November 26, 2016

White House Lies During Cuban Missile Crisis Drew Media Criticism


We will be reading a lot in the coming days about the Cuban Missile Crisis, in the wake of the death of Fidel Castro.  My new book, The Tunnels  has lengthy (and quite revealing and surprising)  sections on that episode,  based on JFK’S tapes and recently declassified documents,  as it partly overlapped with–and had an influence on–the main focus of the book, the historic NBC film on escapes under the Berlin Wall  that JFK tried to kill.   Most people today probably believe that the media of that day hailed Kennedy’s handling of secrecy during that crisis as it enabled him to help push the two superpowers off the brink of nuclear war. Actually, as my book discloses, there was a great deal of push back from the press.

During the missile crisis, Kennedy and his spokesmen misled or lied to the press on numerous occasions during the many days of top-secret discussions, even claiming at one point that he was ill and this caused a changed in his travel plans.   JFK, contrary to his media friendly image, actually distrusted or hated the press as much as nearly any previous president.   When the crisis ended peacefully, some in the media accepted the need for misleading the press, given the potential for nuclear conflict, but in the days that followed more criticism was expressed.   Many resented JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger’s repeated requests–really, demands–for self-censorship during the crisis.

Pentagon spokesman Arthur Sylvester set off a firestorm when he admitted that the administration’s control of information was even tighter than during World War II, yet defended it, due to “the kind of world we live in.” It was important for the nation to speak with “one voice to your adversary.” He used a loaded new term in speaking favorably of government “management” of the news.

The New York Times declared in an editorial that “management” or “control” of the news “is censorship described by a sweeter term.” The Times’  legendary Arthur Krock opined that “direct and deliberate action has been enforced more cynically and boldly” by this White House “than by any previous administration when the U.S. was not at war.” The Washington Star called Sylvester’s comments, “truly sinister.”  And many others joined in.

Sylvester’s views were largely shared at the White House, and one can easily imagine President Trump’s support today in a similar atmosphere.  Kennedy himself had used the phrase “news management,” and Salinger believed that disinformation and even lies were justifiable measures in a conflict in which the enemy had the advantage of operating in secret. Privately, JFK admitted to his friend Ben Bradlee, now editing Newsweek, that the U.S. had indeed “lied” to the press during the Cuba crisis.

The White House asked Sylvester to walk back his comments–but just a bit.  There was no real backtracking or apology.   Just weeks earlier JFK had managed to kill Daniel Schorr’s CBS special on the Berlin tunnels, and got NBC to postpone, perhaps axe, its own special.  For much more:  see The Tunnels.


November 26, 2016

How the Bay of Pigs Fostered JFK’s Moves Against Media

jfk cuba

With the death of Fidel Castro, we will be flooded with reflections on his long reign, including a good deal on Cuban Missile Crisis, when a nuclear war nearly broke out.   Allow me to humbly brag that my new book The Tunnels has what I believe to be one of the most surprising, revealing and up-close views of the crisis, based on JFK’s secret White House tapes and recently declassified documents.   For one thing, we learn that the crisis had almost as much to do with Berlin as it did Castro, Cuba and the Soviets.

But Cuba played another role in the book in that President Kennedy’s botched CIA-backed invasion of Cuba in 1961 fed his anti-press feelings that in turn surely influenced his controversial decision the following year to try to suppress CBS and NBC coverage of escape tunnels under the Berlin Wall–the focus on my book.  Here’s just a small part of the JFK/Cuba material in the book.

Kennedy, despite his glossy image in the press,  had a low opinion of many reporters and resented critical media coverage and commentary. Privately, he called the press “the most privileged group” who regard any restrictions on national security coverage as “a limitation on their civil rights.  And they are not very used to it.”  To his friend Ben Bradlee, Washington bureau chief for Newsweek, he complained, “When we don’t have to go through you bastards we can really get our story to the American people.”

While his televised press conferences promoted his popularity, Kennedy’s honeymoon with much of the press had not survived his first spring in office. First he fenced with the media in April 1961 after asking them to keep secret the (misguided) plans for the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles. Just one outlet, The New York Times, published a vague report, but that was enough to get JFK’s blood boiling.

Two weeks later, he delivered a speech to the American Newspaper Publishers Association that one can easily imagine Trump offering in the future, substituting terrorism for Communism.  He boldly asked “every publisher, every editor, and every newsman” to “reexamine his own standards, and to recognize the nature of our country’s peril.” The U.S. was threatened around the globe by the Communist menace and “in time of war, the government and the press have customarily joined in an effort, largely based on self-discipline, to prevent unauthorized disclosures to the enemy.” At such a time, “the courts have held that even the privileged rights of the First Amendment must yield to the public’s need for national security.”

The Communist threat required an unprecedented change in outlook and “missions” not just by the government but by every newspaper. Each democracy, he said, recognizes the necessary restraints of national security—and the question in the U.S. was “whether those restraints need to be more strictly observed.” He railed against leaks published by the press that might tip off enemy powers. These leaks might have passed the test for journalism but not for national security, and Kennedy wondered aloud whether additional tests “should not now be adopted.” He urged his audience to give it “thoughtful consideration” and reexamine their “responsibilities.”

