“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. Let them come to Berlin.”—John F. Kennedy, speech at Rudolph Wilde Platz, West Berlin, June 26, 1963
We in the West—and, I suspect, especially the citizens of the great divided city of the Cold War—know this address, delivered 50 years ago today, better as the “Ich bin Ein Berliner” speech, a reference to its most famous line.
On the printed page, it was only eight paragraphs long. It only takes nine minutes to watch it on YouTube. But, like another address given a century before, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, John F. Kennedy showed that it did not take many words to define memorably the essence of a tragic conflict.
The section I’ve quoted here uses the same device that Lincoln did at Gettysburg: Epistrophe, or the repetition of the same word or words at the end of successive phrases, clauses or sentences. It’s part of Kennedy’s general strategy of refuting the claims of the Soviet Union and its Western apologists during the Cold War. He used the great symbolism--and sorry actuality--of the Berlin Wall to imply an entire world of differences between the Soviet Bloc and the free world with that simple sentence, "Let them come to Berlin." In the process, he gave hope to hundreds of thousands on the fault line between the East and West--people who had known precious little of it over the prior few decades, as their nation lurched from one totalitarian system to another.
Though less famous than many other lines in the speech, the following gains particular resonance because the outcome the American President predicted—so hard to see then—has come true:
“When all are free, then we can look forward to that day when this city will be joined as one and this country and this great Continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe. When that day finally comes, as it will, the people of West Berlin can take sober satisfaction in the fact that they were in the front lines for almost two decades.”