A Divided City
By the spring of 1948 the ideological division of Europe into two rival camps was almost complete, except in Germany and the two cities of Vienna and Berlin, where Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States each governed a separate sector. The Potsdam Conference, which had divided Germany among the victorious Big Four into four zones of military occupation, also divided the city of Berlin. Agreements about free access to Berlin, which was deep within the Soviet occupation zone, subsequently were formalized in September 1945, when the four nations concurred on which road and rail lines would be used in supplying areas of the city occupied by the Western Allies. Then, in October, the Allies agreed to the establishment of air corridors across the Soviet zone between Berlin and the Western sectors of Germany. For three years there was free movement along the accepted routes of access to the city.
Berlin had suffered round-the-clock bombing in the war, by the US Eighth Air Force during the day and the Royal Air Force at night. The city also had suffered heavy bombardment by the Red Army during the final battle. The destruction of Germany's once great capital was almost total: whole districts had been flattened; entire apartment blocks were demolished; almost every building in the city showed signs of damage. Food was perpetually in short supply, and the official currency, the reichsmark, gradually became worthless. The black market flourished, and the cigarette became a form of currency in itself. Barter was widespread for whatever goods could be found. The citizens of Berlin had, literally, to dig in the rubble to scratch out a living.
Germany was the last unanswered question between the United States and the Soviet Union. Throughout the long negotiations of 1946 and 1947, the
Soviets had repeatedly shown anxiety over a revivified Germany. The damage caused to the USSR by the invasion and scorched-earth retreat of the Wehrmacht was so great that Russia felt justified in demanding vast reparations from Germany. Where they could, the Soviets dismantled factories they seized, almost brick by brick, machine by machine, and transported the whole lot back by train to the USSR.
The Americans and the British never put their faith in a policy of reparations. They knew what the vast and punitive reparations demanded by France after the First World War had done to keep the devastated German economy
from recovering and to promote the climate in which Nazism was to flourish. Determined to prevent conditions in which extremism might grow again in Germany, the Americans in 1947 wanted to see a revived Germany at the centre of a prosperous Europe. Ernest Bevin, Britain's foreign secretary, had no love of Germany, but he gradually accepted the West's need for that country's revival as a democratic state built upon a strong industrial base, especially the iron and steel industries in the Ruhr, which lay within the British zone of occupation.
In his Stuttgart speech of 6 September 1946, James F. Byrnes, then still the US secretary of state, had called for a higher level of industrial activity within Germany, for monetary reform, and for preparations to form a German government. At the Big Four meeting in Moscow in March-April 1947, the Western powers failed to agree on any of these points with the Soviets. The USSR still demanded $10 billion in reparations and joint control of the Ruhr industrial region.
Friction newly stirred
by the Marshall Plan put even greater strain on the situation in Germany. The
Council of Foreign Ministers met once more in London from 25 November to 15
December 1947. Again there were major disagreements over the same issues:
reparations, control over the industries of the Ruhr, and German unity. The
meeting ultimately broke up in accusation and counter-accusation. Secretary of
State Marshall summed up his conclusion during a broadcast to the American
people: "We cannot look forward to a reunified Germany at this time. We
must do our best in the area where our influence can be felt." If the
Americans could not get Soviet support for their
policy towards Germany, then they would go it alone in the Western zones.
In January 1948 the British cabinet discussed the situation. Bevin presented a paper that argued for slow movement towards a West German government, and for action on currency reform to undercut the rampant blackmarket. Bevin thought of Britain as an intermediary between the French, who were still fearful of German recovery, and the Americans, who were increasingly frustrated by what they saw as French obstructionism. For the United States, questions of national security were beginning to focus almost exclusively upon the Soviet Union. The French were haunted by an ancient rivalry with Germany and bitter memories of recent defeat and occupation.
On 23 February representatives from the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, along with the United States, met in London to plan for the new West German entity, and for the participation of Germany in the Marshall Plan. News of the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia added impetus to the urgency for creating this new state.
As before, spies within the Foreign Office in London passed reports to Soviet intelligence about secret discussions at the London conference. On 12 March, Foreign Minister Molotov was advised that the "Western powers are transforming Germany into their strongpoint" and incorporating it into a "military-political bloc" aimed at the Soviet Union. Molotov accused the Allies of violating the agreements of Potsdam, and announced that decisions made at the London conference were invalid.
