|JFK and the international importance of “Ich bin ein Berliner”
Hard times create strong men, where in terms of hard times this man has hardly been able to choose a “worse” period to be president. From the very first day of his presidency, John F. Kennedy faced many obstacles both in the field of American domestic policy and in the arena of foreign policy. Although in practice, he was only in charge of the White House for two and a half years, Kennedy will be remembered for many political actions that highlighted his leadership of America during the “hottest” period of the Cold War. In my opinion, this period during which Kennedy was president represents the climax and the most direct culmination of all the hostilities of the Cold War. From his wide political repertoire, I chose one of his speeches which left its mark on the broad geopolitical arena. This speech was delivered in the right place, at the right time, and by the right person, so President Kennedy's speech on June 26, 1963 is ipso facto one of the most important speeches in American and world history.
The picture of the world at that time
The United States emerged from World War II as a superpower, ready to take on the role of the world's leading state. Also, the Soviet Union by controlling many states, including the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, was considered a strong counterpart to the United States. With the arrival of Harry Truman as president, a political turn began in relations with the Soviet Union where Truman, first with his doctrine and then with the Marshall Plan, sought to stop the spread of communism in Europe (Hastedt, 2004, p. 1). At first, he gave financial support to Turkey and Greece, where this financial support was later expanded with the European Recovery Program. This was also compounded by the formation of NATO as a system of collective defense (Guertner, 1992, p. 56). A few years later, the Warsaw Pact was formed as a direct reaction to the NATO pact. This was preceded by the first Cold War crisis, the Berlin Blockade. As both Germany and Berlin were divided into occupied territories, the Soviets, who controlled part of Berlin, began blocking Western countries from many vital things, especially railroad access to the Berlin side they controlled. The real purpose of this action can be seen in the aspect of the desire of the Soviets to take the whole city under their control, reducing to some extent the influence and power of the Western countries. In response, the Western Allies formed the “Berlin Airlift” to supply the residents of the Western sectors (Haus, Meyer-Dinkgräfe, 2018, p. 14). This move was proven to be appropriate and accurate. This was a great failure in the hands of Stalin, which also meant the death of his goal of a united Germany within the Soviet orbit (Miller, 1998, p. 103). Western and Soviet interests also clashed in the Korean War, where after North Korea invaded South Korea, Truman ordered his troops to help South Korea. The peace treaty was signed in 1953 (The Korean War Armistice Agreement, 1953).
The last major crisis before Kennedy's appearance is the Suez Crisis, which represents the war between Iraq and a coalition of states consisting of Israel, France, and Great Britain. Manifestly, the goal was to stop Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser from nationalizing the Suez Canal, where the Egyptian leader inspired his country for this operation by saying: “We shall eliminate the past by regaining our right to the Suez Canal” (Smith, 2008, p. 1). It is clear what geopolitical and economic goals France and Britain had, while Israel was more focused on territorial aspirations. In fact, the Israeli invasion was part of the agreement with which France and the UK sought a pretext to start the war (Lahav, 2015, p. 1300). For Britain and France, this war proved to be a quintessential debacle, as Israel and Egypt achieved some of their concrete goals.
JFK steps in
John F. Kennedy became president at a delicate moment, when the Cold War had reached another level of the then modus vivendi version, where this was expressed in the arms race, the space race, the influence race, and so on. Kennedy in politics followed in the footsteps of his father, Joseph P. Kennedy who, among other things, was also the US ambassador to Great Britain at the beginning of World War II. Despite his socio-political presence, his merits during the time he was part of the U.S. Navy Reserve, and also his book “Profiles in Courage” with which he won several awards, especially the Pulitzer Prize (White, 2013, p. 23), many doubted Kennedy's chances of winning the 1960 presidential election, because knowing that Kennedy was a Catholic, we had the fact that until that year no Catholic president had been elected president. But during the campaign, Kennedy unleashed his captivating and oratorical talent, which was best seen in televised debates which gave a decisive impetus to Kennedy's election as president. The importance of a new media, the appearance of television, was best seen here.
Immediately after being elected president he had to face difficult decisions. One of them was the Bay of Pigs invasion, which was a pre-planned invasion by the US who was the initiator and financier of this project through which Cuban refugees were recruited with the sole purpose of overthrowing Fidel Castro's government in 1961. This was just a prelude to a much bigger crisis and that was the Cuban Missile Crisis. This conflict was preceded by the deployment of US medium-range missiles in Turkey. Knowing that the Soviet Union was helping Cuba in every way, in 1962 an American spy plane spotted a ballistic missile at a launch site in Cuba. So in response to the missiles in Turkey, the Soviets deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba. Shortly afterward, Kennedy called for the missiles to be removed and ordered a naval blockade of Cuba (Chepesiuk, 1995, p. 9). During this time both the US and the Soviets were in a state of readiness for a third world war, but in the end, it all ended with the withdrawal of missiles by Nikita Khrushchev, the then-leader of the Soviet Union and the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Kennedy and the United States also took steps to remove missiles from Turkey and halted their plan to invade Cuba (Davies, 1996, p. 1113).
