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The Berlin Airlift
Teacher's Guide: Suggestions for Active Learning

A miniature city is used to instruct military police in Germany on the situations likely to arise in various parts of a city, September 1946. After the war, Western forces were geared toward support and civil control. The Berlin Airlift provides insights into social studies topics including the end of World War II in Europe, the start of the Cold War, international humanitarian aid, the impact of war on cities and civilian populations, and more. You can use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this Web site to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.

The following activities are grouped into four categories: history, geography, civics, and leadership. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.


History | Geography | Civics | Leadership

  1. Puzzling out a historic period.
    The Berlin Airlift took place at a time of important changes in Europe. To test students' knowledge of that critical period, divide the class into small groups and have each group prepare a crossword puzzle of important events, people, and places listed on the Berlin Airlift timeline, such as V-E Day, the creation of NATO, Lucius Clay, Joseph Stalin, the German Democratic Republic, and Berlin.

    After the teacher has reviewed the completed crosswords, photocopy and distribute them so that each student has a copy of every crossword except the one he or she helped create. Have students complete these crosswords at a single sitting, without consulting outside sources. See who can be the first to complete all of the crosswords correctly.

  2. Living through the Cold War.
    As the timeline shows, Berlin was the site not only of the start of the Cold War, but also of one of the most dangerous escalations of the Cold War (the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961) and the end of the Cold War (the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989).

    As a class, show how life in the United States changed during the Cold War decades by preparing an illustrated timeline of the 1948-1961-1989 period. Divide the class into at least half a dozen groups and assign each group a different area of daily life, such as sports, popular music, politics, fashion, medicine, technology, or literature. Each group should select notable events from its area of life for 1948, 1961, and 1989 and add these items to the timeline, along with illustrations.

    When the timeline is complete, review it as a class. In what areas of life did the world appear to change the most during the four decades? In what areas did it appear to change the least?

  3. It's not about the money.
    The Soviets began the blockade of Berlin just after the Western powers introduced a new currency in West Berlin, but the Soviets' real concern was how they would be affected by the creation of an independent West Germany that was friendly to the West. Do you think this concern was justified?

    Working in pairs, write the text of an informal debate that two American friends might have had on this issue during the Berlin Airlift. One person should argue that the Soviets' concern is justified because of the suffering caused by past invasions of Russia and the Soviet Union, including those by Germany (during both world wars) and by Napoleon. The other person should argue that the Soviets are attempting to take control of Germany just as they are taking control of Eastern Europe. Both sides in the debate should cite specific historical facts to support their arguments.

    When the groups are done, have them act out their debates for the class. Which side generally proved more convincing?


History | Geography | Civics | Leadership

  1. Behind the Iron Curtain.
    As this map shows, the division of Berlin was just one part of the division of Europe after World War II into a non-Communist West and a Communist East. What happened to the countries located east of the Iron Curtain?

    To find out, write the name of every Eastern European country, plus all of the countries of the former Soviet Union, on separate slips of paper, and place the slips into a box. Have each student draw one of the slips. (You may need to duplicate certain countries in order to have enough slips for every student.) For his or her assigned country, each student must find out when and how it came under Communist rule and when and how it was freed from Communist rule; each student should also find a news article from the past six months concerning a recent development in that country.

    Have students present their findings to the class in brief oral reports. Each student should start by identifying the country for the class on a wall map.

  2. As the world watched.
    The Berlin Airlift made headlines around the world, attracting attention from countries that had no direct interest in the U.S.-Soviet confrontation. How might recent developments in these countries have helped shape their attitudes toward the crisis?

    Select a country other than the United States, Germany, or the Soviet Union. Imagine that it is 1948 and you are a leading newspaper columnist in that country. Write an editorial explaining what you think your country's attitude should be toward the Berlin crisis, based on your country's recent history. When you are done, read your editorial to the class.


History | Geography | Civics | Leadership

  1. Aiding the (former) enemy.
    In Operation Little Vittles, U.S. pilot Gail Halvorsen and others air-dropped hundreds of thousands of packages of candy to Berlin children -- children whose country the United States had been at war with just a few years earlier. How do you think Americans from different walks of life reacted to this initiative?

    Hold a mock town meeting in Chicopee, Massachusetts (where much of the preparation for Operation Little Vittles took place), at which town residents will have an opportunity to voice their opinions. Assign one student to be the "mayor" and run the meeting. Have each of the rest of the students play the part of a different town resident -- a housewife whose children attend a school that is helping make parachutes, a student in that school, a poor resident of the town, a veteran who fought against the Nazis, a Jewish resident of the town, etc. -- and give his or her opinion on Operation Little Vittles. Allow residents to respond to each others' comments, so long as everyone has an opportunity to be heard. What arguments are raised for and against the idea?


History | Geography | Civics | Leadership

  1. Where the buck stopped.
    The presidency has been called the "loneliest job in the world" because of the difficult decisions a President must make -- such as President Harry Truman's decision to authorize the Berlin Airlift.

    What thoughts do you think were going through President Truman's mind during the months of the Berlin crisis? Review these documents from Truman's presidential library, which show some of the information and advice Truman was receiving during those critical months. Using the information in these documents and the film, write at least three diary entries Truman might have written during this period, in which he considers the evolving situation and how he should respond to it. Be sure to date each entry, and remember that each entry must be based only on information Truman had available at the time he "wrote" it.

    When everyone is done, have volunteers read some of their entries aloud to the class, going in chronological order by the date of the diary entry. What similarities and differences do you see in the ways different students portrayed Truman?

  2. Commitment and credibility.
    President Truman succeeded in forcing Stalin to end the Berlin blockade by demonstrating that the United States had both the means and the will to continue the Berlin Airlift indefinitely.

    In the debate over U.S. involvement in Iraq, President Bush stated that a U.S. withdrawal would embolden terrorists by demonstrating that the United States lacked the will to confront them. Critics of the Administration, in contrast, stated that continued U.S. involvement in Iraq weakened the United States and encouraged further terrorism.

    Do you see a parallel between President Truman's position on Berlin and President Bush's position on Iraq? Have each student write a paragraph summarizing his or her view and give it to the teacher. The teacher should then read selected answers to the class, using them as a springboard for a class discussion of U.S. policy toward Iraq.

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