When details of the speech were published, media commentators—with or without thoughtful consideration—rejected what many considered thinly veiled threats to impose new controls if the call for “self-restraint” was not heeded. Time magazine, under a headline announcing “The Press: No Self Censorship,” called the speech “ill conceived.” Even many Kennedy aides, such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., felt he had gone too far.

The President backed off, but his views on press irresponsibility festered.  Informing his decision to try to kill those CBS and NBC specials–to tap the phone of a famed New York Times reporter–and lie to the press (perhaps with good cause, although many in the media complained for weeks) during the thirteen days of the missile crisis in October 1962.

November 20, 2016

The Man in the Cap


A lot of commenters over on Twitter and Facebook are focusing this weekend on one of the closing lines in the fine New York Times Book Review of my book, The Tunnels.   So I thought you might like to read more about the tragic incident, directly from the book.  It happened in early September, 1962, even as digging on one of the tunnels featured in the book (funded and filmed by NBC) went on.  That’s Mundt, in his cap, above.


At 2:55 on the afternoon of September 4 this entry was made in the U.S. Army’s Berlin Brigade intelligence log: “At Berg Strasse, corner of Bernauer Strasse, 5 m within cemetery, E Germ civilian shot, appeared fatally. Removed on a stretcher by VoPos.” The victim was Ernst Mundt, a 40-year-old former construction worker on a disability pension. When the Wall had separated him from his relatives in the West, he had grumbled about this from the start. Finally he decided to do something about it.

That afternoon Mundt rode his bicycle from his apartment in Prenzlauer Berg to the highly restricted Sophien Cemetery at the Wall just off Bernauer Strasse. Wearing a dark cap on his head, he climbed atop the cemetery wall perpendicular to the Wall. It was covered with sharp glass to discourage just such a move. Then he ran toward the border, shrugging off pleas by onlookers. “I won’t get down,” he shouted. As he was about to reach the Wall where a good leap might carry him over, two transport police officers about 100 yards away took notice. One of them fired a warning shot, and then took deadly aim. A bullet passed through Mundt’s head and he toppled over, just feet from freedom. His cap flew over the Wall. West Berliners found it, with a bullet hole through it. Mundt quickly became known to them as “The Man With the Cap.”

The following day the policeman who shot him was awarded bonus pay and the Medal for Exemplary Service at the Border. He had “handled his weapon superbly and put it to use masterfully.” The troop leader in the area was also commended for removing the injured criminal before the West Berlin police, press and camera crews could arrive. This was in the wake of new orders, following the Fechter incident, that bodies be hustled away immediately to prevent protests and news coverage in the West. Nevertheless, hundreds of angry protestors vented their fury across the border that evening, erecting a cross decorated with flowers near where Mundt’s cap had landed.

November 14, 2016

Tunnels, Arcade Fire Version

Always one of my favorite songs, even before The Tunnels book, from early Arcade Fire.  Building a tunnel “from my window to yours.”  This, speaking broadly, basically occurred in the tunnels under the Berlin Wall in 1962 that I cover in my book.  The goal for many of the West German students who dug them was to get out lovers and wives, not to mention friends and family members.

November 12, 2016

When U2 Confronted the Legacy of the Wall

Update:  Cool new article just posted on 25th anniversary of Achtung Baby and U2 coming to Berlin (and see my  take below).

One of U2’s most popular and, I’d say, greatest songs remains “One.” When it was released, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was widely viewed, thanks to the celebrated (but quickly pulled) video below, as referring, at least partly, to reconciliation in Germany, although other interpretations have always existed, such as a response to the band’s near crack-up and the AIDS crisis. One recalls that it exploded from an album titled Achtung, Baby, still their finest. In any event, the video was shot in Berlin, and includes scenes of the Wall and Trabants, the East German junkmobile, before closing at Hitler’s infamous Olympia Stadium, which I have now visited twice–for a soccer match and a Springsteen concert.  One of the heroes of my new The Tunnels book (see cover and click at upper right of this pate), who dug an escape cavern under the Berlin Wall, recently told me he’d seen this video for the first time and felt “goosebumps.”

Marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, U2 performed “One” at the Brandenburg Gate (you can find it on You Tube). Here’s the classic video.

November 8, 2016

The Final Deaths at the Wall


The Berlin Wall began to crack on its way to falling twenty-seven years ago tomorrow.  In my new book The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill, I chart that history, while concentrating on 1962 and two tunnels covered and funded by CBS and NBC (and attempts by the Kennedy team to suppress those films).   Along the way I explore the many deaths at the Wall, particularly in the early years, with dozens, maybe one hundred or more, would-be refugees shot and killed at the barrier, or swimming in rivers and canals, by East German guards.  Among them: at least two tunnelers.

I will post a longer piece tomorrow on the night the Wall started to crumble and the aftermath, but for now, an excerpt from my book on the final two deaths along the cruel divide:

Twenty-eight years after the Wall went up, East Berliners were still dying in attempts to cross it.  Chris Gueffroy, age 20, was shot through the heart and killed one night in February, 1989.  As it had done from the beginning, the Stasi covered up the real cause of death and tried to ban his funeral.  When the truth leaked out, outrage on both sides of the Wall was so strong it forced the GDR to finally, after nearly three decades,  ban guards from shooting at escapees unless their own lives were in danger.

