Berlin Blockade and Airlift
On 24 June 1948, the Soviet Union cut off rail, highway, and water access routes from the western zones of Germany into Berlin. In reaction, the three Western occupying powers—the United States, Great Britain, and France—blocked supplies going into the eastern zone and instituted an airlift of food and coal for the western sectors of the city. This dramatic Cold War confrontation raised international fears of a third world war.
The Soviets acted in Berlin in response to the London decisions of June 1948, in which six Western nations, including the United States, agreed to the formation of a separate West German government. With a West German constituent assembly scheduled for the fall, the Western powers on 20 June introduced a new currency for the western zones and on 23 June made that currency legal tender in Berlin. The Soviet military governor Vassily Sokolovsky first explained the blocking of Berlin's access routes as arising from the need to protect the eastern zone's currency, but he quickly emphasized the impending division of the country.
At the February 1945 Yalta Conference, the World War II Allies had agreed to divide Germany into four zones of occupation and to administer them through a quadripartite Allied Control Council. Although Berlin was inside the eastern zone, the city was similarly divided into four occupation sectors. In July 1945, when the Western armies entered Berlin, Deputy Military Governor Lucius D. Clay had been instructed to negotiate a permanent agreement over access routes, but he had neglected to do so.
In halting traffic into West Berlin, the Soviets maintained that Western rights in the city were predicated on the promise of German unity. During a series of negotiations in Moscow and at the United Nations, the Soviets' most consistent demand was that the Western powers halt the formation of a separate West German government. Buoyed by the surprising success of the airlift, the Americans and British refused. By 25 April 1949, the West German constituent assembly had drafted a new Basic Law, thereby defeating Soviet aims. An agreement was made to end the blockade and counterblockade by 12 May 1949. The massive airlift of supplies, operated by Great Britain and the United States, continued until 30 September 1949, delivering two million tons of goods through 250,000 flights and winning popular support for a separate West German government.
With the conclusion of the Berlin crisis, the division of Germany and of Europe remained frozen for four decades. The confrontation convinced President Harry S. Truman of the importance of a possessing a credible nuclear arsenal and the need for a military alliance with Western Europe. Accordingly, the birth of West Germany coincided with the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Avi Shlaim, The United States and the Berlin Blockade: A Study in Crisis Decision-Making, 1983.
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William Stivers, The Incomplete Blockade: Soviet Supply of West Berlin, Diplomatic History 21 (Fall 1997): 569–602.
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