The same intelligence reports were passed on to Marshal Vassily Sokolovsky, the Soviet military governor in Germany, who had been Marshal Georgi K. Zhukov's chief of staff during the march on Berlin. To the American, French, and British military delegations who met with their Soviet counterparts as the Allied Control Council to govern Germany, Sokolovsky presented a cold, hard face. Among his aides, however, he was known for his sense ofhumour. Sokolovsky's opposite number on the American side wasGeneral Lucius D. Clay, the US military governor in Germany. Clay appeared to his aides to have an endless capacity for work, rarely stopping for lunch, which he considered a waste of time. He survived on coffee and cigarettes, smoking several packs a day. With boundless confidence in his own view of the situation, he had a certain impatience with his political masters. George Kennan reported that he never noticed a "yearning for guidance" on Clay'spart. By the summer of 1948 Clay was convinced of the need to move ahead with a West German state, come what may. "If we mean that we are to hold Europe against communism, we must not budge," he told General Omar Bradley, the US Army chief of staff. He continued,"I believe the future of democracy requires us to stay here until forced out."
At a routine Allied Control Council meeting on 20 March 1948, Sokolovsky pressed Clay and his British counterpart, General Sir Brian Robertson, for information about the conference in London - already knowing, of course, exactly what had happened:'When Clay stated that they were not going to discuss the London meetings, Sokolovsky demanded to know what was the point of having a Control Council. To the others' astonishment, the Soviets then got up and, in line behind Sokolovsky, walked out of the meeting, effectively ending the council.
On 12 March, prior to the Soviet walkout, Marshall had informed the British ambassador in Washington that the United States was "prepared to proceed at once in the joint discussions on the establishment of an Atlantic security system." Bevin's dream of committing America to the defence of Europe, which had first been encouraged by the offer of the Marshall Plan, was now becoming a reality, as discussions began on what would become the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In mid-March, Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg signed the Brussels Defence Pact, which was the first step towards a West European union. Militarily, it bound the signatories to come to each other's defence. And they agreed to keep troops in Germany for a period of fifty years.
Petty Obstacles Grow
Meanwhile, around Berlin, Soviet authorities began applying a range of petty bureaucratic obstacles to the free movement of people and supplies in and out of the city. Restrictions were placed on traffic using the autobahn between Berlin and the British sector in the west. The bridge over the Elbe at Hohenwarte, the only other road-crossing point, was closed for "maintenance." The British offered to send engineers to build another bridge, but Sokolovsky turned down the offer. The Soviets announced that they would search military passengers and their cargo on the rail lines, and stated that no freight shipments between Berlin and the Western zones could be made without Soviet permission. On 1 April the Soviets halted two American and two British trains after their commanders refused access to Soviet inspectors. All this amounted to what was later called the "mini-blockade." General Clay ordered a "baby airlift" to fly into Berlin enough supplies for forty-five days.
On 5 April a Vickers Viking of British European Airways took off from an airfield in West Germany on a scheduled flight into RAF Gatow, one of the Allied air bases in West Berlin. As it came into Berlin, in one of the agreed twenty-mile-wide air corridors, the Viking was buzzed by a Soviet Yak-3 fighter plane. It was not the first time this had happened. For a few days Soviet fighters had been carrying out mock attacks on Allied planes flying into Berlin. But this time, as the British transport plane took evasive action, it collided with the Yak fighter. Both planes crashed to the ground, killing all ten people on the BEA plane and the pilot of the Soviet fighter. The Soviets blamed the British for the collision, and the British blamed the Soviet pilot. A joint investigation of the accident broke down when the Soviets refused to allow German witnesses to testify. The British and Soviets separately concluded that the mid-air collision was an accident. But it made both sides more nervous.
