Other than ask not, they were the most-famous words he ever spoke. They drew the world’s attention to what he considered the hottest spot in the Cold War. Added at the last moment and scribbled in his own hand, they were not, like the oratory in most of his other addresses, chosen by talented speechwriters. And for a man notoriously tongue-tied when it came to foreign languages, the four words weren't even in English.
Ich bin ein Berliner.
These words, delivered on June 26, 1963, against the geopolitical backdrop of the Berlin Wall, endure because of the pairing of the man and the moment. John F. Kennedy’s defiant defense of democracy and self-government stand out as a high point of his presidency.
To appreciate their impact, one must understand the history. After World WarII, the capital of Hitler’s Third Reich was divided, like Germany itself, between the communist East and the democratic West. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev described West Berlin, surrounded on all sides by East Germany, as “a bone in my throat” and vowed to “eradicate this splinter from the heart of Europe.” Kennedy feared that any future European conflict, with the potential for nuclear war, would be sparked by Berlin.
At their summit meeting in Vienna in the spring of 1961, Khrushchev warned Kennedy that he would sign a treaty with East Germany restricting Western access to West Berlin. In response, Kennedy announced a major military buildup. In a television address to the nation on July 25, 1961, he described the embattled city as “the great testing place of Western courage and will” and declared that any attack on West Berlin would be viewed as an attack on the United States.
The speech had its desired effect. Khrushchev backed down from signing the treaty, even as thousands of East Germans continued crossing into West Berlin in search of freedom. In the early morning of August 13, 1961, the East German government, with Soviet support, sought to put this problem to rest, by building a wall of barbed wire across the heart of Berlin.
Tensions had abated slightly by the time Kennedy arrived for a state visit almost two years later. But the wall, an aesthetic and moral monstrosity now made mainly of concrete, remained. Deeply moved by the crowds that had welcomed him in Bonn and Frankfurt, JFK was overwhelmed by the throngs of West Berliners, who put a human face on an issue he had previously seen only in strategic terms. When he viewed the wall itself, and the barrenness of East Berlin on the other side, his expression turned grim.
Kennedy’s speechwriters had worked hard preparing a text for his speech, to be delivered in front of city hall. They sought to express solidarity with West Berlin’s plight without offending the Soviets, but striking that balance proved impossible. JFK was disappointed in the draft he was given. The American commandant in Berlin called the text “terrible,” and the president agreed.
So he fashioned a new speech on his own. Previously, Kennedy had said that in Roman times, no claim was grander than “I am a citizen of Rome.” For his Berlin speech, he had considered using the German equivalent, “I am a Berliner.”