(Photo: Raul Rognean, Berlin 2009 – “20 Jahre Mauerfall” – Exposition – edited text -Willy Brandt: “Democratia nu trebuie sa mearga pana intr-acolo incat sa se voteze in familie cine este tatal”)
Text: Andrei Chiţu
The Kennedy-Brandt relationship distinguishes itself through its complexity and major importance. This article explores the period between 1961 and 1963 with a special focus on the way the interaction between the Mayor of West Berlin and the President of the United States developed over the time and hints to the historical consequences it had for the course of the Cold War. After briefly introducing the context in which Brandt’s relations with Kennedy developed, the core of the article is dedicated to the four turning points of this complex relationship. Their first meeting (I), in Washington 1961, paved the steps for a tight convergence of policies, but the construction of the Berlin Wall (II) brought a period of German-American crisis. However, one year later, Brandt’s lectures at Harvard (III) saw the two leaders back on the same track and Kennedy’s triumphal visit to Berlin in 1963 (IV) resulted in the highest point of a tumultuous relationship.
KEYWORDS: Berlin Wall, Cold War, détente, German-American relations, Ostpolitik, Kennedy-Brandt relationship.
J.F. Kennedy mattered greatly for Brandt and consequently, their relationship had historically important effects. First, this particular relationship influenced Brandt’s entire biography: his political career and his legacy. Second, it is important in relation to the American-German interaction during the Berlin crisis. Third, it matters in comparison with the different role that Kissinger and Nixon later played on Brandt’s policies. Finally, and most importantly, the relationship between the two leaders is worth studying because it had an essential influence on the origins of Ostpolitik and the emergence of détente in Europe. These processes were not only highly conceptualized, but also, to a great degree, pre-conceived, as Brandt “did as Chancellor what he had developed as Mayor [of West Berlin] … a new policy did not have to be developed, it already existed” (Hofmann, 2007: 4).
Among the manifold events that occurred between 1961 and 1963, all of which had a certain influence on the development of Brandt and Kennedy’s relationship, I chose to underline only four: the first meeting between the two leaders, the Berlin Wall and the crisis of the American-German relations, Brandt’s lectures in the US and Kennedy’s visit to Berlin. As far as I am concerned, these four constitute turning points and – taking into consideration the limited dimensions of this article – they can compile to a complete, if not in-depth image of a complex relationship.
Although a short amount of time, the three years between 1961 and 1963 are generally acknowledged as a turning point in the Cold War. This short and intense period includes: “Brandt’s first candidacy for Chancellorship, the culmination of the Berlin crisis and the Berlin Wall, three major crisis in German-American relations, Brandt’s Harvard lectures, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy’s visit in Berlin (…) and the first international détente treaty in the shape of Brandt’s Berlin pass agreement” (Hofmann, 2007: 4). Several of these events will be the focus of the following chapters.
Of course, Ostpolitik, let alone détente, are complex processes which extend far beyond the relationship between Kennedy and Brandt. But while only the specific relationship between the two politicians comes under the scope of this article, it cannot be fully explained without at least a minor discussion on issues such as Brandt’s entire foreign policy, Brandt’s SPD (and the other parties), the whole political culture behind West Germany’s foreign policy and not just that, but their place in the international system. However, such a divagation would require a greater space than the one allocated for this article. That is why the following few pages will merely sketch the most important lines on which Kennedy and Brandt’s relationship developed and will emphasize their main effects, in order to provide a solid basis for future research.
The following four chapters are an attempt to give answers to two questions: first, how did their relationship evolve over the time? and second, why is it worth studying? Consequently, the main ideas of this article are first, that the relationship between Brandt and Kennedy had four distinct turning points and second, that this particularly important relationship had historical consequences.
I. The first meeting
The first meeting between Willy Brandt, the Mayor of West Berlin and John F. Kennedy, the President of the United States took place in March 1961, at Washington. Egon Bahr recalls that the personal encounter went very well; Kennedy was impressive with his “quick, concise and well-informed barrage of questions, while the Americans came to appreciate Brandt in return” (Hofmann, 2007: 13). The meeting ended in agreement, as both parties were inclined to avoid a new round of talks about Berlin, at least for that moment. The reasoning behind putting this issue to rest was that in the spring of 1961, the status quo in Berlin was still in favour of the West.
