He had helped to build the imposing stage in front of the Henry Ford Building, a steel pipe structure with rising stands occupying 264 square meters. Shortly before Kennedy’s appearance, he took a seat there – close enough to see the professors, who were wearing different colored caps and gowns depending on their department. Seated diagonally across from him were Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the Governing Mayor of Berlin, Willy Brandt, and three of the city’s four Allied commanders – the representative of the Soviet sector was notably absent.
Just 96 days before, at 8:28 p.m. on March 22, a telegram from New York had hit Horst W. Hartwich, head of the international office of Freie Universität, like a ton of bricks. In it, Shepard Stone, Director of International Affairs at the Ford Foundation, urged the university to invite U.S. President Kennedy to visit.
Hartwich was electrified. This kind of gesture could serve as the university’s way of thanking the people of the United States for the “tremendous American aid” that had been provided for the founding of the university, as Hartwich told the head of the Senate Chancellery, Dietrich Spangenberg, in a confidential letter. The two were on a first-name basis; 15 years before, during their student days, both of them had been on the founding committee of Freie Universität.
But the university did not want to get ahead of itself, especially because of the last sentence of Stone’s telegram – “Please consider this only a personal, informal suggestion.” As a result, Hartwich added a caution in his letter to Spangenberg: “But before final steps are taken, we would have to have the Governing Mayor’s consent, since we definitely don’t want to push ourselves into the agenda.”
91 Days Before the Visit
The go-ahead came right away from Rudolph Wilde-Platz, in Schöneberg, and the university was relieved to see “that the extraordinary expenses” incurred in connection with the visit would be “assumed by the Senate of Berlin.” On March 27, the Academic Senate of Freie Universität unanimously passed a confidential resolution to invite Kennedy to speak at the university and to name him an honorary member of the university.
There were 91 days before the visit, and a staggering amount of organizational work had to be completed. But the university management, departments, faculty, and students worked side by side to get it all done. The only known setback: A vehicle operated by the West Berlin Senate initiative “Studio am Stacheldraht” (Studio at the Barbed Wire), which otherwise broadcast information and news across the Wall to Berlin residents living in the eastern part of the city, shattered windows at a dining hall about 300 meters away during a test of the loudspeakers.
Later, the Senate transferred a total of DM 66,673.55, but it did not provide full financing for the visit, as one Freie Universität employee angrily noted in a file memo: He had been “sharply” criticized by the Senate for having claimed a prompt payment discount of only two percent instead of three, and for not having asserted a “special discount” in his dealings with Berlin’s fabric factories as a representative of a government agency. As punishment for this act, which went “counter to the provisions on the use of public funds,” the Senate Chancellery held the university responsible – to the tune of exactly DM 4.69.
The expense item in question, though, was actually one of the most important purchases made to ensure that the visit would go off without a hitch – the DM 117.60 went toward 108 armbands for the students who were to support the Berlin police at the security checkpoints at the six entrances to the event area. The Senate made no complaints about the costs of 348 bottles of Coca-Cola, which were served as refreshments to the security guards, police officers, and the U.S. Secret Service.