June 24, 1948: The Berlin Airlift, Cold War Begins
It was a time when history hung in the balance. The outcome of a struggle between free and controlled peoples – democratic versus totalitarian rule – was at stake.
Here’s the grim picture in early 1948. Having fought for 4 years against the Nazis in history’s biggest and bloodiest battles, victorious Soviet communist armies have thrown back the Germans across all of Eastern and Central Europe and millions of Soviet troops are either occupying their ‘liberated’ lands or have installed oppressive communist governments. Soviet army and civilian losses in WW II are unimaginable, and soldiers killed number around 10 million. Perhaps 20 million when civilians are included. Josef Stalin, the murderous Soviet communist dictator is dead set on not giving up one inch.
Czechoslovakia has just succumbed to communist control in February under heavy Soviet pressure. Poland fell to the communists back in 1946 with Stalin, reneging on his promise to American President Roosevelt and British Prime Minster Churchill at Yalta for free elections, instead installed a Soviet puppet government while systematically eradicating Polish opposition. Churchill had delivered his public-awakening “Iron Curtain” speech 2 years earlier. The major Allies, America, Great Britain and France, are extremely worried about Stalin and the Red Army’s next moves.
Under agreements between the Soviet Union and the allies – Americans, British and French – the country of Germany is divided into 4 Economic Zones, each controlled by the respective 4 countries. The Allies control the western half and the Soviet Union (USSR), the eastern. Berlin itself, once the proud capital of Germany, is now a wasteland of rubble, poverty and hunger after city-shattering house-to-house combat between Nazi and Soviet soldiers. There’s barely a building left standing. There’s hardly any men left in the city. They are either killed in battle or taken prisoner by the Red Army. Berlin, a hundred miles inside the Soviet-controlled Zone in eastern Germany, is also likewise divided between the Allies and the USSR.
That’s the setting for what is to take place next in the pivotal June of 1948.
The Allies had for some time decided that a democratic, western-oriented Germany would be the best defense against further Soviet communist expansion westward. Germany, in a short period of time, had made substantial progress towards democratization and rebuilding. This unnerved Stalin who all along had planned for a united Germany in the communist orbit and the Soviets were gradually increasing pressure on transport in and out of Berlin.
The Allies announced on June 1 of 1948 the addition of the French Zone to the already unified Brit and American zones. Then, on June 18, the Allies announced the creation of a common currency, the Deutschmark, to stimulate economic recovery across the three allied Zones. Stalin and the Soviet leadership, seeing the potential for a new, vital, non-communist Western Germany in these actions, on June 24, decided to blockade Berlin’s rails, roads and canals to choke off what had become a western-nation-allied West Germany and West Berlin.
Stalin’s chess move was to starve the citizens of the city by cutting off their food supply, their electricity, and their coal to heat homes, power remaining factories and rebuild. His plan also was to make it difficult to resupply allied military forces. This was a bold move to grab West Berlin for the communists. Indeed, there were some Americans and others who felt that Germany, because of its crimes against humanity, should never again be allowed to be an industrial nation and that we shouldn’t stand up for Berlin. But that opinion did not hold sway with President Truman.
What Stalin and the Soviet communists didn’t count on was the creativity, ingenuity, perseverance and capacity of America and its allies.
Even though America had nuclear weapons at the time and the Soviet Union did not, it had pretty much demobilized after the war. So, rather than fight the Red Army, firmly dug in with vast quantities of men, artillery and tanks in eastern Germany and risk another world war, the blockade would be countered by an airlift. The greatest airlift of all time. Food, supplies and coal would be transported to the people of Berlin, mainly on American C54s flown by American, British, French and other allied pilots. But only America had the numbers of aircraft, the amount of fuel and the logistical resources, to actually do what looked to Stalin and the Soviets to be impossible.
One can only imagine the enormity of the 24-7 activity. Nearly 300,000 flights were made from June 24 of 1948 till September 30, 1949. Flights were coming in every 30 seconds at height of the airlift. It was a truly amazing logistical achievement to work up to the delivery of some three and a half thousand tons daily to meet the city’s needs. Think of the energy and dedication of the pilots and mechanics, those involved in the supply chains and the demanding delivery schedules… the sheer complexity of such an operation is mind-boggling.
Stalin, seeing the extent of Allied perseverance and capability over a year’s time and meanwhile, suffering an enormous propaganda defeat worldwide, relented.
Think of the Americans who led this history-making endeavor, all the men and women, from the Generals to the soldiers, airmen and civilians and their achievement on behalf of creating a free and prosperous Germany. A free Germany that sat side-by-side in stark contrast with the brutal communist east. To them, known as the “the greatest generation,” we owe our everlasting gratitude for victory in this monumental first ‘battle’ of the Cold War.
Don Ritter, Sc.D., served in the United States House of Representatives for the 15th Congressional District of Pennsylvania. As founder of the Afghanistan-American Foundation, he was senior advisor to the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce (AACC) and the Afghan International Chamber of Commerce (AICC). Congressman Ritter currently serves as president and CEO of the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce. He holds a B.S. in Metallurgical Engineering from Lehigh University and a M.S. and Sc. D. (Doctorate) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, M.I.T, in Physical Metallurgy and Materials Science. For more information about the work of Congressman Don Ritter, visit http://www.donritter.org/
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