May 13, 1998
President Clinton joined German Chancellor Helmut Kohl on Thursday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Berlin airlift. Following a background report, Jim Lehrer and guests discuss the event's historical significance.
SPENCER MICHELS: In 1945, war-torn Germany was divided by the allies into four parts: one each under the control of the Americans, the British, the French, and the Russians. Its capital, Berlin, located 110 miles inside the Russian zone, was also cut into four sectors. The Soviets, led by Josef Stalin, wanted to wrest complete control.
April 7, 1998:
A report on the new Germany.
October 16, 1997:
The Cuban Missile Crisis, fifty years later.
June 5, 1997:
Remembering George Marshall and the Marshall Plan.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the Europe.
The United States Air Forces in Europe's Berlin Airlift page.
The Berlin blockade begins.
And on June 24, 1948, they imposed a blockade on the city of Berlin. They cut off all railways, highways, and waterways leading to the city. The allies refused to buckle. Two days later, they responded with a massive airlift, flying one plane after another through a narrow, dangerous corridor from the West to Berlin. It was quickly dubbed "Operation Vittles," but the planes brought far more than just food. Berlin's 2 million people got coal for fuel, medicines, manhole covers, automobiles, even candy dropped in handkerchief parachutes for the city's children.
COL. GAIL HALVORSEN, Retired Air Force Pilot: These kids didn't have any gum and candy. For months they hadn't had any, barely enough to eat, but they wouldn't lower themselves to become a beggar, to ask for something so extravagant as gum and candy.
SPENCER MICHELS: The pilots defied the weather, the worst fog and rain that Berlin had seen in 30 years, and tragedy. More than 60 lives were lost, including 31 Americans, most of them in plane crashes.
278,000 flights ferrying 2.3 million tons of goods at a cost of more than $200 million.
All told, there were 278,000 flights ferrying 2.3 million tons of goods at a cost of more than $200 million, a huge sum for the time. An air supply operation of such magnitude had never before been attempted. After 11 months, the Russians capitulated. From May 12, 1949, they lifted the blockade, and the airlift finally ended in September.
JIM LEHRER: Now some perspective from NewsHour regulars Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, Journalist/Author Haynes Johnson, joined tonight by Alexandra Richie, a fellow of Wolfson College at Oxford University, author of Faust's Metropolis: A History of Berlin. Michael, as an event of Cold War History, how important was the airlift?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: As important as it could be, and it was a real turning point because if you look back on this and let's say that Truman had not decided to do this airlift and the Western sectors of Berlin had fallen to the Russians, there's a very good possibility that the Soviets could have taken over all of Europe and the whole history of the Cold War could have been different; the Russians might have won.
JIM LEHRER: Might have won. Ms. Richie, is the--what it said about what the Russians were keen on doing at the time--in other words, they would isolate the city but they weren't willing to shoot down American planes as they flew in, was that also a very revealing thing historically?
ALEXANDRA RICHIE, Historian: It was important, and it showed I think the airlift was important precisely because the West actually confronted the East--confronted Stalin, and we found that he wouldn't push just far enough to go to war. He was frightened by the bomb. He was frightened of a third world war, and at this point it was it was important that the West stood up to him and we realized how far he would go or wouldn't go because of it.
JIM LEHRER: And it also said a lot about Truman, did it not, Doris.
President Truman's role.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Oh, absolutely. I mean, no one could have predicted that it would turn out so well. I mean, that's what's important to remember in history. We look at it as significant now, but at the time all you thought was that maybe it would provide some temporary sustenance. They didn't think that the flights could get through the winter. They thought fog and bad weather would undo it, but even it could just maybe buy a month or two months. And Truman's popularity was at 38 percent. There's even a letter that Ickes wrote to him at the time in which Ickes said, wouldn't it be better--
JIM LEHRER: Harold Ickes.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Harold Ickes, who had been with FDR and was still floating around.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: And he says, wouldn't it be better if you retired voluntarily with dignity and didn't go to run in '48, rather than being forced out by an indignant citizenry? And it's also a wonderful letter that Truman writes to Churchill at this time where he says it's a hard thing that this airlift crisis is happening in the midst of an election campaign, but our country and yours was founded on the fact that the people get to express their opinions about their leaders, and we have to abide by that. So he somehow comes out much strengthened by this, but he couldn't have predicted that at the time. It was a very bold, risky move for him.
