Sixty-six Augusts ago, the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would seem to have provided all the evidence the world needed that further nuclear warfare was unthinkable.

Yet in the innermost councils of government in Washington and Moscow, it was always on the table, never more ominously than at the dawn of the 1960s.

"Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" by Frederick Kempe describes the first ultimate-stakes hand of "nuclear poker" in chilling detail, laying bare the gambles, illusions, misjudgments, frailties and back-channel intrigue of superpower geopolitics.

Nineteen sixty-one was a hellacious year for John F. Kennedy, and August its cruelest month. That's when the Berlin Wall began to be built by the Communist regime, sealing off East from West and separating "children from parents, lover from lover, and friend from friend." On the morning of Sunday the 13th, the border was suddenly slammed shut.

"The aftershocks would be dramatic and long-lasting," Kempe writes. "They would shake the world a year later in Cuba -- and they would shape the world for three decades."

Destined in death to become larger than life, Kennedy was shown to be only too human after the echoes of his inaugural eloquence had subsided.

In April came an Eisenhower administration leftover, the half-baked CIA debacle at Cuba's Bay of Pigs. And two months later, there was the bellicose bullying at the Vienna summit by his grizzlylike Soviet counterpart, Nikita S. Khrushchev.

What Khrushchev sensed through various signals from this back injury-plagued neophyte president so reliant on painkillers was, at best, vacillation, and, at worst, weakness. Where he first chose to exploit it was in partitioned Berlin.

"The most dangerous place in the world" is the way Khrushchev portrayed Berlin to Kennedy at Vienna. "The USSR," he insisted, "wants to perform an operation on this sore spot -- to eliminate this thorn, this ulcer." In short, annexation.

Khrushchev's 1956 rant "We will bury you!" remained his best-known words, and his double-edged predicament five years later was economic and political. And worsening.

In March of '61, more than 16,000 refugees had hemorrhaged from East Germany to West, part of an immense brain drain from a failing economy to a thriving one. The 12-year outflow was nearly 3 million, threatening not only the East's viability and the Warsaw Pact's solidarity, but Khrushchev's very survival as Soviet premier.

The Wall initially took the form of seemingly infinite miles of barbed wire barriers. It soon grew into a hideous 13-foot-high concrete incarnation of the Iron Curtain. On either side was a 300-foot-wide zone where the orders were shoot to kill.

It wasn't until November 1989 that the Wall came tumbling down, followed quickly by the reunification of Germany and the startling implosion of the Soviet Union itself. History had rendered its verdict: The Communist Bloc was gone.

Kempe, a former Berlin bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal who heads the Atlantic Council think tank, puts the pieces of the puzzle together with a deft hand. Newly declassified documentation allows his book to eclipse the late Peter Wyden's "Wall: The Inside Story of Divided Berlin" as definitive, although Kempe's impressive research is undercut by pesky inaccuracies.

Among them are references to the Bay of Pigs invasion as Operation Mongoose and to JFK's private plane, the "Caroline," as a jet. There's also a gratuitous mention of a U.S. soldier by race.

"Berlin 1961" is no beach book, but worth considering by anyone interested in a gripping, fly-on-the-wall account of how the forces of history are propelled from behind closed doors. The author neither hides his ideological core nor hesitates to speculate, so be aware of the undertow.

A skillful storyteller, Kempe humanizes his earth-shaking context through vignettes and freeze frames, especially of young lives permanently altered. They include two high-profile East German defectors -- a Miss Universe, 24, and a border guard, 19. Also, a fleeing bricklayer, 18, who was shot in the back and lay bleeding to death in the Wall's no man's land for more than an hour before his corpse was retrieved.

It's hard to imagine that this is the same Berlin where on Oct. 8 the Buffalo Sabres and the Los Angeles Kings will play the first-ever NHL regular-season game in Germany.

Fifty years earlier, also in October, it was where -- at Checkpoint Charlie -- U.S. and Soviet tanks faced off only yards apart for two days in the first direct military showdown between superpowers in the thermonuclear age. A close call.

Kempe's hypothesis is that the Cold War could have been ended earlier. Yet as withering as he is in castigating Kennedy, it's clear that among modern presidents, none has been more self-critical than JFK himself. "Worst thing in my life" is how Kennedy recounted the Vienna summit to a journalist. "[Khrushchev] savaged me just beat the hell out of me."

And in response to a reporter's book proposal in 1961, he said, "Why would anyone write a book about an administration that has nothing to show for itself but a string of disasters?"

Fast-forward to June 1963. A couple of weeks after the American University speech that opened the door for a nuclear test ban treaty, Kennedy visited Berlin. After peering into the East alone from atop a West Berlin guard platform and appearing as if he had "just glimpsed Hell," he was thunderously cheered by hundreds of thousands of adoring Germans in the city hall square during a speech in which he proclaimed, "Ich bin ein Berliner."

Largely overlooked by Kempe is Kennedy's capacity to grow, to evolve. In early 1962, as fate would have it, the president read Barbara Tuchman's newly published "The Guns of August," which dissects the miscalculations that caused World War I's catastrophic carnage. He told his advisers about it, too.

Of the questions in Tuchman's book, the most haunting is posed by one German leader to another: "How did it all happen?" The answer: a tragically ironic "Ah, if only one knew."

Cuba 1962 was the climax of Cold War brinkmanship -- nuclear poker at its most harrowing. The president who confronted the missile crisis -- where the dilemma was perceived as "holocaust or humiliation" -- proved to be much wiser than the one whipsawed by Berlin 1961.

Khrushchev? He folded.

Gene Krzyzynski is a veteran copy editor for The News.


Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth

By Frederick Kempe


579 pages, $29.95