Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev's face turned red with rage. Leaning in close to U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Khrushchev said that Cold War Berlin was "the most dangerous place on earth." He told Kennedy he would "perform an operation on this sore spot - to eliminate this thorn, this ulcer...to the satisfaction of all peoples of the world."
It was June of 1961, and the setting was neutral Vienna. This first and last Kennedy-Khrushchev summit would prove to be one of the most explosive and decisive meetings ever of the two most powerful leaders of their time. It would be followed a little more than two months later by the Berlin Wall's construction and then two months after that by a showdown of Soviet and U.S. tanks at Checkpoint Charlie.
Much has been written about the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later, but the Berlin Crisis of 1961 was more decisive in shaping the Cold War - and more perilous. For the first time in history, American and Soviet fighting men and tanks stood arrayed against each other, only a hundred yards apart. One mistake - one nervous soldier, one overzealous commander - and the tripwire would be sprung for a war that could go nuclear in a heartbeat.