Daring Young Men

The Cold War’s opening moves were simultaneous with the Allied checkmate of the Nazis in the Spring of 1945, with the Soviet army pushing westward into Berlin while the armies of the United States, Great Britain, and France raced eastward to occupy Nazi Germany. By war’s end, a defeated Germany would be divided in two and the city of Berlin sectioned off, an island of multinational governance in the midst of the Soviet Zone. As Russian intentions to dominate Europe became apparent, the tense stalemate between the remaining two global superpowers set the stage for decades of competition. In his new book, the historian and presidential biographer Richard Reeves gives us a compelling portrait of a divided Berlin as the first front line of the new Cold War.

In late June, 1948, the Soviets blocked land, sea, and rail routes into Allied-occupied western Berlin. “[T]he 2.1 million people of western Berlin were effectively cut off from the world,” writes Reeves. The Soviets, Reeves notes, hoped to starve western Berlin (whose people gloomily called themselves “islanders”) and force the U.S. to surrender the city to Soviet control. With Cold War tensions rising, President Truman feared that the Berlin blockade might lead to a “hot” war; his most important advisors, including Secretary of State George Marshall and Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, strongly counseled pulling out of western Berlin and establishing a more defensible position in Germany. Only the U.S. Commander in Berlin, General Lucius Clay, proposed staying and getting food and fuel into western Berlin via a massive airlift.

Reeves describes a dramatic White House meeting on June 28, 1948, when “all [Truman’s advisers] dismissed the idea of an airlift, with [Undersecretary of State Robert] Lovett beginning to list options for leaving the city.” But Truman had made up his mind already, Reeves makes clear. Lovett “was cut off by the president: ‘We stay in Berlin. Period.’ ” With Truman’s mandate to stay and airlift supplies into western Berlin, the logistical nightmares of implementing that decision were only beginning.

Reeves does an outstanding job making clear the ad hoc nature of the airlift’s first few weeks. To supply two million Berliners would take hundreds of planes flying several trips each day into a small western Berlin airport called Tempelhof. The airport was surrounded by apartment buildings that made landings difficult even in good weather. Worse, its runways were dangerously short. In order to meet Truman’s and General Clay’s goals for the airlift, more pilots, more planes, more mechanics, more loaders, and more planning were needed, and fast.

The result was a joint Anglo-American scramble for planes and pilots from freshly demobilized military sources around the globe — and even those wouldn’t prove enough. “The airlift began,” Reeves writes, “with those leftover American C-47s and whatever planes, usually old bombers, the British could get their hands on — flown by any pilots they could find.” Active duty pilots were pulled in first, then retired pilots, then civilian pilots. The same desperate scramble happened for planes, mechanics, and loaders. Reeves insightfully compares the improvised Berlin airlift fleet to the ragtag, hastily-assembled collection of boats and ships that helped the British army escape from Dunkirk in 1940.

Nobody knew how long the airlift would last, but a few weeks’ duration was the conventional wisdom. As Reeves writes, “the idea was to buy some time and then work things out with the Soviets.” Nobody expected that airplanes could supply western Berlin for an extended period, certainly not a year. The influential newspaper columnist Walter Lippman wrote in the New York Herald that the airlift “is obviously only a spectacular and temporary answer to the [Soviet] ground blockade . . . in the long run, especially in the fog and rain of a Berlin winter, the cost in terms of the lives of the pilots and crews of planes . . . would be exorbitant.”

Reeves meticulously examines the logistical nightmares presented by the long airlift, and the Allied quest for solutions that would allow the effort to go on much longer than planned. The logistical mastermind behind the operation’s eventual success was Major General William Tunner, who had organized the wartime airlifting of supplies into China over the eastern flank of the Himalayas, called “The Hump”. Tunner improved operational efficiency, increased daily cargo loads into Berlin, and made the airlift a joint operation between the U.S. and Great Britain, sharing resources to maximize results. He also created an atmosphere of competition between squadrons and bases. In his most controversial move, Tunner hired German mechanics (many of them former Nazis) to maintain the air fleet.

The fall and winter weather in Berlin posed massive challenges to the airlift; indeed, the Soviets expected “Comrade Winter” to ground the planes and force the Allies to accept defeat. It was not to be. With Truman, Clay, and Tunner demanding that western Berlin be supplied, the pilots kept up the pace despite worsening weather, “taking off and landing with no visibility,” writes Reeves, “both pilots and controllers began operating with significantly lower safety margins.” The operation’s casualties, while not approaching combat figures, were nevertheless sobering: 80 of the 55,000 personnel who participated in the airlift would perish.

With the airlift ongoing, back channel discussions eventually did open up between the U.S. and Soviet Union, and Reeves treats these as impressively as he does the details of the supply operation. The airlift proved its worth on the diplomatic side: Soviet resolve to continue the blockade was wavering as the success of the airlift grew. The Soviets were increasingly willing to accept the existence of a divided Germany and a divided Berlin, Reeves explains, especially after NATO was created and the official creation of West Germany moved forward. On May 12, 1949, more than ten months into the airlift, the Soviets lifted their blockade of western Berlin.

“The Soviet Union,” Reeves concludes, “had lost its gamble that the Allied powers could be forced out of Berlin without a war.” Instead, West Germany and East Germany were created as separate states in the autumn of 1949, and West Berlin was officially incorporated into the new West Germany. These divisions would continue until 1989.

Reeves’ account of the airlift and its tense context — as accessible as it is comprehensive — brings welcome light to a a topic that hasn’t received the attention it deserves. The daring young men of Reeves’ title didn’t just keep the planes flying  24/7: they succored a desperate city tottering between two wildly different fates. The Berlin Airlift’s triumph has receded somewhat into the history of the Cold War, but Reeves winningly argues that it was among that struggle’s most critical moments. And a close call, at that.