Expert Weighs In On Major U.S. Speeches In Berlin On Thursday, Barack Obama will give a major speech in Berlin, the site of two previous presidential speeches. Andreas Daum, the author of Kennedy in Berlin and a history professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, talks about the speeches.
NPR logo

Expert Weighs In On Major U.S. Speeches In Berlin

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Expert Weighs In On Major U.S. Speeches In Berlin

Expert Weighs In On Major U.S. Speeches In Berlin

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Barack Obama is in a middle of a week-long overseas trip. On Thursday, he'll deliver a speech in the heart of Berlin. And in doing so, he invites historical comparison. Berlin, of course, has been the venue for now-iconic speeches by U.S. presidents.

In 1963, President Kennedy spoke before hundreds of thousands of West Berliners gathered outside what was then city hall. It was the height of the Cold War, one year after the Cuban missile crisis, two years after the Berlin Wall was built, dividing the city and keeping East Berliners from fleeing to the West.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: 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.

(Soundbite of applause)

President KENNEDY: There are some who say, there are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin.

BLOCK: Kennedy asked Berliners to lift their eyes beyond the dangers of today to the hopes of tomorrow, hopes of a free and united Europe. And he closed with these words.

President KENNEDY: 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.

BLOCK: I am a Berliner. Nearly a quarter century later, in 1987, President Reagan spoke at the majestic Brandenburg Gate in front of the Berlin Wall. And he addressed those in East Berlin who could hear his words.

President RONALD REAGAN: For I join you, as I join your fellow countrymen in the West, in this firm, this unalterable belief: Es gibt nur ein Berlin.

(Soundbite of applause)

BLOCK: There is only one Berlin. Reagan spoke of the deadly threat of Soviet nuclear missiles, the economic failures of communism, and the tentative steps toward reform and openness being undertaken by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which led to these words.

President REAGAN: 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.

(Soundbite of cheers)

BLOCK: The crowd went wild, and Reagan went on.

President REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

(Soundbite of cheers)

BLOCK: Two years later, the wall was torn down and the Berlin that Barack Obama will visit is a transformed city.

Andreas Daum joins us. He's author of the book "Kennedy in Berlin," and a professor of history at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Professor Daum, welcome to the program.

Professor ANDREAS DAUM (SUNY, Buffalo): Thank you for inviting me.

BLOCK: Let's start with the Kennedy speech in 1963. It seems that the estimates of the crowd at that speech range hugely. How many people do you think were there?

Prof. DAUM: There were roughly 450,000 people assembled. Some had gathered on balconies of friends who were fortunate enough to have an apartment near the square. Others were literally hanging in the trees. So the estimates vary, but we can be sure that there were certainly more than a million people in the streets of Berlin following his tour from the airport through West Berlin, and certainly way over 400,000 listening to his speech live.

BLOCK: What was the significance to Germans, whether in the East or the West, as a U.S. president coming and saying those words in Berlin in 1963?

Prof. DAUM: Well, let me just start by saying the only president who had visited Berlin while in office was Harry F. Truman, when he went to the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945. There was a crisis in German-American relations and American-European relations. There were all kinds of policy differences. And yet the Germans were eagerly waiting for this man. He encapsulated, he embodied a new generation.

Let's just mention that Konrad Adenauer, who was then chancellor of West Germany, was almost twice as old as John F. Kennedy. So Germans were eagerly waiting to see, to hear someone, almost to touch someone who was young, who was dynamic and who represented an intellectually sophisticated understanding of politics that seem to, and did - at least partially - depart from the old Cold War paradigm.

BLOCK: Let's fast forward 24 years, 1987, to the speech by Ronald Reagan, and he's commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Marshall Plan. He's also speaking in the midst of an arms race that's escalated in Europe - very different times, but many of the same issues. How were his words received in Germany?

Prof. DAUM: Well, there wasn't that much fuss about his most famous line in his speech - Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. Many ridiculized(ph) Ronald Reagan. Many dismissed Ronald Reagan. Many actually disliked, if not hated, Ronald Reagan exactly for what he represented. The interesting thing is it was his second visit as president to Berlin. He had already been there as president in 1982.

And already in 1982 he raised that question - why is that wall there. And he actually came up with this metaphor. He said, if I had one question to raise to the Soviet leaders, I would write it down, put it in a bottle, throw it over the wall and ask them why is that wall there. So he certainly was sincerely and honestly appalled by the wall. And if we look into his speeches, his statements both prior to his visits to Berlin, he was probably more worried about that than most West Berliners were because West Berliners had gotten used to the wall. This discrepancy continued, actually, to prevent the Germans from truly appreciating Ronald Reagan's line until the wall came down.

BLOCK: At the same time, you can hear the crowd in extended jubilation when those words are spoken. They cheer and cheer and cheer.

Prof. DAUM: Well, they were hand-picked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. DAUM: There were about 20,000 people in front of the Brandenburg Gate - nothing, almost nothing compared to the over 400,000 that John F. Kennedy spoke to. These were people who were Reagan supporters.

BLOCK: Now it's 21 years on now since the Ronald Reagan speech, and Barack Obama will be speaking in Berlin on Thursday. What's the symbolism, do you think, of Obama speaking in Germany now without this great, unify idea behind him that both Presidents Kennedy and President Reagan had?

Prof. DAUM: I believe it's a reference to old Europe, so to speak. It's a reference to saying let's take these Europeans seriously, and let's think about how we can get the Central Europeans and the Germans involved in what I am, Barack Obama, or we as the United States are standing for. There might be a unifying theme as it was during the times of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, but there are unifying global challenges: terrorism, global warming. So it is place where Barack Obama could say, perhaps, that we have reestablished a peaceful Europe, but that doesn't mean that peace is secured for all times. And perhaps the challenges ahead bind us together in a new way, and finding this new ideological, political glue for trans-Atlantic relations will be one of the main challenges for Barack Obama.

BLOCK: And the pattern is set now. Would you expect Barack Obama to toss a little German into his speech on Thursday?

Prof. DAUM: Well, you know, most presidents after John F. Kennedy have gone to great length to do exactly this. Clinton did it. Jimmy Carter did it. There's always a risk involved. The first risk is you mispronounce the words, which it might be slightly embarrassing. The second risk is it might sound as a reiteration of things that others have said already. So in order to be original, to be genuine, to be innovative, it might be best if Barack Obama stays with his native language and refrained from a rhetoric that might sound simply as a historical reference, if not as antiquarian to many in the audience.

BLOCK: Okay, Professor Daum, thanks very much.

Prof. DAUM: Thank you for having me on the program.

BLOCK: Andreas Daum is a history professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of "Kennedy in Berlin."

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.