Chapter section from:
Airbridge to Berlin --- The Berlin Crisis of 1948, its Origins and Aftermath
By D.M. Giangreco and Robert E. Griffin
(Used with permission)
With the weather problem solved, the airlift continued unabated through February, March, and April 1949, and average tonnage set new records each month. In February average tonnage was 5,437 tons per day (152,240* tons for 28 days); in March it increased to 6,328 tons per day (196,160* tons for 31 days); and in April it climbed to 7,845 tons per day (235,364* tons for 30 days).
More tonnage was now traveling over the airbridge than had been delivered to Berlin by truck, rail, and barge prior to March 1948.
General Tunner's "conveyor belt" had been honed and refined to the point that the airlift could be carried on indefinitely short of some major Soviet disruption of the Berlin air corridors. The Western Powers had made it clear that such a Soviet action would be considered a hostile act and a possible cause for war.
To demonstrate the airlift's potential to the Soviets and the world, Tunner put on a spectacular show over the 24-hour period ending at noon, Easter Sunday, April 16, 1949, dubbed the "Easter Parade." During this period, 1,398 flights delivered almost 13,000 tons of coal to Berlin. This not only demonstrated the load capacity, but also the ability of the system to handle an unprecedented density of air traffic with almost 2,800 incoming and outgoing flights at the three West Berlin airports located in less than a 20 mile radius of each other. The airbridge had, on a single day, handled the equivalent of 600 rail cars of coal without injury or accident.(1)
*Monthly tonnage figures vary slightly in several sources. Above figures are from Berlin Airlift, a USAFE Summary, prepared by the US Air Forces in Europe.
The blockade of Berlin had become inconsequential in the ability of the city to survive. However, General Clay saw a potential danger and stated the airbridge would add to the prestige of the Western Powers as long as diplomatic avenues to gain a settlement continued. If, however, they were to exhaust all peaceful means, and then rely only on an airlift to remain in Berlin, they would begin to lose prestige.(2) Evidently, Dean Acheson and the State Department agreed with this assessment, but for security reasons Clay was not advised of State Department initiatives.
Joseph Stalin's answer to Kingsbury Smith's question about the possibility of lifting the Berlin blockade was discussed at the State Department and by Acheson with President Truman on February 1. There was uncertainty about whether Stalin was, in fact, sending a signal and, if so, what the price would be. It was decided that Acheson, at his regular weekly press conference, would downplay Stalin's references to the Berlin blockade while indicating diplomatically the signal had been received and a private channel should be used for further communication. This was accomplished in such a manner that it was not apparent to most of those present. It was also decided that any negotiations resulting from these signals would be tightly compartmentalized in case of failure. Only Truman, Acheson, and a few State Department officials were involved. Neither the British nor the French were informed, nor was Clay in Berlin.
As the private channel, Acheson selected Philip Jessup, the deputy chief of the United States Mission to the United Nations in New York, rather than the US Embassy in Moscow. Jessup was instructed to discreetly ask Jacob Malik, the
Soviet Union representative to the UN, if Stalin's omission of the Berlin currency problem in his answer to Smith was significant. This conversation took place on February 15 and a month later, Malik told Jessup the omission was "not accidental." This was followed by discreet inquiries and discussions between Jessup and Malik about conditions for lifting the blockade. The Soviet Union agreed to lift the blockade if a definite date could be set for a Council of Foreign Ministers meeting to discuss the entire German question. In the meantime, Robert Murphy had been routinely transferred back to Washington to become a member of the State Department team counseling Jessup. Although Murphy was privy to secret talks, he was forbidden from notifying Clay of their existence.(3)
The US military, unaware of these negotiations and frustrated with the stalemate, again recommended a decision be made regarding Berlin. Secretary of the Army, Kenneth C. Royall, again brought up the armed convoy plan in a memorandum to Acheson as a means to bring the situation to a head. It was either this or withdraw from Berlin, which Royall discouraged.(4)
This proposal was ignored by Acheson as the Jessup-Malik discussions continued. There were several critical negotiations going on in early 1949, and one of historical significance was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) pact. After almost a year of diplomatic negotiations, the NATO treaty was ready and the British and French foreign ministers were in Washington during the first week of April 1949, to sign it. It was then that the British and French were first advised of the Jessup-Malik discussions. Although apprehensive about a Soviet trap to sabotage the proposed West German government negotiations, which were also now progressing well, the British and French authorized Jessup to speak for them. On April 5, Jessup read a statement to Malik that the three governments understood that only two points were under discussion: simultaneous lifting of the blockade and counterblockade, and a fixing of a date for a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers. However, the three governments would not agree to suspend or postpone their preparations for the formation of a West German government pending a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers.(5)
The Western Powers reached a wide-ranging agreement on a large number of issues concerning the formation of the West German government and issued a communique concerning this agreement on April 8. Two days later, Malik advised Jessup that the Soviet Union understood there would be no provisional West German government established before or during a scheduled Council of Foreign Ministers meeting. Under instructions, Jessup diplomatically rejected this Soviet interpretation, but indicated that if they acted quickly, the provisional West German government would not be in existence at the time of the Council of Foreign Ministers meeting because various steps were still necessary before this situation could occur.(6)
It was not until a week later that the Department of Defense and Clay were formally advised of the Jessup-Malik negotiations. Although Clay had got wind of the negotiations informally, he was annoyed about being kept in the dark. Clay was also frustrated with the restrictions placed on him by the State Department in negotiating with the Germans on their provisional constitution or Basic Law. Although the date of his departure from Germany had now been set for May 15, 1949, Clay became so angered at instructions from the State Department which he claimed would violate his principles that he requested he be allowed to leave and retire immediately. The matter eventually resolved itself and Clay agreed to stay on until May 15.
