August: Guarding the Door to the West

Following end of the formal occupation of West Germany in 1955 and its incorporation into NATO, Berlin remained a key flashpoint in subsequent Cold War confrontations. On 10 November 1958, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech in Moscow during which he accused Western powers in the city of violating the Potsdam Agreement by arming West Germany and turning world opinion against the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Two weeks later, Khrushchev threatened to sign an agreement with the GDR ceding control of all access routes leading to West Berlin if Western powers did not withdraw from the city and allow it to “unite and become a free city.” Khrushchev’s demand was widely believed to have been in response to pressure from the GDR to close “the door to the West,” as West Berlin was the easiest place from which East Germans could flee the communist regime. Despite having closed its borders in 1952, the GDR was hemorrhaging citizens an astounding rate which in turn created a critical labor shortage.

From 1958 until 1961, the Soviet Union and the U.S. held multiple diplomatic engagements to solve the Berlin question. The U.S. was convinced that if they were to remove their garrisons from West Berlin, the city would soon fall under communist influence. Under pressure from the GDR, and unhappy with a capitalist city thriving 90 miles behind the Iron Curtain, the Soviets continued to push for the removal of western garrisons and the unification of the city under communist rule.

Following the Soviet ultimatum in November 1958, the U.S., Great Britain, and France established the LIVE OAK contingency planning staff, collocated with U.S. European Command (USEUCOM) in Paris, France, to develop military responses to possible Soviet restrictions on Allied access to West Berlin. Air Force General Lauris Norstad, the USEUCOM commander at the time, donned a third hat as the LIVE OAK commander in addition to his role as the NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). The command also integrated LIVE OAK planning into its theater mission.

General Norstad quickly recognized the untenable situation of the Allies. The only military courses of action if the Soviets chose to isolate West Berlin was evacuation of the city, enduring a siege, or conducting a forcible entry from West Germany. Not only were troop levels in Europe insufficient for the latter option, but military action of that magnitude would likely escalate to a nuclear conflict. The only viable military option was sending armed probes to test Soviet resolve, while having a corps-size force on standby to rescue the probe in the event the Soviets or East Germans held their ground.

Following the failed summit between U.S. President Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna, Austria in June 1961, the U.S. moved LIVE OAK to Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Rocquencourt, France. While still only manned by American, British, French personnel, the U.S. intended to synchronize the Berlin contingency planning with NATO contingency planning by moving LIVE OAK to SHAPE. The move also helped support the U.S. request that Allied nations improve and increase their conventional war fighting capabilities. When Berlin contingency plans were shared with NATO allies, they saw the detailed tables of land, sea, and air forces required for each NATO member - a not-so-subtle way of communicating force requirements. 

Planning came closer to reality as tensions over Berlin accelerated during 1961. On 13 August, after three years of failed diplomatic engagements, the East Germans started the construction of the Berlin Wall in an effort to stem the flow of refugees into West Berlin. Initial barriers were concertina wire strung one or two meters behind the East Berlin border. Despite the requests from West Berlin politicians for U.S. Forces to forcibly remove the wire, the American commander in Berlin refused, as that would require U.S. forces to enter East Berlin and risk a major escalation. IN response to the emerging crisis, the U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR) directed the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry stationed in Mannheim to augment the two battalions then comprising the West Berlin garrison. Those initial reinforcements crossed into East Germany at 0630 hours on 18 August, cleared the perfunctory challenges at the Soviet check point in Marienborn, and arrived in West Berlin that afternoon without incident. The periodic rotation of battalions from West Germany into Berlin become known as Operation LONG THRUST.

Over the next few months minor confrontations flared on both sides as the East German border guards imposed ever increasing restrictions to passage between East and West Berlin. On several occasions, U.S. and Soviet armored vehicles faced off across border crossing points such as Checkpoint Charlie. By the end of 1961, both sides had moderated their military activities along the border and a tenuous calm had fallen over the city. Despite this, the Berlin Wall became a controversial symbol and frequent flashpoint in the continued Cold War confrontation with the Soviets.

From the theater perspective, the USEUCOM staff and the component headquarters responded to the Berlin Crisis by elevating their forces’ readiness and ensuring they could meet any future contingencies. The LIVE OAK contingency planning group continued to function until shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Overall, the Berlin Crisis of 1961 led to an increase in conventional military capability by the U.S. and its NATO allies in Europe. It demonstrated the need for a robust conventional force to in order to tackle contingencies and avert escalation to nuclear conflict. In the years following the initial crisis, the Berlin Wall and the Allied mission to protect West Berlin remained a key Cold War focus for USEUCOM and NATO.