With the situation in Berlin now alarmingly tense, the confrontation between Soviets and the West spilt over into Berlin's internal politics. The Berlin city council was the scene of a fierce power struggle between the East German Communists and their political foes, led by the Social Democrats. Ernst Reuter, a Social Democrat, was the leader of the anti-Communist coalition in Berlin, and a powerful orator. He and his family had been forced to flee Germany because of Hitler, but returning in 1946, he hoped to help rebuild Germany as a democratic state. His election in 1948 as mayor of Berlin (that is, of the whole city) was vetoed by the Soviets. Now Reuter feared he would have to take flight again, from another form of political dictatorship. Intimidation, blackmail, and kidnapping characterized the tactics of the Soviet-backed East German Communists, whose agents operated in both East and West Berlin. Communists and socialists came together in a new party, Socialist Unity, led by Walter Ulbricht, Stalin's man in East Germany.
The London conference on Germany reconvened again in late April and sat through May. The British and Americans tried once more to persuade the French to agree to their plan for integrating West Germany into Western Europe, and eventually the French and the Benelux countries gave in. On 7 June 1948 the London conference issued its final recommendations. The Western powers authorized the presidents of the German Lander, the provincial assemblies, to convene a constituent assembly in the three Western zones and to draw up a constitution for a federal German state. Western military forces would remain in Germany until "the peace of Europe is secure," and prohibitions were imposed on any future German army to guarantee that Germany could never again become an aggressor. The new West German state would be economically integrated into Western Europe. Whatever the Soviet reaction, the Western nations made it clear, they intended to go ahead.
The Americans and the British, meanwhile, were secretly preparing to launch a new currency for the whole of West Germany. In the chaotic German economy, only the black market was thriving. Replacing the reichsmark would not only wipe out the accumulated profits of black marketeers, it would complete the integration of Germany into the West. Millions of new bank notes, the Deutschmark, were printed by the US Mint and transported in great secrecy to West Germany. Control of currency was power in Germany at this juncture, and the Western commanders decided that now was the time for the West to exert its power.
Around Berlin tensions had worsened. Soviet military authorities threatened to close down rail traffic with the West. By 15 June canal boats and freight trains were the only means left of supplying the city. In this explosive situation, the Western Allies decided to introduce their new currency, which was announced on 18 June. West German citizens could do nothing about the devaluation of their savings and pensions, but at least the new currency brought hope of some stability against runaway inflation. Sixty old reichsmarks, which would barely buy a pack of black-market cigarettes, could be exchanged for forty new Deutschmarks. To hold down their "currency" value while the new Deutschmark established itself, the Americans wisely imported 20 million cigarettes.
The Soviet military governor, Sokolovsky, immediately issued a proclamation denouncing the new currency as "against the wishes and interests of the German people and in the interests of the American, British, and French monopolists.... The separate currency reform completes the splitting of Germany. It is a breach of the Potsdam decisions." He prohibited the introduction of the new currency into the Soviet zone and into Berlin.
The Frontiers Are Sealed
On that same day Soviet authorities sealed off frontiers with the Western zones and announced new restrictions on road, rail, and canal traffic that would come into effect at midnight. General Clay assured his staff that he was not concerned by these developments: "If they had put in a currency reform and we didn't, it would have been [our] first move."
Late on 22 June the Soviet military authorities announced that a new currency, the Ostmark, would be introduced into the Eastern zone, including all of Berlin, in two days' time. The Western military commanders then declared the Soviet order null and void for West Berlin and introduced the B-mark, a special Deutschmark overprinted with the letter B, for the Western sectors of Berlin. Clay, who made the decision without consulting Washington, insisted it was a "technical, non-political measure." But Sokolovsky announced that the Western mark would not be permitted to circulate in Berlin, "which lies in the Soviet zone of Germany and economically forms part of the Soviet zone."
Over the next twelve hours, Berlin endured an extraordinary midsummer nightmare. On the evening of 23 June, at a meeting of the Berlin city assembly, which was located in the Soviet sector of the city, Reuter tried to persuade the assembly to approve the circulation of both the Deutschmark and the Ostmark. As thugs beat up non-Communists to intimidate them from supporting Reuter's motion, Soviet officials and Communist-controlled police stood by and watched. Nevertheless, the Berlin assembly voted to accept the Deutschmark in the Western sectors and the Ostmark in the Soviet sector.
