Saturday, March 24, 2012

Gum drops keep falling on my head...

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan certainly seem to have taken a toll on America's reputation – and not just in the Middle East or even the rest of the world, but here at home, too. Even if we take the most optimistic view of our involvement there, it's getting harder to argue that we're accomplishing what we set out to do or that our presence is welcomed by the people. And I hate to even think of the terrible toll it's taking on the soldiers and their families.

That's one thing I like about reading history – we already know the outcome and I can pick and choose the events I want to read about. And a time when America built a tremendous amount of worldwide goodwill was in Europe after World War II. But it didn't happen automatically, and it definitely didn't start out well. American and British planes had bombed Berlin (and much of Germany) into rubble. And when the Russians beat us into Berlin (another recent book I read was very critical of Eisenhower for allowing that to happen) they raped, pillaged, and plundered on a horrific scale, leaving the survivors even more traumatized. According to the agreement FDR made with Stalin and Churchill, Germany and Berlin were to be divided up among the Allied powers (France was included because of what they'd endured under the Germans). And Roosevelt believed that the Germans needed to be taught a lesson and made to feel the full weight of their crimes – and even though FDR had died, Truman carried on his vision. And for three years Germany was just an occupied country, and the people lived at the mercy of their occupiers.

Gen. LeMay: "We must have a bad phone connection. It sounds like you are asking whether we have planes for carrying coal."
Gen. Clay: "Yes, that's what I said. Coal."
Gen. LeMay (after a long pause): "The Air Force can deliver anything." (pg 252)

But events became more complicated when the Soviets began overthrowing Eastern European countries. Making the situation even more tense was the fact that the divided city of Berlin was over 100 miles inside the Soviet partition of Germany, and when they closed the supply roads leading into Berlin everyone thought it was only a matter of time until the Soviets gained complete control. It was also widely feared that the world was on the cusp of WWIII and that atomic weapons would be used again. But an amazing thing happened that summer of 1948. The American commander, General Lucius D. Clay, asked for the city to be supplied by air. It was a ridiculous suggestion that 2.25 million people could be supplied by air, but he thought if they could send a message that America would not be pushed around it might at least buy them some time. But as the Soviet blockade dragged on, the Berlin Airlift kept going. Initially it was a haphazard "cowboy" operation with little organization and failing to deliver anywhere near the needed amount of food and supplies, but under Maj Gen William Tunner's command the airlift became streamlined and efficient.

"Hell... Call it '[Operation] Vittles' if you have to have a name." General Joseph Smith (pg 264)

In The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour, Andrei Cherny explains that the real change in attitudes for the Germans and Americans towards each other came when one of the pilots, Gail Halvorsen, began dropping candy attached to handkerchief parachutes to the children gathered at the end of the runway – which was against the rules. But as news of the candy drops spread among the children and other pilots it eventually became sanctioned by Gen. Tunner, and "Operation Little Vittles" became a widespread campaign to win the hearts of Berlin.

As Cherny tells this inspirational story, foremost among the many heroes are Clay and Halvorsen, but he includes lots of background information, including Truman’s unlikely election win over Gov. Dewey. Even though the Blockade extended throughout a brutally cold and foggy winter, the Airlift showed the determination of the Americans to keep Berlin and Germany from falling in the face of Communist intimidation and violence. And he shows that even though the suffering was intense that winter, it was their trials during this stand for freedom that changed both German and American hearts.

That's the kind of story I prefer to read about. And it's the kind of ending I wish we could help create in other places, as well.

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