John F. Kennedy, Credibility, and the Berlin Crisis of 1961

Fifty Years Without JFK: Rethinking Global Diplomacy
Europe: Panel 1

"The great testing place of Western courage and will." John F. Kennedy, Credibility, and the Berlin Crisis of 1961

Andreas Etges (Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich)

The paper will discuss Kennedy's policies during the Berlin crises, including the tank confrontation at Checkpoint Charlie with a special emphasis on "credibility."

After the Vienna summit, Dean Acheson told President Kennedy to remain tough regarding Berlin. The outcome of the conflict, Acheson argued, "will go far to determine the confidence of Europe--indeed, of the world--in the United States. It is not too much to say that the whole position of the United States is in the balance." "Confidence" can be replaced by credibility, a key concept in Cold War thinking, which has a double meaning. The first is credibility to the "enemies," meaning they should have no doubts that the United States would be ready to fight for its freedom and those of its allies, if necessary even with nuclear weapons. Equally important was credibility to America's allies. They should not doubt that the US would be ready to use military force to defend their freedom and territorial integrity. In the early 1960s Berlin, possibly even more than Cuba, was the place where in the view of the Kennedy administration credibility was more at stake than anywhere else.

America's credibility was shaken with regard to the Soviet Union during and after the Vienna summit. The president's speech on the Berlin Crisis on July 25, 1961 was meant to restore this credibility. Kennedy called Berlin "the great testing place of Western courage and will" and asked for more money for the military and for civil defense. After the building of the wall, it was the belief of the West Berliners and many other Germans in America's promises that was severely shaken, with the possible international consequences Acheson had alluded to. Kennedy had to react, and he did so mostly with symbolic politics, sending Vice-President Johnson, General Lucius D. Clay as well as 1500 soldiers to West Berlin to restore confidence. Kennedy's trip to Europe in the summer of 1963 with the famous visit to West Berlin can also be read in that sense: It was meant to reestablish the American leadership role in Europe (in the face of French aspirations) and to renew American credibility, which had suffered during the height of the Second Berlin Crisis in 1961. In both aims, I would argue, Kennedy succeeded.

Europe: Panel 1A (Senate Room)

"The great testing place of Western courage and will." John F. Kennedy, Credibility, and the Berlin Crisis of 1961
Andreas Etges (Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich)

The men behind the man: McGeorge Bundy, the NSC staff, and the making of American foreign policy, 1961-1963
Kasper Grotle Rasmussen (Aarhus University, Denmark

United States – Yugoslav Relations: From Dispute to Normalization During 1963
Zlatko Ivanovic (University of Montenegro)

“France in John F. Kennedy’s world view”
Sean J. McLaughlin (University of Wisconsin-Whitewater)

Panel 1, Europe: Q&A Session
Chair: Dr. Piers Ludlow (LSE)

Author: 
Institute for the Study of the Americas
Speaker(s): 
Andreas Etges (Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich)
Event date: 
Wednesday, 13 March 2013 - 12:00am
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