John F. Kennedy: Berlin Crisis Primary Source eText

Primary Source

U.S. president John F. Kennedy wipes his brow before speaking to the nation about the Berlin Crisis on July 25, 1961. Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation. U.S. president John F. Kennedy wipes his brow before speaking to the nation about the Berlin Crisis on July 25, 1961. Published by Gale Cengage Corbis Corporation
U.S. president John F. Kennedy. Reproduced by permission of the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library. U.S. president John F. Kennedy. Published by Gale Cengage John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library

Excerpt from "Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Berlin Crisis, July 25, 1961"

Published in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1961

"It would be a mistake for others to look upon Berlin, because of its location, as a tempting target. The United States is there; the United Kingdom and France are there; the pledge of NATO is there—and the people of Berlin are there. It is as secure, in that sense, as the rest of us—for we cannot separate its safety from our own."

On November 27, 1958, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971), irritated that a German peace treaty had yet to be agreed on, threw Berlin into another crisis when he sent a letter to Western powers. The letter gave them six months to make substantial progress on a German peace treaty. If the Western powers did not accomplish this, Khrushchev would make a separate treaty with East Germany on May 27, 1959. In this treaty, all transportation routes into West Berlin would be turned over to East German control. The East Germans would then presumably do all they could to force out the Western powers and make West Berlin a part of East Germany. Khrushchev also demanded withdrawal of Western troops from Berlin.

The Soviets and East German leader Walter Ulbricht (1893–1973) were pleased with Khrushchev's tough stand. The peace treaty they sought would permanently divide Germany and recognize both East and West Germany as independent nations. East Germany would provide the communist buffer between the West and the Soviet Union. The United States instead wanted Germany reunited into one country.

U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61) and the Western allies rejected Khrushchev's demands and collectively held their breath. The Western allies would not pull out of Berlin, nor could they come to terms on a peace treaty to the liking of the Soviets. They believed Khrushchev would not actually go to war—which could risk turning into a nuclear war—over Berlin. They guessed right. Khrushchev backed down from his six-month ultimatum. May 27, 1959, passed without incident.

John F. Kennedy (1919–1963; served 1961–63) was elected U.S. president in November 1960 and took office on January 20, 1961. During the previous year-and-a-half, tough negotiations over Berlin had continued. The increasingly bold Ulbricht demanded economic assistance from the Soviets as thousands of East German workers and professionals continued to leave for West Germany. His excessive demands strained the Soviet Union's economy. He also relentlessly implored Khrushchev to halt the population drain by taking over West Berlin. In this atmosphere, the new U.S. president met with Khrushchev in June 1961 in Vienna, Austria.

In Vienna, both Khrushchev and Kennedy held a tight line—neither budged on their stands on Germany and Berlin. The young Kennedy was clearly taken aback by Khrushchev's behavior. The Soviet leader talked too loudly, spoke rudely, and generally created quite an uproar. Kennedy had been warned but never expected the level of intimidation coming from Khrushchev. Unwavering but shaken, Kennedy returned to the United States. He addressed the American people over radio and television on July 25, 1961, concerning his talks about Berlin with Khrushchev.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Berlin Crisis, July 25, 1961":

  • West Berlin had become a symbol or "outpost" of the free world within a communist-dominated area. Western powers had drawn the line to stop the spread of communism at Berlin in 1948 with the Berlin airlift. They would not leave West Berlin.
  • Both the United States and the Soviet Union possessed stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Should a dispute ever push the powers to war, the Soviets could destroy West Germany, England, and France in a matter of minutes. Soviet missiles could reach the United States just as U.S. missiles were reaching the Soviet Union.
  • Khrushchev was under intense pressure from Soviet leaders at home and East German leader Ulbricht to rid Berlin of Westerners and to halt the exodus of East Germans through Berlin to the West.

Excerpt from "Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Berlin Crisis, July 25, 1961"

Good evening:

Seven weeks ago tonight I returned from Europe to report on my meeting with Premier [Nikita] Khrushchev and the others. His grim warnings about the future of the world … [and] Berlin, his subsequent speeches and threats which he and his agents have launched, and the increase in the Soviet military budget that he has announced, have all prompted a series of decisions by the Administration and a series of consultations with the members of the NATO organization.…

The immediate threat to free men is in West Berlin. But that isolated outpost is not an isolated problem. The threat is worldwide. Our effort must be equally wide and strong.… We face a challenge in Berlin, but there is also a challenge in southeast Asia, where the borders are less guarded, the enemy harder to find, and the dangers of communism less apparent to those who have so little. We face a challenge … indeed wherever else the freedom of human beings is at stake.

Let me remind you that the fortunes of war and diplomacy left the free people of West Berlin, in 1945, 110 miles behind the Iron Curtain.…

Thus, our presence in West Berlin, and our access thereto, cannot be ended by any act of the Soviet government. The NATO shield was long ago extended to cover West Berlin—and we have given our word that an attack upon that city will be regarded as an attack upon us all.

For West Berlin—lying exposed 110 miles inside East Germany, surrounded by Soviet troops and close to Soviet supply lines, has many roles. It is more than a showcase of liberty, a symbol, an island of freedom in a Communist sea. It is even more than a link with the Free World, a beacon of hope behind the Iron Curtain, an escape hatch for refugees.

West Berlin is all of that. But above all it has now become—as never before—the great testing place where our solemn commitments stretching back over the years since 1945, and Soviet ambitions now meet in basic confrontation.

