Wednesday’s Book Review: “To Save a City”

To Save a CityTo Save a City: The Berlin Airlift, 1948-1949. By Roger G. Miller. (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2000. Pp. x, 253. Illustrations, maps, notes index. ISBN: 0890969671. $34.95.)

I first read this book when it appeared in 2000, in large part because I had researched the Berlin Airlift and had written on it myself, but I have been re-investigating the subject in anticipation of undertaking some additional research into the topic. This book remains a solid contribution to the subject.

The airlift arose in the aftermath of World War II when the victorious Allies divided Germany and Berlin into four zones, one each for France, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. As Soviet-American relations deteriorated during 1946 and 1947, the jointly occupied Berlin, located deep inside the Soviet zone, began to be the focus of confrontation between the two ideologies. When the Soviets blockaded the land routes to Berlin from the West the United States, Great Britain, and France responded with a massive airlift that both relieved a surrounded and starving city and avoided direct conflict with the Red Army. It represented a truly decisive use of what I have called in print call “constructive air power.”

Roger G. Miller’s To Save a City seeks to tell the story of this airlift, both its geopolitical and operational elements, in a spare volume that offers a basic history of the subject. Miller drew on official Air Force files to reconstruct the story of this important Cold War confrontation.

Miller quickly dispenses with the political issues and moves on to the hasty organization of the operation to resupply the city by a small number of antiquated cargo airplanes. This soon evolved into an intricate bridge of modern transports that flowed in and out of Berlin through narrow air corridors on a precise schedule regardless of weather or other conditions. In the slang of the present, this 24/7/365 operation delivered everything from food and medicine to coal and equipment to a besieged Berlin.

It allowed airlift forces to hone to fine edge their doctrine and operational procedures. It also brought to the attention of postwar leaders the most significant thinker the possibilities of airlift for military purposes, William H. Tunner, who commanded the eration and eventually went on to lead the Military Air Transport Service, now Air Mobility Command.

I would contend that the Berlin Airlift served to codify the flexibility of airlift as an instrument of national will. If one believes that the military exists as tools to help further the national defense and diplomatic objectives of the nation they serve then the more flexible the tool the more useful it becomes. Fighters and bombers are precise tools useful in only a limited number of circumstances, essentially those involving combat. Military airlift can be used in every conceivable scenario across the spectrum of conflict. Unlike virtually all other major types of Air Force aircraft, air transport has an important mission in both the peacetime and combat environments. In peace or war, military airlift sustains the American presence abroad, projecting military resources in a crisis or assisting in humanitarian missions. A unique national resource, the Berlin Airlift demonstrated its significance.

American allies around the world regarded the airlift as a triumph of will, and it solidified the western position in the early Cold War era. The size and extent of the airlift, the requirement for close coordination, and the resourcefulness of allied leadership also impressed the Soviet Union. The airlift affected Air Force doctrine as well; demonstrating that virtually any amount of cargo could be moved anywhere in the world with little concern for geography or weather. It provided valuable experience in operational techniques, air traffic control, and in aircraft maintenance and reconditioning. Miller’s To Save a City is a basic resource for all who seek to understand this development.

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