50 Years Later: Reflections on President Kennedy's Berlin Speech

Jun 26, 2013

On this day 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy gave his famous "ich bin ein Berliner" speech to West Berlin, underlying support for the West 22 months after Soviet-supported East Germany erected the Berlin Wall. Commentator and Murray State History Professor Dr. Brian Clardy reflects on this statement of US policy and its impact on the Cold War.

A few days ago in my American History class, I lectured on the early years of the Cold War of the late 1940s and early 1950s. With rapt attention, young Racer Nation listened to me drone on and on about the Berlin Airlift and the fact that the city would become what I called a “pregnant symbol” of the U.S.-Soviet conflict. 

Waxing nostalgic, I reminded students that there was a time when Germany had been divided between East and West and that the historic city of Berlin (which sat in the heart of Soviet dominated East Germany) was also divided up into a general Eastern and Western sector in the years after the Second World War. Moreover, I recalled that this marked division was the way it remained until I was well into my early 20s. I couldn’t resist sounding  like a bad impersonation of “Grumpy Old Men” when I reminded them (as if they deemed it relevant) that “back in my day” my generation referred to Europe in very blatant political terms that reflected those Cold War realities. 

As I traveled down “Memory Lane,” the expressions on my students’ varied faces were indeed priceless. Either they were impressed with my presentation, or they were being courteous as the clock ticked closer to lunchtime. 

As a global tourist and a political geek/meets history nerd, my mind wandered back to when Berlin was a divided city, then a united one: a symbol of freedom and perseverance. 

My thoughts went back to November 1989 when I was working on my masters at Murray State University……a cold and overcast Thursday afternoon when a fellow student told me that the Berlin Wall was coming down and then running to the TV lounge in Woods Hall to see Tom Brokaw broadcasting from the wall while a celebratory crowd cheered behind him, champagne and smiles in tow. The Cold War was over and a brave new world was about to begin, I thought.

I thought back to a trip to Berlin that I took in early June 2006 and feeling that exact sense of wonder and amazement as our tour group visited Checkpoint Charlie and saw the ground markers where the Berlin Wall once stood. With my fellow tourists standing around in the dusk of that summer’s day, we all felt a sense of wonder and awe as we stood on the place where living history had happened.

On both the day that the Wall was opened, and as I walked down the streets of Berlin some seventeen years later,  I thought about the stirring oratory of President Kennedy in June 1963 as he summoned a beleaguered people to believe in a brighter and democratic tomorrow.  

The speech was provocative, bold, and brazen. It extoled the  noble virtues of democracy, the strong and abiding faith of Berliners under siege, and a burning hope that one day soon the conditions that made the city’s division possible would come to an end. That in the end Berlin would be united, and democracy would triumph.  

With West German Chancellor Konrad Adenaeur , future Chancellor Willy Brandt and U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk standing in the background, President Kennedy addressed a throng of 450,000 by intoning:

There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. 

There are some who say that Communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. 

And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. 

And there are even a few who say that it is true that Communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass' sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.

In later years, and different circumstances, President Ronald Reagan evoked that same hopeful idealism less than a quarter century later by calling for the wall itself to be dismantled. And sure enough two years later it happened.

Fifty years later, the vision that President Kennedy first articulated has come true. Berlin is free, and the capital of a unified Germany that is at the center of a prosperous Europe. It is more than just a symbol of historic conflict, but that the story of modern Berlin is a clear demonstration that a determined people, and favorable political conditions, can work in sync to enable an oppressed people to overcome obstacles that seemed hopeless.

Dr. Brian Clardy is an Assistant Professor of History and Coordinator of Religious Studies at Murray State University. He is also the Wednesday night host of Cafe Jazz on WKMS.