On June 26, 1963 — 50 years ago this week — U.S. President John F. Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in West Berlin, Germany. The speech boldly confirmed America's commitment to defend West Berlin from Soviet aggression and was enthusiastically embraced by the German audience.
Since the end of the World War II in 1945, Germany had been divided between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union. In 1949, both powers had created their own puppet states in Germany — America and its allies backed the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), and the Soviets had created the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). The city of Berlin lay roughly 100 miles inside East Germany, and West Berlin, occupied by the Western powers, remained a part of West Germany.
The reality of having an island of freedom and capitalism in the middle of East Germany had never been acceptable to the Soviets. In 1948-49, they tried a blockade to force West Berlin to integrate economically with East Germany, though the plan was overcome by a Western airlift. Between 1945 and 1961, more than 3 million East Germans, many of them educated and possessing skills needed for a modern industrial society, had traveled to East Berlin, crossed the street, and then took flight out of West Berlin to West Germany, effectively rejecting the communist system with their feet. In August 1961, in a bid to end the flow of East German refugees to the West, the Soviet-backed East German government erected the Berlin Wall.
Kennedy's first year in office had seen one diplomatic catastrophe after another. In April, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba made the new president look incompetent and out of his depth; his June summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev didn't go well, as the elder Soviet statesman ran rings around him; and now there was this new Soviet adventure in Berlin.
Kennedy and his advisers carefully watched events in Berlin, and even sent tanks into East Berlin, as per earlier treaties, to ensure that Western rights throughout the city were still being honored. Often overshadowed by events the next year in the Caribbean, events that August could just as easily have ignited a nuclear war.
West Berliners feared that the Berlin Wall was the first step in a Soviet plan to invade their portion of the city. Far from preparing a military operation in West Berlin, however, the Soviets accepted the new status quo. The Berlin Wall had effectively ended much of the pressure that the fleeing refugee problem had caused East Germany, and in many ways normalized relations in Berlin for the superpowers. This was unknown to the West Germans, however, and Kennedy sent his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, and former U.S. military commander of West Berlin, general Lucius Clay, to reassure the Germans of American intentions to defend the city.
The U.S. and Kennedy's resolve was tested the following year when Khrushchev ordered the placement of offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba, 90 miles off the Florida coast. The Cuban Missile Crisis, as it came to be known, resulted in the Soviets backing down and left Kennedy with considerably more foreign policy credibility than after his disastrous first year in office.
In late June 1963, Kennedy embarked on a European tour, designed to show the free world that America was fully prepared to stand up to the Soviets. Tensions with French President Charles de Gaulle ensured that Kennedy did not visit Paris, and Kennedy spent only one day in Britain, owing to the British government's embarrassment and preoccupation with the Profumo Affair. Kennedy and his advisers considered the June 26 visit to Berlin the most important stop of the tour.
Twenty-two months after the erection of the Berlin Wall, Kennedy arrived to give his speech at the platform before the Rathaus Schoneberg. Beside him on the platform were General Clay, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and a host of German politicians, including the West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. An estimated 450,000 Germans — three-fifths of the population of West Berlin — came out to see the American president speak.
Though many of his advisers had urged him not to be too direct in attacking the Soviet Union in the speech, Kennedy saw this as an opportunity to draw a definite distinction between the two systems. He stated in his speech that the free, capitalist world was far from perfect, “but we have never had to put up a wall to keep our people in.” He continued:
“There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass' sie nach Berlin kommen!”
And then Kennedy offered the most stirring moment of the speech, and the one for which it is remembered: “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, 'Ich bin ein Berliner.'”
The exact wording of Kennedy's declaration proved the subject of debate for years to come. Many have argued that by using the indefinite article “ein,” Kennedy had changed the meaning of his statement, and thus had actually proclaimed, “I am a jelly doughnut,” rather than the intended “I am a Berliner.” Whatever was actually said that day, the German audience roared with approval and took his meaning as intended.
In seeing the wild cheers of the Germans toward one man, an uneasy Adenauer remarked that he feared it was possible that Germany could embrace another Hitler.
In his book “Berlin, 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth,” historian Frederick Kempe wrote: “With one speech Kennedy had shifted U.S. policy regarding Germany and Berlin to one that conformed to the new resolve he had shown in Cuba. For the first time in his presidency, Kennedy was treating Berlin as a place to be defended, a place where he would build his legacy, and no longer as an inherited inconvenience inhabited by a people for whom he had little sympathy. From that point forward, neither Kennedy nor any other U.S. president could retreat from Berlin.”
Kennedy gave another speech later that day at the Free University that was met with a similar reception. In addition to firmly restating America's commitment to Germany, the president found himself thoroughly charmed by his hosts, and developed a deep affection for the German people.
In his book “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963,” biographer Robert Dallek wrote: “Kennedy departed Germany with a sense of exhilaration. He told the crowd bidding him farewell at Berlin's Tegel Airport that he planned to 'leave a note for my successor which would say, “To be opened at a time of some discouragement,” and in it would be written three words: “Go to Germany.” I may open that note myself someday.' On the plane flying to Dublin, he told (adviser Ted) Sorensen, who had crafted most of the words he had spoken to the Germans, 'We'll never have another day like this one as long as we live.'”
Five months later, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org