Essay (back to top)
Andrei Cherny’s book, The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour, is one of the most recent and thorough contemporary sources on the Berlin Airlift. Using historical data, German and American military correspondence, media coverage, firsthand accounts, and many books from experts in the field, Cherny sets out to unravel the political and social intricacies surrounding the Berlin Blockade, its reception on the home front, and the importance of what would become known as “Operation Little Vittles” in molding German popular opinion. On an international scale, the Berlin Airlift ushered in a new era of political warfare. As World War II came to a close, the world, especially the victors who were to decide Germany’s future, lay war-wearied, their nations bogged down by economic hardship. Where World War II gladly waved goodbye to the atrocities of personal warfare, aerial assaults, and the toppling of the infamous Third Reich, the political tensions heightened as Allied forces, differing in ideologies, clashed over Germany’s capital, Berlin, which became a focal point of the Cold War. Although Cherny argues the Berlin Airlift made the situation in Berlin immeasurably worse and did not assist in alleviating the hunger, pestilence, and misery experienced by its approximately two million inhabitants, I argue that we should not ignore the importance of the Airlift’s “Little Vittles” mission and the positive psychological ramifications it produced. During a time where Berliners had been hungry and cold for almost three years prior to Allied occupation, the Airlift was meant not only to fly in provisions to Berlin, but also to be an inspiration to its peoples’ struggle. The Airlift would change the culture of Berlin and the attitude toward an Allied power that now dropped supplies and candy instead of bombs. A surge in morale and a positive outlook toward American democracy were encouraged by the kindliness of American pilots.
In contrast to Cherny’s argument that the Airlift was a flop, the transportation of provisions into Germany was quite successful. As evidence from the book shows, the Airlift conducted approximately 277,000 flights and 4.6 billion pounds of food and supplies (Cherny, 2008: 543). Out of all airlift efforts, none had been anywhere near as large. Not only were Berliners fed, but through the kindness of strangers and the unwavering efficiency of the Airlift during the winter of 1949, the threat of Soviet confrontation was temporarily negated. Furthermore, the outlook of the German people, who once saw democracy as a moniker, laid new hope in their American saviors and cast off the temptation of communism.
Prior to the Allied occupation of Berlin, the capital had received quite a beating. After nearly four hundred aerial bombing raids by the Americans and the British, Berlin lay pockmarked, collapsed, and its once flourishing infrastructure all but demolished under the sordid mountains of debris (Cherny, 2008: 77-78). With its apartments, government offices, private industry and factories lying in crumbled heaps along the streets of Berlin, the lack of these modern edifices, along with food crops and other means of economic stability destroyed, its inhabitants fell into poverty, its crime rose dramatically, and the severe shortage of food became an increasingly pervasive subject of conversation both in Germany and abroad. It had been decided upon the partitioning among the Allied forces that each power would feed those in its zone of occupation and in its sector of Berlin. Because Berlin lay in the heart of the Soviet zone, the Western allies transported all food and supplies into the city over long distance (Cherny, 2008: 126-128). Each day tens of millions of pounds of foodstuffs, shoes, clothes, newsprint, and coal barely supplied the population of over two million people (Cherny, 2008: 127). Even with rationing of foodstuffs to Berliners, the death rate in late 1947 was three times as high as the birth rate (Cherny, 2008: 127). With their fate temporarily on hold, Berliners found themselves at the hands of an occupier who had wrought havoc on their city, defeated them in battle, and was now the sole way to rebuild.
With the partitioning of Germany into provisional zones, a buildup of tensions between East and West began to take hold of Europe. With the Soviet Union controlling the largest region of eastern Europe and the relative mobility of its army, Moscow began to clash with the policies and democratic institutions the West was attempting to assert in Berlin. With Berlin lying in the center of the Soviet zone, the four Allies would inevitably have to rub against each other, ideologies and all. Berlin would now become the platform for an East versus West showdown. The tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, who had been allies during WWII, now faced off as bitter enemies. Cherny best sums up the conflict when he writes:
A new global conflict between two very different ideologies had arisen, and now was focused on Germany’s capital, a once-great city, toppled by its own evil and hubris, where the Soviets and the Americans had trapped themselves together like scorpions in a bottle. Now the decisive hour had finally come. (Cherny, 2008: 241)
In June 1948, the Soviets, in a decision to take Berlin entirely, halted all travel in and out of the western sectors of Berlin. The Berlin Blockade forced the United States and its Western allies to formulate a plan of action to aid Berliners, stem the threat of socialist overtake, and more importantly, raised the question on how to avoid the possibility of nuclear war.