Sokolovsky rang Molotov to ask what he should do; should he surround Berlin with tanks? Molotov told him no, this might provoke the West into doing the same, and then the only way out would be military confrontation. They decided instead to impose an immediate blockade around Berlin, and at on 24 June, the barriers were lowered on all the road, rail, and canal routes linking Berlin with West Germany. That morning electricity from power stations in the Soviet sector was cut off to factories and offices in West Berlin. The official reason given was "coal shortages." So the blockade of Berlin began. The Soviets' purpose was clear. They wanted to force the Western Allies either to change their policies or get out of Berlin altogether.
In London and Washington there was firm political agreement that the Western powers would hold on to Berlin. "We are going to stay, period," said Truman. Bevin was equally determined, announcing that "the abandonment of Berlin would mean the loss of Western Europe." It was easy to make such statements, but much more difficult to decide what to do next.
West Berlin had symbolic status as an outpost of the democratic West inside the Communist East. By an agreement made at the time of Potsdam, the Soviets had excused themselves from the responsibility of supplying the British, American, and French sectors of the city. So 2.3 million Berliners, and the Allied military garrison there, were now cut off. The Western part of the city relied upon the arrival of 12,000 tons of supplies each day. At the time, there was only enough food for thirty-six days, and enough coal for forty-five. The key to keeping a Western presence in Berlin clearly lay in finding a way to supply the citizens with their basic necessities. With rail, road, and canal routes blocked, the only way to get supplies in was by air. But the American C-47 transport, the military workhorse of the day, could only deliver a payload of 3 tons. Initially the prospect for an airlift to Berlin appeared to be bleak.
On 24 June the West introduced a counter-blockade, stopping all rail traffic into East Germany from the British and US zones. Over the following months this counter-blockade would have a damaging impact on East Germany, as the drying up of coal and steel shipments seriously hindered industrial development in the Soviet zone.
On that same day General Clay rang General Curtis LeMay of the US Air Force in Wiesbaden and asked him to put on standby his fleet of C-47s and any other aircraft that could be utilized. The RAF had come forward with an optimistic plan to supply Berlin by air, but Clay was sceptical. He favoured sending a convoy of US military engineers down the autobahn to force their way through the Soviet blockade, with instructions to fire back if they were fired upon. But in Washington, Truman's advisers urged caution and restraint. The president was backed into a corner. It was an election year; the American people would never support going to war with the Soviet Union just to defend Berlin, the capital of a country they had been at war with only three years earlier. But Truman had to be seen championing a firm line and not being soft on the Soviets. He made no final decision that day, but Clay was told by telephone that the president did not "want any action taken in Berlin which might lead to possible armed conflict."
During this week, by chance, General Albert Wedemeyer was visiting Europe from America. He had helped direct the airlift to China over the "hump" from India during the war. By his own calculations, he concluded that it was possible to supply all of Berlin's needs by air. Although both the British and Americans had experience with major air supply operations, neither had ever attempted anything on this scale. Clay warned Reuter that to begin with there would be severe shortages and hardship; he did not believe initially the Allies could fly in more than 500 tons a day. Reuter assured him that the Allies could count on the West Berliners to grin and bear it. Then, without consulting Washington, Clay authorized the start of the airlift.
The Airlift Begins
On 26 June the first American transport planes flew into Berlin from air bases in West Germany. The Americans code-named the airlift Operation Vittles, and the British called it Operation Plainfare. Initially about eighty C-47s flew two daily round trips into RAF Gatow and Tempelhof, air bases in the British and American sectors of Berlin. Soon the Americans were adding fifty C-54 Skymasters, four-engined transports that each could bring in 9 tons, three times the payload of C-47s. The Allies organized willing gangs of workers to unload the aircraft and turn them around quickly. Over time these workers learned to empty each plane in just seven minutes. The citizens of Berlin were optimistic that the Allies would be able to save their city. If they had had little problem delivering bombs, they told each other, they certainly could deliver potatoes.