Six months later, an electrical engineer named Winfried Freudenberg fell to his death–in West Berlin–after he lost control of the hot air balloon that had carried him over the Wall.

These would be the final two deaths at the Wall.

The tide of history could not be resisted any longer. Neighboring countries had opened their borders, and tens of thousands of East Germans crossed into Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Mass protests swelled in the GDR, first in Leipzig and then Berlin.  Honecker was pushed out of his East German leadership position. Their rock concert ploy having failed, GDR officials decided to open another safety valve by making visas more easily available.

On the night of November 9, 1989, a government spokesman named Schabowski went on TV to preview the new policy but bungled the message, accidentally conveying that everyone was free to pass through checkpoints without any approval—and that they could do so “immediately.”  Naturally, thousands flocked to the checkpoints and, confused, some guards allowed many to pass to the East, even though this had not actually been approved….

More tomorrow.  But you can order my book by clicking here or on its cover at the upper right of this page.

Early reviews and praise for The Tunnels:

“Shows the trade-off behind the scenes at one of the most pivotal moments in the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union…A fascinating and complex picture of the interplay between politics and media in the Cold War era.” – Washington Post

“Fascinating and deeply researched…a welcome reminder of the ingenuity and courage that people can display when politics and walls separate them from loved ones and a better life.” — Christian Science Monitor

“A story with so much inherent drama it sounds far-fetched even for a Hollywood thriller….Mitchell tells a kaleidoscopic cold war story from 1962, recreating a world seemingly on the edge of a third world war. ” –The Guardian.

“A gripping, blow-by-blow account….Mitchell’s tense, fascinating account reveals how the U.S. undermined a freedom struggle for the sake of diplomacy.”  Publishers Weekly, starred review.

“Every hour of my year in East Berlin–1963/64–the escape tunnels beneath our feet were being dug. This is their story: those who dug them, those who used them and those who betrayed them to the Stasi. Fascinating – and it is all true.” – Frederick Forsyth, author The Odessa File and Day of the Jackal

“Greg Mitchell has written a riveting story focusing on one of the most powerful documentaries ever broadcast on television – NBC’s The TunnelThose of us who saw it that December night in 1962 have never forgotten the experience.   Now Mitchell, an exemplary journalist, goes beyond what the cameras saw, deep into the political dynamics of Cold War Berlin.  John le Carre couldn’t have done it better.”  Bill Moyers

The Tunnels is one of the great untold stories of the Cold War. Brilliantly researched and told with great flair, Greg Mitchell’s non-fiction narrative reads like the best spy thriller, something John le Carre might have imagined. Easily the best book I’ve read all year.” —Alex Kershaw, author of Avenue of Spies and The Liberator

“When you have read the last page of Greg Mitchell’s The Tunnels you will close the book—but not until then.” —Alan Furst, author of A Hero of France and Night Soldiers

“A gripping page-turner that thrills like fiction.” Kirkus Reviews.

October 26, 2016

When JFK Leaked (and a Manuscript Got Tossed in the Fire)

The Cuban Missile Crisis plays a key role in my new book The Tunnels (and JFK constantly links Berlin and Cuba in the realpolitik considerations.   I even explore the aftermath, when reporters who had gone along with unprecedented non-wartime press censorship finally were free to voice complaints about that.  This short section covering early December 1962 was cut from the final manuscript in the tightening process but has a pretty amazing revelation.

The Kennedy White House found itself at the center of yet another press controversy. Stewart Alsop and Charles Bartlett (a JFK friend) had written the first lengthy, inside story on the ExComm debates during the Cuban missile crisis for the Saturday Evening Post. They declared one comment by Dean Rusk to have a place among the “immortal” quotes of U.S. history: “We were eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other guy just blinked.” The President earned kudos, but the authors claimed that U.N. representative Adlai Stevenson—the Democrats’ candidate for President in 1952 and 1956— had opposed the quarantine of Cuba and called for trading U.S. missiles in Turkey for the Soviet weapons. (Kennedy still had not admitted publicly that he promised Khrushchev the U.S. would indeed remove the missiles.)

In an unusual move, the President insisted on reviewing the draft of the article before publication. When he returned it, the writers found that he had edited it heavily and even removed two quotes by a Stevenson spokesman defending his boss’s proposal. (Alsop wanted to save the marked-up draft for posterity but Bartlett, wishing to protect his friend, the President, tossed it in the fire.) When the article appeared in print, it cited an unnamed “non-admiring official” comparing Stevenson’s advice to another “Munich,” the failed appeasement of Hitler.

 The “non-admiring official” was Kennedy himself.

October 25, 2016

The Landmark TV Special That Kennedy Nearly Killed

In the months after the Berlin Wall emerged in August, 1961, dividing the city, the two leading American TV networks, NBC and CBS, engaged in a race to be first to film young men in the West digging incredibly risky tunnels under the Wall to bring out lovers, family members and friends from the East.   This untold story is at the center of my new book, The Tunnels, just published by Crown NBC got their first, in June 1962, but Daniel Schorr at CBS stumbled onto another tunnel project a little later and was poised to scoop his rival–until the Kennedy White House and State Department bullied his boss into canceling his coverage, as I reveal via newly-declassified official documents and interviews.  Schorr remained angry about this for the rest of his life.

