"But there was always the risk that Russian reaction might lead to war. We had to face the possibility that Russia might deliberately choose to make Berlin the pretext for war... ." - Harry S. Truman. The Berlin airlift was one of the most brilliant American achievements during the post World War II era.
President Truman's decision to leave American soldiers in Berlin, could quite possibly be called the proudest decision of his political career (McCollough 630). The original conflict that led to the Berlin blockade arose after World War II. As early as 1947, growing problems between western democracy (United States, Britain et al. ) and communism (the Soviet Union), started to take definite shape as the beginnings of the Cold War. Germany had been split into four zones, each occupied by one ally: the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Each also had a part of the capital city, Berlin.
On March 17, 1948, Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg signed the 50 year Treaty of Mutual Assistance. United States Senator Arthur Vandenberg worked with Truman to find a way to include the United States in the new treaty (Walton 55). The proposal passed 64 to 4 by the senate, and within three months, the United States had joined the newly founded North Atlantic Treaty Organization, otherwise known as NATO. The twelve state organization included the United States, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Portugal when it became official on April 4, 1949 (Pimlott 13). The road toward the blockade became shorter in February of 1948 when the London Conference occurred. France, Britain, and the United States attended the conference.
Its purpose was to try and plan a future course of action to the German problem. The conference had taken place without the Russian's consent, participation, or clear knowledge of its agenda During the next meeting of the Allied Control Council for Germany on March 20, 1948 the Soviet delegation demanded to know the results of the London Conference. The Soviets felt their request justified as they knew that the conference had dealt with issues concerning the whole of Germany, although they were unaware of the specifics; nevertheless, the Potsdam agreement stated that such issues had to be dealt with by all four nations occupying Germany. The Western Allies refused to disclose what occurred, which the Russians saw as a clear breach of four-power control as agreed to at Potsdam. In protest the Soviet delegation walked out, never to return, marking the end of the cooperation of the four-power control of Germany (Marshal 37).
The West had previously announced in a March 6 London conference, that the West German economy would become integrated with Western Europe, therefore combining the three sectors. The Allies wanted Germany to be united so its economy might have a chance of recovering. A new form of currency was to be introduced (Heater 16). The Soviet Union was becoming increasingly more and more worried about the influence of the West in Germany. It was convinced that Germany's neutrality was vastly important to the security of Russia.
In response to the talks on March 6, the Soviets temporarily restricted the movement of Western military supplies into Berlin. The Soviets began to tighten their grip on Berlin by announcing that all persons, civilian or military, would have to present identification upon entering the Soviet zone. The Allies felt that the Russians had no right to make such a request of military personal so a small airlift of supplies to military installations was started by the United States. The West told West Germany in early June, to begin the constitutional process to establish the Federal Republic of Germany.
Within two weeks, the new currency, called the Deutschmark, was being issued into the three western zones, excluding West Berlin (Pimlott 12). To the Russians, this was the final straw. The Soviet Union was irate because first they had not agreed to any such plan, and second, this was against Potsdam, which stated that Germany would be treated as a single economic unit. This introduction of a new western Deutschmark would split Germany economically.
The Soviet Union protested the change of currency because it would drive valueless coins into their territory, so in turn the Soviet government developed a new currency. Stalin was unwilling to allow Germany to join the West (Walton 55). All of these disagreements made it obvious to the Soviets that the Allies wanted to end the cooperative control of Germany and create a separate German state. The Soviets wanted to avoid this because they felt an independent West Germany would eventually re-arm and then pose a threat to the USSR's Eastern Empire. Stalin decided to push the West by installing a blockade in order to show that the Soviets did not plan on giving up, and also to try and force new discussions on the German problem in hopes of stopping the formation of West Germany. The Soviet Union then made a drastic decision.
On June 24, 1948 West Berlin was blockaded. Access to the city consisted of a single motorway, a railway, a few canals and an air corridor (Pimlott 12). While arranging the joint occupation no one thought to bother with such details like who had the right to use access routes. The occupying authority in Germany was called the Kommandatura.
It was made up of the United States, Britain, and France (once the Soviets withdrew of course) and initiated policies of recovery and aid. The West was then told by the Soviet Union that the roadway was "closed." The goal of the blockade was to force the Allies out of Berlin. Any food that entered Berlin was to be distributed only in the Soviet sector (Walton 55). Being that there was no formal announcement, the blockade came as a surprise to the West.
