Study Guide

John F. Kennedy in Ich bin ein Berliner Speech

By John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy

A Young Life Dipped in Money

John Kennedy was the super rich, popular kid who you really wanted to hate…but couldn't because he was just so freaking charismatic and awesome.

He and his siblings grew up swimming in Scrooge McDuck piles of money and playing touch football on the beach outside of the Kennedy Compound, which is how they refer to their ginormous summer mansion. And he wasn't just rich; he was good-looking and smart, too. JFK (because cool kids get to be known by just their initials) proves that the luck of the Irish really does exist. Or maybe it's the luck of the Irish-Americans.

In any case, the point is that JFK was loaded, hot, and brainy.

See, right now you want to hate him, but wait—he became a war hero. You can't hate a war hero. During World War II Kennedy saved a group of sailors after their boat was rammed and torn in half. Despite being injured himself, he grabbed one of his wounded fellow sailors and swam him to the safety of a deserted island…where Kennedy proved to be a really strong leader and prevented them from going all Lord of the Flies until they were rescued.

Kennedy hurt his back badly during the war. But he didn't let that stop him from becoming a U.S. representative, then a Senator from Massachusetts. He took frequent leaves of absence from his positions in government for back surgeries, but he was one of those people who just couldn't sit still. While recuperating he wrote (or possibly helped write) a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage.

A Shiny Distracting President

At this point Kennedy basically wins at life. The wealthy, handsome Harvard graduate, war hero, best-selling author seems like a ridiculously obvious choice for president of the United States. He's elected in 1960 and Americans everywhere take a deep, contented sigh as President McDreamy and his fashionable wife move into the White House with their perfect little children.

Seriously, people referred to this time as Camelot—as if the U.S. had found its very own King Arthur. Kennedy had somehow pulled a sword out of a stone and become the ideal leader of the free world. He was exactly what most people thought a president (and a First Family) was supposed to look like.

Of course, as president, he did have to deal with some actual problems. It was the 1960s. There were some sticky issues. The Civil Rights Movement was stirring things up, poverty was a major concern, and the Cold War needed constant attention to, you know, actually stay cold.

It's easy for politicians to say that they're strong enough to take on the communists, but few are actually tested in the way that Kennedy was. Which bring us to the final reason that you can't hate him just because he was a strikingly gorgeous, brilliant playboy who was loaded with cash: he also saved the world.

Yeah, during Kennedy's presidency the earth came closer than it's ever been to actually having a nuclear war. But we didn't, in large part because JFK wasn't some lunatic with his finger on the button. He resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis by negotiating with the USSR and not by blowing people up.

And that is why we aren't currently living in a post-apocalyptic Mad Max hellscape of weird clothes and zero water right now.

That Speech Everyone Liked

So when Kennedy went to Berlin to give a little talk on communism, he looked and sounded great—because that's just what he did all the time. But he also knew a lot about Cold War brinksmanship and just how far one can push a Soviet leader without the world ending in a ball of flames.

In his speech, he doesn't call out anyone from East Germany or the USSR as being evil and he doesn't yell and scream about how he's going to crush them with the fury of an angry bald eagle. He just calmly pointed to the Berlin Wall and said, "Look at what you did to this nice city."

This is the point where most Shmoop bios would tell you that presidents don't write their own speeches, they pay people to do that for them (so calm down your admiration). And it is true that Kennedy's speechwriters did write something for him to say on June 26, 1963.

He just didn't say it.

Much of this particular speech was ad-libbed by Kennedy. He pre-planned the whole Latin and German phrase bit, but a lot of his other remarks—especially the ones about communism—were not what had been previously discussed.

While the crowd and viewers at home enthusiastically enjoyed his surprisingly candid zingers about commies, his advisers were a sweaty mess thinking about how the Soviets were going to totally overreact. For the remainder of the speeches on his German sightseeing extravaganza, Kennedy was told to stick to the script.

The always-lucky Kennedy's off-hand remarks in Berlin didn't cause the USSR to start World War III (or even retaliate), but they did mention that they didn't like it. Everyone's a critic. (Source)

And then a few months later Kennedy's luck ran out. He was assassinated in what remains a poorly understood, one-man shooting spree. While his time as president is usually deemed consequential, it was also one of the shortest in American history. He served less than three years.

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