Written by Todd DePastino

President John F. Kennedy during his Ich Bin Ein Berliner speech

It was hardly a speech. The 674 spoken words were more like “remarks.”

But what remarks they were.

On June 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy stood before a crowd of 120,000 West Berliners on Rudolph Wilde Platz and, in the German language, declared himself citizen of that partitioned city. “Ich bin ein Berliner,” he said. And he said it twice.

It was JFK’s most provocative anti-Communist rhetoric since his Inaugural Address two-and-a-half years earlier. Then, he had pledged to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Since then, he had moderated his tone. Just sixteen days earlier, at American University, Kennedy had staked out common ground with the Soviets, called for “genuine peace,” and condemned the arms race that seemed to be guiding the rival superpowers to World War III.

Kennedy had arrived in Berlin three days earlier intending to amplify his message of conciliation and renew his call for a nuclear test ban treaty.

Speechwriters prepared remarks in line with this peace-seeking approach.

But something happened when Kennedy reached Berlin. The adulation the President received as he toured the city in an open car was beyond anything he’d ever experienced. It was as if the city’s entire population had poured out on to the streets to catch a glimpse of the Leader of the Free World. The President could sense the desperation of a crowd that stood as a tiny island of freedom behind the Iron Curtain.

Then, Kennedy got out of the convertible and climbed a platform to take a look at the Berlin Wall, a 100-mile cordon of 12-foot high concrete with guard towers, trenches, and mine fields.

From there, he went to Checkpoint Charlie at Friedrichstrasse, one of two Allied crossing points into East Germany. Kennedy stood at the platform in silence, looking across to the Communist side. And they looked back at him. Universal Newsreels speculated that someone over there had snuck a furtive wave to the President.

He returned to the limousine and sat thoughtfully. In retrospect, his aides understood that Kennedy was already re-writing his speech.

By the time he reached Rudolph Wilde Platz, the President had some notecards with new words on them and a re-charged tone that vibrated with what he had experienced in West Berlin.

Kennedy climbed the platform and looked out over the crowd. After thanking his hosts, the old Harvard History major showed off some Ivy League erudition:

Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was “civis Romanus sum.” Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

In Kennedy’s left hand were the notecards. Kennedy had scribbled the Latin for “I am a Roman citizen.” He’d also written the phonetic spelling of the city so as to best match the German pronunciation: “Bearleener.”

John F. Kennedy's phonetic transcription for Ich bin ein Berliner

John F. Kennedy’s phonetic transcription of the German and Latin phrases in the Ich bin ein Berliner speech

The speech was nothing like the one prepared by his speechwriters. No conciliation. No talk of peace. Instead, Kennedy threw down gauntlet upon gauntlet, challenging those who wished for accommodation with the Soviet East.

“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.”

Kennedy’s flourishes in German were accompanied by audible jabbing of his index finger on the podium.

Kennedy’s speech was a morale booster for vulnerable West Berliners encircled by East Germany. The phrase “Ich bin ein Berliner” became a powerful symbol of solidarity with those yearning for freedom.

West Germans went wild over the speech. But Kennedy’s advisors and aides weren’t so keen on it. The President, who had been working to woo the Soviets into nuclear test ban negotiations, had just alienated the Communist Bloc. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev declared Kennedy a war monger. In 674 words, Kennedy had snatched back all the good will offer in his  “Peace Speech” at American University.

“Oh, Christ,” JFK said after the speech, realizing he’d gotten carried away with his rhetoric.

The rest of the President’s Germany tour involved what we now call “damage control.”

Later in the day of June 26, at the Free University of Berlin, John F. Kennedy returned to his scripted text:

When the possibilities of reconciliation appear, we in the West will make it clear that we are not hostile to any people or system providing they choose their own destiny without interfering with the free choice of others. There will be wounds to heal and suspicions to be eased on both sides. . . . Fair and effective agreements to end the arms race must be reached. . . . I do believe in the necessity of great powers working together to preserve the human race, or otherwise we can be destroyed.

But that rousing rhetoric unleashed at Rudolph Wilde Platz could not be erased. Television footage of the Ich Bin Ein Berliner speech beamed across the world and inspired millions who saw themselves as struggling toward their own versions of freedom.

Kennedy had struck a chord.

In the end, JFK was able to get those nuclear test ban talks back on track, and on August 5, 1963, negotiators initialed the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water. It was a key first step away from the brink of nuclear war.

A note about jelly doughnuts: I recall learning that because of Kennedy’ Boston accent and his inclusion of the indefinite article “ein” before “Berliner,” JFK’s flourish of “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” actually translated as, “I am a jelly doughnut.” Wikipedia has a good explanation of this supposed error and its origin as an urban legend.