"All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words 'Ich bin ein Berliner.' "
John F. Kennedy
June 26, 1963
Most of the presidents who are remembered fondly by history were eloquent speakers, and most people, even those who don't know much about history, can tell you something about their greatest speeches.
Those speeches often were delivered before dramatic backdrops — like when Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the cemetery for those who were killed in that decisive battle. It's been more common in modern times, with the expanded ability to travel, for presidents to deliver their most memorable speeches on the very spots where important things had happened or were about to happen.
The backdrop can contribute much to the effectiveness of a speech, but it isn't as important as the message.
Some presidents, like John F. Kennedy, are remembered for several great speeches, and, while you will find many people who will say his "Ask not what your country can do for you ..." line in his inaugural address was his most memorable and you will find others who point to his commencement address at American University or his address to the nation during the Cuban Missile Crisis as being significant in other ways, I am inclined to think that the greatest speech Kennedy ever gave was the one he gave in Berlin 50 years ago today.
(I was both gratified and intrigued by L. Ian MacDonald's piece in the Ottawa Citizen. MacDonald wrote that, in "just seven paragraphs on the page and only nine minutes in a delivery continuously interrupted by cheering and applause," Kennedy "tautly defined the terms of the Cold War and correctly predicted the outcome.")
One could hardly imagine a more tension–filled scene. Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly West Berliners, many of whom had been separated from family and friends when the Soviets erected the infamous Berlin Wall dividing East and West Berlin nearly two years earlier, were there to hear him speak. Many became emotional upon hearing the president speak of their tragedies.
And when he said, "Ich bin ein Berliner," it was an expression of solidarity with those West Berliners, the kind of solidarity Germans had rarely felt since the wall went up.
Stephen Evans writes for BBC News that Kennedy "connected with a people under siege" and gave them hope. I think that is obvious, even when one watches footage of the speech half a century later — although it does help to know the context of the times.
But it was also a statement of American policy aimed directly at the Kremlin. Many of the world's leaders had chosen a safe, nonconfrontational approach in their dealings with and references to the Soviet Union.
But not Kennedy.
It seems to me that, for a speech to be considered great, it requires a certain amount of courage on the part of the speaker, and Kennedy displayed that kind of courage half a century ago today. Contrary to what many people believe today, Kennedy did not show that same courage in the civil rights struggles until he had no choice.
But, on this day 50 years ago, he took a courageous stand for freedom standing in front of the greatest symbol of oppression in the world.
In the early 1960s, there were those whose words and actions ignored the threat to freedom posed by Berlin and its communist occupiers. Kennedy refused to let the Soviets off the hook:
"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."
With each repetition of the phrase "Let them come to Berlin," the crowd's approving roar grew louder.
It grew louder still as Kennedy spoke about freedom.
"What is true of this city is true of Germany," Kennedy said. "Real, lasting peace in Europe can never be assured as long as one German out of four is denied the elementary right of free men, and that is to make a free choice."
The Berlin Wall eventually did fall more than 25 years later. But I always found that remarkable because, in all the years I was growing up, I never heard Berlin referred to as simply Berlin. That sounded strange to my ear when East and West Germany were unified.
My parents had grown up calling that city Berlin, no East or West designation, but it was always East Berlin and West Berlin for my generation, and the city was divided by the Berlin Wall. As far as I was concerned, it might as well have always been that way.
I had no memory of anything else. The Berlin Wall might as well have been erected in the 18th century along with the Brandenburg Gate — which, incidentally, is where Presidents Reagan and Obama delivered their addresses in Berlin. (Obama, of course, could not give his speech in front of the Wall; it came down 20 years earlier. But Reagan could have spoken in front of it.)
So it was that, when the Berlin Wall finally came down, I watched the news reports in utter astonishment. I might as well have been witnessing the Second Coming; I fully expected to see neither in my lifetime.
"Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free."
When people speak of the Berlin Wall today, there is a tendency to give credit for its fall to Ronald Reagan, and I concede that he deserves his share of the credit — but not all of it. I believe that each of the seven American presidents who served during the wall's existence made his own contribution to the eventual outcome. Freedom and democracy prevailed over communism because, when all is said and done, that is the better way for man to live, and each of those American presidents were committed to that principle.
But it was Kennedy's speech 50 years ago today that truly set the tone for America's policy in that part of the world.
And it re–established America as a champion of freedom everywhere.