‘Ich bin ein Berliner’

Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy delivered the now famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in front of the city hall at West Berlin. At the time, the speech was regarded as little more than well-stated political rhetoric. Even so, Kennedy knew that the speech had struck a chord with the crowd assembled to hear it.

He told his aide, Ted Sorensen, who had written most of the speech, “We’ll never have another day like this one as long as we live.”

Then as now, presidential addresses (especially those delivered abroad) tend to command a strong media presence. The predictable front page placement of the Berlin speech was widely subordinated to reports of the heated conflict 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.

Setting aside the domestic priorities of the moment, the lens of historical perspective permits us to see the speech for the exemplar of statesmanship and diplomacy that it was. Cast against the wall that both physically and symbolically divided Berlin, Kennedy praised the people of Berlin for remaining steadfast against the hardship. It also, drove home a larger point: When one man is enslaved, all are not free.

Writing for CNN.com, Nicolaus Mills, professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College, places the tone and significance of Kennedy’s remarks in a broader context: “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.”

Through this speech Kennedy began to make up for lost ground with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Neither the 1961 Vienna summit nor the Cuban Missile Crisis had endeared either party to the other. This speech reframed many of the issues in a way that opened the door for dialogue.

As above, Kennedy positioned the Cold War as something more fundamental than a contest of military superiority. Rather, he parsed it as a battle for self-determination and human rights. In so doing, he tacitly tied global tensions back to those at home. The struggle for civil rights in America could be seen as a microcosm of world events.

Moreover, this construction suggest that we can not simultaneously oppress our own citizens while demanding other nations meet our theoretical ideals of freedom. Kennedy’s remarks provided the world with a reminder of those ideals.

He also invoked the Berlin Airlift as an example of humanitarian efforts peacefully and effectively combatting the oppression of the Soviet blockade.

Nonetheless, Kennedy was a realist. He knew that radical changes in the tenor of the burgeoning Cold War would take more than magnanimous gestures.

To this end he asserted, “We can seek a relaxation of tensions without relaxing our guard.”

As history now records, Kennedy’s overtures in Berlin were not wasted. Just two months after Berlin, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and the United States signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, marking the first such accord since atomic weapons were used against Japan during World War II.

History also records events in Dallas just five months later. The youthful and energetic figure in Berlin is replaced by grainy images of a motorcade and a small boy saluting his father’s passing caisson. As we pause to reflect on the legacy of Kennedy’s Berlin address, we are given to ponder a broader alternate course had that day in Dallas not taken place.