The end of World War II left Germany divided into two rival systems. Western Germany, occupied by the United States, Britain, and France, was a free zone with a rebounding economy. Eastern Germany, controlled by Soviet Communists, was a grim, totalitarian police state. The city of Berlin, Hitler’s old capital, was divided the same way, but it lay deep inside Communist East Germany.
In 1948 Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin moved to take all of Berlin by closing roads and train tracks leading into the city’s free, western portion. Sealed off from the rest of the world, more than 2 million West Berliners faced starvation. Harry Truman realized he could not get supplies to the city by ground without starting World War III. So he decided to do it by air.
Thus began the Berlin Airlift, one of history’s greatest humanitarian efforts. Beginning in June 1948, American and British planes made more than 277,000 flights delivering food, coal, medicine, and other supplies. At times, planes landed in West Berlin as often as every four minutes. Just a few years earlier, Allied bombers had been pounding Berlin to rubble. Now U.S. cargo planes dropped candy by parachute to German children, who scrambled to retrieve it.
Nearly one hundred U.S. and British servicemen lost their lives during the operation. But after eleven months, Stalin gave in and lifted the blockade. The planes kept flying through September 30, 1949, to build emergency stockpiles. In all, they delivered some 2.3 million tons of supplies, more than a ton for every man, woman, and child. As a result of the Berlin Airlift and the heroic struggle of the West Berliners, freedom survived in its most exposed outpost.