Skip to main content

50 years after JFK's 'Ich bin ein Berliner'

By Nicolaus Mills, Special to CNN
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Tue June 18, 2013
President John F. Kennedy speaks at Schoeneberg City Hall in Berlin on June 26, 1963.
President John F. Kennedy speaks at Schoeneberg City Hall in Berlin on June 26, 1963.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama is to give a speech in Berlin on transatlantic alliance
  • It comes on the eve of anniversary of JFK's famous Berlin speech
  • Kennedy used the occasion to signal his solidarity with people of West Berlin
  • Nicolaus Mills says JFK's overriding point was: When one is enslaved, all of us are not free

Editor's note: Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower."

(CNN) -- The White House has announced that on Wednesday, at the invitation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Obama will speak in Berlin at the city's landmark Brandenburg Gate. The president's subject will be the transatlantic alliance and the enduring bonds between the United States and Germany.

Berlin comes as a welcome relief for Obama. It gives him a chance to put aside for the moment the difficulties he is having in the Middle East and with the National Security Agency spying scandal. The president's Berlin appearance also reminds us that he is following in historic footsteps.

Nicolaus Mills
Nicolaus Mills

June 26 marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, praising the citizens of West Berlin for their refusal to be intimidated by the massive East German-built wall that since 1961 had divided their city.

The reaction of the crowd listening to Kennedy address them in front of West Berlin's City Hall was so overwhelming that, on the plane leaving Germany, he remarked to his aide, Ted Sorensen, who had written most of his speech, "We'll never have another day like this one as long as we live."

Kennedy is always given style points for his Berlin speech because of its easy-to-remember rhetoric. But the speech is worth recalling today because it amounted to such a profound pivot away from the prevailing nuclear logic of the Cold War. In Berlin, Kennedy recast how he believed the Cold War should be waged in the future in a way that made his thinking clear to the European and American public.

For Kennedy, the chance to speak near the Berlin Wall two years after it was built was a major opportunity to redefine his foreign policy leadership.

In his 1961 Vienna summit meeting with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy had gotten off to a rocky start. In 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, he had regained his footing. He had resisted calls by some of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a massive airstrike against Cuba and made sure he and the Soviets avoided backing each other into a nuclear exchange.

In Berlin, Kennedy showed that he had learned from both confrontations. Instead of treating the Cold War as simply a battle over which side had the most military power and the will to use it, he framed it as a battle that also included the fate of captive peoples and their right to self-determination.

It was an emphasis that would bear fruit in the Prague spring of 1968, in Poland's Solidarity movement and finally in Ronald Reagan's 1987 Brandenburg Gate speech with its memorable line, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Kennedy's rhetoric in Berlin was equal to his good intentions. "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,' " Kennedy declared. His words paid tribute to those Germans trapped in a divided Berlin, but his overriding point was, "Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free."

Kennedy was doing the opposite of saber-rattling. He was updating the ideas behind the Declaration of Independence so they spoke directly to contemporary Europe. When his audience heard Kennedy's words, they were reminded of the Berlin Airlift of 1948, in which America responded to the Soviet ground blockade of West Berlin with an airlift that brought West Berliners the food and supplies they needed without U.S. troops firing a shot.

Earlier in June 1963, Kennedy had established the groundwork for his Berlin speech with an address he gave at American University in Washington. There, he spoke about establishing the conditions for an "attainable peace" that was neither a Pax Americana nor a peace of the grave.

The Soviet Union, Kennedy cautioned, needed to abandon its distorted view of an America ready to unleash a preventative nuclear war, but at the same time America needed to make sure that it did not fall into the same trap as the Soviets by seeing Russia through a distorted ideological lens.

Ever the practical politician, Kennedy conceded that he had no "magic formula" for bringing about such a change in the world's two superpowers, but it was possible, he concluded, to debate the Cold War without each side making new threats. "We can seek a relaxation of tensions without relaxing our guard," he insisted.

Today, the American University speech is widely praised, but at the time, the speech was seen primarily as a policy statement. The public reaction to the speech was minimal. One day later, the American University proposals were replaced as a front-page story by the highly charged racial confrontation between the Kennedy administration and Alabama Gov. George Wallace over the admission of two African-American students to the formerly all-white University of Alabama.

Berlin was a different story in terms of its popular impact and a sign that Kennedy was becoming increasingly sophisticated in using his personal popularity to promote policy change.

In Berlin, the still-young president took advantage of being on the global stage to make it easier for friend and foe alike to see him as a leader eager to steer America and the world away from nuclear confrontation.

His efforts were not wasted. Two months after his Berlin speech, the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the first such agreement since atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nicolaus Mills.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT