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Berlin 1948: Spring Crises, Midsummer Madness, Blockades & Airlifts.   Leave a comment

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By the spring of 1948, the ideological division of Europe into two rival camps was almost complete, except in Germany and the two capital cities of Vienna and Berlin, where Britain, France, the USSR and the USA each governed a separate sector. Agreements had been formalised in the autumn of 1945, guaranteeing the Western Allies free access to Berlin. The former capital of Germany was a special case in the four-power joint occupation and control of the country, a hundred miles inside the Soviet zone, and therefore a key strategic point for the Soviets to apply pressure on the Western Allies. Road and rail lines were designated for the supply of those areas of the city occupied by them. Air corridors across the Soviet zone between Berlin and the western sectors of Germany had also been agreed, and for three years there was free movement along the accepted routes of access to the city. Britain, America and France relied on the road, rail and canal links into the city, but in the spring of 1948, the Soviet authorities decided to make use of this vulnerability by making access from the west more difficult.

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Added to these issues, Berlin had been subjected to an around-the-clock air bombardment in the war and the city had also endured a heavy artillery bombardment by the Red Army during the final battle. The destruction was almost total: whole districts had been flattened; entire apartment blocks had been demolished and almost every building in the city bore signs of damage. Food was perpetually in short supply and the official currency, the Reichsmark, had gradually become worthless. The black market was flourishing, and the cigarette had become the form of currency. The citizens had, literally, to dig into the rubble to find something with which they could barter in order to scratch out a living. They were joined by refugees arriving in the city, who faced an even more desperate struggle for food, warmth and light.

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In January 1948 the British cabinet had discussed the situation in Germany. In the previous year, the three Western Allies had joined their zones of occupation together into one Western zone. Stalin had watched these events with mistrust. The British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin had presented a paper to his government that argued for slow movement towards a West German government, and for action on currency reform to undercut the rampant black market. Bevin thought of Britain as an intermediary between the French, who were still fearful of German recovery, and the Americans, who were increasingly frustrated by what they saw as French obstructionism. The French were haunted by an ancient rivalry with Germany and bitter memories of recent defeat and occupation. On 23rd February representatives from the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, along with the United States, met in London to plan for the new West German entity, and for the participation of Germany in the Marshall Plan. News of the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia added impetus to the urgency for creating the new state. On 12th March, the Soviet leadership was advised by its spies in the Foreign Office in London that the Western powers are transforming Germany into their strongpoint and incorporating it into a military-political bloc aimed at the Soviet Union. Molotov accused the Allies of violating the agreements of Potsdam and announced that decisions made at the London conference were invalid.

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007 (2)Worse was to follow on 20th March 1948, at a routine Allied Council meeting, when Marshal Vassily Sokolovsky, the Soviet military governor in Germany pressed his US and British counterparts for information about the secret London conference, already knowing, of course, exactly what had happened. When General Lucius D. Clay, the US military governor told him that they were not going to discuss the London meetings, Sokolovsky demanded to know what the point was of having a ‘Control Council’ at all. The Soviets then got up and walked out of the meeting, effectively ending joint control of Germany.

As a result, around Berlin, the Soviet authorities began applying a range of petty bureaucratic obstacles to the free movement of people and supplies in and out of the city.

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Restrictions were placed on the use of the ‘autobahn’ between Berlin and the British sector to the west. The bridge over the Elbe at Hohenwarte, the only other road-crossing point, was closed for “maintenance.” The British offered to send engineers to build another to build another bridge, but Sokolovsky turned down the offer. The Soviets announced that they would search military passengers and their cargo on the rail lines, and stated that no freight shipments between Berlin and the western zones could be made without Soviet permission. On 1st April the Soviets halted two American and two British trains after their commanders refused access to Soviet inspectors. All this amounted to what was later called the “mini-blockade.” General Clay ordered a “baby airlift” to fly into Berlin enough supplies for forty-five days.

