Commentary Magazine


Topic: Berlin Airlift

The Czech Coup to the Berlin Airlift at 65

Andrei Cherny begins his history of the 1948 Berlin Airlift with the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center. Though the outpouring of support for America around the world was overwhelming, Cherny says the reaction in Berlin stood apart. Berliners instinctively started pouring into the street near the Brandenburg Gate, and soon there were 200,000 of them. One stooped, elderly woman was asked by onlookers why she was crying. “I love Americans,” she said, then stood straight and smiled. “You see, I was a girl during the Airlift….”

Yesterday was exactly sixty-five years since General Lucius Clay, the American military governor in Germany after World War II, told Colonel Frank Howley, the American military governor of Berlin, “Frank, I’m ordering some planes in,” beginning the Berlin Airlift. In the postwar division of Germany, although Berlin sat in the Soviet zone it was divided with the Western powers and ruled by a joint command. The Soviets grew increasingly suspicious of what they believed to be a Western intent to unify Germany by, among other tactics, outcompeting the Soviets in the capital. After the introduction of a Western currency in West Berlin, the Soviets withdrew from the joint command and cut off Western land access to the city.

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Andrei Cherny begins his history of the 1948 Berlin Airlift with the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center. Though the outpouring of support for America around the world was overwhelming, Cherny says the reaction in Berlin stood apart. Berliners instinctively started pouring into the street near the Brandenburg Gate, and soon there were 200,000 of them. One stooped, elderly woman was asked by onlookers why she was crying. “I love Americans,” she said, then stood straight and smiled. “You see, I was a girl during the Airlift….”

Yesterday was exactly sixty-five years since General Lucius Clay, the American military governor in Germany after World War II, told Colonel Frank Howley, the American military governor of Berlin, “Frank, I’m ordering some planes in,” beginning the Berlin Airlift. In the postwar division of Germany, although Berlin sat in the Soviet zone it was divided with the Western powers and ruled by a joint command. The Soviets grew increasingly suspicious of what they believed to be a Western intent to unify Germany by, among other tactics, outcompeting the Soviets in the capital. After the introduction of a Western currency in West Berlin, the Soviets withdrew from the joint command and cut off Western land access to the city.

The West, led by the United States, could not simply accede to this bullying and leave the Berliners in their care to the Soviets. “We shall stay, period,” said President Truman. The only way to get to their sector of Berlin, however, was now by air. And so American warplanes were loaded with food and coal and flown every day into the city for a year.

The Berlin Airlift sent the right message simultaneously to Germany, the free world, and the Stalin regime. And as much as it remains a splendid show of American resolve and ingenuity, it cannot be considered in a vacuum. The Berlin blockade was the result of Soviet fears of an encroaching Western-led economic recovery that would discredit the Soviet system lagging behind in adjacent sectors of postwar Europe. And that had much to do with the European Recovery Program, better known simply as the Marshall Plan, which was crafted and debated throughout the previous year but signed by Truman in April 1948.

The bitter winter of 1947 had made it clear that Europe had more to fear from a collapsed Germany than a resurgent one. Truman once and for all put an end to the Morgenthau Plan–agreed to by a fading FDR who later claimed to have no memory of signing onto the plan at a bilateral summit with Winston Churchill–to raze Germany and set the country back decades, if not centuries, on economic development and industrial capabilities. The Marshall Plan commenced the recovery of Europe, Germany included.

But the Marshall Plan (and the ongoing 1948 discussions that would result in the establishment of NATO the following year) must also be understood in the context that produced this sense of urgency that essentially created the postwar military order. And no one event did as much to shake the West out of its relative complacency than the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia barely a month before Truman signed the Marshall Plan.

