NATO marks 50 years since the 1961 Berlin Crisis

  • 13 Aug. 2011 -
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  • Last updated: 16 Aug. 2011 15:50

Fifty years after the erection of the Berlin Wall, NATO has released hundreds of formerly classified documents that shed light on how the Alliance and its member states managed the fallout of that event and the wider crisis surrounding Berlin. A key concern of France, the United Kingdom and the United States, and of the Atlantic Alliance as a whole, was to keep access to West Berlin free under all circumstances, while avoiding tensions from escalating into a wider conflict. To this end, the three Western Allies, as well as NATO, began to develop contingency plans and other measures.

The Brandenburg Gate dividing East and West.

In the night of 12 August 1961, the Cold War took a turn for the worse, extending the Iron Curtain into the very heart of a divided Europe. This move by the government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to stem the large-scale exodus of East Germans to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) through Berlin was not an isolated event. It was part of a broader plan to foster East-West tension in and around Berlin.

In 1948-1949, the Soviet Union had first tried to force a change to the Berlin four-power status agreed with France, the United Kingdom and the United States at the Potsdam conference in 1945. Its attempt to blockade the city failed and in 1958, USSR leader Nikita Khrushchev made another attempt to force the Western Allies to withdraw their forces from Berlin’s Western sectors and accept the demilitarisation of the city. The Soviet Union now threatened to sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany and change the city’s status unilaterally and irreversibly, while keeping the pressure on through the threat of force.

Coordinated and coherent planning

In 1948-1949, Allies were unprepared and had to resort to a challenging yet successful airbridge to break the Soviet blockade and re-supply West Berliners. In 1961, however, Allies were much better prepared to confront the Soviet ultimatum. Created in April 1959, a trilateral – France, UK and US - secret contingency planning staff codenamed LIVE OAK had worked on developing military measures to keep the road, rail and air corridors between the Federal Republic of Germany and West Berlin open at all times.

LIVE OAK was then led by General Lauris Norstad, as NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) and Commander-in-Chief of the United States European Command (USCINCEUR).

In 1961, LIVE OAK moved from its original headquarters at US European Command in St Germain en Laye near Paris to NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) near Rocquencourt. That same year, West German military personnel joined LIVE OAK in a liaison capacity.

The move to the SHAPE compound aimed to ensure that LIVE OAK’s tripartite planning was synchronised with that of NATO’s own planning (Berlin Contingency or BERCON Plans and associated Maritime Contingency (MARCON) Plans). It was also intended to facilitate a transfer of command responsibility from LIVE OAK to NATO, should a crisis over Berlin escalate into a wider conflict in Central Europe. Following France’s withdrawal from NATO’s integrated military command in 1966, LIVE OAK and SHAPE moved to Mons in Belgium.

Political oversight

Both the LIVE OAK and NATO contingency plans were developed under strict political control and remained under the close supervision of the ambassadors exercising that control on behalf of Allied capitals. The Washington Ambassadorial Group (WAG) oversaw LIVE OAK plans and the North Atlantic Council (NAC) supervised NATO’s plans. Contingency plans were complemented with political, economic, psychological and public diplomacy measures designed to convey Western resolve and deter hostile action.

This close supervision by political authorities helped to ensure that any threatening moves by the Soviet Union or the GDR would be responded to firmly, but prudently. It also ensured that the interests and prerogatives of all Allies would be protected, not just the four LIVE OAK nations if tensions escalated or conflict ensued.

What declassified documents reveal

To mark the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Berlin crisis, NATO has declassified and released to the public some 370 documents from this period, many formerly classified at the highest level - Cosmic Top Secret. These documents shed light on the protracted and sometimes tense exchanges of view among NAC ambassadors on the hypothetical circumstances under which the Alliance as a whole would have had to take over the protection of Western access to West Berlin from LIVE OAK.

In this context, document A (PO/61/765, dated 27 September 1961) describes a communication to the NAC by the United Kingdom, on behalf of the LIVE OAK powers, regarding LIVE OAK and proposals by the NATO Secretary General for initiating the development by the NATO Military Authorities of the BERCON and MARCON contingency plans. Document B (MCM-98-62, dated 20 August 1962) is the description of those plans. Document C (C-R(62)53, dated 31 October 1962) records the NAC’s approval, in principle, of the plans, with the caveat: “the selection and execution of these plans being subject to a prior political decision by member governments at the time.”

It is a testimony to the prudence and firmness embedded in the LIVE OAK and NATO contingency plans that Berlin never became the trigger of a general conflict in Europe. The Berlin Wall came down on 9 November 1989 and the Cold War came to a peaceful end. LIVE OAK was disbanded on 2 October 1990 on the eve of Germany’s reunification. All the arrangements and plans for the protection of Western access to, and for the defence of, West Berlin ceased to exist.