At Brandenburg Gate, Obama follows in predecessors' footsteps | St. Louis Public Radio

At Brandenburg Gate, Obama follows in predecessors' footsteps

Jun 19, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON - Fifty years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy confronted Cold War tensions in Wall-divided Berlin and bolstered the confidence of its beleaguered residents by telling them, in his unmistakable Boston accent, "Ich bin ein Berliner."

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama -- with a nod to Kennedy's stirring speech outside a town hall in West Berlin -- will use the backdrop of the Brandenburg Gate for the latest address of an American president in the city that has been a flashpoint of East-West relations.

Obama will speak on the Gate's eastern side, across the old border from where President Ronald Regan gave his unforgettable "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!" speech in June 1987 -- two years before the Wall finally fell as a result of Mikhail Gorbachev's signals to East German leaders.

This week, Obama faces a far different situation in a united Germany, nearly a quarter century after the Cold War's end, and five years after the Illinois senator -- then a candidate for president -- got a tumultuous reception from 200,000 Germans at Berlin's Victory Column.

Since then, U.S.-Russian relations have been cooling rather than warming. Europe's efforts at economic recovery have faltered. And recent revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency's vast surveillance programs -- in Europe and elsewhere around the world -- have irked many Germans, some of whom recall the extensive surveillance by the Stasi, the former secret police of East Germany.

To be sure, surveys indicate that Obama remains generally popular in Germany, and the majority of his audience for Wednesday's speech will be invited guests, surrounded by throngs of German police.

But while Reagan and Kennedy had a clear target for rhetoric (and a cause for German-American solidarity) in the Berlin Wall -- which blocked the Brandenburg Gate from the West -- Obama's message is likely to be less dramatic and more pragmatic.

Urging Europeans to engage, pledging arms cuts

In his speech at the Brandenburg Gate, Obama called for the reduction of the number of deployed U.S. strategic nuclear warheads by one-third if the Russian government agrees to similar cuts.

On other issues, the president told the crowd of about 4,500 Berliners that “our work is not yet done.” He said many challenges remain for western nations, including fighting terrorism, addressing climate change, spreading democratic values and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

“The Wall belongs to history. But we have history to make as well,” said Obama. “And the heroes that came before us now call to us to live up to those highest ideals -- to care for the young people who can't find a job in our own countries, and the girls who aren't allowed to go to school overseas; to be vigilant in safeguarding our own freedoms, but also to extend a hand to those who are reaching for freedom abroad.”

While Obama's speech was well received, German concerns with widespread U.S. intelligence surveillance were apparent earlier in the day. During a news conference before the speech, German Chancellor Angela Merkel challenged Obama about the extend of U.S. intelligence programs that monitor foreigners’ communications without individualized court orders,

“Although we do see the need” for intelligence, Merkel said such surveillance must be balanced by “due diligence” against unwarranted invasions of privacy. “Free democracies live off people having a feeling of security,” she said.

Obama said he had sought to ensure that the intelligence programs “were examined and scrubbed.” And he said German terrorist threats were among those foiled by such operations worldwide.

“We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information, not just in the United States but in some cases here in Germany,” Obama said. “So lives have been saved.”

Merkel said Germany has received “very important information” from the U.S., citing a specific incident as an example of such antiterrorism intelligence cooperation.

While Kennedy sought to give Berliners a ray of hope and a confident Reagan demanded the Wall's demolition, Obama focused on the importance of Europeans and Americans engaging in global issues. Those include controlling nuclear arms, fighting terrorism, resolving regional conflicts, addressing climate change and promoting democratic values.

The Cold War has ended and the threat of nuclear war has faded since the days of Kennedy's speech, but an Obama spokesman said Tuesday that the president -- facing eastward towards a crowd of German officials, university students and others -- would seek to inspire the "same level of citizen and national activism" that Kennedy had invoked.

