- - Tuesday, April 29, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In this era of increasing diplomatic friction with Russia over Ukraine, it would be well to remember that April 30 marks the 65th anniversary of the first, and most unbelievable, successes of American and Western foreign policy marking the beginning of the Cold War.

That was the first sign on April 30, 1949, that the Soviet Union started to ease its Berlin blockade of Western power access to the city by permitting limited canal traffic. A formal agreement ending the blockade came on May 4. It had been a 328-day siege, coming to an end thanks to the massive airlifting of supplies to the beleaguered city.

After World War II, Germany was divided into four temporary zones occupied by the United States, Great Britain, France and Soviet Union. Berlin was located 100 miles inside the eastern-located Soviet zone, and it, too, was divided into four zones, but essentially two as a result of Western powers merging their boundaries, a situation that also mirrored the larger geographical zones. Postwar agreements looked forward to a unified Germany, and Western powers initiated, first in 1947, an economic-aid program named after Secretary of State George Marshall and second in 1948, currency reform that would stabilize Germany’s almost worthless existing monetary system.

The Soviets balked at both notions. Recognizing that West Berlin could produce only about a quarter of its food needs and even less of its energy requirements, they began on June 24, 1948, to block all rail, road and canal access from the west. The goal, of course, was to gain total control of the city because the Western powers, it was thought, would give up under such total blockage — or risk war. That was unlikely, given that the latter had only 22,600 troops in their Berlin section. The Soviets in their zone, on the other hand, numbered 1.5 million soldiers. Worse, at the start of the Soviet blockade, West Berliners had only 36 days of food supplies and 45 days of coal.

Gen. Lucius D. Clay, head of the U.S. Occupation Zone, set forth both the dilemma and solution: “There is no practicability in maintaining our position in Berlin, and it must not be evaluated on that basis. We are convinced that our remaining in Berlin is essential to our prestige in Germany and in Europe. Whether for good or bad, it has become a symbol of the American intent.”

Hence began the largest military-diplomatic relief effort in history, as impressive as the D-Day invasion in terms of its boldness and tenacity. Operation Vittles, as the airlift was dubbed by Americans, was meticulous in terms of its planning, calculations and results. Some 1,990 calories for each of the 2.2 million West Berliners were set as the minimum daily requirement, necessitating 1,534 tons per day in food and 3,475 tons of coal and gasoline for fuel and electricity. Although Soviet fighters boasted that they would challenge the airlift, the threat was hollow. Some 400 Western-supplied cargo planes — flying stacked above each other in a 20-mile wide air corridor — arrived every three minutes at first two, then three airfields in West Berlin. On Saturday, April 16, 1949, a day before the end of Lent, a record 1,398 planes landed in what was called the Easter Parade, averaging one every 61.8 seconds.

The daily food supplies varied from 640 tons of flour to 109 tons of meat and fish, from 19 tons of powdered milk to five tons of whole milk for children, the latter dubbing the planes “candy bombers” because of their always dependable supply of sweets.

And not only were supplies brought in, but manufactured goods made by West Berliners filled returning planes. Some 175,000 ill West Berliners, including young children, were also airlifted out during the period as a result of a severe winter. The total statistical accomplishments were breathtaking: From June 24, 1948, to May 12, 1949, when the Soviets capitulated and opened up all routes to the city, more than 278,000 flights had taken off, and 1,592,787 tons of supplies had been airlifted, equal to about 1,000 pounds per West Berliner. To make certain that sufficient surpluses were built up for West Berliners, air deliveries continued until Sept. 30, 1949. To be sure, there were losses during the airlift period. Seventeen American and eight British aircraft had crashed, with 70 resulting deaths. The pilots represented not only traditional occupation-zone powers, but also Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans.

As for Americans at home, the era of the airlift was no picnic. A railroad strike, demobilization problems, short supplies, and high prices made for public unrest. Still, a national poll on Sept. 15, 1948, indicated that 85 percent backed the airlift policy, with only 7 percent opposed and 8 percent undecided.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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