Kennedy, in the international arena also supported South Vietnam, whereas Henry Kissinger writes, President Kennedy viewed Vietnam as an important link in the geopolitical position of the United States (Kissinger, 1994, p. 643). Another major challenge faced by JFK was the space race, where America was at a great disadvantage because the Soviets were in a national delirium since in 1957 they launched the first artificial satellite “Sputnik 1” into orbit, while four years later, Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first person to journey into outer space, on which occasion he orbited the Earth three times (Sinibaldi, 2019, p. 25). Seeing this, Kennedy saw the political and economic importance of the space race, in which case he lobbied and pushed Congress to modernize and accelerate America's space industry, where NASA in a short time achieved amazing results (History.com Editors, 2009). For that reason, Kennedy gave his famous speech at Rice Stadium in Houston where with the phrase “We choose to go to the Moon” (Stutzman, 2010, p. 113) he gave maximum support to the Apollo program with the sole purpose of landing man on the moon, that is, overtaking the Soviet Union in this race. This was achieved in 1969 by the Apollo 11 mission where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to step onto the lunar surface, when Armstrong on that occasion said the famous words: “That's one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind” (Ollhoff, 2014, p. 20). Kennedy, even post-mortem, achieved his primary goal in terms of the Space race.
“Ich bin ein Berliner”
As I said before, Berlin was divided into occupation zones, which reached its peak during the Berlin Blockade. Seeing the great emigration and the passage of many citizens of East to West Germany, the East Germans decided to raise the Berlin Wall as a barrier, where in addition to this wall during its construction many buildings were demolished, many families moved and many things changed in the socio-political aspect. Not only were families separated and friendships severed, but more than 50,000 people in the East were also cut off from their jobs (Williams, 2008, p. 15). This mass emigration, where among the most emigrants were distinguished students, intellectuals, professional and highly skilled workers, had taken place since in 1952 the border between East and West Germany was closed and only in Berlin it was still open (McAtackney, McGuire, 2020, p. 112). For this reason, East German leader Walter Ulbricht came up with the idea of forming a barrier, where this barrier over time became a strong wall, a wall which gained the infamous status of a place where people who tried to cross the wall were shot. This wall not only divided Berlin physically but also politically, socially, and culturally. The numbers were so frightening that from 1961 to 1989 only 5,000 people crossed the Berlin Wall (Baofu, 2012, p. 189). Oddly at first, the West and the US were accused of not responding to the issue of erecting the wall, where among them stood out Willy Brandt who through a letter criticized the passivity of the US (Engel, Lawrence, Preston, 2014, p. 241). However, Kennedy's speech itself changed the situation. Thus, on June 26, 1963, in the heart of Berlin, Kennedy gave a speech of support and solidarity with the people of West Germany, where the people had so much hope in the words of the American president that they came in large numbers where according to some information there were about 450,000 people (Daum, 2008, p. 137). He first congratulated the West Germans on their resistance to communist influence and their commitment to democracy, rule of law, freedom, and progress, closing the first part with two famous sentences: Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was “civis Romanus sum.” Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner” (Speech, 1963). “Ich bin ein Berliner” literally means “I am also a citizen of Berlin”, where with this sentence he gave a strong message to the citizens of Berlin that the American president himself is one of them and they are not alone in these difficult circumstances, where these words went straight to the hearts of the citizens of Berlin (Debolt, Baugess, 2012, p. 308). This also caused a stir in the international arena where the Soviets and its satellite states saw that America was interested in protecting and promoting democracy and freedom around the world, especially in Berlin, which was a city of great geopolitical value. Ergo, in the speech, Kennedy underlined the determination of Berliners to choose the right path and have faith in each other. The public received this with a lot of emotion and enthusiasm, whereas the author Ronald J. Granieri expresses, Kennedy was so galvanized that he told Theodore Sorensen, one of his most trusted advisers: “We'll never have another day like this one as long as we live” (Granieri, 2003, p. 150).
According to the speech which is found on the website of the International Relations and Security Network (ISN), we see that Kennedy concluded with the sentence: 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" (ibid.). At this point, the idea of the free person prevailed even more than that of a person who lived under authoritarian and communist rule such as the satellite states of the Soviet Union. In this way, America and its president demonstrated their power which, albeit through a single speech, changed the political course of the Cold War, or as Theodore Otto Windt points out, this speech reinforced Kennedy's image for firmness in dealing with the Soviets (Windt, 1990, p. 72). Some others would define this speech as a real “world-changing speech” (Morgan, 2009, p. 62). This spirit of freedom and this new chapter in the international arena gave hope to many people who were under communist rule where in the following years this was seen in the student protests in Poland and Yugoslavia and especially in the initiation of the process of political and social liberalization in Czechoslovakia, also known as the Prague Spring. This was followed by a relaxation of relations between the two superpowers, where this political situation was defined by the concept of détente, as well as rapprochement, where the Helsinki meeting of 1975 was considered the high point of détente (Bischof, Karner, Ruggenthale, 2010, p. 4). Here we see how a single speech per se represents a turning point in global politics, where no one can imagine how much Kennedy would have achieved in the international arena if the November 22, 1963 assassination had not taken place. If Kennedy had avoided the assassination, perhaps the Berlin Wall would have collapsed even before 1989 and the spirit of democracy and freedom would have spread much faster, but these are now only at a level of prediction because history had chosen a different path.
Vilson Junçaj is an expert in American diplomacy and foreign policy. Currently he is a Master of Science candidate (MSc) at the Faculty of political science, University of Montenegro. In 2020 he graduated as a Specialist of international relations and diplomacy (Spec.sci) as the best student of the generation. During studies he was rewarded with the highest academic decorations. As a scientific researcher in the field of political science he has published texts and research which were presented at regional and international conferences. He is a Konrad Adenauer Stiftung scholar and fluent in 7 world languages.
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