Of some significance to the settlement of the Berlin problem was the announcement by the Soviet government on March 29, 1949, that Marshal Sokolovsky was being replaced as the Soviet Military Governor of Germany. Sokolovsky, who had been highly regarded by Clay through the early years of the Allied occupation of Germany, had since early 1948 followed a hard-line policy on Germany and Berlin. Although undoubtedly carrying out instructions from his government, Sokolovsky had become the symbol of Soviet policy on Germany and now, quite unexpectedly, he was replaced. Was this another signal from the Soviets of their desire to solve the Berlin crisis?
As the Jessup-Malik negotiations to lift the Berlin blockade progressed during the last week of April, there were several flare-ups which threatened to scuttle any planned diplomatic settlement. The British desired specificity regarding the restrictions to be lifted and written agreement on Western Power access to Berlin, while the United States, supported by the French, desired a broad statement on lifting restrictions and silence on access. The US position was based on the experience of the Military Governors negotiations during the first week of September 1948, which had bogged down on specifics. The British eventually relented.
After further negotiations between US, British, and French representatives at the UN with Soviet representative Malik on May 2 and then again on May 4, agreement was finally reached and a Four Power communique was issued on May 5, 1949. The Soviet Union agreed to lift the blockade of Berlin and the Eastern Powers agreed to lift the counterblockade as of May 12, 1949. A meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers would convene in Paris on May 23, 1949, to "consider questions relating to Germany and problems arising out of the situation in Berlin, including also the question of currency in Berlin."(7)
Shortly after midnight on Thursday, May 12, 1949, the barriers for road, rail, and barge traffic to Berlin were raised and supplies began arriving in the city by means other than airplanes for the first time in almost eleven months. Although the Four Power agreement was tentative, history would show that the blockade of Berlin in had ended. Temporary interruptions and delays would periodically occur, but the Soviet Union has not resorted to the failed policy of total blockade in 40 years.
Although many accounts of the Berlin airlift tie Clay's departure from Berlin with the end of the blockade, cable traffic between Washington and Berlin disclose that Clay's plans were formalized before the announcement of May 5. There had been a plan in early 1948 for the US Army to turn over the administration of Germany to the State Department by June 1948, by which time Clay would have departed Germany to retire. Even prior to the blockade, the crisis situation in Germany caused a change in this plan and Clay agreed to stay on. By the beginning of 1949, Clay was again pressuring the Army to allow him to retire. April 15 was the date set for departure from Germany, but he agreed to stay on until May 15 to complete the negotiations on the provisional German constitution. The end of the Berlin blockade on May 12 turned out to be a happy and fitting coincidence and climax for the soldier-statesman who had guided US policy in occupied Germany for almost four years.
Clay and Berlin had become symbols of the Western Powers' resolve. Clay, who came as a conqueror, left as a hero. Thereafter, when Soviet threats again endangered Berlin, other US presidents wisely used Clay as an ambassador to show the Berliners and to signal to the Soviet Union that the United States had no intention of surrendering the principle of their presence and right to be in Berlin.
