The Berlin Airlift’s Lesson for Today’s Humanitarian Crises

A group of German children stand atop building rubble, cheering a United States cargo airplane as it flies over a western section of Berlin in 1948. Credit - Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Humanitarian assistance has become a political football. It took months of bitter debate before Congress passed a critical $95 billion package for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan in late April, providing humanitarian relief alongside military aid.

The struggle to build support for humanitarian aid comes as May marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Berlin Blockade, a triumph for the West and one of the defining moments of the Cold War. For 323 days after the Soviets blockaded West Berlin to try to drive the West out — from June 24, 1948, to May 12, 1949 — more than 200,000 American and British flights delivered approximately 2.3 million tons of food, fuel, and other materials to the western part of Berlin. Anticipating future Soviet aggression, flights continued throughout the summer and built a reserve of supplies in the city. The Airlift was one of the most successful humanitarian missions ever conducted by the U.S. military.

The dichotomy between the success of the Berlin Airlift and the battle over humanitarian aid in 2024 has emerged because politicians today have not learned the crucial lesson of what made the Airlift a success: the government successfully sold the American people on providing that assistance. In early 1948, few Americans saw the merits of giving food to Berliners. By 1949, however, they overwhelmingly supported “Operation Vittles,” thanks largely to a public relations campaign waged by the U.S. Air Force. Average Americans came to see aid, flown in on C-54s or individually donated, as an invaluable instrument of U.S. foreign policy.

The lack of such efforts today is a crucial mistake — one that makes it harder to advance American interests around the globe.

In the summer of 1945, the victorious Allies met in Potsdam to formalize plans for the occupation of Germany. Representatives from the U.S., USSR, and Great Britain agreed on the boundaries of four zones of occupation, with the U.S. and Britain ceding territory for a French Zone. The German capital, Berlin, located deep within the Soviet Zone, was similarly divided into four. While each Zone ran independently, decisions affecting the whole of Germany were made in the Allied Control Council.

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Tensions among the Allies, especially between the Soviet Union and the U.S., were evident from the start. In 1947, Great Britain and the U.S. combined their zones for stability purposes. That same year, President Truman announced an unprecedented aid package for Greece and Turkey, and Secretary of State George Marshall introduced the European Recovery Program — what became known as the Marshall Plan. These efforts served a two-pronged purpose: curb the spread of communism in Europe and combat a massive humanitarian crisis spawned by the war. The unprecedented military and economic assistance signaled the end of American isolationism.

With the focus on restoring the European economy, Anglo-American occupation authorities proposed a new currency: the Deutsche Mark. Irritated, the Soviets walked out of the Allied Control Council and announced plans for their own currency. Three days after the Deutsche Mark was introduced, the Soviets cut all land and water traffic into the western sectors of Berlin.

The blockade was intended as a show of force, hoping to force a Western withdrawal from the city, but Allied leadership did not waver. General Lucius D. Clay, Military Governor of the U.S. Zone, was not going to “be bluffed.” Knowing that a retreat would damage U.S. prestige across Europe at a crucial moment, Clay worked with General Curtis LeMay, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, to supply the city by air.

The mission was never meant to last more than a few weeks. It was an emergency measure devised to buy time for diplomacy; its longevity and, ultimately, its triumph surprised everyone.

Officials quickly recognized that the Airlift’s success depended on public support. Would Americans accept a humanitarian mission that benefited a recent enemy? Was this a good use of American resources? Did the safety and security of Berliners warrant escalation with the Soviet Union? Public skepticism was bad for morale and threatened the legitimacy of the operation. Without civilian support, the U.S. could not guarantee the funding and supplies necessary to keep West Berlin afloat.

Mobilizing a war-weary U.S. home front, however, was no easy task, and the government employed numerous tactics, if not gimmicks, to assuage Americans’ concerns, instill national pride, and secure the requisite support. In the summer of 1948, Air Force pilot Gail Halvorsen secretly — and without authorization — began dropping handkerchief parachutes full of candy over Berlin. The idea came to him after chatting with children gathered near the runway to watch the planes.

