Sen. Bill Frist, MD
In June of 1948 there was a crisis in Berlin. The Soviet Union—one of four countries tasked with redeveloping Germany after its World War II loss—set up a blockade around the capital city. By cutting off food, water, electricity, and other supplies, the Soviets expected to take over a starved Berlin and expand Soviet reach.
The Allies wouldn’t care, the Soviets reasoned. The United Kingdom, France, and the United States, the other countries committed to redeveloping Germany, certainly wouldn’t go to any trouble for the Germans trapped in West Berlin. Those countries had their own rebuilding to do. While they were busy elsewhere, the Soviets expected to push out the Allies’ presence and erase the dot of democracy.
But they were wrong.
For almost 11 months, Allied airmen flew round-the-clock along three 20-mile-wide air corridors that had been agreed upon during the initial partitioning of Germany. Back and forth these crews flew, airlifting food, medical supplies, coal and more to 2.4 million West Berliners. Faithfully, the crews delivered 1.7 million tons of life-saving supplies—an astounding 5,600 tons each day at the height of the airlift.
Never before had an airborne aid mission of this magnitude been attempted. The Soviets initially viewed the airlift as unsustainable, but they underestimated the willpower and ingenuity of the Allied airmen. The logistical nightmare of moving such massive amounts of supplies by air was conquered with tactical ease by the Americans and British, to the point that there was a new plane landing in West Berlin each minute to unload supplies at the airlift’s height. Our colossal response rendered the Soviet blockade useless, prompting the Soviets to end it in May of 1949.
As Yale historian John Gaddis recalls, it was “the first clear Soviet defeat in the Cold War.”
The airlift was a landmark for America as a champion of the downtrodden. Time and again U.S. foreign aid has stood as a force for good—from the Marshall Plan after WWII, to the Berlin Airlift, to my own time in the Senate with our nation’s unprecedented PEPFAR investment in Africa to turn the tide on the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
The airlift was a moment in history that powerfully defined who we are as a people and our greatness among nations. America’s ingenuity, perseverance, and compassion sustained more than 2.4 million isolated West Berliners. And I believe it also sustained democracy as we know it.
This astounding accomplishment was a demonstration of both our military strength and our national character. It wasn’t just the sheer number of aircraft and the 1.7 million tons of life-saving supplies we assembled and delivered against all odds that shocked the Soviets. It was the character of a people who would make such a bold commitment and determinedly execute it that was the greatest factor in our victory. The demonstration of that character left an indelible impression on Germany and our allies, forced open the Soviet Union’s eyes to what our country was capable of, and shaped post-war European politics in ways that abide to this day. And as history has unfolded, it is also among a long, distinguished line of humanitarian victories that have defined our role as a responsible and dependable global leader.
All this comes to my mind because this week, I am heading to Washington to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. In reflecting on this anniversary and the courageous men and women who participated in this remarkable feat, I do wonder whether, in the current chaotic Washington political climate, that same commitment in the face of an emboldened international adversary would be made today.
I have no doubt in our ability to do so from a military and capability standpoint. I have no doubt that the enduring American character is as strong today as it was then. But what seems to be in question today is our role as a global leader. Where before “only America can do it” reflected our responsibility among nations as the defender of what is good, “only America can do it” today is sometimes interpreted as an unfair burden to be avoided at all costs. Our humanitarian generosity is not understood as a powerful manifestation and lever of our greatness, but as a drain on us.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
My wife Tracy’s father, retired Major Ray Roberts, served as a flight engineer during the Berlin Airlift. After lying about his age to join the Marine Corps at just 14, he transferred to the Army Air Corps (predecessor to the Air Force). At the age of just 17 years, Ray was making countless flights day and night, routinely making mid-air repairs to keep the life-providing aircraft flying. His story—and the story of the quarter of a million mercy flights flown over 323 days to provide salvation for blockaded Berliners—shows America at its finest.
For Ray and his comrades, the rightness and necessity of the Berlin Airlift was never in question. It wasn’t simply a commitment to answer that particular act of Soviet aggression, but a commitment to American leadership and exceptionalism globally. “Only America can do it” meant a unique obligation of the greatest nation. They did not resent this burden, nor were they boastful about it. Rather there was a solemnity to the demonstration of our power and our generous character in the Berlin Airlift, a solemnity that should still frame our view of the United States’ global humanitarian leadership today.
Our humanitarian leadership is more than just goodwill, it is a demonstration of American exceptionalism that must also be understood by how it shapes the way the world sees us. How peoples of the world perceive us is inextricably linked to safety and security around the world, and indeed right here at home. Such manifestations of generosity and power are a critical piece of our global stature. Simply put, our humanitarian leadership—doing something that only America can do—advances our interests in multidimensional ways that our military and diplomatic power alone cannot. It is what makes us great and it is what separates us from our challengers.
The Berlin Airlift demonstrated our character to the world. I see that character in Major Ray Roberts, and in all the people who have served to extend America’s generosity and who have stood up proudly for vital causes beyond our borders. It is this character that will continue to glorify the true spirit of America for generations to come.