Upon learning of the Soviet agreement to end the blockade, Clay advocated that the airbridge at least not be abandoned prior to and throughout the meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers. Clay did not believe the Soviets would reinstitute the blockade, but he believed the continuation of the airlift to build up reserves of food and fuel was sound policy, and this was agreed to by Washington.(8)
Clay, however, wrongly believed Soviet tactics in Germany had radically changed. He believed they would now accept a solution to unify Germany as a buffer state and attempt to prevent it from becoming oriented to the West by making promises and concessions to the Germans which could later be exploited. Clay feared the Soviets would call for a complete withdrawal of all occupation forces and a proposal for the Germans to work out a constitutional solution. Such a proposal would have great popularity and appeal to many Germans. However, the Soviets would only have to withdraw to Germany's eastern borders, while the United States and Great Britain would probably return their forces home, leaving a still-weak France as the only nearby Western Power.(9)
The Soviets, however, had no intention of permitting the reunification of Germany unless they could be absolutely certain of its orientation. A reunified Germany oriented to the West would cause a significant threat to the Soviet Union because there would undoubtedly be a continuing political pressure in Germany as it grew stronger to reclaim East Prussia and other former eastern German territories. The Soviets, after their experiences in World Wars I and II, had great respect for Germany's martial ability. Because of their harsh occupation policies in 1945, the imposition of the Berlin blockade, and the German Communist operations in the Soviet Zone and Berlin, the Soviet Union had no chance of winning the hearts and minds of the Germans in a free democratic election.
Apparently deciding not to give back anything they already had, the Soviet Union decided to cut its losses in Berlin and that half a loaf was better than none. The formalization of the division of Germany which had begun in 1948 was finalized in 1949 with the formation of the Western Zones into the Federal Republic of Germany and of the Soviet Zone into the German Democratic Republic. The meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers called for by the May 5 agreement which some, including Clay, thought might be the most important of any previous such meeting, turned out to be anti-climatic.
The conference commenced on May 23, 1949, in Paris, with delegations headed by Acheson for the United States, Bevin for Great Britain, Robert Schuman for France, and Andre Vyshinsky, who had replaced Molotov, for the Soviet Union. Although the expressed purpose of the meeting was to discuss the entire German question, including Berlin, the Western Powers and the Soviet Union came to the conference table with positions that almost guaranteed the division of Germany. Both sides publicly trumpeted their respective plans for the reunification of Germany.
The goal of the Soviet Union was to halt the formation of the West German government and it proposed a "return to Potsdam," the reestablishment of the Allied Control Council, and the requirement of unanimity on all proposals relating to Germany. This was, naturally, unacceptable to the Western Powers.
The Western Powers, while apparently proposing a solution that would reunify Germany, wanted to hasten the formation of the West German government. Speaking for the Western Powers, Bevin proposed incorporation of the Soviet Zone into the framework of the West German model, abolition of zonal borders, adoption of a single currency, free elections, and replacement of military governors by a Four-Power High Commission having supervisory powers under a majority vote. Not surprisingly, this solution was rejected by the Soviet Union.
Regarding Berlin, Vyshinsky proposed a return to the Four-Power Kommandatura, acting, as previously, on the basis of unanimity. Acheson counter-proposed a new city-wide election and a new city assembly to draft a permanent constitution for the entire city. Both sides ignored the fact the city was split with two rival administrations and two currencies. The Western Powers could not accept a return to the status quo with Soviet veto power to stalemate and frustrate. The Soviet Union could not accept city-wide elections which would almost certainly result in an overwhelming rejection of their policies and the defeat of their puppet East Berlin city government.
With no possibility for a major agreement, Vyshinsky went on a propaganda offensive by proposing a German peace treaty. With no plan agreeable for the future of either Germany, this proposal was strictly for the record and for its emotional appeal to the German people. The Soviet Zone press played this up for several weeks, but it did not have the expected appeal to West Germans as they seemed to understand it was unrealistic.
After a month of agreeing to disagree on all major questions relating to Germany and Berlin, the final Council of Foreign Ministers meeting of the post-World War II era ended. The closing communique of June 20, 1949, acknowledged that no agreement had been reached on the economic and political unity of Germany, but that the occupation powers were duty-bound to take necessary measures which would assure a normal functioning and use of traffic and other communications to and from Berlin.
Thus, the first Berlin crisis was over. The blockade and the counter-blockade were lifted, but no permanent solution was reached. The Western Powers still had no written access rights to Berlin, other than the air corridor agreements of 1946-47. The Soviet Union had not been able to eliminate the Berlin window to the West. Unable to prevent the formation of the West German government and recognizing that the tide had turned in Western Europe with the Marshall Plan, the NATO treaty, and the failure of the Berlin blockade, the Soviet Union decided to consolidate and solidify its gains in Eastern Europe.