 

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On 5th April a Vickers Viking of British European Airways took from an airfield in West Germany on a scheduled flight into RAF Gatow, one of the Allied air bases in West Berlin. As it came into Berlin, in one of the agreed twenty-mile-wide air corridors, the Viking was buzzed by a Soviet Yak-3 fighter plane. It was not the first time this had happened. For a few days, Soviet fighters had been carrying out mock attacks on Allied planes flying into Berlin. But this time, as the British transport plane took evasive action, it collided with the Yak fighter. Both planes crashed to the ground, killing all ten people on board the BEA plane and the pilot of the Soviet fighter. The Soviets blamed the British for the collision, and the British blamed the Soviet pilot. A joint investigation of the accident broke down when the Soviets refused to allow German witnesses to testify. The British and Soviets separately concluded that the mid-air collision was an accident, but thereafter both sides were more nervous that such accidents could bring open conflict.

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008With the situation in Berlin now alarmingly tense, the confrontation between the Soviets and the West spilt over into Berlin’s internal politics. The Berlin City Council was the scene of a fierce power struggle between the East German Communists and their political foes, led by Ernst Reuter, a powerful orator, and his Social Democrats. Reuter had been forced to leave Germany by the Nazis but had returned in 1946. hoping to rebuild the country as a democratic state. His election in 1948 as Mayor of Berlin (the whole city) was vetoed by the Soviets and the East German Communists, whose agents operated in both East and West Berlin, using a combination of intimidation, blackmail and kidnapping to get their way.

As far as the Soviets were concerned, East Germany was Stalin’s by right of conquest; for the West Berliners it was, and remained (until 1972), the Soviet occupation zone, SBZ. The old pre-war Kommunist Partei Deutschlands, boosted by sizeable numbers of Soviet-German agents who had spent the war in Moscow and had been sent back to Berlin as early as May 1945, merged forcibly with the socialists and created a new party, Socialist Unity, led by Walter Ulbricht. It took over the main offices of state and reduced the civil service and the other political parties which remained to the status of mere figureheads. Its constitution made it clear that all fundamental human rights were subject to the concrete conditions under which the proletarian revolution must triumph (Article 19). 

Although, by 1948, the Soviets had forced the Eastern ‘zone’ of Germany to accept Communism, in the Western zone elections they never gained more than eight per cent support for the Communists, and despite the level of intimidation, the Communists had failed to gain control of Berlin.  Around Berlin, tensions had worsened. Soviet military authorities threatened to close down the rail traffic with the West. By 15th June canal boats and freight trains were the only means left of supplying the city. In this explosive situation, the Western Allies decided to introduce their new currency, which was announced on 18th June. Sokolovsky immediately issued a proclamation denouncing their action as being…

against the wishes and interests of the German people and in the interests of the American, British and French monopolists … The separate currency reform completes the splitting of Germany. It is a breach of the Potsdam decisions.

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Sokolovsky also prohibited the introduction of the Western Deutschmark (above left) into the Soviet zone and into Berlin. On 22nd June, the Soviets announced that they would be introducing their own currency, the Ostmark (right) for the Eastern zone and, they hoped, the whole of Berlin. The Western military commanders declared the Soviet order null and void for West Berlin and introduced the B-mark, a special Deutschmark overprinted with the letter ‘B’, for the Western sectors of Berlin. General Clay, who made the decision without consulting Washington, insisted it was a technical, non-political measure. But Sokolovsky announced that the Western mark would not be permitted to circulate in Berlin, which lies in the Soviet zone of Germany and economically forms part of the Soviet zone. General Clay assured his staff that he was not concerned by these developments:

If they had put in a currency reform and we didn’t, it would have been (our) first move.   

007Over the next twelve hours, Berlin endured an extraordinary spate of ‘midsummer madness’. On the evening of 23rd June, at a meeting of the Berlin City Council, which was located in the Soviet sector of the city, Reuter tried to persuade the Assembly to approve the circulation of both the Deutschmark and the Ostmark. As thugs beat up non-Communists to intimidate them from supporting Reuter’s proposal, Soviet officials and Communist-controlled police stood by and watched. Nevertheless, the Berlin Assembly voted to accept the Deutschmark in the Western sectors and the Ostmark in the Soviet sector.

