On June 26, 1963, 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy gave a strong speech to a crowd of over 400,000 citizens of West Berlin and countless others listening across the wall in East Berlin. The impact of this address would help shape the direction of the Cold War and future events to this day.
West Berlin was known as an "island of capitalism" in the communist German Democratic Republic, otherwise known as East Germany. West Berlin was the result of a clash of Western and Eastern influence in post-World War II Berlin. Two years earlier, the Berlin Wall divided the city effectively turning both halves of Berlin into a prison. German newspapers had allegedly reported that President Kennedy disliked Germany due to his experiences as a veteran of the world war only two decades earlier. Officials in East Germany made efforts to prevent its citizens from hearing Kennedy's full speech and catching a glimpse of Western life. The famous Brandenburg Gate was covered with drapes to prevent locals from seeing West Berlin.
Curiosity and hype ultimately brought hundreds of thousands to the streets and to the City Hall, Schöeneberg Rathaus, where the crowd gave the president a several-minute-long standing ovation. President Kennedy did not hold back as his booming address helped boost the morale of Berlin and defiantly mocked the communist system as a failure of ideology, government, and humanity. He depicted Berlin as a symbol of freedom in an area of the world that was mired in tyranny. He empathized and showed his admiration for the people of Berlin: "Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is 'Ich bin ein Berliner.'" In saying this he endeared himself not only to the people of West Berlin, but also those of East Berlin. He drove home the idea that Berlin must be a united Berlin, brought together by the hope of freedom.
Many argue that this speech swung the tide of the Cold War in the president's favor, and within two months Kennedy was able to help successfully negotiate the first test ban treaty of nuclear weapons with the Soviet Union. Fifty years later, nuclear disarmament between Washington D.C. and Moscow continues to be a hot topic. When President Barack Obama gave his own "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in Berlin last week, he spoke of the need for the United States and Russia to continue their ongoing efforts to disarm and not to become "complacent" during peacetime. It is hard to claim that Obama had the Kennedy-style connection with the people when he only drew 4,500 spectators and sweated as his teleprompter failed, forcing him to stick to his paper speech. Still, one can only wonder what this new Berlin speech might lead to after the effects of the one that preceded it five decades earlier.