Berlin Crisis: The Standoff at Checkpoint Charlie

For 16 hours in October 1961, US and Soviet tanks faced each other in divided Berlin and the two superpowers came close to kicking off a third world war.

In August the Russians built the Berlin Wall, and by October, East German officials had begun to deny US diplomats access to East Berlin, even though access was part of the agreement with Moscow on the postwar occupation of Germany.

Then, on 22 October, the senior US diplomat in West Berlin was stopped by East German border guards on his way to East Berlin. The East Germans demanded to see his passport, which he insisted only Soviet officials had the right to check. He was forced to turn back.

General Clay, who had been sent by Washington to deal with the Russians, ordered that the next American diplomat entering East Berlin would be escorted by armed US army military police in jeeps. The plan succeeded, but the East Germans continued to try to control western allied officials entering East Berlin.

Clay then ordered American M48 tanks to head for Checkpoint Charlie. They stood, about 75 meters from the border. Alarmed by the apparent threat, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sent an equal number of Russian T55 tanks to face down the Americans. They too ground to a halt some 75 meters from the East/West Berlin border.

Alarmed by the potential consequences, President Kennedy approved the opening of a back channel with the Kremlin in order to defuse the conflict.

As a result, the Soviets pulled back one of their T55s from the eastern side of the border and minutes later an American M48 also left the scene. So it went until all the tanks were withdrawn.

In return for Kennedy's assurance that the west had no plans to control East Berlin, Khrushchev agreed that allied officials and military personnel would have free access to the East German capital. From that point on, western allies and Soviet diplomats could pass the checkpoint without incident.

Source: Berlin Crisis: The Standoff at Checkpoint Charlie
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