With the adoption of the provisional constitution in May 1949, the Military Governors of the United States, Great Britain, and France were supplanted by an Allied High Commission. Sir Brian-Robertson stayed on in this new capacity for the British, while John J. McCloy replaced Clay for the US, and Andre Francois-Pincet replaced Koenig for the French. The military government era in West Germany had ended. The three High Commissioners set up shop in Bonn, the provisional West German capital and, after parliamentary elections in August 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany was officially declared on September 15, 1949, with Konrad Adenauer, elected by the Bundestag, as the chancellor.
In the meantime, the Soviet Union had been preparing to establish a rival German government in their zone while still attempting to halt the formation of the West German government. With the formation of the Federal Republic, there was no longer any need to postpone and, on October 7, 1949, the formation of the German Democratic Republic was announced. Both governments claimed to be the only legitimate German government.
The East Germans declared Berlin to be their capital, but the Western Powers claimed Berlin was an occupied city under Four Power control. The East Germans set up their government institutions in East Berlin, but the Western Powers chose to ignore this and maintained they would recognize only the Soviet Union as the sovereign power in East Berlin. Under the provisional West German constitution, Greater Berlin was included as an integral entity. This was immediately protested by the Soviet Union.
The Western Powers also had reservations about including Berlin in the West German government based on their continued contention that Berlin was a Four Power occupied city and they decided to suspend this article for the "time being." However, the Western Powers agreed that West Berlin could send representatives to the Bonn parliament. On May 14, 1949, two days after the lifting of the blockade, the Western Powers, in an effort to give West Berlin a larger share in self-government, issued a Statement of Principles governing the relations of Greater Berlin with the Allied Kommandatura. This document gave the West Berliners most of the same liberal measures applicable to West German citizens while reserving certain powers to the Western Allies to maintain the special status of the city.
When the UN committee of experts announced in early February 1949 they could find no solution to the currency problems in Berlin acceptable to all Four Powers, the British dropped their objections to introducing the West Mark as the sole currency for West Berlin and joined the Americans in pressuring the French. Under the threat of bilateral action on this question, the French finally relented and agreed that the West Mark would become the sole legal currency for West Berlin.
After nine months of operating under a dual currency and flirting with making the East Mark the sole currency for all of Berlin, the Western Powers promulgated on March 20, 1949, the Third Ordinance for Monetary Reform which provided for the immediate declaration of the West Mark as exclusive legal tender in the Western Sectors of Berlin. The East Mark, however, was neither "outlawed" nor "barred" from West Berlin, as the West Mark had been in the Soviet Sector and the Soviet Zone. Individuals and businesses desiring to voluntarily use the East Mark in transactions were permitted to do so.
To many Berliners, still uncertain about the Western Powers commitment to their city, this step of tying their currency to West Germany was more important than any statement from Western political leaders and their confidence in the future grew. The city government agencies could now budget on a firm foundation, but the fragile West Berlin economy would require financial support from the Western Powers and West Germany for many years.
As spring arrived in Berlin, rumors began to circulate about the possibility of the blockade being lifted, but each report proved false until the Four Power communique on May 5 confirming the blockade would end on May 12. During the week of May 5-12, reporters and photographers converged on Berlin to record every aspect of the end of the blockade. They covered the Autobahn at both ends to record the lifting of the barriers at the West German end and the tumultuous greeting by Berliners at the other. They covered the first departure of interzone passenger and freight trains and the gathering of some 200,000 West Berliners in front of the Schoeneberg borough town hall on May 12 to celebrate and listen to speeches by their leaders. Mayor Ernst Reuter welcomed the end of the blockade and declared:
The attempt to force us to our knees has failed, frustrated by our steadfastness and firmness. It failed because the world heard our appeal and came to our assistance." He then ended with a familiar phrase for Berliners "Berlin bleibtdoch Berlin" (Berlin will always remain Berlin).(10)
Clay, in a farewell speech before a special session of the Berlin City Assembly, stated, "There are two classes of airlift heroes, first, the pilots who flew the planes to Berlin in every kind of weather; and secondly, the population of Berlin, who, after having chosen freedom were also prepared to make the necessary sacrifices to uphold it."(11) Reuter, speaking on behalf of the West Berlin city government, thanked the military governors of the Western Powers and their governments and all Germans in Western Germany for aiding Berlin and added, "The airlift was the most impressive demonstration of the firm determination of the whole world to shield us from the destiny to which we otherwise would have fallen prey."(12)
Special tribute was paid to those who gave their lives during airlift operations. A resolution was passed to erect a monument in the square facing Tempelhof airfield and to rename this square Platz der Luftbruecke (Airlift Square).
