New York. -- The last time I saw Berlin, less than a year ago, it was pleasantly boring. The wall and the tension were down, the feeling that perhaps tomorrow we die was gone, and the ''capital'' of a unified Germany was coming back down to earth after more than 40 years as a ''flashpoint'' or ''tinderbox,'' the place where World War III would begin.
So President Clinton was in the wrong place at the wrong time last week to get what he wanted (and needs): a flashy rhetorical foreign-policy triumph that might have reminded Americans of the dangerous excitement when President Kennedy looked over the wall between West Berlin and East Berlin in 1963, or even the lesser moment in 1987 when President Reagan shouted that Soviet President Gorbachev should tear down the wall.
''Berlin ist frei!'' said Mr. Clinton. The wall is down. The Cold War is over. We all knew that. But there is much that is not known or understood about the ugly concrete snake that divided the city into a Soviet-backed East Berlin and an American-backed West Berlin from August 13, 1961, until November 9, 1989.
''That wall!'' as President Reagan called it angrily, may have prevented world war. That wall, which Kennedy publicly said sickened him, may actually have been the young president's greatest foreign-policy achievement. In the early 1960s, nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union was a real possibility, but not over communist influence in such places as Cuba or Korea or the Middle East. If there was to be war, it would be over Europe, and it would begin in Berlin, where 15,000 allied troops occupied the western half of the city 130 miles inside the Iron Curtain.
The communists had a problem in East Berlin. It was the one open border between communism and the West -- and by the summer of 1961 as many as 2,000 easterners a day were walking, driving or taking subways into West Berlin and then being flown the 130 miles to new homes in West Germany. They were the best and the brightest and they were young, doctors and engineers and teachers who did not want their children to be educated by communists. In Berlin, communism was bleeding to death -- and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev said he would go to any lengths, including war, to stop that flow.
We had a problem, too. Those 15,000 American, French and British troops were surrounded by tens of divisions of the Red Army stationed in East Germany. If the Soviets decided to move on West Berlin, the Allies could not hold the city for more than a few hours. Probably, NATO troops could not hold Western Europe itself for more than a few weeks against massive Soviet ground superiority -- unless the Americans used nuclear weapons.
President Kennedy did not want to be the man who started nuclear world war. ''Better a wall than a war,'' he said in private, even as he publicly declared his outrage at the wall and its builders, beginning with Khrushchev. In fact, he knew the wall was coming -- and he welcomed it. It was never a great surprise.
In an article called ''The Disappearing Satellite'' -- referring to the fleeing East Germans -- one of Washington's leading anti-Soviet political journals, The Reporter, said in March 1961 that a wall was being considered, adding: ''The West's main problem is to provide some way out for the Soviets with as little loss of face and as many guarantees of security as possible.''
Knowing that, Kennedy gave Khrushchev as many guarantees as he could, both publicly and privately, that the United States would do nothing in Berlin so long as the occupation rights of Allied militaryunits were not interfered with. In other words, we would not interfere with whatever was done on the communist side of the line through the city as long as Allied military police could pass back and forth through checkpoints.
That was the deal. And the danger of nuclear confrontation gradually decreased from that day in 1961 until the day the wall came down. But President Kennedy could never admit that. Given the tenor of the times, had the extent of his secret dealings with the Soviets been known, there might well have been an impeachment movement from the very members of Congress who enthusiastically joined him in denouncing the communist wall.
Now that all seems long ago and far away. The last U.S. troops will leave Berlin in September. That done, President Clinton could give his visit to Berlin meaning by recognizing the new realities of the post-Cold War world and bring home U.S. troops from all the places they were sent 40 and 50 years ago to contain threats that no longer exist.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.