JIM LEHRER: And, Haynes, in speaking of the public, just as a morale boost for the American public in the Cold War, this was a tremendous thing, was it not?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: Oh, absolutely. And you have to understand at that time, Jim, to go back to that period, it seems so long ago, watching these black and white films with these old planes flying over in the fog and so forth, the United States had only been two years out of the war. And this whole thing we didn't know about the Russians, the Iron Curtain had come down across the Europe there, Churchill had given his famous speech about the Iron Curtain has descended across Europe, and this was the prospect of a third world war was right--hanging in the middle of the whole--and then here comes Truman and he makes a decision that actually changed history. I mean, these are terrible ifs of history which Churchill talked about, if they hadn't done it.
JIM LEHRER: And-
HAYNES JOHNSON: What might have happened.
ALEXANDRA RICHIE: But the debate--
JIM LEHRER: Yes, go ahead.
ALEXANDRA RICHIE: The debate was also between whether or not Clay was going to push around--
JIM LEHRER: This was Lucius Clay, the general--
ALEXANDRA RICHIE: Yes. JIM LEHRER: --who actually just started the airlift on his own, did he not?
ALEXANDRA RICHIE: He did. He actually wanted to force a land entry into Berlin, and that was stopped. But then Truman decided to go for the airlift.
JIM LEHRER: I interrupted you there. You want to make a point.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: It was a wise thing, wasn't it, that they didn't try the land? I mean, we were so out of proportion in terms of our land forces over there. I mean, there's a moment when General Marshall says everyone wants me to give hell to the Russians, but we have 1 1/3 divisions versus 260 divisions that the Russians have. We had de-mobilized so much after the war, we had like one in ten, I think, over in Germany. So it would have been very tough to forced the armored convoys through.
JIM LEHRER: Michael, what does the record show on just how--what kind of debate there was within the Soviet leadership about whether or not to shoot back, whether or not to let these planes land, where to draw the line?
Pressures on Josef Stalin.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, there was pressure on Stalin because one of the great desires of the Soviet leadership for sometime had been to take over Western Europe with the idea that this would cause the rest of the world to fall into the hands of the Soviet Union, almost like overripe fruit. But the interesting thing is that in this one case, as others, Josef Stalin knew his limits. He was in a way a conservative in that he knew how far he wanted to go. He was willing to taunt the United States and to try to stop this traffic and try to starve West Berlin and those 2.2 million people into submission, but he had very clear in his mind that this was never anything for which he was willing to go to war, and the Americans performed well too because Truman perceived that from the very beginning. He said this is not something that Stalin is going to feel is important enough to risk war over, and he was right.
JIM LEHRER: Ms. Richie, one of the other things that's been commented on that this airlift helped reconcile the wounds of the war between Germany and the allies, United States, Britain, and the rest of the world; that they'd just been fighting up till two years before.
ALEXANDRA RICHIE: Very much so. In 1945, they were at war. Bombers were dropping bombs on Berlin, and two and a half years later, all of a sudden, the Western allies started to look differently at Germany, and they realized that Stalin is trying to get Berlin--West Berlin and perhaps all of West Germany, perhaps all of Western Europe. And the Germans--the West Berliners behaved impeccably. The Western allies and the Americans, in particular, weren't sure if they would. And when General Clay went to Ernst Reuter, the mayor of Berlin at the time, and said, can you give me the support of Berliners, he said, absolutely, no question, and amazingly enough, only a few years after being run by a dictatorship and before that, Berlin didn't--let's face it--have a particularly great record--they all of a sudden transformed themselves into Democrats, and they have remained so ever since, which is--it was a tremendously important step on the stage to the development of the Western European Union, of NATO, of West Germany, and then, of course, eventually the unified Germany that we see now.
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
Transforming a generation
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: And probably for that whole generation of young people. I remember reading about a young girl saying every time she heard the sound of the plane or she heard the--she saw the lights of the planes coming down, she knew that the West was preserving them. They felt a camaraderie. And if that's happening every day, every three minutes, these planes are coming, you really do feel a sense of belonging somewhere else in a new place.
JIM LEHRER: A quick healing, Haynes.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes, it was, but there's a dark side to this also because this was the moment the Cold War really almost became hot, and the Russians didn't--the Soviet Union did not have the bomb. Within one year they did have the bomb, and so you went from this--we pushed the envelope--they didn't--Stalin was vulnerable--he wasn't willing to go to war over--you had from that point into almost an hysteria at home, spies--and Alger Hiss comes out at the end of that year, just from June of the first airlift to that December, the Alger Hiss, and spies within our own--so Truman, this brave, bold president, is suddenly taken up, and he's defended himself and the country against communism as being pro-Communist almost. There's a side that--the hysteria, the feeling of when the Russians did get the bomb, it unleashed all that sort of terror in the country.
