This week in history: JFK gives famous 'Ich bin ein Berliner' speech in West Germany

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, June 26 2013 5:55 p.m. MDT

In this photo released by he Kennedy Museum, President John F. Kennedy, left, Willy Brandt, center, then mayor of West Berlin, and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, right, ride in a car at the Brandenburg Gate on June 26, 1963. The day Kennedy visited Berlin, Klaus Schuetz sensed something special was happening as he waited in city hall for the president's arrival. Thousands of people chanting Kennedy's name lined the motorcade route and the square outside. For people of Schuetz's generation, the emotion of that eight-hour visit, on June 26, 1963, lingers after more than 40 years. (AP Photo/Will McBride-Camera Work, Kennedy Museum)

WILL MCBRIDE, AP

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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.

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