In late-July 1961, US President John F. Kennedy announced a major military buildup over the dispute with the Soviet Union in Berlin. But why? The USA was superior militarily, and many Western leaders and policymakers considered the Soviet threat overblown. I offer an explanation for the puzzle: widespread fear among Kennedy and members of his administration, opposition leaders, the press, the diplomatic community, and international allies (i.e., his “in-group”) that he lacked resolve. Their impression of him as irresolute—formed long before but continued to brew after he assumed the highest political office—drove the emotion. They were obsessed, less with ascertaining Soviet intention than with bolstering Kennedy’s reputation for resolve—as they imagined it. As they expressed and fed on each other’s emotion, their sense of crisis intensified. Pent-up fear gave rise to a “cult of toughness,” culminating in and eventually finding outlet through Kennedy’s dramatic show of force.
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Sidney Gruson, “Western Big Three Confer on Tough U.S. Berlin Plan,” New York Times, June 1, 1961.
I study the Berlin Crisis for both reasons of empirical and theoretical advancement. As Trachtenberg (1991) remarked over two decades ago, the crisis was “one of the most important episodes in the history of great power politics in the nuclear age. Given its importance, it is surprising how little scholarly attention it has received” (169). His observation still holds today. Consider, for instance, how much more ink has been spilled on the Cuban Missile Crisis of the following year. Berlin was not as close a call to nuclear Armageddon as Cuba. However, the crisis culminated in a military showdown between the two superpowers in Berlin in August 1961 that was frightening in and of itself, and in the construction of the Berlin Wall that formalized the city’s partition and changed the course of the Cold War in Europe. The current analysis therefore fills such empirical lacuna. Moreover, the Berlin Crisis is at the same time a “least-likely” and “most-likely” case to demonstrate my theory (Eckstein 1975). It would be “least-likely” for in-group fear to matter because—as discussed earlier—the USA enjoyed overwhelming power (and Kennedy knew it) and at their heart American policymakers (including Kennedy) were dismissive of Khrushchev’s threats. My theory, if found to be relevant, may therefore be even more applicable to other cases in which such countervailing factors were less salient. On the other hand, at 43, Kennedy was the youngest person to become President. As I elaborate later, he had much to prove concerning his resolve, not only to the USA’ foreign adversaries but also to his domestic audiences. If in-group fear has any purchase as a general explanation for crisis escalation, Kennedy would be ideal as an initial case to study.
As Markwica (2018) defines, fear “is an aversive emotion that comes about when people sense an immediate, concrete physical or psychological threat and when they are uncertain whether they can cope with it… It encompasses a broad spectrum of affective experiences, ranging from apprehension, worry, and anguish to fright, mortification, and terror.” Moreover, an emotion “closely related” to fear is anxiety. Markwica (2018) explains: “Whereas fear tends to be elicited by an identifiable imminent threat… anxiety is based on an anticipated menace whose source and nature remain obscure” (73). The latter operates more in the “background” (Ross 2014, 18, 154). By this definition, it was fear that plagued Kennedy and those around him, since the object of their emotion was ultimately the Soviet Union, specifically its threat over Berlin.
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It would be impossible to know with certainty if the Berlin Crisis would still have occurred or at least reached the level of danger the world experienced in the summer of 1961 had, counterfactually, some other leader—say, Nixon or Johnson (Kennedy’s main opponent in the 1960 Democratic Party presidential primaries)—been President instead, or had Eisenhower stayed on for a hypothetical third term. However, none of these leaders suffered as much (if at all) from widespread doubt about their “toughness,” and as such, would presumably not have felt much of an imperative to prove themselves in foreign policy. One could surmise that the conflict would have unfolded rather differently had they been at the helm.
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Wong, S.S. Explaining the “cult of toughness”: in-group fear, Kennedy’s reputation for weakness, and the Berlin Crisis of 1961. Int Polit (2023). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41311-023-00481-5