A Look Back at the Berlin Crisis and How Further Declassifications would Promote Transparency over Conspiracy in JFK Assassination
Today marks the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination in Dallas, and a recent Frontline special expressed what many open government advocates have long argued –that the CIA’s refusal to declassify records related to the event is the primary fuel for conspiracy theorists. To mark the anniversary, Unredacted is taking a look back at the one of the central events of JFK’s presidency, the Berlin Crisis, as well as at the new trove of documents recently declassified by the National Declassification Center (NDC) and the CIA on life in West Berlin, which includes documents on the construction of the Berlin Wall. The recent declassifications are a step in the right direction, and should pave the way for more significant declassifications on the assassination of JFK itself.
On June 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered his iconic ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech to a crowd of well over 100,000 people in West Berlin, expressing his solidarity with its citizens. The speech was an important morale boost for the city’s occupants, who had been living behind the Berlin Wall for almost two years, and reinforced West Berlin’s importance for American policy makers, who viewed the city as a front line of American national defense.
Berlin, often a focal point of Cold War tensions, was perhaps no more significant than it was during the Berlin Crisis, and the Digital National Security Archive’s Berlin Crisis collection is the most comprehensive documentation of it available. The Archive’s Berlin Crisis, 1958-1962 provides a record of U.S. policy during the most prolonged U.S.-Soviet crisis of the Cold War era, beginning with the November 10, 1958, statement made by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to a Moscow audience, in which he said that the United States and its Allies had violated four-power agreements regarding control of Berlin and Germany, which the Grand Alliance had framed at the close of World War II. Violations such as the rearmament of West Germany, Khrushchev declared, made it necessary to end the postwar occupation of Berlin. His call for the West to withdraw its occupation garrisons from West Berlin and a subsequent Soviet note giving a six-month deadline for a Berlin settlement are commonly regarded as the events which touched off the Berlin crisis of 1958-1962, potentially one of the most dangerous disputes of the Cold War era. The crisis that U.S. policy makers feared, and prepared for, during 1958-1962 was not a “Wall” but the possibility that Khrushchev would turn control of Allied access to West Berlin over to the East Germans, forcing the Allies to deal with the GDR, a state that they had refused to recognize.
For four years, from late 1958 until late 1962, world leaders worried that the ongoing controversy over the political status of West Berlin would spark a military confrontation and general war. Analysts of the Berlin crisis have suggested various dates for the culmination of the Crisis: August/September 1961, with the construction of the “Wall;” late 1962, with the conclusion of the Cuban missile crisis and subsequent superpower aversion to confrontation; or late 1963, after the series of incidents at the autobahn checkpoints (the “Tailgate Crisis”). Developments from September 1961 until late 1962, such as the air corridor incidents in March 1962, the failure of the prolonged U.S.-Soviet discussions and the ongoing Allied efforts to formulate contingency plans, suggest that Berlin remained a source of serious concern and tension in U.S.-Soviet relations through the end of 1962 and late 1963.
Now, thanks to the NDC and CIA’s joint release of nearly 11,000 documents on life in Berlin between the JFK speech and the razing of the Wall, the public will have a better chance to contextualize and analyze the Berlin Crisis. A selection of the release, 2,464 pages, is available online, and the whole set is available for research at the National Archives at College Park, MD, located at 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD.
Unlike the Berlin Crisis, the NDC has yet to review and declassify the final 50,000 pages of government documents regarding the JFK assassination that are still sealed from the public, likely because of the CIA’s intransigence, despite the Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 that mandated that all federal records pertaining to JFK’s assassination be transmitted to the National Archives (NARA). The Act required that each assassination record be publicly disclosed in full, and be available in the collection no later than the date that is 25 years after the date of enactment of the Act (October 26, 2017), unless the President certified that releasing the documents would cause “identifiable harm to the military defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement, or conduct of foreign relations” and if that harm outweighed the public interest in disclosure. Given the rapidly approaching 25-year deadline, the response the NDC received when it asked historians what documents should be a priority for declassification, and the enormous public interest in the documents, it would have been appropriate for the CIA disclose the last of its documents on the JFK assassination for the 50th anniversary and promote transparency in the place of conspiracy.