Student Activity

The Berlin Airlift
June 27, 1948 to May 12, 1949

airlift picture

 

Introduction

Following 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.

[airlift picture]

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.

Vocabulary

Bizonia
area of land in Germany where the British and American occupation zones merged in early 1947
consternation
amazed terror that confounds the faculties and incapacitates for reflection
Council of Foreign Ministers
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.
Kammergericht
Supreme court in Prussia
Kommandatura
the inter-Allied governing authority of Berlin created at the end of World War II
Landgericht
County courts in Germany

Source

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.

Document Analysis

  1. What type of document is this? What is its purpose?

  2. When was it written? Why is that significant?

  3. Who created the document? Who received the document?

  4. Who is Marshal Sokolovsky?

  5. How did the CIA get information of the meeting between Marshal Sokolovsky and German members of the German industrial committee?

  6. 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?

Follow-Up Questions

  1. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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?

  5. 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 States?

  6. 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?

  7. 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?

Issues for Discussion

Consider some of these questions with your class.

  1. 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?

  2. In what ways did President Truman's handling of the blockade lead to greater Cold War tensions?

  3. 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?

  4. Should the Western powers have left Berlin to appease the Soviets?

  5. In what ways did President Truman's airlift support the foreign policy of containment?

Further Reading

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.


Internet Resources

Truman 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.

The 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 here.