The first great crisis of the Cold War, the Berlin Blockade, began Thursday, June 24, 1948, and lasted for nearly one year.
In the aftermath of World War II the Allies divided the defeated German state into occupational zones. The British, the French, the Soviets and the Americans each administered a geographic sector of Germany with the initial idea that, after a year or two, the German state would be reconstituted and the occupational powers would withdraw.
By early 1948, however, neither the Allies in the west nor the Soviets in the east wanted to abandon Germany for fear that the other side would gain the whole. The two power blocs remained entrenched, and eventually the Western Allies consolidated their occupational zones into a single economic unit, which they labeled Bizonia. Angered, Josef Stalin, the Soviet leader, looked to the one weak spot in the Allies' armor.
The city of Berlin lay approximately 100 miles inside the Soviet occupation zone. Just as Germany had been divided after the war, so had Berlin. Though no physical separation of East and West Berlin occurred at this time (the Berlin Wall would not be built until 1961), the difference in the standards of living as well as the degrees of basic freedom were already apparent. The Soviets did not care for this bastion of Western freedom and culture in the midst of the emerging “Worker's Paradise” of communist Germany.
Stalin decided to absorb West Berlin into the Soviet occupation zone by blockading all road and rail access to the city from western Germany. This was in direct contravention of the postwar settlement which guaranteed the Western Allies full rights of access to West Berlin.
In his book “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945,” historian Tony Judt wrote, “Stalin's purpose in blockading Berlin was to force the West to choose between quitting the city ... or else abandoning their plans for a separate West German state. This was what Stalin really wanted — Berlin for him was always a negotiating chip.”
In his biography of Lucius D. Clay, the American commander of the Berlin occupation zone, historian Jean Edward Smith wrote, “Berlin, of course, was particularly susceptible to Soviet pressure. With a population of 3.3 million people, Berlin was not only Germany's largest city but its largest industrial center as well. It was not only Germany's political capital, but its commercial, economic and cultural capital too.”
Smith notes that the Allies had only 15,000 troops in West Berlin, making the city untenable if war broke out. War, however, was not what the Soviets wanted. Smith continued: “The long, exposed supply line between Berlin and the Western zones afforded ample opportunity to apply pressure on the West.”
When news reached Washington that the Soviets were attempting their power play in Germany, U.S. President Harry Truman feared that this crisis could soon escalate into war. He had no desire to fight the Soviets so soon after the collapse of the Third Reich. Additionally, he felt the leaders of the USSR must be mad if they truly wanted war, since America maintained a nuclear monopoly at the time.
According to Truman biographer David McCullough, many of the president's advisers urged retaliation, the opening of the access roads to West Berlin by force, or the closing of the Panama Canal and other U.S. ports to the Soviets. Truman's policy was firm: “We stay in Berlin, period. ... We will have to deal with the situation as it develops. We are in Berlin by the terms of our agreement, and the Russians have no right to get us out by either direct or indirect pressure.”
The answer proved as simple in conception as it was complex in execution. The United States would begin a massive airlift to fly supplies into West Berlin and keep the lines of communication open.
“The Berlin airlift lasted until May 12, 1949," Judt wrote. "Over those 11 months the Western Allies shipped some 2.3 million tons of food on 277,500 flights, at the cost of the lives of 73 airmen.”
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