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Berlin on the Brink

The Blockade, the Airlift, and the Early Cold War

Daniel F. Harrington

Publication Year: 2012

The Berlin blockade brought former allies to the brink of war. Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union defeated and began their occupation of Germany in 1945, and within a few years, the Soviets and their Western partners were jockeying for control of their former foe. Attempting to thwart the Allied powers' plans to create a unified West German government, the Soviets blocked rail and road access to the western sectors of Berlin in June 1948. With no other means of delivering food and supplies to the German people under their protection, the Allies organized the Berlin airlift.

In Berlin on the Brink: The Blockade, the Airlift, and the Cold War, Daniel F. Harrington examines the "Berlin question" from its origin in wartime plans for the occupation of Germany through the Paris Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in 1949. Harrington draws on previously untapped archival sources to challenge standard accounts of the postwar division of Germany, the origins of the blockade, the original purpose of the airlift, and the leadership of President Harry S. Truman. While thoroughly examining four-power diplomacy, Harrington demonstrates how the ingenuity and hard work of the people at the bottom -- pilots, mechanics, and Berliners -- were more vital to the airlift's success than decisions from the top. Harrington also explores the effects of the crisis on the 1948 presidential election and on debates about the custody and use of atomic weapons. Berlin on the Brink is a fresh, comprehensive analysis that reshapes our understanding of a critical event of cold war history.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Front cover

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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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p. vii-vii

Map 1

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p. viii-viii

Map 2

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pp. ix-x

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pp. 1-6

No place symbolizes the Cold War more than Berlin. In July 1945, the wartime Allies met on the outskirts of Adolf Hitler’s ruined capital and barely managed to paper over their differences. Three summers later, Berlin brought them to the brink of war. Crises in the late 1950s and early 1960s created a new symbol of...

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1. Opportunity

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pp. 7-26

The agreements that divided postwar Germany into zones and Berlin into sectors seem to defy common sense. Although the Soviet zone surrounded the city, the accords did not define Western transit rights across it. This omission seemed criminal during the Cold War, and many sought explanations. The most common was...

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2. Willingness

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pp. 27-46

Wartime mistakes are only half an explanation of the causes of the Berlin blockade. The other half can be attributed to Stalin’s motivations. If opportunity alone mattered, he would have imposed the blockade in 1945. Instead, he acted as a result of worsening East-West relations in general and deepening disagreements over the...

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3. "The Danger Point Is Berlin"

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pp. 47-76

The Soviets increased their pressure on Berlin in April, attempting to stop the London program. Analysts have treated this as a case study in the failure of deterrence, in that the Western powers did not dissuade the Soviets from interfering with access to Berlin.1 There was a second failure: the Soviet attempt to deter the Western powers...

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4. Prudence and Resolve

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pp. 77-98

The situation Western leaders faced on June 24 was not as clear and simple as it appears in retrospect; neither were their responses. Looking back, we see a straightforward, unambiguous Soviet challenge—an open-ended blockade—and an equally clear Western response—a decision to resist, uphold rights, and defeat the blockade...

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5. "Doomed to Failure"

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pp. 99-118

Truman’s gloom derived in large part from what his advisers were telling him about the prospects of sustaining Berlin by air. Standard accounts discount this pessimism in characterizing early Western policy decisions. They contend that the Western governments quickly decided to counter the blockade with the airlift, a move...

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6. "The Next Step"

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pp. 119-140

Tension over Berlin peaked the third week of July. Diplomatic exchanges with Moscow had failed, and the Western powers had to decide what to do next. Clay wanted to send in his armored column. Though no more inclined than Clay to abandon Berlin or the London program, leaders on both sides of the Atlantic thought his tanks...

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7. The Moscow Discussions

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pp. 141-164

The Western powers had not adopted an airlift strategy in July, and they did not adopt one in August. Although the British and Americans expanded the airlift, doubt remained that it could sustain the city once bad weather set in. The Western powers relied on negotiation, not airlift, and hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough...

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8. The September Crisis

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pp. 165-184

September brought intensified crisis, not agreement, to Berlin. Sokolovsky dashed Western hopes by exploiting the ambiguities in Stalin’s promises and destroying the military governors’ talks. Britain and France resisted American efforts to refer the dispute to the United Nations, fearing a prelude to force. They acquiesced in the...

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9. A Necessary Failure

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pp. 185-212

Tired of complicated arguments with the Soviet Union over ambiguous accords and unwritten understandings, Western officials hoped to break free from these complexities when they took the Berlin dispute to the United Nations Security Council. Americans looked forward to putting the Kremlin on trial before world opinion...

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10. "Lieber Pomm als 'Frau Komm!'"

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pp. 213-236

In addition to being a diplomatic struggle between East and West, the Berlin blockade was a political competition conducted in the streets of a proud but ruined city. Berlin’s residents were not spectators at a contest among foreign occupiers; they were participants. As Brian Robertson noted at the time, and as others have emphasized...

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11. An Unexpected Success

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pp. 237-260

If Stalin’s plans foundered on Berliners’ toughness and sense of community, his defeat had additional causes, the airlift ranking high among them. Makeshift in September, it evolved over the winter into an efficient, effective operation. While it did not deliver everything the city needed, it did provide much of the food and...

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12. Dealing Sensibly with Established Fact

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pp. 261-292

As Western leaders contemplated Berlin’s future in the winter of 1948–1949, they saw few grounds for optimism. Many worried the West had no realistic prospect of ending the crisis on favorable terms. Lewis Douglas told Walter Lippmann, “We are up a blind alley”; the West had lost the “capacity to negotiate.” After the...

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pp. 293-303

“History is lived forwards but it is written in retrospect,” C. V. Wedgwood reminds us. “We know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never wholly recapture what it was to know the beginning only.”1 There are few better examples than the causes, course, and ending of the Berlin blockade...


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pp. 305-308


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pp. 309-312


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pp. 313-382


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pp. 383-404


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pp. 405-414

E-ISBN-13: 9780813136141
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813136134

Page Count: 504
Publication Year: 2012