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When Kennedy went to Berlin in June 1963, he gave one of the greatest addresses of his presidency, celebrating the courage of West Berliners. (pp. 680-681)


Book Excerpt
Audio Clip 13, pp. 680-681

Later that month the president flew out of Andrews Air Force Base for what would prove the most memorable trip of his presidency, and in some ways the most emotionally powerful journey of his life. It was in Europe that young Jack Kennedy had had his intellectual awakening and taken up the great themes of his public life. It was among European women that he had found two great loves in Inga Arvad and Gunilla Von Post, women whose subtlety and sophistication he found lacking in their American counterparts. It was in Berlin that he feared the great confrontation with the Soviet Union still might come.

Whatever difficulties Kennedy was having in Washington, among Europeans he found generous new constituents. He had transcended the common European stereotype of Americans as boorish provincials stomping across their heritage. He was returning to their continent bearing what are truly the greatest gifts in the world, hope and promise.

As his limousine moved slowly along the great boulevards of Berlin, most of the residents had turned out to greet the American president, shouting his name, crying with happiness, cheering until they grew so hoarse that the name became little more than a whisper, pressing forward, seeking a touch, a glimpse, a wave, some souvenir of this great moment. There had not been such an emotional outpouring in this great city since Hitler had driven through the same streets and been greeted with cheers and Nazi salutes. Kennedy had been in Berlin in 1945 when the city was reduced to nothing but mounds of rubble and it was as if the earth had been salted and nothing would ever rise here again. But as he drove along, he could see behind the crowds a great modern city that had at least a modicum of the Úlan of the old Berlin of the 1920s.

Kennedy went to the wall and contemplated this divided people. The wall had solved a problem, both for Khrushchev and for him, and it may have saved the lives of the very people who shouted that it should be torn down. It was not Kennedy, the cold war strategist, looking out toward East Berlin today, but a man of the spirit, and no man of the spirit could look at this wall without anger and dismay. When he talked to Sorenson about his speech, he told the speechwriter: "I need a phrase that will reflect my union with Berlin. What would be a good word for it? I really am a Berliner. Get me a translation. How do I say, 'I am a Berliner?"

The speech that Kennedy gave that day in Rudolph Wilde Platz was an exhortation to liberty. "Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was civis Romanus sum," he told the massive crowd below. "Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is Ich bin ein Berliner." The phrase resounded through the crowd with massive emotional resonance. These same people who a generation before had slouched onto the world stage as a force of evil now stood as heralds of liberty.

"There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future," he said as he looked out on the hundreds of thousands before him crowding the plaza. "Let them come to Berlin!" As he spoke, the crowd ceased to be disparate individuals but was one immense mass, thinking the same thoughts, beating with one heart, and ready to move with one great strike. Most orators would have felt an awesome sense of their own power, running their tongues around each syllable, playing with such a great throng, Kennedy, however, hurried on with his speech, the words bumping into each other. This day, he was not the orator he might have been largely because he was not comfortable with arousing such emotions in his audience. As he spoke, he feared, as he told Ormsby-Gore later, that "if he had said, 'And at this moment I call upon you all to cross into East Germany and pull down that wall,' they'd all have gone, [that] the German people as such at this moment in history were not totally to be relied upon, and that this rather sheeplike instinct of theirs could be very frightening under certain circumstances and under the wrong leader still." Kennedy feared not only the German masses but mass man anywhere, and where demagogic politicians might lead him.