A Tribute to the Berlin Airlift

by Secretary of State Warren Christopher

US Department of State Dispatch, Sept 12, 1994

It is a great honor to be here with you today.  We have come to pay tribute to the achievement of the Berlin Airlift, to share our memories of that great event, and to rededicate ourselves to its spirit. 

The story of the airlift is familiar to us all.  In the spring of 1948, Stalin began his campaign to force the Allied powers from Berlin.  Hoping to bring the city under communist control, he tried to break the spirit of its people.  On June 24, 1948, he imposed a blockade on Berlin.What Stalin failed to judge, however, was the will of the Berliners to defy intimidation, and the resolve of the Allied forces to see them through. 

On June 25, American General Lucius Clay invited Ernst Reuter, Mayor of Berlin, to his office.  To the astonishment of those present, Clay proposed to feed the city by air.  Mayor Reuterıs response was unequivocal: Berlin was prepared to sacrifice for freedom.  These two courageous leaders understood the stakes at hand.  But elsewhere, opinion was divided.  In Washington, top advisers counseled caution and restraint.  The only transport planes the Air Force had in Europe were twin-engine C-47s; the planes were known as 'Gooney Birds', and few believed the flock could do the job. 

But President Truman, like Reuter and Clay, understood the importance of action.  He believed the airlift could be done, because he understood that it had to be done.  He directed that the airlift be run on a fullscale basis.  Within days, new planes were arriving from Alaska, Hawaii, and the Caribbean to join in the epic endeavor.  With the help of the Royal Air Force, hundreds of planes were in the air around the clock.  Their omnipresent roar became a part of daily life, a reminder that Berlin was not alone.  Thousands of workers -- Allied and German --supported the airlift effort on the ground.  When two airports proved inadequate, Berliners of all walks of life came forward to speed construction of a third.  Laborers, scientists, teachers, and housewives together built Tegel Airport two months ahead of schedule. 

The technical achievement of the airlift was stupendous.  On April 16, 1949, record-setting 'Easter Parade' supplied enough coal to fill 600 railroadcars.  Over the course of its duration, the airlift delivered more than 2 million tons of supplies to Berlin. 

But equally impressive in the eyes of the world was the courage and resilience of Berliners--braving hunger, cold, and darkness so that freedom would prevail.  And through this shared adversity and triumph, the Berlin Airlift inspired the process of reconciliation between the German and American peoples.  The partnership of the Allies and the citizens of Berlin was visible not only at the airfields, but in countless tiny gestures of solidarity.  Despite their deprivation, Berliners gave the fliers the best that they had: books, cigarette lighters, flowers, and prayers.  And as this solemn monument attests, the fliers gave their best to the Berliners in return. 

In early 1952, a Berlin newspaper asked its readers, 'What do you remember about the airlift?'  The hundreds of responses told a rich and poignant story.  Many recalled the splendor of the aircraft, the thunderous noise of the engines, the 'symphony of freedom' in the sky.  Others described the planes as 'talking' to the people on the ground, as if the roaring engines 'spoke' of hope and reassurance.  Children remembered tiny parachutes that floated to earth with candy-bar cargoes -- the gift of an Air Force Lieutenant.  And many referred to the new sense of unity they shared with the Allied nations.  One 15-year old girl wrote of the casualties of the airlift.  'Their sacrifice', she said, 'reminds us that in this world there are higher things than national egoism -- namely, humanity and the existence of all peoples in human dignity.'

Thanking General Clay at the end of the blockade, Mayor Reuter acknowledged this common cause.  'You have come to us no longer as enemies but as friends,' he said.  'The total experience of these months has bound us closer to your peoples, and your peoples closer to us.  The monument that we build to them will be modest, but it will be a monument of peace and not a glorification of achievements in war.'

Americans remember the airlift as the bridge that joined us as kindred nations, prepared to stand firm in defiance of tyranny, prepared to endure hardship in defense of liberty.  This legacy outlasted the airlift, the division of Germany and, ultimately, the Cold War itself.  Love of freedom and basic human dignity are not national traits, but are common to all humanity.  We must sustain the determined spirit of the airlift as we work to overcome old divisions in Europe, bringing former adversaries into the trans-Atlantic community of shared interests and values. 

We have made clear progress, but there is still much ahead to accomplish.  Our partnership, born on the wings of the airlift, will not let us fail. 

Source: US Department of State Dispatch, Sept 12, 1994 v5 n37 p601.