Barack Obama had ample reason to recall the Berlin Airlift of 1948 during his dramatic speech in the German capital last week. The airlift was an early and critical success for the West in the Cold War, with clear relevance to our own time, the war in Iraq, and the free world's conflict with radical Islam. But having reached back 60 years to that pivotal hour of American leadership, Obama proceeded to draw from it exactly the wrong lessons.
The Soviet Union had blockaded western Berlin on June 24, 1948, choking off access to the city by land and water and threatening 2.5 million people with starvation. Moscow was determined to force the United States and its allies out of Berlin. To capitulate to Soviet pressure, as Obama rightly noted, "would have allowed Communism to march across Europe." Yet many in the West advocated retreat, fearing that the only way to keep the city open was to use the atomic bomb - and launch World War III.
For President Truman, retreat was unthinkable. "We stay in Berlin, period," he decreed. Overriding the doubts of senior advisers, including Secretary of State George C. Marshall and General Omar Bradley, the Army Chief of Staff, Truman ordered the Armed Forces to begin supplying Berlin by air.
Military planners initially thought that with a "very big operation," they might be able to get 700 tons of food to Berlin. Within weeks, the Air Force was flying in twice that amount every day, as well as supplies of coal.
"Pilots and crew were making heroic efforts," David McCullough recorded in his sweeping biography of Truman. "At times planes were landing as often as every four minutes - British Yorks and Dakotas, America C-47s and the newer, much larger, four-engine C-54s . . . Ground crews worked round the clock. "We were proud of our Air Force during the war. We're prouder of it today," said The New York Times.
Yet the pressure to abandon Berlin persisted. The CIA argued that the airlift had worsened matters by "making Berlin a major test of US-Soviet strength" and affirming "direct US responsibility" for West Berlin. The airlift was bound to fail, the intelligence analysts warned. Truman didn't waver. "We'll stay in Berlin - come what may," he wrote in his diary on July 19. "I don't pass the buck, nor do I alibi out of any decision I make."
It would take nearly a year and more than 277,000 flights. But in the end it was the Soviets who backed down. On May 12, 1949, the blockade ended - a triumph of American prowess and perseverance, and a momentous vindication for Truman.
But not once in his Berlin speech did Obama acknowledge Truman's fortitude, or even mention his name. Nor did he mention the US Air Force, or the 31 American pilots who died during the airlift.
Indeed, Obama seemed to go out of his way not to say plainly that what saved Berlin in that dark time was America's military might. Save for a solitary reference to "the first American plane," he never described one of the greatest American operations of the postwar period as an American operation at all. He spoke only of "the airlift," "the planes," "those pilots." Perhaps their American identity wasn't something he cared to stress amid all his "people of the world" salutations and talk of "global citizenship."
"People of the world," Obama declaimed, "look at Berlin, where a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one." But the world didn't stand as one during the Cold War; it was riven by an Iron Curtain. For more than four decades, America and the West confronted an implacable enemy on the other side of that divide. What finally defeated that enemy and ended the Cold War was not harmony and goodwill, but American strength and resolve.
Obama's speech was a paean to international cooperation. "Now is the time to join together," he said. "It was this spirit that led airlift planes to appear in the sky above our heads." No - it was a Democratic president named Truman, who had the audacity to order an airlift when others counseled retreat, and the grit to see it through when others were ready to withdraw.
Sixty years later, it is a very different kind of Democrat who is running for president. Obama may have wowed 'em in Berlin, but he's no Harry Truman.