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Another Day Like This: What Kennedy's Visit to Berlin Means for the Liberal Script

SCRIPTS Blog Post No. 65 by Jessica Gienow-Hecht

№ 65/2023 from Jun 21, 2023

In view of the upcoming 60th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s visit to Berlin, on 26 June 1963, SCRIPTS Principal Investigator Jessica Gienow-Hecht reflects on the meaning of the visit for language and the liberal script. No U.S. postwar president, she observes, has been fluent in a language other than English. Is that a cause for contestation?

John F. Kennedy, President of the USA, during his speech in front of the Henry Ford Building, photographer: Reinhard Friedrich / FU Berlin, Universitätsarchiv

John F. Kennedy, President of the USA, during his speech in front of the Henry Ford Building, photographer: Reinhard Friedrich / FU Berlin, Universitätsarchiv

This past week, I received three media inquiries whether or not it was “true” that during his famous speech delivered in front of Schöneberg city hall, on June 26, 1963, U.S. president John F. Kennedy had trouble pronouncing the famous words “Ich bin ein Berliner”.[1] The short answer: yes. True. Unlike his polyglot wife — Jackie spoke French, Spanish and a bit of German and Italian — JFK was no linguist. Journalist Robert Lochner, head of the Radio in the American Sector in Berlin, coached him in Governing Mayor Willy Brandt’s office, scribbling the phonetic spelling “ish bin ein bear-lee-ner” on a piece of paper that now holds museal value.[2]

The somewhat longer answer is: U.S. American presidents have shown a chronic reluctance to learn languages. In fact, the closer we come to the present, the less they parle in foreign words, or only with great difficulties — see JFK in Berlin. And it is worthwhile reflecting upon why that was and is, and what this means for the liberal script.

Kennedy’s visit to Berlin officially marked the 15th anniversary of the Berlin airlift. It was, also, a response to the Berlin Wall, erected two years prior; the deterioration of East-West relations (Soviet First Secretary Khrushchev and Kennedy did not get along); and the escalation of tensions in Southeast Asia. Hence, the visit’s purpose was to state America’s commitment to the city, something that U.S. leaders in Washington had been reluctant to do before. 

We know he had the speech manuscript ready in his pocket, prior to landing, at Tegel airport, on the morning of June 26. And we know he knew the speech would never do. Looking at the manuscript, General James H. Polk, U.S. commandant in Berlin, had told him so: “This is terrible, Mr. President.” Far too conciliatory on the Soviets, far too lacking in inspiration for the embattled population of West Berlin. Touring Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate, Kennedy became increasingly impressed with locals’ resilience, changed his text, and eventually barely glanced at it. 

His words on that day are timeless and perhaps never since resonated with us more than they do today, in 2023.[3] “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us….  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.’”[4]

It's the kind of rhetoric that brings tears to your eyes. Which is what happened, to the 120 000+ people listening on Rudolph Wilde Platz. The Wall had depressed Berliners: In a matter of hours, the inner-city border had morphed from one of the last loopholes in the Iron Curtain, to a military bastion of communism. What is more, the city’s status remained unclarified, its freedom and security contested, its future a perpetual source of inter-Allied disagreement.

Yet, for a moment, JFK’s visit undid all that: The performance of the young, attractive and charismatic U.S. president was not only unusual. It was downright exhilarating because it pretended normalcy where nothing was normal, envisioning a future, a state, and an unforgettable people living in freedom and safety, globally visible for all. And when JFK added, tongue-in-cheek, “I appreciate my interpreter translating my German,” Berliners were ecstatic.[5]

Which brings us back to the language conundrum. U.S. presidents were not always reluctant to learn languages. According to Potus.com, nearly half of them, twenty out of 45 (44%) spoke a second language, and many mastered more. John Quincy Adams (1825-29), 6th president of the United States, tops the list: He mastered eight. Martin Van Buren (1837-41) who is mostly known for denying Texas' request for annexation, in 1837, was originally not even raised with English; his mother tongue was Dutch.[6]

The choice of languages is equally revealing: The most popular vernacular was Latin, with 14 speakers among all U.S. presidents, followed by Greek (9), and French (7). Five out of 45 presidents spoke German, among these, yes, John Q. Adams along with the two Roosevelts (Theodore, 1901-1908, and Franklin, 1933-1945), Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), and Bill Clinton (1993-2001). Other favorite tongues include Italian, Spanish, Arabic (Thomas Jefferson, 1801-09), Russian (John Q. Adams, again), Hebrew (James Madison, 1899-1817), and Chinese (Herbert Hoover, 1929-33).

For citizens of the world worrying about the state of international relations and liberal democracy, these numbers may look encouraging.  After all, foreign language training sensitizes us to different ways, customs and perspectives around the world. Leaders and diplomats should be, so we hope, well equipped to solve international problems relating to war, trade, borders, migration and many other challenges.

