Lessons of the Berlin Airlift, 70 Years Later

As Team Trump faces various international crises, a look back to 1948 is worthwhile.

Todd Johnson · Jun. 25, 2018

In 2018, it’s often easy to get caught up in what divides Americans. Growing intolerance from many groups within the political spectrum is causing massive mistrust across the nation. Sometimes it seems as if this growing rift won’t heal. But in trying times like these it’s important to look back at our storied history for examples of when principled leaders were able to coalesce with one another and lead the country to true greatness.

Tuesday marks the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift (known as codename “Operation Vittles” in U.S. circles), considered by many historians to be the first major battle of the Cold War and a major Allied victory against the Soviet government led by tyrant Josef Stalin. The heroic actions of the Western Allies not only saved hundreds of thousands of people but showed the world that the United States was committed to preserving human rights while standing up to the growing threat of communism.

The almost yearlong airlift of critical supplies, like flour, coal and medicine, to the Allied-held portions of Berlin was an important chapter in the Allies’ fight against the totalitarian Stalin regime. In recounting the herculean efforts of the U.S.-led humanitarian effort, a German government official recently paid the ultimate compliment to those pilots who risked their lives when he said, “The noise of the planes became the sound of hope for the people of Germany.”

However, those pilots wouldn’t have been able to drop those supplies if not for the courageous resolve of two men who realized that the Soviet threat had to be combated through peaceful means to avoid risking the start of World War III.

It was the initial bold decision-making of the U.S. commander of forces in Germany, General Lucius Clay (who oversaw the vast military operation), and President Harry Truman (who authorized the launch of relief supplies) that served as the foundation of future success. Clay is a forgotten hero outside of military historical circles but it was his cool-headed recommendations during a conference with Truman that encouraged the commander-in-chief to sign off on the air bridge of supplies.

As Clay later wrote following the crisis, “I asserted my confidence that given the planes, we could remain in Berlin indefinitely without war, and that our departure would be a serious, not disastrous, blow to the maintenance of freedom in Europe.”

Based on Clay’s recommendations and Truman’s political resoluteness, U.S. and Allied aircraft started dropping supplies on June 26, 1948, and over the next 327 days these planes distributed a total of 2.3 million pounds of supplies. In the process, the Allies averted a massive humanitarian crisis on the continent of Europe.

From a tactical perspective, the Berlin Airlift proved to be an incredible achievement, but it was the strategic consequences that proved to be the most significant. The political determination of the Allies, led by the U.S., and their willingness to spend vast amounts of resources to stabilize hard-fought gains during World War II sent a forceful message to Stalin. It let the communist dictator know that the world wouldn’t capitulate to force, but more importantly, it showed a willingness by American leaders to work with partners to protect global interests.

As President Donald Trump and his team deal with a variety of international crises in the 21st century, they would be well served to look back to 1948 and examine the positive results from the Berlin Airlift. The lessons learned, ranging military to diplomatic, serve as reminders today of what can be accomplished with firm partners and daring decisions.

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