Seventy years ago this coming week, the Soviets blocked all access to West Berlin, prompting President Truman to launch an airlift of food and supplies that saved the city and convinced Josef Stalin to back down 11 months later.
The airlift came amid Truman’s broad-scale reinvention of U.S. foreign policy in which — through the Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, NATO, and other initiatives — the United States shed its traditional isolationism and seized global leadership to defend freedom and democracy. In the ensuing decades, the United States fought the Cold War, built a network of alliances, and promoted free markets, all of which helped maintain peace and drive prosperity at home and abroad.
At a time when the United States is disparaging its allies, stroking its adversaries, threatening its alliances, and undermining its trade relationships, Berlin offers a timely reminder of what truly made America great.
After World War II, the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union controlled separate quadrants of Germany. They also controlled separate sections of Berlin, but the city was entirely situated within the Soviet quadrant. As tensions rose over the final status of Germany, so too did fears in Washington that Moscow would seize all of Berlin.
U.S.-Soviet tensions began to reach the boiling point in the spring of 1948. The United States and Britain, which by then had consolidated their zones into “Bizonia,” introduced a new deutschmark for Bizonia and West Berlin, with an eye toward creating a more permanent West Germany.
The Soviets responded in late June with a blockade, preventing all road, rail, and water access to West Berlin and leaving its people without their daily supply of food, coal, and other necessities. No one doubted that with their overwhelming forces on the ground, the Soviets could quickly seize the city on a permanent basis.
In Washington, the question quickly arose as to what the U.S. commitment to West Berlin should mean in practical terms. Was saving the city worth a confrontation with its formidable new adversary? Should Washington abandon it in hopes of easing tensions with an increasingly hostile Moscow?
U.S. officials feared that a U.S. retreat would embolden Moscow to overrun Western Europe and leave the Marshall Plan – which was designed to revive Western Europe’s economy in order to prevent home-grown communist insurrections – to die in its infancy. Officials, however, also feared that U.S. military efforts to push the Soviets out of Berlin would mean war, with all its frightening ramifications.
What Truman and his team of extraordinary foreign policy advisors settled on was a breath-taking effort to save the city and its people by dropping tons and tons of food and supplies from U.S. aircraft.
“It was,” Andrei Cherny wrote in The Candy Bombers, “a turning point in the nation’s history, the moment America came to fully accept the mantle of leader of the free world… when America became beloved by the very people it had defeated in battle and whose cities it had leveled – and was revered by people around the world who looked to the United States as a source of decency and good.”
Berlin remained a flashpoint of U.S.-Soviet tensions. When, at their tense meeting in Vienna in June of 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev threatened to seize Berlin, President Kennedy warned him that the United States would do whatever it took to defend its presence there. Later, on Air Force One, the usually reserved JFK dissolved into tears when discussing the possibility that millions of innocent children would die if a U.S.-Soviet confrontation over Berlin led to nuclear war.
Throughout the Cold War, Berlin also became a symbol of America’s commitment to freedom and democracy.
“There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the communist world,” Kennedy told 300,000 wildly enthused West Berliners on a wind-swept date of June of 1963, standing near the Berlin Wall that the Soviets had built two years earlier to stop people from fleeing the east. “Let them come to Berlin.”
Reviewing the U.S.-led West’s economic successes after World War II and the Soviet empire’s failures, President Reagan declared at the Berlin Wall in 1987, “After these four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor.”
As Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan understood, the United States has defended freedom not just out of morality but self-interest. The freer world that America has nurtured made our nation safer and more prosperous. The considerable cost in arms, aid, and diplomacy has been well worth the effort.
Lawrence J. Haas is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of, most recently, Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.