The American Legion Magazine
July 2004
By Alan W. Dowd 

Officials in Berlin have quietly announced their intention to close Tempelhof Airport. The airlines are fighting it because of Tempelhof’s proximity to downtown Berlin; the preservationists are fighting it because of Tempelhof’s storied history; but the politicians have decided the airstrip is too small and too inefficient to be of any use.  

That certainly wasn’t the case 55 years ago, when Tempelhof was the hub of the Berlin Airlift and the symbol of America’s commitment to Europe, Europe’s dependence on America, and their common cause in the Cold War. Packing up this piece of history marks more than the end of an era: it is a metaphor for how far apart Europe and America have drifted.  

In the Routine

Triggered by Moscow's decision in June 1948 to blockade the overland corridors between the divided city of Berlin and western Germany, the Berlin Airlift marked the beginning of the Cold War and foreshadowed its ultimate outcome.  

Soviet leader Josef Stalin wanted the Americans out of Berlin, but he didn’t want to fight a war over it. As Churchill observed, “I do not believe that Soviet Russia desires war. What they desire is the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power.” By blockading Berlin, Stalin no doubt thought he had checkmated the battle-weary Western allies with a fait accompli. What he didn’t realize was that there was another option for the allies. And so began the Berlin Airlift, one of the greatest military, political and technological feats of the 20th century. 

Blending the principles of strategic bombing with the efficiency of a Detroit assembly line, Lt. Gen. Curtis LeMay crafted an air campaign unlike any in history. From June 1948 to September 1949, Allied pilots flew 277,000 missions and delivered 2.3 million tons of supplies to Berlin. All told, 32,000 troops and 23,000 civilians participated in the mission, which the Americans called “Operation Vittles” and the British dubbed “Operation Plainfare.”  

About 75 percent of those missions were flown by Americans and as such ended at Tempelhof, an old airfield in the US-occupied sector of Berlin. Along with Gatow in the British sector and Tegel in the French, Tempelhof never slept. At the height of the airlift, Tempelhof was receiving coal- and food-laden planes every three minutes. As Air Force Magazine detailed in 1998, ground crews could unload a C-54 or C-47 cargo plane in just five minutes and have it back in the air in a half-hour. “The airlift became almost routine,” according to Gen. T. Ross Milton, chief of staff for the Combined Berlin Airlift Task Force. “Visitors who came for a look at this famous defiance of Stalin were slightly disappointed by the orderly and measured way the airplanes came and went through Berlin.”  

Of course, it wasn’t always routine. According to Air Force Magazine, the airlift armada came under fire 123 times; and 77 men were killed during the mercy mission, including 31 Americans. 

The crisis defined America for an entire generation of Europeans. During those 15 months, the United States showcased not just its military might, political resolve, and boundless economic capacity, but a unique ability to bring all of these to bear in pursuit of its national interests—and an eagerness to balance those interests against the most basic needs of its former enemies in Germany.  

Just as important, the airlift awoke Europe and America to a new threat—a threat that surrounded Berlin and menaced the rest of Western Europe. It’s no coincidence that NATO was born as British and American cargo planes were streaming in and out of Berlin. 

The Alliance Frays

Fast-forward 55 years. Berlin is united, but the transatlantic community is divided. As with the decline of Tempelhof, this didn’t happen overnight.  

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 awakened a long-dormant dream among Europe’s policymaking elite to create an identity independent of the United States and to transform the international system from one shaped by America’s “hard” power (which relies on the use or threat of military force) into one shaped by Europe’s “soft” power (which relies on diplomacy and multilateral institutions). As Margaret Thatcher concluded at the time, the Germans were “losing their appetite for defense.” Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security advisor to the elder Bush, noticed that “The United States seemed largely absent in longer-term French calculations about Europe.” 

When Yugoslavia began to descend into civil war in 1991, the Europeans seized upon the crisis as an opportunity to prove they were ready to lead. It was, as one European diplomat declared, “the hour of Europe.” Washington took the hint and stepped aside. 

Yet there was little action behind the words. As historian William Pfaff observes in The Wrath of Nations, the Europeans were “unable to act collectively and refused to act individually.” In Pfaff’s view, the UN and European Union “actually proved an obstacle to action, by inhibiting individual national action and rationalizing the refusal to act nationally.” 

After four years of feckless diplomacy and 250,000 deaths, the hour of Europe had past. The United States reasserted itself in late 1995, brought the Yugoslav war to a rapid conclusion and made sure to avoid a repeat in Kosovo by leading from the outset.  

Some say Europe’s failure to act was the natural byproduct of military weakness. After all, defense spending in France is $46 billion, or just 2.5 percent of GDP; in Germany it’s a scant 1.3 percent of GDP. The United States, by comparison, invests over 4 percent of a much larger GDP, translating into some $400 billion in defense outlays.  

Of course, the EU’s allergy to “hard” power could be the result of something more fundamental: After two world wars and decades of deferring to Washington, continental Europe may simply no longer have the capacity to play a leadership role on the battlefield. In other words, Europe’s inability to act militarily may not be the result of its military weakness or its over-reliance on soft power, but rather the cause of them. To extend Pfaff’s point, soft power is not just a way for Europe to rationalize its inaction—it may be the only kind of power Europe knows how to apply.  

