Soviet leader Alexander Shelepin backs a bold move by Warsaw Pact forces to take over East Berlin as a final solution to the Communist bloc’s long-simmering dispute with the West over the city. The move takes U.S. President George Romney by surprise, but immediately sets up the tensest moment of the entire Cold War. The world goes to the brink of nuclear annihilation, even closer than the Cuban Missile Crisis. All of humanity awaits a single decision, made by one man in a small chapel in the West Wing of the White House: will Romney launch the missiles or won’t he?
In this episode we return to the story of Cold War confrontation that has been building for much of Season 2. The scenario presented in this episode is very real in the sense that it’s one of the things Cold War-era policymakers feared the most: what if the Soviets made an all-out bid to take over West Berlin and precipitated a nuclear crisis? This is exactly what John F. Kennedy feared would be the next step in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Fortunately, as a result of the deal he made with Khrushchev, the situation that time, tense as it was, never had to go that far. No President actually had to make the decision of whether West Berlin was worth launching nuclear weapons over. In this scenario, George Romney is presented with exactly that decision.
From everything I know about Romney’s character, I’m certain he would have made the ultimate decision on primarily religious and theological grounds, not religious ones.
The 1958 memo by Yuri Andropov described at the beginning of the episode, and its role in the genesis of the Berlin Wall crisis of August 1961, is entirely accurate. In real life Andropov eventually ascended to be the leader of the Soviet Union in November 1982, but by that time he was terminally ill and served for little more than a year.
The header image on this page is a photo by Flickr user Steve Jurvetson, used under Creative Commons 2.0 (attribution) license.
Next Episode: October 24, 2021