Today In History: The Berlin Airlift Commences
Today in 1948, British and American pilots began the Berlin Airlift, in which food and supplies were delivered via plane to Berlin after the city was boxed in by a Soviet blockade.
At the end of World War II, Germany was segregated into Soviet, British, American and French sectors. Berlin, while technically within the area designated for Soviet occupation, was separated into four sectors of control. The Allies controlled the western half of the city and the Soviets the eastern half.
Stalin attempted to grab control of all of Berlin in June of 1948, severing all land and sea travel routes into Western Berlin, in the hope that the Allied occupiers would vacate. West Berliners were consequently cut off from supplies of food, fuel and other important amenities.
Parts of Harry Truman’s cabinet were rattling their sabres in the USSR’s direction, encouraging the president to take offensive measures against Stalin. Truman, however, worried such an action could precipitate a re-opening of the War.
Truman instead appointed General Lucius D. Clay to head a large-scale airlift operation to drop supplies into the besieged city. The first planes flew from western Germany and England on June 26. By the next month, about 2,500 tons of supply was being airlifted into the city daily.
The scope of the operation was enormous. Pilots generally flew two airlift runs per day, with a plane landing at the Tempelhof Airport once every four minutes, 24 hours a day. It was conducted at great cost and often great risk to the pilots.
The blockade was lifted in May of 1949 but the airlift continued into September. By the end of the operation, 1.5 million tons of supplies had been airlifted, for a cost of $224 million.
Berlin’s eastern section was incorporated into Soviet East Germany, leaving West Berlin standing as a separate political entity closely allied with West Germany. 1961 saw the construction of the infamous Berlin Wall, which formed a physical barrier between East and West Berlin that staunched the flow of refugees crossing the border from East to West.
The Wall was destroyed in 1989 and the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. Berlin was once again a single, contiguous city and re-established as the capital of a sovereign German state.
The collapse of the USSR was followed by a period of virtually unfettered expansion of Western capitalist and democratic values throughout the industrialized world. It was an ascent termed by political scientist Francis Fukuyama “The End of History.” Recent large-scale destabilizations in the world economy have led some to question that attitude of triumphalism.