But note that nearly all of the above, from Thomas Jefferson to Herbert Hoover, were in office prior to the end of World War Two. And that is the bad news: JFK’s struggle with a four-word-sentence in a foreign tongue, that June morning in 1963, constitutes the norm for postwar U.S. presidents. Twenty-five out of 45 presidents spoke and speak no foreign language at all. None. And out of these twenty-five, ten important ones have been in power since 1945: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The only exceptions are Jimmy Carter (Spanish), Bill Clinton (German), Barack Obama (Indonesian) and George W. Bush (Spanish). But: None of them was or is fluent in any of these vernaculars.

That’s a problem, according to Renate Latimer, Professor er. of German at Comparative Literature at Auburn University. In “25 Reasons to Study Foreign Languages,” she lists quite a few relevant to the liberal script. Foreign language study, we learn, “creates more positive attitudes and less prejudice toward people who are different,” “encourages respect for other people,” “liberalize[s] one’s experiences and make one more flexible and tolerant,” and is “simply part of a very basic liberal education: to ‘educate’ is to lead out, to lead out of confinement, narrowness and darkness.[7]

Now, Professor Latimer may have been carried away a bit by her enthusiasm for the liberal arts. I can think of quite a few liberal minds still steeped in narrowness. Including John Quincy Adams who despite his fabulous linguistic skills, still sought to sever ties with precisely those nation states where most of the very languages he’d painstakingly learned, were quite en vogue. In 1823, when still Secretary of State, Adams authored the “Monroe Doctrine,” designed to isolate the U.S. from Europe and in effect for most of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

But there is a key point to consider here: Since 1945, right around the time when U.S. hegemony took off, holders of what many deem the most important office on the globe, do not converse in languages other than their own any longer. “"It's embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German,” Barack Obama stated at town hall meeting Georgia, in July 2008. “And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is merci beaucoup, right?" [8]  U.S. presidents may function well with the help of interpreters, online translation programs and, perhaps, sign language. Yet they do not know what it feels like to speak and live in a different tongue. And while such limitation may be appealing to groups like the Americans for Legal Immigration,[9]“linguistic imperialism” (Robert Phillipson) often renders U.S. leaders’ liberal messages less credible in the eyes of foreign audiences.[10] For, to rephrase Prof. Latimer, liberalism feeds on a multilingual mind.

That may have been one of the key lessons for Kennedy in Berlin. His speech tinged with German (and Latin), a mere nine minutes long, constitutes undoubtedly one of the most important, most inspiring talks of the entire cold war and beyond. “We'll never have another day like this as long as we live,” JFK himself observed that afternoon. And he was right. A mere five months later, on November 21, 1963, he spoke to the League of United Latin American Citizens, in Houston, concluding with what would be his last public words: “In order that my words will be even clearer, I’m going to ask my wife to say a few words to you also.”[11]

Jackie, of course, parleyed in Spanish.  

[1] John F. Kennedy “Ich bin ein Berliner Speech,” https://youtu.be/0GKd50lrROc

[2] Jessica Gienow-Hecht, “Ich bin ein Berliner,“ Diplomatic History 33, 2 (April 2009): 351-355.

[3] See https://www.bostonglobe.com/2022/02/24/opinion/kyiv-i-am-ukrainian/; https://www.iamaukrainianmovie.com/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hvds2AIiWLA.

[4] “Remarks of President John F. Kennedy at the Rudoph Wilde Platz, Berlin, June 26, 1963,” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, https://www.jfklibrary.org/archives/other-resources/john-f-kennedy-speeches/berlin-w-germany-rudolph-wilde-platz-19630626

[5] For an extensive analysis of Kennedy’s visit in Berlin, see Andreas Daum, Kennedy in Berlin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[6] Presidents of the United States, Foreign Languages, https://potus.com/presidential-facts/foreign-languages/

[7] Renate Latimer, “25 Reasons to Study Foreign Languages,”  https://cla.auburn.edu/world-languages/future-students/25-reasons-to-study-foreign-languages/

[8] E.g., Maria Gavrilovic, “Obama: I don’t speak a foreign language: It’s embarrassing! ,” CBS news, 11 July 2008, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/obama-i-dont-speak-a-foreign-language-its-embarrassing/

[9] Ibid.

[10] Robert Phillipson, Linguistic Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Daniel Immerwahr, “Language Is a Virus,” in Immerwahr, How To Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (New York: Picador Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), 317-335.

[11] “Remarks in Houston, Texas to the League of United Latin American Citizens, Rice Hotel, Houston, 21 November 1963, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, https://www.jfklibrary.org/asset-viewer/archives/JFKWHA/1963/JFKWHA-243-004/JFKWHA-243-004

Prof. Dr. Jessica Gienow-Hecht is a Principal Investigator at SCRIPTS, professor of history, and chair of the department of history at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin.


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