Sixty years ago this month, the top story in campaign year 1948 was not the big poll lead of Republican nominee Thomas Dewey or the plight of President Harry Truman. It was the Berlin airlift.
On June 23, the Soviets cut off land access to West Berlin. Gen. Lucius Clay, the military governor in Germany, called for sending convoys up the autobahns, but Allied troops were vastly outnumbered by the Red Army, and everyone feared they would overrun Western Europe unless the United States retaliated with the atomic bomb.
Air Force generals said that there was no way planes could ferry the 8 million pounds of food and coal Berlin would need every day. Secretary of State George Marshall and Joint Chiefs Chairman Omar Bradley, two of America’s most respected generals, felt Berlin was indefensible and we should withdraw. One man disagreed. President Harry Truman, in one crucial meeting after another, said, "We’re not leaving Berlin."
And we didn’t. Truman had no idea how Berlin could be supplied. But Clay persuaded him to order the Air Force to send more planes that it wanted to keep, pristine and at the ready for other missions, at home. Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg, at the prompting of Gen. Albert Wedemeyer, appointed Gen. William Tunner, who had run the airlift "over the hump" from Burma to China, to run the airlift in Germany.
Tunner imposed brute efficiencies so that a plane landed and took off every 90 seconds, and the pilots working under him devised ingenious ways to increase payloads and gain favor from Berliners by dropping handkerchiefs full of candy to the children lining the runways at Tempelhof Airport.
This tale of American expertise, ingenuity and generosity is told vividly by Andrei Cherny in his wonderfully readable book "The Candy Bombers." Today, we know how it ended: how the airlift supplied West Berlin all winter until the Soviets opened up land access in May and how Truman was re-elected to almost everyone’s surprise in November. But Truman couldn’t know those things in those first days in June and July. He only knew that we weren’t leaving Berlin.
There are lessons aplenty in this story for us today. One is that the kindness of American soldiers — the candy bombers — can be a national asset. There are many similar stories out of Iraq and Afghanistan, even if today’s media, unlike the media of 1948, are not disposed to tell them.
Another is that presidential determination to avoid defeat and retreat can prevail against the advice of experts. Just as Truman’s Pentagon opposed the airlift, so George W. Bush’s Pentagon mostly opposed the surge strategy in Iraq. In late 2006 and early 2007, the advice from experts, notably the Baker-Hamilton Commission, was the same as that Marshall and Bradley gave Truman: get out with whatever fig leaf you can. The surge, like the airlift, was said to put undue strain on the military, to degrade the readiness of men and materiel for other missions. All these claims were plausible and, in the case of the surge, dominated press coverage and were supported by the incoming leaders in Congress.
But Bush, echoing Truman, said, at least in effect, we’re not leaving Iraq. He embraced the proposals for the surge, which had been worked up by retired Gen. Jack Keane and American Enterprise Institute scholar Frederick Kagan. He found a commander, Gen. David Petraeus, who had rewritten the Army’s manual on counterinsurgency and who had the character and skill to put the surge into effect.
As was the case with Tunner, the men and women serving under him showed unexpected ingenuity and the ability to adapt to unpredicted turns of events, like the Anbar awakening, which enabled them to convert Iraq’s deadliest province into a friendly, peaceful territory. And, I am sure we will find out sooner or later, those troops also performed acts of generosity, which made their task easier and will produce goodwill that will last, as the candy bombings did, for decades to come.
The lessons are clear. Stand fast. Put the right men in charge. And never doubt the capacity of the men and women of the American military, when given the right orders, to perform far better than the experts predict.