“Ich Bin Ein Berliner”: Kennedy in Berlin, 1963

By Kaleena Fraga

On this day in 1963, John F. Kennedy addressed an exultant crowd of 1.1 million Germans–about 58% of Berlin’s population. During this speech, Kennedy would famously declare:

“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!’ ”

These were words that he’d jotted down himself, moments before taking the stage. They actually weren’t in his prepared text at all.

jfk berlin

The crafting of the speech was an exercise in international politics. Kennedy and his team wanted to make a defiant statement on the Soviet’s doorstep–at this point the wall was only two years old–but without upsetting the Soviets too much. The first draft didn’t go far enough, and both Kennedy and the American commandant in Berlin found it “terrible.” Kennedy’s solution was to rewrite the speech by himself.

The famous line Ich bin ein Berliner later turned into a myth that JFK had actually told one million Germans I am a jelly donut, but this is patently false. The crowd gathered in Berlin completely understood the meaning of Kennedy’s statement–and went wild for it. In any case, although a Berliner is a type of donut in Germany, it’s actually called a Pfannkucken in Berlin.

The line was perhaps not original–it appears that the ex-president Herbert Hoover wrote the same line in a guest book in Berlin in 1954, although it’s doubtful Kennedy knew that–but it made a huge impression on both the gathered Germans and the Soviets, watching closely from the other side of the city. The Germans renamed the square where JFK had delivered the speech John F. Kennedy Platz after Kennedy’s assassination. Nikita Krushchev gave a speech of his own in Berlin two days after JFK, to a crowd of roughly 500,000 Germans. His pronouncement I love the wall did not have the same effect as JFK’s Ich bin ein Berliner. 

The memory of JFK is still strong in Berlin. The museum The Kennedys hosts the second largest collection of Kennedy memorabilia in the world, and plays JFK’s Berlin speech on a loop. It’s worth watching:

Eisenhower, D-Day, and the Two Notes

By Kaleena Fraga

On June 5th, 1944 General Dwight D. Eisenhower sat down and wrote a letter. It was the night before he would attempt the largest seaborne invasion in human history, and Eisenhower’s mind had wandered toward the looming possibility of a battle lost on the beaches of Normandy.

The invasion had been months in the making. As the crucial time approached, the date itself kept changing. Bad weather forced Eisenhower to postpone the invasion, and he knew that he had only a three-day window in June to launch the attack before more inclement weather arrived. Eisenhower’s blood pressure shot up as he subsisted on a diet of coffee, cigarettes, and nerves.

On the day before the invasion, Ike sat down and thought about what would happen if the invasion failed. He wrote:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

Eisenhower then tucked the note in his pocket. He apparently had the habit of writing such “in case of failure” notes before invasions, and tearing at least one up afterwards. It was, as Jean Edward Smith noted in his Eisenhower biography Eisenhower in War and Peace, reminiscent of the same note that Lincoln wrote expecting to be defeated in the election of 1864.

“It seems exceedingly probably that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to cooperate with the President-Elect to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterward.”

Yet with the first note weighing heavily in Eisenhower’s pocket, he penned another, a speech, which he gave to his troops on the eve of the attack. To his troops he said, “The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in  battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!”

kay sommersbyOn the night before the invasion Ike waited with his personal chauffeur (and rumored mistress) Kay Summersby, who noted that the General’s “eyes were bloodshot, and he was so tired that his hands shook when he lit a cigarette.” Still, she wrote, “if Ike had wished, he could have been [with] Churchill…[and] de Gaulle…who were gathered just a few miles away in Portsmouth. But he preferred to wait in solitude.”

The invasion, although a success, cost thousands of lives. When Eisenhower found the note again he showed it to his aide, Captain Harry. C Butcher, who asked to keep it. Eisenhower, reluctant, acquiesced.

In the end, Eisenhower and Lincoln embraced a strategy of warfare perhaps best articulated by another American president, John F. Kennedy:

“Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”

Happy Birthday Mr. President: The John F. Kennedy Edition

By Kaleena Fraga

Today would have been John F. Kennedy’s 101st birthday. There’s plenty to remember about JFK–his primary battles during the election of 1960, which changed how Americans judge presidential candidates, his inaugural address, in which he encouraged Americans to ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country, the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, his work on civil rights, and, of course, his tragic assassination in Dallas in 1963.

JFK continues to permeate American political life. It’s second-nature to most Americans to refer to a young, charismatic candidate as “JFK-like” and JFK has even become a political football in the #MeToo era, as his legacy as a womanizer is reexamined by some and defended by others.

But JFK’s influence was felt far beyond the borders of the United States. Today, the breadth of his legacy can be found on a quiet street in the city of Berlin, in a museum that takes up a single floor of an unobtrusive building.

“The Museum THE KENNEDYS offers intimate insights into the story of the Kennedy family, which, as Irish-Catholic immigrants with high aspirations, epitomized and exemplified the »American Dream.« The museum also focuses on John F. Kennedy’s campaign and President Kennedy’s visit to Germany at the height of the Cold War, as well as the myth surrounding John F. Kennedy.”

The museum plays JFK’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech on loop–a speech given two years after the construction of the wall between East and West Berlin–, and features artifacts and anecdotes from JFK’s Berlin visit.

After the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, THE KENNEDYs is the largest JFK museum in the world. It contains more than 1,000 documents, 2,000 photographs, and several hundred assorted artifacts. The museum’s focus is on JFK’s visit to Berlin, but it also devotes space to JFK’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, to the entire Kennedy family, and to a rotating special exhibition space which has featured works on American civil rights, and Obama photographer Pete Souza.

The museum purposely avoids the subject of JFK’s death. “We do not want to put his death into focus, but his life,” said Alexander Golya, a spokesman for the museum.

THE KENNEDYS certainly accomplishes this goal. And it accomplishes the depth of influence that an American president can have, even in cities thousands of miles away. In a nod to this the museum quotes Jackie Kennedy, who wrote in a letter:

“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.”