Deterrence in Berlin

“Before I back Khrushchev against the wall and put him to the final test, the freedom of all Western Europe will have to be at stake.”

John F. Kennedy, on his way back from the Vienna Summit of 1961.[1]


With the signing of the Occupation Protocol on September 12, 1944, the Allies agreed on the post-war territorial division of Germany. The protocol provided for a tripartite division of the German capital, even though the city was located 110 miles inside what was agreed would be the Soviet occupation zone.

West Berlin would go on to become a thorn in the side of the Soviet Union’s most important satellite. East Germany, poor by Western standards but the star performer of Eastern Europe, would find itself constantly losing people to the West through the Berlin ‘hatch’. In a country with a population of just 16½ million, the loss of 200,000 of its most educated citizens year on year was grave indeed. By the late-fifties, the situation had become intolerable to the Kremlin.

But why did Stalin agree to divvy up Berlin in the first place? It is hard to imagine that he could not foresee the implications of a Western outpost deep inside the Soviet sphere of influence in postwar Europe. Clearly, he must’ve conceded to Western demands in exchange of another geopolitical prize.[2] Why, then, did the Western powers want a foothold in Berlin? Roosevelt and Churchill surely understood the military implications of such an exposed position.

That the Soviet Union would emerge from the Second World War as the dominant land power in Eurasia was amply clear by the summer of 1944. Deterrence by denial—as opposed to deterrence by punishment—was obviously impossible deep inside Soviet-controlled territory. And this is before the Manhattan project came to fruition; whose success was by no means assured at this point.

How, precisely, did the United States intend to deter the Soviet Union from forcibly absorbing West Berlin? Given that the US’ force-in-being were clearly insufficient for the job, were US planners counting on threatening general war in response to a Soviet invasion of the Western enclave of the city??

One can understand how America’s nuclear monopoly in 1945-1949 ensured the success of extended deterrence in Berlin: The United States could credibly threaten ‘massive retaliation’ without fear of unleashing thermonuclear war.

During the fifties, the Soviets lacked the aerial-refueling capabilities required to strike the US homeland. Until the arrival of Soviet inter-continental ballistic missiles and long-range bombers capable of reaching the continental United States at the end of the decade, the United States enjoyed nuclear primacy. We should, therefore, not be surprised that the US managed to deter the Soviet Union from forcibly absorbing West Berlin in the fifties either.

But once the Soviet Union had acquired a second-strike capability—a development that was already on the horizon by 1957 and was most certainly in play by 1960—how could extended deterrence continue to hold in West Berlin??

We have already seen how extended deterrence held in Western Europe after the Soviets acquired a second-strike capability. In order to deter a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, the United States threatened to mount a local defense with tactical nuclear weapons. A threat that was indeed credible.

But it is one thing to threaten a European war with field nuclear weapons in response to an attack on West Germany, and quite another to do so in response to a forcible absorption of West Berlin. It is hard to see how an American president could be persuaded to go to war over half a city; and harder still to see West Germany committing suicide over West Berlin—Germany was understood to be the zone-of-fire in a limited nuclear war on the continent. Yet, extended deterrence held in Berlin to the bittersweet end of the Cold War. But how??

I have been combing books and scholarly articles in order to answer this question for years. No one seems to have asked this question before. Yet, once you think about it, it is an obvious and important question. Like the question of the German failure to launch preventive war in 1905 (when the Russian army was out of business and France lay defenseless), this is a vexing open problem that has so far gone unnoticed.

It seems to me that answering this question requires new theoretical insights. What I have in mind specifically is a theory of international order. And I do not mean that in the sense of Kissinger’s new book (which is a load of horseshit), nor in the sense of David Lake’s notion of order arising from the hierarchical relations between states (decidedly not horseshit but not relevant to this question either).

What I have in mind is this: For reasons not quite understood, great powers forgo concrete security gains seemingly in order to prevent a breakdown of relations even with implacably hostile foes. They evidently fear upsetting the “international order” and are especially loath to violate explicit agreements. What I want is a realist theory of international order. Namely, a theory that accounts for the content of international politics by the balance of power and interests between states. That is, I do not want to reach outside the realist framework and hunt for new variables. Rather, my goal is to explain why it is in the states’ interest to bear real costs to avoid antagonizing their adversaries.

For Robert Gilpin, the international order is encoded in the division of territory and the international ranking of prestige. States earn prestige, that is to say a reputation for power, by prevailing in a military confrontation against great powers. For instance, in the minds of great power statesman, Japan emerged on the world stage in 1905 when it delivered a crushing defeat on Russia. Similarly, Israel’s reputation as a modern-day Sparta is due to the demonstration of its military prowess nearly fifty years ago.

