President Kennedy gave one of his best speeches and easily the best Cold War anti-communist speech of the time. West Berlin’s civilian population feared a Soviet/East German occupation and Kennedy’s speech in front of 450,000 was aimed at not just the German people but sent a message to the Soviets about United States policy as well. The German people would not face this threat alone.
In June of 1963, the Cold War was running very hot. The United States and the Soviet Union were at loggerheads at every turn and nowhere was the tensions higher than in Berlin. The Soviets attempted to blockade the city in 1948 but the US relieved the city by use of the Berlin Airlift as with other NATO air forces, they kept the city supplied for 15 months. In 1961, the communist puppet state of East Germany erected a wall around the city of West Berlin, supposedly to keep spies and agents of West Germany from crossing over, but in reality, it was to stop the mass migration of the German people from escaping to the West.
Much like North Korea today, (at least a few months ago), many people thought that if a nuclear war was to start, it would be because of events in Berlin.
In 1963, Germany was still rebuilding itself after being nearly completely destroyed in World War II. The West was much farther along than their Eastern brethren who living under the communist system were still living in what resembled a shelled out apocalyptic ruin. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev tried to test the young President in 1961 when he threatened to sign a treaty with East Germany which would limit the West’s access to Berlin. Kennedy responded with a television address to the nation stating that an attack on the people of West Berlin, would be viewed as an attack on the United States, and announced a military buildup.
And after the communists showed their true colors by walling and machine-gunning their own people in, lest they all escape the “worker’s paradise”, Kennedy had struck a chord with the people in West Germany. But after he arrived in Germany in 1963, the people struck a chord with him. A generation ago, these people were the faceless enemy that our troops faced in the killing fields of Europe, North Africa and over the skies of both. Now they were friends and allies and they yearned to be free.
Kennedy arrived in West Berlin and his speech that he was to give was described as “awful.” It was supposed to show the U.S. solidarity with West Berlin without overly tweaking the Communists on the other side of the wall. He usually relied upon some talented speech writers but they swung and missed on this one.
So Kennedy re-wrote it himself, and he decided to use a page from a speech he gave in New Orleans in 1962. In it, he used the phrase civis Romanus sum by saying “Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was to say, “I am a citizen of Rome.” Today, I believe, in 1962 the proudest boast is to say, “I am a citizen of the United States.” Kennedy changed the second part to say, “Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’ ”
Although the Berliner phrase had been in the works for a few weeks, Kennedy, who had a real struggle with foreign languages, jotted down the phonetic spelling of the phrase so he would get it right. Ish bin ein Bear-leen-er.
Now in front of 450,000 people, Kennedy decided to not pussy-foot around the Soviets and communism. Instead, he went right after them and how difficult it was to live under their system.
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 even a few who say that it’s true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lasst sie nach Berlin kommen— let them come to Berlin!
In a lighthearted touch, he publicly thanked his interpreter for clarifying his German, which the interpreter translated as well, getting a chuckle from the people as well as the President. But then he took a clear shot at the East Germans and Soviets, as he blasted the communist system of walling their people in.
“Freedom has many difficulties, and democracy is not perfect,” he stated, “but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in.”
Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free. When all are free, then we can look forward to that day when this city will be joined as one and this country and this great continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe.
Kennedy finished with a flourish, as he linked the cause of the people of West Berlin with freedom-loving people around the world. “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.” He received raucous applause.
The Soviets were furious at the “Let them come to Berlin” line. Only a few weeks prior Kennedy had struck more of a conciliatory tone with Moscow and after this speech, Khrushchev would say “one would think that the speeches were made by two different Presidents.”
President Reagan would later evoke the same sentiment as JFK when making a speech about Berlin in the 1980s and said, General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
Jelly Doughnut reference: There has always been the urban legend Kennedy made an embarrassing mistake by saying Ich bin ein Berliner. By not leaving out the indefinite article “ein,” he supposedly changed the meaning of the sentence from the intended “I am a citizen of Berlin” to “I am a Berliner” which is a jelly doughnut.
But by saying Ich bin Berliner, Kennedy would have been saying he was a native-born Berliner. The people understood what he meant. See the video below.
Photo: Wikipedia, video US Air Force