The Berlin Crisis: Collateral for Kennedy's "Letter of Credit"


On July 25th, 1961 President John F. Kennedy gave a speech over the radio and television, advising his "fellow Americans" of the threatening conflict taking place in an "isolated outpost" of "free people 110 miles behind the Iron Curtain"—West Berlin. This speech was delivered in response to the apparent failed discussions over the Berlin Wall, erected by the Soviets to contain West Berlin, and over the impending peace treaty. Although this speech was directed in terms of defense, and in terms of restraint, the Soviet Union's Premier, Nikita S. Khrushchev, considered it nothing short of a "declaration of war" (Khrushchev, p. 2). Supposedly, Kennedy intended to use the speech to set a foundation and a tone for further negotiations, but Khrushchev, only days later (August 4th, 1961) retaliated:

"You want to frighten us. You convinced yourself that Khrushchev will never go to you scare us [expecting] us to retreat. True, we will not declare war, but we will not withdraw either, if you push it on us. We will respond to your war in kind" (Khrushchev, p. 2).

It is true that language and cultural barriers may hinder communications, but such a disparity with regard to the intent of this complex speech begs for closer inspection. This paper will address Kennedy's speech on many levels, utilizing theories of metaphor in order to abstract both the respective audience(s) and the intent(s). I will examine this speech by: 1) treating the metaphors inherent for their direct effect on a surface level; 2) moving through an analysis of the speech on a deeper level in terms of coherence and matrix properties; and finally, 3) concluding with what I believe is the core intent of this speech and declaring just exactly to whom I believe this core message was delivered.

In metaphor theory, we have a special name for those metaphors that "leap out at you" rendering any translation by the recipient void and unnecessary. Such metaphors are not only used to convey a message to a particular audience, but also to specifically elicit a response from that audience—preferably a response which is to the benefit of the speaker. In essence, these metaphors, known as "weapon metaphors" are used to "build ethos for the speaker) and to manipulate and direct the audience toward a prescribed behavior (Booth, p. 131).

The author of the "weapon metaphor" theory, Wayne Booth, gave us the example of the lawyer who illustrated the effect of big business in the south using a metaphor of a "catfish being gutted" (Booth, pp. 129-30)—we know exactly who his audience was from those choice of words (not the judge, not the media, not the opposing lawyer, not the big businesses in question—but specifically the 12-person jury of "southern folk"). On the surface, contrary to what some believe, Khrushchev and the Soviet Union are not part of the intended audience, and neither is the rest of the world for that matter. The intended audience on this level is quite specifically the American people, who are being directed (" our very best, for our country, and for our cause"..."I ask for your help, and your advice" (Kennedy, p. 6)) toward the prescribed behaviors of "appropriating and increasing the size of the military...authorizing the funding of immediate procurement [with the complete understanding that more funding will be required shortly]...[and] bearing the burden of these requests" (Kennedy, p. 3), all while overlooking the "sober responsibility of Civil Defense...the possibility of an attack and a nuclear blast...the defense budget...this year's increase in taxes...the current deficit...[and] the public revenue measure" (Kennedy, pp. 6-7).

In analyzing the speech for weapon metaphors, we are presented with a very blatant list of pro's for "our side" and con's for "their side." This speech fully legitimates a sense of "us and them" [reinforced on other levels to be discussed] in a way that the very physical Berlin Wall can only allude to. In fact, I would argue that the Berlin Wall, as a physical metaphor for "obstacles to overcome" in order to bring people together might actually have had a positive effect on the world—demonstrating just how low the world had gone to preserve protectionism—whereas this speech, not the least in terms of its weapon metaphors listed below (not all-inclusive), was a purely divisive tactic. Notice that not a single kind word is utilized to describe Khrushchev or the Soviet actions, yet with very few exceptions (either intended to be overlooked as above referenced, or glossed over, as in the case of "costs... unwise... panic... timidity... abandon... surrender... retreat... both sides... either side... impatient... quick and easy solution" (Kennedy, p. 7)), there are absolutely no ill metaphors depicting the actions of the United States and its allies:

WEST metaphors:
our allies
unity of purpose
West Berlin
steady nerves
ability to make good
legal rights
our words
our commitment
free people
peace and freedom
isolated outpost
white (West Germany)
our victory
enjoyment of access
allied powers
NATO shield
beacon of hope
above all
showcase of liberty
a symbol
link (to Freedom)
Western courage
our pledge
Free World
our resolve
maintain our rights
build-up strength
meet (face against)
love our country
your support
your advice
your prayers
[list shortened dramatically for the sake of this posting…]

EAST metaphors:
grim warnings
increase military
Iron Curtain
Nazi Germany
Eastern Germany
Soviet troops
Soviet ambitions
an end
Communist sea
immediate threat
manufactured crisis
world-wide threat
critical area
all-out nuclear action
rejected peace
use of force
slow down
European chaos 1947
Berlin blockade 1948
Korea 1950
path to war
path of weakness
new threats
divided Berlin
rain devastation
Communist control
[list shortened dramatically for the sake of this posting…]

Why so many metaphors? Does it not seem that Kennedy's speech hammers the point in? He does not utilize repetition in this speech per se, as he did in others, or as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did prevalently in discourse, but he does use the rhetorical device of synonymy—replacing words methodically over the course of the speech with words of similar meanings. He also uses transition, leading the listener or reader from "Nazi Germany" to "East Germany" to the "Soviet Union," and from "chaos" to "blockade" to "control" to "perils." The listener then forms conclusions with regard to the events ("threats" and "challenges"—the word 'challenge' is pervasive throughout this speech), and with regard to "how to meet those challenges" ("take on the burdens," "build strength," "increase military" funding, etc.).

Notice that "building strength," spending more money via "increased taxes," "sharing risks," and taking on extra "burdens of responsibility," etc., which under normal circumstances would be considered negative aspects, each respectively become positive attributes in light of "perseverance" and "courage" (Kennedy, p. 7). Note that the use of "force" for Americans is presented as a positive word while "clearly" a negative for the "other side." Note that the Western "intention" is to "speed up" progress and provide an atmosphere of "freedom," whereas the Eastern "concern" is to "slow down" and provide an atmosphere of "chaos" and "danger." Notice that the Western people will "prevail" and have "faith," while the Eastern threatens "war," "nuclear devastation," and "domination." Americans are "officers of the peace," while the Soviet government and all communists are "outlaws."

Note the very important aspect of the "Russian people" who are presented as "brave sufferers" and are not presented as one and the same with the Soviet government or Premier Khrushchev himself—in essence, the "Russian people" are borrowed and used as western characters in opposition to eastern tyranny. Lastly, one must note the entire sections devoted to only positive, West metaphors (second paragraph on page one, most of the last paragraph on page two, the entire "steps" section on page three, and most of the last page—which can be interpreted as the metaphorical representation of the "West prevailing through courage, strength and unity," that Kennedy specifically refers to throughout the speech.

At the first glance, in context, of some of the above words, one might not consider them to be metaphors at all (e.g. NATO, West Berlin, Soviet Union, they, etc.). It must be noted, however, that these words are replaced metaphorically in other parts of the speech. For example, "West Berlin" becomes "that city" which becomes an "isolated outpost," a "symbol," an "escape hatch," a "link with the Free World" (Kennedy, pp. 1-2). Such observations lead us to the next topic of coherence via matrix properties.

One of the vital characteristics of metaphors, especially if utilized in an organized fashion in the medium of a well-devised speech, is that they will resonate with each other, creating more meaning than initially observed. Martha Solomon, building off the tenor-vehicle aspects provided by the metaphor theory of I.A. Richards, as well as the "coherence" aspects provided by the theory of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, devised what is known as "matrix metaphors" — which are basically an organized collection of coherent metaphors (Solomon) — in order to analyze speeches for deeper content. With this device, Solomon analyzed for us King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and provided us with an intriguing insight into how his usage of resonating metaphors constructed a wonderful message that exists on a deeper level than the mere surface presentation most people readily observe (Solomon, pp. 141-2, pp. 145-9)—the meanings don't simply "jump out at you." This is neither good nor bad, but simply adds to the complexity and importance of a given speech, especially if that speech both contains weapon metaphors and is constructed methodically to take advantage of such potential resonance.

With this tool at my disposal, and having already highlighted the prevalent metaphors, now in combination with others which were not necessarily weapon metaphors, I quickly came to an astounding realization that Kennedy was working with not one, but two matrices simultaneously. The message on this level is "clearly" intended for a very different audience than that of the surface weapon metaphors. What is very important for the reader and/or listener, is that this message may be felt, even if one is not trained (as such) in the examination of metaphorical matrices. Nor does one have to know of this theory in order to construct an effective speech which has information on this level. What is provided to those who know how to abstract these resonant metaphors is the ability to discover exactly (or perhaps "more clearly" is a better choice) what is being said and discern to whom this underlying message is be directed. In many cases, the same words will have a distinct surface level meaning, and a separate, distinct underlying meaning—that is old news to many of us, yet the device of metaphorical matrices gives us a better handle on this in terms of analysis.

