1963: JFK West Berlin Speech

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Many experts on political speechmaking regard John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address as his best turn at the presidential podium. There’s also his challenge to the space race at Rice University in Houston, TX.  But if you’re looking for a sharp, compact, focused appeal to the people, there’s nothing better than JFK’s speech in West Berlin on June 26, 1963.

Kennedy arrived in the divided city two years after the East German government constructed the Berlin Wall, encircling and isolating West Berlin and its population.  The barbed wire and concrete barricade became the symbol of Soviet oppression known as the Iron Curtain, despite claims from East German officials that it was built to keep Western spies in place.  Newsreels quickly filled with images of freedom-seeking Berlin residents risking their lives to cross the frontier amid hailstorms of machine gun bullets.

The Western powers in Europe pushed Kennedy to make a strong response to the Wall, and in the summer of 1963, West Berlin leaders set up a platform on the steps of Rathaus Schöneberg for Kennedy’s appearance.  More than 450,000 people showed up for the JFK speech.

Staffers actually planned for Kennedy to deliver a large portion of the speech in German. Once it became clear JFK would be unable to meet such a herculean task in a short period of time, they limited his Germanic segment to “Ich bin ein Berliner,” and allowed him to only say it twice, near the beginning and at the end of the speech.  Utilizing the classic flourishes like anaphora, epistrophe and cadence, Kennedy delivered the rhetorical goods in dramatic fashion.

The line “Ich bin ein Berliner” gave rise to a ridiculous urban legend that suggests the literal translation of the phrase is “I am a jelly doughnut.”  In reality, the only Germans who referred to the pastry as a “Berliner” lived in the northern and western parts of the country.  While the span of decades reduced the iconic line to parody, JFK’s linguistic show of solidarity with the people of West Berlin resonated with people around the globe on that sunny afternoon in 1963.

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