Book Review: The Ides of August

This book review was originally published in the February 19, 1979 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here

History without a Hero

THE IDES OF AUGUST by Curtis Cate; Evans; 534 pages; $15

The villain of a book is seldom an inanimate object. But in this case, the Berlin Wall qualifies for the role. If Curtis Cate’s richly detailed, gripping history has a villain, however, it lacks a hero. For the author, a longtime commentator on European affairs and a biographer of George Sand and Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry, strongly implies that the Wall would never have been built if the Western Allies had shown a little more sophistication and a little less fear.

The Ides of August is a kind of upstairs-downstairs drama. On the upper level, in full view, are the national leaders fitfully attempting to deal with the crisis of 1961. Obscured from public sight are the embattled East Berliners making a last attempt to escape before the Wall is completed. The contrast is sometimes too theatrical and may do less than justice to statesmen who must always improvise, but Cate sharply points up the courage demonstrated belowstairs that was so urgently needed on top.

He includes many poignant vignettes of Germans running, swimming, crawling to freedom or to death. Construction Worker Emil Goltz darts under a railway car, hanging between the wheels for miles. Two lovers appear to be ardently embracing by the Wall, but under cover of the clinch, the man is hastily snipping the wire. When the gap is large enough, the lovers rush through followed by a group of friends who were hiding near by. Others, in scenes reminiscent of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, perish within a few feet of the West, or are arrested and imprisoned because they seek to be reunited with their families.

The story of the Wall has been told before, but not with such cold fury. Cate paints an unflattering picture of President

John F. Kennedy and his advisers. They were, he claims, intimidated by Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev, who had been making grim references to a nuclear holocaust if the West did not get out of Berlin, where it had had a legal right to be since 1945. Beneath the bluster, however, Khrushchev was behaving cautiously. At first, he resisted East German Party Boss Walter Ulbricht’s request to build the Wall. When the barrier was erected, Western leaders reacted with relief. They had been expecting much worse.

They maintained an air of indifference, acting as though the crisis might go away if they ignored it. “When I go to bed at night, I try not to think about Berlin,” confessed Secretary of State Dean Rusk. A few Administration officials dissented.

They warned that letting Khrushchev get away with the Wall would only encourage further Soviet adventurism. James O’Donnell, who worked in the State Department’s economic division, exploded at a meeting: “You and your crowd of mandarin idiots are trying to put a fourth color into the American flag!”

If Gate is not very kind to Kennedy’s entourage, he is scathing on the subject of Lyndon Johnson. As Vice President, L.B.J. was sent by Kennedy to Berlin to demonstrate American concern. There was no way of telling that from Johnson’s trip. Avoiding the Wall, the Vice President seemed to be mainly interested in gathering souvenirs. “Say, Mr. Mayor,” he addressed Willy Brandt, “where did you get those spiffy shoes? I want a pair just like them.” Brandt replied that he would be glad to oblige, but it was Sun day and the store was closed. The Vice President remonstrated: “What was that you said the other day in front of your city hall? That you wanted action, not words, from the Allies? Now how about a little action on your part?” Brandt got the message and Johnson got the shoes.

Kennedy finally sent someone of mettle to Berlin: General Lucius Clay, who had been military governor of the U.S. zone during the 1948-49 airlift. When the East Germans started harassing American officials entering their sector after the Wall was built, Clay ordered an armed escort to accompany the Americans through the checkpoint; then he brought up tanks to the border. The Soviets in turn sent then” tanks to confront the Americans. For 16 tense hours, the two superpowers were thus nose to nose. Though White House advisers were rat tled, Khrushchev finally backed down and withdrew his hardware. But the wrong lessons had been learned. Instead of rewarding Clay for his stalwart behavior, the White House thought he had exceeded his authority, and the general soon resigned his post.

By appearing to be weak when challenged, Gate feels, the U.S. gained less than nothing. There is considerable evidence that if American tanks had knocked down the Wall as soon as it was started, it never would have been completed. Once Khrushchev saw that it could be erected with minimum fuss, he was inspired to place nuclear missiles in Cuba. He reasoned that the removal of the missiles could be traded for the with drawal of the U.S. from Berlin. Thus conditions were set for a more chilling confrontation. The events of Gate’s account are almost 18 years old, but neither the tragedy nor the warning has aged. The Ides of August is a reminder that power remains a key factor in the conduct of foreign policy; without it, this book makes clear, the U.S. cannot remain secure in a world where every sign of weakness is ruthlessly exploited.

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