It would be a mistake for others to look upon Berlin, because of its location, as a tempting target. The United States is there; the United Kingdom and France are there; the pledge of NATO is there—and the people of Berlin are there. It is as secure, in that sense, as the rest of us—for we cannot separate its safety from our own.…

We do not want to fight—but we have fought before.…

So long as the Communists insist that they are preparing to end by themselves unilaterally our rights in West Berlin and our commitments to its people, we must be prepared to defend those rights and those commitments.…

The new preparations that we shall make to defend the peace are part of the long-term build-up in our strength which has been underway since January.…

We have another sober responsibility. To recognize the possibilities of nuclear war in the missile age, without our citizens knowing what they should do and where they should go if bombs begin to fall, would be a failure of responsibility. In May, I pledged a new start on Civil Defense. Last week, I assigned, on the recommendation of the Civil Defense Director [Frank Ellis], basic responsibility for this program to the Secretary of Defense [Robert S. McNamara], to make certain it is administered and coordinated … at the highest civilian level. Tomorrow, I am requesting of the Congress new funds for the following immediate objectives: to identify and mark space in existing structures—public and private—that could be used for fall-out shelters in case of attack; to stock those shelters with food, water, first-aid kits and other minimum essentials for survival; to increase their capacity; to improve our air-raid warning and fall-out detection systems, including a new household warning system which is now under development; and to take other measures that will be effective at an early date to save millions of lives if needed.

In the event of an attack, the lives of those families which are not hit in a nuclear blast and fire can still be saved—if they can be warned to take shelter and if that shelter is available. We owe that kind of insurance to our families—and to our country. In contrast to our friends in Europe, the need for this kind of protection is new to our shores. But the time to start is now. In the coming months, I hope to let every citizen know what steps he can take without delay to protect his family in case of attack.…

We recognize the Soviet Union's historical concern about their security in Central and Eastern Europe, after a series of ravaging invasions, and we believe arrangements can be worked out which will help to meet those concerns, and make it possible for both security and freedom to exist in this troubled area.…

The world is not deceived by the Communist attempt to label Berlin as a hot-bed of war. There is peace in Berlin today. The source of world trouble and tension is Moscow, not Berlin. And if war begins, it will have begun in Moscow and not Berlin.…

And the challenge is not to us alone. It is a challenge to every nation which asserts its sovereignty under a system of liberty. It is a challenge to all those who want a world of free choice. It is a special challenge to the Atlantic Community—the heartland of human freedom.…

The solemn voice each of us gave to West Berlin in time of peace will not be broken in time of danger. If we do not meet our commitments to Berlin, where will we later stand? If we are not true to our word there, all that we have achieved in collective security, which relies on these words, will mean nothing. And if there is one path above all others to war, it is the path of weakness and disunity.

Today, the endangered frontier of freedom runs through divided Berlin. We want it to remain a frontier of peace. This is the hope of every citizen of the Atlantic Community; every citizen of Eastern Europe; and, I am confident, every citizen of the Soviet Union. For I cannot believe that the Russian people—who bravely suffered enormous losses in the Second World War—would now wish to see the peace upset once more in Germany. The Soviet government alone can convert Berlin's frontier of peace into a pretext for war.…

I would like to close with a personal word.…

Now, in the thermonuclear age, any mis-judgment on either side about the intentions of the other could rain more devastation in several hours than has been wrought in all the wars of human history.…

I know that sometimes we get impatient, we wish for some immediate action that would end our perils. But I must tell you that there is no quick and easy solution. The Communists control over a billion people, and they recognize that if we should falter, their success would be imminent.

Thank you and good night.

We must look to long days ahead, which if we are courageous and persevering can bring us what we all desire.

What happened next …

Khrushchev, who was vacationing at a Black Sea resort called Pitsunda, was outraged at Kennedy's speech. He called Kennedy's disarmament advisor, John Jay McCloy (1895–1989), who was in Moscow for talks, to come immediately to Pitsunda. Khrushchev growled that Kennedy's speech was practically a declaration of war. He threateningly added that if war was what Kennedy wanted, it is what he would get, even though it would most likely be a nuclear war. On August 4, 1961, Khrushchev met with communist leaders and expressed his opinions on Kennedy's words (see next excerpt).

Did you know …

  • By the mid- to late 1950s, Khrushchev had decided the Soviet Union could not keep pace with the U.S. military buildup. Instead, he focused on key military areas for strengthening. He then used an approach called "bluster and intimidation" to frighten the United States into thinking the Soviets were militarily much more powerful than they were. This approach explained much of his behavior during his meeting with the young American president. The U.S. officials did not know this was a calculated approach. Instead, they thought he was merely showing his determination and assertive personality to meet the United States head on in war.
  • Khrushchev had no intention of starting a war over Berlin. In fact, Ulbricht made him very nervous with his aggressive suggestions.
  • Soon after Kennedy's speech, which emphasized civil defense, yellow and black nuclear shelter signs appeared in cities throughout the United States. Individual U.S. citizens with the desire and monetary means built bomb shelters in their backyards in preparation for nuclear war.
  • The stream of refugees from East Germany to the West continued until construction of the Berlin Wall began on August 13, 1961.

Consider the following …

  • What did President Kennedy say West Berlin was a symbol of? Why did he say this?
  • Since West Berlin geographically seemed to be easy prey for a communist takeover, why do you think this did not happen?
  • At your local public library, check your town's old newspapers for July 26 through August 1961 for local reaction to Kennedy's speech and civil defense plans.

For More Information


Gelb, Norman. The Berlin Wall: Kennedy, Khrushchev and a Showdown in the Heart of Europe. New York: Times Books, 1986.

Grant, R. G. The Berlin Wall. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1999.

Parrish, Thomas. Berlin in the Balance, 1945–1949: The Blockade, the Airlift, the First Major Battle of the Cold War. Reading, MA: Perseus Publishing, 1998.

Paterson, Thomas G., ed. Kennedy's Quest For Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961–1963. New York: Random House, 1995.

Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1961. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1961.

Web Site

John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library. (accessed on September 17, 2003).