When President Kennedy took office, Berlin was without a doubt the most divisive issue between the US and the Soviet Union. In his first year in office, the President constantly feared that the Soviets might take unilateral action that would result in a general war. When they built the Berlin Wall to keep the East German citizens from leaving, the President vocally condemned the action, but privately was pleased that the Soviets had undertaken actions that the US could accept and not go to war over.
From the moment he was elected, the issue of Berlin was on President Kennedy's mind. In his initial meeting with President Eisenhower, Berlin was one of the first items on the agenda. And, Berlin was clearly Khrushchev’s concern as well. When President Kennedy suggested a summit in Vienna, he wrote that Berlin was “a dangerous source of tension in the very heart of Europe.”
Kennedy had hoped to reach an agreement with the Soviets on Berlin during the Vienna meeting. It was not to be. At the Vienna Summit, the issue of Berlin was the most contentious. Khrushchev made it clear he was willing to sign a separate peace agreement with East Germany, and would not be concerned about US or Western rights in Berlin. JFK made it clear that Berlin was not a peripheral question for the United States. He stated to Khrushchev: “This matter is of greatest concern to the US. We are in Berlin, not because of someone’s sufferance. We fought our way there. If we were expelled from the area, and if we accepted the loss of our rights, no one would have any confidence in US commitments and pledges.” The one concession Khruschev was willing to make was his willingness to wait until December to sign an agreement with East Germany.
Kennedy returned from the summit fearful there might indeed be war with the Soviets over Berlin. Too many East Germans were voting with their feet, moving to West Berlin and leaving the Soviet bloc, which was exceptionally embarrassing to the Soviets who were not willing for the status quo to continue. The summer of 1961 was tense, with the issue of Berlin dominating. The question everyone asked, was whether President Kennedy was willing to risk nuclear war to protect US rights in Berlin. In a press conference on June 28th, he spoke out about Berlin, but refused to answer questions that might show too much of his hand. During this period, Kennedy was simultaneously supporting a military buildup, while at the same time, pushing to find diplomatic solutions to the problem.
On July 25th, Kennedy gave a nationwide address on Berlin. In it, Kennedy successfully balanced his need to show strength, while seeming to be flexible. Kennedy made it clear the US would not walk away from Berlin. He also announced a major US military buildup. At the same time, Kennedy stated he was open to any diplomatic solution to the problem.
Khruschev came to the conclusion that Kennedy would indeed fight over the rights of the Western powers in Berlin. So Khruschev chose to implement an alternative strategy that caught the West by surprise. Early on the morning of August 13th 1961, East German security started putting up barriers between East and West Berlin, barriers which were to become the Berlin Wall. While Kennedy was not happy that the Wall was being built, he realized it was a way out of the crisis. He stated to his aid O’Donnell: “It's not a very nice solution, but a wall is hell of a lot better than a war.” The Wall was to remain a central divide between East and Western Europe until, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Wall was dismantled on November 9th 1990.