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 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 8:52 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT