Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Candy Bombers


I have been meaning to blog about my friend Andrei Cherny's new book The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour for some time. Now I have a great excuse. Talking Points Memo is doing its book blog about the book. You can find the posts here.

Andrei starts off the conversation:

The Candy Bombers was an attempt to write the kind of character-driven, narrative history that I enjoy reading but - more importantly from the standpoint of this discussion - it was also an attempt to excavate a "usable past" for progressives, something we talk a lot about but have not done enough of.

About four years ago, I asked myself these questions: If, in this era of Abu Ghraib and a descending situation in Iraq, America is doing the wrong things in the world, when were we most clearly doing the right thing? If we are at a low ebb of our standing in the eyes of people in other nations, when were we most beloved and admired and trusted around the world?

The answer was clear to me: the Berlin Airlift - not only the greatest humanitarian effort of all time, but a military operation that changed the flow of history and put America clearly on the side of kindness and decency in the world.

Like many others, I had a passing a familiarity with the Berlin Airlift, but did not know the full story of what had happened - in large part, as I discovered once digging into this subject, because it had never been written. I found that, like other seemingly familiar aspects of our past, it was a mystery in plain sight. I knew that the powerful symbol that Angela Merkel described had to have a more interesting story than the sentence or few paragraphs the Airlift gets even in most histories of the Cold War or postwar Europe and America.

But as I began writing this book, I realized that I would not be able to tell the story of the Berlin Airlift without also describing America's foreign policy challenges in the years after World War II and Harry Truman's political challenges in the 1948 election.

I will turn to how presidential politics and the Berlin crisis were intimately tied together in a future post, but want to kick-off our discussion by focusing on the challenges America faced in the world in 1948 - and what, if anything, we might learn from them.

1948 found Americans struggling, for the first time, to figure out how an exceptional nation should act at the summit of world power. The sense that victory in World War II would be followed by a return to isolationism had been replaced by the realization that America would not be able to again shuffle off the world stage. All through the previous year, the governments of Eastern Europe had fallen one by one to Soviet coups and the United States found itself in a new kind of worldwide ideological struggle. The Marshall Plan spent nearly a year after its announcement stalled on Capitol Hill. The American military had been not only demobilized but decimated. And, three years after the end of the war, the occupation of Germany was, by most any measure, failing.

But the story of this book is how a set of imperfect people - presidents, diplomats, generals, ordinary citizens - responded and brought America to the high-point of the American century. It was the closest we ever came to World War III (closer even than the Cuban Missile Crisis), the point at which we stopped the Soviet expansion across the continent of Europe, and the source of NATO and the Federal Republic of Germany.



Lawrence Kaplan and James Traub have joined the conversation, and praise the book. Read it all here.

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