The Berlin Airlift
June 27, 1948 to May 12, 1949
World War II, a delicate balance of power had surfaced between the once
united Allies: Great Britain, the United States, France, and the Soviet
Union. The opposing economic structures of capitalism and communism emerged
triumphant at the end of the war. The two blossoming superpowers, the
United States and the Soviet Union, sought to ensure their permanence
by negotiating territorial claims throughout the globe. At the Yalta and
Potsdam Conferences, Europe and the Far East were partitioned off as spheres
of influence to their respected Ally governments. Germany was divided
into fourths allowing each Ally to run its division by a military government
until a suitable national government could be devised and the country
put back together. This divided Germany, under direct supervision of the
Council of Foreign Ministers (Allied Control Council or ACC) and the Kommandatura,
was to become the first battleground of the emerging Cold War between
the United States and the Soviet Union.
The year of 1948 was
a critical turning point in the presidency of Harry Truman. He was staring
down the barrel of a re-election campaign, presented with his lowest approval
rating to date, and faced with the threat of a possible World War III
with the Soviet Union over a developing situation in Berlin. Furthermore,
Truman's record against the Soviets, up to this date, had been ineffective
in keeping them from occupying Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania,
and Bulgaria. Republicans were calling him soft on communism and Senator
Joseph McCarthy was at his prime on his communist witch hunts in Washington.
In regards to the
German situation, General Clay remarked that the mood in the western zones
was "more tense than at any time since surrender." British and American
staff were leaving Berlin for the expanding administration of Bizonia,
giving Berliners reason to believe the Western powers were leaving. Food
rations in some parts of Germany were being cut to 900 calories a day,
far below the recommended daily allowance for adequate nutrition. Labor
unrest was prevalent throughout all the regions of Germany. Communist
groups on all sides of Germany were gaining followers because they offered
hope and prosperity in the future. American, British, and French authorities
were facing their worst fears....a beleagured German people searching
for drastic solutions.
In early September
1947, the United States had, along with Great Britain, combined their
zones into one military province called "Bizonia," hoping to bring security
back to the German people. This formal joining helped to provide economic
stability to a cash strapped British zone. Soon after, France followed
suit and annexed its section to Bizonia. The new Trizone leadership now
looked to secure some economic stability in the midst of the German recession.
In February 1948, the United States and British proposed to the ACC that
a new four-power currency be created. The Soviets, however, hoping to
continue the German recession, refused to accept the new currency, in
favor of the overcirculated Soviet Reichsmark. By doing so, the Soviets
believed they could foster a communist uprising in postwar Germany through
civil unrest. In a March 1948 meeting of the ACC, it was evident that
no agreements could be reached on a unified currency or quadpartite control
of Germany and an infuriated Marshal Sokolovsky and his Soviet delegation
stormed out of the meeting. Both sides waited for the other to make a
move. Trizonia, finally, in an effort to stabilize the economy, established
its own currency on June 18, 1948.
The Soviets, trying
to push the west out of Berlin, countered this move by requiring that
all Western convoys bound for Berlin travelling through Soviet Germany
be searched. The Trizone government, recognizing the threat, refused the
right of the Soviets to search their cargo. The Soviets then cut all surface
traffic to West Berlin on June 27. American ambassador to Britain, John
Winnant, stated the accepted Western view when he said that he believed
"that the right to be in Berlin carried with it the right of access."
The Soviets, however, did not agree. Shipments by rail and the autobahn
came to a halt. A desperate Berlin, faced with starvation and in need
of vital supplies, looked to the West for help. The order to begin supplying
West Berlin by air was approved later by U.S. General Lucius Clay on June
27. President Truman, wishing to avoid war or a humiliating retreat, supported
the air campaign, against many advisors wishes. Surviving a normally harsh
German winter, the airlift carried over two million tons of supplies in
270,000 flights. The blockade of Berlin was finally lifted by the Soviets
on May 12, 1949. Berlin became a symbol of the United States resolve to
stand up to the Soviet threat without being forced into a direct conflict.
- area of land in
Germany where the British and American occupation zones merged in early
- amazed terror that
confounds the faculties and incapacitates for reflection
- Council of
- Conisisting of
United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and Nationalist
China, it was created following World War II to establish peace treaties
for the war in Europe and settle disputes between the victors.