The Royal Air Force had nothing like enough service aircraft available for the operation, and spare planes of any type were soon pressed into the airlift. British business executive Freddie Laker had begun to buy and sell aircraft parts after the war, and by 1948 he owned twelve converted Halifax bombers. He was asked to make them available for supplying Berlin. With little expectation that the blockade would last more than a few weeks, Laker and his team of pilots and engineers happily went to it, almost as a game to begin with. But as the months passed, the operation grew for the pilots into a crusade for freedom. They were determined to keep Berlin alive, despite the hazards of flying old, rickety aircraft, often buzzed by Soviet fighters and frequently at risk flying heavy loads in bad weather.
Bevin set up a crisis-management team in London to supervise this herculean effort, and early expectations were soon exceeded, as roughly 1,000 tons per day were flown into the beleaguered city. The irony was not lost on many of the veteran fliers involved; instead of destroying Berlin, they were now keeping the city alive.
In July, General Clay returned to Washington for talks with Truman. He still favoured a military convoy to break the blockade, for he believed that the Soviets would step back rather than risk confronting the West. But Truman did not want to chance it. If they chose not to let Clay's convoy through, there would be war. Instead Truman guaranteed Clay more C-54s, and they talked of doubling the airlift to 2,000 tons daily.
The American intelligence community, knowing that the Soviets still had 2.5 million men at arms, was convinced that in a conventional military confrontation the Red Army would walk right over the US forces. But they were equally confident that the Kremlin would never sanction direct military conflict with the West, which might provoke the Americans to take advantage of their atom bomb monopoly. And at this crucial time the Soviet Union was further weakened by a crisis in its own back yard. Yugoslavia split away from the Eastern camp, a defection that made the Kremlin even more nervous about its position and anxious about the support of its satellites.
During July 1948 attempts were made through diplomatic channels to bring about a settlement of the Berlin crisis. On 2 August the British, American, and French ambassadors had a private meeting with Stalin to test his willingness to find a peaceful solution. Stalin made it clear that from the Soviet point of view the currency question was crucial, as was the London agreement to create a united West Germany. He argued that if there were two German states then Berlin was no longer the capital of Germany, and hence the Western presence in the city was no longer relevant. Stalin said the Soviet Union was not seeking conflict with the West and would lift the blockade as soon as the West withdrew the B-mark from West Berlin and agreed to fourpower rule over Germany. There was in fact little the Soviets could do in the face of the West's superiority in the air and its determination to keep up the airlift. What became clear to the Western ambassadors was that the Soviet blockade of Berlin had but one principal purpose: to prevent the creation of a West German state.
Throughout the summer of 1948 the British and American governments constantly reviewed their options. Military thinking concluded that the airlift could hardly continue through the winter, that October was to be the cutoff point. The British chiefs of staff prepared a contingency plan to withdraw their troops to the Rhine in case of an emergency. In Washington the air force commanders, convinced that the airlift was doomed to fail, concluded that there was a high likelihood of war with the Soviets over Berlin.
"We Are Not Pawns"
The Communist Party in Yugoslavia came to power at the end of the Second World War without Soviet help, unlike what happened in the other East European states. Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the charismatic partisan leader, took power on his own initiative, and through sheer force of character held together the fragile union of the Yugoslav provinces, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and then BosniaHerzegovina. Tito did all he could to exhibit his loyalty to the socialist cause, but there was tension in his relationship with Moscow from the start. Tito was secure at home, internationally renowned, and too independent-minded to suit Stalin.
The Kremlin dictator expected nothing less than total obedience from his satellites. But for Tito, Yugoslavia had earned the right to determine its own destiny. In foreign affairs Belgrade insisted on following its own line and did not seek advance approval from Moscow. During the Greek civil war, for instance, Tito provided military assistance to the Communist guerrillas despite Stalin's unwillingness to get involved. But on other matters, as in Its rejection of the Marshall Plan, Yugoslavia was a staunch supporter of Moscow's line. Through the early months of 1948, as the split grew worse, Moscow accused Belgrade of misbehaviour and of ideological deviation from the true socialist cause. Every denial by the Yugoslavs further enraged the Kremlin. Tito refused to give way, saying in March, "We are not pawns on a chessboard."
Then, on 28 June, only four days after launching the blockade against Berlin, Moscow expelled Yugoslavia from Cominform and called on other Communist parties to isolate Tito.'
