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Published:June 26th, 2013 08:20 EST

On the 50th Anniversary of JFK`s 'Ich bin ein Berliner' Speech, What`s Its Real Historical Significance?

By John G. Kays

One can`t hope to fathom the significance of President John F. Kennedy`s  `Ich bin ein Berliner` speech, delivered on June 26, 1963  at the Schoneberg Rathaus square in West Berlin, without first studying the circumstances associated with the construction of the Berlin Wall, which began in earnest on November 20, 1961. One might be tempted to say, this began a series of events between the Soviet Union (with Nikita Khrushchev as their leader)and the US that drove the Cold War to its breaking point, born out by The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

Only after arduous consideration of events, including what had occurred in Berlin in the aftermath of WWII, will you come to the startling realization, once the President arrived in Germany in late June of 1963, that West Berlin was an island of democracy at a time when that commodity was in peril, threatened by an aggressive Soviet Bloc. Kennedy visited the wall and Checkpoint Charlie with mayor Willy Brandt; Time has a nice photographic slideshow, documenting the President`s Berlin trip. 

Seeing the President contemplating the barbed wire fence (the wall changed shape a great deal between 1961 and 1989) from the free side, helps you to better understand his speech, which is light and humorous on the surface, but upon further examination, is an expression of the gains made by the President as he had faced off with the Soviets, checking a near imminent WWIII nuclear annihilation. West Berlin symbolized a beacon of freedom and democracy; later, Vietnam would takes its place in the Domino Theory atmosphere, that acted as a balmy plague on the peak of the Cold War years.  

Yet in Kennedy`s time, Berlin was his Saigon; or to put it another way, Saigon became LBJ`s Berlin (if you need to get more confused)!  To understand this, you may want to review JFK`s inaugural address, when he said we must  `pay any price, bear any burden` to assure freedom around the globe. A half million Berliners came to see Kennedy speak that day, which was delivered a half century ago today; they had to believe he was a Berliner too, he was their protector. 

 A New York Times piece (Ich Bin Ein Berliner, by Ted Widmer) published today, points out that JFK may have been subtly referring to the recent heating up of the Civil Rights movement in the South (here in our country), and the need for African Americans to achieve gains, might be linked to the plight of Berliners. That is, Martin Luther King had written in his famous Letter from Birmingham, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," which in measure mirrors Kennedy`s words spoken in Berlin: "freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free."

"Let them come to Berlin" essentially means free people should see for themselves, the obstacle of the Berlin Wall was real physical threat; the demarcation line between East and West was tangible and symbolic simultaneously! This profound dialectic is a little hard to wrap your head around in this day and age; we must remember, The Cold War has been over with now for 24 years (supposedly ended in 1989). To get yourself back into a historically correct ambience and global geo-political mind set, you might take a look at a black and white film (1965), starring Richard Burton, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.

Don`t just assume everyone is right in assessing Kennedy`s speech; study the context and history for yourself, and see whether you can come up with what you think the meaning is. I sense that JFK was attempting to draw down the Cold War, a prelude to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, that would come only two months later. Defrosting The Cold War too quickly may have been one reason why he was shot in Dallas five months later?