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1961 - Berlin Wall

Construction of Berlin Wall begins after sealing off free passage between East and West Berlin with barbed wire, East German authorities begin building the Berlin Wall to permanently close off access to the West

The end of World War II in 1945 saw Germany divided into four Allied occupation zones. Berlin, the German capital, was likewise divided into occupation sectors, even though it was located deep within the Soviet zone. The future of Germany and Berlin was a major sticking point in postwar treaty talks, and tensions grew when the United States, Britain, and France moved in 1948 to unite their occupation zones into a single autonomous entity–the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). In response, the USSR launched a land blockade of West Berlin in an effort to force the West to abandon the city. However, a massive airlift by Britain and the United States kept West Berlin supplied with food and fuel, and in May 1949 the Soviets ended the defeated blockade.

By 1961, Cold War tensions over Berlin were running high again. For East Germans dissatisfied with life under the communist system, West Berlin was a gateway to the democratic West. Between 1949 and 1961, some 2.5 million East Germans fled from East to West Germany, most via West Berlin. By August 1961, an average of 2,000 East Germans were crossing into the West every day. Many of the refugees were skilled laborers, professionals, and intellectuals, and their loss was having a devastating effect on the East German economy. To halt the exodus to the West, Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev recommended to East Germany that it close off access between East and West Berlin.

On the night of August 12-13, 1961, East German soldiers laid down more than 30 miles of barbed wire barrier through the heart of Berlin. East Berlin citizens were forbidden to pass into West Berlin, and the number of checkpoints in which Westerners could cross the border was drastically reduced. The West, taken by surprise, threatened a trade embargo against East Germany as a retaliatory measure. The Soviets responded that such an embargo be answered with a new land blockade of West Berlin. When it became evident that the West was not going to take any major action to protest the closing, East German authorities became emboldened, closing off more and more checkpoints between East and West Berlin. On August 15, they began replacing barbed wire with concrete. The wall, East German authorities declared, would protect their citizens from the pernicious influence of decadent capitalist culture.

The first concrete pilings went up on the Bernauer Strasse and at the Potsdamer Platz. Sullen East German workers, a few in tears, constructed the first segments of the Berlin Wall as East German troops stood guarding them with machine guns. With the border closing permanently, escape attempts by East Germans intensified on August 15. Conrad Schumann, a 19-year-old East German soldier, provided the subject for a famous image when he was photographed leaping over the barbed-wire barrier to freedom.

During the rest of 1961, the grim and unsightly Berlin Wall continued to grow in size and scope, eventually consisting of a series of concrete walls up to 15 feet high. These walls were topped with barbed wire and guarded with watchtowers, machine gun emplacements, and mines. By the 1980s, this system of walls and electrified fences extended 28 miles through Berlin and 75 miles around West Berlin, separating it from the rest of East Germany. The East Germans also erected an extensive barrier along most of the 850-mile border between East and West Germany.

In the West, the Berlin Wall was regarded as a major symbol of communist oppression. About 5,000 East Germans managed to escape across the Berlin Wall to the West, but the frequency of successful escapes dwindled as the wall was increasingly fortified. Thousands of East Germans were captured during attempted crossings and 191 were killed.


Further Reading


Flashbak - The Building of the Berlin Wall 

Chronik der Mauer - Building the Berlin Wall

DW What Germany was Like when the Berlin Wall was Built

The Atlantic - Berlin, 1963: Voices From the Wall

1961 - Bay of Pigs

Bay of Pigs Invasion - a US government sponsored attempt by Cuban exiles to assault Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro ends in complete failure

Since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Fidel Castro had grown increasingly antagonistic towards the United States and their interests. The  Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations authorized the CIA to come up with ways to remove him: attempts were made to poison him, anticommunist groups inside Cuba were actively supported, and a radio station beamed slanted news at the island from Florida. The CIA even contacted the mafia about working together to assassinate Castro. Nothing worked.

Meanwhile, thousands of Cubans were fleeing the island, legally at first, then clandestinely. These Cubans were mostly upper and middle class who had lost properties and investments when the communist government took over. Most of the exiles settled in Miami, where they seethed with hatred for Castro and his regime. It didn’t take the CIA long to decide to make use of these Cubans and give them the chance to overthrow Castro.

On April 17, the 2506 Brigade (also called the “Cuban Expeditionary Force”) landed on Cuban soil. The brigade consisted of over 1,400 well-organized and armed soldiers. Rebel groups within Cuba had been notified of the date of the assault and small-scale attacks broke out all over Cuba, although these had little lasting effect.

The landing site - Bay of Pigs - was a unfortunate choice, as the area selected is swampy and difficult to cross: the exiles would eventually become bogged down. The forces landed with difficulty and quickly did away with the small local militia that resisted them. Castro, a veteran of conflict, personally took charge of the defense, commanding troops, and air forces.

For two days, the Cubans fought the invaders to a standstill. The intruders were dug in and had heavy guns, but had no reinforcements and were running low on supplies. The Cubans were not as well armed or trained but had the numbers, supplies and the morale that comes from defending their home. Although airstrikes from Central America continued to be effective and killed many Cuban troops on their way to the fray, the invaders were pushed steadily back. The result was inevitable: on April 19, the intruders surrendered. Some had been evacuated from the beach, but most (over 1,100) were taken as prisoners.

After the surrender, the prisoners were transferred to prisons around Cuba. Some of them were interrogated live on television: Castro himself showed up to the studios to question the invaders and answer their questions when he chose to do so. He reportedly told the prisoners that executing them all would only lessen their great victory. He proposed an exchange to President Kennedy: the prisoners for tractors and bulldozers.

The negotiations were long and tense, but eventually, the surviving members of the 2506 Brigade were exchanged for about $52 million worth of food and medicine.

Most of the CIA operatives and administrators responsible for the fiasco were fired or asked to resign. Kennedy himself took responsibility for the failed assault, which severely damaged his credibility.


Further Reading


Al Jazeera - Remembering the Bay of Pigs invasion - 5 Things You Might Not Know About the Bay of Pigs Invasion

NPR - Learning From The Bay Of Pigs

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