OTD in History… June 26, 1963, President Kennedy delivers his Berlin Speech declares solidarity “Ich bin ein Berliner”
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history June 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivers his Berlin Speech, where he expressed solidarity and hope with the citizens of West Berlin declaring “Ich bin ein Berliner” I am a Berliner, in what is considered Kennedy’s best speech and one of the best speeches in American history. Kennedy delivered his speech in front of the Berlin Wall on the steps of the Rathaus Schöneberg, the city hall, in front of an audience of 450,000 filling Rudolph Wilde Platz; the speech was the climax of Kennedy’s four-day trip to Germany. The Soviet Union built the wall barely two years earlier to separate the eastern Communist bloc with the western democratic half of the city and prevent their citizens from escaping to freedom. The citizens of West Berlin were an island of democracy surrounded by the Communist regime, Kennedy’s anti-Communist speech aimed at showing American and western support for the city. Three other presidents after Kennedy aimed at making history at the wall, only twenty-four years later Ronald Reagan made an impact asking Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall.”
The people of West Berlin and West Germany needed Kennedy’s assurances of support from the west as they sat in the middle of Soviet-controlled East Germany. After World War II, Berlin was divided into four blocs, the east controlled by the Soviets, and the western part of the city controlled by the American, British, and French. In June 1948, the Soviets blocked land access to West Berlin. In response President Harry Truman and the Allied Military Air Transport Service airlifted food, energy, medical supplies into the western part of the city starting on June 26, the blockade would last until May 1949, and the US delivered 2.3 million tons of supplies. On August 13, 1961, the East German government started the wall between the east and west, first built with barbwire and then a more permanent with cement blocks, the Berlin Wall, called the antifaschistischer Schutzwall.
Kennedy faced the continuing aggressive threats from the Soviet Union. Kennedy first met Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in a June 1961 summit, where Kennedy was warned it was “…up to the U.S. to decide whether there will be war or peace” and if not “Force will be met by force.” Tensions remain high throughout Kennedy’s term. Kennedy delivered another speech before his Berlin one about the Cold War and nuclear two weeks earlier on June 10 at American University in Washington, which was conciliatory to the Soviets where the president talked of “improving relations with the Soviet Union”, while in Berlin Kennedy took a hard-line approach. Kennedy arrived in West Germany on June 23 for his four-day trip.
The most famous phrase of Kennedy’s speech was a late add-on by the president. Kennedy was revising his speech up even during his trip and his “Ich bin ein Berliner” was not of the typed cards of the speech written by speechwriter Ted Sorensen, but scribbled by Kennedy phonetically among some German phrases he was considering. Kennedy would use the phrase twice at the beginning and conclusion of his address.
Kennedy started his speech declaring, “Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was civis romanus sum [“I am a Roman citizen”]. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner!”… 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!’” Historian Andreas W. Daum writing his book Kennedy in Berlin believes after President Kennedy saw the Berlin Wall he was inspired and “fell back on the most memorable passage of his New Orleans speech given the year before, changing pride in being an American in being a Berliner.” (Daum, 153)
Kennedy harshly criticized the Soviets and communism and praised the citizens of West Berlin in his nine-minute speech. Kennedy condemned Communism, saying, “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. Let them come to Berlin.”
To contrast with Communism and refer to the wall, Kennedy pointed out, “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in.” In conclusion, Kennedy again uttered his soon to be famous line, “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 cheering from crowds lasted long after Kennedy completed his speech, he later said, “We’ll never have another day like this one, as long as we live.”
After his speech, Kennedy’s National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy took the president aside and warned him, telling him, “Mr. President, I believe you have gone too far,” concerned
he was risking negotiations for the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty they would sign with the Soviets later that year. Later that afternoon, Kennedy would give a toned down version of the speech at the Freie Universität Berlin before concluding the trip in Germany and moving on to Ireland.
Kennedy had not gone too far, the public and historians remember the speech as Kennedy’s best and one of the defining moments in the Cold War. Historian Alan Brinkley writing in his book John F. Kennedy: The 35th President, 1961–1963 indicates the Berlin “speech was a rhetorical triumph and a contrast to his tempered call for peace two weeks earlier at American University. There were few hints of conciliation in his words in Berlin as Kennedy rolled out the failures of the East and the triumphs of the West.” (Brinkley, 131) While Daum states, “It is one of the most successful trips of Kennedy’s presidency. This success can be attributed above all to the enormous demonstration of enthusiasm Kennedy experienced in Berlin, which will remain in the memory of generations thanks to his own declaration ‘“Ich bin ein Berliner.’” (Daum, 163)
During the Cold War, two other presidents would speak in Berlin near the wall, President Jimmy Carter and more famously Ronald Reagan in June 1987, where he challenged Soviet leader Gorbachev in front of the Brandenburg Gate to “tear down this wall.” Two years later in October 1989, the people of Berlin would tear down the wall with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nearing the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s speech President Barack Obama would invoke Kennedy in his speech on June 19, 2013, in front of the Brandenburg Gate, expressing “His words are timeless because they call upon us to care more about things than just our own self-comfort.” Obama was right, as journalist and Kennedy biographer Andrew Cohen writes, “Fifty years later, Mr. Kennedy in Berlin remains one of the spectacles of the Cold War. Here was an exquisite meeting of man, moment and momentum, creating a dazzling piece of theatre. Presidents have come to Berlin since to declaim and decry, but none like this.”
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Brinkley, Alan. John F. Kennedy: The 35th President, 1961–1963. New York: Times Books, 2012.
Daum, Andreas W. Kennedy in Berlin. Washington, D.C: German Historical Institute, 2008.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.