Come to Berlin, Kennedy says, then look me in the eye and tell me Communism is the future: The Berlin Wall eventually came down. John F Kennedy stood at the Brandenburg Gate and said that if anyone, anywhere - from the dreamy spires of fancy English universities to worthy hippy communes in comfortable western cities - thinks there is nothing to choose between the free world and the communist one, “Let them come to Berlin.”
The opening to this speech is designed to hit the crowd in the heart and get them going right at the beginning, not that they needed much encouragement. And it works, as is evidenced by the fact that he has to wait quite a while for the reaction to die down. In fact, he has to wait for a while before he gets to say anything at all.
We get a joke about his interpreter, which is ironic, since there is debate about whether he actually said, in translation, “I am a sausage” rather than “I come from Berlin.” He got a massive cheer here, though I’d guess that much of his audience had no idea what he’d just said. It was, of course, the very fact of his presence that mattered most. Also, never underestimate the power of taking the trouble to flatter your hosts and your audience by knowing a bit about them, or speaking a bit of their language as Kennedy does here.
He’s been up for quite a while before he gets his next bit out, “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.” This becomes his mantra at the outset, and sets up a great opening sequence that builds into what is essentially a rallying cry. It’s a pretty aggressive introduction: listen to the way he says, let them come to Berlin”.(he even says it once in German…).
And there’s a great couple of sentences after his fourth “Let them come to Berlin” line, “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect. But we have never had to put up a wall to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.”
So the introduction, as well as being aggressive, also spells out the real differences that exist here, writ large in the existence of Berlin. Many years later, Ronald Reagan asked Mr Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”. Kennedy started the wrecking ball swinging.
We got a great speech from this reluctant orator, who was known to be taken over by fear when public speaking. This was a great speech at least partly because of the location and context, but also because the words hit just the right tone at this time. It was also short. We tend to like people who are willing to express an opinion, and Kennedy nailed his colours to the Brandenburg Gate without equivocation.
The repetition of the phrase “Let them come to Berlin” creates a rhythm in the first few lines, while contrasting the west with the east in terms of freedom the future, co-operation and evil. This contrast is completed through a great line, “but we have never had to put up a wall to keep our people in”.
Kennedy then makes it personal, “I want to say…”, “I know of no town…” And then he quotes the Mayor of Berlin (implying that he knows him personally or has been speaking to him) in saying that the wall is an offence against history and humanity, and is divisive. He brings the division down to the level of brothers, sisters, husbands, wives and families, many of whom are standing in front of him, with many more listening. They listen because it is their story, being told by the leader of the free world.
When he is looking for a vision of the future for the imprisoned population, “beyond” is repeated to great effect, creating a poetic rhythm for this section, so we have “beyond the dangers”, “beyond the freedom”, “beyond the wall”, “beyond yourselves and ourselves to all mankind.” So this is an appeal to a higher ideal than simply Berliners as individuals or as citizens: it is about all of us (and of course it was about all of us). And he turns to all mankind in his peroration, putting the encircled population of Berlin in “this great continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe.”
And classically at the end, where he says that Berliners have been in “the front line for almost two decades ” he returns to his opening quotation, “civis Romanus sum” where he again makes it personal, saying that his proudest boast is that he is a citizen of Berlin; you’re either with him or against him, no middle ground.
What can you learn from this speech? Well, he seemed to enjoy it, to revel in it. Kennedy’s delivery is about as good as it gets for him. Well paced, resonant, confident, using the lower register of his voice more than the higher. He waits for his audience when he needs to - he almost prowls about the rostrum at times - and is in total control of his environment and a master of all he surveys. And you have to think that was important at the height of the cold war: one of my favourite phrases when it comes to judging oratory is “perception is reality”: this is someone who is not scared, and in charge.
Oh and one final thing which I’ve said at the beginning but I’ll say again: it’s mercifully short.
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