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Lesson Plan

The Cold War: From the Truman Doctrine to the Berlin Airlift

About this Video

This eight-minute video helps students understand the context of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan and tells the story of the Berlin Airlift, which shaped the beginning of the Cold War and contributed to the rise of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In explaining the geo-political struggle underlying the airlift, the video shows the desperation felt by the citizens of West Berlin in 1949 when the Soviets blockaded the Western-controlled portions of the city, cutting off supplies of food and coal. Useful for lessons introducing Cold War politics, the video also sets up a discussion about the ongoing value and function of the United States’ longstanding engagement with NATO.

This video was featured in an online class on The Cold War in partnership with The Gilder Lehrman Institute’s History School and Joe Welch, a 2018 Gilder Lehrman National History Teacher of the Year and Master Teacher.

  • How the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan affected Europe and created a showdown in Berlin in 1948.
  • How the United States responded to the crisis with the Berlin Airlift.
  • How the airlift helped to solidify American influence over Europe and contributed to the development of NATO.
  • Social Studies
  • U.S. History
  • World History
  • U.S. Foreign Policy
  • 1940s America
  • Cold War
  • Communism
  • NATO
  • Warsaw Pact
  • Joseph Stalin
  • Harry Truman
  • Truman Doctrine
  • Marshall Plan
For Teachers
Introducing the Lesson

After World War II, President Harry Truman feared that the Soviet Union would spread communism across Western Europe. In 1947, he announced the Truman Doctrine, which stated that the United States would support countries that were threatened by communist aggression. But Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin saw the Truman Doctrine, and the American aid that flowed into the continent through the Marshall Plan, as risking his hold over communist Eastern Europe. He feared that Germany, which had been disarmed and divided into U.S, British, French and Soviet zones after the war, might be reunified under full Western control.

However, Stalin saw a pressure point: the German capital of Berlin. Like Germany itself, Berlin had been divided into Western- and Eastern-controlled zones, but the city was also located deep within the Soviet-controlled sector of Germany. So, in late June of 1948, he ordered a blockade of highway, railway and canal traffic into West Berlin.

The goal was to force the Allies out of the war-torn city, stop the possible unification of an independent West Germany (and ultimately, a reunified Germany), and prevent the development of a U.S. alliance with Western Europe. But the move backfired as the United States, along with its British and French allies, began to accomplish what had at first seemed impossible: airlifting enough food and fuel to keep an estimated 2.5 million West Berliners alive.

The Allied project was soon perceived as a beacon of hope across much of Communist-controlled Eastern Europe. That reputation only grew after an American airlift pilot, Lt. Gail Halvorsen, moved by the sight of hungry German children surrounding the Berlin airbase, began dropping chocolate bars and gum in homemade parachutes as he flew in supplies.

The goodwill gesture caught on with other pilots, who became known as “candy bombers.” Supplied by U.S. candymakers, they eventually parachuted in approximately 23 tons of sweets to German children.

The airlift grew to become the largest air relief operation in history, forcing the Soviets to end the 11-month blockade on May 13, 1949. By the time the airlift wound down on Sept. 30, 1949, some 2.3 million tons of food, coal and other supplies had been delivered to the beleaguered city.

The effort preserved West Berlin, and set the stage for the establishment of West Germany. It also helped spur the rise of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a military alliance committed to protecting Western Europe that continues today.

Essential Questions
  • What was the Truman Doctrine?
  • What was unique and challenging about Berlin’s situation in 1948?
  • What were the U.S. and USSR’s competing goals in Berlin and Germany in 1948? How was each country pursuing them?
  • How did the United States respond to Stalin’s blockade of Berlin?
  • How did the Berlin Airlift affect America’s popularity in Europe, and across the world?
Lesson Procedure
  • Since 1815, there has never been a sustained invasion of the United States by a foreign army. Russia, however, has repeatedly been invaded by troops from different countries in the last two centuries. To what extent do you think this difference in national experience may have affected how Soviet and American diplomats assessed each other’s motivations and security goals in the years following World War II? How do you think most American leaders and diplomats viewed the Soviets’ goals regarding Germany and Eastern Europe? How do you think the Soviets regarded American goals regarding Germany and Eastern Europe? Do you think the two sides understood each other?
  • In the years immediately following World War II, President Truman chose to confront the Soviet Union, which included embarking on expensive programs like the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Airlift, as well as the costs associated with America’s involvement in NATO. What does this willingness to spend money on other countries reveal about the mindset of American policymakers and voters in the years after World War II? How was this mindset different from what it had been prior to the war?
  • Founded in 1949 as a mutual defense treaty, NATO obligates all member nations to come to the defense of any member nation if attacked. Though the treaty was founded in response to the Soviet Union, NATO has continued to function even now that the Soviet Union has collapsed. NATO currently includes 30 member nations. The mutual defense provision of the treaty has only been activated once: on behalf of the United States following the 9/11 attacks. Why do you think some Americans want the United States to reduce its engagement with NATO? What are the costs and benefits to America’s continued involvement with NATO? Do you think NATO is as relevant and useful today as it was when it was founded? Or is it an outmoded legacy of a different era?
Additional Resources
Check out the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s History School Origins of the Cold War class Gilder Lehrman
Transcript for "How a Cold War Airlift Saved Berlin With Food, Medicine and Chocolate " Retro Report

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.

Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.

Skill 3.A: Identify and describe a claim and/or argument in a non-text-based source.

Theme 6: America in the World (WOR).

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