Rather than reprimand the pilot, who became known as the “Candy Bomber,” the Air Force sent him stateside on a publicity tour.

The pilot visited several radio programs and even appeared on We the People, an early television talk show. During interviews, he explained the broad aims of the Airlift and Operation Little Vittles — his now official program dropping chocolates and candy to the children of Berlin. When Halvorsen returned to Germany, he discovered his bunk overflowing with donated candy and handkerchiefs.

Airlift propaganda became inescapable throughout the U.S. in 1948 and 1949. The city of Chicopee, Mass., volunteered to receive and process donations for German children, creating an assembly line manned by American schoolchildren. Hollywood actors, like child star Margaret O’Brien, participated in food and gift drives publicized in the news media.

The Air Force, only established a year prior, even produced an Oscar-nominated documentary short on the operation. The film provided technical details alongside human interest stories highlighting German engagement with the mission. The USAF also supported a 20th Century Fox production starring Montgomery Clift. A love story set during the blockade, The Big Lift (1950) was filmed on location in Berlin and included military personnel playing themselves.

Following Halvorsen’s lead, the humanitarian organization CARE dropped balloon Shmoos — the popular creature from Al Capp’s Lil Abner comic strip — over Berlin. The balloons included notes that offered 10 pounds of lard for every Shmoo returned to a CARE office. Responding to requests from ‘Lift pilots, Capp illustrated a special panel that depicted Shmoos reporting for duty, boarding aircraft bound for Berlin.

While the launch of the blockade had captured international headlines, the end came somewhat unceremoniously. The Soviet Union watched as the East’s economy struggled to adapt to a counterblockade, prohibiting the delivery of coal and other fuel from the West. Embarrassed by the Airlift’s success, the Soviets agreed to lift the blockade on May 11, 1949, and, at one minute past midnight on May 12, the first truck convoys arrived in the city.

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The success of the Airlift was easily quantifiable. During the blockade, rations in West Berlin rose to 2,000 calories, higher than anywhere else in postwar Germany. Diseases like rickets and typhoid that traditionally prey on the malnourished dropped. At its height, one plane arrived every 30 seconds. The Airlift proved that the military could transition from a fighting force to a humanitarian force, quickly, effectively, and with public support. In other words, U.S. military action was humanized. While the Soviets attempted to starve democracy out of the city, the West kept Berliners warm and well-fed. Americans’ unwavering commitment neutralized the threat of the blockade.

This contrast proved politically valuable for the U.S., enabling American propaganda to highlight freedom and friendship as Allied objectives. The symbolism of a victorious superpower offering succor to the former enemy created an opportunity to integrate Germany, or at least the western zones, into an American-led world order.

Seventy-five years later, however, images of floating piers and airdrops engender a far different response from the rousing support Americans expressed during the Berlin Blockade. Popular ambivalence has translated into only providing a fraction of the aid required to meet need everywhere from Ukraine to Gaza. Meanwhile, humanitarian crises across the globe are growing more acute, driven by political conflict and climate change.

Intervention offers an opportunity to create an image of the U.S. as a benevolent superpower at a moment when global competition with China is growing. Yet, if the efforts are insufficient, the U.S. risks — as General Clay feared in 1948 — irreparable damage to its global reputation.

Motivated by both moral and strategic concerns, the U.S. remains uniquely positioned to confront these challenges in human security. But that requires buy-in from the American public. The lesson of the Berlin Airlift is that the government can gain such support and reap huge policy benefits — if it effectively promotes humanitarian aid abroad to its own people. It’s a win-win.

Kaete O’Connell is assistant director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy and lecturer in global affairs at Yale University. A historian by training, she is currently writing a book on food policy in U.S.-occupied Germany.

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