This week in history: JFK gives famous 'Ich bin ein Berliner' speech in West Germany
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: email@example.com
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