The US German Relationship

For more than 400 years Germany and the United States have been cultivating a transatlantic relationship. United States’ presidents, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and, at the time, presidential candidate - Barack Obama - have given speeches in Berlin to the German public.  Although content varied due to the time of each speech, one theme held consistent and that was the durability of a strong relationship between the US and Germany.  Whether Germany was divided or united, the US always felt drawn to express its faith in not only a positive US/German relationship but also the vitality of Germans themselves. 

One of the greatest contributors to the everlasting connection between the United States and Germany ignited with German immigration to the United States.  Due to the large number of German immigrants to the US during the seventeenth century, whole German communities were established such as Germantown near Philadelphia. By the end of the nineteenth century, metropolitan cites such as Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Milwaukee estimated 40% of their population to be of German heritage. 

Consisting of such a large percentage of the population throughout the US, their influence became apparent.  Politically driven German Americans were mostly involved in the labor movement.  Through the establishment of labor unions, German immigrants were able to improve their working conditions which also aided their integration into American society.

During World War I, the United States aimed to remain neutral.  However, several acts by Germany eventually made it difficult for the US to remain isolated.  These acts included Germany’s attack on the British vessel, Lusitania, which was carrying American passengers, and Germany’s Zimmermann Telegram to Mexico requesting cooperation against the US in return for German support in Mexico reclaiming Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.  Following these events, the United States entered the war against Germany, which ended in 1918 with Germany’s surrender and the Treaty of Versailles

The beginning of World War II was also marked by American neutrality. Although the United States’ public opinion was opposed to war unless there was a direct attack on US territory, this did not prevent the US from enacting trade embargos against all nations that were engaged in the war. Similar to WWI, the United States was unable to remain neutral.  When France and Great Britain began showing signs of defeat, the US intervened by supplying weapons for the anti-German side. However, following several attacks by the Axis powers such as the German attacks on American warships protecting supplies for France and Great Britain along with the Japanese bombing on Pearl Harbor, the US could no longer ignore military participation in the war. Upon official entrance in the war, they aided with the defeat against the Axis powers in 1945.
After World War II, France, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union occupied Germany. While the Soviet Union was in control of the GDR (German Democratic Republic), the US, in cooperation with the Western allies, supported the Federal Republic of Germany. The US supported the Western part of Germany with the Marshall Plan which aimed to rebuild German infrastructure, economy and promote anti-Soviet incentives.

1948 proved to be a difficult year for Berlin when West Berlin was facing serious threats of starvation triggered by the Soviet Union’s attempt to isolate West Berlin from any sort of Western access.  The United States intervened by providing the citizens of West Berlin with essential supplies by air.  This became known as the Berlin Air Lift of 1949, and “Berlin became a symbol of the United States resolve to stand up to the Soviet threat without being forced into a direct conflict”.  During times of German division, the city of Berlin constituted a miniature setting of the whole Cold War situation. Berlin was the side where the two opposing parties met: East vs. West.

During the Cold War, West Germany became Europe’s largest economy, which permitted the West German-American relationship to become a transatlantic partnership. Germany and the US shared common values, norms and beliefs, which allowed for the establishment of intensive trade relations and cooperation between the two countries.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 ignited a new era in German-American relations. When the German people tore down the wall that divided people from East and West, the doors of democracy were opened.  Markets were liberalized and access to technology and information became available for more people around the world.

Today the relationship between Germany and the US remains an important one.  The German economy is the biggest in the European Union and approximately 30% of German exports are exported to the US.  Figures illustrate that 200,000 German jobs are dependent on the American economy.  Former US ambassador William R. Timken once stated, “Investment, Trade and Commerce are the glue that binds us together.”

Despite the enormous significance of the economic partnership, the transatlantic relationship has been rather problematic during the last years.  Many attribute this to US foreign policies under George W. Bush.  The US pursued a very “Cold War”, unilateral approach to foreign policy with the slogan, “If you aren’t with us, you’re against us”.  This spurned feelings of  anti-Americanism in Germany and around the world which is still in demand for improvement.

Even though the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 created new hope for East and West, the close and intertwined societies have also given rise to threats which seem impossible to contain by borders and oceans. More than ever, the German-American relationship, especially in light of the current global situation marked by economic instability, terrorist threats, climate change and increasing poverty demands even more cooperation and partnership between the each other. These global challenges gave reason for the, at the time, presidential candidate – Barack Obama – to visit Berlin. His visit recognized the need to improve the US reputation in Germany and enhance German-American cooperation and partnership.