This was never more apparent than in the months leading up to the Iraq War. Thanks to French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, it took eight weeks for the UN Security Council to agree on a resolution requiring Iraq to comply with existing resolutions. But resolving only to be unresolved, as Churchill once said, the French and Germans refused to authorize military action to ensure compliance.  

Instead, they dispatched Hans Blix to Baghdad, where he asked Saddam to account for his arsenal of missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Recall that according to the UN—not the CIA—10,000 liters of anthrax, thousands of chemical-tipped bombs, and large amounts of VX nerve agent were unaccounted for. The ensuing diplomatic showdown revealed that more than an ocean separates America and the EU: From the US perspective, Saddam Hussein was the threat. From the French and German perspective, war itself was the threat.  

Hence, when Britain and the United States returned to the UN for military authorization in March 2003, they found the French and German governments unwilling to compromise. In a naked bid to win reelection, Schroeder had preemptively announced that Germany would oppose military action in Iraq—with or without a UN resolution. “We will not be part of it,” he vowed. 

The French tried to make sure no one else would be a part of it either. Chirac unilaterally threatened East European governments for siding with Washington: “If they wanted to diminish their chances of joining the EU,” he snarled, “they couldn't have chosen a better way.” He then dispatched his foreign minister to a dozen capitals to organize an opposition against Washington and, incredibly, rejected London’s eleventh-hour compromise even before Saddam.  


Doubtless, Washington’s difficulty finding WMDs in Iraq has given Chirac and Schroeder reason to gloat. Yet in his postwar review, US weapons inspector David Kay concluded that “a lot of material went to Syria before the war, including some components of Saddam’s WMD program.” Gen. James Clapper, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, notes that prewar satellite surveillance tracked the movement of large amounts of material into Syria, leading him to conclude “unquestionably” that the Iraqi regime “decided the best thing to do was to destroy and disperse.”[1]  

In other words, Iraq was indeed in violation of UN resolutions. Of course, the French and German diplomatic corps knew that all along. But as George Walden, the British author and former Member of Parliament, observed, “The group dynamics of diplomacy are not always the straightest path to virtue.”   

This is not to say that diplomacy has no purpose, or that “going it alone” is preferable to acting in tandem with allies. Diplomacy and the cooperation it promotes are important, as we are learning in Iraq. Some 39 countries have deployed troops to Iraq. Fully 21 of the EU’s 25 current or future members supported the campaign in Iraq. The fact that Germany and France chose not to be among that number has more to do with them than Washington.  

Even so, Washington is not blameless in this rift.  

By balking at or walking away from a number of treaties in the past decade, the Clinton and Bush administrations raised Europe’s ire. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stoked the tensions in early 2003 by dismissing Germany and France as relics of “old Europe.” Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Pentagon planners have proposed replacing America’s permanent bases in Germany with “lily pad” bases manned by skeleton crews, or moving the bases out of Germany altogether.  

After the dust settled in Iraq, Washington punished Germany and France by cutting them out of lucrative postwar contracts and limiting the role of the UN. While this served to underscore the Bush administration’s anger, it probably hasn’t served America’s long-term interests in Iraq, which brings us back to the lessons of Tempelhof.

-Tempelhof should remind Americans that it takes more than weapons to defeat the forces of terror and tyranny—whether they are named Stalin, Saddam or bin Laden.

As Rumsfeld himself has said of the war on terror, “Victory will require that every element of American influence and power be engaged.” Military strength is part of that power, but so is diplomatic creativity. The US military can crush any foe; but winning the peace requires ambidexterity; and keeping the peace requires allies. West Berlin remained free during the Cold War not only because of America’s military might, but because of America’s willingness to work with allies.

-Temepelhof should remind Europeans that America is a force for good in the world.

What American blood secured in Europe and the Pacific in 1945, and Berlin in 1949, is the very same thing it has bought in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US-led coalition has freed 26 million Afghans from the medieval Taliban and another 24 million Iraqis from Saddam’s torture chamber. It’s a shame America’s old friends are unable to see the similarities.

Finally, Tempelhof should remind Europeans and Americans alike of what the transatlantic alliance can achieve when united.

From Berlin to Baghdad, the core of the alliance remains America’s bond with Britain. With Britain serving as a bridge, the US and EU are working together to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the terrorist regime in Iran. In Djibouti, French and American units are teaming up to dismantle al-Qaeda cells throughout Africa. NATO is leading the stabilization mission in Afghanistan, with Germany contributing one of the largest contingents. And after supporting the Polish military in overseeing a swath of southern Iraq, NATO is edging toward a more direct and more permanent role in stabilizing postwar Iraq.

Iraq and its restive neighbors may not require an airlift of foodstuffs and coal, but they desperately need the moral and material support of a united transatlantic community. As Churchill warned in 1946, if America and Europe “become divided or falter in their duty, if these all-important years are allowed to slip away, then indeed catastrophe may overwhelm us all.”

 The architects of the Berlin Airlift took Churchill’s warning to heart. We should do no less.

[1] See Con Coughlin, “Saddam’s WMD hidden in Syria, says Iraq survey chief,” The London Telegraph, Jan. 25, 2004; David Kay, Report to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, October 2, 2003; Douglas Jehl, “Official suggests Iraq hid weapons in Syria,” International Herald Tribune, 10-29-03.