The Cause, Conflict, Tension and War Between the United States and the Soviet Union

The blockade of Berlin was one of the first major confrontations of the Cold War and the Western victory set the stage for the rest of the conflict. The Berlin Airlift also was an incredible feat of military organization, which solidified post-war cooperation between the Allied powers. After the defeat of Germany in WWII, the three powerful allied powers, the US, Great Britain, and the USSR met at the Yalta conference to discuss how to rebuild a war-torn Europe, as well as prevent a third World War. The nations formulated a plan to split Germany into four zones, with the idea being that Germany could not be an aggressor in a WWIII when it was divided and supervised by so many different powers. A US zone, a British zone, a Russian zone, and a French zone were all established. The city of Berlin, though it was in the heart of the Russian zone, was also split between the four powers in much the same way as the rest of Germany. Complications arose, however, between the USSR and the three Western Powers within a few years of the agreement. There had been tension between the West and East since the Yalta Conference, and it came to a head when the US, France, and Britain declared they would institute a new currency in their zones, the Deutsche Mark. The three Western powers had met in London to decide how to deal with their zones, and established some principals for them.

The new Deutsche Mark, an idea of General Lucius Clay, the American military governor of Germany, would be fully associated with the Marshall Plan, tying the West German zones to the West, and allowing for West Germany to be rebuilt with money from the Marshall Plan.? The new currency would also allow easier economic coordination between the Western zones, and would put a stop to rampant inflation. The final point in the meeting was that troops would not be withdrawn from their respective zones until peace was assured.? While the Western powers helped their zones become prosperous and self-sufficient, the USSR nationalized as many factories and as much property as they could to increase Russian control of the East German economy, which resulted in poor East German economic growth. Because of this disparity of wealth between East and West German zones, when the three western powers decided to introduce the Deutsche Mark into their zones, the USSR claimed that the West was trying to highlight the failure of the East German economy, which was all part of a plan to eventually wrest East Germany from the USSR. Soon after denouncing the new currency and West German unity, Soviet troops closed all the roads and bridges which led into Berlin “for repairs.”

Days later, railroads were closed, all traffic into and out of the city was halted, and electricity was completely cut off to West Berlin. Food, coal, and American troop transports were all turned away from Berlin by armed Soviet soldiers. The date was June 24th, 1948, the beginning of the Berlin Blockade. In the Western nations as well as the USSR, Berlin was considered an extremely valuable city, because if one power controlled Berlin in its entirety, they could much more easily control all of Germany. Germany was so crucial because of its heavy industry, as well as its strategic location, between Western and Eastern Europe. Whichever side had control of Germany would be able to utilize German industry as well as have a buffer zone against the other power. Years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, documents were declassified which quoted Stalin, the head of the USSR at the time, talking to his German advisor, Ulbricht, about the Berlin Blockade, “Let’s make a joint effort – perhaps we can kick them out.’ Soon after blocking all traffic into and out of the city, eight Soviet troop divisions moved into the outskirts of Berlin. Most US generals wanted to pull out of the city, because their two divisions of American soldiers would be completely outnumbered by the Soviets, if war broke out.

Harry Truman, however, the president of the US at the time, was adamant about staying in Berlin, saying, “We are going to stay. Period.” No matter how stubborn Truman was about staying in Berlin, without supplies flowing into the city, Berliners and Allied troops would start to starve in a matter of days. It was impossible for the Western nations to get supplies to Berlin by land or water without being the aggressors in a war against the Soviets. The only passages to Berlin that the USSR had not blocked off were three 23-mile wide air corridors which had been established during the Yalta Conference. One led from the British zone to Berlin, one from the American zone, and one from the French zone. Although there was a way to supply the city through the air, providing enough food and coal for heating to almost 2,000,000 people was unheard of, and many were skeptical of the plan. The operation started extremely inefficiently, with an insufficient amount of planes that were too small. Additionally, after WWII, the US military had been severely reduced in size, so it took time to put veteran pilots back on active duty. There were two factors in particular, however, which made the success of the airlift doubtful. One was the severe weather. In winter, blizzards, as well as thick fog were commonplace and hindered the airlift.

The second factor was Soviet harassment. Though they did not wish to initiate WWIII, the Soviets did everything short of shooting down planes to try and deter the allied effort. There were 733 recorded incidences of harassment, including searchlights to blind the pilots, firing flak into their flight paths, flares and, radio interference. Between the inclement weather and Soviet harassment, 60 allied planes were destroyed. Despite overwhelming odds, eleven months into the airlift, codenamed Operation Vittles, over two million tons of food, had been delivered to Berlin. In addition to food, tons of coal, supplies, and even candy for children had to be brought in by air. However it wasn’t an immediate success, and changes had to be made throughout the operation for it to become more effective. Once retired planes and pilots could be called back into duty, only two types of planes used in WWII, B-47 and B-52 bombers, were used, which allowed the operation to become more streamlined.

In addition, the British Royal Air Force was originally operating independently, and it took time to convince the British to increase the efficiency of the airlift by putting their aircraft under the command of Major General William Tunner, an experienced American general. Tunner made it his goal to have as little turnaround time as possible between flights, and hired trucks to serve the pilots food instead of letting them go to the terminal and slow the process down. The Soviets eventually realized that with the airlift so fast and efficient, the Allies could continue it indefinitely. After 328 days, the Soviets finally ended the Berlin Blockade. 10 This was a great military and psychological victory for the Western powers. They had won the first major conflict of the Cold War.

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