United States Diplomatic Mission to Germany: Speech from Ambassador Philip D. Murphy at the 50th Anniversary of JFK's Inauguration in Berlin
The Legacy of the Kennedy Administration
Berlin, Freie Universität,
January 20, 1963
Ambassador Philip D. Murphy
January 20, 1963
Ambassador Philip D. Murphy
Präsident Alt, vielen Dank, dass Sie diese Veranstaltung zu Ehren von Präsident John F. Kennedy ermöglicht haben. Heute, 50 Jahre nach seiner Amtseinführung, erinnert man sich an Präsident Kennedy in den Vereinigten Staaten und in Deutschland wegen der Stärke seiner Ideen und Ideale, aber auch wegen seiner Eleganz, seines Esprits und seines Stils. Einzigartige Veranstaltungen und legendäre Momente stechen aus den 1.000 Tagen seiner Präsidentschaft hervor und nehmen in den Vorstellungswelten unserer beiden Nationen großen Raum ein.
[President Alt, thank you for making this opportunity to honor President John F. Kennedy possible. Today, 50 years after his inauguration, President Kennedy is remembered both in the United States and in Germany for the strength of his ideas and ideals, but also for his grace, his wit, and his style. Singular events, iconic moments, stand out in the 1,000 days of his presidency that figure large in the national imaginations of both of our countries.]
We remember President Kennedy’s inaugural speech when he challenged Americans, and his fellow citizens of the world, to ask how they could make a difference. He won the election by one of the smallest popular vote margins in history; but following his inaugural address, nearly seventy-five percent of Americans expressed approval of the new President. People, young and old, who witnessed the speech or heard it broadcast over television or radio wrote to the President with their reactions to his ideas. He inspired generations of Americans. He changed people’s lives. They got involved in public service or politics because he asked them to; and they, in turn, passed that spirit on to the next generation. That enthusiasm did not end at America’s shores. People on this side of the Atlantic were also inspired by the idealism and the message of hope that America’s young president came to represent.
Professor Alt, you have spoken and written about that June day in 1963 when President Kennedy visited Berlin. From the moment he arrived, he encountered that enthusiasm, live and up close, as they say. He was literally surrounded by a sea of Berliners chanting his name. During his drive through Berlin, as he visited Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate – the new landmarks of the Cold War – he decided to make some changes to the speech he planned to give at the Rathaus Schöneberg. He felt that his remarks to the more than 150,000 Berliners who he had heard were waiting for him there should speak more to the heart than the safer rhetoric of diplomacy and statesmanship that his speechwriters had drafted for him. One of the changes he made was the addition of the words that have become part of the mythology of our times.
In Washington übte er sorgfältig einige Ausdrücke ein, aber seine vorbereiteten Reden enthielten keinen deutschen Text. Er besprach sich kurz mit seinem Dolmetscher und entschied, seiner Rede etwas auf Deutsch hinzuzufügen – und wir alle kennen den Rest der Geschichte. Als die tosende Menge “Ich bin ein Berliner” hörte, stimmte sie lautstark zu. Der Jubel wollte kein Ende nehmen. Jahre später bemerkte Jackie Kennedy, dass ihr Ehemann einige seiner berühmtesten Worte nicht einmal auf Englisch gesagt hatte. Ich hoffe jetzt natürlich auch, dass man sich in Berlin an mich erinnern wird, weil ich versucht habe, hier deutsch zu sprechen, und nicht wegen etwas, was ich vielleicht auf dem Wege der diplomatischen Kommunikation mit dem US-Außenministerium gesagt haben könnte…)
[In Washington, he had rehearsed some careful phrases but his prepared texts did not include any German. He conferred briefly with his interpreter and decided to add some German to his speech – and we all know the rest of the story. Hearing “Ich bin ein Berliner,” the crowd roared their approval. They would not stop cheering. Years later, Jackie Kennedy remarked that it seemed strange that some of her husband’s most famous words were not even in English. At this point in time, I also hope that people will remember me here in Berlin for my some of my attempts to speak German and not for anything I might have said in the more routine world of State Department diplomatic communication channels.]
