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.
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. [emphasis added]
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.