Alliance Relations and Berlin

Kori Schake

American Enterprise Institute

Kori Schake is a senior fellow and the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

Before joining AEI, Dr. Schake was the deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. She has had a distinguished career in government, working at the US State Department, the US Department of Defense, and the National Security Council at the White House. She has also taught at Stanford, West Point, Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, National Defense University, and the University of Maryland.

Dr. Schake has a PhD and MA in government and politics from the University of Maryland, as well as an MPM from the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. Her BA in international relations is from Stanford University.

Sarah Nakasone

American Enterprise Institute

Sarah Nakasone is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute. She holds an AB from the University of Chicago and an MSc in Control of Infectious Diseases from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where she studied global health security as a Marshall Scholar.

Berlin posed the worst kind of alliance problem. Lying 100 miles inside East German territory, surrounded by 124 Soviet and East German divisions, Berlin was indefensible by the West. General Eisenhower advised President Truman any Western rights or responsibilities to it ought not to be included in the post-war division of Germany. But the 1948 Berlin airlift, when the Soviets attempted to strangle the city into conceding Western commitments, also made the city totemic, a symbol of the different kind of relationship occupying powers had in West Germany from the repressiveness of Soviet and East German rule.

The dilemma Berlin posed was that by 1949, it was both indefensible and essential to defend. As General Clay, the Allied administrator of Berlin, wrote in 1948, “There is no practicability in maintaining our position in Berlin and it must not be evaluated on that basis… We are convinced that our remaining in Berlin is essential to our prestige in Germany and in Europe. Whether for good or bad, it has become a symbol of the American intent.”

The city also became a showcase of Western opulence and vibrancy. The German government subsidized quality of life and kept population up by exempting Berliners from conscription, resulting in glamorous stores like the KaDeWe with its magnificent food hall, the majesty of the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan, and burgeoning punk music and alternative art scenes.

A legacy of wartime cooperation between the Soviet Union, United States, Britain, and France, the perpetuance of Four Power responsibilities not only required consensus across Cold War divergence of interests with the Soviet Union but also exacerbated frictions between the three Western powers and their NATO allies. Because Berlin was the most likely crisis flashpoint that could lead to war, all NATO allies would be implicated by the decisions of the Three. And Germany, the country whose territory and population were at risk, was excluded from policymaking and planning.

In order to keep German support for Western policy, that policy had to be uncompromising about Berlin, credibly threaten war over Berlin, weather repeated crises over Berlin, but never allow it to precipitate war.

Not only did Berlin complicate the politics of alliance management, it also drove strategy development for the NATO alliance. In the 1948 crisis, Western powers responded to a Soviet blockade of the city with a spectacular demonstration of airpower, supplying their sectors of the city for eleven months, delivering food and fuel solely by air. The United States provided most of the planes and supplies, at the height of the airlift landing a plane every 45 seconds in Berlin.

Planning during the 1958 crisis escalated quickly from small-scale ground probes of Soviet intentions to all-out war. The foundation for this ‘massive retaliation’ strategy was a belief that limited war between the Soviet Union and the West was impossible—any conflict that involved sizeable engagement of forces indicated a political commitment, and therefore would have been calculated with intention of escalation should the political objectives not be attained.

Germany was, of course, neuralgic about war over Berlin. When the Soviet Union threatened to again cut off access to the city in 1958, President Eisenhower dispatched Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to Bonn to reassure German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer the United States would fight for Berlin, even employing nuclear weapons to force Soviet acceptance of West Berlin’s freedom. A shocked Adenauer replied, “Good God no! Not for Berlin.”

The problem was that Germany also could not accept restrictions on Western rights in Berlin because doing so would concede the prospect of Germany’s eventual unification, ardently longed for by the German public. As President Eisenhower said in 1959,

The shirking of our responsibilities would solve no problems for us. First, it would mean the end of all hopes for a Germany under government of German choosing. It would raise, among our friends, the most serious doubts about the validity of all the international agreements and commitments we have made with them in every quarter of the globe. One result would be to undermine the mutual confidence upon which our entire system of collective security is founded. This, the Soviets would greet as a great victory over the West.

In order to keep German support for Western policy, that policy had to be uncompromising about Berlin, credibly threaten war over Berlin, weather repeated crises over Berlin, but never allow it to precipitate war.

In the 1961 crisis, the Department of Defense developed more than 120 separate contingency plans, not one of them anticipating the actual events that transpired: East Germany building a wall inside the Soviet sector of Berlin to prevent their own population from fleeing.

When the Soviet Union again threatened Berlin in 1961, the Kennedy administration did not believe the Four Power strategy was credible, and the planning initiated in the fall of 1961 is the origin of what would become ‘flexible response.’ Plans included limited escalatory steps and conflicts involving multiple divisions without using nuclear weapons. This approach proved even less appealing to NATO allies than massive retaliation, anticipating as it did an extended conventional war in Germany. NATO’s Secretary General warned the United States adopting that approach risked rejection by allies.

But, in fact, there was no strategy for defending Berlin that would be militarily sound. Allies were grappling for approaches that would deter a move against Berlin. In the 1961 crisis, the Department of Defense developed more than 120 separate contingency plans, not one of them anticipating the actual events that transpired: East Germany building a wall inside the Soviet sector of Berlin to prevent their own population from fleeing.

What is most surprising about Berlin during the Cold War is how well Western strategy actually succeeded. Berlin was a glittering showpiece of the West, Allies held together through repeated crises threatening war, and unification occurred peacefully. The Wall’s collapse is a victory for the power of civil society in the East which organized around the universal ideals espoused by the West and showcased in Berlin. St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig’s weekly prayers for peace in the summer of 1989 spurred large-scale protests against the GDR. Smuggled tapes of these protests—with protestors chanting “freedom and free elections“—broadcast in West Germany helped convince other East Germans to denounce the Soviet regime. The popular uprising confronted the GDR government and their Soviet backers with retaining power by force or conceding a peaceful unification of Germany. Alliances at their best draw on these shared values, and strategy works in their service.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.