This month marks 65 years since the successful conclusion of the Berlin Airlift, and the anniversary has provided supporters of a tougher U.S. line on Ukraine a useful analogy. The U.S. resupplied Berlin in 1948-49, the argument runs — why can’t it offer Kiev more support today?

Probably it could; possibly it should; but first it’s important that we understand the lessons of history.

For critics of President Barack Obama’s policy in Ukraine, the analogy is obvious. The historian Thomas DiBacco reminds us that the polls of six decades ago showed a strong American willingness to sacrifice at home in order to help Berlin. These and similar arguments reflect the familiar complaint that U.S. power and influence have declined, and that the current administration’s foreign policy is indecisive and risk-adverse. Whether or not the criticism is apt, it’s important to recall that in 1948, a war-weary U.S., with its armed forces much reduced, saw the airlift as no more than a stopgap.

When the formal blockade of Berlin began in June 1948, the U.S. had largely demobilized after the war. Berlin, the wartime capital of Germany, was some 160 km within the Soviet Zone (what would become East Germany). The Allies were all represented, but the Soviets were the dominant force. Soviet troops stationed near Berlin numbered three times the size of the entire U.S. Army.

Many historians suggest that the West forced Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s hand by introducing a new currency, the Deutsche Mark, to replace the worthless Reichsmarks still in circulation. But this is almost certainly untrue. As the military historian Daniel F. Harrington points out in his comprehensive book on the airlift, U.S. intelligence had warned long before the blockade that Stalin would do all that he could to force the Allies out of Berlin. The supposed currency crisis simply provided the excuse.

Excuse or no, the Soviets, at first, seemed to have calculated accurately the West’s lack of resolve. The Allied sectors of Berlin had no more than a month’s supply of food, perhaps a bit more than that of fuel. The American public had grown weary of foreign entanglements, and demanded more spending at home. President Harry Truman’s own advisers weren’t sure that Berlin could be held.

When the blockade began, Truman worried that trying to preserve an Allied presence in the city might require Berliners to “endure great privation in the name of Western prestige.”

Moreover, he doubted that the Allies could do much more than slow Stalin down. Even as the White House announced the initial limited airlift, the president was privately telling his advisers that he wanted to hold the city “for as long as we could.”

The story of the beginning is important because today we tend to see the airlift as a smooth, steady policy. Actually, like so much in foreign policy, it grew in fits and starts. Only in retrospect does the operation appear seamless.

And yet, bumpy as the early stages were, the airlift proved a stunning success. Truman and the people around him became public cheerleaders for the project. The Allies built new airstrips to facilitate deliveries.

And over the course of almost 11 months, to the astonishment of the world, Allied aircraft made 277,804 relief flights, delivering some 2,325,809 tons of food, along with fuel and other necessities. At the same time, the U.S. arranged for the stockpiling of supplies in other cities — especially Vienna — where intelligence reports warned that the Soviets might make a move.

But the Soviets didn’t make a move. They were paralyzed. As Anne Applebaum points out in her fine history of the Cold War, the vaunted Soviet intelligence agencies were caught by surprise. They had misjudged Western resolve, predicting a brief and essentially symbolic airlift, followed by a capitulation that would leave Berlin in Soviet hands.

According to Applebaum, the Soviet analysts were “stunned” by the “superb logistics” of the airlift. The Allied aircraft deliberately flew low over the Soviet sector. She quotes a Soviet officer: “One would appear overhead, another would disappear over the horizon, and a third emerge, one after another without interruption, like a conveyor belt!”

Faced with the massed power and determination of the West, the Soviet forces were completely demoralized. Stalin, recognizing that he had miscalculated badly, threw in the towel.

The blockade was lifted. The U.S. won. As David McCullough puts it in his magisterial biography of the 33rd President: “For Truman it was a momentous victory. Firmness and patience had prevailed without resorting to force. War had been averted.”

But the victory wasn’t merely the avoidance of war; it was also the attainment of American ends. And as we consider how to deal with the continuing crisis in the Ukraine, it’s important to remember how subtle those ends actually were. On the surface, the result was that the Allies held onto their sectors of Berlin, which would otherwise have been subsumed into the Soviet empire.

But the larger point of the airlift, as Harrington explains, wasn’t holding Berlin, or even the food or the fuel. It was something more potent:

“The airlift represented a bond, a commitment to the city by outsiders that lifted residents’ hearts and deepened their resolve. It held out the hope that resistance rested on something more substantial than wishful thinking.”

And the airlift sent frightened Berliners a message: “Even those who questioned its prospects could draw inspiration from it, for it assured them that they were not alone.”

Stephen L. Carter (stephen.carter@yale.edu) is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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