TEXT ON SCREEN: The Cold War Battle to Save Berlin
NEWSREEL: President Truman addresses a joint session of Congress.
NARRATION: After World War II, U.S. President Harry Truman feared the Soviet Union would spread communism across Western Europe. So, in 1947, he announced a new foreign policy to stop it.
PRESIDENT HARRY TRUMAN: It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world.
NARRATION: But Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin saw the Truman Doctrine – and the American aid that flowed into the continent through the Marshall Plan – as threatening his hold over Communist Eastern Europe. He feared that Germany – which had been divided and disarmed after the war – might be reunified under Western control.
DANIEL F. HARRINGTON (AUTHOR, BERLIN ON THE BRINK): Stalin doesn’t like that idea. It’s a threat to Soviet survival. And so he’s trying to find some way to stop that. And then right at his feet, here, is this city of three million people that’s surrounded by the Soviet zone.
NARRATION: Berlin, which had itself been divided into Soviet and Western zones, was located deep within communist territory. So the Soviets set up a blockade to cut off West Berlin from the rest of Europe.
ARCHIVAL (UNIVERSAL STUDIOS, 7-22-48):
NEWSREEL: Berlin becomes a city of darkness as all ground communication is severed and industry comes to a standstill.
MAX BRAUER (WEST GERMAN POLITICIAN): We consider this hunger blockade a crime against humanity. The Americans, the British and the French, be steadfast. You must not desert the Berlin population.
NARRATION: Although the Western powers quickly began to airlift in what supplies they could, they realized that without enough troops they wouldn’t be able to hold the city for long.
DANIEL F. HARRINGTON: The expectation was that we would have to—we would withdraw and probably with our tail between our legs, and just try and make the best of it. So the airlift sort of begins as an improvisation attempt to buy some time, an attempt to, to reassure the Berliners.
NARRATION: Gail Halvorsen was one of the American pilots who volunteered to airlift food into Berlin.
COLONEL GAIL “HAL” HALVORSEN (RETIRED): At the time I was having difficulty in a relationship with my girlfriend of long-term standing, and I decided I’d just as well be over there as over here.
NARRATION: One day, after landing in Berlin, Halvorsen started talking to a group of German kids standing at the fence line.
GAIL “HAL” HALVORSEN: I went over a little ways to meet the kids, and I was impressed with them. Ten, plus or minus two years old, they’d just say, “Hey, we don’t want to go to the Soviets. We’ll do anything. Just don’t give up on us.” Kids that age knowing the importance of free agency, the ability to govern yourself, and they said, “Just don’t worry about us. Someday we’ll have enough to eat, but if we lose our freedom, we’ll never get it back.” And I marveled at that.
NARRATION: Halvorsen wanted to give them something, but he only had two sticks of gum. So he broke them in half and told the children to keep an eye out for his plane the next go-around.
GAIL “HAL” HALVORSEN: Well, I knew what it was like to be cut off and to be out on the end of the string. And so it was just a no-brainer to drop chocolate bars to the kids in West Berlin who didn’t have any.
CHRISTEL JONGE VOS: I was elated. I saw Gail Halvorsen’s airplane wiggling the wings. And we all waved. We called him the Schakoladen Bomber. The Chocolate Bomber. And then we saw these parachutes coming out of this airplane. Of course, there were more children than parachutes and the boys were always faster. But that was not important. The important thing was, this was something hopeful happening to us. This was like, you know, in those ruins, all of a sudden, flowers came to bloom.
GAIL “HAL” HALVORSEN: The newspaper guy was there covering the kids and the airlift, and all of a sudden you look up above, and parachutes with candy bars were coming down. And he had that on the news right away, and the colonel called me. He says, “Halvorsen, what are you doing over Berlin?” Well, then I knew he knew. I says, “I’m dropping candy to the kids.” He says, “Well, keep it up, but keep me informed.”
The candy companies were super. They sent over all I could drop. And we had all our pilots tying up handkerchief parachutes. We even dropped some in East Berlin. The Soviets complained about that, so we just kept doing it in West Berlin.
NARRATION: Halvorsen’s candy drops soon became the face of an airlift that was rapidly succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
NEWSREEL: It seems laughable at first that planes can bring in enough food to keep alive a city of more than two million, but they do. As the deliveries mounted steadily until over 5,000 tons were being unloaded at Berlin’s airports, the supplies came to mean something more than food for hungry people. Aircraft were continually in flight at 3 minute intervals around the clock.
GAIL “HAL” HALVORSEN: It was a case of responding to the human need to stay alive. Twenty-three tons of chocolate -– from the beginning to the end dropped by me and my buddies.
CHRISTEL JONGE VOS: You know, candy is candy. But there’s more to that. It was the empathy, the thought that he would sit in this bunk and fabricate these parachutes. I mean, it’s just unbelievable that someone did that.
NARRATION: Halvorsen and the other pilots of the airlift had helped Truman avoid either retreat or war, and pushed Stalin into a corner.
DANIEL F. HARRINGTON: Stalin in the March of 1949 realized that he had a losing hand. He hoped to take over West Berlin. And that didn’t happen. He hoped to stop the move toward a West German government and an independent West Germany. And he lost on that. The last thing he wanted was a U.S. alliance with Western Europe, and that’s what he got with NATO. So he’s—he was losing on all grounds.
NARRATION: NATO became the defining alliance of the Cold War, and has continued to shape relationships between countries today.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: The United States is fully committed to our NATO alliance. An attack on one is an attack on all — that is our unshakeable vow.
DANIEL F. HARRINGTON: One reason why people hold NATO in high respect is because it works. It’s just a ready-made forum for the democracies to cooperate. NATO is important today because having partners, having friends in a dangerous world is a good thing.
NARRATION: In the end, by the time Stalin lifted the blockade, one of his greatest fears had become assured – American popularity had soared across the globe.
DANIEL F. HARRINGTON: American look at themselves as, you know, the saviors of the free world. But it may be that right here we really earned that in the sense that we saved this city. We did it out of sort of strategic or geopolitical considerations, but there was a strong humanitarian element to what we did. The airlift is really one of the shining hours of American history.