Checkpoint Charlie: That Time American and Soviet Tanks Faced Off in a Divided Berlin

    The world watched with bated breath. Could this be the spark that set off WWIII?

    Continuing tensions with Russia over its annexation of Crimea, backing of separatists in Ukraine, dealing weapons to the Taliban, and the hacking of the U.S. elections have led to many people on both sides of the divide saying that current U.S.-Russian tensions are worse than they were in the Cold War.

    Apparently, those people have forgotten that U.S. and Russian troops killed each other a few times, conducted a standoff with tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba, and stared each other down in armed tanks in divided Berlin.

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    The incident started on Oct. 22, 1961, when America's senior diplomat in West Berlin, E. Allan Lightner, Jr., attempted to cross the newly-erected Berlin Wall at a major checkpoint, Checkpoint Charlie. He was stopped by East German authorities who wanted to see his papers, but Lightner insisted that only the Soviets had the authority to check his papers.

    checkpoint charlie

    Checks by East German guards

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    He eventually turned back from the border, but Gen. Lucius Clay ordered that the next U.S. diplomat who needed to cross the border would be accompanied by military police in armed Jeeps. The next diplomat did cross the border with the Jeeps.

    But Clay still wasn't satisfied. He sent M48 tanks to the checkpoint and had them rev their engines. The Soviet commander requested permission to call an equal number of tanks out in response and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev approved it.

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    So T-55 tanks pulled up to the opposite end of the street and, approximately 82 yards away from each other, the two sides threatened each other for 16 hours from Oct. 27-28, 1961.

    News crews rushed to the scene and the world watched with bated breath to see if this would be the spark that set off the U.S.-Soviet powder keg and descended the world into nuclear war.

    checkpoint charlie

    John F. Kennedy at Checkpoint Charlie in 1963

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    But neither country wanted to fight World War III over paperwork in Berlin. President John F. Kennedy ordered back channels to be opened to reach a negotiation. Khrushchev agreed to a deal where the countries would take turns withdrawing a single tank at a time.

    The Soviets withdrew a T-55 and, a few minutes later, America pulled back an M48. The process continued until Checkpoint Charlie and its Soviet counterpoint had returned to their normal garrisons of a few soldiers on either side.

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    Today, the intersection has a replica checkpoint and a number of historical exhibits. Aside from the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year, the standoff at Checkpoint Charlie may be the closest America and Soviet Russia came to blows in open warfare.

    checkpoint charlie
    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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    This article originally appeared on We Are The Mighty.

    Featured photo of U.S. tanks facing Soviet tanks at Checkpoint Charlie in October 1961: Wikimedia Commons

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