The blockade of Berlin was the first serious crisis of the Cold War. By 1948, the Western allies began moving towards consolidating their occupation zones in Western Germany into a single independent German state. As part of that process, the U.S., France and Britain took steps to reform the currency in the parts of Germany they occupied, in order to promote economic recovery. The new currency, over which the Soviets would have no control, was also to become legal tender in the Western sectors of Berlin.
The USSR, which had been invaded twice by Germany, was alarmed at the prospect of a strong Germany. The Soviet leadership responded to the Western allies' currency reforms by installing their own new currency in East Berlin just 24 hours before the West mark was to go into circulation. They also imposed a blockade on West Berlin, cutting off all land and rail routes into the Western sectors. Lucius Clay, the military governor of the American zone of occupied Germany wrote: "When the order of the Soviet Military Administration to close all rail traffic from the western zones went into effect at 6:00AM on the morning of June 24, 1948, the three western sectors of Berlin, with a civilian population of about 2,500,000 people, became dependent on reserve stocks and airlift replacements. It was one of the most ruthless efforts in modern times to use mass starvation for political coercion... "
Initially the Soviet authorities thought the plan was working. "Our control and restrictive measures have dealt a strong blow at the prestige of the Americans and British in Germany. " The Soviet authorities reported. But the Western Allies responded immediately by mounting a tremendous airlift. Under the leadership of General Curtis LeMay, ten-ton capacity C-54s began supplying the city on July 1. By the fall the airlift, code-named "Operation Vittles "and often referred to as "LeMay's feed and coal company ," was bringing in an average of 5,000 tons of supplies a day.
Not only did the blockade turn out to be totally ineffective, it ended up backfiring on the Soviets in other ways. It provoked genuine fears of war in the West. And instead of preventing the establishment of an independent West Germany, it accelerated the Allies plans to set up the state. It also hastened the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an American-Western European military alliance. In May 1949, Stalin had little choice but to lift the blockade.