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#201: How the Berlin Airlift Got Off the Ground

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West Berlin children at Tempelhof airport watch of American airplanes bringing in supplies in this undated photo
West Berlin children at Tempelhof airport watch of American airplanes bringing in supplies in this undated photo

STEVE EMBER: Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION - American history in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember

(MUSIC)

The Second World War ended with the surrender of Japan in August nineteen forty-five. Americans looked to their new president, Harry Truman, to lead them into a new time of peace.

Truman was vice president until President Franklin Roosevelt died suddenly in the closing months of the war.

Almost no one expected President Truman to be as strong a leader as Roosevelt had been. And, at first, they were right. Truman had one problem after another during his first months in the White House.

Truman's first big problem was the economy. Almost two million Americans lost their jobs as factories ended wartime production. Americans everywhere worried about what would happen next. Only a few years before, the nation had suffered through the worst economic crisis in its history. No one wanted to return to the closed banks, hungry children and other sad memories of the Great Depression.

In some ways, the economy did better after the war than many experts had predicted. Many Americans still had money that they saved during the war. And Congress passed a law designed to help people keep their jobs. The situation could have been much worse than it was.

However, the economy could also have been better. Much better. Almost overnight, the price of almost everything began to rise.

President Truman tried to stop the increases through a special price control agency that had been created during the war. However, thousands of business people refused to follow the government price control rules. Instead, they set their own prices for goods.

Store owners would tell government officials that they were obeying the price controls. But often they charged whatever they wanted for the goods they sold.

Businesses were not the only ones who were refusing to obey government price controls. Organized labor did the same thing.

President Truman had always been a friend of labor unions. But during the first months of his administration, he became involved in a fierce struggle with coal miners and railroad workers.

The first sign of trouble came in September nineteen forty-five. A group of auto workers closed down factories at the Ford Motor Company. Then, workers at General Motors went on strike. Soon there were strikes everywhere --  the oil industry, the clothing industry, the electrical industry and more.

The strikes made Truman angry. He believed the striking workers were threatening the economy and security of the United States. He became even angrier when union representatives came to the White House and refused to accept a compromise wage offer.

Truman ordered the Army to take over the railroads and the coal mines. Within a short time, the striking coal miners returned to work. However, the president had less success with the railroad workers. He became so angry with the unions representing them that he asked Congress to give him the power to draft all striking railroad workers into the armed forces.

The rail strike finally ended. But millions of Americans lost faith in Truman's ability to lead the country and to bring people together.

By late nineteen forty-six, most Americans believed that the man in the White House did not know what he was doing. Truman seemed weak and unable to control events.

Union members disliked him because of his strong opposition to the coal and rail strikes. Farmers opposed Truman because of the administration's effort to keep meat prices low. Conservatives did not trust the reforms that Truman promised in his speeches. And liberal Democrats watched with concern as many of Franklin Roosevelt's old advisers left the government because they could not work with Truman.

In November of nineteen forty-six, the people voted in congressional and state elections. The results showed they were not satisfied with Truman and his Democratic Party. Republicans won control of both houses of Congress for the first time in eighteen years. And Republicans were elected governor in twenty-five states.

The election was a serious defeat for the Democrats -- but a disaster for Truman. Some members of his party even called on him to resign. Few people gave Truman much chance of winning the next presidential election in nineteen forty-eight.

However, Harry Truman began to change in the months that followed the nineteen forty-six congressional elections. He became a stronger speaker. He showed more understanding of the powers of the presidency. And in matters of foreign policy, he began to act more presidential. This was especially so in Truman's reaction to Soviet aggression in Germany.

Truman wanted to rebuild Germany, as well as the other war-torn countries of Western Europe. As we heard last week, his administration worked closely with western European leaders to rescue their broken economies through the Marshall Plan.

