Last night’s Pan Am episode revolved around a real historical event, JFK’s 1963 trip to West Berlin. On this trip, JFK made one of his most famous speeches, the “Ich Bin Ein Berliner,” speech, which doubled as the title of the episode. In this address, Kennedy identified with West Germany’s struggle against communism by declaring that he was a Berliner (although in German he actually said he was a jelly doughnut). In order to prevent the continued exodus of educated people to the West, the Soviet Union and East Germany had erected the Berlin Wall, which split the city in two, in 1961. The wall quickly became the main symbol of the Cold War and the division of Europe. The show accurately depicts the tremendous excitement inspired by JFK’s visit.
A review of the speech reveals how much it expressed Kennedy’s Cold War liberalism. While we remember JFK as a liberal icon, he was a hawk who campaigned in 1960 on a platform of being tougher on the Soviet Union. In the “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” speech, Kennedy declared:
There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass' sic nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to BerlinThe Wall would remain the most visible symbol of the Cold War throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Its fall in 1989 provided the clearest sign of the end of the U.S./Soviet conflict. West and East Germany would reunify shortly thereafter.
There were a number of other interesting historical notes in the episode. Some of the reporters covering the speech made oblique references to JFK’s affairs, which were not known to the general public at the time. In this time before feminism fostered a greater stigma toward adultery and Vietnam and Watergate brought about a more aggressive media, the press did not examine the private lives of politicians. In fact, the episode probably exaggerates the press’ knowledge of these affairs.
The trip revives the wartime memories of Colette, a French-born stewardess who grew up during the Nazi occupation of France from 1940-44. She has an angry exchange with German officials over how Kennedy’s visit seemingly gives Germany a pass for its wartime behavior. This part of the episode accurately reveals how the Cold War limited discussion of Nazi crimes because the U.S./West German alliance gave the West an interest in constructing an image of West Germans as “good” guys in the struggle against communism. Greater discussion of the Holocaust would only emerge in West Germany after a wave of youth protests in 1968 and, if you can believe it, the showing of NBC’s Holocaust mini-series in the late 1970s.
With the exception of a silly subplot where Christina Ricci’s character goes out of her way to try to meet President Kennedy, I enjoyed the episode. Indeed, I’ve actually been surprised by the relative quality of the show and will continue to watch and blog.