The Tunnels: JFK, the cold war and the Berlin Wall

In his new book, journalist Greg Mitchell has excavated a story of daring escapes and media manipulation which speaks directly to the era of Donald Trump

Imagine a story with so much inherent drama it sounds far-fetched even for a Hollywood thriller. Our heroes dig tunnels from freedom into enemy territory to help loved ones and others escape. They are bankrolled in part by a savvy media executive looking for a network exclusive. Meanwhile, the White House seeks to shut it all down in the interest of politics and avoiding nuclear war.

It sounds over the top but its all true and detailed in Greg Mitchells new book, The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill. Utilizing a mix of interviews and archival records Mitchell tells a kaleidoscopic cold war story from 1962, recreating a world seemingly on the edge of a third world war.

The action revolves around the brave and indefatigable young Germans of West Berlin who take up shovels against repression; yet even as they aid the escape of those trapped in East Berlin, they are undermined by a Stasi informer in their midst. Mitchell also recounts the efforts of CBS and NBC reporters and executives to gain an upper hand in their own competition by racing to secure the rights to film a tunnel escape for the education or perhaps entertainment of the American audience back home.



figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Edward Kennedy inspect the Berlin Wall at Bernauer Street in 1962. Photograph: Reichert/AP

President John F Kennedys administration, meanwhile, aims to control the medias message, perhaps out of general distrust of the press, perhaps out of political concerns, including the all-too-real notion that the Soviet Union could interpret American involvement as a step toward war.

All of this plays out against an increasingly fraught backdrop as East German guards shoot fellow citizens in cold blood as they try to escape, West German officials break the law to help escapees and the Soviets begin maneuvers for what will become the Cuban missile crisis.

Its not a very nice solution, Kennedy said of the Berlin Wall as it went up, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.

Mitchell, 68, has written numerous books about the intersection of American politics and media and about nuclear war. The former editor both of Nuclear Times and Editor & Publisher magazines, he stumbled on to the idea for The Tunnelswhen his daughter and her husband moved to Berlin. He went to visit them at their new home which turned out to be about a mile from Bernauer Strasse, the former East Berlin street that turned out to be the focal point of much of the books action.

I knew about the Berlin Wall, of course, Mitchell says. I grew up with Berlin being in the news all the time and I had the childhood trauma of fallout shelters, air raid drills and duck and cover. My favorite movie was Dr Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

But what he knew about the wall was fairly general and it all felt like part of a distant past until that visit. Going to the memorial site and reading the stories about the escapes was overwhelming, he says. Seeing the death strip made it all very vivid.

Mitchell started digging in to the escape stories and was particularly drawn to the notion that those living in freedom, including many who had escaped East Berlin, were willing to tunnel directly into danger to help others. That story was incredible enough with plenty of suspense, he says, though he felt like it was a foreign story Americans would not be interested in indeed, while the sagas have been recounted in German language books, they have never been told in full detail here. But then he uncovered the story of the television documentaries and the White Houses efforts to suppress them and realized this was also an American story.

Hollywood recognized its potential before the book industry did. His proposal sold its movie rights, with <a href=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Paul Greengrass attached as director, even before he had found a publisher. That was a little odd and embarrassing for a moment, Mitchell says.

Mitchell says he was fortunate that his son-in-law is half-German because he provided vital help in translating Stasi archives many never seen in public before and interpreting during interviews. I had a list of 20 people and hoped to get six, not knowing who would be alive or well enough or willing to talk, Mitchell says. Instead, he found 16, including the major West Berlin diggers.

In writing, Mitchell strove to be even-handed. I hate to announce a stand, he says. On the issue of Kennedys decision to allow the wall to be built and his efforts to shape the medias coverage of the escape attempts, he knows some of the presidents methods seemed wrong then and would be taboo today but believes that the genuine threat of nuclear war changed the equation.

Half the readers will say Im too hard on him and he had to worry about the end of the world while the other half will say he was too cautious and should have done more to support the people trying to escape, Mitchell says, adding that there will be also conflicting views on the networks dishing out money to the tunnelers in exchange for filming rights.

While the events are a half-century old, they resonate today in a world trying to figure out how to handle escaped refugees, walls real (imposed on the West Bank by Israel) and proposed (Donald Trumps great, great wall), and deepening tensions between the US and Russia which are exacerbated by media leaks. It all makes me feel like Im back in 1962, Mitchell says.

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