The Berlin Blockade: A First Test for the National Security Act — Sebastian Lederer

Tattered group of Berliners standing in

On June 24, 1948, the Soviet leadership ordered a blockade of all ground entryways into the three Western-controlled sectors of Berlin. This attempt to force the Western powers out of Berlin resulted in a high-stakes power struggle between Washington and Moscow. The Truman administration faced the option of pulling out of Berlin or risking war in order to stay. In a decision that would influence the next forty years of Cold War politics, the administration opted to remain in Berlin and used an airlift to break the blockade, disproving many initial interagency assessments that the city could not be held. The breaking of the Berlin Blockade is often referred to as the first major American victory of the Cold War.

Despite early warnings, no comprehensive strategy existed to counter Soviet pressure worldwide or specifically in Berlin prior to or following the imposition of the blockade. Once the blockade began, the Truman administration oversaw a series of ad-hoc meetings to deal with the crisis largely sidelining the NSC and JCS. The President made hard choices behind closed doors and dominated decision-making. In addition, the Military Governor of Germany, General Clay, often exceeded his authority preceding and immediately following the start of the crisis. In fact, Clay was largely responsible for initiating the airlift, although he originally intended it as a temporary measure. This ad-hoc strategy proved so effective, however, that it slowly won over skeptics in Washington, and was converted into a long-term policy. However, Truman and the NSC failed to define a threshold of sacrifice the United States was willing to make to stay in Berlin, despite repeated requests by the JCS for such a decision.

The U.S. government initially did not collaborate to develop a strategy in the face of the brewing crisis in Berlin. As a result, the administration lacked a coherent plan on how to respond to the blockade. This, in turn, forced General Clay to act unilaterally. In the following weeks, Truman successfully scheduled comprehensive ad-hoc meetings, which included members of the major agencies involved (President, Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the Secretaries of Defense and State). These organizations cooperated to create a response plan, despite persisting conflict between individuals and agencies. The JCS in particular, and NSC at times, resisted sending additional aircraft to assist in the airlift, believing this could endanger U.S. strategic positions elsewhere in the world. When provided with clear guidelines from Washington, however, the military almost flawlessly implemented the airlift strategy. This efficiency allowed for secret diplomacy (unknown even to Clay in Berlin) to help end the crisis.

The decisiveness of regional decision makers, particularly military governor Clay, and the eventual operational coordination produced an airlift operation of unprecedented dimensions. However, poor preparation for the crisis and Washington’s initial indecisiveness after the beginning of the blockade, which was caused primarily by incomplete implementation of the National Security Act, hampered the effort. President Truman, afraid that the NSC’s increased importance could weaken his position in the foreign policy process, tried to limit the body’s involvement. Further, the Act did not provide for an institutional link between the NSC and the JCS, which weakened both institutions. As a result of insufficient intra-institutional communication and an improper balance among the available containment strategies and military resources, the administration was unable to prepare effectively for a showdown with the Soviet Union.

Overall, the Berlin airlift proved a successful strategy in response to the Soviet blockade. The operation became a symbol of American commitment to Europe, significantly improving the U.S. diplomatic and strategic positions on the continent at relatively low cost. The failures in U.S. strategy were overcome by the efficiency of the airlift. The U.S. government learned from the weaknesses of the response and amended the National Security Act in 1949 to enhance the effectiveness of the NSC and JCS. The crisis also likely contributed to the promulgation of NSC 68, a comprehensive strategy approved in 1950 to manage the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Scholarly analysis of the Berlin blockade celebrates the first major U.S. victory of the Cold War, but it also exposes major weaknesses in implementing the interagency processes embodied in the National Security Act. Authors who focus on the initial response and the organization of the security agencies point out significant flaws in the U.S. reaction to the blockade. Experts also agree, however, that the outcome of the airlift was very close to an ideal solution. The strong leadership of Truman in Washington and Clay in Berlin helped overcome the lack of a grand strategy toward the Soviet Union. Washington achieved its goals at a relatively low cost, losing only 33 men over the course of the airlift while saving the city from Soviet coercion.