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Postwar Challenges

52d. The Berlin Airlift and NATO

Berlin Airlift supply plane
Many gather to watch a C-54 loaded with supplies land at Tempelhof airfield in the U.S. sector of Berlin. Over the 11 month course of the Airlift, nearly 4000 tons of goods were delivered every day.

Berlin, Germany's wartime capital was the prickliest of all issues that separated the United States and Soviet Union during the late 1940s. The city was divided into four zones of occupation like the rest of Germany. However, the entire city lay within the Soviet zone of occupation. Once the nation of East Germany was established, the Allied sections of the capital known as West Berlin became an island of democracy and capitalism behind the Iron Curtain.

In June 1948, tensions within Berlin touched off a crisis.

The Soviets decided to seal all land routes going into West Berlin. Stalin gambled that the Western powers were not willing to risk another war to protect half of Berlin. The Allies were tired, and their populations were unlikely to support a new war. A withdrawal by the United States would eliminate this democratic enclave in the Soviet zone.

NATO 50th Anniversary Logo
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization celebrated an important milestone in 1999. For over 50 years now, NATO has existed as a symbol of the solidarity of Western nations.

Truman was faced with tough choices. Relinquishing Berlin to the Soviets would seriously undermine the new doctrine of containment. Any negotiated settlement would suggest that the USSR could engineer a crisis at any time to exact concessions. If Berlin were compromised, the whole of West Germany might question the American commitment to German democracy. To Harry Truman, there was no question. "We are going to stay, period, " he declared. Together, with Britain, the United States began moving massive amounts of food and supplies into West Berlin by the only path still open — the air.

Berlin Airlift map
Flying from occupied Germany and landing a supply plane in Berlin at the rate of one every 3 minutes, the Berlin Airlift managed to supply the city with the materials needed for survival.

Truman had thrown the gauntlet at Stalin's feet. The USSR had to now choose between war and peace. He refused to give the order to shoot down the American planes. Over the next eleven months, British and American planes flew over 4000 tons of supplies daily into West Berlin. As the American public cheered "Operation Vittles," Stalin began to look bad in the eyes of the world. He was clearly willing to use innocent civilians as pawns to quench his expansionist thirst. In May 1949, the Soviets ended the blockade. The United States and Britain had flown over 250,000-supply missions.

Stalin miscalculated when he estimated the strength of western unity. To cement the cooperation that the western allies had shown during the war and immediate postwar years, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created in April 1949. The pact operated on the basis of collective security. If any one of the member states were attacked, all would retaliate together. The original NATO included Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, and the United States.

NATO was the very sort of permanent alliance George Washington warned against in his Farewell Address, and represented the first such agreement since the Franco-American Alliance that helped secure victory in the American Revolution.

The United States formally shed its isolationist past and thrust itself forward as a determined superpower fighting its new rival.

On the Web
Naval Participation in the Berlin Airlift
This short article presented by the U.S. Navy details the role of Naval personnel and equipment during the Berlin Airlift. This page is full of the kind of information any military historian would love: makes and models of the aircraft and the Naval divisions that participated in the Airlift.
The Origins of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
The fear of Soviet expansion into Western Europe was among the reasons for the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO was also a product of the experiences of the Berlin Airlift. Visit the U.S. State Department page on the origins of NATO for a detailed American perspective complete with pictures of the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Airlift.
The U.S. State Department on NATO
The Office of the State Department Historian presents a resource on understanding NATO.
The Washington Summit
In 1999, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization celebrated its 50th anniversary with a summit in Washington, D.C., to discuss NATO's role in a rapidly changing world. Read President Clinton's speech to welcome summit delegates at this NATO webpage. Then you can explore the site for more on NATO, its history and its member nations.
Future NATO Members?
This CNN site lists several Eastern European nations looking to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Many nations in the region known as the Balkans are hoping to acquire the security benefits that come with membership. But do they meet NATO's requirements for admission? Visit here for "the buzz" on who's likely to become the newest member.
The American Experience: The Berlin Blockade
Get your quick overview of the Berlin Airlift operation from this PBS page. Not much on eye-candy, but solid info on the in's and out's of the first major conflict of the Cold War.
The Berlin Airlift: Documents, Images, History
The title says it all: documents, images, history and more await you at this top-notch Berlin Airlift site. You'll be impressed by the amount of material here — from declassified top-secret documents to political cartoons, the whole Airlift is relived. More stellar work from the folks at whistlestop.org.
Operation Vittles Gets Organized
Follow the "Page" buttons at the top of this webpage to bone up on your knowledge of the beginning of the Berlin Airlift or — as it was known to many — "Operation Vittles." The text here is from Airbridge to Berlin: The Berlin Crisis of 1948, its Origins and Aftermath, a 1988 book on the Airlift. Plenty of images here, too!
NATO Official Homepage
Get the lowdown on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from the organization itself at this, the official homepage of NATO. Get the latest news involving NATO, take a gander at some extremely helpful fact sheets, and see how NATO is dealing with the difficult crisis in Kosovo.
50th Anniversary of The North Atlantic Treaty
Happy Birthday NATO! On April 4, 1949, the North Atlantic treaty Organization was born when representatives of the U.S., Canada, and 10 European nations put pen to paper and signed the North Atlantic Treaty. View scans of the original document or read the full text of the Treaty at this National Archives and Records Administration site.
We must be prepared to pay the price of peace or assuredly we shall pay the price of war. -President Truman to Congress, 1948
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To mark the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, a new C-17 aircraft was christened the "Spirit of Berlin."
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The battle over the bomb — whether the military or civilians should have custody — has been fought since World War II, but it reached crisis proportions during the Berlin Blockade.
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The Chocolate Flyer remembered the children with "Operation Little Vittles." During the Berlin Airlift, he and his buddies dropped over 150,000 bundles of candy and gum attached to handmade mini-parachutes!
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