Was He, or Was He Not, A Jelly Doughnut?

JFK in Berlin, 1963

One of the great legends of the JFK legend—a living legend that will live on after other living legends have died, to invoke the great Eric Idle in The Rutles—is that his famous declaration “Ich bin ein Berliner” translates literally, “I am a jelly doughnut,” “berliner” being apparently a German term for Homer Simpson’s favorite food group.

Last week the CIA held a conference at the National Archives where new documents from the 1961 Berlin crisis were released, including one from JFK’s personal representative to Berlin, William Smyser, who cabled that after the Bay of Pigs, Nikita Khrushchev concluded that “Kennedy is a boy in small pants.”  Cue the building of the Wall, which, I learned recently, took JFK four days to send a note of protest to Moscow.

Meanwhile, there’s this for you German linguists out there:

During a lighter moment, Smyser attacked the belief that Kennedy during his June 26, 1963, “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech accidentally said that he was a jelly doughnut, known in parts of Germany as a “Berliner”, instead of saying that he was a citizen of Berlin.

Some say Kennedy should, have said Ich bin Berliner to mean “I am a person from Berlin”, and that adding the indefinite article ein to his statement implied he was a non-human Berliner, thus, “I am a jelly doughnut”. However, the indefinite article ein is omitted when speaking of an individual’s profession or residence but is necessary when speaking in a figurative sense as Kennedy did. Since President Kennedy was not literally from Berlin but only declaring his solidarity with its citizens, “Ich bin Berliner” would not have been correct. Also, citizens of Berlin do refer to themselves as Berliner; they generally do not refer to jelly doughnuts as Berliner.

Well maybe, but regardless of the correct usage, JFK was still a jelly-head.

If you’re interested in the proceedings of this conference and the documents, they are available from PaperlessArchive.com.

(P.S.: the Urban Legends website has also debunked the “jelly doughnut” legend.)

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