On the face of it, Gilpin’s logic predicts that deterrence should not have held in Berlin after 1960. To put it bluntly, since the United States had no conceivable military response to a forcible absorption of West Berlin by the Soviet Union, a termination of Western rights in Berlin would’ve increased the Soviets’ prestige. Why, then, did Khrushchev not go for it?

In order for us to account for this fact without taking leave of the realist frame, we must show that: In the Soviet calculus, given the ex ante probability distribution of the United States’ response, the risk-adjusted expected costs of a forcible absorption of West Berlin exceeded the expected benefits.

Adam Tooze is a historian, not a political scientist. But his framework for understanding the stability of the interwar international order seems particularly well-suited to the task at hand.

The interwar international politico-military order on the continent featured French military primacy alongside US guarantees of German security against French depredations (especially after the Ruhr Crisis of 1923). The international economy critically depended on the flow of German reparations to France and Britain, and the flow of debt repayments from Britain and France to the United States. Both flows required the Europeans to earn enough dollars by selling their wares in the United States.

Tooze shows how these two logics were tightly coupled. The Weimar Republic could maintain an internal political consensus on disarmament and reparations as long as it enjoyed US protection and access to the US market. Britain and France in turn could keep making debt repayments as long as they continued to receive reparations from the Germans. In the American political economy, the internationalists, led by JP Morgan, could only guarantee a low tariff regime as long as the economy continued to grow.

Once the Great Depression set in, American internationalists could no longer prevent the domestic industrial interests from erecting a mighty tariff wall. Almost immediately, the chains that had kept the international order in place since Versailles, snapped one by one. The Germans stopped their reparations. The British and the French ceased their debt repayments. American guarantees of German security became violable. German political elites began reconsidering rearmament. Indeed, Germany was already poised for rearmament before the Nazi takeover in 1933.[3]

Tooze’s brilliant analysis suggests that we should think of the international order as made up of discrete postwar settlements that specify the division of spoils and obligations of the most important states. So in the interwar settlement, the first component was the European settlement identified by Tooze. The second component was the agreement on the number of capital ships by the three naval powers at the Washington Conference of 1922. When the Germans refused to pay any more reparations, they knew they were jeopardizing American security guarantees. Similarly, when the Japanese walked out of the naval treaty in 1935, they knew they could no longer count on American toleration of Japanese expansion on the mainland.

I think the right way to think about international orders is to consider powerful states playing a cooperative game wherein any power may withdraw and thereby precipitate an expulsion of some or all powers into a straight power game. That is, discrete postwar settlements encode a cooperative game whereby great powers can enjoy mutually-beneficial economic intercourse and working relationships. Any great power may at any time renege on its core commitments. This then leads to a breakdown of the international order. Specifically, it frees up other great powers to renege on the commitments they made in the postwar settlement.

So how could Berlin be defended? Even when the Cold War was at its hottest in 1961-1962, the two adversaries were playing a cooperative game. Imports from Western Europe accounted for 15% of the Communist Bloc’s imports. Industrial productivity growth in the Communist Bloc was critically dependent on the importation of industrial machinery from the West.

Had Khrushchev absorbed West Berlin in 1961, he would’ve gravely jeopardized the Communist Bloc’s trade ties with Western Europe, and thereby its industrial prospects. Specifically, the agreement on trade with Western Europe in 1954—reached in opposition to the United States—could no longer be relied on in the event of a forcible absorption of West Berlin. I believe that it is this that stayed his hand. The Wall was the Kremlin’s solution to the problem posed by West Berlin in light of the Communist Bloc’s technological dependence on the West.

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Quoted in Kempe, Frederick. Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the most dangerous place on earth. Penguin, 2011, p. 258.



When the international order was forged by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin at Yalta and Potsdam, Stalin was bargaining from a position of strength. The Red Army had just singlehandedly defeated the Wehrmacht, by general agreement the mightiest standing army in 1941. The United States had bankrolled and armed the Soviet Union but US troops had not gone into combat against Germany until the summer of 1944, when it was no longer a polar power. Even Great Britain had displayed greater military prowess in the side-show in North Africa than the United States.



I don’t understand why Tooze claims that the interwar international order was quite stable. His logic in fact demonstrates the instability inherent in the interwar international order. See Tooze, Adam. The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931. Penguin, 2014.

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