The question of Berlin was at the heart of the Washington conversations and in this respect, Brandt got what he wanted and brought back the massage that he was very confident: “Our fate, as far as the United Stated as the leading power of the West are partly responsible for it, is in good hands” (Hofmann, 2007: 15). “We cannot and will not permit the Communists to drive us out of Berlin, either gradually or by force. For the fulfilment of our pledge to that city is essential to the morale and security of West Germany, to the unity of Western Europe and to the faith of the entire Free World” (Schoenherr, 2008:1), Kennedy told the American people shortly after his encounter with Brandt. The meeting was a success and laid the personal foundations for Brandt’s relations with Kennedy. So all was well – or was it?
II. The Berlin Wall and the Brandt-Kennedy crisis
Within months, the shaky conditions on which the apparently perfect agreement was built collapsed entirely. During the summer of 1961, Kennedy suddenly “began to look less dazzling” (Hofmann, 2007: 20), as he told Germans straight out that they should renounce any claim to reunification. Moreover, the emergent difference between Brandt and Kennedy became very important after the clash between Kennedy and Khrushchev at their summit in Vienna in June 1961, which left little doubt that a confrontation was close: “Khrushchev refused to consider any compromises and Kennedy was by his own admission put on the defensive by the USSR leader’s aggressiveness and confidence” (Herring, 2009: viii-ix). And when the boundary between the Western and the Eastern sectors of Berlin was sealed off by the Berlin Wall, Brandt’s relationship with Kennedy reached their all time low.
After the official closure of borders inside Berlin, there were three days until the actual construction of the Wall; Khrushchev waited and watched the Western reaction. Brandt was astonished, as Kennedy did not comment on the Wall issue for a week, determined to demonstrate that it was not a casus belli. On the same line, the major nuclear powers were not willing to risk a confrontation on the problem of the German reunification and regarded the division of Germany as a pillar of stability in Europe, as long as ideological tensions and an arms race between the US and the USSR persisted (Schafer, 2002: 109-10). In fact, Kennedy felt relief that the communists stopped the refugee exodus from the East in a way that did not risk a war: “It is not a very nice solution, but it is a hell of a lot better than a war” (Harrison, 2003: 6).
Compelled to face the crowd in what may have been the most difficult moment of his political career, Brandt send a letter to Kennedy directly to Washington, without even informing the Foreign Office in advance. The letter was remarkable, as on the one hand the Mayor assumed a personal friendship with Kennedy (that had hardly existed at that point) and it actually confessed that “I expect (…) no significant material change [of the] present situation” and, on the other hand Brandt put increasingly public pressure on the Americans: “it is all the more important at least to demonstrate political initiative” (Hofmann, 2007: 28-31). Brandt’s approach was risky, since Kennedy’s answer was unpredictable, but in the end it was a gamble that he won.
The lesson that was to be learned from the Berlin Wall crisis was a paradox that had been previously formulated by the American administration: the recognition of the status quo was the first step to overcoming it. Brandt understood that the solution was an Ostpolitik which accepted the post-war realities in Europe. It was not only a reactive policy meant to avoid isolation in the Western alliance, but also a positive response to the challenge of transition, with a better chance of influencing the dynamics of change to West Germany’s advantage (Niedhart, 2003: 118-9). Again, the interactions between the two leaders played a major role with respect to Ostpolitik, the foreign policy of West Germany and Cold War dynamics in general.
III. Brandt’s Harvard lectures
Brandt had “unlimited respect” for the American elites and accepted to give the Annual Gustav Pollack Lectures at Harvard, in October 1962. The topic was “The Ordeal of Coexistence” and the reasoning behind it was that “he believed the time had come to pronounce a long-cherished insight openly, i.e. that peaceful coexistence had to be dared” (Hofmann, 2007: 70). There were two main ideas in Brandt’s lectures, as Kennedy and his administration perceived them: first, that progress on the problem of reunification can be made only indirectly, through some kind of détente in the relations with the Soviet bloc and second, that discussions must exceed the narrow agenda of Berlin and should be approached in the context of larger problems of Germany and European security.
Carl Kaysen, one of Kennedy’s closest advisers, noted that he particularly observed “Brandt’s usefulness in exemplifying German support for the direction in which Kennedy wanted to go” (Hofmann, 2007: 71). Kaysen also noticed that the proximity to the philosophy of the Kennedy administration was palpable and not entirely accidental: Brandt’s ideas sounded familiar and the lines of their thinking were very close. Brandt’s lectures sent a public signal of support for Kennedy.
