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Behind the scenes of John F. Kennedy's speech at Freie Universität Berlin on June 26, 1963

News vom 16.06.2023

Having a Coke with the Secret Service

Behind the scenes of John F. Kennedy’s speech at Freie Universität Berlin on June 26, 1963

Hardly anyone had the kind of luck Peter Arndt had that afternoon. Arndt, then 22, had been working at Freie Universität Berlin for less than six months, but on June 26, 1963, having his job was like winning the lottery. “As a pipe fitter, I was given a colored pin to wear. It let me go everywhere without being stopped by security during Kennedy’s visit,” Arndt says with a smile.

He had helped to build the imposing stage in front of the Henry Ford Building, a steel pipe structure with rising stands occupying 264 square meters. Shortly before Kennedy’s appearance, he took a seat there – close enough to see the professors, who were wearing different colored caps and gowns depending on their department. Seated diagonally across from him were Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the Governing Mayor of Berlin, Willy Brandt, and three of the city’s four Allied commanders – the representative of the Soviet sector was notably absent.

Just 96 days before, at 8:28 p.m. on March 22, a telegram from New York had hit Horst W. Hartwich, head of the international office of Freie Universität, like a ton of bricks. In it, Shepard Stone, Director of International Affairs at the Ford Foundation, urged the university to invite U.S. President Kennedy to visit.

Hartwich was electrified. This kind of gesture could serve as the university’s way of thanking the people of the United States for the “tremendous American aid” that had been provided for the founding of the university, as Hartwich told the head of the Senate Chancellery, Dietrich Spangenberg, in a confidential letter. The two were on a first-name basis; 15 years before, during their student days, both of them had been on the founding committee of Freie Universität.

But the university did not want to get ahead of itself, especially because of the last sentence of Stone’s telegram – “Please consider this only a personal, informal suggestion.” As a result, Hartwich added a caution in his letter to Spangenberg: “But before final steps are taken, we would have to have the Governing Mayor’s consent, since we definitely don’t want to push ourselves into the agenda.”

91 Days Before the Visit

The go-ahead came right away from Rudolph Wilde-Platz, in Schöneberg, and the university was relieved to see “that the extraordinary expenses” incurred in connection with the visit would be “assumed by the Senate of Berlin.” On March 27, the Academic Senate of Freie Universität unanimously passed a confidential resolution to invite Kennedy to speak at the university and to name him an honorary member of the university.

There were 91 days before the visit, and a staggering amount of organizational work had to be completed. But the university management, departments, faculty, and students worked side by side to get it all done. The only known setback: A vehicle operated by the West Berlin Senate initiative “Studio am Stacheldraht” (Studio at the Barbed Wire), which otherwise broadcast information and news across the Wall to Berlin residents living in the eastern part of the city, shattered windows at a dining hall about 300 meters away during a test of the loudspeakers.

Later, the Senate transferred a total of DM 66,673.55, but it did not provide full financing for the visit, as one Freie Universität employee angrily noted in a file memo: He had been “sharply” criticized by the Senate for having claimed a prompt payment discount of only two percent instead of three, and for not having asserted a “special discount” in his dealings with Berlin’s fabric factories as a representative of a government agency. As punishment for this act, which went “counter to the provisions on the use of public funds,” the Senate Chancellery held the university responsible – to the tune of exactly DM 4.69.

The expense item in question, though, was actually one of the most important purchases made to ensure that the visit would go off without a hitch – the DM 117.60 went toward 108 armbands for the students who were to support the Berlin police at the security checkpoints at the six entrances to the event area. The Senate made no complaints about the costs of 348 bottles of Coca-Cola, which were served as refreshments to the security guards, police officers, and the U.S. Secret Service.

6,000 tickets snapped up in no time

How important the security guards’ task would be became apparent by four days before Kennedy’s speech, when the rush for the approximately 20,000 tickets to the event started: The night before tickets were due to be released, many students showed up with folding chairs and Thermos bottles to get a good spot in line. Four hours after the office opened, the 6,000 tickets at Freie Universität had all been snapped up. The remaining coveted tickets – satin-finish paperboard, 14 by nine centimeters, with etched printing – had gone to students at Berlin’s other higher education institutions.

Did the German and American authorities believe Kennedy’s safety was in particular danger? The West Berlin police warned residents along the route Kennedy was to travel not to let strangers, “even especially stubborn” ones, into their apartments under any circumstances, not to create confusion by throwing flowers from their windows, and to report all suspicious persons. Barbara Sass-Viehweger, a law student at the time, remembers being turned away from the department library days before the event because the Secret Service had checked the facility and closed it temporarily. And Stanislaw Karol Kubicki, the very first student enrolled at Freie Universität (student ID number: 1) – already a trained physician at the time, and later a professor of medicine – also points out that hospital staff in West Berlin were kept on standby for fear of an attack.

But the security precautions as Kennedy was arriving and departing in his convertible Lincoln cruiser and during his speech in Dahlem were lax: There were no serious security checks of attendees, and it was very easy to approach the President unchallenged. Aside from that, it seemed the plans had accounted for every detail – but would the weather cooperate?

Kennedy Suffered from Severe Chronic Back Pain

The prospects didn’t look good. The university’s Institute of Meteorology forecast that Berlin would face a cold front with showers and thunderstorms over the city right on the day of the speech. That very morning, Horst W. Hartwich, head of the international office, phoned in a last-minute order for 300 square meters of plastic film for the stands. In line with the political circumstances at the time, the suppliers later affirmed in their invoices that the goods came from “the Federal Republic or West Berlin.” The rain failed to materialize.

Kennedy had been given detailed instructions for the ceremony. But only the pipe fitter Peter Arndt and a few of his colleagues would come to understand, after the fact, how difficult it must have been for the American President to follow the seemingly harmless instructions that had been written down for him: At the end of the speech in Latin in his honor, he was to stand up, walk a few steps to the edge of the stage, and shake university rector Ernst Heinitz’s hand.

Thanks to his colored pin, Arndt learned something that was hidden from the thousands of attendees at the time, something not a single journalist ever reported. “After the speech, we were curious, so we followed Kennedy into the Henry Ford Building,” Arndt recalls. “When we saw him, he had just collapsed.”

Kennedy suffered from severe, chronic back pain. Helpers had come to his aid, laying him down on a stone bench underneath the steps at the building’s entrance – surrounded by university employees who did not know what to do and by American security officers.

Arndt no longer recalls the color of the pin that brought him so close to Kennedy, but one thing has stayed with him to this day: His luck was simply amazing.

Carsten Wette

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