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Harry Truman and the RAF Save East Berlin: Remembering the Airlift that Defied Communism

27/06/2014 14:54 BST | Updated 26/08/2014 10:59 BST

The fight for freedom in Europe did not end with the defeat of Adolf Hitler's Germany at the end of World War 2. As Winston Churchill correctly stated in his Sinews of Peace address (aka 'The Iron Curtain Speech') at Fulton, Missouri in 1946, Communism was the next great threat to democracy. And for Berliners in 1948, the tension between totalitarianism and democracy was at their doorstep, as Soviet Russia attempted to force French, British and American troops to quit the city of ruins so Communism could fill the void left by Fuhrer's fall.

In June 1948, Harry Truman was fighting for his political life. His party was split two ways - with Henry Wallace's Progressives veering to the far left, even as a bloc of Southern Democrats (aka the Dixiecrats) cried foul over Truman's bold civil rights proposals. Soon enough, the Republican Party would put forth a 'dream ticket' of Thomas Dewey, the New York Governor who had come closest of all GOP candidates to defeating FDR, and popular California Governor Earl Warren. American commentators gave Truman little chance, while Clare Boothe Luce, wife of Time proprietor Henry Luce, declared that the Man from Missouri was a "gone goose."

But Truman refused to accept that his goose was about to be cooked. He set off on a 9,000 mile train tour in the West which saw him speak to hundreds of thousands of Americans. This led to Truman's nemesis, Republican Senator Robert Taft, grumbling that Truman was "blackguarding Congress at every whistle stop." Rather than bristling at Taft's comment, Truman embraced it and now his campaign had a name - The Whistle Stop Tour.

So the President had plenty of domestic matters to occupy his mind as he concluded his Western 'non political' jaunt - which was, in fact, very political! - and returned to Washington DC. But he had to set inter-party fighting and his continued conflict with the Republican-controlled "do-nothing Congress" aside when disturbing news came through from Germany. In response to West Berlin issuing its own currency - a sign of fiscal freedom that Moscow fretted would spread into its tightly controlled zone - the Soviets had cut off road, rail and river traffic between Allied zones and the Red Army-occupied zone. This meant that the food, coal and medical supplies East Berliners needed to survive couldn't get through. It was clearly a Russian power play designed to force America and her partners to either abandon their efforts to restore democracy and a free economy in Berlin, or to quit the city altogether. If this happened, Stalin and his cronies would have a free hand and could fill the void left by Nazism with Communism, and the Cold War would've taken a decisive turn in Soviet Russia's favor.

Truman refused to yield. Taking advice from his military commanders and civilian advisors on the ground, he approved one of the biggest airborne relief campaigns in history: The Berlin Airlift. With all other transport routes cut off, American and British planes took to the skies over Berlin, delivering essentials to East Berliners and calling Stalin's bluff. Some aircraft also dropped sweets and as a result were soon dubbed "The Candy Bombers."

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There was always the risk that the Red Army would shoot Allied planes down - not least because the massive Soviet armed forces presence in Western Europe greatly outnumbered the combined British, American and French deployment. The latter had been greatly reduced following demobilization, as the Western democracies converted their wartime production machinery back to peacetime economic activities. And yet, perhaps sensing that Harry Truman could not be intimidated and, if pushed, would take any means necessary to defend the cause of freedom, the Politburo never ordered the downing of planes participating in the Berlin Airlift. On September 30, 1949, after 15 months and more than 250,000 flights that delivered 2,325,000 tons of supplies (of which British RAF servicemen delivered more than half a million tons) Truman's judgment was proved correct, as the Soviets lifted the Berlin Blockade and the great airlift ended. So no matter what Truman-bashing would-be historians like Oliver Stone claim about him, the 33rd President won a decisive victory for liberty, without the firing of a single shot. And for more on that 1948 election campaign, check back soon...