Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

July 27, 2017 – 02:58 pm

C-54landingattemplehofBeginning in April 1948, the USSR blocked Western Allies’ access to Berlin as a means of protesting the introduction of the Deutschmark in West Berlin. Following WWII, Berlin had been divided amongst the Allied nations, with France, Great Britain, and the United States taking claim of the West, and the Soviets controlling the East. However, the erstwhile Allies now disputed the future of the city: specifically, whether a capitalist democracy or a Communist society should be instituted. The introduction of the Deutschmark served as a symbol for these differing core beliefs, and the Soviets threatened to restrict access to Berlin until the Western Allies revoked the currency.

In response, the Western Allies began an airlift on June 26, 1948, flying in supplies with military aircraft to support the entire population of two and a half million Berliners. The blockade lasted much longer than anyone had initially expected; it was not until over a year later, when it was clear that the airlift was a success, that the Soviets eventually backed down. More supplies had been flown into Berlin than had previously been supplied by rail, proving the American’s commitment to Berlin in this first crisis of the Cold War.

Thomas J. Dunnigan served as a political officer in Berlin during the blockade, and recounted his experiences there in an interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy in September 1990. Dunnigan interviewed Karl F. Mautner in May 1993, who remembered the demonstration held to protest the blockade, and Dr. William Lloyd Stearman, interviewed by Kennedy in April 1992, describes how the blockade could have been broken with ground forces rather than an airlift.

Berlin airliftRead about the construction of the Berlin Wall. Go here to read about JFK’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech and the tense negotiations behind the 1961 Berlin Crisis. You can read other Moments on the Cold War.

“The noose was tightening”

DUNNIGAN: The blockade started on the 24th of June 1948, and lasted until the 12th of May ’49…. We maintained, outwardly, that Berlin was a four-power city and that we, as a member of the occupying powers, could go anywhere we wanted within the city. We could not go outside the city into the Soviet zone except on one road that linked us to the West. That was the autobahn that went [through Helmstedt]…. We could go by train either to Frankfurt or to Bremerhaven, but we could not go outside the city in any other direction.

But we deliberately went into the Soviet sector of Berlin, as it was called, frequently. In fact, they had the best opera there. And we would drive around, just to be seen, in American cars and so forth. We didn’t want the Russians to say they had sort of shut us out of there, or frightened us out. And in those days you could take the subway or the elevated train across. There was no problem, just right in the city.


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