An economic blockade was organized against Yugoslavia that caused great hardship, but Belgrade stood firm. Rejected by the East, Tito over the next twelve months turned slowly, and a little reluctantly, towards the West Following a disastrous harvest in 1949, a trade agreement was signed with the United States by which Yugoslavia opened its borders. Although not technically a member of the Marshall Plan, Yugoslavia went on to receive about $150 million in aid from the United States. Throughout the Cold War, Yugoslavia would remain the only independent Communist state in Europe.
The Threat of Nuclear Retaliation
The question arose as
to whether the United States would be willing to use atomic weapons in the
developing crisis, for there was still no clear policy within the
administration. Truman argued with his Pentagon chiefs that because they were
"so terribly destructive," atomic weapons could not be treated as
conventional weaponry. He urged the leaders "to understand that this isn't
a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed
people." In September the National Security Council produced a secret
report designated as
In a dramatic gesture
that summer, a fleet of sixty B-29 Superfortress bombers was flown into the
United Kingdom. These were the latest American heavy bombers, designed to carry
atomic weapons. The deployment of the B-29s established the US Strategic Air
Command in the UK, and the arrival in Britain of "the atomic bombers"
was widely publicized. The threat of nuclear retaliation was now made explicit.
After a brief debate, at the height of the Berlin crisis, the British
government had formally invited Washington to station the bombers in Britain.
The invitation neatly fudged the issue as to who would have his finger on the
nuclear trigger; the US Air Force bombers would respond to orders from the
United States, but their bases would be technically under the command of the
Royal Air Force. This theoretical ambivalence lasted for more than forty years.
But in practice the real decision, if it ever came to that, would always be
The planes in fact carried no atomic weapons, but this was a closely guarded secret. There were not enough atomic warheads in existence to equip the B-29s in Britain. Their arrival was mainly a signal to Moscow that the West meant business over Berlin, and Washington took advantage of the crisis to get congressional approval for permanent overseas military bases. The British government knew that the B-29s carried no atomic weapons, and through spies in the London Foreign Office, Moscow probably also knew the reality of the situation.
Meanwhile, the Berlin airlift was proving more successful than anyone ever expected. Tens of thousands of Berliners helped build a new airport at Tegel to reduce congestion at the other two airfields. With capacity for more flights, the Americans added another sixty C-54s to their fleet. Clay now spoke of bringing in 4,500 tons each day. On 18 September, 861 British and American flights delivered a record 7,000 tons in a single day. By this date roughly 200,000 tons of supplies had been delivered, about 60 per cent by the USAF and 40 per cent by the RAF. Coal, flour, drums of petrol, potatoes, medical
supplies, all were brought in by air. It began to look as if the airlift could after all supply the city on through the winter, which everyone prayed would not be severe; there were no reserves of coal.
Inside West Berlin, electricity was available only four hours a day. People got used to the limited rations and to feeling cold. The blockade in any case was not absolute. Many West Berliners registered for food rations with the Soviet authorities, and about one in ten drew food and coal from the east. There was no restriction on travel within the city. West Berliners regularly visited the eastern part of the city, where there were dance halls bathed in electric light drawing and properly heated, a magnetic attraction to the hungry citizens of the west.
West Berliners were still fearful that the West might not continue the air lift. On 6 September another meeting of the city assembly in East Berlin was broken up by Communist activists - again with violence and intimidation.
The western representatives decided that the council was no longer function
al, so they left and agreed to meet in the safety of West Berlin. Ernst Reuter
appealed to all Berliners to help condemn the Communists, and three days
later a huge gathering of 300,000 Berliners, mostly from the city's western
zones, collected outside the ruins of the Reichstag. In front of the vast crowd
Reuter, standing on a pile of war rubble, called on the Western governments
not to abandon Berlin.
The airlift became almost a way of life. Although expensive, its cost represented only a fraction of total American aid to Europe. Despite bad weather and constant harassment by Soviet fighters, the transports continued to bring their cargoes into West Berlin. By December 1948 the goal of 4,500 tons flown in each day was reached. At Gatow and Tempelhof flights landed every 90 seconds. Enough coal was freighted in to keep West Berliners from freezing. The
A new game, 'Airlift." broken up by Communist activists - again with violence and intimidation. The western representatives decided that the council was no longer functional, so they left and agreed to meet in the safety of West Berlin. Ernst Reuter appealed to all Berliners to help condemn the Communists, and three days later a huge gathering of 300,000 Berliners, mostly from the city's western zones, collected outside the ruins of the Reichstag. In front of the vast crowd Reuter, standing on a pile of war rubble, called on the Western governments not to abandon Berlin.
