When President Joe Biden compared the American evacuation of Afghanistan to one of the most important moments of the Cold War, the Berlin Airlift 1948-49, heads swiveled in surprise – much outrage. And no wonder. The Berlin Airlift was a triumph of American power in the face of evil. While the Kabul airlift was technically impressive – over 100,000 people in less than two weeks – no one except Biden could see the chaos that unfolded in those two weeks as anything. less than a national defeat.
Nonetheless, the history of the Berlin Airlift shows that the use of American air power to save the lives and freedom of 2.5 million Berliners has never been inevitable; in fact, the outcome was often in doubt. It also shows that the character of a president and his advisers, especially his military commanders, can turn an apparent defeat into an unexpected victory, or the opposite.
In the early morning hours of June 24, 1948, Russian troops stopped all trains, trucks and barges carrying food, coal and other supplies in the western sector of Berlin. About 2.5 million people were at risk of starving to death, unless the other Allied Powers, Britain, France and the United States, did something to stop it.
There were three options. The first was to withdraw from Berlin and surrender the war-torn city to full Soviet control. The second was that the Western Allies stand firm in their areas of occupation of the city and hope that the population of Europe’s largest city can survive without food and fuel.
Or the Allies could resolve to deliver supplies in defiance of the blockade, by force if necessary. While the military governor of the US-occupied area, General Lucius Clay, believed the Soviets would not resist if an armed convoy attempted to break through the blockade, Washington and London feared it could trigger World War III, a war that the United States, despite possessing atomic bombs, was not able to fight. The Red Army had 20 divisions in the neighborhood. The Americans, the British and the French had exactly three.
Washington and authorities on the ground had to consider another option: send supplies to Berlin more the Soviet blockade by air. It’s important to realize that the legendary Berlin Airlift was a roll of the dice of last resort, when no other option seemed possible. Instead of the futile gesture that many predicted, including some in the Air Force, it became a display of American might – and American compassion – that saved a city, overthrew the Cold War, and possibly saved President Truman from the electoral defeat in November.
In fact, the process of sending refueling planes to Berlin began even before any official policy was agreed. The very first flights were the inspiration for a key member of the Normandy invasion planning committee, General Albert Wedemeyer, who urged General Clay to load available transport planes to support the coal stocks. Berliners needed for fuel-stocks expected to last less than a month. Clay called Air Force General Curtis Lemay the mastermind of the strategic bombing campaign that defeated Japan and who was now responsible for the air force in Europe. Clay asked him point blank: can you deliver coal to Berlin?
“The Air Force,” replied Lemay, “can deliver anything.” But even LeMay knew his planes could only meet 1% of Berlin’s needs. The transport aircraft in hand was the C-47 Dakota, which could carry 6,000 pounds per flight, and Lemay had only 70 capable of flying. He and Berlin needed the much larger C-54 Skymaster, capable of carrying 20,000 pounds. There were only two in Europe.
That first day of the airlift saw 32 inbound and outbound flights from Berlin’s main airport to Tempelhof, carrying 160,000 pounds of fresh milk, sacks of flour and vaccines. RAF planes totaled 70,000 more. Eight million pounds a day, however, was needed to keep Berlin from starving to death. Lemay himself made several of these early flights, but it soon became apparent that even with additional transport planes, they were fighting a losing battle, even as the Soviet cordon tightened and the pressure increased for force Berliners to give up all hope of free and fair elections. for a new mayor of Berlin, because the Russians knew that the winner would certainly be an anti-Communist Social Democrat.
Supply conditions could not have been worse. Tempelhof Airport had a dangerously short runway, and a large apartment building near the runway proved a constant danger to navigation, especially in bad weather, which was more the rule than the exception. The supply chain was haphazard to say the least: a theft brought in 5,000 pounds of mimeographed sheets; another French wines. Even doubling the £ 2million of supplies per day that the Americans and British were handling with maximum effort, the effort was still well below the minimum of 8million pounds needed.
In August, however, this heroic but ad hoc program was revised by General William Tunner, who had led US supply flights from India to China during World War II. Tunner understood that it wasn’t the size or the number of planes that mattered, but the speed at which they could unload their cargo and leave for more. His basic attitude was: “The problem with all planes is that they spend too much time on the ground”.
Tunner systematized the flight schedule so that the execution time went from one hour to 15 minutes. Under Tunner – nicknamed “Willie the Whip” – a plane took off or landed at Tempelhof every 90 seconds, with planes spaced three minutes apart in the air. Soon Tempelhof became the busiest airport in the world, as the amount of supplies steadily increased to 10 million pounds per day of food and fuel.
