This is a transcription of this speech made for the convenience of readers and researchers. A copy of the speech exists in the Senate Speech file of the John F. Kennedy Pre-Presidential Papers here at the John F. Kennedy Library. Page images of the speech can be found here.
I want to talk with you today about Berlin. This same subject is under constant study in Washington. It will be the principal subject at the summit meeting in May. It is the chief reason for Chancellor Adenauer's visit to this country. Why is Berlin so important? Why should it be distinguished from hundreds of other cities on the outskirts of the Iron Curtain?
I might begin by taking you to the Kolhaas Bridge spanning the waters of West Berlin. Michael Kolhaas was a poor horse trader in 16th century Berlin. When a wealthy nobleman robbed him of his horses, he was unable to obtain justice in the courts of law which - in those days - were the tools of the wealthy and the powerful. And so Michael Kolhaas became an outlaw - a sort of German Robin Hood - taking the wealth of his oppressors and giving or throwing it all away. His greatest gesture of defiance to oppression was to fling a wagon-load of stolen gold into the river. At that very point, the Kolhaas Bridge today symbolizes Berlin's defiance to oppression and zeal for justice.
Throughout its history Berlin has reflected the spirit of Michael Kolhaas - in the 1840's when the city revolted in the cause of freedom, and demanded a Constitution and a Parliament - in the 1940's, when Hitler admitted that in this one city he never felt safe - and in 1960, where tens of thousands of young people have responded to Mr. Khrushchev's threats with anti-communist demonstrations carried on under the very shadow of Soviet guns.
Thornton Wilder has written that "every good and excellent thing stands moment by moment on the razor edge of danger." For the past fifteen years the City of Berlin has stood "on the razor edge of danger." Berlin is a small island of free men in the midst of communist territory. A hundred manned and fortified miles separate it from the western frontier - from the source of its food and vital supplies. Its only protection against aggression is a small garrison of NATO troops constantly menaced by vast Russian land forces. It has been the object of vicious threats - of hostile moves - and of a campaign mingling promises and intimidation. But despite all dangers and hardships, Berlin has sustained its freedom and rebuilt its economy. Its assets have been the courage and vitality of its people, reinforced by our own determination that Berlin shall - and must - remain free.
But these very successes - the prosperity and continued freedom of West Berlin - have excited the increased hostility of the communists. This hostility is not actually based on any real fear of the pitifully small armed garrison which the Western powers maintain in Berlin - or on the fear of any Western propaganda or subversion attacks that could be launched from that city. It stems from a deeper fear - fear of the spirit of Michael Kolhaas - the spirit of a free city in the midst of despotism and alien rule - constantly reminding the people of East Germany of their subjection to the Soviets, reminding them of what it is to be free - serving as a beacon to inspire all the enslaved countries of Eastern Europe with the hope of eventual freedom.
And Berlin is more than a symbol of personal liberty. It is a living contradiction of the Soviet dogma that only a communist society can bring material prosperity. For the people of East Berlin, and East Germany, and all of Eastern Europe, can look up from their bare, drab, toilsome existence and see in their midst the buoyant, vital, expanding economy of West Berlin - the new construction, the new goods, and the new surge of energy which has rebuilt a war-torn city and restored prosperity to its people.
Probably no other city in the world represents a greater challenge to Russian dogma. And the Russians know it. In 1948, they made their first attempt to remove this thorn from their side, and shut off all access to Berlin from the West. But the quick, determined response of the Western allies - and the courage of the Berliners themselves - led to the vast airlift operations. Berlin and the West stuck together - the highways and railroads reopened - and the Russians knew that West Berlin would not be an easy prize.
It was ten years before the Soviets felt strong enough to try again. In November 1958, the second Russian drive on Berlin began. Premier Khrushchev gave us six months to begin negotiating with the East German government, with a view toward withdrawing our troops from Berlin. Behind this ultimatum was the scarcely veiled threat that, if we did not agree, the Soviet Union would sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany - East Germany might again shut off access to West Berlin - and, if they did, their decision would be backed with Soviet armed might.
This new drive was based on several Russian premises - that an airlift today could never be sufficient to sustain Berlin’s booming economy and population - that we would therefore back down rather than enter Berlin by force, precipitating a World War for which we were not prepared - and that they would, consequently, take over all of Berlin and strengthen their hold on all of Eastern Europe.
But - to Mr. Khrushchev's dismay - we did not back down - we did not retreat - we remained firm in our determination to protect Berlin at all costs. As a result, the ultimatum was withdrawn - the deadline was lifted - and, today, we approach a summit meeting at which the problems of Berlin and Germany will be at the top of the agenda.
These summit negotiations will be extremely important - and extremely delicate. And in these negotiations - as in the entire conduct of our foreign affairs - as the Supreme Court said in 1936 - "the President alone has the power to speak or listen as the representative of the nation." I do not want the President's position to be jeopardized or undermined in any way by the pronouncements of public figures concerning the details of negotiation - or by public judgments by other officers of government on the issues and questions which he alone must decide, and on which he alone is fully informed. But I would like to remind you of something about which there can be no disagreement - something on which the President and the Congress, our allies and even our enemies, can agree: the enormity of our stake in Berlin.
First, there is the fate and freedom of the Berliners themselves. I have spoken of the spirit of the people of Berlin - "that daredevil race" - as Goethe called them - many of whom bear the names of French or Polish or Czech or Danish or even English ancestors who fled to Berlin to escape persecution and tyranny. That indomitable spirit inhabits a city of two and one half million people. Berlin is not a rocky, barren offshore island, or a strip of desolate and deserted border land - it is a living city with a population equal to a third of Sweden, or all of Ireland. It is unthinkable that we would abandon these free millions to communist masters - that we would ever remove our protection without some definite assurance of their security and self-determination. To do so would be a betrayal not only of Berlin, but of our own tradition of freedom.
Secondly, Berlin is important as a symbol - as perhaps the chief symbol of the free world's determination not to yield to Russian threats and Russian pressure. Thomas Paine wrote that "every man must finally see the necessity of protecting the rights of others as the most effectual security of his own." The protection of the freedom of Berlin is the surest protection of our own freedom.
In 1948 - just before the first Berlin crisis - an American journalist wrote that "if Berlin is abandoned, half of Europe will be in the communist camp tomorrow." But we did not abandon Berlin then - the airlift and the courage of the Berliners saved the city - and indeed they may have saved all of Europe. Should we yield now - should we be unfaithful to the people of Berlin and to our own example of determination - we would be showing the entire world that we lacked the will and the strength and the courage to come to the defense of threatened freedom.
Free nations throughout the world - not only in Europe but in Asia, Africa and the Near East - would feel less certain of our assurances, less convinced of our determination. To much of the world Berlin is the touchstone of American determination - the measure of our dedication to freedom. It is this belief which makes the cause of Berlin the cause of free men everywhere.
Thus our stake in Berlin is very great - and the dangers of maintaining that stake are very great. The harsh fact of the matter is that we have let our ground forces deteriorate to the point where - if confronted with Soviet force - we may be required to either yield Berlin or use nuclear weapons to force an entrance. Only by rebuilding the conventional forces of NATO will we be able to avoid this cruel dilemma in the future.
Our task in Berlin is difficult - the dangers are great - and the stakes are high. But we should not despair. For, as Francis Bacon said, many years ago, "there is hope enough and to spare, not only to make a bold man try, but also to make a sober-minded and wise man believe."