Berlin 1961, subtitled Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth, by Frederick Kempe is perhaps the most interesting, educational and entertaining history book I have ever read. In the past I have tended to lean towards the work of Antony Beevor and Stephen E. Ambrose, both being mainly concerned with WWII. Kempe’s book follows these two authors in their constructive techniques – using first-hand accounts from people who were ‘on the ground’ at the time, recently declassified documents as well as previous texts written by other historians.

Kempe is a journalist and this shows through in his delivery of the facts which at times left me sitting in stunned disbelief. Kempe is currently President and CEO of the Atlantic Council, a foreign policy think-tank and public policy group and is a regular commentator on TV and radio in Europe and the US. Berlin 1961 was first published in 2011 and became a New York Times bestseller.

I knew very little about the Cold War and the portioning out of Germany after WWII, Kennedy’s administration and even less about Khrushchev, for that matter, beyond a line in a Queen song. Kempe’s book takes it up to the Cuban Missile Crisis and even goes some way to discuss that challenge in the light of what happened in Berlin 1961.

So what happened? I suggest you read the book, but basically the Berlin Wall was constructed to separate West and East Germany amid a lot of muscle flexing by Khrushchev and the inexperienced JFK who had just suffered an embarrassing loss of face in the failed Bay of Pigs operation to overthrow Castro in Cuba. The events in Berlin culminated in a ‘Mexican standoff’ between American and Russian tanks at the only remaining border crossing.

Kempe’s book reveals much about JFK’s character, health, and willingness to use unofficial communication channels to talk to the Russian leader. It paints JFK in an unforgiving light and made me reappraise the image I had of him of the ‘last gunfighter’ and a hero of democracy. That’s not to say that Kempe leans towards the communist cause; I would say his book is quite politically neutral and just lays out the facts in a fascinating and thought-provoking manner.

Image:  Wouter de Koster