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A Picture from History: Checkpoint Charlie

In October 1961, a tense standoff between Americans and Soviet tanks brews on the border of Checkpoint Charlie at the Berlin Wall...

As Germany was split between the Allies and the Soviets after World War II, the Berlin Wall was quickly erected, effectively separating Germany into two countries.

While there were many “gates” between the two sides, the one that would live in infamy was Checkpoint Charlie.

Sign at Checkpoint Charlie
Sign at Checkpoint Charlie (Photo: Gary Todd)

A Taste for Opera

Allan Lightner had a taste for opera. On October 22, 1961, he intended to listen to a few hours of it on the Soviet side of Berlin. 

Normally, this wasn’t a huge deal. American officials were allowed access to East Berlin on a regular basis.

Allan Lightner
Allan Lightner

But tonight, things were different. German guards at the gate refused to let Lightner cross the border without first seeing his passport. He wasn’t keen on agreeing.

Documents being examined at a checkpoint into East Berlin
Documents being examined at a checkpoint into East Berlin (Photo: Eva Brüggmann)

Taking His Toys and Going Home

Lightner argued that the guards had no right to ask him for his paperwork. Only Soviet officials could demand to see it, and the men standing before him were Germans.

Soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie
Soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie (Photo: Stanislav Kozlovskiy)

Despite his protestations, Lightner was not permitted to cross. So, he did what anybody would do.

He went back home, grabbed a couple of U.S. Army Jeeps filled with American soldiers, and rode back to the border. 

That time, the guards let him through. 

Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie (Photo: The Central Intelligence Agency)

Things Have Changed

The Germans were furious. It didn’t matter who showed up at the border; they decided not to let anyone through. 

For General Lucius Clay, this wasn’t acceptable.

He immediately ordered 10 M-48 tanks within 75 meters of the border.

American tank at Checkpoint Charlie
American tank at Checkpoint Charlie (Photo: The Central Intelligence Agency)

The news of a collection of American tanks right on the border of Soviet “territory” quickly reached the ears of the Kremlin, however. And, as expected, they weren’t very happy. 

Nikita Kruschev ordered 36 T-55 tanks to stand at the ready on the Soviet side of the border. If this was to be the beginning of World War II, he intended to win the first battle.  

Soviet tanks near Checkpoint Charlie
Soviet tanks near Checkpoint Charlie (Photo: The Central Intelligence Agency)

The Crescendo & De-escalation

Finally, on October 27, the Soviet tanks moved forward. The American tanks reciprocated. 

And there they sat, staring at one another for 16 long hours. 

War seemed imminent.

US tanks at night at Checkpoint Charlie
US tanks at night at Checkpoint Charlie (Photo: The Central Intelligence Agency)

John F. Kennedy didn’t want things to escalate any further.

He quickly called Nikita Khrushchev, and both sides agreed they didn’t want to go to war over this.

A few minutes after the call was made, tanks began to leave the scene one by one.

John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev
John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev (Photo: John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library)

From that day on, officials from either side had no problem crossing the border at Checkpoint Charlie.

General Clay was essentially sidelined. Strong-arm tactics work great in outright war, but more discretion was required in a cold war.

And Lightner? He would go on to enjoy opera until the age of 82.

This is a new style of article for Pew Pew Tactical, if you liked it — let us know in the comments! If you didn’t enjoy it…well phooey. To catch up on previous Pictures from History, click on over to our History Category.

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8 Leave a Reply

  • Commenter Avatar
    Paul H. Bergh

    I like it too much!

    November 16, 2022 8:42 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Bkwms

    Nice article, thanks. I like these history articles. If you don't know history it could be tough to follow. There was E Germany (Soviet controlled) and W Germany (NATO ally) but Berlin was in E Germany and split up between the countries. I'm sure there were many of these types on confrontations over the years.

    November 16, 2022 6:28 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    DanC

    You guys said: "...Nikita Kruschev ordered 36 T-55 tanks to stand at the ready on the Soviet side of the border. If this was to be the beginning of World War II, he intended to win the first battle."
    You need better editors, I'm pretty sure WWII was over and done with by Kruschev's time, maybe WWIII was meant?

    November 15, 2022 5:20 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Aden Tate

      We have fantastic editors. Forgive the writer. His keyboard has seen heavy use and likely stuck there.

      You are correct that WW3 was meant there, however. Same issue John pointed out below.

      November 16, 2022 2:58 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    CP93

    Berlin was divided into *four* sectors: American, Russian, British, and French.

    JFK couldn't just pick up the phone and call Khrushchev, as the "hotline" didn't exist until after the Cuban Missile Crisis. He had to go through a number of delays and intermediaries.

    November 12, 2022 1:11 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Aden Tate

      The world at large refers to Berlin as having been East Berlin and West Berlin, however. One side was free, one side was not. Space permits only so many distinctions.

      Regarding the phone call, I'm not saying you're wrong, it's just that what you say's different from what I've read. Perhaps "contacted" there would have been a better word. Either way, moments after the call, tanks started rolling out.

      November 12, 2022 1:49 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    John

    "this was to be the beginning of World War II,..."

    World War III .... beginning of World War III NOT WWII.

    WWII was already over, one of the results was a separated Germany thus Check Point Charlie.

    November 11, 2022 8:45 am
    • Commenter Avatar
      Aden Tate

      I think my keyboard must have stuck. Forgive me.

      "As Germany was split between the Allies and the Soviets after World War II, the Berlin Wall was quickly erected, effectively separating Germany into two countries."

      November 12, 2022 4:12 am
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