What was Kennedy's Cold War policy

Catalog - Foreword


Prof. Dr. Hans Ottomeyer
Dr. Dieter Head of Department

June 26th marks the anniversary of the American President John F. Kennedy's visit to Berlin. 40 years ago, this was an unforgettable day for West Berliners as well as for the President. His legendary phrase "I am a Berliner" made an overwhelming commitment to defending democracy and freedom at this focal point of the Cold War. With this book and an exhibition, the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Free University of Berlin and the German Historical Museum are commemorating the politician whose term of office continues to inspire people to this day.

A new generation of politicians appeared with him. He tangibly embodied the end of the immediate post-war period and the dawn of a more just and peaceful future. During the election campaign he campaigned for the release of civil rights activist Martin Luther King. Although he took up the goals of the civil rights movement only hesitantly after the successful election, his whole habitus promised the dawn of a new era. The space program he launched spoke in favor of this "reaching for the stars". But this term of office was also Janus-faced: Kennedy decided to strengthen American engagement in Vietnam. A momentous decision that a few years later would become the greatest national disaster in the United States.

The deepening of the Cold War fell during his brief presidency. This is represented by the unsuccessful American invasion of the Cuban Bay of Pigs in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. In the famous "thirteen days" in October, the world feared a third world war. Kennedy made it clear that he would not shrink back from the extreme use of military means - in plain language, the use of atomic weapons. The USSR finally gave in. Khrushchev ordered his missile-laden ships back on the high seas and promised the president that he would dismantle the missile bases in Cuba. The American promise to withdraw its missiles from Turkey in return was kept secret from the public. Cuba was the last direct confrontation between the USA and the USSR in the Cold War. After that, the first tentative "thaw" set in between the power blocs. Since then, a paradigm shift has determined the East-West conflict: they shied away from the direct military trouble spot and began instead with a phase of worldwide proxy wars in Asia, Africa and South America.

Youthfulness, intellectuality, charm, a family life staged in front of the public, a spirit of optimism, commitment to the concerns of civil rights activists, the beginning of space travel and successful crisis management are terms that are easily associated with the person of Kennedy. All of this together created the image of a charismatic personality. As a politician, he represented the type of popular media star who was also able to win his election campaign through television duels and later spread the vision of his politics in the media.

No other motif that we chose for our exhibition could better capture the appeal of the 35th President of the United States, which continues to this day, than his portrait composed of countless photographs. The countless press photos reflect a dramatic epoch in our contemporary history in a multifaceted way. The name "John F. Kennedy" and his portrait as an icon depict a political life that has condensed into the legend and myth "JFK". It is not the individual act, not the one event, not the successful political move that gives him immortality, but rather the "JFK" as a total work of art. It was an irresistible mixture of personal and personal affairs, of political calculation and dramatic world politics, of unfulfilled political promises and tactical delays, of defeats and greatest successes, of love and death. The shots in Dallas and Kennedy's violent early death in November 1963 - at a time when the victory or defeat of his political work and fame had not yet been decided - gave political opponents only a brief success. The political assassination brought about his hero worship and promoted the transfiguration to the President of the United States, and made him the model and ideal for good America.

In his speech to students at the American University in Washington in June 1963, Kenedy had spoken of the "strategy of peace" as the future task of politics in a world that belongs to everyone and that should be preserved. The former "politics of strength" of the post-war period and the Cold War receded. Khrushchev had already called for a "peaceful coexistence" of the political systems in 1956, although this remained lip service for the time being. This international shift in emphasis also found its echo in German politics. In divided Berlin in particular, it was important to defuse the Cold War. Egon Bahr, companion and advisor to Willy Brandt, coined the term "change through rapprochement". It was not by chance that this German contribution to the international thaw came two weeks after this visit to Berlin. This was by no means a generally popular term. In the USA and Western Europe there were hardliners for whom this shift in emphasis went too far. In terms of foreign and domestic politics, Kennedy's image faded, and in the summer of 1963 the successful course of his presidency stagnated. So you can see your visit to Berlin as a self-assurance, as a review of your own goals.

After the Berlin visit, the President felt that his political plans had been confirmed. Yes, he advised each of his successors to go to Berlin if they had doubts about themselves. He would never see a day like that again. On June 26, 1963, the German-American relationship was not just a political calculation, but also a matter close to the heart of each other.


The exhibition does not want to succumb to the "myth of Kennedy", but to do justice to the political successes and defeats, to introduce the glamorous politician and media star, to make his staged and promoted career with its breaks and its own fascination understandable. Accompanying lectures by personalities from his tenure as well as by connoisseurs of American post-war history are intended to critically appreciate the image of the person and time.

It is no coincidence that this exhibition can be seen in the new exhibition hall parallel to the "European Idea" exhibition. The reflection on the ideological worlds of one's own continent is supported by that intercontinental relationship that continues to shape post-war Europe culturally to this day. This is also what the name John F. Kennedy stands for. Completely coincidental, however, is that the architect of our new exhibition hall, I.M. Pei, in which we can show the Kennedy exhibition until October, also built the Kennedy Library in Boston, which opened in 1979. The presidential widow Jackie Kennedy had chosen Pei in 1964. The architect, who was born in China, was recognized internationally for the first time. So you can find peace under one roof: Europe, North America and a little bit of Asia.


The German Historical Museum would like to thank all lenders from the USA who made their loans available despite the tense world politics caused by the Iraq war. This war had weighed heavily on our loan requests in the spring and not all requests could be fulfilled. We thank Dr. Andreas Etges from the John F. Kennedy Institute of the Free University of Berlin for the idea of ​​the exhibition and for the careful and knowledgeable implementation. Right from the start, this first collaboration has proven to be successful and exemplary for both institutions, and we hope that it will be of benefit to both institutions. Thanks also to the project team: Maike Steinkamp, ​​Felicitas Hentschke, Michael Steinmetz and Kristina Scholz. We would like to thank our designer Werner Schulte for implementing the idea in the space and for the appearance of the exhibition.

In times of tight budgets, it was not easy to finance this international company. Acquiring third-party funding from various public institutions was completely unsuccessful, so we would like to express our sincere thanks to the private sponsors who committed themselves to our topic despite the economic crisis: Wall AG and DaimlerChrysler. We would like to thank the Embassy of the United States and the America House, the Foreign Office, the State of Berlin and the Free University of Berlin for their active support.

Dr. Dieter Head of Department Prof. Dr. Hans Ottomeyer