NBC’s filming went on, despite official warnings and at great risk, and in September the tunnel it funded brought 29 to freedom in the West in a mind-boggling escape.   I tell this story week-by-week, including the threat posed by a young Stasi secret police informer.  Plus:  the (amusing) filming by MGM of a Hollywood movie drama overhead.  Then, the same scenario (via official documents):  the Kennedy administration tried to get the network to axe its 90-minute prime time special.  Again, the purported reason was that glorifying a mass escape might enrage the Soviets and spark a superpower confrontation.

It looked like the White House succeeded, as NBC postponed the airing.  The film’s producer, Reuven Frank, wrote out his resignation.  But the network quietly put it on the air two months later–and it would end up winning three Emmys, including “Program of the Year,” and to this day remains a landmark in the history of television.  Frank went on to become president of NBC News but the correspondent, Piers Anderton, would later throw his Emmy in the trash.

You can read more about this exciting story in this rave review for the book last week in The New York Times  or in my recent interview with NPR’s Scott Simon.  You can easily order the book from Amazon or from independent booksellers via this page.  But now you can also watch the entire NBC program, below:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy






October 23, 2016

Modern Walls

Hole in Wall

Hole in the Wall today, near Checkpoint Charlie

There’s a terrific three-part video/text series just concluding at the Washington Post that you really ought to see.

In fact, I wish they had published “Raising Barriers” a few months ago–there’s so much detailed information on walls-around-the-world that I could have cited in the Epilogue for my new book The Tunnels.   It’s really an eye opener on how countries, larger and small, are building border fences, walls and other barriers at a pace never seen before, even in places you’ve probably never heard of.

It opens:  A generation ago, globalization shrank the world. Nations linked by trade and technology began to erase old boundaries. But now barriers are rising again, driven by waves of migration, spillover from wars and the growing threat of terrorism.

Part I offers more of an overview, and you don’t get to a full look at the U.S.-Mexico border until Part III, so a lot of ground gets covered before that.  Don’t miss it.

October 22, 2016

Early Coverage of The Tunnels, Plus My Articles

NBC 4 on Bernauer

It’s been a wild two weeks of publicity around my new book, including the segment with NPR’s Scott Simon, now posted here with transcript and links.  Here’s a partial accounting of other news and views:

First review since pub date just out at the venerable Christian Science Monitor, very positive and good summary of book.

The first major interview with me about the book rolled out around the country on public radio stations via venerable “On the Media,” with Bob Garfield.   You can listen online now (nine minutes).   And here’s my segment with John Hockenberry on NPR’s “The Takeaway.”

Then a full piece on the book and interview  at The Guardian.  A terrific piece on same at the Washington Post, which includes calling the booka fascinating and complex picture of the interplay between politics and media in the Cold War era.”  My own cool photo essay at Medium.

Plus, many articles written by yours truly: My Mother Jones article on how Springsteen and Bowie helped bring down the Berlin Wall.  At CJR on JFK, even as he tried to shut down network coverage of the two tunnels featured in my book,  tapping phone of famed New York Times reporter.    A wild story at Daily Beast on MGM building its own Berlin Wall–and importing future Stasi agent to USA to promote it.   How the Berlin Wall inspired the writing of John le Carre’s great The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.   Why Trump’s wall, like all others, would fail.   This is how close we came to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

And here are earlier reviews and blurbs from other writers.

October 14, 2016

Tom Hayden and the Wall

Bau der Berliner Mauer am Postdamer Platz

Tom Hayden, one of the great 1960s left-wing political leaders and later a longtime California state legislator, died today.   I intersected with Tom over the years in several ways, see my post here.  But it’s interesting to note that as the originator of the famous “Port Huron Statement” that launched the Students for a Democratic Society in 1962 he included the following commentary on the coming of the Wall to Berlin.   My book The Tunnels explores (beyond its focus on the tunnels under the Wall and the controversy over JFK attempting to suppress the CBS and NBC coverage of them) the reasons President Kennedy quickly accepted the coming of the Wall to reduce tensions with the Soviets.   Hayden and others on the Left blasted East German leader Ulbricht but also hit West Germany chief Adenauer, as you will see in this excerpt.  See my new book for much, much more.

[We] should recognize that an authoritarian Germany’s insistence on reunification, while knowing the impossibility of achieving it with peaceful means, could only generate increasing frustrations among the population and nationalist sentiments which frighten its Eastern neighbors who have historical reasons to suspect Germanic intentions. President Kennedy himself told the editor of Izvestia that he fears an independent Germany with nuclear arms, but American policies have not demonstrated cognizance of the fact that Chancellor Adenauer too, is interested in continued East-West tensions over the Germany and Berlin problems and nuclear arms precisely because this is the rationale for extending his domestic power and his influence upon the NATO-Common Market alliance.

