Berlin Blockade Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Faced with Soviet attempts to cut off West Berlin from the Western Allies’ zones in Germany, the United States and Great Britain responded with an airlift, delivering more than 1.5 million tons of food and supplies to the city.

Summary of Event

The most important and dramatic confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union in the formative period of the Cold War was the blockade of Berlin and the resulting airlift. The Soviet challenge to the West’s rights of access to Berlin seems to have been designed not only to expel the Western powers from the former German capital but also to prevent the creation of a workable West German government. President Harry S. Truman, General George C. Marshall, and General Lucius DuBignon Clay, however, recognized that the continued Western presence in Berlin was a test of the determination of the Western powers regarding the German question. Therefore, they made it clear that the United States would not submit to Stalin’s demands. [kw]Berlin Blockade (June 24, 1948-May 11, 1949) [kw]Blockade, Berlin (June 24, 1948-May 11, 1949) Berlin Blockade Berlin Airlift Cold War;Germany Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];Berlin Blockade Berlin Blockade Berlin Airlift Cold War;Germany Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];Berlin Blockade [g]Europe;June 24, 1948-May 11, 1949: Berlin Blockade[02550] [g]Germany;June 24, 1948-May 11, 1949: Berlin Blockade[02550] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 24, 1948-May 11, 1949: Berlin Blockade[02550] [c]Cold War;June 24, 1948-May 11, 1949: Berlin Blockade[02550] Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;Cold War Truman, Harry S. [p]Truman, Harry S.;Cold War Clay, Lucius DuBignon Marshall, George C. [p]Marshall, George C.;Cold War Reuter, Ernst

The problem in Berlin arose from the wartime agreements among the Allies for the postwar administration of Germany. Zones of occupation were agreed upon for Germany itself. Although Berlin was deep within the Soviet zone, each of the Allies controlled a sector in Berlin. U.S., British, and French authorities dutifully assumed their responsibilities in the ruined capital, seeking to cooperate with the Soviet authorities in the Allied Control Council Allied Control Council (for all of Germany) and the Kommandatura (for Berlin). Soviet obstructionism, however, convinced U.S. leaders that the Soviet Union sought to dominate all of Berlin and eventually, the whole of Germany. The climax of this struggle was the municipal election of October 20, 1946, in greater Berlin. The result was an overwhelming victory for the Social Democrats Social Democratic Party, German and defeat for the Soviet-backed Socialist Unity Party Socialist Unity Party, German . Soviet-inspired political and economic pressure on Berlin increased during 1947.

In early 1948, Great Britain and the United States developed plans to merge their two zones in western Germany economically, and the French were encouraged to cooperate. The Soviet Union protested these actions bitterly and responded by putting more economic pressure on the western sectors of Berlin. A communist coup in Czechoslovakia in February, 1948, incurred Western suspicions of Soviet intentions in Germany. In March, the London Conference London Conference (1948) (which included the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg) recommended that West Germany be united to form a federal state and that it take part in the Marshall Plan of economic recovery. In response, the Soviet Union withdrew its representatives from the Allied Control Council in Berlin. On April 1, the Soviet Union began the “small Berlin blockade,” by restricting land access and deliveries of food and fuel to Berlin.

U.S. leaders realized that should the Soviets cordon off Berlin entirely, the situation of the city’s inhabitants and the token Western garrisons would be desperate. The Western sectors were entirely dependent upon provisions shipped in by rail, truck, and canal. There was no written agreement guaranteeing free access to Berlin by surface transportation, merely oral understandings. There was a specific agreement on air access between Berlin and West Germany, but few people believed that the needs of 2,250,000 people could be met by air transport alone.

Aware of the West’s dilemma, the Soviets pushed forward with plans to isolate the city. Apparently, their goal was to discourage the economic and political unification of West Germany, and eventually to take control of Berlin, by demonstrating that the Western powers were unwilling or unable to protect their rights. The Western powers nevertheless went ahead with economic and currency reform in their zones of Germany, introducing the deutsche mark to replace the worthlessly inflated old currency, beginning on June 20, 1948. The full-scale Soviet blockade of West Berlin followed on June 24.

General Clay organized an immediate but modest airlift to keep the Western garrisons supplied, and he returned to Washington, D.C., to consult with President Truman in July. Clay favored forcing the issue with the Soviet Union by sending an armed transport convoy along the main highway from western Germany into the city. Secretary of State George Marshall favored an expanded airlift instead, coupled with a direct but informal approach to Stalin. Truman decided on the airlift rather than the armed convoy, and he told the U.S. ambassador in Moscow to contact Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator.