But the Soviets did not want to see Germany rebuild, at least not so quickly. At first, they flooded Germany with extra German currency in an effort to destroy its value. They walked out of economic conferences. And, finally, in early nineteen forty-eight, they blocked all the roads to West Berlin. West Berlin was in communist East Germany, but not under communist control as was East Berlin.

After the war, the Allies had divided Germany in half. West Germany had a democratic government. East Germany was communist, under Soviet control.

The Soviet actions in Berlin were a direct threat to the west. Truman had three difficult choices. If he did nothing, the world would think the United States was weak and unable to stop Soviet aggression. If he fought the blockade with force, he might start a third world war.

But there was another choice.

The Allies proposed the idea of flying tons of food, fuel and other supplies into West Berlin. Not just once, but every day, as long as the Russians continued their blockade.

It would be a difficult job. West Berlin was home to two and a half million people. No one had ever before tried to supply so large a city by air. Planes would have to take off every three and a half minutes, day and night, to supply the people with enough food, medicine, clothing, and badly needed coal.

C-47s unloading at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin
C-47s unloading at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin

The operation involved American C-47 and larger C-54 transport planes, along with British Lancaster, York, and Hastings aircraft.

On June twenty-sixth, the first C-47s landed at Tempelhof Airport - the beginning of the great operation that was to come.  Plans called for the operation to last just a few weeks.

The planes landed in the blockaded city and local volunteers provided support on the ground. Former mechanics of the Luftwaffe, the German air force, joined Americans in servicing the aircraft. More than twenty thousand Berliners worked day and night to build an additional landing field for the American and British planes. It became Tegel, now Berlin's major airport. As part of the supply effort, the British Royal Air Force even landed Sunderland Flying Boats on a Berlin lake.

Brigadier General Joseph Smith was appointed task force commander of the American part of the airlift. General Smith called the mission "Operation Vittles," using an American slang term for food.

"Operation Vittles" also led to "Operation Little Vittles" for the dropping of chocolates and other treats to children. The pilots who did this became known as "Candy Bombers." Appreciative German children called them "Die Schokoladen Flieger" - the chocolate pilots.

Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen, nicknamed
Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen, nicknamed "Uncle Wiggly Wings," came up with idea for the candy drop to Berlin children.

GAIL HALVORSEN: "They wanted to know which airplane I was in. I said, 'you can tell my airplane - I'll wiggle the wings and you'll know it's me - Watch just that airplane.' They said 'That's good.  Wunderbar [wonderful].'

"I came back the next day and I put little parachutes for the Kaugummi [chewing gum] and the Schokoladen [chocolates], so they could see it and so it wouldn't hit them hard in the head, slow it down. And so I wiggled the wings and they waved their hands, and I pushed it out of the airplane. And that's how it started."

(Sound courtesy of Ralf Gruender)

It was the idea of Gail Halvorsen, a pilot in the United States Air Force. Lieutenant Halvorsen became known as "Mister Wiggly Wings." From his plane, he would drop chewing gum and chocolates attached to tiny parachutes made from handkerchiefs.

Soon, many of the Airlift pilots were dropping candy from their planes, including into Soviet-controlled areas that they flew over. Americans back home supplied the handkerchiefs and the US chocolate industry supplied the treats.

Years later, in Berlin, Gail Halvorsen told German interviewer Ralf Gruender how he got the idea.

GAIL HALVORSEN: "I dropped chocolate because of gratitude. I met thirty children at the fence at Tempelhof, and not one put out their hand and said give me more than flour, give me more than coal, give me chocolate. They had no chocolate.  They had no gum. But they would not be a beggar. They were so grateful for flour and I said wow, they were thankful. And when people are thankful, good things happen."

It soon became clear to the Soviets that the Berlin Airlift would succeed. In May of nineteen forty-nine, almost one year after they had started their blockade, they ended it.

The crisis in Berlin changed the way many Americans saw their president. Harry Truman no longer seemed so weak or unsure of himself. Instead, he was acting as a leader who could take an active part in world affairs.

