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Remembering The Construction Of The Berlin Wall

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Remembering The Construction Of The Berlin Wall

Remembering The Construction Of The Berlin Wall

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Hurricane Katrina, Richard Nixon's resignation, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Elvis Presley's death, Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream Speech. What do all these things have in common? They happened in August.

In the news business, we often call August a slow news month, but it's actually a month that seems to produce more than its fair share of world-changing stories.

Senior news analyst Daniel Schorr has been thinking back to one of the biggest August stories he ever covered.

DANIEL SCHORR: Memories. In the early hours of August 13, 1961, I was awakened in my Berlin hotel room to come and see what was happening at the border between East and West Berlin. We had been expecting some move to stem the exodus of people from East Germany that was threatening the viability of the communist state.

What I saw was East German police sealing the sector border with rolls of barbed wire that would soon be replaced by a masonry wall. West Berliners gathered nearby in anger and anguish. For East Berliners, it marked the closing of an escape hatch.

Closing the sector border violated the four-power occupation status of Berlin, and West Berlin's mayor, Willy Brandt, demanded that the Western allies use tanks to challenge the border closing. But the reaction of the West, and especially of President Kennedy, was restrained. In Vienna two months earlier, there had been a confrontation with Nikita Khrushchev over Berlin, and the president had been expecting trouble. But not this, that East Germany would, in effect, seal itself in.

Some light on Kennedy's attitude is shed now in a new book, "Kennedy and the Berlin Wall," by Richard Smyser, who was in the U.S. Mission in Berlin then and now teaches at Georgetown University.

On that Sunday, when East Berlin was closed off, the president, at his home in Hyannis Port, said, a wall is not nice, but it's a hell of a lot better than war. And Assistant Secretary of State Foy Kohler added, the East Germans have done us a favor.

After almost half a century, it's interesting to be reminded that President Kennedy, who risked nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis, could also step away from confrontation with Nikita Khrushchev over Berlin. But President Kennedy did send a brigade of troops and Vice President Lyndon Johnson to reassure the jittery Berliners that America would not abandon them. Two years later, he flew to the besieged city to declare, ich bin ein Berliner.

But as the Cold War wound down and President Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down this wall, it became an increasing liability to the dying Soviet bloc. And in 1989, the checkpoints were opened up, and Berliners danced on the wall, which was soon leveled to the ground.

I visited Berlin a year later, and for the first time in 28 years, I could walk through the Brandenburg Gate. And now, a little chunk of wall graces my office.

This is Daniel Schorr

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