This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Historian reflects on European love affair with JFK

Published: July 12, 2007

Reporter Staff Writer

A UB historian called the signature phase from John F. Kenney's acclaimed "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech "one of the most famous phrases of political rhetoric ever," during a lecture yesterday about the unique historical climate that brought about a surge in U.S. popularity in Europe in the early 1960s, and the circumstances that caused it to decline later into the Cold War and present.

Andreas Daum, professor in the Department of History, College of Arts and Science, presented "'Ich bin ein Berliner': Why Europeans Once Loved an American President and What Has Changed Since Then," as part of the UBThisSummer lecture series. Daum is a former John F. Kennedy Fellow at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University and author of "Kennedy in Berlin," the English translation of which will be published this fall by Cambridge University Press.

"How did it come that at the beginning of the 1960s, millions of Europeans admired an American president?" Daum asked. "Why did Europeans west and east of the so-called Iron Curtain...have high hopes in Kennedy? And why has the potential to hear an American president shrunk so dramatically since Kennedy's assassination?"

The United States' crucial combat and reconstruction roles in World War I and II help answer the first question, he said, as these events set the stage for the Kennedy's dramatic reception decades later. "World War I turned Great Britain from a creditor to a debtor nation, with the United States as the main source of support," said Daum, pointing out that by the end of World War II, "the United States represented the only economically sound power that would provide resources for the rebuilding of a devastated continent."

The spotlight remained on America into the Cold War, he added, presenting a counter-model to the Soviet regime that split the German nation into East and West. "In the 1950s and '60s," he said, "American's popular culture, lifestyle and Cold War pragmatism became important reference points for Europeans in the West in their attempt to find their own way out of the Cold War era."

Kennedy's arrival in Berlin on June 26, 1963, in the midst of this climate, resulted in "the greatest reception an American president has ever experienced at home and abroad," said Daum, adding that the peaceful resolution of the standoff at Checkpoint Charlie on the border of East and West Berlin in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 bolstered the president's already strong reputation in the years that preceded his famed European tour. Kennedy's 36-mile ride throughout Berlin in a Lincoln convertible "created a spectacle that contemporaries compared to the triumphal processions of emperors in ancient Rome," he said.

"The coming of a new post-war generation, the European embrace of American cultures [and] hope for a relaxation of tensions between the superpowers—all these factors now blended individual who seemed to embody personally the new era," he said. "The scenes of the streets of Berlin remain unparallel until today."

Kennedy's famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" comment, which was inspired by the ancient Roman boast "civis Romanus sum" or "I am a Roman citizen," was put into his speech only moments before he appeared on the balcony of Berlin's City Hall, Daum added. The translation came from Kennedy's German interpreter and as a native speaker of the language, Daum said there is no credence to the popular legend that it mistranslated as "I am a jelly donut."

The gradual decline in U.S.-Europe relations since Kennedy's famous address in Berlin relate to a number of factors, he noted. "One, of course, is the growing gap between the promise and the reality of American foreign policy," he said, "something that set in with a vehemence during the Vietnam War." Also important has been the creation of the European Union, which brought about greater independence from the United States, and the split in American-European political values, which has been reflected in differing policies on such issues as climate, economics and capital punishment.

"One of the most trying features of American foreign policy in the latest years has been its ability to gamble away the political capital that was in existence after 9/11, when many Europeans felt very sympathetic to the United States," Daum added.

"There's no doubt that...Kennedy's 'Ich bin ein Berliner' belongs to the past," he said. "It's rather unlikely that Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani will ever be a 'miracle spender' by Europeans. But the history of American-European relations is as open to the future as any, and as most of us know, falling in love cannot be planned, nor be excluded, in anyone's future."