Sokolovsky rang Molotov to ask what he should do; should he surround Berlin with tanks? Molotov told him not to, as this might provoke the Western powers into doing the same, and then the only way out of such an impasse would be through military confrontation. They decided instead to impose an immediate blockade around Berlin, and at 6:00 a.m. on 24th June, the barriers were lowered on all road, rail and canal routes linking Berlin with West Germany. The reason given was “technical difficulties.” That same morning, electricity from power stations in the Soviet sector was cut off to factories and offices in West Berlin. The official reason given was “coal shortages.” So the blockade of Berlin began. The Soviets’ purpose was clear; either the Western Allies must change their policies or be forced out of Berlin altogether. General Clay clearly identified this purpose:

When Berlin falls, Western Germany will be next. If we withdraw our position in Berlin, Europe is threatened … Communism will run rampant.

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Berlin was effectively cut off from the West, with only enough food and fuel to last six weeks. In both London and Washington, there was a clear determination that the Western powers would hold on to West Berlin. President Truman vowed; We are going to stay, period and British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin announced that the abandonment of Berlin would mean the loss of Western Europe. It was easy to make such statements, but much more difficult to decide what to do next. West Berlin did indeed have a symbolic status as an outpost of the democratic West inside the Communist East, but by an agreement made at the time of Potsdam, the Soviet authorities were not obliged to supply the British, American and French sectors of the city. So 2.3 million Berliners, and the Allied military garrison there were now cut off. The Western part of the city relied upon the arrival of twelve thousand tons of supplies each day. At the time, there was only enough food for thirty-six days, and enough coal for forty-five. The key to keeping a Western presence in Berlin clearly lay in finding a way to supply the citizens with their bare necessities. With rail, road and canal routes blocked, the only way to get supplies in was by air. However, the American C-47 transport, the military ‘workhorse’ of the day, could only deliver a payload of three tons. Initially, the prospect for an airlift to Berlin appeared to be bleak.

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On 24 June, the West had introduced a counter-blockade, stopping all raid traffic into eastern Germany from the British and US zones. Over the following months, this counter-blockade was to have a damaging effect on the East, as the drying up of coal and steel shipments seriously hindered industrial development in the Soviet zone. On that same day, General Clay rang General Curtis LeMay of the US Air Force in Wiesbaden and asked him to put on standby his fleet of C-47s and any other aircraft that could be utilised. The RAF had come forward with an ambitious plan to supply Berlin by air, but Clay was sceptical. He favoured sending a convoy of US military engineers down the autobahn to force their way through the Soviet blockade, with instructions to fire back if they were fired upon. But in Washington, Truman’s advisers urged caution and restraint. The president was backed into a corner as it was an election year; the American people would never support going to war with the Soviet Union just to defend Berlin, the capital of a country they had been at war with only three years earlier. At the same time, Truman had to be seen championing a firm line with the Soviets, so he made no final decision that day, but Clay was told by telephone that the president did not want any action taken in Berlin which might lead to possible armed conflict.

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Although both the British and Americans had experience with major air supply operations, neither had ever attempted anything on this scale. Clay warned Reuter that to begin with there would be severe shortages and hardships; initially, he did not believe that the Allies could fly in more than five hundred tons a day. Reuter assured him that the Allies could count on the West Berliners to grin and bear it. Then, without consulting Washington, Clay authorised the start of the airlift. On 26th June, the first American transport planes flew into Berlin from air bases in West Germany, following three narrow air corridors through the Soviet zone. The first flight brought in eighty tons of milk, flour and medicine. The Americans code-named the airlift Operation Vittles; to the British, it was Operation Plainfare. To begin with, about eighty C-47s flew two daily round trips into RAF Gatow and Tempelhof, air bases in the British and American sectors of Berlin. Soon the Americans were bringing fifty C-54 Skymasters, four-engined transports each containing nine tons, three times the payload of the C-47s. The Allies organised willing gangs of workers to unload the aircraft and turn them around quickly. Over time these workers learned to empty each plane in just seven minutes. The citizens of Berlin became increasingly confident that the Allies would be able to save their city. They had had few problems delivering bombs, they reminded each other, so why wouldn’t be able to deliver potatoes?