JIM LEHRER: Michael.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And, as with everything, Truman enjoyed some good luck because it was a pretty cost-free decision for him to try this airlift in June of 1948. Just think, if he had had a different Republican opponent for president that year than Thomas Dewey, who basically agreed with him on the Cold War. Let's say you had an isolationist who said, why do we have to spend all this money on these Germans, who took the lives of tens of thousands of Americans--
JIM LEHRER: That was not raised as a point, was it?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It wasn't. Truman was able to operate in a political atmosphere. There was amazing consensus between the two parties, and he was able to do the right thing. It also might be said that Truman did this without any kind of polling before he took these decisions.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Thank God.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And he also, he might have very well been told that this airlift might not succeed, it might fail right in the middle of an election campaign in the fall of 1948, and, you, President Truman, might be the one to suffer.
JIM LEHRER: Ms. Richie, how did Europe react to the airlift?
ALEXANDRA RICHIE: Well, of course, Britain was heavily involved in the airlift, and it was very much because of the British push that the airlift started in the first place. France was slower to take--to take heed of it, but they did support it eventually. And they really were the two most important European powers at that point. And they worked--in fact, it was interesting because it was one of the things which cemented the British-American relationship after the war, because immediately at the end of the war and just after the war the relationship had turned somewhat sour. And it was after the Communist insurgency in Greece and the British inability to fight it and the Americans coming to their aid that started to re-define the British and American post war relationship.
JIM LEHRER: And there was no reluctance on the part of the British to help the people who had just been killing British people and flying airplanes over London?
ALEXANDRA RICHIE: Surprisingly not. Surprisingly, the British also realized that this was not an altruistic thing that they were doing. It started off as a question of power politics. And they realized--Churchill, of course, was one of the first to realize--that Stalin was trying to push for more and more land, more and more territory. And the British saw it as a threat to their own national interest. That's how it began. Of course, later, when the pilots went to Berlin and they started to get to know the people and the little children, they're dropping candies and things, it became an emotional and a humanitarian issue. But at the beginning it was a question of power politics, pure--
JIM LEHRER: You agree, it was power politics, right, Doris?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, there's no question that both the British and the Americans, I think, felt they had to do this for their own security and for the nature of the Western world. But I think what happened, it was one of those creative solutions to a power politics problem that caught the imagination of the world, one of those times when you're not producing force, you're not withdrawing, you've created the third solution somehow, and people saw it that way. And I think that's why it caught so much emotion inside Germany and the world at large.
JIM LEHRER: How was it viewed at the time, Michael? Was it viewed as a major thing at the time?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: No. The amazing thing is how little this was even discussed. You look at the newspapers during 1948--certainly there was a mention that the airlift began and there was mention of the fact that the blockade was going on, but this was not a big issue, and especially in that political campaign because you would expect, looking back historically, you think of 1948, what is one of the big events of 1948, this airlift that turned the Cold War, here is one example among so many where you look back at the time and find that something that we now know is of paramount importance historically, at the time was taken as sort of a minor event.
JIM LEHRER: Good lesson for us there.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Exactly. And don't you think one of the reasons was because the United States had come out of a war and there was hardly any debate over the Marshall Plan, which was just a year before, enormously controversial, America, the isolationist country, the Truman Doctrine against stopping Communism, and Greece and Turkey had already been declared, here comes the Berlin airlift, the country, itself, didn't pay any attention to that as an issue. That was something you should do.
JIM LEHRER: As I remember it was personalized in the American press that I read at least, Lucius Clay became a hero as an individual general, the man who did this wonderful--pulled off this wonderful thing.
"Wonderful cowboy stuff."
HAYNES JOHNSON: This wonderful American cowboy stuff, flying in the area, you know, and dropping food, we were the good guys. We had--I'm sorry--we had won the war--you know, with a little help from our friends.
JIM LEHRER: A little help.
ALEXANDRA RICHIE: It did define American foreign policy, though, however quietly this event took off after this, America changed its foreign policy from isolationism into, you know, the famous foreign policy document of 1949, where it stated that America is this moral power, and we must go and support and defend the rest of the world. It was a turning point in that sense.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Nothing like success--
JIM LEHRER: That's right.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: --to create a turning point.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And I might say that had Berlin fallen to the Russians in 1948, it would have been a very big event.
JIM LEHRER: Oh, yes, and we will ponder that. I thank you all very much.