Together, the US Air Force and the Royal Air Force carried out nearly 300,000 flights to Berlin in 11 months, from June 24, 1948 to May 11, 1949, bringing 2.3 million tons of food, coal and other supplies: a material a stock equivalent to half of the Great Pyramid.
Two people besides Tunner did it. One was President Harry Truman. Despite the seemingly hopeless mission and relentless pressure from the Air Force and other “experts” insisting that the airlift could not be sustained – and also caught up in a presidential campaign seemed doomed to defeat – Truman remained true to the humanitarian mission of the airlift and its larger purpose: to prevent the Soviets from achieving a major moral and strategic victory if the Allies abandoned Berlin. Truman ended a key meeting in July 1948 by telling his staff, “We are not leaving Berlin,” and he never hesitated.
The second hero of the airlift was Lucius Clay. Clay never gave up on his initial theory that an armed convoy would pass. But he also understood that the airlift had become the symbol of American power and proof that there would be no backing down in the face of Soviet pressure or intimidation. Even when the Soviets announced they would conduct military exercises in the middle of the three 20-mile-wide air corridors leading to Tempelhof, the flights continued.
The other heroes were the hundreds of pilots – British, Canadian and Australian among them, but mostly Americans – who flew these dangerous missions day in and day out. Most were World War II veterans, many of whom had dropped tons of bombs on Berlin just three years earlier, but who were now risking their lives to keep the city alive. The one that particularly caught the media’s attention was Air Force veteran Hal Halverson and his “Bulge Candy” – that is, offerings of Hershey’s bars and other goodies dropped by handkerchiefs at handkerchiefs. hundreds of German children who gathered to watch the show at Tempelhof. Even one of the worst winters of a decade, when five days of intense fog almost interrupted all flights and pushed the city to the brink of starvation, could not prevent the airlift pilots from carrying out their mission. hours a day.
Yet that terrible winter of 1948-49, when the average Berliner’s daily protein intake was a quarter of a stick of margarine and a two-ounce slice of spam, marked the turning point. When spring came, supplies rose to staggering numbers. At the end of February, Tunner’s planes were carrying 16 million pounds a day to Berlin, double the minimum, and providing fresh meat for the first time. Some flights even carried Limburger cheese, although the pilots eventually rebelled and refused to carry more. For Passover in March, the airlift brought more than 10 tons of matzah and 3,000 liters of Passover wine for the 4,600 Jews still living in post-Holocaust Berlin.
Now the Soviets were looking for a way out. Despite intimidation and electoral fraud, including ballot theft, the mayoral election was held and Social Democrat Ernest Reuter, a staunch supporter of the American effort, won more votes than any other candidates together. Meanwhile, the stocks of supplies that the Russians had built up in the East Berlin area to induce Berliners to renounce and accept the Soviet occupation were rotting intact in its warehouses.
On May 4, 1949, the blockade was finally lifted. The Soviets had suffered moral and political defeat, as Berlin, the former Nazi capital, was now firmly in the pro-Allied camp – at least its western sectors. The border between the Soviet zone and the allied sectors becomes the central axis of the Cold War in Europe, and the checkpoints separating the two halves of the city come to represent the passage of a world, even of a reality. , to the other.
It is also likely that Truman’s courageous stance in favor of the airlift won him victory in the 1948 presidential election. Voters recognized that Truman used all available American power to resist tyranny, in order to protect innocents.
Here is perhaps the starkest contrast to President Biden, who arguably used this power to give in to tyranny and abandon the innocent to an undeserved fate.
The State Department has acknowledged that “the majority” of Afghanistan’s 18,000 special immigrant visa (SIV) applicants have been left behind, and estimates suggest that the total number of Afghans eligible for a U.S. visa is high. higher. These numbers mark the largest mass betrayal of a wartime ally in American history.
The evacuation of Kabul proves one thing all the same. The US military can always do whatever is asked of it and accomplish any mission assigned to it. It is the nature of what is being asked for, and what kind of strategy dictates the mission, that determines whether it succeeds or fails – and ultimately whether or not the United States remains a powerful and respected nation.
Arthur Herman is a Principal Investigator at the Hudson Institute. He is the author of Freedom’s Forge: How American Businesses Achieved Victory During WWII and more recently, The Viking Heart: How the Scandinavians Conquered the World.