solid indicator of future Soviet actions. The Soviet presence in Karlshorst thus was closely monitored. Note the shift in the tone of this document as compared with Document VI-5, above.

VI-12: CIA Memorandum: Soviet and Other Reactions to Various Courses of Action in the Berlin Crisis, 27 March 1959 (MORI No. 14231). [PDF Only 698KB*]

Written solely for the President and his senior advisers, this CIA memorandum addresses issues similar to the SNIE prepared one month before (see Document VI-11), but discusses the possible outcomes of some of the more extreme courses of action that might be taken by the United States. It also refers specifically to the possibility that the Berlin crisis might escalate into an intercontinental nuclear exchange.

VI-13: IR: Soviet Official's Comments on the Berlin Situation, 6 April 1959 (MORI No. 144343). [PDF Only 65KB*]

The uncertainty prevailing in the Berlin crisis is reflected in this report from April 1959, which raises both the possibility of war and of Soviet measures short of war. Although this report gives the impression that the Soviets were about to pull their forces out of Berlin, CIA was unable to confirm this from other sources.6 In fact, the Soviets did not withdraw from Karlshorst or East Berlin until the end of the Cold War.

VI-14: CIWS: The Problem of Western Access to Berlin, 30 April 1959 (MORI No. 45593). [PDF Only 314KB*]

As the East Germans assumed control of access corridors into and out of Berlin, the possibility of another blockade loomed. This report reviews Western access rights and the implications of a determined Soviet/East German attempt to block access to Berlin.

VI-15: CIWS: Foreign Ministers' Talks, 21 May 1959 (MORI No. 145741). [PDF Only 290KB*]

Here the Current Intelligence Weekly Summary documented Soviet efforts to drive a wedge between the three Western Allies in the Foreign Ministers' talks then under way. These efforts proved to be fruitless: the Western Alliance held fast on Berlin.

VI-16: SNIE 100-7-59: Soviet Tactics on Berlin, 11 June 1959. [PDF Only 480KB*]

A nuanced analysis of Khrushchev's motives and a prognosis of his future moves from the summer of 1959.

VI-17: Memorandum: U.S. Negotiating Position on Berlin, 1959-62, 13 July 1959 (MORI No. 11599). [PDF Only 223KB*]

With East and West well and truly deadlocked over Berlin, CIA sent forward a memorandum considering the impact that projected shifts in the balance of military power would have on the Berlin situation. The 1958 Berlin crisis introduced a new element into the confrontation in Central Europe: strategic nuclear weapons. Under Khrushchev's leadership, the Soviet military had extensively adopted nuclear weaponry and modernized and expanded its long-range naval and airstriking forces. The Soviet Union could now legitimately lay claim to world-power status. Although it would be some time before the Soviet nuclear capabilities even approached those of the United States, contemporary intelligence reporting shows how from 1958 onward US planners had constantly to reckon with the possibility that a crisis in Central Europe might escalate into an intercontinental nuclear exchange--however unlikely that eventuality might be at any given moment. There was, in addition, the menace of theater nuclear weapons (e.g., shorter range weapons for use in Europe), of which both sides had large and growing inventories. Nuclear weapons are not known to have ever been deployed in Berlin by either side, but the Soviet and Western intelligence personnel deployed there now faced each other under the deepening shadow of the nuclear arms race.

VI-18: CIWS: East German Pressure for Access Controls Appears Suspended, 27 August 1959 (MORI No. 45604). [PDF Only 198KB*]

Throughout the crisis, Khrushchev walked a narrow path between belligerency and outright confrontation. The difficulties in following his tacks and veers are seen in this current report, which shows him restraining the East German government on the eve of his trip to the United States to meet with President Eisenhower.

VI-19: SNIE 100-5-60: The Soviet Attitude and Tactics on the Berlin Problem, 22 March 1960. [PDF Only 824KB*]

VI-20: CIWS: Khrushchev's Strategy on Berlin, 18 August 1960 (MORI No. 144106). [PDF Only 465KB*]

Over 1959-60, the US intelligence community continued to submit Khrushchev's Berlin tactics to periodic review. These two documents provide interesting counterpoints to each other--being written shortly before and after the May 1960 summit.




1 Vladislav M. Zubok. "Khrushchev and the Berlin Crisis (1958-1962)" Cold War International History Project (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1993), pp. 3-8.

2 Hope M. Harrison, "The Berlin Crisis and the Khrushchev-Ulbricht Summits in Moscow, 9 and 18 June 1959," Cold War International History Project Bulletin 11 (Winter 1998), p. 205.

3 Sherman Kent, the Chairman of the Board of National Estimates from 1952-67, was present at the May 1960 Paris Summit to provide intelligence support to the US delegation. In 1972 he wrote up his impressions of the event in an article for the CIA's professional journal, Studies in Intelligence. This has been reproduced in Donald P. Steury, ed., Sherman Kent and the Board of National Estimates (Washington, DC: Center for the Study of Intelligence, 1994), pp. 157-172.

4 Zubok, pp. 12-13.

5 David E. Murphy, Sergei Kondrashev, and George Bailey, Battleground Berlin, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), pp. 317-319.

6 Murphy, et al., p. 317.


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Historical Document
Posted: Mar 16, 2007 01:54 PM
Last Updated: Feb 04, 2014 12:23 PM