At the end of World War II, Berlin was a ruined city. Located entirely within what would become East Germany, Berlin was divided into four zones with the Soviets in the eastern sector and America, Britain, and France in the western neighborhoods. A quiet, if very uneasy, truce prevailed until July 1948 when Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin abruptly blocked access to the city. By making it impossible to resupply Berlin, Stalin hoped to force the Allies to leave.
President Truman’s key advisers – including Secretary of State George Marshall and Secretary of Defense James Forrestal – wanted to pull out. But Truman, already attacked as soft on communism, simply said: “We stay in Berlin. Period.”
Without rail, highway, or canal access, the only way to resupply the city entirely was by air. And so the Berlin Airlift was born.
Nobody thought that this would be a long-term project. The idea was for America and Britain to buy time, perhaps as much as two weeks, while negotiating with the Russians. Instead, the airlift lasted 324 days before Stalin backed down.
A new book, Daring Young Men, by presidential biographer Richard Reeves, tells the story of this central event of the cold war by focusing
largely on the work of the pilots, ground crews, and others who made it possible for the city to hang on during this perilous time. By retelling this important story,
Reeves has helped to ensure that this enormous accomplishment will not fade from view.
At the start of the airlift, the US and Britain were dangerously short of pilots and aircraft. Old planes – some still bearing their World War II insignias – were recommissioned and pressed into service. Since there were far fewer active duty pilots, mechanics, air-traffic controllers, and meteorologists than the situation
demanded, many retired service members were recalled to duty. Their task was simple and yet unbelievably daunting: to ensure that the 2 million residents of West Berlin received adequate food, fuel, and medicine to outlast the Soviet blockade.
Reeves finds plenty of heroes: Truman, who overruled key cabinet members and insisted that the Allies remain in Berlin; Gen. Lucius Clay, the American military governor who believed that an airlift could work; and Maj. Gen. William Turner, the head of the Military Air Transport Service, who developed the operational plans and procedures that allowed the airlift to deliver as much as 12,000 tons of supplies a day.
He also gives much credit to the West Berliners who endured great hunger and deprivation throughout the fall and winter of 1947-48. For example, because the Soviets had also cut off electricity to West Berlin, all the coal for heating had to be flown in and most Berliners had just two hours of electricity a day. The Soviets made entreaties that might have eased these hardships, but West Berliners fiercely resisted them.
But the author’s most generous praise goes to the individuals who flew, repaired, and loaded the planes. To Reeves, the story is simply one more example of ordinary Americans doing extraordinary things; a last act of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.” The individual stories Reeves tells are
illuminating and often very moving. With memories of World War II still fresh, former enemies quickly realized a common purpose and became friends.
The book is based on several hundred interviews with survivors, analysis of contemporaneous accounts, and extensive documentary research in American, French, British, and Russian archives.
The focus on the individual participants provides a telling and fascinating account of what it took to make the airlift work. But Reeves gives less attention to the geopolitical considerations than one might wish. It’s not entirely clear in the text, for example, what precipitated the blockade in the first place. And, given that the airlift set much of the tone for the rest of the cold war, one wishes Reeves had provided a more wide-angle conclusion.
This is gripping history. At a human level, it’s a tale of ingenuity, resourcefulness, courage, and determination. More broadly, it reminds us that common cause and a sense of shared purpose can produce amazing results. It is a lesson worth remembering in these challenging times.