Soviet newspapers led Germans to believe that electricity in the Western sectors was to be limited because of "technical difficulties." The same excuse was given to passengers and freight traveling on the Berlin-Helmstedt railroad (Walton 55). Western authorities in the three sectors began storing food, and to prevent panic, they announced that there was enough food for 30 days as well as powdered milk for children. West Berlin was still fearful that the troops would have to leave because of lack of supplies. The Allies were significantly outnumbered having only 6, 500 troops in Berlin compared to the 18, 000 Soviet troops in Berlin, and the 300, 000 Soviet troops in the east zone of Germany (McCollough 647).
The West was left with three choices, to pull out of Berlin at the right time to avoid war, to defend the Western position at all costs, or to stay in Berlin for the time begin without an ultimate decision. The possibility of war lay within the West's determination to defeat the Soviet Union (Walton 56). American General Lucius Clay was convinced that the Soviets were being too careful with its actions to have war in mind. He suggested that the United States break through the blockade by sending an armed caravan across Germany and into West Berlin, or close United States ports and the Panama Canal to Soviet ships.
Truman did not approve either of these options. He believed it would be too much of a "challenge" for the Soviet army. Instead, Truman announced that the West would stay in Berlin without any further discussion. Other White House staff members were never consulted on the decision (McCollough 630). At the time, Truman's decision to stay in Berlin was disagreed with by many Americans. Newspaper headlines stated that the West was ready to pull out.
Many people did not see the point of going to war (or almost war) on behalf of a country that had brought destruction to all of Europe and caused millions of deaths. Despite this, Truman stood firm on his decision. The possibility of war grew greater daily, especially after three groups of strategic American atomic bombers were flown into Berlin bases. Clay stated, "Only by war could the Russians get the West to leave Berlin," (Walton 56). The idea of supplying Berlin by air came to Clay and a number of other people at the same time. The British had already airlifted six and one half tons of supplies into Berlin, and were considering an airlift of the civilian population when the United States entered the picture.
But the supplies Britain brought would not last long. Two and a half million people were on the brink of starvation. The food that was there would last no longer than a month, and the coal that was brought in would only last six weeks (McCollough 630). On June 26, 1948, Americans and the British began airlifting supplies as a team.
When the United States was finally granted permission to help from the other Allies, West Berlin had been isolated from the rest of the world for almost two months. When the idea of the airlift was brought to Washington D. C. Truman was not thinking about supplying Berlin indefinitely. He originally thought that the airlift would buy Berlin time so that a solution could be found (Walton 57). Within three days the airlift was looking like it could be more than just a temporary resort.
Berlin added 100 Royal Air Force planes to the fleet already in use, and the United States brought planes in from Alaska and the Caribbean. Clay and General Curtis LeMay mobilized all available aircrafts when Truman ordered every United States plane in Europe to be put into service. The Soviets went on to declare, "Berlin lies in the center of the Soviet zone and it is a part of that zone," (Walton 59). They went on to say that if necessary, out of concern for the Berlin population, they would supply the entire city. Berliners were not moved by this expression of the Soviet's concern. Even the three democratic parties in Berlin remained so doubtful that the airlift could succeed at this time, that they appealed the decision to the United Nations.
As the airlifts continued to bring supplies to West Germany, the Soviet Union poured troops into East Germany. The Allies struck with enormous force from the airlift to sustain their troops and the Germans in their care. France, Britain, and United States began protest talks stating that the blockades were, "a clear violation of existing agreements concerning the administration of Berlin by the four occupying powers... ." (Walton 58).
The offer to negotiate was also made at this time but only if Russia lifted the blockade first. On July 14, the Soviet Union turned down the Western protest talks. They claimed that they were prepared to negotiate but would not talk about Berlin alone nor would they lift the blockade. As the conflict progressed and the airlift continued to bring supplies throughout the autumn of 1948, it became clear that the West would be able to fly in enough food. Unfortunately, that was no longer the prevalent issue, winter was coming. Coal would be needed in immense amounts for heat and electricity.
The West was met with serious doubts that enough could be stockpiled even if they had begun in June. Truman expressed determination that the airlift would succeed. He ordered more C-54's, large four engine planes, to be sent to Europe. Clay ordered another airfield to be built.