The airlift became almost a way of life. Although expensive, its cost represented only a fraction of total American aid to Europe. Despite bad weather and constant harassment by Soviet fighters, the transports continued to bring their cargoes into West Berlin. By December 1948 the goal of 4,500 tons flown in each day was reached. At Gatow and Templehof flights landed every 90 seconds. Enough coal was freighted in to depp West Berliners from freezing. The gamble had paid off. Production in the city picked up, and output grew rapidly. The feared economic collapse did not materialize. And the winter, fortunately, was unusually mild.
The West secured a major propaganda victory through the airlift. It was a reminder to the Soviet Union, and the whole world, of Western technological superiority, especially in the air. Conversely, the Berlin crisis showed the Soviets in a poor light; they seemed willing to threaten 2 million people with starvation.
The Soviets, operating outside the framework of American loan credits and facing the Western alliance, saw themselves to be increasingly threatened. We now know that Stalin felt less strong than was realized at the time, but in 1948 many Americans genuinely believed that Stalin sought to dominate all of Europe. The policy of containment meant confronting Communists at agreed critical points, and Berlin was one of these. As far as Western public opinion was concerned, old wartime loyalties to Russia were being replaced by fear of Soviet ambitions; a "them and us" syndrome had emerged. Marshall reported, "There has been a definite crystallization of American public and Congressional opinion over the Berlin issue.... The country is more unified in its determination not to weaken in the face of pressure of an illegal blockade than on any other issue we can recall in time of peace." The Berlin blockade made clear to most Americans that the new enemy was definitely the Soviet Union.
As the heavy transports continued to fly their daily missions, the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany, popularly known as West Germany, was being drafted. Stalin's attempt to prevent the division of Germany had failed.
NATO Is Launched
In January 1949 President Truman announced his intention to provide military aid to Western Europe. Then, in April, negotiations lasting more than a year finally came to their conclusion when the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington by the United States, Canada, and ten West European governments. All signatories agreed to come to the aid of each other if attacked. A common cause was formally recognized, and American leadership of the West was duly confirmed. Ernest Bevin's mission to commit the United States to the defence of Western Europe by treaty obligation was accomplished. Stalin had driven the West into a formal alliance based primarily on mutual defence against Soviet aggression.
In the spring of 1949 the weather improved considerably. Food supplies in Berlin could be built up and fuel stocks maintained at a good level. The airlift increased to 8,000 tons per day. In one twenty-four-hour period, on Easter Sunday, April 1949, a record number of 1,398 flights came into Berlin, carrying a total of 13,000 tons of supplies.
As the counter-blockade of East Germany hurt more and more, the Soviets took the only course left open and tried to end the whole Berlin debacle. The Kremlin released a series of hints that it would consider ending its blockade with minimal conditions imposed. The counter-blockade would have to be lifted and the Council of Foreign Ministers be reconvened. The bellicose General Clay quietly returned to Washington and ceased to be military governor. After the tensions of the preceding year he claimed to need a break anyway. On 12 May the Soviet and Western military authorities lifted their respective blockades around Berlin. Both sides claimed a victory. Berliners were jubilant. Many thought this would be the end of the Cold War.
The sense of victory and relief felt in the West did not last long. Before summer was over an American B-29, on routine patrol at 18,000 feet over the North Pacific, picked up a radioactivity count higher than normal. Within a week more radiation was detected. Soviet scientists, led by Igor Kurchatov, had successfully tested an atom bomb. The Soviet Union had caught up. The Americans were stunned, for now there was nuclear parity between the superpowers. The balance of power would become a balance of terror.
12 May 1949. The first British
truck passes the checkpoint on the British-Russian zonal border as jubilant Germans look on. The airlift has succeeded. The blockade is lifted.