- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2008


By Andrei Cherny

Putnam, $29.95, 624 pages, illus.


As is true of warfare, the outcome of diplomacy is often determined by blunder, for an adversary who acts rashly can find itself holding a losing hand. In the summer of 1948, the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin seemed on a roll. He had created a succession of communist puppet governments in Eastern European nations occupied by the Red Army, with only token verbal resistance by the West.

Then he grabbed for Berlin, cutting off land access to the Western Zones in violation of international agreements, hoping to starve a city of two million people into submission. The ploy almost worked. Citing a depleted military, the Joint Chiefs of Staff declared that “aerial charity work” would “affect seriously and adversely the ability of the National Military Establishment to meet its primary national security considerations.” Either the military should prepare to fight for Berlin or get out. The CIA felt that the airlift was “making Berlin a major test of US-Soviet strength in the eyes of Germany and Western Europe.” In the end, Berlin “can be maintained only by force or with Soviet tolerance.” As did the JCS, CIA felt the operation would ultimately fail, resulting in either “a planned withdrawal or the eventual maintenance of the Berlin position by force.”

Lt. Gen. Curtis LeMay, the wartime bombing hero, griped loudly that hauling coal would be “wearing out his bomber fleet” on a side show. The Washington Post editorialized for withdrawal, saying Berlin was not worth the risk of war.

President Truman cut off such talk with the curt statement, “We are going to stay. Period.” He would keep the airlift going “even if it takes every Piper Cub in the United States.” When the Air Force persisted in its objections, Mr. Truman again spoke up, saying that “if we move out of Berlin, we have lost everything we are fighting for.” He ordered the JCS to supply the large cargo planes needed for the operation.

The airlift story is told in rich detail in “The Candy Bombers” by Andrei Cherny. Even those familiar with the lift and the era will find Mr. Cherny’s account a fascinating read. (A word about that title: A cargo pilot named Gail “Hal” Halvorsen saw forlorn German children standing near Tempelhof air base. On an impulse, he fashioned a crude parachute and dropped candy on subsequent flights. Other pilots followed suit, and soon a rain of candy parachutes fell on the city, to the delight of the media and public.)

Of several heroes in Mr. Cherny’s book, my favorite is the commander of the lift, Lt. Gen. William Tunner, who during World War II directed flights over “The Hump” - the Himalayas - to supply Chinese Nationalist troops.

Tunner proved a master of logistics and ingenuity. Under his assembly line direction, a plane would either land or take off every 90 seconds. Each boxcar- sized plane carried exactly 19,300 pounds of cargo, hence every ounce counted. Carrying in dried potatoes cut weight requirements by 80 percent. Boning and canning meat saved 25 percent. Baked bread contained an excess weight of water, so flour and yeast were substituted, and the baking was done in Berlin. At its peak, the primitive Tempelhof aerodrome handled 50 percent more traffic than New York’s LaGuardia Airport, which a few months earlier had been the world’s busiest.

The lift continued even during the darkness of winter — the foggiest since the 1860s, according to meteorologists’ records. Only nine percent of the time were conditions clear enough for visual flight rules. Tunner’s grand finale was “The Easter Parade,” a blitz of flights that took 26 tons of coal and other supplies — ranging from manhole covers to condoms and hot water bottles - into Berlin in a single day. The coal alone would have filled a freight train 600 cars long.

Berliners made soup from boiled bones; a pound of coffee was stretched out to make 50 cups. Electricity was available only two hours daily. When the Soviets offered ration cards to West Berliners, only four percent accepted them. So Berliners survived, and as Mr. Cherny writes, they “drew together in community tighter than they ever had before and ever would again.” And, very significantly, “perhaps for the first time in the seven hundred-year history of Berlin, their attitude had changed.

“In municipal elections at the height of the lift, Berliners chose, by a vote of 54 to 40, ‘free elections, free speech, a free press, and freedom of religion’ over ‘economic security and good employment opportunities’ … A commitment to democracy had come to Berlin… .” Berlin became a formally divided city, pro-West in one sector, Moscow-commanded communist puppets in the other. A few weeks after the “parade,” the Soviets capitulated and ended the blockade.

Stalin’s blockade turned out to be a grievous strategic blunder. The previously controversial Marshall Plan and the “Truman Doctrine” of opposing Soviet expansions now drew broad support. West Germany entered the newlyformed North Atlantic Treaty Alliance. Mr. Cherny makes a convincing argument that the airlift was a major factor in Truman’s “impossible victory” in the 1948 presidential election.

Mr. Cherny botches the background of Mr. Truman fundraiser Louis Johnson, who briefly served as secretary of defense. Mr. Johnson rose to prominence as commander of the American Legion, not president of Rotary International. But no matter, Mr. Cherny rightly calls the lift “the moment when America took its first feeble steps as a world power in a time other than that of global war.”

A speechwriter in Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, Mr. Cherny wanted to write a book about “the moment [when] America was at its most esteemed, most respected, most beloved around the world.” He succeeded, and he is correct when he calls the lift “the greatest humanitarian effort in history.”

Joseph C. Goulden’s books include “The Best Years: America 1945-1950.” His e-mail is [email protected] aol.com.

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