Operation Vittles | 1948

In the summer of 1948, American magazines, newspapers, and newsreels provided a steady stream of updates on the state of affairs in Soviet-blockaded Berlin. The headlines denounced Soviet propaganda, while praising the German spirit and American commitment to the city. The Anglo-American powers implemented an airlift as a temporary measure to provide food and fuel for the city, yet it lasted for nearly a year. With neither side willing to concede defeat or engage militarily, the ensuing stalemate led many Americans to question the efficacy of the operation. In an effort to educate the public, the newly created United States Air Force produced a short documentary on Operation Vittles (the official military title), which was nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject at the 21st Academy Awards. The film was one of several informational shorts produced by the U.S. military to educate the German and American publics on the merits of American humanitarian action in the blockaded city. While it failed to win the Oscar, the film offers useful insights on the significance of propaganda in the early Cold War.


When World War II came to an end, the victorious Allies divided Germany into four zones of occupation (American, British, French, and Soviet). Berlin, while located within the Soviet Zone, was similarly divided into four sectors. Allied leadership agreed upon the zones at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, with borders finalized at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945. At Potsdam, however, cracks appeared in the wartime alliance. Relations between the Soviet Union and United States continued to deteriorate throughout the early postwar period, fueled by opposing occupation policies and competition over the economic and political future of Europe. On June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union initiated a blockade of all rail, road, and water access to Western Sectors of Berlin. The blockade was a response to ongoing disputes over currency reform, specifically the introduction of the new Deutschmark (DM) in Western occupation Zones. Rather than cave to Soviet demands, the United States and Great Britain launched an airlift to the city, using three separate air corridors (Luftbrücke or “air bridges”) to supply the city with food and coal. The crisis ended when Soviet forces lifted the blockade on May 12, 1949. The Berlin Airlift remains one of the most successful humanitarian missions in United States military history, delivering 2.3 million tons of cargo between June 1948 and May 1949.


The Berlin Blockade and ensuing Airlift was one of the first international crises of the Cold War. However, the situation in Berlin was about more than currency reform. In early 1947, the British and Americans had merged their Zones of occupation into one: Bizonia. That summer, U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall announced plans for the European Recovery Program (the Marshall Plan), supporting economic recovery in Europe while simultaneously ensuring that recovery followed an American and not Soviet model. In early 1948, the U.S., Great Britain, and France broached the topic of German unification, evoking the ire of Soviet officials who promptly withdrew from the Allied Control Council. The introduction of the Deutschmark in Western Zones was the first step towards implementing Marshall Plan aid, but it was the last straw for Soviet officials who saw it as a deliberate attempt to pull Berlin towards the West. Two weeks after Moscow lifted the blockade, the Federal Republic of Germany was established in the West (23 May 1949), followed by the German Democratic Republic later that year, solidifying the division between East and West.

Operation Vittles demonstrates the weight attached to winning hearts and minds, both abroad and at home.

The press generated by the Berlin Airlift contributed to the growing significance of propaganda in the emerging Cold War and the symbolic power of benevolent diplomacy. Human interest stories like those included in the Operation Vittles documentary served to assuage fears of a new global war and garnered goodwill, replacing postwar doubts and concerns with pride in the American mission. The Airlift, and ensuing publicity, facilitated the American transition from occupier to protector. The documentary included a discussion on pilot Gail Halvorsen and his project dropping handkerchief parachutes containing candy over Berlin. The military endorsed the candy drops and sent Halvorsen stateside to participate in a publicity tour educating the American public on the Airlift. Popular culture gradually embraced the humanitarian effort, with American film stars hosting food drives and donating autographed candy packages. Following Halvorsen’s lead, the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe (CARE) organization enlisted American flyers to drop balloon Shmoos—the popular creature from the Li’l Abner cartoons—over Berlin. A ten-pound package of lard was exchanged for every Shmoo returned to a CARE office. The U.S. Air Force also lent support to a Hollywood production on the Airlift. The Big Lift (1950), starring Montgomery Clift, was a love story set against the backdrop of the Airlift that offered an interesting paradigm on American values. It was filmed on location in Berlin and it included actual military personnel playing themselves.

Operation Vittles demonstrates the weight attached to winning hearts and minds, both abroad and at home. The Cold War was a different kind of conflict, but it still required the mass mobilization of civilian populations. To win support from a war weary American public, officials underscored the benevolent nature of the Airlift, emphasizing this was an operation for peace not prelude to World War III. Thus Operation Vittles invited citizen engagement by demonstrating how the arsenal of democracy could employ benign measures rather than weapons of destruction. In addition to supplying technical information on the aircraft and logistics, the documentary portrayed the Airlift as a mission of mercy, with pilots risking their lives to keep a city alive that they had bombed only a few years prior. Americans responded enthusiastically, participating in charitable campaigns and supporting the American presence in Berlin. Humanitarianism served to make comfortable the projection of U.S. military power in Europe. In sum, the Airlift documentary highlights the significance of humanitarian aid as both an instrument of statecraft and a propaganda tool.


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