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The Royal Air Force had fewer service aircraft available for the operation, and spare planes of any type were soon pressed into the airlift. British business executive Freddie Laker had begun to buy and sell aircraft parts after the war, and by 1948 he owned twelve converted Halifax bombers. He was asked to make them available for supplying Berlin and provided a team of pilots and engineers as well. As the operation grew over succeeding months, it grew into a ‘crusade for freedom’, with the pilots determined to keep Berlin alive, despite the hazards of flying old, rickety aircraft, often buzzed by Soviet fighters and frequently at risk when flying heavy loads in bad weather. Bevin set up a crisis-management team in London to supervise the effort, and early expectations were soon exceeded, as roughly a thousand tons per day were flown into the besieged city. The irony was not lost on many of the veteran fliers involved; instead of destroying Berlin, they were now keeping it alive.

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In July, General Clay returned to Washington for talks with President Truman. He still favoured a military a military convoy to break the blockade, for he believed that the Soviets would back down rather than confronting the West. However, Truman did not want to chance it. If they chose not to let the convoy through, there would be war. Instead, Truman guaranteed more C-54s, and the two men talked of doubling the airlift to two thousand tons daily. The American intelligence community, knowing that the Soviets still had two and a half million men at arms, was convinced that in a conventional military confrontation the Red Army would walk right over the US forces. At the same time, they were equally confident that the Kremlin would not sanction direct military conflict with the Western powers, which might provoke the Americans to use nuclear weapons, as they had in Japan. To stop the airlift, the USSR would have had to shoot down British and American planes. Stalin was frightened by the USA’s nuclear capability, since, as yet, the Soviet Union had not developed its own capacity. Perhaps because of this overall military superiority, General Clay remained convinced that the Soviets would not risk a military confrontation:

The chances of war are 1 in 10. The Russians know they would be licked. If they cut our air route, they know it is an act of war.

Besides, the Soviet Union was not yet secure within its own accepted sphere of influence. Yugoslavia split away from the Eastern camp, a defection that made the Kremlin even more nervous about its support among its satellites, especially after events in Czechoslovakia in February and March of the same year. On 28th June, only four days after launching the blockade against Berlin, Moscow expelled Yugoslavia from the Cominform and called on other Communist parties to isolate Marshal Tito, its charismatic partisan leader who had taken power after the war without Stalin’s help or support. An economic blockade was organised against Yugoslavia that caused great hardship, but Belgrade stood firm. Rejected by the Eastern ‘bloc’, Tito turned, albeit slowly and a little reluctantly, towards the West. Although not technically a member of the Marshall Plan, Yugoslavia went on to receive $150 million in aid from the United States. Threatened with invasion by Stalin, Yugoslavia remained the only independent state in Europe throughout the Cold War and a ‘thorn in the side’ of the USSR. Any attempt of an Eastern bloc country to establish its independence from Moscow was labelled ‘Titoism’, a heresy to be rooted out and purged.

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Back in the ‘Berlin Crisis’ during July, attempts were made through diplomatic channels to bring about a settlement. On 2nd August, the British, American, and French ambassadors had a private meeting with Stalin to test his willingness to find a peaceful solution. Stalin made it clear that from the Soviet point of view the currency question was crucial, together with the London agreement to create a united West Germany. He argued that if there were now two German states then Berlin was no longer the capital, making the Western presence in the city no longer relevant. Stalin stated that the USSR was not seeking conflict with the West and would lift the blockade as soon as the West withdrew the B-mark from circulation and agreed to reinstate joint four-power rule over Germany. In point of fact, there was little that the Soviets could do in the face of the West’s superiority in the air and its determination to keep up the airlift. What became clear to the Western ambassadors was that the Soviet blockade had only one principal purpose: to prevent the creation of a West German state.

Pictured Above: On 19th August, A C-47 Dakota comes in for a landing while a huge C-74 Globemaster from Frankfurt unloads 23 tons of flour for the people of Berlin. With some difficulty, the enormous plane landed on a new runway at Gatow in the British zone. Below: Inside the Globemaster.