30, 000 Berliners went to work clearing rubble and leveling the runways (McCollough 648). Aircrafts carrying supplies landed every three minutes at Gatow Airport in Berlin. They came in low and lumbered just above the tops of ruined buildings, as crowds of Berliners watched. Young children were seen playing "airlift" in the rubble of the buildings with their toy planes (McCollough 647). Each aircraft traveled the 275 miles from Frankfurt to Gatow an average of three times a day. The airlifts also flew out Berlin's exports as well as undernourished children and those in need of medical treatment who otherwise would not have survived.
Berlin drew hope and sustenance from the transport planes, sometimes even piloted by men who just a few years earlier had hurled bombs upon the same city, and the same people. As winter engulfed Berlin, the airlifts did not stop. Supplies, coal, and food continued to arrive hundreds of times a day. The quantity of supplies had increased greatly, but the airlift was still supplying less than half of what Berlin needed.
Clay made the observation, "We are not quite holding our own," (McCollough 665). The record for the airlift was 1450 tons in one day. However, Berlin needed 2000 tons of food a day to survive, plus 12, 000 tons of fuel and other supplies. At first, when the airlift was failing, the Soviets felt they had the upper hand and demanded nothing less than the stoppage of plans to create West Germany in return for lifting the blockade. Later on, when the airlift turned into a success, the Soviets lowered their demands to just having only the eastern currency in all of Berlin. However, the Allies were now convinced that the airlift could work indefinitely, so they held their position and agreed to nothing.
At the same time, the Allies also initiated a counter-blockade which stopped the shipment of all supplies to the Soviet sector from the west. At this time the Soviet zone had deep economic problems and the East Germans were importing most of their goods from the west. The counter-blockade ended up hurting the Soviets in their sector more than the initial blockade hurt West Berlin. Therefore, in 1949 the Soviets realized the blockade was a failure and started looking for a way out. The Soviet Union hinted that there could be a way out of the stalemate, but until negotiations began, the blockade was imposed more tightly than ever before. At this time it was also common for anti-Communist Berliners to be kidnapped and disappear into the Soviet zones (Walton 59).
The spy organizations of both sides were waging a side war of their own. In March of 1949, talks between American ambassador, Philip Jessup, and Russian ambassador, Jacob Malik, came to an interesting climax. Malik told Jessup that if a definite date were set for a foreign ministers meeting, the Soviet Union would end the blockade. The foreign ministers meeting was set for May 23.
On May 5, Washington, London, Paris and Moscow announced that the blockade was to be lifted on May 12 (Walton 59). The Soviet blockade of 324 days had failed. Stalin was forced to admit his defeat and lifted the blockade on the set date of May 12. It is clear now that Stalin had made a blunder, and perhaps if the Russians had slowly eaten away at West Berlin (as they did later on), their success would have been greater. Western efforts saved the two million citizens of West Berlin. Over 277, 728 flights carrying over 2, 380, 794 tons of supplies and food were flown into Gatow airport during the eleven month period (Heater 17).
The airlift also proved to be free of military conflicts, aside from some Russian harassment of Allied planes flying to Berlin, but no planes were shot down or damaged by the Soviets intentionally. There were, however, several accidents. Almost 100 American, British, and French airmen gave up their lives for the freedom of Berlin (Lukas 75). Because of the blockade, West Germany became closer to the West and moved further away from Communist Russia.
American air power in Europe grew tremendously because of this. Within months of the airlift, West and East Germany became separate countries. Western powers stayed true to their word and created the German Federal Republic out of Western Germany in late May of 1949. The Soviets turned Eastern Germany into the German Democratic Republic, (Layman 256). The Berlin blockade was the first conflict since World War II that could have caused another war, but more importantly it was the first confrontation between the former wartime allies.
The blockade was a chance to discover how the Soviets would react to American power, more specifically American nuclear power. This was tested when the Americans moved several B-29 atomic bombers to Britain. Although none of them actually carried any atomic bombs, this was not known until later (Marshal 38). The decision to keep West Berlin was made with the hopes that certain benefits would come out of it. For the US these included maintaining a strong presence in Germany, winning a psychological battle against the Russians, and ensuring the formation of both the Federal Republic of Germany and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. All of these were achieved.
The West scored an enormous propaganda victory, but also much more than that. America was able to support two million people for almost a year, by the sky alone. 323.