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The Berlin Airlift
June 27, 1948 to May 12, 1949


Following World War II, a delicate balance of power had surfaced between the once united Allies: Great Britain, the United States, France, and the Soviet Union. The opposing economic structures of capitalism and communism emerged triumphant at the end of the war. The two blossoming superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, sought to ensure their permanence by negotiating territorial claims throughout the globe. At the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences, Europe and the Far East were partitioned off as spheres of influence to their respected Ally governments. Germany was divided into fourths allowing each Ally to run its division by a military government until a suitable national government could be devised and the country put back together. This divided
Germany, under direct supervision of the Council of Foreign Ministers (Allied Control
Council or ACC) and the Kommandatura, was to become the first battleground of the
emerging Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The year of 1948 was a critical turning point in the presidency of Harry Truman. He was staring down the barrel of a re-election campaign, presented with his lowest approval rating to date, and faced with the threat of a possible World War III with the Soviet Union over a developing situation in Berlin. Furthermore, Truman's record against the Soviets, up to this date, had been ineffective in keeping them from occupying Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Republicans were calling him soft on communism and Senator Joseph McCarthy was at his prime on his communist witch hunts in Washington.

In regards to the German situation, General Clay remarked that the mood in the western zones was "more tense than at any time since surrender." British and American staff were leaving Berlin for the expanding administration of Bizonia, giving Berliners reason to believe the Western powers were leaving. Food rations in some parts of Germany were being cut to 900 calories a day, far below the recommended daily allowance for adequate nutrition. Labor unrest was prevalent throughout all the regions of Germany. Communist groups on all sides of Germany were gaining followers because they offered hope and prosperity in the future. American, British, and French authorities were facing their worst fears....a beleagured German people searching for drastic solutions.

In early September 1947, the United States had, along with Great Britain, combined their zones into one military province called "Bizonia," hoping to bring security back to the German people. This formal joining helped to provide economic stability to a cash strapped British zone. Soon after, France followed suit and annexed its section to Bizonia. The new Trizone leadership now looked to secure some economic stability in the midst of the German recession. In February 1948, the United States and British proposed to the ACC that a new four-power currency be created. The Soviets, however, hoping to continue the German recession, refused to accept the new currency, in favor of
the overcirculated Soviet Reichsmark. By doing so, the Soviets believed they could foster a communist uprising in postwar Germany through civil unrest. In a March 1948 meeting of the ACC, it was evident that no agreements could be reached on a unified currency or quadpartite control of Germany and an infuriated Marshal Sokolovsky and his Soviet delegation stormed out of the meeting. Both sides waited for the other to make a move. Trizonia, finally, in an effort to stabilize the economy, established its own currency on June 18, 1948.

The Soviets, trying to push the west out of Berlin, countered this move by requiring that all Western convoys bound for Berlin travelling through Soviet Germany be searched. The Trizone government, recognizing the threat, refused the right of the Soviets to search their cargo. The Soviets then cut all surface traffic to West Berlin on June 27. American ambassador to Britain, John Winnant, stated the accepted Western view when he said that he believed "that the right to be in Berlin carried with it the right of access." The Soviets, however, did not agree. Shipments by rail and the autobahn came to a halt. A desperate Berlin, faced with starvation and in need of vital supplies, looked to the West for help. The order to begin supplying West Berlin by air was approved later by U.S. General Lucius Clay on June 27. President Truman, wishing to avoid war or a humiliating retreat, supported the air campaign, against many advisors wishes. Surviving a normally harsh German winter, the airlift carried over two million tons of supplies in 270,000 flights. The blockade of Berlin was finally lifted by the Soviets on May 12, 1949. Berlin became a symbol of the United States resolve to stand up to the Soviet threat without being forced into a direct conflict.

Source: Truman Library

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U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Germany /Public Affairs/ Information Resource Centers 
Updated: August 2001