A world war over Berlin would be absurd. Anyone concurring with such a proposition should demand that the West cease its contradictory advocacy of “reunification of Germany through free elections” and “a rearmed Germany in NATO”. It is a dangerous illusion to assume that Russia will hand over East Germany to a rearmed re-united Germany which will enter the Western camp, although this Germany might have a Social Democratic majority which could prevent a reassertion of German nationalism. We have to recognize that the cold war and the incorporation of Germany into the two power blocs was a decision of both Moscow and Washington, of both Adenauer and Ulbricht.

The immediate responsibility for the Berlin wall is Ulbricht’s. But it had to be expected that a regime which was bad enough to make people flee is also bad enough to prevent them from fleeing. The inhumanity of the Berlin wall is an ironic symbol of the irrationality of the cold war, which keeps Adenauer and Ulbricht in power. A reduction of the tension over Berlin, if by internationalization or by recognition of the status quo and reducing provocations, is a necessary but equally temporary measure which could not ultimately reduce the basic cold war tension to which Berlin owes its precarious situation. The Berlin problem cannot be solved without reducing tensions in Europe, possibly by a bilateral military disengagement and creating a neutralized buffer zone. Even if Washington and Moscow were in favor disengagement, both Adenauer and Ulbricht would never agree to it because cold war keeps their parties in power.

Until their regimes’ departure from the scene of history, the Berlin status quo will have to be maintained while minimizing the tensions necessarily arising from it. Russia cannot expect the United States to tolerate its capture by the Ulbricht regime, but neither can America expect to be in a position to indefinitely use Berlin as a fortress within the communist world. As a fair and bilateral disengagement in Central Europe seems to be impossible for the time being, a mutual recognition of the Berlin status quo, that is, of West Berlin’s and East Germany’s security, is needed. And it seems to be possible, although the totalitarian regime of East Germany and the authoritarian leadership of West Germany until now succeeded in frustrating all attempts to minimize the dangerous tensions of cold war.

October 12, 2016

When Kennedy Faced Off With ‘Mad Bomber’

jfk cuba

A couple of weeks back,  I looked at how the Cuban Missile Crisis–which developed 54 years ago this week–was almost as much about Berlin as it was Cuba. There’s a fair amount in the narrative of my new book The Tunnels about the crisis, and how JFK handled it, as it almost overlapped with his (and Dean Rusk’s) attempt to kill the landmark NBC special on an escape tunnel under the Wall.

I have never been a Kennedy fan boy (any of them) but not a hater, either. And I must say, as much as I have been exposed to the missile crisis, going back to living through it as a kid, that in perusing all of the transcripts of meetings related to it for the book my admiration for JFK grew a good deal. He was, indeed, often the “coolest man in the room,” as I write. Just one sample from the book:

By nightfall on October 18 President Kennedy thought his executive committee, or ExComm, had reached a consensus on blockading Cuba without firing a shot in anger, but the next day this began to unravel. An early morning meeting with the Joint Chiefs, who still strongly advocated a preemptive U.S. strike, tested JFK’s resolve. McGeorge Bundy had shifted to that shoot-first position overnight and it seemed that everyone’s emotions were dangerously fluid.

The President continued to play the Berlin card. Any attack on Cuba, he maintained, would give the Soviets “a clear line to take Berlin….We would be regarded as the trigger-happy Americans who lost Berlin.” European allies would be livid—they cared passionately about Berlin and their own security but didn’t “give a damn” about Cuba. And if the Soviets moved on Berlin this would leave him “only one alternative, which is to fire nuclear weapons—which is a hell of an alternative—and begin a nuclear exchange….When we recognize the importance of Berlin to Europe, and recognize the importance of our allies to us, that’s what has made this thing be a dilemma for three days….” Remember, he added, the “argument for the [Cuba] blockade was that what we want to do is to avoid, if we can, nuclear war….”

Rarely have three words—if we can—signified so much.

General Curtis LeMay, the most hot-blooded hawk of all—one of his nicknames was “The Mad Bomber”—opposed a blockade on grounds that it would “lead right into war.” He also called it “weak” and compared it to “the appeasement at Munich.” He wanted a full bombing assault as soon as possible. LeMay addressed Kennedy, “You’re in a pretty bad fix at the present time.”

Kennedy, angry, asked LeMay to repeat that. Then JFK replied with a laugh, “You’re in there with me!”

After the meeting Kennedy, always skeptical of advice from the military, said to an aide, referring to LeMay and his ilk, “These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor. If we listen to them, and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.”

Still, the press and the public were kept in the dark. A Pentagon spokesman stated in response to a media query, “The Pentagon has no information indicating the presence of offensive weapons in Cuba.”

October 10, 2016

Music Playlist for The Tunnels


I’ve always been one of those music nerds who have put together playlists for parties and other events, going back to the 1970s–first on cassettes, then burning CDs, and now, at last, via Spotify.  For my book party this week for The Tunnels, I mixed in some songs closely or loosely related to the book, touching on Berlin, or walls, or Cold War, or quests for freedom, etc.  Here are some of the tunes that fit that category that I mixed in.  Update:  I am not adding suggestions from readers over at Twitter at the bottom, check them out.

