- - Wednesday, January 16, 2013

By Daniel F. Harrington
University Press of Kentucky, $40, 414 pages

For more than four decades, Berlin stood as the very symbol of the Cold War.

The German capital, center of Nazi power, represented the big prize at the end of World War II. The victorious Allies — the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France — occupied and divided the city into four zones. The arrangement was meant to guarantee access to all.

It was Berlin where the first major crisis erupted between the West and the Soviet Union. On June 24, 1948, the Red Army abruptly blocked rail and road access to West Berlin with the aim of taking over the entire city.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin gambled that the Allies would abandon the city and cede control to his forces. He meant to starve the residents of the western zone into submission.

The Western Allies refused to buckle.

President Harry Truman had two choices. He could order the blockade to be swept aside through military action. Or, he could try to break it by launching a massive around-the-clock airlift, providing food, medicine, coal and other vital supplies to western Berlin.

In this battle for Berlin, Truman picked the airlift. The action saved Berlin and avoided a shooting war.

In “Berlin on the Brink: The Blockade, the Airlift, and the Early Cold War,” American historian Daniel F. Harrington concludes that the Allied airlift succeeded due to the determination of the United States and Britain. Mr. Harrington also notes the heroism and hard work of the pilots and mechanics who maintained the planes, and he applauds the stamina of common Berliners.

While Truman meant to “stay in Berlin, period,” he was equally determined to avoid a military confrontation with the Russians. He knew that the American people had no stomach for another conflict so soon after the bloodiest war in human history.

In the face of Western determination, Stalin lifted the blockade 11 months after it was imposed. The blockade turned out to be a reckless gamble that failed.

It was a stunning political setback for Stalin as his failed action strengthened Western opinion against the Soviet Union. It also hastened the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), aimed at checking Soviet military and political expansion.

Staying in Berlin and avoiding a general war was the fundamental purpose of Truman and his political allies. “They solved it through steadfastness and resolve, to be sure,” Mr. Harrington writes, “but also through caution and prudence. And they benefited from a large measure of good luck in the form of the airlift’s unexpected success and Berliners’ willingness to endure.”

Mr. Harrington observes in his excellent study that the West’s conduct during the crisis “exemplifies the adage that it is better to be lucky than good.”

The author also says the blockade seemed to confirm assumptions that the Kremlin would retreat when faced with strength and resolve and that firmness is the only way to check Soviet expansion.

“That is only half the story,” Mr. Harrington writes. “The western powers did not challenge the blockade with a convoy; they avoided ultimatums, and (thanks to the Europeans) they never backed themselves (or the Russians) into a corner.”

Both sides understood that wars are easy to start — but not so easy to finish.

It was Berlin where the Cold War started, and it was Berlin where it ended when Berliners gathered peacefully in 1989 and took hammers to the wall.

The East German regime — without backup by Moscow — stood by, the wall fell and the Cold War ended as dramatically as it started.

Frank T. Csongos is a former reporter, editor and bureau chief for United Press International and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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