But as they say, you can’t please all the people all of the time. And in fact not everybody in Berlin was as pleased with President Kennedy’s speech at the Rathaus Schöneberg as the West Berliners in the audience. Most notably his staff – his National Security Advisor, the U.S. Commandant in Berlin, and even Ted Sorenson, the speechwriter who worked closely with President Kennedy on many of his most memorable and dramatic speeches; they all thought his comments in respect to a divided Berlin could be perceived as provocative by the Soviets. And in light of the fact that he was soon to meet Premier Nikita Krushchev – or better said, to meet him again – to negotiate a nuclear arms treaty, his advisers urged him to put the emotional words spoken at the Rathaus Schöneberg in context with more tempered remarks at the Freie Universität.
The speech he gave here at the university was intended from the beginning to be more policy-oriented. Bill Smyser, who today teaches at Georgetown University, was a diplomat at the U.S. Mission to Berlin at the time of Kennedy’s visit. He recalls that the President did indeed make some changes to his remarks “to leave an open door to Krushchev for their arms control negotiations,” as he put it. And so, while the speech at the Freie Universität was directed first and foremost to the students and faculty of the university and to the people of Berlin and Germany, it was also addressed in the broadest context to the citizens of the world he often referred to. Kennedy understood better than his advisers the kind of language needed to convince not only his audience in West Berlin but also those listening on the other side of the Wall and as far away as Moscow that America was serious about its commitment to the city.
Kennedy’s visit to Berlin that day placed Germany right at the core of the Atlantic Alliance and front and center in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy. No American President could ever back down from Kennedy’s words – and no American President ever did. Kennedy’s words – both at the Rathaus Schöneberg and right here at the Freie Universität – defined unmistakably America’s terms of reference during the Cold War. That is why, Professor Alt, the relationship between this city and the President Kennedy is indeed very, very special. As President Kennedy said to Ted Sorenson that evening as the delegation left Berlin, “We’ll never have another day like this as long as we live.”
Like the Berlin visit, the Kennedy inauguration was also a defining moment for America. Five decades later, we still want to answer his call to advance the cause of freedom, to explore new frontiers, to bring out the good and also to stand against the bad. As the first president born in the 20th century, he embodied the ideals of a generation. We honor him today not just for the things he completed but for the things he set in motion, the energies he released and the ideas and ideals that he advocated. His speech in Berlin, his handling of the Cuban missile crisis, his pursuit of a nuclear test ban treaty, his advance of civil rights, the creation of the Peace Corps and the space program — all reflected an America committed to exploring and expanding new frontiers of peace and progress, social justice and scientific advances, active government and citizen service. His call for citizens to do what they could for our country was one many Americans would spend their lives trying to answer.
To this day, of the nine U.S. presidents who have served in the past 50 years, John F. Kennedy continues to earn the highest retrospective job approval rating from Americans. But despite these ratings, I believe it has become increasingly difficult for younger people to understand and perhaps more important to weave that kind of idealism and faith into their life goals. In addition, and this is partly due to the passage of time as well as the way the personal lives of figures of public life are covered today, people sometimes forget the achievements of President Kennedy’s administration. The thousand days of his presidency were marked by events and challenges that demanded responses that affect us today fifty years later.
And so, Professor Alt, I appreciate this opportunity to look back with you at those tumultuous and historic days. What are the lessons that can be learned – not only for the students of today, the leaders of tomorrow, but also for people of my generation? In November, the Museum the Kennedys sponsored an event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the election of President Kennedy. I was moved when a number of people got up and shared their personal and very vivid recollections of where they were when they heard the news of Kennedy’s victory. Almost all of those who got up to speak were probably about 20 years old in 1960. Their stories were heartfelt. l myself was only three at the time of President Kennedy’s inauguration and six years old when he died. But, although I was just a child, I too have vivid memories of the days after the assassination and the weight of the sadness and loss that my family felt. I must admit, however, that my personal experience of the Kennedy legacy was shaped when I was older, probably also starting at about the age of twenty, when I began to follow the career of another member of the family – the President’s brother, Senator Edward M. Kennedy. The Senator’s legislative record, I believe, very much reflected JFK's vision of America, a vision based on the tenet that democracy at its best is a bold and daring adventure requiring each and every one of us to take personal responsibility in ways that are both exciting and rewarding.