The Harvard lectures represented a turning point in the relationship between Brandt and Kennedy – after the difficult Wall crisis, when their relationship was at its lowest – a new conception of Ostpolitik and foreign policy in general was embraced by Brandt. The US President appreciated the Mayor’s “grace under pressure” and the lectures served as “a bonding moment between the two politicians” (Hofmann, 2007: 72-3). After a short period of tensions, the lectures Brandt gave at Harvard brought him and Kennedy closer than ever – the Brandt-Kennedy relationship had finally became what Brandt’s opponents were afraid of from the beginning.
IV. Kennedy’s visit to Berlin
On June 26th 1963, Kennedy made his “legendary appearance” in Berlin. An overwhelming and unprecedented reception was organized for the President and after Kennedy delivered his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, the crowds were so passionate that he presumably said: “We’ll never have a day like this as long as we live” ((Hofmann, 2007: 83). Noticing the intense atmosphere of excitement, Kennedy decided in the last minute not to go with the speech he had prepared; his famous speech was actually improvised with minimal preparation in Brandt’s office and the Mayor himself helped Kennedy with his German pronunciation. But while the crowds loved it, Kennedy’s advisers did not, because it wasn’t in accordance with the “peace speech” they had envisaged. That is why, hours later, at the Free University of Berlin, Kennedy delivered a speech much more in line with his administration desire for coexistence, thus having it both ways: the President convinced the Berliners he was one of them and at the same time reiterated his policy of détente (Daum, 2007). However, Brandt did not lose the opportunity to translate it as “the strongest US engagement imaginable” and claimed that “the German capital enjoys the same level of protection as the cities of the United States” (Hofmann, 2007: 83).
There was a close connection between Kennedy’s speech and Brandt’s position. It was a genuine expression of the convergence of Kennedy’s and Brandt’s thinking, but it is also a point of reference for the personal relationship between the two, as Kennedy himself asked Brandt for suggestions for the speech. Kennedy’s speech marks another turning point in the personal relationship with the Mayor of Berlin and also an important reference with regard to the whole process of Ostpolitik at the beginning of détente.
Willy Brandt’s relationship with John F. Kennedy had its ups and downs. The complexity of their interaction is given by the manifold events that happened in such a short timeframe and also by the majorly important consequences it had, with spill-overs throughout the entire process of Cold War. From their first meeting, ended in complete agreement, through the Wall crisis, which brought tensions, there was a striking connection between the personalities of the US President and the West Berlin’s Mayor and it culminated in Kennedy’s triumphant visit to Berlin in 1963. As Bahr noted, Brandt’s relationship with the Kennedy administration was the best that a West German government ever had with a Washington government led by Democrats.
Such an important interaction of historical figures is worth studying more in-depth than this paper could have aimed for. These few pages merely provide the highlights of the complex relationship between Brandt and Kennedy and hopefully constitute a solid basis for a more detailed research – manifold questions concerning the pre-Kennedy roots of Brandt’s thinking, as well as the correlations between their interaction and their policies remain open.
(“I am a Berliner” – a quotation, from the June 26, 1963, speech by U.S President J.F.Kennedy in West Berlin)
Daum, A W. (Geyer, D., trans.). 2007. Kennedy in Berlin. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
Harrison, H M. 2003. The Berlin Wall, Ostpolitik and Détente. GHI Bulletin Supplement. No. 1.
Herring, G C (ed.). 2009. The John F Kennedy National Security Files, 1961-1963. Bethesda: LexisNexis
Hofmann, A. 2007. The emergence of détente in Europe: Brandt, Kennedy and the formation of Ostpolitik. Routledge: London, New York.
Niedhart, G. 2003. Ostpolitik: Phases, Short-term Objectives, and Grand Design. GHI Bulletin Supplement. No. 1.
Schafer, B. 2002. John F Kennedy and Berlin: From the Wall to the 1963 Visit. GHI Bulletin. No. 31 (Fall).
Schoenherr, J A. 2008. “We shall not surrender”: Kennedy, the Berlin Crisis and the Effective Use of the Rhetorical Presidency. Michigan State University
 The omission of any reference to definitions of concepts (eg. Ostpolitik, détente, Cold War etc.), as well as to important events in the studied period (eg. The Cuban Missile Crisis, international treaties etc.) is intentional. The limited space allocated for this article makes impossible a broader discussion on these very complex issues.