Behind JFK's 'Ich Bin Ein Berliner' and Reagan's 'Tear Down This Wall'

The two famous Berlin speeches almost never were.

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President John F. Kennedy delivers his famous speech "I am a Berliner" ("Ich bin ein Berliner") in front of the city hall in West Berlin concerning the Berlin Wall, June 26, 1963. At far right is the mayor in office of West Berlin, Willy Brandt. (AP Photo)

President Obama has been called one of the most eloquent of the modern presidents – and not without reason. That reputation will be put to the test tomorrow when he speaks in Berlin, a city which has served as the stage for two of the best-known modern presidential speeches: John F. Kennedy's "ich bin ein Berliner" address, which will see its 50th anniversary next week, and Ronald Reagan's "tear down this wall" address.

As I recount in "White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters," both speeches almost didn't happen, for very different reasons.

Kennedy's prepared remarks for the speech at the Rudolph Wilde Platz (which has since been renamed John F. Kennedy Platz) on June 26, 1963 – outlining the history of the city since the onset of the Cold War – bear little resemblance to the immortal words he delivered. But JFK had had something more dramatic in mind even before he reached the German city, divided as it was both spiritually and physically – the Berlin Wall was just two years old – by the Cold War.

West Berlin was a lonely outpost of freedom deep in Soviet-dominated East Germany and as Air Force One made the trip east to the city Kennedy turned to an aide and said, "What was the proud boast of the Romans – civis romanus sum? Send [national security adviser McGeorge] Bundy up here. He'll know how to say it in German." Bundy did know it and did his best to instruct the president, who had no feel for foreign languages. (Kennedy also had the benefit of West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt's coaching on pronunciation.)

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At some point before giving his speech, Kennedy had scribbled three phonetically-spelled phrases on a lined note card: "Ish bin ein Bearleener," "Kiwis Romanus sum" and "Lust z nach Bearlin comen." (The Kennedy Library has put an image of the card online if you want to see it.) And JFK had written some new lines on his prepared remarks, but when it came time to give the speech, he mostly dispensed with them and improvised.

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."

There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass' sic nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.

The speech remains a highlight of the Kennedy presidency and capped a remarkable month in which he gave three historic address (the first two being his addresses at American University on peace and from the White House on civil rights). It was actually an uncharacteristic moment for Kennedy, who liked pungent rhetoric but disliked emotionalism and tried to avoid oratorical excess. The crowd's wild reaction unsettled the president and those with him. JFK later told his military aide that, "If I told them to go tear down the Berlin Wall, they would do it." German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer wondered to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, "Does this mean Germany can one day have another Hitler?"

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And the unwavering Cold War thrust of the speech also flew in the face of the peace speech Kennedy had given a little over two weeks earlier at American University, in which he had argued for peaceful coexistence with the Soviets. (Speaking later that day at the Free University, JFK tried to explain that his remarks had been about government cooperation with local Communist parties rather than international relations.)

Then there's the jelly doughnut misconception – the idea that because there is a German pastry known as a Berliner, and because he included the article "ein," JFK was declaring himself to be a tasty tartlet. First of all, as many people have noted, context matters: When I declare myself a New Yorker (born and raised, despite my current Virginia residence) no one thinks I am claiming to be a magazine – and if you watch the video of speech or speak to many Germans, it's clear no one misunderstood the president. Second, the point of grammar is not clear. As the chairman of Princeton University's German department told the New York Times in 2008:

Certainly the most common and accepted way to say "I'm a resident of Berlin" is "Ich bin Berliner," i.e. without the indefinite article. But, for many speakers, it is by no means incorrect or ungrammatical to say "Ich bin ein Berliner." Some of my [Berlin friends] in fact applauded Kennedy on his nuanced use of German, since for them the sentence without the indefinite article implies that the speaker is a native Berliner, while the sentence with "ein" suggests either more recent residence in Berlin or even solidarity with its inhabitants.

The speech remains a landmark of Cold War speech-making, and Kennedy's visit to the city was one of the highlights of his presidency. Departing Germany that day, JFK said that he was "going to leave a note for my successor which would say, 'To be opened at a time of some discouragement,' and in it would be written three words: 'Go to Germany.'"

Reagan's visit, in June of 1987, came during much different circumstances. Kennedy spoke at the height of the Cold War, while Reagan's speech came as U.S.-Soviet relations were starting to thaw as Mikhail Gorbachev loosened the Soviet system. That easing of tensions was the main reason so many of Reagan's advisers tried to keep the famous "tear down this wall" line out of the speech.

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Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson had visited West Berlin in advance of Reagan's trip and dined with a local couple and some of their friends in order to get a sense of local sentiment. Inspiration struck him when discussion turned to the wall. "If this man Gorbachev is serious with his talk of glasnost and perestroika he can prove it. He can get rid of this wall," Robinson's hostess said.

Reagan's speechwriters tended to be true-believing Reaganite conservatives, while his senior staff was more moderate. "We knew that there would be volcanic explosions" among the moderates, speechwriter Dana Rohrabacher, now a Republican member of Congress from California, later recalled. As drafts of the speech circulated through the administration, aides from the National Security Council and the State Department – including the National Security Council's Colin Powell, White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker and Secretary of State George Shultz – would try to replace the line with something less inflammatory. One State Department bureaucrat suggested, "One day, this ugly wall will disappear," for example (prompting Robinson to wonder whether the structure was just going to wander off of its own accord).

But Reagan had seen the line and liked it. "The boys at State are going to kill me, but it's the right thing to do," he told Deputy Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein.

Speaking at the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987, Reagan declared:

There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

Will President Obama live up to the standard set by his two eloquent predecessors? The odds are long. But Obama's got a way with words. We'll find out Wednesday.

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