“Chimes of Freedom” Live –Bruce Springsteen  Songs That Inspired Fahrenheit 9/11

“Another Brick in The Wall  Part  I”  and “Part III”  Pink Floyd    The Wall

“One”– U2     Achtung Baby

“First We Take Manhattan” and “Anthem” — Leonard Cohen, The Future

“All Along the Watchtower”–Bob Dylan,  John Wesley Harding

“Yes We Can”– Allen Toussaint,    Our New Orleans

“Different Sides”– Leonard Cohen,   Old Ideas

“Ghosts of the Berlin Wall” — Orchid House Project

“Heroes” single version 1998 remastered– David Bowie,    Platinum Collection   

“Intervention” — Arcade Fire    Neon Bible

“Rusty Cage”–Johnny Cash    American II

“You Want It Darker”–Leonard Cohen   new single

“Rocking in the Free World” — Crazy Horse,   The Purge

Note:  Of course, one can easily substitute Hendrix version of “Watchtower,”  Byrds and Dylan with “Chimes of Freedom,” and on and on.

Reader suggestions so far:  Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime.”






October 7, 2016

The Tunnels: A Brief Intro

If you are a first-time visitor to this new site: Welcome. This post is for you. I have been blogging regularly for awhile here and I think you will find many of the posts interesting and/or provocative. They are derived from or inspired by material in my new book, The Tunnels, but none of them really summarize the book in any sort of helpful way. The brief trailer does that in part; so do the snippets of early rave reviews and flattering “blurbs” from others (such as Frederick Forsyth, Bill Moyers and Alan Furst) collected here. But for a quick look at the scope of the book, and why it matters, here’s the overview created by the publisher:

A thrilling Cold War narrative of superpower showdowns, media suppression, and two escape tunnels beneath the Berlin Wall

In the summer of 1962, the year after the rise of the Berlin Wall, a group of young West Germans risked prison, Stasi torture, and even death to liberate friends, lovers, and strangers in East Berlin by digging tunnels under the Wall. Then two U.S. television networks heard about the secret projects and raced to be first to document them from the inside. NBC and CBS (via Daniel Schorr) funded two separate tunnels in return for the right to film the escapes, planning spectacular prime-time specials.

President John F. Kennedy, however, was wary of anything that might spark a confrontation with the Soviets, having said, “A wall is better than a war,” and even confessing to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “We don’t care about East Berlin.” JFK approved unprecedented maneuvers to quash both documentaries, testing the limits of a free press in an era of escalating nuclear tensions.

As Greg Mitchell’s riveting narrative unfolds, we meet extraordinary characters: the legendary cyclist who became East Germany’s top target for arrest; the Stasi informer who betrays the “CBS tunnel”; the American student who aided the escapes; an engineer who would later help build the tunnel under the English channel; the young East Berliner who fled with her baby, then married one of the tunnelers. Capturing the chilling reach of the Stasi secret police, U.S. networks prepared to “pay for play” yet willing to cave to official pressure, a White House eager to suppress historic coverage, and the subversive power of ordinary people in dire circumstances, The Tunnels is breaking history, a propulsive read whose themes still reverberate.

October 2, 2016

Declassified: When U.S. Targeted Berlin With Dozens of Nukes

rusk kennedyA running sub-theme in my book The Tunnels is the nuclear terror context of the U.S.-Soviet conflict in divided Berlin and how that affected President Kennedy’s views of dramatic escapes–and media coverage–at the Wall and the potential they might spark a superpower confrontation.  So we explore U.S. nuclear policy at the time, including when to meet a Soviet challenge in Europe with a first-strike of nuclear weapons.   Here’s an excerpt, with reference to a startling target list declassified just in the past year:

Nuclear war continued to hover over every discussion of Berlin. When he came to office, Kennedy had discovered that his predecessor had not fully mapped out possible U.S. and NATO responses to a conventional Soviet attack in Germany short of what was labeled “massive nuclear retaliation.” He was also worried about the possibility of an accidental nuclear war sparked by misread signals, and was concerned that the line of command gave top generals the authority to launch missiles. When he asked top military aides, “I assume I can stop the strategic attack at anytime….Is that correct?” the answer was often unnervingly vague.

Some of the generals, he felt, spoke rather cavalierly about the effects of nuclear war. A top Strategic Air Command general, briefed on the longterm genetic effects of radioactive fallout, had quipped, “It’s not yet been proved to me that two heads aren’t better than one.” Unlike many of his advisers, Kennedy felt there was too much emphasis on who would win a nuclear war, too little on the survival of the human species.

Nevertheless, Kennedy had affirmed that it was U.S. policy to initiate the use of nuclear weapons if the Soviet Army invaded Western Europe. A U.S. target list, titled “Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959” and prepared by the Strategic Air Command, included not only thousands of targets within the Soviet Union but also ninety-one in and around East Berlin. Besides several Soviet air bases in the suburbs, dozens of sites within the city made the list as part of its “systematic destruction”: factories, railroad hubs, power stations, radio and TV transformers. One haunting entry, simply labeled “population,” took dead aim at the civilian center. There appeared to be little recognition that hitting even one or two sites in East Berlin would produce firestorms and radioactive fallout certain to reach West Berlin.  Striking many more than that could produce fallout that might kill millions in Western and Eastern Europe.

