In 1948, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered a blockade of Berlin to pressure the Western Allies into leaving the city or giving up the establishment of a state of West Germany. In response, President Truman, against the advice of his top defense and diplomatic advisors, declared that the United States was in the city to stay. For the next 11 months, under difficult and dangerous conditions, Allied planes delivered such necessities as food, mail, medicine and coal to the beleaguered residents of Berlin—whom those same planes had bombed only three years earlier. Richard Reeves, author of acclaimed biographies of Presidents Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan, tells this story in his riveting new book, Daring Young Men.
Reeves’ splendid narrative gives us various perspectives of the airlift, or “Operation Vittles,” as it was originally called. He quotes generously from Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, Berlin’s most famous diarist of the period, who vividly described the bleakness of the city and was hopeful, but skeptical, that the Allies would help. Reeves also focuses on the 60,000 individuals who made the airlift work, including pilots such as Gail Halvorsen, who had volunteered for service in the airlift and thought he would return home in a few weeks. Instead, he became the famous “Candy Bomber” who dropped improvised parachutes filled with sweets for Berlin’s children.
From the beginning, the airlift faced many obstacles, not least that pilots were restricted to using carefully defined air corridors, and deviation from these meant attack by Soviet aircraft. An extraordinary leap in production occurred when Major General William Tunner was put in charge of the operation. An arrogant, cantankerous and incredibly imaginative man, Tunner had directed the first successful airlift in history, flying supplies over the Himalayas to Nationalist Chinese troops fighting the Japanese during World War II.
Reeves masterfully relates this story of a crucial mission that even American military officials considered nearly impossible—a pivotal chapter in the Cold War that had a profound effect on the course of European and American history.