According to Cherny’s sources, before the blockade Berlin had been bringing in 31 million pounds of supplies a day. Even with the support of the American and British planes, only an estimated half a million pounds could be delivered each day (Cherny, 2008: 252). Indeed, the Airlift could not bring in nearly enough supplies. Cherny asserts that in the early reactions to the Berlin Blockade, the so-called Berlin Airlift never really began. He argues that instead, it was a “ragtag transportation” of insufficient materials in planes ill-equipped to take to the air flown by pilots hardly qualified to fly (Cherny, 2008: 262).
Although one could look to several airlifts in the history of Europe as comparisons to the Berlin Airlift, it is fair to argue the Berlin Airlift was, in fact, successful. With the only other recorded success of an airlift being the American airlift to China during World War II, few other attempts even came close (Cherny, 2008: 323-341). Where the American airlift to China only sought to supply 60,000 military servicemen in need of food and ammunition, the Berlin Airlift supplied two million civilians with food, clothing, fuel, and numerous different consumer goods (Cherney, 2008: 323). However, the two were different undertakings altogether. As previous airlift attempts failed, the Berlin Airlift not only supplied the minimum level of tonnage for daily survival in Berlin, but also symbolically transformed attitudes partially through the distribution of chocolate parachuted from planes landing in Tempelhof airport.
The book suggests the Airlift was not necessarily a direct solution, but was successful in buying time for peace talks between the United States and the Soviet Union as well as molding new viewpoints towards American democracy. Where past airlifts had been merely to sustain a given population, the Berlin Airlift’s purpose was twofold. It did supply Berliners with sufficient provisions, but was also a political power play. As the Cold War became a competition for allegiance, the need to rekindle the element of human compassion for Germany was critical. The distrust between occupiers and occupied was mutual: Germans were weary of their enemies-turned-saviors, and likewise, Allied servicemen had seen Germany as the central figure in two world wars.
The turning point in German attitude came as a result of a highly regimented flight pattern of planes in and out of West Berlin’s airport in addition to the mere human kindness shown in the distribution of hundreds of thousands of pounds of candy to Berlin’s children. The psychic boost of parachuting candy over Berlin drew attention toward the planes landing in the pockmarked runway of Tempelhof airport and the magical candy surprises that rained on rooftops, front lawns, and in the rubble of Berlin’s streets (Cherny, 2008: 343). As 1948 came to a close and with no end to the Blockade in sight, the American Air Force perfected the mechanics of its Airlift program and in addition, had officially adopted the dropping of candy parachutes to Berlin’s children, an operation that became known as “Little Vittles.” As an excerpt from Cherny’s book reflects:
These children had been Hitler’s last hope, inculcated since birth with a hatred for Americans and their wickedly egalitarian democracy. When the war had ended, they had been so scarred by the American aerial attacks that the sight of a lit match sent them into convulsions of terror. An American in uniform--even a Salvation Army uniform--caused them to burst into tears. They had been the children who played the game of “rape.” Now social workers observed that a new game was dominant amid the craters and rubble-strewn streets of Berlin. The city’s children were playing the game of “Airlift.” (Cherny, 2008: 358)
It is hard to ignore the dramatic results the Berlin Airlift produced. As Berlin suffered through one of its harshest winters, the feeling of crisis passed (Cherny, 2008: 508-510). With the Airlift surviving the winter and morale relatively high, the Soviet threat of war fell away. The Soviet technique of instilling fear no longer had validity. Stalin’s strategy to choke out the Western forces had backfired. As the book suggests, many western European nations once threatened by impending Soviet expansion banded together and were seeking defense treaties with the United States (Cherny, 2008: 510). The Airlift had provided evidence that the United States was rejecting its previous isolationist approach to foreign policy and was making headway not only as a strong world leader, but as a humane one as well. The blockade was lifted in May of 1949 and the Airlift ended shortly after. The skies emptied of cargo planes over a newly united democratic West German state.The Candy Bombers is a plucky historical narrative full of definitive and groundbreaking insight. Although he argues that the Airlift was successful in warranting a positive political response in Berlin, his assertion that the material productivity of the Airlift was the source for a change of heart in Berlin and not, in the least, a direct result of American pilots’ generosity, is unwarranted. I argue that it was the convergence of these two that generated positive German feedback toward democracy and not, in Cherny’s opinion, one rather than the other. Cherny addresses a wide array of audiences. Regardless of previous background in the subject, his book is geared to read clearly and easily for any level of curious historian. Although he is an editor of the idea journal Democracy and a former speechwriter for the White House, he has also authored one other book and several small columns on history, culture, and politics. Cherny may not necessarily be a bona fide historian, but his historical and political insights contribute to the world of academia.
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