Jewish World Review June 26, 2003 / 26 Sivan, 5763

Jonathan Gurwitz

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JFK's message of struggle for freedom still stands | On June 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy went to the Berlin Wall to declare the free world's solidarity with the residents of West Berlin. The wall physically separated West from East Berlin; it also symbolically divided the world between freedom and oppression.

The citizens of West Berlin, by that time isolated and besieged for 18 years, were at the front lines of the great ideological conflict between democracy and communism.

The wall, said Kennedy, was "the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the Communist system, for all the world to see, an offense not only against history but an offense against humanity."

Five months later, Kennedy was assassinated. After his death, the struggle that he so clearly interpreted was fought out in Southeast Asia and Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

Millions died, and millions more suffered, not primarily as a result of warfare, but rather as victims of their own totalitarian rulers in the former Soviet Union, China, Cambodia and Ethiopia, among others.

By 1989, the failure of communism's "evil system," as Kennedy called it, was too much even for the force of arms to sustain.

The Soviet Empire collapsed, and the Berlin Wall was torn down by the sons and daughters of those who heard and read the words of a young American president on that summer day in 1963

The detritus of communism's failure is still with us today: in China, whose communist regime is trying paradoxically to exist both in the world of freedom and the world of oppression; in North Korea, the last bastion of unabashed Stalinism; in Cuba, the final outpost of communist profligacy in the Western Hemisphere; and in the myriad former client states of the Soviet Empire that still bear the totalitarian traits and military weaponry of their late patron, especially in the Middle East - Syria, Libya and, until recently, Iraq.

What would John F. Kennedy have made of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world?

I imagine he would have viewed it in much the same way he viewed the world 40 years ago - divided between the free and the oppressed, between his own progeny of liberty and opportunity and the bastard issue of the Berlin Wall and those who built it.

That if the wall dividing the free from the unfree ran through Berlin 40 years ago, today it runs symbolically through a crater in Lower Manhattan, the scarred edifice of the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

Kennedy told the thousands crammed into the Rudolph Wilde Platz, "freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in."

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Today, despite the various social and political problems that beset the United States, regardless of the criticisms hurled at it from within and without, it remains the one country to which more people from more places long to come.

Three million people from all over the globe came to the United States in the past two years alone seeking better lives for themselves and their children, despite the threat of terrorism, an economic downturn and war.

The United States has a larger immigrant population than Germany, France, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Switzerland and Italy combined.

Perhaps these immigrants, like Kennedy, knew more about freedom and the role of the United States as its guarantor than many in the media, academia and politics, both here and abroad.

Kennedy told the crowd in Berlin, "Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was 'civis Romanus sum'" - I am a Roman citizen.

That day in 1963, Kennedy said, "all free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words 'Ich bin ein Berliner.'"

Forty years later, I suspect he might recognize that those who are unfree, wherever they may live, yearn to be citizens of the United States. Therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words "I am an American."

JWR contributor Jonathan Gurwitz is a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News. Comment by clicking here.


06/19/03: Most Americans understand this cynical equation
04/22/03: War opponents share burden of guilt
04/10/03: Iraqis get liberation and respect
03/28/03: Constitutionally protected SOBs
03/25/03: Morality changes with the times
03/12/03: Will all of those, ahem, "sincere" peace activists remember the Iraqis tomorrow?
02/27/03: Blood already on UN inspectors' hands

© 2003, Jonathan Gurwitz