Lessons of the airlift

When I posted this brief account of the Berlin airlift highlighting the role of Harry Truman and the left-liberal opposition to the airlift by Henry Wallace and his ilk, I had no idea that a new history of the airlift had just been published. Andrei Cherny is an attorney, a former Gore speechwriter, a Navy Reserve officer, and co-editor of the journal Democracy. As of this spring, he is also now the author of The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour. Cherny provides chapter and verse on Wallace’s opposition to the airlift.

Cherny is a liberal and he unfortunately contrasts the American occupation of Germany with our experience in Iraq. I think the virtues that Cherny attributes to the American heroes of the Berlin airlift apply equally to the American heroes who are vanquishing al Qaeda in Iraq. Cherny’s account of the airlift is nevertheless a powerful corrective to Barack Obama’s one-world drivel about the airlift in his sermon to the Germans. I have no doubt that were he alive at that time, Obama would have stood together with George McGovern among Wallace’s supporters opposing the airlift.

Cherny’s C-SPAN talk about the book is accessible here. Cherny’s book seems to have inspired the ABC person of the week profile of “candy bomber” Hal Halvorsen here. The ABC profile has some historical footage that is not to be missed.

In connection with Cherny’s book Michael Barone devoted a characteristically excellent column to a comparison of the lessons that can be learned from the American experience in Germany with our recent experience in Iraq. Barone concludes:

One is that the kindness of American soldiers — the candy bombers — can be a national asset. There are many similar stories out of Iraq and Afghanistan, even if today’s media, unlike the media of 1948, are not disposed to tell them.

Another is that presidential determination to avoid defeat and retreat can prevail against the advice of experts. Just as Truman’s Pentagon opposed the airlift, so George W. Bush’s Pentagon mostly opposed the surge strategy in Iraq. In late 2006 and early 2007, the advice from experts, notably the Baker-Hamilton Commission, was the same as that Marshall and Bradley gave Truman: get out with whatever fig leaf you can. The surge, like the airlift, was said to put undue strain on the military, to degrade the readiness of men and material for other missions. All these claims were plausible and, in the case of the surge, dominated press coverage and were supported by the incoming leaders in Congress.

But Bush, echoing Truman, said, at least in effect, we’re not leaving Iraq. He embraced the proposals for the surge, which had been worked up by retired Gen. Jack Keane and American Enterprise Institute scholar Frederick Kagan. He found a commander, Gen. David Petraeus, who had rewritten the Army’s manual on counterinsurgency and who had the character and skill to put the surge into effect.

As was the case with Tunner, the men and women serving under him showed unexpected ingenuity and the ability to adapt to unpredicted turns of events, like the Anbar awakening, which enabled them to convert Iraq’s deadliest province into a friendly, peaceful territory. And, I am sure we will find out sooner or later, those troops also performed acts of generosity, which made their task easier and will produce goodwill that will last, as the candy bombings did, for decades to come.

The lessons are clear. Stand fast. Put the right men in charge. And never doubt the capacity of the men and women of the American military, when given the right orders, to perform far better than the experts predict.

With Barone’s addendum, the story Cherny tells is a timely reminder of an inspiring chapter of American history.

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