Excerpt from "Remarks in the Rudolph Wild Platz, Berlin, June 26, 1963"
Originally published in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1963
"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 [I am a Berliner].'"
On August 12, 1961, twenty-five hundred East Germans crossed over into West Berlin to work and live under freedom and democracy. Although through the 1950s approximately three million East Germans had crossed into West Berlin with most proceeding to West Germany, that number for one day was unusually high. After U.S. president John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) gave a speech regarding Berlin on July 25 and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) responded on August 4 (see first and second excerpts in this chapter), it was clear to many East Germans that the days of relatively unrestricted crossover through Berlin might well be coming to an end.
With German peace treaty negotiations stalemated, Walter Ulbricht (1893–1973), leader of East Germany, was screaming for Khrushchev to stop the exodus. Ulbricht's answer to the heavy crossover was a Soviet military action to take over West Berlin and declare it part of East Germany. Khrushchev, despite his own boisterous talk, knew Ulbricht's solution was too aggressive and was likely to risk war—nuclear war—with the West. Khrushchev decided to put in place an old plan—one developed years earlier. He would construct a wall running along the sector lines of the Soviet-occupied East Berlin and the West Berlin sectors occupied by the United States, Britain, and France. He would seal off the Western sectors from East Berlin, thereby halting the crossing of refugees from East Berlin into West Berlin.
As noted on the History Today Web site, Daniel Schorr, former Eastern European bureau correspondent for CBS news, recalled, "I had gone to Berlin [in the summer of 1961] because it was clear something was happening there. On August 12, 2,500 people crossed over [from East to West]. The East Germans couldn't let this [stream of refugees] go on. At 2:30 in the morning, I got a call from my cameraman. He said something very strange was going on at the sector border and that I should come down, so—grumbling—I got out of bed and went. Under floodlights and guarded by soldiers, engineering crews were using jackhammers to sink posts in the ground. Between these posts they were unrolling sheets of barbed wire. By 7 A.M., West Berliners were there, hooting and jeering."
By morning, the border between East and West was closed. Berliners with family members living in various sectors of the city, who until this moment had enjoyed free movement through all sectors, found themselves split apart. Commuter trains carrying East Berliners to their jobs in the West were halted at the crossing and could not proceed.
Meanwhile that same morning across the Atlantic Ocean, President Kennedy was setting out from Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, with his family for a day of sailing on their yacht, the Marlin. According to Time
Chester Clifton (1913–1991), who was swimming offshore. Clifton was the president's military aide. Clifton signaled the Marlin to shore and informed Kennedy of what had transpired in Berlin the previous night. Kennedy was astounded. Out of at least forty contingency plans, building a wall through Berlin had never been discussed. Sidey further reported that Kennedy, back in the Oval Office, told Clifton that the Wall would stay until the Soviets tired of it. Kennedy said, "We could have sent tanks over and knocked the Wall down. What then? They build another one back a hundred yards? We knock that down, then we go to war." Kennedy knew a "wall" was better than a "war." As long as the Soviets and East Germans left West Berlin alone, Kennedy would not act militarily.
Khrushchev's risky guess had paid off. There would be no war as long as West Berlin was not threatened. Khrushchev had successfully stopped the flow of refugees out of East Berlin, as Ulbricht demanded. Many historians believe Khrushchev had a second reason for the wall—to seal Ulbricht in so that he would not take matters into his own hands and start a war.
Very limited access was granted to West Berliners to occasionally go into East Berlin at only a few specific crossing points. Other Westerners, including U.S. citizens, could only cross into East Berlin at the Friedrichstrasse Crossing, commonly called Checkpoint Charlie. Many thought of Checkpoint Charlie as where the communist East came face to face with the democratic West.
It was to Checkpoint Charlie that President Kennedy came on June 26, 1963, when he visited West Berlin. Asking aides to remain back, Kennedy alone climbed up a viewing stand and peered into the gray of East Berlin. Shortly thereafter, he delivered one of the most memorable speeches of his presidency, a presidency filled with rousing, eloquent speeches. Having set aside the original speech, he spoke from the heart to the 250,000 gathered West Berliners. If anyone did not understand the differences between a free world and a communist world, Kennedy called out repeatedly, "Let them come to Berlin." He ended dramatically with "Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner)."
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Remarks in the Rudolph Wild Platz, Berlin, June 26, 1963":
- By the time Kennedy visited Berlin, the wall had been in place one year and ten months. Many East Germans had lost their lives trying to escape over, under, and through the wall.
- The wall was an ugly testament to the divisions brought about during the Cold War. Because the wall showed that the only way to keep people under a communist system was to force them to stay, the wall was a propaganda symbol for the West.
- By June 1963, Kennedy had shown his strength as a leader and was already loved by Europeans despite his relative youth.
Excerpt from "Remarks in the Rudolph Wild Platz, Berlin, June 26, 1963"
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.
Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people
What is true of this city is true of Germany—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. In 18 years of peace and good faith, this generation of Germans has earned the right to be free, including the right to unite their families and their nation in lasting peace, with good will to all people. You live in a defended island of freedom, but your life is part of the main. So let me ask you, as I close, to lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today, to the hopes of tomorrow, beyond the freedom merely of this city of Berlin, or your country of Germany, to the advance of freedom everywhere, beyond the wall to the day of peace with justice, beyond yourselves and ourselves to all mankind.
Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free. When all are free, then we can look forward to that day when this city will be joined as one and this country and this great Continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe. When that day finally comes, as it will, the people of West Berlin can take sober satisfaction in the fact that they were in the front lines for almost two decades.
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 [I am a Berliner]."
What happened next …
The wall remained for twenty-eight years. West Berlin's economy prospered while East Berlin's languished.
On October 7, 1989, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–) visited East Germany to promote reform in East Germany. Two days later, amid fireworks and celebration, the gates opened and the wall began coming down.
Did you know …
- The fence sealing off West Berlin's perimeter was 103 miles (166 kilometers) long. The wall that ran through the city was 28.5 miles (46 kilometers) long. The barbed wire fence in the city portion was replaced by a concrete wall topped by a round concrete pipe that was impossible to grasp by someone trying to climb over the wall.
- Around the wall was a no-man's land of guard towers, land mines, a guard patrol track, structures to destroy tires, and plenty of coiled barbed wire.
- On October 27, 1961, a few months after the wall went up, a dispute over passport procedures at Checkpoint Charlie escalated way beyond its importance. Soviet tanks moved up and directly faced U.S. tanks. Diplomatic efforts prevented shots from being fired. Some historians believe this confrontation at Checkpoint Charlie came as close as any during the Cold War to igniting a hot war.
Consider the following …
- Explain what the wall, called the "Wall of Shame" in West Berlin, came to symbolize.
- Why did Kennedy not use military force to immediately bring the wall down?
- Imagine and tell what it must have been like to be a member of a family split apart by the wall. Remember the wall remained in place for twenty-eight years and there was no Internet.
For More Information
Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2003.
Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1963.
Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964.
Tusa, Ann. The Last Division: A History of Berlin, 1945–1989. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997.
Wyden, Peter. Wall: The Inside Story of Divided Berlin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Rempel, Gerhard. "The Berlin Wall." History Today. (accessed on September 17, 2003).
Sidey, Hugh. "President Kennedy at the Construction." Time.com: The Berlin Wall: Ten Years After. http://www.time.com/time/daily/special/berlin/sidey.html (accessed on September 17, 2003).