Skip to main content

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

By Nicolaus Mills, Special to CNN
June 18, 2013 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
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
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2318 GMT (0718 HKT)
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
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.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
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.
ADVERTISEMENT