In February 1962, Robert and Ethel Kennedy traveled to West Berlin, Germany as part of a global goodwill trip. The victorious wartime Allies had administratively divided the former Nazi capital after World War II, and in 1961 Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had closed the border between East and West Berlin. His Berlin Wall was a cement barrier guarded by tanks and covered in barbed wire, a physical manifestation of the Cold War.
Kennedy spoke in City Hall Square to a crowd estimated at 180,000 people about the contrasts between freedom and communism.
Over the past few weeks my wife and I have traveled many thousands of miles across the United States, across the Pacific Ocean, from Japan along the Chinese coast, down to Indonesia, across the Indian Ocean, across Pakistan, up through the Middle East, through Italy, and now we arrive in the free city of Berlin. Nothing we have seen has touched us as much as your reception for us here today.
The warmth of your greetings will always remain indelibly in our hearts and the message it gives is one I will report back to the American people. And I want to report to you that it is reciprocated by friendship and affection for the people of Berlin and admiration for your great courage.
So I am proud to be here in the city of Berlin. This is my third visit to your city. I came here first in 1948 during the Berlin airlift. It was when Berliners and Americans were standing side by side. General [Lucius] Clay and your mayor, Ernst Reuter, stood should to shoulder when the Communists attempted to bring the proud city of Berlin to its knees. On that trip I traveled not only to West Berlin but to Communist East Berlin, and the contrast between communism and freedom was there for all to see. And I saw it for myself.
But on my return in 1955, I came from a long trip through the Soviet Union and I came here to West Berlin and saw your pleasant streets and gay shops and your fine people. And when I went over to East Berlin, again it was like returning to a bad dream.
[Two rockets zoom up from east of the Berlin Wall and explode loudly directly over the square, and four red flags float down on balloons as the Berliners boo and hiss. Kennedy points at the balloons and continues.]
The Communists will let the balloons through but they won't their people come through.
[The crowd roars approval]
I have seen the contrast between the city in the West part and in the Communist part, as many hundreds of thousands of people have seen that contrast. And that is why Herr [Walter] Ulbricht had to erect the wall. Because it was contrast that he could not tolerate.
That is the true meaning of the wall that lies like a snake across the heart of your city. Mr. Ulbricht and the Communists cannot afford the contrast.
[Two more rockets explode, dropping two more red flags by parachute from small balloons.]
That is the only thing he can do.
He cannot tolerate the contrast between freedom here and communism over there so that everyone can see it. He has had to erect the wall. We are aware of the heartbreak and anguish this wall has caused to the people of Berlin. But I would also ask you to look at the other side and see what an impression it has made all across the rest of the globe. Because this wall is an admission of failure by communism, it is an attempt for the first time in the history of mankind to erect a wall, not to keep marauders or bandits out, but to keep their people in.
This is understood everyplace. I was in Indonesia and talked to a young communist student. And he was saying that the communist regimes throughout the world were supported by the people. And I asked him: I said, "Well, how can you explain the wall in Berlin?" He blushed for a moment, and he said: "I don't want to get into details."
And this incident has been repeated over and over again in my travels.
If the purpose of the wall was to destroy Berlin, Herr Ulbricht and his cohorts have erred sadly. Berlin is not only going to continue to exist - it's going to grow and grow and grow.
Its ties to West Germany will not be severed. Companies from America and other foreign countries will erect their plants here. Corporations from all over the globe are going to open outlets in this city. West Berlin's brightest pages have yet to be written in the books of history. And Berlin, although on the edge of totalitarianism, will not be attacked, because an armed attack on West Berlin is the same as an armed attack on Chicago, or New York, or London, or Paris.
We are your brothers and we stand by you.
Guthman, Edwin O., and C. Richard Allen, editors. RFK: Collected Speeches. New York: Viking Penguin; 1993.