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.