Enemies at the
The 1947-48 Berlin Crisis
By Chris Oakley
based on the series "Sic Semper Tyrannis Germaniae" by the same author
Whoever controls Berlin, it is said, controls Europe-- and seldom was that maxim more thoroughly tested than in the Berlin crisis of 1947-48, when the United States and Great Britain confronted their World War II ally the Soviet Union over the question of access to the Allied occupation zones in the former capital of the Third Reich. So tense was the faceoff over the city that at times it looked like the streets which had seen the final battle of World War II might well become the site for the first battle of World War III. The Berlin crisis represented not only the Western bloc’s first significant test of will in the Cold War but also the start of Joseph Stalin’s final descent into utter paranoia before his death in 1953.
Even before the June 1947 incident that triggered the Berlin standoff, the historic capital of the old German Reich(and future capital of a reunified and democratic Germany following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990) had been a subject of contention between the USSR and the Western Allies as the armies of Eisenhower and Zhukov raced across Europe in the wake of Hitler’s assassination. "He that controls Berlin controls Europe," Winston Churchill had once declared, and he might have added that the army which reached Berlin first would give its country the early advantage in the Cold War that was about to ensue in the aftermath of Nazi Germany’s final defeat.
As it turned out it would be the Anglo-American forces that got to the Reich capital first, much to the dismay of the Red Army’s top generals-- and the ire of their boss, Joseph Stalin. When occupation zones inside Germany were assigned to the Allied powers following the final German surrender, the Soviet Union was granted jurisdiction over the eastern half of the country while the United States, France, and Great Britain shared administration of the western sectors.
By a quirk of fate Berlin happened to find itself straddling the demarcation line between the American and Soviet occupation zones of the former Reich. After long and at times tense negotiations between the representatives of the Allied powers, it was decided that the same arrangements which had been worked out for Germany as a whole should be applied to its capital-- in other words, that the Soviets would be in control of Berlin’s eastern districts while the Americans, British, and French assumed collective responsibility for governing the western quarters of the city. It might not have been a perfect solution, but it seemed to work satisfactorily for both the Soviets and the West...
....until June 16th, 1947. That day a Red Army truck was stopped at the gates to the American sector of Berlin because its driver hadn’t shown the MPs on duty the proper identification and US Army personnel guarding the boundary line between the American and Soviet sectors of Berlin had standing instructions to check all such vehicles entering or leaving the Soviet zone as a precaution against attempts to insert Soviet spies into the Western sectors of Berlin. Stalin, not the most trusting of people in the first place and starting his final descent into the insanity that would mark most of the last years of his life, was furious when he learned of the incident and saw it as proof that the Western powers were trying to isolate the Soviet sector of Berlin from the rest of the Soviet occupation zone in Germany.
Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth; the Western Allies had in fact bent over backwards to ensure that all four Allied powers occupying Germany could have unrestricted access to their respective sections of the German capital. The United States in particular had stressed that such access had to be a fundamental part of any postwar agreements concerning Germany’s future. But Stalin either couldn’t or wouldn’t accept the protestations of US Secretary of State James Byrnes and British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin that the Western Allies weren’t trying to blockade the Soviet sector of Berlin-- in fact, he and his secret police chief Lavrenti Beria took it for granted that the US and British protests were merely a cover for preparations to make war on the Soviet Union.
Five days after the truck incident, US president Harry S. Truman and British prime minister Clement Attlee held a summit at the White House with their respective intelligence and defense advisors to plan their response to what was shaping up as a dangerous upsurge of Soviet military forces in Germany. Out of that summit came the blueprints for what would evolve into the largest peacetime air transport mission in American military history: Operation Evening Star, later to be dubbed by the American press as the Berlin Airlift. Neither Truman nor Attlee wanted war with the Soviet Union over Berlin, but if war should come both men were determined that their armies would be ready to fight it once the shooting started. French president Charles de Gaulle quickly pledged his support for Operation Evening Star, and within a matter of days American, British, and French military cargo planes were starting to deliver troops and equipment to western Germany to shore up Allied defenses there against possible Soviet attack.
There was also a strong humanitarian element to Operation Evening Star. Nearly four years after the Third Reich’s collapse, Berliners were still suffering food and fuel shortages; furthermore, the city’s residents were faced with the prospect of another typically cold and brutal European winter. The Western leaders, Truman in particular, saw it as a high priority to ensure that the food and fuel problems were remedied in as timely a fashion as possible. So in addition to the vast number of flights carrying troops and equipment to Germany, there were also substantial quantities of civilian relief supplies being flown to Berlin. Private charities contributed clothes and other necessities to the airlift to aid the Berliners in their postwar recovery efforts. The United States was a particularly notable source of such private contributions; in what could be seen as a forerunner of today’s high-profile celebrity philanthropic endeavors, a veritable battalion of film, radio, and music stars gathered in Hollywood on June 28th, 1947 for a gala ball to collect donations from the public in advance of the first Allied relief flight missions to Berlin.
