Call it the first battle of the Cold War.
For much of 1948, the world worried that another global conflict, “World War III,” was about to break out. Over the preceding years since the end of World War II, the Soviets under Stalin had clenched an iron fist around the throats of the nations of East and Central Europe, quashing democratic movements and establishing Communist governments in Poland, Rumania, Hungary and finally Czechoslovakia, where Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk was murdered, an event that shocked and frightened the West. Stalinist Communist parties and unions threatened the weak democratic governments of Italy and France, while Communists were in open revolt in Greece, leaving people to wonder if these nations would be next.
And then Stalin blockaded Berlin.
That’s the situation in Andrei Cherny’s “The Candy Bombers: the untold story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour,” which tells the story of this increasingly and undeservedly forgotten struggle. He takes the tale from just before Germany’s surrender — the meeting of the Soviet and American armies at the Elbe and the surreal, horrific Battle for Berlin– to the moment in 1949 when Stalin lifted the blockade and the West realized it had won. The cast of characters is large, ranging from American presidents and Soviet generals to children surviving in the rubble of Berlin, and sometimes their treatment borders on cursory (often necessary in a single volume on a huge topic), but, taken as a whole, they come together in a fascinating story. That cast includes people such as:
- Harry Truman, a hack machine politician who suddenly became president, faced with having to thread a course between appeasement and all-out atomic war (and win an election he was expected to lose);
- Lucius Clay, an American general who had never fired a shot in battle, but who became Military Governor of Germany and found himself surrounded in Berlin;
- James Forrestal, the brilliant, eccentric Secretary of Defense who clearly saw the Soviet threat and was desperate to get American ready for war — and who went mad in the process;
- Ernst Reuter, a Social Democrat who rallied the people of Berlin to resist the Soviets and take a stand for democracy;
- William Tunner, an Air Force general and logistics genius who made the Airlift work;
- …and Gail Halvorsen, the original “candy bomber” and an “average Joe” from Utah who became a hero to the Germans and a celebrity back home.
As Cherny tells it, the story of the Berlin Airlift is one of transformations and evolutions: of individual Americans, who came to occupied Germany hating Germans and wanting to punish them hard for starting two devastating wars, but who then came to sympathize with and even like Germans, risking war to save those they could from Stalin; of the Germans, nearly stripped of civilization itself by the conquest and its aftermath (in the first years after the war, Berlin women would great each other not with “Hello,” but with “How many?”, as in “how many times have you been raped by Russians?”), who went from a shell-shocked passive hatred of Americans to shock at our generosity to eventual love and admiration, as well as passionate defenders of democracy; and of the United States as a whole, from a desperate desire after Depression and war to just enjoy life and tell the world to go away, to recognizing that a new, different war had begun and only America could lead it.
Cherny writes with a fluid, easy style that never drags. While engaging his audience and painting dramatic portraits of people and events, he never over-simplifies or resorts to cliche. One particularly effective device, one that humanizes for the reader an otherwise vast story, is the interspersing of letters from children and adults to Lt. Halvorsen, thanking him for what he was doing and often asking if he could drop candy over their houses. (One girl gave him very specific instructions about how to find her house, but Halvorsen never could. He finally mailed her the candy.) Those letters, and Halvorsen’s own back home to his girlfriend, Alta, remind the reader that the great events of history are always inhabited by individual people with names, families, hopes, and fears.
If I have but one criticism, it’s that very little is told from the Soviet view. While one meets and even comes to like individual Soviets (and even sympathize with some clearly uncomfortable with what Moscow had ordered them to do), the motives behind Stalin’s actions can only be theorized from outside, observing events as they happened. What the decision process of the USSR leadership was, what options they considered and what risks they were willing to take, are as obscure as anything hidden behind the Kremlin’s walls. Of course, the nearly non-existent access to Soviet archives (except for a brief period in the 1990s), makes this lack almost inevitable and no real fault of the author’s. Still, one wishes there was a way to “see their side of it,” even if that side is one of utter evil.
Summary: If you like narrative history that relates great events through the people who lived it, and if you yearn to read a true story of American heroics in which the good guys face huge odds and win big, you’ll enjoy The Candy Bombers.
Afterward: While Cherny’s book focuses rightfully on the American effort to supply Berlin, the British and French also played important roles, which the author notes. But it is also fair to say that, without American leadership and will behind the Airlift, it would never even have taken place, let alone succeeded. Berlin would have fallen, to the incalculable detriment of Western Europe. The Berlin Airlift truly was one of our finest hours.
(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)