Memorandum on Lifting the Soviet Blockade Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Since the Potsdam Agreement at the end of World War II in August 1945, both the German nation as a whole and its capital city of Berlin had been divided into four zones, each occupied by one of the four victorious Allied Powers. In what became one of the first crises of the Cold War, on June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union began a blockade of the American, British, and French sectors of Berlin, which lay entirely within the Soviet sector of Germany. This resulted in the Berlin Airlift—an unprecedented effort to sustain the food and fuel needs of an entire city. After the blockade had been in effect for nearly ten months, the Soviets showed no signs of weakening resolve, and the Americans showed no signs of ending their flights of supplies. The situation had devolved into a stalemate. At that point, US ambassador-at-large Philip Caryl Jessup contacted Jacob Malik, the Soviet representative to the United Nations Security Council, in an attempt to begin back-channel negotiations that would allow the blockade to come to an end.

Summary Overview

Since the Potsdam Agreement at the end of World War II in August 1945, both the German nation as a whole and its capital city of Berlin had been divided into four zones, each occupied by one of the four victorious Allied Powers. In what became one of the first crises of the Cold War, on June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union began a blockade of the American, British, and French sectors of Berlin, which lay entirely within the Soviet sector of Germany. This resulted in the Berlin Airlift—an unprecedented effort to sustain the food and fuel needs of an entire city. After the blockade had been in effect for nearly ten months, the Soviets showed no signs of weakening resolve, and the Americans showed no signs of ending their flights of supplies. The situation had devolved into a stalemate. At that point, US ambassador-at-large Philip Caryl Jessup contacted Jacob Malik, the Soviet representative to the United Nations Security Council, in an attempt to begin back-channel negotiations that would allow the blockade to come to an end.

Defining Moment

Ever since the 1945 Potsdam Agreement, the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France had jointly occupied Germany. Each of the four Allies governed one sector of the country as a whole and one sector of the German capital, Berlin. However, between 1945 and 1948, relations between the Soviet Union and the other three Allies became increasingly strained, as the Soviets showed no inclination to withdraw from the Eastern European nations they had occupied while fighting Nazi Germany. Many of the Soviet leaders were waiting for the other three Allies to end their occupation of Germany, after which time they expected Germany to become a Communist nation. With postwar economic chaos and strong Communist parties in many other Western European nations, the Soviets hoped to foment Communist uprisings throughout Europe.

However, in 1947, US secretary of state George C. Marshall proposed a plan for massive US investment in European economic recovery, while at the same time, the Americans, British, and French tried futilely to convince the Soviet Union that the time had come for German reunification and the establishment of a democratic postwar German government. With the Soviets opposing the end of its occupation of the eastern sector of Germany, the other three Allies began the process of unifying their sectors by reforming Germany's currency, in essence creating an economic separation from the Soviet sectors of both Germany and Berlin.

In response, on June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union had established a blockade in an attempt to force the United States, Great Britain, and France to abandon their sectors of Berlin, which lay entirely within the Soviet sector of Germany. The other Allies immediately responded by beginning a massive airlift that would help keep West Berlin alive. As the months wore on, it became clear to the Soviet leadership that the political and economic gains they hoped would come from the blockade were not going to happen, and that the counterblockade of Western goods needed by East Germany was proving increasingly costly.

On January 31, 1949, Soviet premier Joseph Stalin stated that the blockade could be ended if the three Allies ended the counterblockade—making no mention of West German unification or the currency issue. In order to determine if this was, indeed, a softening of the Soviet position, US secretary of state Dean Acheson asked Ambassador-at-Large Philip Jessup to continue discussions with Soviet UN representative Jacob Malik as to whether talks could commence to end the blockade. Once Jessup was sufficiently sure of the Soviet desire to negotiate an end to the crisis, he informed Acheson, who then briefed President Harry S. Truman, who wrote this memorandum to inform the necessary diplomatic personnel of the talks and the US position regarding the future of West Germany and West Berlin after the blockade.

Author Biography

When Harry S. Truman (1884–1972) became president of the United States on April 12, 1945, after Franklin D. Roosevelt died in the waning days of World War II, he had been vice president for less than three months. However, he quickly put his own stamp on American policy in the face of increasing tension between the United States and its World War II ally the Soviet Union. In 1947, he had responded with military aid to subdue Soviet-supported Communist uprisings in Greece and Turkey. However, a more direct crisis loomed when the Soviets began the blockade of Berlin in 1948. Truman responded by ordering the massive airlift that helped to supply the city throughout the blockade. While seeking to negotiate an end to the blockade, Truman did not relent in his effort to unify the American, British, and French sectors of Germany, as well as in his determination to create a military alliance between the Western European nations to withstand Soviet aggression.

Historical Document

MEMORANDUM

Mr. Malik, Soviet representative on the Security Council of the United Nations, recently approached Mr. Jessup in a private conversation with suggestions which intimated that the Soviet Government might be prepared to lift the Berlin blockade if the Western Powers would lift the counter-blockade and would agree to a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers. Mr. Malik indicated that the Soviet Government might agree that the lifting of the blockade could precede the convening of the Council of Foreign Ministers, provided a date was fixed for the latter.