President Kennedy, still a young man and with two small children, often spoke privately of the dread he felt when contemplating nuclear attack. When his brother had met him in a White House bedroom after the unnerving summit with Khrushchev in Vienna, Robert Kennedy noticed tears on his face, the first time he had ever seen him cry over political stress. “Bobby, if a nuclear exchange comes,” the President confided, “it doesn’t matter about us….The thought, though, of women and children perishing in a nuclear exchange, I can’t adjust to that.”

October 1, 2016

When Daniel Schorr Dated….Shirley MacLaine?


As I’ve noted earlier, legendary CBS newsman (and Nixon Enemies List listee) Daniel Schorr occupies the center of my new book, The Tunnels, thanks to JFK and Dean Rusk suppressing what would have been historic coverage of particularly daring escape at the Berlin Wall in 1962.  Dan would be angry about that for the rest of his life.  But the self-described chubby and unglamorous Schorr had a few happier moments that year in Berlin.  So, an unlikely excerpt:

Dan Schorr was disappointed and increasingly anxious, still without a tunnel to document with little more than a month remaining before the Wall’s first anniversary. He needed a distraction. Luckily, he found one: Shirley MacLaine.

The young American actress, whose career was on the rise after appearing in “Can-Can” and “The Apartment,”  among others, had arrived in Berlin for the annual film festival. Attendance was down at this year’s event thanks to the absence of cinephiles from East Berlin. There was plenty of star power, however, with the arrival of James Stewart, James Mason, and Maximilian Schell, whose son had a role in MGM’s “Tunnel 28.”  Gossip mongers had a field day with the appearance of Tony Curtis, who was still carrying on with new flame (and co-star of Tunnel 28) Christine Kaufmann, hiding out in a secret apartment.

Schorr, who was single, ingratiated himself with MacLaine, who was married, when he supplied her with pronunciation of a key line in German for one of her festival speeches, a simple “Ich liebe dich.” He ended up as her date for the festival ball, where they were photographed together at a table (she also posed with Jimmy Stewart). Another night, when he picked her up at the Berlin Hilton for dinner, he was amused when a flock of fans surrounded her in the lobby, asking for autographs. This had never happened to him. Some of them followed the couple all the way to the restaurant. Schorr asked her if she ever got angry about this. “It will be a lot worse,” she replied, “when it stops.”

After dinner, the pair motored out to beautiful Lake Wannsee in Schorr’s Mercedes. Driving a bit too close to the water, they found the car sinking in wet sand up to its hubcaps. It took them half an hour of walking to hail a taxi. MacLaine had to leave for Rome the next day and invited Schorr to join her. He replied that this was one of the grandest offers he had ever received, to say the least, but that he could not abandon his CBS duties on such short notice. Shirley complained that he was—of all things—too “earthbound.”

October 1, 2016

When David Hasselhoff Brought In the New Year–at the Wall

Yes, odd as it may seem, the former heartthrob and TV star David Hasselhoff has dined out for years on his claim that he helped “bring down the Berlin Wall” when he sang a hit song at the barrier for New Year’s Day 1989 less than a year before it, indeed, fell.   Here’s an NPR story about it and clip that captured it.  Of course, my new book The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films JFK Tried to Kill closes with the fall of the Wall

September 28, 2016

When They Bombed the Berlin Wall

Lazai at wall

My new book covers escapes under the Berlin Wall during the key year of 1962 (and attempts by the Kennedy administration to shut down NBC and CBS television coverage).   Violence was always close at hand, and tunnelers, and East German guards, not mention many potential escapees, were occasionally shot and killed. But from time to time the violence was more explosive and the undermining of the Wall more obvious–in the form of periodic bomb blasts.

Here’s an excerpt from The Tunnels on one spectacular bombing attack with a surprising ringleader.

A violent breakthrough arrived slightly behind schedule, in the early morning hours of May 26, but the impact was, on more than one level, tremendous. The headline on The New York Times’ front-page story would declare, “Four Blasts in 15 Minutes Rip Reds’ Wall in Berlin.” It was the most dramatic attack on the barrier yet, scattering stone and rock for hundreds of feet along Bernauer Strasse. No one was hurt—and apparently no East Germans escaped through the gap—but the blast destroyed some GDR border facilities. A West German police official said it appeared there was now “an active movement to get down” the Wall.

The Times reported that officials “believed underground groups of East Berliners were responsible.” It published a large United Press photo of two concerned West Berlin policemen peering through a fifteen-foot hole in the Wall. Editors could not know, or possibly even imagine, that the cop on the right side of the picture was the man who had helped organize and set off the main blast—lighting it with a cigar, some claimed.

