Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Berlin Blockade

I can see it in their eyes: selfless people share the same look. It's calm and confidence combined and on this afternoon, it was apparent in a student sitting in the back of the class.

I prefaced the question by saying it was rhetorical--no need to answer except in their own minds and hearts.

"How many of you would jump at the chance to liberate people from oppression?" Some students demurred, some expressions took on fright, but the kid in the back didn't look away. He'd already thought it through, possibly dozens of times; maybe after he'd seen a war movie, or heard a soldier speak, or even while learning history. Maybe serving the United States was in his blood, in his family legacy.

He later made a comment and I was bold enough to ask, "You're one of the ones who would jump at the chance to defend another's freedom, right?"

There he sat with that confident calm. He didn't even need to say yes; he only needed to shake his head. He made me proud. I clearly understood who he was and he knew I knew.

It was that kind of resolve, that calm confidence that had to exist in Berlin 1948. Three years earlier the three allied powers, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, had divided up Berlin into four sectors. The lines were confirmed when Stalin, Truman and Churchill once again met up in Potsdam Germany.

Germany was divided into two sections: the East to be ruled by the Soviet Union, the West to be ruled between the English, French and the United States, but few people understand today, that the city of Berlin was deep into the territory of the Russian's East Germany. It is so misunderstood because it's sort of a crazy set-up. But the heart of Germany was Berlin, and even after being ravaged and mostly destroyed, it still represented the most industrialized city in Europe. Berlin was the prize. The city also was divided into four sectors:  Soviet Union, American, French and British, and almost from the very start there was trouble.

The only way into West Berlin was through a designated highway, a railway and a waterway. From the start three "free" air passages were also established.

Stalin's intent was to cause chaos and runaway inflation in West Berlin so they would vote to be one large communist city run by the powers established in communist East Germany. But the west was reviving, even thriving while the east stuttered.

The Americans secretly met and decided to combine together to make one West Germany; they also introduced a new currency to counter Stalin's plans. Elections were forthcoming and Stalin feared communist losses if he didn't get rid of the westerners. His great advantage was that supplies to West Berlin either came from the east or were brought by trucks, trains or boats. If he just cut off the routes, the west would be starved and frozen into submission. He doubted the west would risk another war so soon after WWII.

The United States' policy at the time was "containment." Do not allow communism to spread anymore than it already had. Churchill had already articulated and condemned "the Iron Curtain" in a speech given at Truman's alma mater, Westminster College. Soviet satellite governments had settled in countries from the Baltic seas down to the Adriatic almost tipping into Greece. Communist forces were fighting the Greek National government. Berlin became an important stake--the first conflict of the Cold War.

Stalin ordered trains to return, he blockaded roadways and waterways stopping the flow of food and coal to a city of almost 2.5 million people. The allies figured West Berlin had about 36 days of food before they would starve.

The calm and confident stepped forward with a plan, willing to risk their lives for a greater cause. Americans called upon the English, the Canadians, the Australians to help fly food to West Berlin. It began and built up to 500 flights a day. They started with 90 tons and worked up to a 1000, but it was only supplying 1/4 of West Berlin's needs.

At one point, all the flights within a narrow corridor flew dangerously close and the inevitable crashes took the lives of pilots and crew.

General William Tunner answered the call with confident calm. Just two months into the Berlin blockade, he took charge. His plan was precision and timing. Planes flew into two corridors and out a third. All planes flew three minutes apart at five levels. A pilot could see planes above and planes below.  They accomplished the impossible: 4500 tons of food and energy delivered a day in 1500 flights.

Stalin didn't believe the allies could last. He was wrong.

He didn't understand the confident calm, the selflessness,  the young men and women, who valued freedom and liberty and were willing to risk their lives to prove it.