Recalling a moment of valor

July 09, 1998|By Paul Duke

THE Berlin Airlift that began 50 years ago this summer is being heralded everywhere as the first significant Cold War triumph for the West.

It was indeed that. But it also was the single most important event in persuading the Western allies that only a policy of resolute firmness would repel the gathering tide of Communism that threatened to sweep across most of Europe after World War II.

The 11-month airlift, which delivered fuel and food to a Berlin threatened with starvation by a Russian blockade, was one of destiny's improbable successes, an accidental happening that proved to be a marvel of technical proficiency and military can-do. As such, it towers as one of the most heroic rescue missions ever undertaken and a memorable monument to the presidency of Harry Truman.

Communism on the march

The Berlin crisis occurred at a perilous time. The wartime partnership of the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union had dissolved into bitter acrimony over the future of a devastated Europe. Communism clearly seemed on the ascendancy, with the Soviets gobbling up eastern Europe, staging a violent coup to take control of Czechoslovakia and making important political gains in Greece, Italy and France.

All of this emboldened the Soviets to cast territorial designs on Berlin, which had been placed under four-power rule through postwar agreements. Unfortunately, the city was isolated 120 miles inside the Soviet occupation zone of Germany, far from the allies.

Even so, few people believed that the Soviets would take the drastic step of imposing a blockade of all land, rail and canal traffic into the city in late June 1948. The reaction in Washington and other allied capitals was one of panic. The prevalent view at both the State Department and Pentagon was that the city was lost. Admiral William Leahy, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, described the situation as "hopeless." Gen.Omar Bradley, the army's chief of staff, proposed a negotiated withdrawal to avoid conflict.

The one high-ranking holdout was Gen. Lucius Clay, the American military governor for Germany, who counseled against retreat to send an unmistakable signal that "we cannot be run over." Clay suspected the Soviets were bluffing and proposed trying to ram through a military convoy to break the blockade.

The military command rejected this as too provocative and President Truman agreed. But Clay would not take "no" for an answer. He proceeded to embrace an alternative British proposal to attempt an air rescue, even though he had serious doubts that it would work. Mr. Truman listened to the arguments, then gave an unequivocal go-ahead.

It was not a popular decision. Most of official Washington dismissed the airlift as a foolhardy move that might well trigger World War III. The dissenters, still hoping for a negotiated settlement with the Soviets, ridiculed it as Truman's folly. While the shuttle might keep Berlin going for a few weeks, hardly anybody believed it could indefinitely sustain a metropolis of 2.5 million people.

Truman would have none of this defeatism, telling aides that "we stay in Berlin period."

Even that did not end the resistance. When Clay flew home in the fall to ask for 60 additional transports to help Berliners get through the winter, he encountered another hostile reception. At a crucial meeting of the National Security Council, Truman polled his advisers. Not one favored the increase. The Air Force, unrelenting in its pessimism, said the extra planes would leave the United States too vulnerable.

The president listened politely and then calmly told Clay that he could have his planes, displaying a resolve reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln when he overruled his Cabinet by announcing that there were "nine nays and one aye, the ayes have it." With the additional planes and better organization, the airlift soon became a magnificent success. By the spring of 1949 the Soviets realized they had made a colossal blunder and withdrew the blockade.

The importance of the airlift extended far beyond the salvation of Berlin. The operation gave the West a renewed sense of pride and prestige, convincing allied leaders that a policy of self-assured restraint and toughness could work. Most of all, the crisis established the ground rules for future skirmishing in which both sides would go to the brink but never permit the Cold War to become a hot one.

Journalist Paul Duke's PBS documentary, "The Berlin Airlift," airs at 9 p.m. Monday.

Pub Date: 7/09/98

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