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Imagine this: The president of the United States is supposed to visit Berlin, people are excitedly planning everything, his stops during the visit get figured out, everything seems prepared perfectly… and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Mayor Willy Brandt can’t agree on who gets to sit next to him in the car.
This is allegedly what happened during preparations for Kennedy’s Berlin visit in 1963. In the end, Brandt won and got to show the president his city. The two of them had always gotten along better than Kennedy and Adenauer. Since Berlin was one of the main "trouble spots" of the Cold War, Kennedy dealt with a lot of problems concerning the city and kept in close contact with its mayor.

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Brandt and Kennedy (13 March 1961). Willy Brandt visits Kennedy at the White House. Later that day, they make a joint statement from the Oval Office. Credit Line: Universal Newsreels. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Although Kennedy is the president whom we most associate with Berlin, the city had been closely linked to the U.S. ever since 1948. In June of that year, the Allied Forces decided to introduce a new currency in their western occupation zones in Germany as well as in West Berlin. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin reacted to this by cutting off all links between West Berlin and West Germany: railroads and cars could no longer reach the city and it soon lacked essential supplies. To ensure that the people of West Berlin survived, the Americans and the British supplied the city from the air. The airlift kept life going in West Berlin for 11 months until the Soviet Union lifted the blockade. This was the first time both sides showed their willingness to fight for and over the city of Berlin – a development that would have an effect for decades to come.

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Berlin Airlift (1948). Berliners watching a C-54 land at Berlin Tempelhof Airport. 

The Second Berlin Crisis started in 1958. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev demanded that the allied forces leave West Berlin for good. He and President Dwight D. Eisenhower were not able to reach an agreement. Since a new president was to be elected in 1960, negotiations on the topic of Berlin were postponed.

The first – and last – personal meeting between Khrushchev and Kennedy happened in June 1961 at a summit in Vienna. Khrushchev thought the young and inexperienced Kennedy could be easily overpowered in an argument. At the summit, the Soviet Premier reiterated his ultimatum concerning Berlin, prompting Kennedy to renew America’s promise to protect the city.

It is important to remember that "America’s Berlin" was only the western half of the city. East Berlin had been under Soviet control since the end of the war and Kennedy never questioned that. In a televised address in late July 1961, the president stated three essentials he would defend in the city: access, allied military presence and the rights and freedom of the West Berliners. He stressed that although the Allies were hoping for a peaceful solution, they would be ready to fight for Berlin:

“It is more than a showcase of liberty, a symbol, an island of freedom in a Communist sea. It is even more than a link with the Free World, a beacon of hope behind the Iron Curtain, an escape hatch for refugees. West Berlin is all of that. But above all it has now become – as never before – the great testing place of Western courage and will, a focal point where our solemn commitments stretching back over the years since 1945, and Soviet ambitions now meet in basic confrontation.”

Considering Kennedy was worried about war over Berlin, possibly even nuclear war, it is understandable that he was initially relieved after the building of the wall. A wall isolating East Berlin did not threaten any of his essentials. People in Europe, however, started to doubt America's readiness to fight for their freedom. After realizing that his credibility was at stake, Kennedy decided to send Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and General Lucius D. Clay – who had planned the airlift – to the city, to show that America was still committed.

During his visit to Germany in June 1963, Kennedy was worried that France might replace the U.S. as Germany’s biggest ally. Adenauer was working closely with President Charles de Gaulle and the two countries had just signed a friendship treaty. Kennedy’s visit to Berlin was also meant to counter this.

Berliners were incredibly excited to meet the charismatic president, who only spent 8 hours in the city. In his speech at Schöneberg city hall, he again stressed that the U.S. would continue to fight for the city.

“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!’.”  

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Kenney at city hall Schöneberg. JFK Library, Boston / Robert Knudson, White House

This became one of Kennedy's most famous statements. In a letter to Willy Brandt, Jackie Kennedy put it this way: “How strange it is. Sometimes I think that the words of my husband that will be remembered most were words he did not even say in his own language.”

The USSR and East Germany did not ignore the president’s tremendously successful visit. When the motorcade stopped at the Brandenburg Gate, Kennedy was met with red banners blocking his view of East Berlin. In front of the Gate was a sign stating that the U.S. was not meeting the promises made in Yalta and Potsdam during World War II.

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JFK views Brandenburg Gate from behind Berlin Wall (26 June 1963). The sign in the background reads, “In the agreements of Yalta and Potsdam U.S. Presidents Roosevelt and Truman undertook: to uproot German militarism and Nazism; to arrest war criminals and bring them to judgment; to prevent rebirth of German militarism; to ban all militarist and Nazi propaganda; to ensure that Germany never again menaces her neighbours or world peace: These pledges have been fulfilled in the Democratic Republic. When will these pledges be fulfilled in West Germany and West Berlin, President Kennedy?” Credit Line: Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Two days later, Nikita Khrushchev visited East Berlin. He met with Walter Ulbricht, rode in a motorcade through Berlin, and had people cheering his name. He was not able, however, to match President Kennedy.


Johanna Seyfried