The culmination of the coup, in February 1948, served as the wakeup call. The Czech government was made up of Communist and non-Communist ministers, and the Soviet loyalists had thoroughly infiltrated the country to the point where they were ready to force a confrontation. Scheduled elections were looming in a few months, but non-Communist ministers worried that by then the Communists would have the game rigged and there would be no way to hold free elections. So they forced a crisis by resigning from the government en masse, hoping to get more than half the ministers to resign, breaking the quorum. They failed to get enough ministers to step down, essentially leaving posts open for their enemies, and Communist control was further solidified.

That was the end of a coup three years in the making, however. Evelyn Gordon wrote earlier about the free world’s abandonment of Czechoslovakia before World War II, but they again abandoned it after the war. Dwight Eisenhower famously refused to race the Soviets to Berlin at the end of the war because he thought the German capital to be of mostly symbolic value, and the war in the Pacific wasn’t over. But he also believed that he had no business making “political” considerations when his job was to make military decisions. The postwar fate of a city was, in Eisenhower’s mind, strictly political.

He used that same justification not to press forward to liberate Prague. In 1945 the American troops arrived on the Czech border, where Eisenhower said they would stop. Marshall agreed. General Patton did not, and with the outbreak of fighting between Czech insurgents and German troops within the country Patton was able to get Eisenhower to press on. But Eisenhower halted the advance fifty miles from Prague when the Red Army was 200 miles away.

It was a terrible mistake. The Allies shared military occupation of Czechoslovakia, but the refusal to liberate Prague had both practical and symbolic consequences. Symbolically, “We sold the country down the river,” Igor Lukes quotes an American diplomatic official saying regretfully. “We could have liberated Prague. After the war we spent a lot of time trying to convince the Czechs that they weren’t part of the East Bloc. But no matter what we said the Soviets came to Prague first.”

The practical effects were worse. With the exiled Czech president out of the country during the war and Prague open for the taking, Communists and their sympathizers were able to get a major foothold in governance and security–which was exceptionally important, obviously, for the Soviet efforts at establishing the iron curtain and putting Czechoslovakia on their side of it.

There was blame enough to go around, including from Czech officials too willing to play ball in the early postwar days with Stalin. But those officials learned a lesson from Yalta: if the Western powers were willing to sell out the Polish government in exile after fighting a war ostensibly over the invasion of Poland, they would be willing to sell out the Czechs too. Of course, the Polish fate more or less awaited the Czechs anyway, because Western leaders were not the only ones naively putting their faith in Stalin’s word.

The refusal to liberate Prague ultimately consigned a generally pro-Western country to Soviet police-state terror. It taught the West the importance of geopolitical hinge states as well–a lesson Stalin didn’t need. And it stands as a reminder, sixty-five years later, of the moral incoherence and strategic folly of forgetting who our true allies are.

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How Obama Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cold War

It was difficult to escape the too-perfect photo making the rounds yesterday of the G-8 country leaders smiling as a mammoth storm cloud ominously approached. The metaphor was obvious, but it was an appropriate lead-in to the press coverage greeting President Obama this morning on his growing isolation on the world stage. The Europeans are disappointed, it seems, in anything Obama does. The Germans say his NSA snooping is too much a projection of American meddling and militarism abroad, and the French say his lack of resolve on Syria is evidence of not enough American meddling and militarism abroad.

And don’t even get them started on his inability to lower the ocean tides. But it’s not just “friends.” While Obama has spent his time in office deriding Cold War parallels, the New York Times has an extensive story today that touches on why that conflict is suddenly relevant. The Times reports on Obama’s recent time spent “tangling with the leaders of two cold war antagonists,” the presidents of China and Russia, and their newfound refusal to feign warmth. And what’s more, though the president has always been unable to get much cooperation from Russia or China, it seems to be dawning on the White House that there was a subtle shift in attitudes and suspicions somewhere along the way, undetected at the time but undeniable now.

