World War III almost happened three years after World War II.
Germany had been divided into four sections (governed by the US, Soviet Union, British and French), and the capital city of Berlin, deep in the Soviet sector, was itself divided four ways.
In 1948 the Soviets blockaded the city, refusing to let the Allies bring in food, coal or other necessities by rail or truck through the part of Germany ruled by the USSR. As Berlin at that point was a rubble-filled, crime-ridden, starving city barely staying alive, the Kremlin was gambling the Allies would simply leave and Berlin would become wholly Soviet.
Instead, without ever really deciding to do so, America and Great Britain launched the largest airlift operation in history. Night and day, through fog and awful weather, pilots took their lumbering planes filled with food into the city, forced to use an incredibly small air route that had them all but scraping apartment buildings and radio towers. As soon as one plane landed and moved off the strip, another bumped down behind it.
The Soviets threatened to retaliate, but the planes kept coming and the city was fed…barely.
Something much more important happened, though. The Americans and Berliners, in the years after the war, despised each other – not surprising, perhaps, given the history of the four previous years.
But on one Airlift flight, a Utah pilot named Gail Halvorsen decided to make a parachute out of a handkerchief, tie it to some candy bars, and drop them off to the kids who always waited outside the fence at the airport.
It quickly turned into a phenomenon. The “Candy Bomber” received hundreds of letters from Berlin kids thanking him for the unimaginable luxury of a Hershey bar. (Although one wrote with directions to his house, and when he didn’t get any candy wrote a second letter saying “I gave you directions! You call yourself a pilot…How did you guys win the war anyway?” Halvorsen mailed him a bar.)
Not only did the candy bombers transform Berliners’ attitudes towards Americans – the city is filled today with elderly men and women who break into tears remembering the Airlift – but, argues author Andrei Cherny, they changed Berlin from a Communist-leaning city into one that became a beacon of democracy in the Cold War.
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Cherny’s book is The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour, and its chief flaw is summarized by the subtitle: He oversells things. The Airlift story is not “untold,” and there are many more deserving candidates for America’s “finest hour.”
But the cast of characters here is rich – from Henry Wallace, a guru-loving, vegan-y mystic who would have been president if FDR had died just months earlier; James Forrestal, the driven and paranoid Secretary of Defense who threw himself to his death from the 16th floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital; Curtis LeMay, who opposed the airlift but later took all the credit for it, even while running as George Wallace’s vice-president and promising to bomb North Vietnam “back to the Stone Age”; and, finally, Harry Truman, the man everyone assumed would lose a re-election bid in 1948, but who might have been saved by the positive publicity of the Airlift.
One wishes Cherny had a deeper, subtler touch with some of the issues and people he writes about, but The Candy Bombers is a solid introduction to the tale. -- Richard Connelly
The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour, by Andrei Cherny. Putnam, 624 pages, $29.95