Robert A. Slayton: The Most Precious Cargo

Roundup: Talking About History

[Robert A. Slayton is Professor of History at Chapman University and author of the forthcoming Master of the Air: William Tunner and the Success of Military Airlift from University of Alabama Press.]

More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, there can be no question about the significance of the event that crystallized the West’s determination to win the standoff with Communism. The 1948 Berlin Airlift was the West’s first victory on the way to eventual triumph in the long twilight conflict with Moscow. Though the saga of the breaking of the Soviet blockade of the city is familiar, there is one aspect of the story that has not yet been told: while prop-engine C-54s were bringing tons of goods into the besieged city, they were also taking out an even more precious cargo—more than 5,000 homeless survivors of the Holocaust trapped in Berlin. The airlift was a response to Soviet dictator -Josef Stalin’s crude attempt to increase the extent of his domination of postwar Europe. The victors of World War II had divided Germany into four separate zones of occupation, with each sector controlled by one of the four Allied powers: the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. In the middle of the Soviet sector was the capital, Berlin; in April 1945 the Red Army, which had done the bulk of the fighting against the Nazis, conquered the city in a bloody battle that was followed by an orgy of mass rape and looting. But after the dust had settled, the Russians allowed the -Allies, as previously agreed, to take possession of parts of the city. Three years later, in the early summer of 1948, the -United States, Britain, and France designed a new common currency for postwar Germany that would ultimately serve to unite their three sectors into one country.

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