"It’s a call on citizens and government to do what is necessary so that we succeed in the next 50 years as we have in the last 50," said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for communications. He told reporters on the flight to Berlin that Obama's speech will urge the West to shake off a sense of complacency and reject the temptation to turn inward after more than a decade of war and at a period of economic difficulties.

"Any time a U.S. president speaks in Berlin, it’s a powerful backdrop to our post-war history," said Rhodes, saying that Obama will follow in the footsteps of Kennedy and Reagan in discussing "the role of the free world" and the changing agenda of issues that the West should address.

From the west, two West Germans gather at Wall, while East German police stand guard on top of it.
Credit Robert Koenig | St. Louis Beacon | November 1989

Rhodes said this week's address will be "a different kind of speech" than Obama's remarks in Berlin five years ago. Back then, the idealistic and untested Obama had called on Europeans to join hands with Americans to "defeat terror and dry up the well of extremism that supports it." Obama called for a new era of tolerance and said "the walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand."

While the specter of terrorism has more or less replaced the specter of communism, the geopolitical tension between the United States and the newly aggressive Russia -- now shorn of its former Soviet states and its hegemony in eastern Europe -- has returned in the second presidency of Vladimir Putin.

Putin and Obama met for two hours on the sideline of this week's Group of 8 meeting in Northern Ireland. Afterwards, the two leaders, who are not on the friendliest of terms, clearly disagreed about the conflict in Syria, with Putin defending the embattled government of Bashar al-Assad but agreeing to call for a "transitional government" in that country.

"Of course, our opinions do not coincide," Putin said at a news conference after the session. "But all of us have the intention to stop the violence in Syria, to stop the growth of victims, and to solve the situation peacefully."

Tradition of U.S. presidents in Berlin

Obama's speech represents the latest foray by a U.S. president in Berlin, in a tradition started by President Harry S Truman in the city's darkest days, in the aftermath of World War II.

Traveling to Berlin to take part in the Potsdam Conference -- where the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union set the stage for the divisions of postwar Europe -- Truman toured the bombed-out capital in July 1945 and joined generals in raising the Stars and Stripes over the American sector of occupied Berlin.

In a brief speech, Truman told the U.S. troops that it was a historic occasion "to raise the flag of victory over the capital of our greatest adversary." But the president also urged the soldiers to remember "that we are fighting for peace and for the welfare of mankind. We are not fighting for conquest."

With U.S. aid and protection, West Germany's economy rose from the ashes over the next decade, but the struggling East Germans built the Wall in August 1961 to keep its citizens inside the city's Soviet sector. That led the Americans to bolster their military presence in Berlin, threatening a possible superpower conflict. Tension in the city was high on June 26, 1963, when Kennedy gave his speech.

"All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin," Kennedy shouted to a huge crowd. "And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, Ich bin ein Berliner."

(While "Berliner" used with the article "ein" refers to a jelly doughnut, the audience knew what Kennedy meant to say, observers said later, and most appreciated his effort at speaking German.)

"What is true of this city is true of Germany: Real, lasting peace in Europe can never be assured as long as one German out of four is denied the elementary right of free men -- and that is to make a free choice," Kennedy continued.

Twenty-four years later, as Germany remained divided and the superpowers continued their arms buildups, Reagan stood at a podium west of the Brandenburg Gate and urged Soviet leader Gorbachev to help end the Cold War and allow Berlin to unify.

"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!" Reagan demanded. "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

The next president to speak in Berlin was Bill Clinton, who traveled there in July 1994 -- four years after German reunification -- and spoke from the eastern side of the Brandenburg Gate. Marking the departure of the last American, Russian, British and French troops that had occupied the city since the war's end, Clinton urged Germany to play a leadership role in building a "Europe where all nations are independent and democratic; where free markets and prosperity know no borders; where our security is based on building bridges, not walls."

Praising Berliners for making the Brandenburg Gate "what its builders meant it to be -- a gateway," Clinton urged Germans to "walk through that gateway to our destiny, to a Europe united, united in peace, united in freedom, united in progress for the first time in history. Nothing will stop us. All things are possible ... Berlin is free."