Who is the intended target audience of Kennedy's underlying, resonant message? I would argue that the Premier Khrushchev was the sole entity for this—even though others of the Soviet and Eastern bloc governments may have understood the message on this level. Khruschev is singled out, and his name resonates with "Soviet government" throughout the speech. Soviet government in turn can be tied directly to an end, to regime, to control by force, to danger, to challenge, to domination, and to the raining of more devastation. Kennedy goes so far as to suggest (via resonant implication) that Khrushchev acts in the manner of the Nazis—a severe blow, a punch "below the belt" delivered by Kennedy here.

Kennedy's speech, on this level of resonance, provides the "clear" message that "America and her allies (NATO referenced consistently) are not only prepared to wage war, but in fact, are at this very moment raising troops levels and securing funding in order to take on this challenge—being Communism in general, and the Soviet government in particular—where-ever it may reside." Further, that "America will take this war right to the hub of Communism—the sacred city of Moscow." War will "begin in Moscow."

Also, Kennedy's specific reference to the "white" West Germany says to Khrushchev, "we're the whites and you're the reds" (he never had to use the word red overtly to get that across implicitly). So, although this speech on a surface level is apparently a mere call for patriotism and faith and perseverance, on the resonant level it has a very different meaning altogether. What may be written off as a speech intended to "set a tone for negotiations" by some, may indeed be a "declaration of war" to others—I can understand why Khrushchev became so irritated.

But Kennedy could have delivered this utilizing a singular approach, with only positive words for "our side" and a less drastic set of metaphors for the Soviets—or none at all. Kennedy could have taken the approach later used by King, wherein "we are all on the same road together heading toward hopeful negotiations and eventually toward a world united in freedom," or as King put it, "this is not a black or white issue, but an American issue" (King). Instead, Kennedy says "this is an 'us and them' issue, and you're 'them'—you're the 'others''re the reds." This "double matrix approach" is the underlying reinforcement, the mortar if you will, in Kennedy's own Wall (alluded to earlier in the weapon metaphor section).

Such a construction allows any listener or reader to "feel the effects" of having a wall placed between "us and them." Indeed, this appears to be a very "personal message" from Kennedy to Khrushchev. If Kennedy's intent was to hammer the points using weapon metaphors on a surface level, then on this level his intent was to drive the points all the way "home—right to Moscow," to drive in every last nail of the proposed coffin for Communism and the Soviet government.

It must be understood that the underlying messages quoted in the three previous paragraphs (immediately above) are my own interpretations. But the resonance is quite apparent and quite strong, so I would argue that the messages on that level, however interpreted by any given listener, Soviet or American, wouldn't be very different—the metaphors utilized by Kennedy only provide a limited number of choices, and the tone directed to Khrushchev was definitely not a pleasant one.

Lastly, upon reading this speech, one may quickly observe a subtle, yet definitive change in tone in sections IV and V, respectively. This, I would argue, reflects the very core message of the entire speech, carefully buried between the very vehement sections regarding "Soviet intrusion" and the like. In fact, the terms "Soviet Union," or "Communist," or "Berlin Crisis" are completely absent in these two sections. I would argue that if one observes these two sections against the backdrop of the rest of the speech, a tenor-vehicle relationship would emerge, providing a core metaphor with its own unique message, and its own unique audience.

The speech switches from topics of "aggression" and "challenge" and "threat," to percentage points, dollar figures and cost analysis—costs that we the listener are directed to overlook: "we must bear this responsibility" and "share this risk" and to do otherwise would be a "a path of weakness," a "misjudgment" and would be considered lacking in "courage" (Kennedy, pp. 5-6). The audience is quite apparent—the U.S. taxpayer—and the core message here is blatantly "clear": allow for an increase in military spending, and increased taxes to fund such a "defense" budget. If King were indeed waiving his "promissory note," his check of "insufficient funds" (Solomon, pp. 145-6), then Kennedy here is claiming Berlin Crisis, and all the inherent threats and challenges referenced in his speech, as collateral for his international "letter of credit."

Cited References

Booth, Wayne. "Metaphor in Rhetoric." Packet compiled for RHET372W, Willamette University: Salem, OR, 2001.

Kennedy, John F. "Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Berlin Crisis." On-line document :

Khrushchev, Nikita S. "Khrushchev's Response to Kennedy Speech: Secret Speech to Warsaw Treaty Organization." On-line document:

Solomon, Martha. "Covenanted Rights." Packet compiled for RHET372W, Willamette University: Salem, OR, 2001.

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Published on Wednesday, June 18, 2008.     Filed under: "Essay"
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