Truman's popularity increased. However, most Americans did not expect him to win the election in nineteen forty-eight. Almost everyone believed that the Republican candidate, New York Governor Thomas Dewey, would capture the office.

The election campaign that year turned out to be one of the most exciting and surprising in the history of the nation. That will be our story next week.

You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and pictures at www.unsv.com. And you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. I'm Steve Ember, inviting you to join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English.

___

Contributing: David Jarmul

This was program #201. For earlier programs, type "Making of a Nation" in quotation marks in the search box at the top of the page.

1945年8月日本投降,宣告第二次世界大战结束。美国人期待着他们的新总统杜鲁门,带领他们向和平过渡。

二战结束前富兰克林.罗斯福总统突然逝世时,杜鲁门是副总统,大家都觉得,杜鲁门不像罗斯福那样有魄力。开始的时候也确实如此,杜鲁门上任之初,遇到了一个又一个棘手的问题。

杜鲁门遇到的第一个重大问题是经济。战备物资的停产,让将近200万美国人失去了工作,全国各地的美国人都不知道接下来会是什么样子。不久之前的经济危机还历历在目,没有人愿意回到大萧条时那种银行关门、孩子挨饿的悲惨状况。

从某些方面看,战后的经济状况比很多专家预计的情况要好。很多美国人战争期间存的钱还在,国会也通过了一项法律,帮助人们保住工作,情况并不是特别糟。

但是,经济也存在很多严重问题,一夜之间,物价开始全面上涨。杜鲁门总统试图通过战时成立的一个特别物价控制机构让物价涨势停下来,然而,数以千计的商店老板不听政府的指令,擅自定价。

商店老板阳奉阴违,一面告诉政府官员他们遵守了政府的价格监控,转过头来,出售商品时却是想要多少钱就要多少钱。

拒绝遵守政府价格监管的不光是这些商店老板,工会成员也是一样。杜鲁门总统向来是工会的坚定支持者,但是他入主白宫后的头几个月里,就卷进了跟煤矿工人和铁路工人的一场激烈斗争。

麻烦是1945年9月开始的。福特公司的一些汽车工人率先罢工,通用汽车公司的工人马上跟进,这股罢工浪潮迅速蔓延开来,没用多久,石油工业、制衣行业、电子工业等很多行业的工人都开始罢工。

杜鲁门很气愤,他觉得这些罢工工人对经济和国家安全构成了威胁。工会代表来白宫谈判,拒绝接受新的工资标准、停止罢工,更是让杜鲁门火冒三丈。

杜鲁门下令部队接管铁路和煤矿。很快,矿工们就恢复了工作,但是铁路工人却不肯轻易屈服。杜鲁门对铁路工人工会气愤之极,要求国会给他权力,把所有罢工的铁路工人强行应征入伍。

铁路罢工终于结束了,但是数百万美国人也对杜鲁门领导国家、团结民众的能力失去了信心。到1946年年底时,大多数美国人都觉得,杜鲁门根本不知道自己在做些什么,他软弱无能,无力控制局面。

工会成员不喜欢杜鲁门是因为他对煤矿和铁路工人罢工的强烈反对。农民对杜鲁门不满意是因为政府一再压低肉类产品价格。保守派不信任杜鲁门能落实他提出的各种改革。自由派民主党人看到以前罗斯福的很多助手都因为跟杜鲁门合不来而离开政府,也感到忧心忡忡。

1946年11月,美国举行国会和州选举。选举结果显示出了选民对杜鲁门政府和他所属的民主党的不满。18年来,共和党人首次在国会参众两院占据多数席位,共和党候选人还当选了25个州的州长。