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Throughout the summer of 1948, the British and American governments constantly reviewed their options. Military thinking concluded that the airlift could hardly continue through the winter; that October was to be the cut-off point. The British chiefs of staff prepared a contingency plan to withdraw their troops to the Rhine in case of an emergency. In Washington, the air force commanders were convinced that the airlift was doomed to fail and concluded that there was a high likelihood of war with the Soviets over Berlin. The question which arose from this for the administration was whether the United States would be willing to use nuclear weapons in the developing crisis, for there was still no clear policy emanating from the White House. Truman argued with his Pentagon chiefs that because they were so terribly destructive, atomic weapons could not be treated as conventional weaponry. He urged the military leaders…

to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people.

In September, the US National Security Council produced a secret report designated as NSC-30: United States Policy on Atomic Welfare. This required the military to be ready to utilize promptly a and effectively all appropriate means available, including atomic weapons, in the interests of national security and to plan accordingly.  However, any decision about the use of nuclear weapons would be made by the president, when he considers such decisions to be required. Truman endorsed NC-30. In a briefing with his chief air force commanders, he…

prayed he would never have to make such a decision, but … if it became necessary, no one need have misgiving but he would do so.

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In a dramatic gesture that summer, a fleet of sixty B-29 ‘Superfortress’ bombers was flown into the United Kingdom. These were the latest American heavy bombers, designed to carry atomic weapons. The deployment of the B-29s established the US Strategic Air Command in the UK, and the arrival of “the atomic bombers” was widely publicised. The threat of nuclear retaliation was now made explicit. After a brief debate, at the height of the Berlin crisis, the British Government had formally invited Washington to station the bombers in Britain. The invitation neatly fudged the issue as to who would have his finger on the nuclear trigger; the US Air Force bombers would respond to orders from the United States, but their bases would be technically under the command of the RAF.

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This theoretical ambivalence lasted for more than forty years. I remember going on a CND march to RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk to demonstrate against the presence of the US bombers, and their bombs, in 1976. But in practice the real decision, if it ever came to that, would always be made as NSC-30 directed, by the president of the United States. The planes, in fact, carried no atomic weapons, but this was a closely guarded secret. There were not enough atomic warheads in existence to equip the B-29s in Britain. Their arrival was mainly a signal to Moscow that the West meant business over Berlin, and Washington took advantage of the crisis to get congressional approval for permanent overseas bases.  The British Government knew that the B-29s carried no atomic weapons, and through spies at the London Foreign Office, Moscow also, almost certainly knew too. The British, German and Russian people, of course, did not.

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Meanwhile, the Berlin airlift was proving more successful than anyone ever expected. Tens of thousands of Berliners helped build a new airport at Tegel to reduce congestion at the other two airfields. With capacity for more flights, the Americans added another sixty C-54s to their fleet. Clay now spoke of bringing in 4,500 tons each day. By September, aircraft were landing in Berlin every three minutes, day and night. On 18th September, 861 British and American flights delivered a record seven thousand tons in a single day. By this date roughly two hundred thousand tons of supplies had been delivered, the ‘split’ between the USAF and the RAF being about sixty-forty in percentage terms. Coal, flour, drums of petrol, potatoes, medical supplies were all brought in by air. It began to look as if the airlift would be able to supply the city through the winter, after all. But West Berliners were still fearful that the West might not continue the airlift. On 6th September, another meeting of the City Council in East Berlin had been broken up by Communist agitators with violence and intimidation. The Western representatives decided that the Council was no longer functional, so they left and agreed to meet separately in West Berlin. Three days later, a huge gathering of three hundred thousand Berliners, mostly from the western zones, collected outside the ruins of the Reichstag (below). Standing on a pile of rubble, Reuter addressed the huge crowds, calling upon the Western governments not to abandon Berlin.

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By October, many West Berliners were getting desperate. They were allowed only small amounts of fat, spam (tinned meat), potatoes, cereal and bread. Berlin’s people needed four thousand tons of supplies a day to survive. People had got used to the rationing, and even to feeling cold, since electricity was only available four hours a day. But the blockade was not, in any case, absolute, so a minority of West Berliners were able to register for food rations with the Soviet authorities, and about one in ten of them were, therefore, able to draw food and coal from the East. As there was no restriction on travel within the city, so many West Berliners regularly visited the eastern part of the city, where there were well-lit and heated dance halls.