The first Western transport aircraft touched down at Templehof Airport just after 12 noon Berlin time on July 2nd, 1947. Although most of the civilian relief supplies and military equipment and personnel delivered to western Germany during the Berlin crisis would be shipped via truck convoy and railroad during the fourteen months the crisis lasted, it was these planes that would capture the public imagination and become the iconic image of Operation Evening Star.
Moscow was not totally surprised by the vast Allied logistical endeavor. Though they’d been unable to uncover many specific details about Operation Evening Star, the Soviets were aware in general terms that the Western powers intended to use all of the ground and air transport networks at their disposal to build up their military forces inside Germany and deliver civilian aid to the provisional government of Konrad Adenauer; Stalin resolved that the Soviet Union would mount a similar logistical effort on behalf of Walter Ulbricht, the German Communist leader whom the Kremlin had set up as the head of a Marxist regime in opposition to the Western-backed Adenauer administration.
However, that was easier said than done; years of neglect of the Soviet air force during the 1930s, combined with the severe blows the Luftwaffe had inflicted on it during the German invasion of Russia in 1941, had put a serious crimp on its airlifting capabilities. Moscow was still playing catchup with the West in terms of air transport when the Berlin crisis began. And it didn’t help matters any that the Red Air Force was burdened with the same variety of Byzantine bureaucracy that plagued every other aspect of life in Communist Russia.
Going to war against the Western powers was hardly the safest possible option in any case; the United States still had a monopoly on the atomic bomb, and even Stalin wasn’t so reckless as to provoke war with his nation’s chief antagonist before the Soviet Union had its own atomic weapon ready. But though there were no shots actually fired by either side between the time the Berlin crisis started in June of 1947 and the time it ended in May of 1948, there was certainly a great deal of gamesmanship by the superpowers-- particularly in the air.
The first intrusion by Soviet planes into Western airspace over Berlin came just over a week after Operation Evening Star began. Two Yak-9 fighter planes rather impudently darted into the American sector and were immediately intercepted by US Air Force P-47s; this led to a game of chicken that ended with the Soviet planes retreating back to their own sector1. Three days after this incident, RAF Meteors caught a Soviet spy plane trying to photograph troop movements in the American sector of Berlin; this time there was a brief exchange of gunfire that led Soviet foreign minister Vycheslav Molotov to issue a statement the next day bitterly denouncing the British as warmongers. Attlee’s reply was to put forth a statement of his own pointing out that it was the Soviets who’d fired first.
At least dozens more such incidents would transpire before the commander-in-chief of the Red Air Force contingent in eastern Germany issued a directive to his fighter squadrons stationed in and near the Soviet sector of Berlin ordering them to avoid Western airspace unless or until given explicit clearance by their senior officers to enter said airspace. Even with much of the Soviet-era archives having been declassified and made available to the public by the post-Communist Russian government, it’s still not entirely clear what prompted the C-in-C to draft such a directive, but surviving Red Air Force veterans of the Berlin Crisis speculate it may have had something to do with an accident that happened in January of 1948 in which two Soviet Yak-9s collided with each other as they were preparing to cross the dividing line between the Soviet and American sectors of Berlin.
The directive may have also been influenced by the Kremlin’s knowledge that the United States would use its nuclear arsenal if there were any further intrusions by Soviet forces into the Western occupation zones of Berlin. President Truman had publicly stated, and privately made it known through his ambassador in Moscow, that his administration would not hesitate to sanction nuclear attacks against the Soviet Union or Soviet military installations in eastern Germany. B-29s armed with atomic bombs were stationed at airbases in Britain and West Germany, ready to go at a moment’s notice if Truman gave the word for them to deliver their lethal payloads to targets in the USSR or Soviet-occupied eastern Europe.
Stalin’s inner circle was under no illusions that Truman was bluffing; only a year before the Berlin Crisis began the United States had test-detonated a new type of enhanced atom bomb in the Pacific, and newsreels of the test had been shown around the world, including at Stalin’s private film screening room in the Kremlin. More and more, Stalin and Molotov were beginning to think that their only hopes for prevailing in the Berlin standoff were either (A)to somehow hasten the progress of development of the Soviet atomic bomb or (B)to start a propaganda campaign that would turn global public opinion in Moscow’s favor.
