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Berlin Children Cheering Airlift Plane (Bettmann/CORBIS)

65 Years Ago Today, the Soviet Blockade of Berlin Ended

The first real showdown between the Soviet Union and the West ended 65 years ago today

smithsonian.com

Sixty-five years ago, Berlin was the subject of a bitter territorial dispute between world powers. After World War II, when the Allied powers of the Soviet Union, France, the U.K., and the U.S. carved up Germany into four parts, the country's capital, Berlin, was likewise quartered.

Berlin remained surrounded by Soviet-controlled Germany on all sides, and when France, the U.K. and the U.S. decided to combine their jurisdictions into one central Western German authority, the decision got under the Soviet Government’s skin, to put it mildly. In response, they blockaded the western section of Berlin by road and by rail, shutting off the 2,500,000 inhabitants of Berlin from food and supplies.

PBS’ American Experience explains what happened next:

Initially the Soviet authorities thought the plan was working. "Our control and restrictive measures have dealt a strong blow at the prestige of the Americans and British in Germany, " the Soviet authorities reported. But the Western Allies responded immediately by mounting a tremendous airlift. Under the leadership of General Curtis LeMay, ten-ton capacity C-54s began supplying the city on July 1. By the fall the airlift, code-named "Operation Vittles "and often referred to as "LeMay's feed and coal company ," was bringing in an average of 5,000 tons of supplies a day.

By the time the Soviets lifted the blockade on May 12, 1949—324 days after it began—the allied forces had delivered 2,323,738 tons of supplies at a cost of $224 million. Seventy-nine people lost their lives in the effort, and their contributions were memorialized in a monument located near the airport where the planes landed to resupply the beleaguered city.

Tensions between the Soviet Union and the West continued to escalate even after the momentary lull after the Berlin blockade was lifted. Missile crises sent the entire world into a panic, walls were built and then torn down, and it sure seemed like the world would end with fire.

Luckily for all involved, it didn’t. Like the Berlin blockade, one of the first showdowns of the Cold War, the conflict ended (relatively) peacefully—and, as Russia and Western governments butt heads over the fate of Ukraine, it's reassuring to know that's possible, at least.

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