Friday, July 14, 2006

Kennedy in Berlin

Two generations have eaten most of the gold plating off the JFK idol, but there's one moment in his movie-life I'll always revere.

When I was in West Berlin in the '70s I made sure to visit the big Rathaus Shoneberg, down in the southeast suburbs, where Kennedy stood on the balcony in 1963 and looked out over a crowd of 150,000 rattled citizens -- it seemed like everyone left in the city was there -- and spoke words that had welled up in his head just hours before:

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’ sie nach Berlin kommen!

By God it was great! Even in the old newsreels, you can feel the force of fury and euphoria. It was real -- There aren't many moments anymore when you get to see an American political figure being himself and being great all at once: When George W. Bush is real, I cringe. I don't think John Kerry remembers what real was.

But there was Kennedy, jabbing at the podium and not so much working the crowd as letting it be lifted up by the tailwind of the electric force he couldn't keep inside.

Because he might have stifled it if he'd had another hour before he spoke. Here's an account of the speech in American Heritage that emphasizes just how spontaneous it was.

Kennedy's stop in West Berlin came during the mutual walk back from the brink of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He and Khrushchev had privately and publicly discussed nuclear test bans. His public speeches that year had been tempered, conciliatory, delivered on a bed of olive branches.

It was in this spirit that he left on the 10-day European trip that would take him not only to West Germany but to Ireland, Britain, Italy, and the Vatican. He intended to deliver a conciliatory speech in Berlin meant for the ears of the Soviets and East Germans.

But then he saw the place. He climed up one of the platforms on the west side and peered over the concrete and barbed wire. The platforms were still there 15 years later when I stood on one. The view in 1977 was the same one. The newsreel narrator in 1963 had said Kennedy looked down on “the symbol of man’s degradation under a dictatorship.”

“I once heard McGeorge Bundy [Kennedy’s director of the National Security Council] say that in Berlin President Kennedy was affected by the brute fact of the Berlin Wall,” recalls Frank Rigg, a curator at the Kennedy library. “He was affronted in a very direct way by the wall, the reason for it and by what it symbolized.”

When the time came to speak, Kennedy blew through the diplomatic pleasantries, and threw down a white-hot 600-word gauntlet the Soviets never dared pick up. And when he stepped down he'd just turned six months of careful detente-work on its head.

“Oh, Christ,” the President exclaimed, when he realized what he had done.

The Cold War involved America and its leaders in a global lie of the legitimacy of the Soviet system. To do otherwise was to risk burning the entire human race. In time, many people in the West came to really believe in that sham legitimacy. Yet every now and then, in some time and place, the lie broke apart. Even if JFK's words that day strayed from the path of security and safety and peace, he had cause. He had stared at an irrefutable fact, and then he had told the truth about it.

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