By William Drozdiak
Sunday, January 24, 2010; B06
DARING YOUNG MEN
The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin Airlift, June 1948-May 1949
By Richard Reeves
Simon & Schuster. 316 pp. $28
When Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin tried in 1948 to drive the Western powers out of Berlin by imposing a ground blockade to halt supplies going into the devastated German capital, military and diplomatic advisors urged President Harry Truman to retreat rather than risk another war. With hundreds of thousands of Red Army troops encircling the city, there was no way for a few thousand Allied soldiers to stand up to them.
Rejecting that counsel, Truman adopted a British idea and ordered his military chiefs to mobilize a massive airlift to ferry food, fuel and medicine from Allied air bases in Britain and West Germany to more than 2 million desperate residents in Berlin. At a luncheon meeting on June 28, the president's top cabinet and military officials ticked off sundry reasons why the airlift would fail and then started laying out options for leaving the city. They were cut off by Truman: "We stay in Berlin. Period."
Richard Reeves, a bestselling author of three presidential biographies and several other books, has delved into declassified archives and provided fresh insights into the power clashes between Truman, Stalin and other leading figures, including the famous generals who opposed the airlift (George Marshall and Omar Bradley) and the younger ones who defied enormous odds to make it work, notably Lucius Clay and William Tunner. But the real value of Reeves's book lies in the remarkable human sagas he collected through hundreds of interviews with uncelebrated pilots, mechanics, weathermen and ground controllers who sustained the airlift for almost a year. Many of them had fought the Germans and returned home to start families or begin new jobs. Now, barely three years later, they were going back to Europe to help feed their former enemies.
The Germans' role was similarly impressive. All social classes joined the fight against Soviet intimidation -- women in high heels pushed wheelbarrows, and doctors wielded shovels to transform rubble into new airfields in just three months. Berliners' willingness to set aside animosity toward Western pilots who had annihilated their city amazed the Americans, who were extolled as "angels in uniform."
But the success of "Operation Vittles" was far from assured. In the early stages, the allies could barely cope with the bewildering demands of feeding an entire city from the air. From the day the airlift began on June 26 until the end of the next month, more than 14,000 flights delivered more than 70,000 tons of fuel, food, medicine and other supplies -- yet it was less than half of what had reached the city before the blockade. With planes landing and taking off every three minutes, flight crews and controllers were stretched to the breaking point. Lack of sleep and insufficient maintenance were main causes of crashes that killed a total of 73 Western airmen by the end of the 11-month airlift.
But gradually, Western ingenuity mastered the logistical challenges -- as well as the worst fog in half a century -- to prevail in a monumental test of wills. The Soviets suffered a humiliating propaganda defeat as the Americans were perceived by world opinion as selfless heroes who delivered candy to kids and CARE packages to hungry civilians, while the Soviets were exposed as brutal oppressors punishing innocent people. On May 12, 1949, recognizing that the blockade had become counterproductive to their own interests, the Soviets announced that all road and rail deliveries from the West would be restored.
The Berlin airlift became one of history's hinge events, one that firmed up the political and military unity of the West in the face of the Soviet threat. Soon afterward the West German federal republic was created, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded to protect Western democracies against Soviet aggression. But as Reeves makes clear, it was the extraordinary display of personal courage -- by President Truman, the American and British airmen and most of all the Berliners themselves -- that shaped such a favorable outcome to the first major crisis of the Cold War.
William Drozdiak, formerly The Post's foreign editor and chief European correspondent, is president of the American Council on Germany.