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The airlift became almost a way of life. Although expensive, its cost represented only a fraction of the total cost of American aid to Europe. Despite bad weather and constant harassment by Soviet fighters, the transports continued to bring their cargoes into West Berlin. By December, the goal of 4,500 tons flown in each day was reached. At Gatow and Tempelhof flights landed every ninety seconds. Enough coal was freighted in to keep West Berliners from freezing. The gamble had paid off. Production in the city picked up and output grew rapidly. The feared economic collapse did not materialise.

Below (left): A German child’s drawing commemorates the airlift: “We thank the pilots for their work and effort.” Right: A new game, “Airlift.”

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By the spring of 1949, the weather improved considerably. Food supplies in Berlin could be built up and fuel stocks maintained at a sufficient level. The airlift ensured that eight thousand tons were being flown in each day. In one twenty-four hour period, on Easter Sunday, April 1949, a record number of 1,398 flights came into  Berlin, carrying a total of thirteen thousand tons of supplies. In all, two million tons of supplies had been flown in since the airlift began. As the counter-blockade of eastern Germany hurt more and more, the Soviets took the only course left open to them and tried to end the whole Berlin debacle. The Kremlin indicated that it would consider ending its blockade with minimal conditions imposed: The counter-blockade would have to be lifted and the Council of Foreign Ministers reconvened. The bellicose General Clay quietly returned to Washington, ceasing to be military governor and claiming that, in any case, after the tensions of the preceding year he needed a break. On 12th May 1949, the blockade was finally lifted, and the Western military authorities reciprocated by lifting their counter-blockade. Both sides claimed victory and Berliners were jubilant; many thought this would be the end of the conflict between the Great Powers. In reality, the blockades had resulted in the end of the war-time alliance and in the formation of two Berlins: West and East. Added to that, as the heavy transports continued to fly their daily missions, the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany was being drafted. Stalin’s attempt to prevent the division of Germany had failed. President Truman commented:

When we refused to be forced out of Berlin, we demonstrated to Europe that we would act when freedom was threatened. This action was a Russian plan to probe the soft spots in the Western Allies’ positions.

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Above: RIAS, Radio in the American Sector, American-financed, with a mix of popular music and upbeat news, kept up Berliners’ morale. Presenter and entertainer Christina Ohlsen became a celebrity.

The West did, indeed, secure a major propaganda victory through the airlift. It was a reminder to the Soviet Union, and the whole international community, of Western technological superiority, especially in the air. Conversely, the Berlin crisis showed the Soviets in a poor light: they seemed to be willing to threaten 2.3 million people with starvation. The Soviet view of the events was, not surprisingly, quite different:

The crisis was planned in Washington, behind a smoke-screen of anti-Soviet propaganda. In 1948 there was the danger of war. The conduct of the Western powers risked bloody incidents. The self-blockade of the Western powers hit the West Berlin population with harshness. The people were freezing and starving. In the spring of 1949 the USA was forced to yield … their war plans had come to nothing, because of the conduct of the Soviet Union.

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The Soviets, operating outside the framework of American loan credits and facing the Western alliance, saw themselves to be increasingly threatened. We now know that Stalin privately felt far weaker than was known at the time, but in 1948 many in the West genuinely believed that Stalin planned to dominate the entire European continent. The US policy of ‘containment’ meant confronting Communism at all agreed critical points, and Berlin was one of these. Old wartime loyalties to Russia were being replaced by fear of Soviet ambitions; a “them and us” syndrome had emerged. As US Secretary of State, George C Marshall observed,…

There has been a definite crystallization of American public and Congressional opinion over the Berlin issue. … The country is more unified in its determination not to weaken in the face of pressure of an illegal blockade than on any other issue we can recall in time of peace.  

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The Berlin blockade made clear to most Americans that the new enemy was definitely the Soviet Union. The Blockade and Airlift was the first open struggle between East and West. The tactics were designed not to start a war, but to threaten to go to war if necessary. This set the pattern for future Cold War conflicts, including further tensions over Berlin. 

Source:

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press (Transworld Publishers).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

 

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