Oh my gosh, I've been negligent!
I just realized that I never did a Book of the Month for January, and today is the last day of February. I hustled over to my book stacks and pulled a few good candidates off the shelves. Plenty of fodder for future months!
This month's choice was a surprise book. It's one I had never heard of and picked it up from the bargain rack at Barnes & Noble, thinking I'd give it a read when all else had been devoured. I got it home and started glancing at the opening chapters and realized I needed to put this book at the head of the reading list.
"The Candy Bombers, The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour" by Andrei Cherny is a must-read for anyone interested in early post-war Europe and early Cold War history. In fact, the drama and situations Cherny outlines regarding immediate post-war Germany and our more recent history at 'peace enforcement' post-war Iraq share startling parallels.
I had always thought that America ended the war in Europe with a clear vision of just what to do with this conquered country. Cherny makes it clear that America stumbled into her post-war role in Germany, moving hesitantly towards the realization that we bore not just a huge responsibility in getting this wrecked nation back on its feet, but that unless America and her post-war allies, the British and French, took decisive steps the Soviets would have their way with Berlin and ultimately the entire German nation.
Cherny's story pivots around two key players in post-war Germany; General Lucius Clay and Secretary of Defense James Forrestal.
Clay was Harry Truman's very last choice for the post of military governor of Germany. A number of seemingly more suitable civilian candidates turned the president down flat when offered the position - the job and all it implied was viewed as political suicide. Out of frustration Truman told the Pentagon to find a general officer who could be ordered to take the job. They shoved Lucius Clay through the door to the Oval Office and a few minutes later he came out the effective overlord of post-war Germany.
As it turned out, Lucius Clay was perfect for the job. An extremely talented Army Corps of Engineer officer with extensive wartime project and program management experience, Clay had the intelligence, experience, education, political savvy and powers of observation that were precisely what the ruler of post-war Germany needed to not just set the defeated nation on the course to reconstruction but to stare down the Russians in what were effectively the opening gambits of the Cold War. Cherny does a great job of tracing Clay's metamorphosis from a believer in the good intentions of the post-war Soviet Union to a ram-rod believer in the Soviet Union's evil intent towards Germany and all of Eastern Europe. Clay arrived in Germany in 1946 believing in and determined to abide by the the Allied agreements on the partitioning and control of Germany and Berlin. In a very short time he realized the Russians had long since stopped abiding by wartime agreements and were charting their own course for domination in Eastern Europe. Clay's observations often put him at odds with Truman administration officials who still viewed the Soviets through the lens of wartime cooperation and good will.
Clay found an able, if somewhat unstable ally in James Forrestal, the Secretary of the Navy who was about to become Truman's first Secretary of Defense. Forrestal was a self-made man, a multi-millionaire investor and Democrat who was driven and passionate about national defense. Forrestal was also nobody's fool, and he quickly discerned that the Soviets were now the emerging global enemy - an enemy that needed to be stared down wherever they tried to force their hand.
And the first place the Soviets tried to force their hand was in Berlin. I won't go into the details of mechanics of the Berlin Airlift. The book tells the story quite well. The Airlift is not just a simple story of the movement of supplies to keep a city alive, it is the story of a defenseless nation watching as their former conquers marshaled all the technology of war to beat back a looming menace and set the conditions for the rise of a free and democratic Germany.
This book demonstrates that America is a force for good in this world. It's a lesson far too many of today's politicians need to learn and understand.