That vision was also based on a lifelong lesson that John F. Kennedy and other Americans brought home from the Second World War: namely, that unless nations worked to shape events, they would be shaped by them, often in ways that put them at great risk. It was in that spirit that a generation of Americans and Europeans founded the institutions of post-war security and prosperity that have served us well until today – although they have gone through some enormous transitions. It was in that spirit that the United States helped to rebuild Europe after the devastation of the war. When I meet and talk with the twenty-year olds of today, it is with those lessons of history that I like to start the conversation. And so I hope that today, we will hear from people of all generations – the twenty-year olds who were here for the Kennedy visit in 1963, the twenty-year olds who experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and yes, also the twenty-year olds who came out to cheer another young American politician at the Siegessäule in Berlin in 2008 – Senator Barack Obama.
One impression one might have of the Kennedy years, especially here in Germany, is that the Cold War dominated his presidency. Certainly, the circumstances of history made foreign policy a priority. And as I mentioned earlier, I believe his visit to Berlin was indeed a defining moment in the U.S. approach in the Cold War. One of President Kennedy’s formal foreign policy successes came, six weeks after his visit to Berlin -- at the meeting with Premier Krushchev that his advisers were so concerned about. Some say in retrospect that it was due in large part to the resonance of his Berlin trip that he was able to parlay détente into important agreements. On August 5, 1963, the United States and the Soviet Union signed a limited nuclear test-ban treaty, forbidding atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. The treaty was eventually signed by most of the world's nations; and it marked an important first step in the development of arms control treaties.
The vision of a world without “the Damocles sword of nuclear weapons” hanging over it, as President Kennedy said, was supported by successive American Presidents, most recently by President Obama. The new START treaty, which was ratified by the Senate last December, is the most significant arms control agreement in nearly two decades. It represents one further step on the journey that President Kennedy embarked upon in the summer of 1963. The security threats and parameters of the 21st century are obviously very different from the coldest days of the Cold War but the necessity for advancing the relationship with Russia is as essential as it was when Kennedy and Krushchev sat opposite each other at the negotiating table. Although the issues they faced were complex and multifaceted, neither leader would have thought then that preventing nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists would ever be at the top of the mutual agendas of their two countries.
That was one of the major differences between then and now. Then, neither Moscow nor Washington was interested in confrontations which would bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. The threat of terrorism we face today is very different. Nevertheless, I think we can learn from President Kennedy in his approach to the dangers and politics of his times. He stood firm but his underlying message was invariably one: namely, that it was beneficial for all countries to join together in the achievement of a genuine and enforceable peace. Just two weeks before his visit to Berlin, President Kennedy visited another great university. He told the students and faculty of the American University in Washington, DC that the Cold War was not a debate, where each side sought to win debating points or distribute blame or point a finger of judgment. “We must deal with the world as it is,” he said, and I quote “and not as it might have been had the history of the last 18 years been different.” That meant, he explained, that we must persevere in the search for peace, confident that constructive change and indeed peace itself were not impossible dreams.
In the weeks and months around the days of President Kennedy’s speech at the American University in Washington in early June 1963, around his visit to Berlin later that same month, around the negotiation of the first arms control treaty in August 1963, that theme of dreams, not yet fulfilled but not impossible and certainly within reach, was also being played out in American society.
President Kennedy did not have to cross the Atlantic to visit the divided city of Berlin to experience the challenges of reconciling diversity and conflicting interests to live together in mutual tolerance. At home in the United State, a central moral issue of his era was front and center on the domestic agenda – the movement for freedom and justice for African Americans. After a protest march in Birmingham, Alabama in the spring of 1963, during which black demonstrators were attacked with fire hoses, cattle prods, and police dogs, President Kennedy went on television to declare that the country faced a "moral crisis" on the civil rights issue. His televised address to the nation on civil rights on June 11, 1963 – one day after the American University speech and two weeks before his speeches in Berlin decrying the Berlin Wall – is also one of the memorable moments of his presidency. And in August 1963, just weeks and days after the arms control treaty was signed, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke to the 250,000 people, black and white, women and men, poor and rich, who attended the March on Washington who had come to the nation's capital to demand equal opportunity for African Americans and an end to racial segregation and discrimination. With the statue of Abraham Lincoln behind him, King told of the struggle ahead, stressing the importance of continued action and nonviolent protest. "I have a dream," he told the crowd stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, "that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'"
In the year after the March on Washington, the civil rights movement achieved one of its greatest successes: the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited racial discrimination in employment and education and outlawed racial segregation in public facilities. Up to his assassination in November 1963, President Kennedy worked to pass that civil rights bill, which was eventually shepherded through Congress by his successor President Lyndon B. Johnson.
But like Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy had dared to dream and he passed on that dream by standing up for the interests that unite, rather than those that divide. He inspired Americans in a way that few presidents have managed to do. This alone deserves our admiration and respect. Countless Americans, both old and young, dedicated themselves to public service, remembering Kennedy’s inaugural day challenge to ask themselves what they could do for the country and the world. Idealistic university students, black and white alike, risked their lives, as they sought simple justice for black Americans who lived in the segregated South. When they marched in demonstrations, picketed segregated public facilities, and registered people to vote, those students were indeed making a difference and helping to fulfill America’s unfulfilled promises. U.S. citizens took up public service, becoming primary schoolteachers, university professors, elected officials, diplomats, community organizers, and Peace Corps volunteers. And as a result, I believe that the United States is a more humane and progressive society. Every great age is marked by innovation and daring – by the ability to meet the unprecedented problems with intelligent solutions.
President Kennedy’s legacy also endures in the new frontiers that he defined for America and that we still explore. He pioneered the media age that has shaped national politics ever since and defined the role of the federal government in ways that continue to reverberate. He embodied a can do approach toward events beyond our shores as well as the challenges at home. By choosing to reach out rather than turn inward, he brought the American people a period of unparalleled economic growth and security. How much more he might have accomplished had he not been killed only 1,000 days into his presidency is one of history's more tantalizing questions.
But more important, perhaps, than the legacy of a president gone by are the achievements of the president today who, too, faces enormous challenges. In his White House office, President Obama has a carpet with five historical quotes. One of the quotations he selected is from President Kennedy’s American University speech. This is the passage he selected: "No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings." Unquote.
As he moves into the second half of his administration, President Obama, like President Kennedy, seeks to emphasize the interests that unite, rather than those that divide. He, too, seeks a practical agenda to go forward in times when America has a lot on its plate, including political division and polarization. Next week he will address that agenda in his State of the Union speech. Last week, however, at the memorial ceremony in Tucson held for those who died and were injured in the senseless shooting a few days earlier, he called up many of the themes that we associate with JFK – the “public-spiritedness” of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who personified the desire to participate in the “sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never-ending process to form a more perfect union.” He spoke of the deep commitment of Gabe Zimmerman, one of the Congresswoman’s staffers, whose true passion, the President said, was helping people and seeing to it that government was working for ordinary folks. He spoke of the “appreciation for life” of nine year old Christina Taylor Green who was looking forward to meeting her Congresswoman that Saturday morning because she believed in her country and how she might, one day, too, play a part in shaping its future. He spoke of his responsibility as President and the responsibility of all in public office to articulate a vision and encourage others to achieve it. He spoke of his responsibility as President to appeal to the hopes of those who still believe in the American Dream, and those around the world who still believe in the ideals that symbolize America. He spoke of living up to expectations, of setting an example, of how civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our times, and how important it is for each and every one of us to get involved.
Denn, wie es in dem Zitat aus der Rede von Präsident Kennedy im Juni 1963 vor Studenten heißt: “Es gibt kein Problem der Menschheit, das Menschen nicht lösen könnten.“ Das ist das Vermächtnis, dem wir alle gerecht werden müssen – und für mich ist das das Vermächtnis von John F. Kennedy.
[For, as the quotation from President Kennedy’s speech to a group of students in June of 1963 reads: "No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings." That is the legacy we all must live up to – and that for me is the legacy of John F. Kennedy.]
Vielen Dank für Ihre Aufmerksamkeit.
As prepared for delivery.