- Supreme court in
- the inter-Allied
governing authority of Berlin created at the end of World War II
- County courts in
Read the memorandum
to President Truman on June 30, 1948 from the United States Central Intelligence
Agency following the Soviet blockade of Berlin noting important details
about United States national security interests at the time and the rhetoric
used. Read only the first three pages of the document.
- What type of document
is this? What is its purpose?
- When was it written?
Why is that significant?
- Who created the
document? Who received the document?
- Who is Marshal
- How did the CIA
get information of the meeting between Marshal Sokolovsky and German
members of the German industrial committee?
- What were the three
Soviet alternatives as they presented themselves when this document
was written? What policy did the Soviets pursue over the course of the
next nine months? Why?
- To what extent
did President Truman's response to the Berlin crisis affect subsequent
presidential foreign policy? Should Truman have given into the perceived
Soviet threat or pursued a more aggressive solution?
- Examine the course
of action the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has taken
over the years. What were the origins of the organization? What trends
do you see? Choose one significant CIA operation (one example is the
Bay of Pigs Invasion) and write a report about its significance in upholding
United States foreign policy.
- Stalin stated in
a speech on February 9, 1946, "he [Stalin] blamed the last war on 'capitalist
monopolies' and warning that, since the same forces still operated,
the USSR must treble the basic materials of national defense such as
iron and steel, double coal and oil production, and to delay the manufacture
of consumer goods until rearmament was complete." Who are the "capitalist
monopolies?" How does this statement enlighten the Soviet viewpoint
against the United States? Were the Allies justified in cancelling the
shipments of German reparations to the Soviets at the end of World War
II? Why did the Soviets rely so heavily on Germany for food and industry?
- Look at the map
of Germany during the Berlin Airlift. What made transporting French,
British, and American aid to Berlin so difficult? President Truman offered
to remove his armed forces from the Soviet sector at the end of World
War II, as agreed upon at the Potsdam Conference, if free access to
Berlin were given to the French, British, and Americans. Pretend you
are President Truman. How would you have acted differently on the situation
at the end of World War II to ensure free flow of goods from the West
to Berlin and to avoid the Berlin Blockade?
- Examine the Long
Telegram. Who was George Kennan? What was Kennan's opinion of the
future of United States-Soviet affairs? How did this telegram lead to
the idea of containment of communism as foreign policy for the United
- Pretend you are
living in the Western sector of Berlin in 1948. Write a letter to a
friend in the United States describing what life is like during the
airlift. What is your opinion of the Soviets that cut off your city?
What are your feelings about the United States, your enemy in the World
War II? Do you fear another World War?
- On June 24, 1948,
General Lucius Clay stated "I wouldn't give you that [airlift] for our
chances." What are your plans for the city of Berlin? How would you
advise President Truman to respond to the Soviet threat of search and
seizure of convoys to Berlin?
Consider some of these
questions with your class.
- Do you agree or
disagree with President Truman's handling of the Soviet Blockade of
Berlin? Why or why not? Was it effective in solving the crisis?
- In what ways did
President Truman's handling of the blockade lead to greater Cold War
- Winston Churchill,
Prime Minister of Great Britain during most of World War II, once described
Russia as a "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." What does
he mean by this? How does this statement apply to the Soviets during
the Berlin blockade?
- Should the Western
powers have left Berlin to appease the Soviets?
- In what ways did
President Truman's airlift support the foreign policy of containment?
Donovan, Frank. 1968.
Bridge in the Sky. New York: David McKay Inc.
Man, John. 1973. Berlin
Blockade. New York: Ballantine Books Inc.
Nelson, Daniel J.
1978. Wartime Origins of the Berlin Dilemma. Alabama: University
of Alabama Press.
Tusa, Ann and John.
1988. The Berlin Airlift. New York: Atheneum.
Library-This web page for the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library
and Museum includes a number of resources, activities, and links about
Harry S. Truman.
Berlin Airlift-This is the Whistlestop sight devoted to the Berlin
Airlift including a number of primary documents. The online book Airbridge
to Berlin by D.M. Giangreco and Robert E. Griffin can also be found