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From Berlin to Baghdad

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The city is in dire straits -- its economy shattered, its citizens desperately hungry. Random violence is rising, electricity is sporadic. Three years after the invasion, hope for a brief occupation has faded. The mission is to build democracy from the ruins of dictatorship, but sober analysts question whether a flaw in the national character makes freedom unattainable.

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This is not Baghdad 2008 but Berlin 1948, which makes the reunified German capital a particularly fitting venue for Barack Obama's speech tomorrow. The lush Tiergarten where Obama will speak was then a wasteland where Berliners struggled to grow vegetables in the shadow of the bombed-out Reichstag.

Sixty years ago this month, Berlin stood on the pivot point of history. The Soviet Union choked off food and fuel for the western sector of the divided city. The United States launched an improbable mission to supply it by air.

And a Utah farm boy named Hal Halvorsen, flying C-54 Skymasters in the relentless shuttle, made an impulsive promise to the scrawny children gathered behind the barbed wire fence at Berlin's Tempelhof airport: He would drop some candy for them. Operation "Little Vittles" eventually delivered tons of chocolate, attached to tiny parachutes fashioned from handkerchiefs.

The story of the Berlin Airlift and Halvorsen's mission is told in "The Candy Bombers," a new book by Democratic strategist Andrei Cherny. If the plural of anecdotes is not data, the stacking of historical analogies is not sound policy. Yet, as Cherny writes, "Their story has powerful resonance for our own time. In confronting the Berlin blockade, America went to battle against a destructive ideology that threatened free people around the world. In a country we invaded and occupied that had never had a stable democracy, we brought freedom and turned their people's hatred of America into love for this country, its people, and its ideals."

The lessons of the Berlin Airlift are anything but simple, which is what makes it such a useful historical moment. Cherny's book is something of a Rorschach test on Iraq: The message readers receive may depend on the mindset with which they arrived.

Thus, Obama can rightly point to the airlift as evidence that maintaining America's moral voice is an essential component of its foreign policy. The United States stands to gain as much from a modern-day Candy Bomber as it risks losing from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Those who doubt the capacity of government, in the aftermath of Katrina, to mobilize quickly and implement deftly can take heart from the example of organizational whiz Bill Tunner, who turned a slapdash operation incapable of supplying Berlin into a precision drill that kept the beleaguered city going through a long winter.

Harry Truman's steadfastness in the face of contrary advisers -- some argued for yielding Berlin to the Soviets, others advocated a collision course on the ground -- demonstrated how a determined president, having unleashed the atomic bomb, could then find the narrow path between foolish appeasement and full-scale war. Obama can safely argue that Truman's restrained course was wiser than George W. Bush's rush to war.

But there are lessons from the airlift that should be more unsettling for those, like Obama, who want to be done with Iraq. The impulse of many Americans then, just as now, was to be finished with the entire project. " 'Get Germany off the American taxpayer's back' was the call of conservatives in Congress," Cherny writes.

An occupation that looked irretrievably lost by spring 1948 turned paradoxically into success as the blockade continued. Berliners' misery deepened, but so, too, did their faith in America and democracy. Berliners who had told pollsters since the war's end that they would choose "economic security" over "freedom" changed their attitudes in the face of American kindnesses.

At home, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concerned about strains on the military, pressed to halt the airlift. So did the CIA, whose analysts, Cherny notes, "concluded that the United States was now worse off than if the airlift had never been attempted." Truman overruled them all. "We'll stay in Berlin -- come what may," he wrote in his diary in July 1948.

Sixty years later, as Obama arrives in a prosperous, thriving Berlin, it is fair to wonder whether the Cold War might have unfolded differently had Truman decided not to draw the line there against Soviet aggression.

The allure of quick and definite withdrawal from Iraq is evident. The reward of careful perseverance may become visible only in the long arc of history.

marcusr@washpost.com


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