In light of the extreme delicacy and importance of this matter, I instructed the Secretary of State to have this approach followed up in further private discussions between Mr. Jessup and Mr. Malik, with a view to ascertaining whether it had any real substance. Mr. Jessup was instructed in particular to obtain confirmation of Soviet readiness to lift the blockade prior to the meeting of the Ministers.

Pending such clarification I instructed the Secretary of State not to disclose information about this discussion without my authorization. The British and French Foreign Ministers were naturally kept personally informed of the progress of these talks.

The discussion to date have now indicated that there is a sufficient degree of seriousness on the Russian side to warrant our proceeding further and entering, if the Russians are willing, on the negotiation of the actual arrangements; and we are now consulting further with the British and French Foreign Ministers on this point.

In these circumstances I think it important that Secretary Royall, Mr. Voorhees, General Bradley and General Clay be acquainted with the above, for their strictly personal information, and suggest that you make the appropriate arrangements. Until further notice, I would appreciate it if you would see to it that no other persons are apprised of the matter.

I am similarly authorizing the Secretary of State to inform the political representatives of the United States at Berlin and Moscow.

Document Analysis

When President Harry S. Truman was notified by Secretary of State Dean Acheson (Marshall's successor) that the talks between US ambassador at large Philip Jessup and Soviet UN representative Jacob Malik had proven promising and had revealed that the Soviets were willing to end their blockade of West Berlin, he issued a memorandum that first instructed US diplomatic personnel on the matter and then restated the American determination to create a non-Communist German state in the aftermath.

At the start, Truman acknowledges the terms that Jessup and Malik have agreed upon: ending the Soviet blockade of West Berlin in return for the end of the Allies' counterblockade of East Germany, and a meeting of the Conference of Foreign Ministers, the group consisting of the foreign ministers from all four of the victorious World War II allies, that would presumably give the Soviets a voice in the ongoing plans for postwar Germany. Given that the Soviets were not insisting upon the cessation of Allied plans to unite the currency of their three sectors, Truman felt that there was sufficient ground to ask for the beginning of official talks to end the crisis. Though he had kept the British and French updated on these developments, he now thought it time to inform others in the American government, including Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royall, Assistant Secretary of the Army Tracy Voorhees, Army Chief of Staff Omar Bradley, and US Zone military governor Lucius Clay, as well as members of the US diplomatic corps in Berlin and Moscow. However, he does stress the importance to restricting the information to select individuals only.

Truman then discusses the need for the talks between Jessup and Malik to clarify the specific Soviet and Western blockade restrictions that will be lifted—that is, the Soviet restrictions on “communications, transportation and trade between Berlin and the Western zones of Germany, and on the other hand by the three powers on communications, transportation and trade to and from the Eastern zone of Germany.” Truman concludes by outlining what the Allies would not compromise, specifically “the continuation of the preparations for the establishment of a Western German Government,” essentially stating that the United States was not willing to compromise its position regarding the protection of non-Communist nations in Western Europe, while basically acknowledging that Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, including East Germany, was a fait accompli.

Essential Themes

At the same time that the Berlin crisis was coming to an end, other events were taking place on both sides of what British prime minister Winston Churchill had, in 1946, dubbed the Iron Curtain that would shape much of the emerging Cold War. Most importantly, as Jessup and Malik were negotiating an end to the blockade, the three Allies and the other nations of Western Europe were in negotiations that would result in the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on April 4, 1949.

On May 12, about a month after this memo, the blockade and counterblockade were lifted. By the end of 1949, the occupation of Germany and Berlin had officially ended, with the establishment of two German governments: the pro-Western German Federal Republic (or West Germany, established on May 23, 1949), with its capital in Bonn, and the pro-Soviet German Democratic Republic (or East Germany, established on October 7, 1949), of which East Berlin was the capital. In the early Cold War years that followed the Berlin blockade, hundreds of thousands of East German residents fled the Soviet-controlled country for the West. In response, in May 1952, the border between East and West Germany was closed and barbed wire fencing erected by the East Germans. However, the border within Berlin remained open until 1961, when the East Germans commenced construction of the Berlin Wall, which served to close off almost all immigration between the east and the west, and also became one of the most recognizable symbols of the Cold War.

The status of West Berlin, as it was not technically within the borders of West Germany, was ambiguous until the Berlin Constitution was adopted in August 1950. That document officially added West Berlin to West Germany, though it remained under the protection and jurisdiction of the United States, Great Britain, and France until the reunification of Germany at the end of the Cold War on October 3, 1990.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Harrington, Daniel F. Berlin on the Brink: The Blockade, the Airlift, and the Early Cold War. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2012. Print.
  • Mastny, Vojtech. The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity: The Stalin Years. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.
  • Shlaim, Avi. The United States and the Berlin Blockade, 1948–1949: A Study in Crisis Decision-Making. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983. Print.
  • Stivers, William. “The Incomplete Blockade: Soviet Zone Supply of West Berlin, 1948–49.” Diplomatic History 21.4 (1997): 569–602. Print.
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