When the Soviets blockaded Berlin in 1948, the Western allies initiated an airlift to relieve the besieged city. A German girl expresses her gratitude to an American pilot with flowers.
Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
In the spring of 1948 Stalin provoked the first serious international crisis of the Cold War by announcing a blockade of West Berlin. When U.S. aircraft began flying in supplies to the citizens of West Berlin, Truman gave a clear signal that the United States had no intention of withdrawing from European affairs. In the midst of the Berlin crisis European leaders began calling upon the United States to join in a formal alliance with the states of Western Europe, and the resulting North Atlantic Treaty (which created NATO) was signed in April 1949. In the following month Stalin called off the blockade, and almost immediately the Federal Republic of Germany—more commonly known as West Germany—came into existence.
This lesson will trace the Berlin blockade and airlift of 1948–49 and the establishment of NATO. Students will read original documents and view photographs of the period to learn why the Soviets sparked this crisis, how the United States responded, and why the NATO alliance was formed.
By the end of 1947 the United States had implemented a strategy of containing the Soviet Union, and part of this strategy involved moving forward with the creation of an independent Germany. Ever since the end of World War II negotiations had been ongoing regarding the fate of Germany, with the Soviet Union refusing to consider any plan that would involve a restored Germany aligned with the West. From the perspective of the United States and its Allies, however, the continuing division of Germany into four zones of occupation was standing in the way of Europe's economic recovery. Therefore, in February 1948 the United States and Britain announced that they were merging their zones and issuing a common currency for both.
Stalin perceived this act as an attempt to restore Germany without Soviet consent, and he sought to retaliate. In April, Red Army troops in the Soviet occupation zone began interfering with traffic between the British and American zones in Germany and their corresponding sectors of Berlin, which were entirely within the Soviet zone. Two months later, when France announced that it was merging its zone with that of the British and Americans, Stalin ordered the complete stoppage of all traffic between West Berlin and Western Germany. This left a civilian population of two million, as well as substantial numbers of British, French, and American troops, cut off from any source of food or fuel.
Truman considered several options for meeting the challenge. Some advocated withdrawing from Berlin, while others suggested sending an armored train to force its way through the blockade. Truman, however, was unwilling either to surrender the city or to risk starting a war, so he ordered U.S. aircraft to start carrying the necessary supplies into Berlin by air. Over the next eleven months thousands of tons of food, coal, and clothing were brought into the city in what became known as the Berlin Airlift. Stalin, essentially faced with a decision either to back down or to order Soviet aircraft to shoot down these planes (and thus risk war), opted for the former, and the blockade was lifted in May 1949.
The Berlin blockade and airlift had a dramatic effect in most of Western Europe. Even before the start of the blockade, European nations had discussed some sort of mutual security arrangement to resist possible future German aggression, and the result of this was the Brussels Pact of March 1948. In this treaty Great Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg agreed to military and economic cooperation. However, in the wake of the Berlin blockade the Soviet Union seemed far more menacing than Germany, and the signers of the Brussels Pact knew full well that even their combined armed forces would be no match for the military might of the Red Army, which at the time was the largest in the world. They therefore sought some guarantee that the United States would intervene to defend them against a Soviet invasion, and the Truman administration provided this by signing on to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in April 1949. Truman then followed up on this in July by asking Congress for $1.45 billion in military aid for Western Europe. For the first time in its history, the United States had formally committed itself during peacetime to the defense of other nations (the Truman Doctrine [see Lesson 2], it should be pointed out, was merely a rhetorical commitment).
Teachers interested in more background on the Berlin Airlift or the NATO alliance are encouraged to visit the EDSITEment-reviewed site of the Truman Presidential Library. In addition to being an invaluable source for documents and photographs, the site includes an online narrative entitled "Airbridge to Berlin," and a chronology of events related to NATO.
Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF.
Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the various activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
You should also become familiar with the interactive map which accompanies this lesson. This shows the sequence of events in Europe during the early years of the Cold War, as well as their geographic locations. By clicking on the numbered locations pop-ups will appear with more information.
