The Kennedy Detail
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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Documentary on President Kennedy's visit to Berlin - June 26, 1963

On January 12, 2013, Joyce and I flew to Washington DC to participate in a documentary of President Kennedy's visit to Germany in June, 1963.  The documentary focused specifically on his visit to Berlin.  The surviving agents who participated in the trip are Winston Lawson, who conducted the advance for the presidents eight hour visit to the city, Sam Sulliman and myself.  Ron Pontius was able to go into the city, though he was working the night shift.  Ron was the photographer and historian on the visit.  On the Germany trip was also Walt Coughlin and Ken Weisman.

The trip to Berlin was undoubtedly the highlight of President Kennedy's administration.  Immediately after the Inauguration was the failed "Bay of Pigs" invasion by Cuban insurgents. The invasion, planned during the Eisenhower administration, was executed by President Kennedy, with a couple of modifications, which included changing the landing spot from an area where insurgents could rapidly move into the coverage of jungle, and with drawing air support for the invasion.  These changes were an effort to hide the United States participation.  The new landing location was near a road to Havana and the invasion force was met with Cuban troops and aircraft which sunk supply ships.  The result was a disastrous defeat of the insurgents.  Those who survived were taken prisoner.  The prisoners were later ransomed with medical and food supplies to Cuba paid by the United States.

The invasion started the president on the wrong foot in the Cold War with The Soviet Union and their leader Nikita Khrushchev.  The Bay of Pigs fiasco was perceived by Khrushchev as a weakness in the new president of the United States .  In a meeting held in Vienna, President Kennedy and Khrushchev, the soviet Premier harassed an d threatened the president in a harsh and belligerent manner.  President Kennedy left Vienna unnerved., knowing the Premier would challenge him relentlessly.

Berlin became the focus point of the cold war.

In August of 1961, a wall was built between East and West Berlin that would separate families.  The wall was built by the East Germans to keep the East German citizens from escaping to the west.  Approximately four million East Germans made the escape prior  to the wall going up.  After the wall went up only 200 escaped, but hundreds were also killed trying to flee to the west.  Along with the wall, there were challenges to the West's access to Berlin.  This started right after WWII where the Western Allies had to supply food and medical supplies.

The allies did not offer a challenge to the wall, which became know as the "Berlin Wall".  The opinion was that at least there would not be a war.if the move was to erect a barrier.  This attitude prevailed in France, Britain and the US.

President Kennedy had to rebuild relations with Latin and South America after the Bay of Pigs, in order to ensure the nations that the United States would support and stand by them.  In the meantime challenges increased in Indochina (Vietnam) and in Berlin.

In 1962 the Soviet Union attempted to install Nuclear warhead missiles in Cuba, which would allow them to reach every city in the United States.  The construction of the launch sites were filmed by U-2 aircraft.  Premier Khrushchev  was challenging President Kennedy to the Ultimate test.  This resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis.  President Kennedy stood up to the challenge and forced Premier to back down and withdraw the missiles.

With a new found confidence, President Kennedy ultimately negotiated a Nuclear arms treaty and could focus on his campaign promises related to Civil rights and other issues.

But first he had to visit Germany --- especially Berlin.

He arrived in Berlin on June 26, 1963 President Kennedy flew into the French Zone of Berlin, spending 8 hours in the city.  Sam Sulliman and I worked the follow-up car.  We covered about thirty miles through Berlin.  The streets were lined with people fifteen to 20 deep, screaming, yelling, and cheering.  Many of the Berliners tried to reach the. limousine, the one that President Kennedy rode in when he was murdered in Dallas five months later.  Many reached the limousine, but the German Motorcycle team, called the White Mice, held the crowds at bay.

Berlin and The White Mice

We ended up at the at the government square in Berlin where President Kennedy would give his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speach.  The sight was overwhelming.  Over a half million people were cheering, crying and enthralled with President Kennedy --- the man who they now felt could reunite their nation. It took thirty  minutes to quiet the crowd.   I had never seen anything like this.  Nor had President Kennedy.

Berlin - June 1963

The President abandoned his original speech and improvised a much more aggressive speech than he had first planned on giving.  The speech shocked Willie Brandt, the Berlin Mayor who was concerned what the Soviet response would be.  After the speech McGeorge Bundy , the presidents security advisor also told him that he might have overdone it.  President Kennedy just grinned.  The President had stolen the hearts of all Berliners.  All he had to do was say tear down that wall and there would have been a million people with sledge hammers and picks..

Ironically Joyce and I were in Berlin in November 1989 when the wall went down.  It too was an event that overwhelmed both of us.

The production crew had fifteen hours of archive video tape of President Kennedy's visit which Joyce and I viewed during our visit. The documentary is being produced by ARD German Television.  Ms. Christine Rutten was the narrator.

Ironically, the son of Nikita Khrushchev was also interviewed while we were in Washington DC.

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