An airlift to ferry all necessary supplies for more than 2 million people was a most difficult undertaking. The logistic triumph would have proven fruitless if it had not been for the dogged determination of the people of West Berlin. Berliners knew Soviet troops could take over the city in a few hours. The Western allies had only sixty-five hundred combat troops in Berlin to face more than three hundred thousand troops in the Soviet zone. However, the Berliners refused to give in to fear, hunger, or discouragement. In December, Ernst Reuter, a Social Democrat and staunch opponent of communist rule, was elected lord mayor of West Berlin. During the blockade, many noncommunist professors abandoned Humboldt University in the Soviet sector and, with aid from the United States, established the Free University of Berlin Free University of Berlin in the U.S. sector. Reuter’s leadership and the Free University became rallying points for the Berliners, strengthening their resolve.

The airlift proved more and more successful. Tons of fuel and food staples, and enough luxuries such as fish, coffee, and children’s candies, arrived each day to buoy popular spirits. Politically, the blockade and airlift brought unintended and unwelcome results for the Soviet Union. Rather than forcing a humiliating retreat on the Western powers, the blockade showed the West to be a solid ally of the Berliners, willing to pay any price to save the people from either Soviet domination or war. West Germany continued on its way to becoming a unified state and eventually an ally of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, rather than merely a conquered enemy. Truman, who was facing a difficult election campaign at home, emerged as a hero, willing to face up to communist threats without actually going to war. He not only ordered the full power of U.S. transport aircraft into the airlift but also moved B-29 bombers, capable of carrying atomic weapons, to British bases within range of Moscow. Soviet attempts to intimidate the U.S. and British fliers on airlift duty by holding “air maneuvers” along the approaches to the West Berlin airfields were brushed aside, and deliveries continued to increase, even in the bad winter weather.

At the same time, Truman made behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts in an attempt to bring an end to the crisis. In August, 1948, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow spoke directly to Stalin about Berlin. At times, Stalin appeared reasonable, remarking that the United States and the Soviet Union were still allies. At other times, Stalin seemed elusive and belligerent, and Truman commented privately in September that he feared that the United States and the Soviet Union were slipping toward war.

By February, 1949, it had become clear that the Western powers could sustain the airlift indefinitely and that the blockade was driving the Germans into the arms of the West. Stalin hinted to a Western newsman that he was willing to give up his objections to the use of the West German deutsche mark in West Berlin and eventually drop the blockade. Soviet and U.S. diplomats soon began meeting secretly at the United Nations in New York.

In early May, the secret talks at the United Nations were nearing successful completion. Simultaneously, the West German parliamentary council was moving toward approval of the constitutional document that would establish the Federal Republic of Germany. On May 10, 1949, the Soviets published the orders for lifting their restrictions, and the next day, electrical power began flowing into West Berlin from East German power plants. The gates were lifted and the Berlin blockade was over. The airlift had lasted a total of 321 days, from June 24, 1948, until May 11, 1949, and brought into Berlin 1,592,787 tons of supplies.

Significance

The achievements of the airlift were not without cost. It was a heavy burden for U.S. and British taxpayers—approximately $200 million—and the Berliners had to make do with very short rations. Moreover, accidental deaths did occur. Twenty-four planes crashed, and seventy-six persons lost their lives.

Although additional Berlin crises would occur, including the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the Berlin blockade and the airlift response had been a clear turning point in the history of post-World War II Europe. War had been avoided, the Soviet Union was forced to back down, and West Germany and West Berlin were clearly linked to the United States and Western Europe for the remainder of the Cold War. In addition, the United States had solidified its role as a world power willing to commit its resources to the advancement of democracy. Berlin Blockade Berlin Airlift Cold War;Germany Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];Berlin Blockade

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clay, Lucius D. Decision in Germany. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1950. The U.S. commander in Germany recounts his personal experiences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ferrell, Robert H. George C. Marshall. Vol. 15 in The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy. New York: Cooper Square, 1966. An exhaustive study of Marshall’s tenure at the Department of State. The author relies on memoirs and other published information for most of his information.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grathwol, Robert P., and Donita M. Moorhus. American Forces in Berlin: Cold War Outpost, 1945-1994. Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, 1994. Partly a commemorative booklet, partly an illustrated documentary history, this well-illustrated book adds significant details to the U.S. achievements in Berlin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Portrays Truman’s staunch response to the Berlin blockade crisis as one of the finest aspects of his presidency. Puts the whole matter into the context of U.S. political history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Roger G. To Save a City: The Berlin Airlift, 1948-1949. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2000. Reveals both the airlift’s local, operational details and its global, geopolitical ramifications, drawing on formerly classified documents. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shlaim, Avi. The United States and the Berlin Blockade, 1948-1949: A Study in Crisis Decision-Making. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. A scholarly analysis of United States decision making, step by step, during the crises of the blockade and airlift.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tusa, Ann, and John Tusa. The Berlin Airlift. New York: Atheneum, 1988. A well-documented narrative account of the blockade and the airlift within the context of Cold War diplomacy.

Soviets Take Control of Eastern Europe

Potsdam Conference

Communists Seize Power in Czechoslovakia

East Germans Flee to West to Escape Communist Regime

Germany Splits into Two Republics

Communists Raise the Berlin Wall

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