On this day in 1948, the United States and Britain begin to supply West Berlin with food, water and other vital goods by air in response to the Soviet blockade of the passages to East Germany. The airlift was part of a larger international crisis that arose from the USSR’s attempt to force the Western Allied powers, American, British and French, to abandon their post-WW2 jurisdictions in West Berlin.
In March 1948 the Allied powers decided to unite their different occupation zones of Germany into a single economic unit. In protest, the Soviet representative withdrew from the Allied Control Council. Coincident with the introduction of a new deutsche mark in West Germany, which the Soviets regarded as a violation of agreements with the Allies, the Soviet occupation forces in eastern Germany began a blockade of all rail, road, and water communications between Berlin and the West.
On June 24 the Soviets announced that the four-power administration of Berlin had ceased, and that the Allies no longer had any rights there; West Berlin, one-half of a “free city,” was isolated in a sea of angry reds and exhausted Germans. On June 26 the US and Britain began their supply-line to the city with food and other vital necessities by air. They also organized a similar “airlift” in the opposite direction for West Berlin’s greatly reduced industrial exports.
By mid-July, the Soviet army of occupation in East Germany had increased to 40 divisions, against eight in the Allied sectors. By the end of July three groups of US strategic bombers had been sent as reinforcements to Britain; tensions remained high, but war did not break out. Despite dire shortages of fuel and electricity, the airlift kept life going in West Berlin for 11 months, until on May 12, 1949, the Soviet Union lifted the blockade; and still, the airlift continued until September 30 that year.
The total cost of the effort was $224 million, with delivery of 2,323,738 tons of food, fuel, machinery, and other supplies. The end to the blockade was brought about because of countermeasures imposed by the Allies on East German communications and, above all, because of the Western embargo placed on all strategic exports from the Eastern bloc. As a result of the blockade and airlift, Berlin became a symbol of the Allies’ willingness to oppose further Soviet expansion in Europe, and provided a swell technicolor backdrop for one of JFK’s most memorable speeches given also on this day, 15 years later.
And here the story of measured responses, planning, initiative and the general wisdom of incrementalism endeth.