He was Hans-Joachim Lazai, 24, long assigned to the Bernauer area. The previous August he had watched from his patrol car as Ida Seikmann jumped from her apartment to her death, becoming the first Wall fatality. He was also at the scene when a young German leaped to his death a few weeks later, missing the fire patrol’s outstretched net (Lazai was among those who had encouraged him to try it). The deaths enraged him. On other occasions he felt sick when ordered to train fire hoses on young West Germans protesting the barrier. Some of his colleagues assisted escape helpers by lending them weapons or standing guard during a tunnel breakthrough. Lazai had aided several tunnel operations himself, but each had failed, and he wanted to do something even more provocative to undermine a structure he considered profoundly inhumane. To that end he had volunteered his training in explosives to the leading escape organizers, the Girrmann Group.

The leaders had agreed with Lazai to choose a blast site in a busy, highly visible area, but ordered that no one must be harmed. From a Girrmann associate, a Swiss mining student, Lazai obtained six kilos of malleable plastic explosives in twelve rolls that felt like marzipan. Fellow cops helped him unload forty-pound sandbags to be used to direct the blast eastward, through the Wall. A refugee escape plan never came to fruition—a symbolic blast would have to be enough.

Shortly after midnight on May 26, Lazai initiated the explosion at Bernauer and Schwedt. By the time it detonated sixty seconds later, he was hustling to his patrol car 700 feet away. Then he phoned in the report to headquarters from inside the dust-covered vehicle. Soon French and East Berlin police arrived at the scene. As the sun rose, photographers snapped pictures of West Berlin police, including an unabashed Lazai, at the site.  But Lazai was not done. The next day he flew to Frankfurt where he had arranged to pick up more explosives secretly stored at a U.S. base. Military police had been tipped off, and Lazai was arrested. West German police interrogators told him, “We don’t like what you did—but we understand.” He wasn’t detained for long and was never charged in connection with his sabotage, merely transferred to a post in Lower Saxony.


September 24, 2016

Anti-Trump Protesters Take On New Wall in Berlin

Campaigners pose on a 'United To Stop Trump' cardboard wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate to urge Americans living abroad to register and vote in Berlin
I wrote here not long ago about Donald Trump’s current call for a wall at our southern border in the context of The Wall (the latter the subject of my new book). Now some American ex-pats in Berlin have taken up the banner, with a protest this week–even building a fake wall near the Brandenburg Gate emblazoned with Trump’s name and image. The protest drew a crowd of onloookers and a pro-Trump presence.

From Reuters:

Activists from the online campaign group Avaaz tore down a cardboard wall near the site of the former Berlin Wall on Friday to urge American expats in Germany to vote against Republican nominee Donald Trump in the U.S. election on Nov. 8.

Many identify Trump with his proposal to build a huge border wall between the United States and Mexico to keep migrants out; moreover, the event was staged in front of the Brandenburg Gate, near the place where U.S. president Ronald Reagan publicly urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 to “tear down this wall”.

Holding red and blue placards saying “Stop Trump” and “Tear Down Trump’s Wall”, dozens of cheering activists toppled the 2.5 meter (8.2 foot) structure, emblazoned with a picture of Trump, with their hands and rubber mallets.

Many of the 150 or so onlookers chanted “The wall must come down!” as it was knocked over.

See new trailer for my book on escapes under the Berlin Wall and JFK’s media suppression.

September 22, 2016

Gay, Busted in East Berlin–Joins Stasi

Uhse head shot

One of the most memorable characters in The Tunnels (perhaps in all of recent non-fiction, if I may be so bold) is a young West German named Siegfried Uhse. He had left the East with his mother in the late-1950s, and became a barber/hairdresser. He was also gay, which was against the law then in both West and East Germany. On his frequent visits to the East (even after the Wall arrived some West Germans could do that) he caught the attention of the Stasi secret police, who started following him. Here is an excerpt from early in my book from March 1962. Uhse, just twenty-one, would go on to be a key informer whose actions led to the arrest of dozens and the shooting of at least one tunneler, possibly more.

Uhse had served as a paid informer for the Stasi since the previous fall after he was arrested trying to smuggle 112 cigarettes to the West at the Friedrich Strasse checkpoint. An official report claimed that Uhse planned to deliver them for a weekly “homosexual and lesbian orgy.” The Stasi had been tailing him, probably aware that he had been arrested and sentenced to probation across the border in Baden-Baden on suspicion of being homosexual, which was against the law even in West Germany. They also discovered that he had plied an East Berlin woman with cigarettes and wine from the West so that she would let him spend evenings in a room she rented to one of his male lovers. (Black market cigarettes from the West were practically hard currency at the time.)

The young man, who had once hoped to work as a librarian, was not much interested in politics.  He now lived in a well-furnished apartment and spent nights at lounges and jazz clubs with names like the Dandy Club, Eden Saloon (favored by American tourists) and Big Apple, where he drank liberally and cultivated friends from a higher social class. He spent money beyond his means, often offering to pick up the check to impress others.

Detained by the Stasi, Uhse was a prime candidate for undercover work on several levels. He probably still resented the West Germans for his arrest in Baden-Baden, while fearing further exposure by the MfS. Temporarily unemployed, he remained attached to a costly lifestyle. Now he faced a smuggling charge in the East. The Stasi felt that, in recounting his adventures, Uhse showed promise as a spinner of false tales. After two days of detention, a tasty breakfast, and the promise of a regular stipend, he agreed to work as a low-level informer based in the West.

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