As was customary in Berlin in 1949, a retreat ceremony was held each Sunday evening at the US headquarters on Kronprinzen Allee. In some manner, Berliners learned that Clay would make his final appearance at the retreat ceremony on Sunday, May 15. Thousands of ordinary citizens gathered to pay their respects as Clay departed en route to Tempelhof airfield and the United States. This was a spontaneous and moving tribute by the usually mundane Berliners who can be very sentimental about those leaders they respect and honor.
Clay was afforded another honor seldom bestowed on a foreign military leader. A month after he departed Berlin, the City Assembly voted to rename Kronprinzen Allee, the wide boulevard that passes in front of the US headquarters in Berlin, Clay Allee. In doing so, Reuter declared, "General Clay entered Berlin as a victor. He left as our friend."(13)
No sooner was the blockade lifted than a new crisis struck in Berlin when on Friday, May 21, 1949, the railroad workers went out on strike. The Allied Control Council had given the Soviets the authority to operate the railroads and the S-Bahn (the elevated commuter lines that served Berlin and its suburbs) in 1945. A large number of the railroad workers resided in West Berlin and had been hard hit by the first currency reform of June 1948 because the State Railroad Authority (Reichsbahndirecktion), controlled by the Soviets, refused to pay them 25 percent of their wages in West Marks as employers in the Western Sectors were required.
The currency reform of March 1949, which made the West Mark the sole legal currency for West Berlin, made the situation intolerable for those railroad workers residing in West Berlin. They were being paid solely in East Marks, when it took four East Marks to buy one West Mark, but were required to pay rent and utilities in West Marks. Many had also joined the Western sponsored union. This had been formed to oppose the Communist union organization which had dominated until 1948 and many were discharged solely for this reason.
The strike disrupted rail traffic to and from Berlin just when it had started up again. Efforts to get the Soviet controlled State Railroad Authority to negotiate with the workers were unsuccessful. Soviet Sector transportation police had been allowed to patrol railroad properties in West Berlin and when they would not allow peaceful picketing, violence broke out. The Western Sector commandants then ordered the Soviet Sector police out of West Berlin. After extended negotiations, the strike was finally settled on June 28, 1949, with a tentative agreement that railroad workers residing in West Berlin would receive 60 percent of their wages in West Marks and that they would not be persecuted for their strike.
This strike and other periodic interruptions of road, rail, and barge traffic to and from Berlin during May, June, and July 1949, showed the foresight of the Western Powers in continuing the airlift after the blockade had officially ended. The airbridge was not only kept in place, but maintained at its record high of April 1949. The airlift delivered 250,818 tons in May; 240,325 in June; and set an all-time monthly record with 253,090 tons in July.
By the end of July 1949, the Western Powers determined that they had stockpiled sufficient supplies in Berlin as a hedge against any new Soviet blockade. They felt the situation on the land, rail, and water routes into Berlin had normalized to the extent that they could start winding the airlift down.
On July 30, 1949, an official announcement was made by the Combined Airlift Task Force that the airlift would be terminated at the end of October 1949. During August and September the phase-out began with the departure of the US Navy VR-6 and VR-8 squadrons, the return of a number of C-54s to the United States, and the closing down of bases at Fassberg, Wunsdorf, and Celle. The first day of September saw the joint British-American CALTF headquarters inactivated and on Friday, September 30, 1949, the last US C-54 made the run to Berlin. The British made their last flight on Thursday, October 6, and so the airlift ended almost a month ahead of schedule.
An important chapter in aviation history had been written. The proponents of air power had proven that it could be used not only to destroy an enemy in wartime, but that a large civilian populace could be totally supplied by air to preserve the peace.
On September 15, 1949, the US State Department officially took over the administration of Germany from the Department of the Army. This changeover coincided with official establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany. The Office of Military Government became the Office of High Commissioner for Germany. Most of the military government offices and personnel were transferred to Frankfurt Main with reduced responsibilities. General Maxwell Taylor replaced General Howley as US Commander, Berlin, and was given the additional duties of serving as the representative of the US High Commissioner for Germany in Berlin.
The crisis situation in Berlin gradually cooled. The Berliners attempted to normalize their daily lives and to rebuild their city. It was obvious, though, that nothing lasting had been resolved and that the time bomb that was Berlin was still ticking.