Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Berlin Blockade and Airlift (1948–1949)

The first serious crisis of the Cold War precipitated by the Soviet Union's attempt to cut off access to West Berlin, which lay within Soviet-occupied eastern Germany. As part of the Potsdam Agreements, Germany and Berlin were divided into occupation zones by the victorious World War II Allies (the United States, the Soviet Union, France, and Great Britain), reaffirming principles laid out earlier at the Yalta Conference. Although the provisions of the agreement allocated occupation sectors of Berlin to the other three Allies, no formal arrangements had been made for access to Berlin via the Soviet zone.

After the war, the relationship between the Soviet Union and the West began to deteriorate steadily, as demonstrated by disputes in the United Nations, Winston Churchill's March 1946 "Sinews of Peace" speech (also known as the "Iron Curtain" speech), U.S. emphasis on Soviet containment, Soviet hostility toward the Marshall Plan, and a growing Western commitment to consolidate occupation zones in western Germany to form a single, independent state. The Soviets, who had been invaded by Germany twice in the first half of the twentieth century, were alarmed at the prospect of a reunited, independent Germany.

In late 1947, discussions on the fate of Germany broke down over Soviet charges that its former Allies were violating the Potsdam Agreements. After the decision of the Western powers to introduce a new currency in their zones, on 20 March 1948 the Soviets withdrew from the Four-Power Allied Control Council, which controlled Berlin. Ten days later, guards on the eastern German border began slowing the entry of Western troop trains bound for Berlin. On 7 June, the Western powers announced their intention to proceed with the creation of a West German state. On 15 June, the Soviets declared the Autobahn entering Berlin from West Germany closed for repairs. Three days later all road traffic from the west was halted, and on 21 June barge traffic was prohibited from entering the city. On 24 June, the Soviets stopped all surface traffic between West Germany and Berlin, arguing that if Germany were to be partitioned, Berlin could no longer be the German capital.

Located 110 miles inside the Soviet occupation zone, West Berlin from the start of the Cold War had been a Western outpost deep within the communist bloc, a hotbed of intelligence operations by both sides, and the best available escape route for East Germans fleeing communism and Soviet control. U.S. President Harry Truman was convinced that abandoning Berlin would jeopardize control of all of Germany. He further believed that the Soviets were determined to push the Western powers out of Berlin, thereby discrediting repeated American assurances to its allies and the rest of Europe that it would not allow Berlin to fall.

A military response to the blockade was initially considered but rejected, as the Western powers lacked the manpower to counter the massive Red Army's numerical and strategic advantage. Thus the United States, working with its European allies, undertook to supply West Berlin via air corridors left open to them in a postwar agreement. The Berlin Airlift began on 24 June 1948 and continued uninterrupted for the next 324 days. Western fliers, under the leadership of U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Curtis LeMay, made a total of 272,000 flights into West Berlin, delivering thousands of tons of supplies every day.

The airlift was at first meant to be a short-term measure, as Allied officials did not believe that the airlift could support the whole of Berlin for any length of time. The situation in the summer and fall of 1948 became very tense as Soviet planes buzzed U.S. transport planes in the air corridors over East Germany, but the Allies only increased their efforts to resupply the German city once it became apparent that no resolution was in sight. The Soviets never attempted to shoot down any of the Western aircraft involved in the airlift, no doubt because such a provocation might well result in war.

Hundreds of aircraft were used to fly in a wide variety of cargo items, including more than 1.5 million tons of coal. By the fall, the airlift, called by the Americans "Operation vittles," was transporting an average of 5,000 tons of supplies a day. At the height of the operation on 16 April 1949, an aircraft landed in Berlin every minute around the clock.

The airlift was an international effort; airplanes were supplied by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, but there were also flight crews from Australia, Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand. The three main Berlin airfields involved in the effort were Tempelhof in the American sector, Gatow in the British zone, and Tegel in the French sector. The British even landed seaplanes on the Havel River.

The airlift gained widespread public and international admiration, and on 12 May 1949 the Soviets, concluding that the blockade had failed, reopened the borders in return for a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers, perhaps believing that they could have some influence on the Western Allies' proposed plans for the future of Germany. Even though the Soviets lifted the blockade in May, the airlift did not end until 30 September because the allies sought to build up sufficient amounts of reserve supplies in West Berlin in case the Soviets blockaded it again. In all, the United States, Britain, and France flew 278,118 flights transporting more than 2.3 million short tons of cargo. Thirty-one Americans and thirty-nine British citizens, most of them military personnel, died in the airlift.

In the end, the blockade was not only completely ineffective but also backfired on the Soviets in other ways. The blockade provoked genuine fears of the Soviets in the West and introduced even greater tension into the Cold War. Instead of preventing an independent West Germany, it actually accelerated Allied plans to set up the state. It also hastened the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an American–West European military alliance.

James H. Willbanks

Further Reading
Collins, Richard. Bridge across the Sky: The Berlin Blockade and Airlift, 1948–1949. New York: Pan Macmillan, 1978.; Haydock, Michael D. City under Siege: The Berlin Blockade and Airlift, 1948–1949. London: Brassey's, 1999.; Schlain, Avi. The United States and the Berlin Blockade, 1948–1949: A Study in Decision-Making. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.; Tusa, Ann. The Last Division: A History of Berlin, 1945–1989. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997.

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