这次选举结果是民主党人的一次严重挫败,对杜鲁门来说,则是一场灾难。民主党内一些人甚至要他辞职,几乎没有人相信杜鲁门能在1948年的总统大选中连任。

1946年美国国会中期选举让杜鲁门和他所在的民主党深受打击。然而,国会中期选举后,杜鲁门马上开始作出改变,发表讲话更有力,对总统权力的理解更充分,在外交政策上,也进一步展现出总统风范,尤其体现在他对苏联的态度上。

杜鲁门主张重建德国,也希望重建被战争摧残得支离破碎的西欧各国。美国政府跟西欧各国领导人密切合作,通过马歇尔计划挽救西欧破碎的经济。

然而,苏联不愿看到德国重建,尤其是重建速度不要这么快。苏联采取了很多手段,包括让大量过剩的德国马克充斥德国市场,借此摧毁马克币值;苏联还中途退出经济会议,并最终在1948年初封锁了所有进入西柏林的道路。西柏林位于共产党控制的东德区内,但不像东柏林那样归共产党控制。

二战结束后,同盟国将战败国德国一分为二,西德是民主政府,东德实行共产体制,归苏联控制。苏联在柏林采取的行动是对西方国家的直接威胁。杜鲁门面临三种艰难的选择,如果他不采取行动,国际社会会觉得美国软弱无能,阻止不了苏联的侵略行动;如果他以武力对抗苏联对西柏林的封锁,则可能引发第三次世界大战。除此之外,他还有第三种选择。

盟国提出,可以向西柏林空运食物、燃料和其他供给,不是一次,而是每天,只要苏联不解除封锁,就一直继续下去。

这项工作十分艰巨。西柏林有250万人口,要想用空运的方式为这么多人提供足够的食物、药品、衣服和急需的煤炭,每三分半钟就要有一架飞机起飞,24小时不间断。

参加空运行动的包括美军C-47和更大型的C-54运输机,还有英国的兰开斯特、约克和黑斯廷斯飞机。1948年6月26日,第一批C-47在滕珀尔霍夫机场降落,预示着空运行动的开始,这次行动原本只计划持续几个星期。

当地志愿者提供地面支持,德国空军以前的机械师也赶来帮忙维修飞机,两万多名柏林居民没日没夜地干,为美国和英国飞机额外修建停机场,这就是如今柏林最主要的机场泰格尔机场。

约瑟夫.史密斯准将是美军行动总指挥官,他称这次行动为"空运行动",后来又有了"小空运行动"之说,专指为小孩子投放巧克力和其他零食,执行行动的飞机被称为"糖果轰炸机",高兴的德国孩子管这些飞行员叫"巧克力飞行员"。

空投巧克力是美国飞行员加伊.霍尔沃森的主意,他从飞机上空投口香糖和巧克力,上面还系着用手帕做的小降落伞。没过多久,很多飞行员都开始空投糖果,美国人民捐赠手帕,巧克力生产商提供巧克力。很多年后,加伊.霍尔沃森在柏林接受采访时,谈到了他是怎么想到这个主意的。

他说:"我空投巧克力是出于感动,因为我在滕珀尔霍夫机场的围栏附近遇到过30个孩子,没有一个孩子伸手向我要白面、煤炭以外的东西,他们没有巧克力,没有口香糖,但他们没人管我要巧克力,他们不要做乞丐,他们得到白面就很知足了。我当时想,天啊,他们真是心存感激。你如果有感恩之心,好事儿就会降临。"

苏联很快看出,柏林空运行动一定会成功。1949年5月,苏联停止了对西柏林的封锁,这次封锁持续了将近一年。柏林的这场危机改变了很多美国人对杜鲁门总统的看法。在他们眼里,杜鲁门不再那么优柔寡断,而是成了一位积极参与国际事务的领导人。

杜鲁门的民众支持率高涨。然而,大多数美国人还是不相信他能在1948年的总统大选中当选连任。几乎所有人都觉得,共和党总统候选人、纽约州州长托马斯.杜威会当选。这次选战是美国历史上最激动人心、结果也是最出人意料的选战之一。

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