JFK’s Berliner speech remains timeless

* Originally published in the Gadsden Times on November 3, 2003.

Today marks the 40th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, and while America remembers its heartbreak, historians will reflect upon his many virtues and vices.
Some will search for Kennedy among his highs: successfully challenging mankind to step upon the moon and the nuclear Soviet to step away from Cuba. Others will look amid his lows: flagrant infidelity and a shocking death. However, my foremost memory of Kennedy doesn’t rest upon rockets or missiles, assassinations or women, but upon what leaders are most often remembered for – words.
“Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was `civis Romanus sum,”‘ Kennedy said to a crowd of thousands in West Berlin, where the Iron Curtain descended in the form of its infamous wall. “Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is `Ich bin ein Berliner.”‘
Presidents are long remembered for things they say, rather than things they do, and that phrase became instant history. A hundred years from now, Kennedy’s administration may be summarized within a single chapter of a high school history book. That chapter will probably be about the Cold War, and those four words will most likely headline his section.

Kennedy, who was shot only six-months later, went on to say: “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us. É You live in a defended island of freedom, but your life is part of the main. É 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.'”
Inspiration and hope

His speech gave hope to the besieged residents of West Berlin, inspiration to the free world and those wishing to join it, and placed the Soviets on notice: the United States wasn’t about to cower. That determination enabled another American president, 25 years later, to utter four more words in West Berlin. But that’s another story.

One cannot properly judge Kennedy without framing his administration within these circumstances, within the deadly Soviet-American conflict. One must remember that nuclear confrontation in Europe was a distinct possibility in 1963. Our victory in the Cold War was uncertain, and the eventual peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union was laughably unimaginable. So when Kennedy proclaimed that he proudly shared citizenship with the Berliners – those free and caged – his words became a clarion call, a slogan that defined the struggle between capitalism and communism, between those who are free and those who would control, between East and West Berlin, and in all reality, between good and evil.

The significance of the Berliner speech is revealed in its timelessness. The foundation of its anchoring phrase, and therefore its definition, isn’t limited to Berlin, or even to the Cold War. It belongs to all cities suffering under authoritarian rule, and to all citizens who are denied liberty. Even today, Berliners walk the streets of Baghdad, Pyongyang, and Harare. They walk the streets of Havana, Tehran and Beijing. And as long as they do, we Americans, like the Cold Warriors before us, must forever walk beside them. Wir werden Berliner immer sein. We shall always be Berliners.