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
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT