Other than ask not, they were the most-famous words JFK 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 War II, 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.”
Moments before taking the stage, during a respite in West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt’s office, JFK jotted down a few words in Latin and—with a translator’s help—the German version, written phonetically: Ish bin ein Bearleener.
Afterward it would be suggested that Kennedy had got the translation wrong—that by using the article ein before the word Berliner, he had mistakenly called himself a jelly doughnut.
That’s a true story, not often told. As are the following…
Are you from Poland? Then President Jimmy Carter wants to sleep with you. That’s what his translator, Steven Seymour, told the then-Communist country during the U.S. President’s 1977 visit.
Carter said he wanted to learn about the Polish people’s desires for the future;
Seymour said that Carter desired the Poles.
Carter said he was happy to be in Poland;
Seymour said he was happy to grasp at Poland’s private parts.
Carter talked about leaving the U.S. to go on a trip;
Seymour said that he had abandoned America forever.
Then he spoke Russian — to a nation struggling under the thumb of the Soviet Union.
After WW II, an unidentified State Department official traveled the west coast of Africa thanking those countries who had assisted the US during the war.
Arriving in Lagos, Nigeria, the diplomat spoke to an assemblage of local officials on a platform with a podium near where his private plane came to a stop. He began by saying that President Truman had sent him to Nigeria to personally thank the “NIG-eans” for their help.
A State Department official from the local embassy tried to get his attention, but the man President Truman sent said “NIG-eans” two more times in his speech… a speech that only got a limp response from the local folks.
Which wasn’t as bad as California’s Democratic Lt Gov Cruz Bustamante slip of the tongue.
While giving a Black History Month speech 19 February 2001 to an audience of nearly 400 black labor activists, Bustamante used the word “nigger” during his remarks. The epithet slipped out as Bustamante was reciting a list of black labor groups that came into existence during the last century, some of which had the word “Negro” in their title.
Somehow “Negro” became “nigger” in Bustamante’s rendition of one of these titles. Realizing the mistake, he quickly apologized to his stunned audience.
“If you heard what I think I heard, I want you to know it wasn’t me,” he said, a bit nonplussed.
What a politician!!!