That, too, makes the Times’s historical echoes apt. As John Lewis Gaddis has written about the post-World War II security dilemmas and the expanding mutual distrust:

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It was difficult to escape the too-perfect photo making the rounds yesterday of the G-8 country leaders smiling as a mammoth storm cloud ominously approached. The metaphor was obvious, but it was an appropriate lead-in to the press coverage greeting President Obama this morning on his growing isolation on the world stage. The Europeans are disappointed, it seems, in anything Obama does. The Germans say his NSA snooping is too much a projection of American meddling and militarism abroad, and the French say his lack of resolve on Syria is evidence of not enough American meddling and militarism abroad.

And don’t even get them started on his inability to lower the ocean tides. But it’s not just “friends.” While Obama has spent his time in office deriding Cold War parallels, the New York Times has an extensive story today that touches on why that conflict is suddenly relevant. The Times reports on Obama’s recent time spent “tangling with the leaders of two cold war antagonists,” the presidents of China and Russia, and their newfound refusal to feign warmth. And what’s more, though the president has always been unable to get much cooperation from Russia or China, it seems to be dawning on the White House that there was a subtle shift in attitudes and suspicions somewhere along the way, undetected at the time but undeniable now.

That, too, makes the Times’s historical echoes apt. As John Lewis Gaddis has written about the post-World War II security dilemmas and the expanding mutual distrust:

Because the Anglo-American relationship with the Soviet Union had fallen into this pattern well before World War II ended, it is difficult to say precisely when the Cold War began. There were no surprise attacks, no declarations of war, no severing even of diplomatic ties. There was, however, a growing sense of insecurity at the highest levels in Washington, London, and Moscow, generated by the efforts the wartime allies were making to ensure their own postwar security.

Just an ominous cloud that kept advancing until it was right overhead. And now, it seems, Obama is embracing reality and pushing back. Today he spoke at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, but with a slight adjustment: he spoke from the eastern side of the gate, to revel in the absence of despotism and division. He was joined at the speech by 92-year-old Gail Halvorsen, the former Air Force pilot known as the “original Candy Bomber” during the heroic Berlin Airlift exactly 65 years ago next week. And he paid tribute specifically to the crucial symbolic role played by the West’s willingness to establish in West Berlin the free world’s superior answer to the subjugation of East Berlin:

During that time, a Marshall Plan seeded a miracle, and a North Atlantic Alliance protected our people.  And those in the neighborhoods and nations to the East drew strength from the knowledge that freedom was possible here, in Berlin — that the waves of crackdowns and suppressions might therefore someday be overcome. 

No moral relativism there. What we had was better than what the proponents of dreary and brutal socialism had to offer. Our system was just and theirs dishonorable. Our side was the future, theirs the past. Where once Obama’s rhetoric smacked of “peace dividend” complacency, he told Berlin that “complacency is not the character of great nations.  Today’s threats are not as stark as they were half a century ago, but the struggle for freedom and security and human dignity — that struggle goes on.  And I’ve come here, to this city of hope, because the tests of our time demand the same fighting spirit that defined Berlin a half-century ago.”

The president would like to reduce nuclear stockpiles in a negotiated agreement with Russia, but the prospects for such cooperation aren’t great. And of course he wants to harness this new anti-complacency, in part, to stave off global warming and promote political activism. But he also defended the anti-terror programs currently in the news and when he spoke of Osama bin Laden’s death, he added that “Our efforts against al Qaeda are evolving”–a less triumphal but more realistic approach to understanding and waging the war on terror.

The onset of the Cold War was both disappointing and understated because the world seemed to have been at war for half a century, and many had no desire to accept the reality that war would continue. If you think Americans are war-weary after Iraq and Afghanistan, just imagine how they felt after two world wars. And they got off easy–World War II arguably didn’t really end in Poland when it ended for the West, tyranny having continued seamlessly there.

But reality always intervenes. And it has once again. Obama may not have been interested in the history and lessons of the Cold War, but to paraphrase Trotsky, the Cold War was interested in him. Gone seems to be his dismissive attitude toward the conflict, replaced with a disdain for those who still look east for strength or salvation. It remains to be seen whether this will have any significant implications for the president’s foreign policy, but if it doesn’t, it will be due to stubbornness, not cluelessness.

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