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JFK Didn’t Say He Was A Donut

  • August 15th, 2007
  • Posted by 7thmin

berliner-donut-wwwvirtualtouristcom-google.jpgMost recent thinking gives benefit of the doubt to President Kennedy that in Berlin on 26 June 1963 he did not proclaim: “I am a jam donut!”.

It has moved into the realm of chatroom argument and “urban myth” that John Kennedy, in his famous Cold War speech to the Berliners at Schoneberg Town Hall, committed a grammatical blunder when he said: “Ich bin ein Berliner“.

The story goes that “ein Berliner” is the expression used around Germany for a jam donut, and that the President should have said “ich bin Berliner“.

It did not stop people in the beleaguered, walled-in enclave of a city cheering ecstatically and thanking him for his moral support.

The East German authorities had erected their “anti-fascist protection barrier”, the Berlin Wall, from 13 August 1961; the initial shock was still being felt.

The donut story has had so much currency, especially in folk histories being told since the Wall came down in 1989, a recent book gives a special treatment to it.

Frederick Taylor in his meticulous, and readable The Berlin Wall, points out that President Kennedy had highly competent German speakers in his entourage who could give him the translation when he decided, late, to write it into his speech:

“Normally a German simply describing where he comes from would say ‘Ich bin Berliner‘ (or Dresdner or Muchner). But Kennedy was not actually from Berlin … He was rather making a rhetorical flourish, including himself in the abstract club of being Berliner in spirit. The insertion of ‘ein‘ made this clear … The alleged amusement among the crowd seems to have been added afterwards as the story got around. The general view at the time held that the audience felt profoundly moved.”

Taylor cites Daum’s Kennedy in Berlin for reinforcement, and tells how the President in speeches before and after that address made more cautious pronouncements, counseling Cold War rapprochement or at least patience.

Despite all reasoning the donut story is of course good for a laugh and so is bound to live on.


Frederick Taylor (2006), The Berlin wall: 13 August 1961 – 9 November 1989, Bloomsbury, London, pp 340-41


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