Stalin decided to pursue the propaganda option. However, his regime’s efforts to discredit Operation Evening Star proved to be a failure-- and an embarrassing failure to boot. Far from damaging Evening Star’s image abroad, the Kremlin’s propagandists inadvertently enhanced it; true to form, Stalin had most of them shot or imprisoned for their failure, convinced in a fit of his characteristic paranoia that they’d deliberately sabotaged his misinformation gambit.
The climax of the Berlin Crisis would come in the first week of May 1948, when American intelligence officers in Europe cabled Truman with a report that the Soviets were preparing to approach the Western powers with an offer to commence negotiations with them to resolve the question of how to ensure full unrestricted access by each of the four wartime Allies to their respective sectors of Berlin. When Secretary of State James Byrnes got wind of the Soviet offer, he crowed: "We’ve gone eyeball to eyeball with Uncle Joe and he’s just blinked!"
Four days later American, British, French, and Soviet diplomats met in Geneva to sign the Four-Power Pact, a treaty guaranteeing the signatories unhindered land and air access to Berlin. As part of the accord the Soviet Union and the United States both agreed to scale back their respective military contingents inside Germany; as soon as the Pact went into effect, the White House cancelled or substantially modified all combat-related aspects of Operation Evening Star. As for the food and fuel relief missions to Berlin that constituted the main humanitarian components of Evening Star, these would continue until February of 1949, when civilian transport agencies and charity groups would take over the responsibility for such activities.2
There would be many more tests of Western and US resolve in the years after the 1947-48 Berlin Crisis. One of them came just two years after the signing of the Four-Power Pact, when in late May of 1950 war broke out in the Korean Peninsula; the United States backed the South Korean government headed by Syngman Rhee, while the USSR favored the Communist regime headed by Kim Il Sung in the North; that war dragged on over three years before an armistice brokered partly with United Nations assistance went into effect in July of 1953. Today, more than half a century after the armistice was signed, North and South Korea remain divided and remain enemies.
Berlin would once again be the crux for a standoff between the superpowers in the summer of 1961, when US and NATO ground units set up a series of mobile defensive points on the western side of the dividing line between West and East Berlin. Dubbed "the Berlin Wall" by the Washington Post because US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara had described this group of mobile checkpoints as being meant to act as ‘a wall against Soviet aggression’ if the Red Army tried to seize West Berlin in a future NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict, the creation of this defensive barrier was an outrage to Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev, and as his predecessor had done in 1947 Khrushchev accused the Western powers of getting ready to start a war against the Soviet Union. This time, however, the Soviets had their own nuclear weapons with which to retaliate against the Americans if Washington detonated an atom bomb on Soviet soil. Khrushchev expected Kennedy, who’d been in office less than six months at the time, to back down in the face of his bluster and threats of nuclear retaliation and was startled when Kennedy chose instead to place both American conventional and nuclear forces in western Europe on Defcon 33 in response to the Soviet leader’s confrontational behavior. The tension lasted eleven days before Washington and Moscow finally backed off from the brink of what could have been a nuclear war-- or at least a devastating conventional war --in Europe.
The "Berlin Wall" mobile checkpoint network would remain in place until late October of 1989, when the Soviet Union began withdrawing its troops from East Germany as part of a security agreement with the United States intended to minimize the risk of war between the two superpowers in Europe. Within a year after the network was demobilized Germany would be reunified under a democratic government and the USSR would be dissolved, replaced by fifteen separate republics.
Six decades after the signing of the Four-Power Pact, access to Berlin is hardly an issue any longer; in fact, some people complain that the German capital is becoming seriously overcrowded between the surge of immigrants coming from abroad to settle in Germany and the seemingly endless flow of tourists who come to Berlin from all parts of the world to visit the city’s historic landmarks-- including the granite statue erected in 2003 to commemorate Operation Evening Star.
Still, the Berlin Crisis and the Pact are potent reminders of what a nation can accomplish on the world stage when led by a decisive head of state. Even today, sixty years after the ink dried on the Four-Power Pact, the lessons of Truman’s handling of the crisis still resonate in international affairs.
 Both Soviet pilots were subsequently court-martialed for insubordination and demoted; their flight had been in violation of orders by their superiors not to enter US airspace without prior authorization from their squadron commanders.
 At least that was the case in the western sectors of the city; in the Soviet-occupied eastern districts of Berlin relief convoys would remain under military jurisdiction until July of 1949.
 Defcon is US Defense Department shorthand for the current defense condition of the United States at any given moment; Defcon 5 denotes normal peacetime readiness, while Defcon 1 indicates a state of war is in effect. Defcon 3, the intermediary stage of this system, signals preparations for war are in progress pending further developments in a given international situation.