If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers helpful pages on "Making Sense of Documentary Photography" and "Making Sense of Maps," which give helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.
In the first activity students will examine the causes of the Berlin Crisis of 1948 and engage in silent debate on the question of whether the United States should try to maintain its presence in West Berlin or evacuate its forces from the city.
First, direct students to location #14 on the interactive map of Cold War Europe. If they have completed Lesson 1 of this unit students should already know about the division of Germany into zones of occupation. If not, explain this to them and point out that Berlin, too, was divided into similar zones. However, because the German capital was located entirely within the Soviet zone, it was not difficult for the Soviets to close off the U.S., British, and French sectors of Berlin (collectively known as "West Berlin") from the outside world.
Next, divide the students into two groups. Each will be responsible for reading-preferably as homework—a set of documents dealing with the Soviet blockade of West Berlin. All are available at the EDSITEment-reviewed site of the Truman Presidential Library; however, excerpts from the longer documents are located on pages 1-5 of the Text Document.
Group #1 (excerpts on pages 1-2 of the Text Document):
Group #2 ((excerpts on pages 3-5 of the Text Document):
Once the students have finished reading these documents, pair each member of Group #1 with a member of Group #2 for a silent debate. Have the first student in each pair begin by listing on the worksheet (page 6) a reason why the president should commit to staying in Berlin. Then the second student should list a reason why the president should evacuate the city. This should go on until one side or the other has run out of reasons. Once the students have finished this exercised, teachers should lead a class discussion in which students offer their opinion regarding what should be done about Berlin.
After they have completed this exercise, play for the students a radio broadcast on the Berlin Airlift, also known as "Operation Vittles." This is available as an audio file at Authentic History, which is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Teaching American History. Then conclude the activity with an in-class discussion, inviting students to give their opinion as to whether or not Truman made the right decision in ordering the airlift.
Finally, students will consider the North Atlantic Treaty. Have them read the following documents pertaining to the NATO alliance, available from the EDSITEment reviewed resources the Avalon Project at Yale Law School, the Truman Presidential Library, and Teaching American History. Excerpts are available on pages 7-10 of the Text Document.
To guide their reading, students will answer the following questions, available in worksheet form on page 11 of the Text Document.
When they have finished, teachers should lead an in-class discussion in which students imagine that they are U.S. citizens in 1948. They should be asked to evaluate the arguments of both Truman and Taft.
After completing this lesson, students should be able to write brief (1–2 paragraph) essays answering the following questions:
If teachers have used this lesson plan as part of the curriculum unit on the Origins of the Cold War, it might be useful to have students complete the worksheet that is available on page 12 of the Text Document. In so doing they will show their understanding of how developments in Europe led to certain U.S. responses, and how those responses had the cumulative effect of drawing the United States into European affairs to an unprecedented extent.
Alternatively, more advanced students might be asked to write an essay in response to the following question: "Was deeper U.S. involvement in European affairs inevitable in the aftermath of World War II? Why or why not?"
The EDSITEment-reviewed site of the Truman Presidential Library contains an outstanding collection of oral histories related to the Berlin Airlift. Teachers who have additional time to devote to this incident might have students read one or more of these accounts; of particular interest are the recollections of Konrad Adenauer, who would go on to be Chancellor of West Germany and Lucius Clay, who served as military governor of the U.S. zone of occupation in Germany during the critical period 1947–1949. These could be used as the basis for a discussion regarding the different ways in which each participant recalled the events of this critical period. The comparison between the recollections of Adenauer, postwar Germany's most important statesman, and Clay, an American general, should be particularly illustrative.
The Truman Presidential Library site also has a considerable number of photographs of the Berlin Airlift in action. These are particularly useful in illustrating the challenges that pilots faced, and the gratitude that West Berliners felt toward them.
Teachers who have used all three lessons in this unit might wish to have students construct a timeline of the events of the early Cold War. An online template for this is available at Read-Write-Think. An excellent source of information to help students fill in the gaps is "Cold War Policies, 1945–1991," which is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource History Matters.
2-3 class periods