When President Joe Biden compared the U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan to one of the most important moments in the Cold War, the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift, heads swiveled in surprise—many in indignation. And no wonder. The Berlin Airlift was a triumph of American power in the face of evil. While the airlift from Kabul was technically impressive—more than 100,000 people in less than two weeks—no one except Biden could possibly see the chaos that unfolded during those two weeks as anything less than a national defeat.
Nonetheless, the story of the Berlin Airlift shows that the use of American air power to save the lives and freedom of 2.5 million Berliners was never inevitable; in fact, the result was often in doubt. It also shows that the character of a president and his advisers, especially his military commanders, can turn an apparent defeat into unexpected victory—or do the opposite.
In the early morning of June 24, 1948, Russian troops stopped every train, truck, and barge carrying food, coal, and other supplies to the western sector of Berlin. About 2.5 million people faced starvation—that was, unless the other Allied powers, Britain, France, and the United States, did something to stop it.
There were three options. The first was to pull out of Berlin and abandon the war-devastated city to total Soviet control. The second was for the western Allies to stand firm in their occupation sectors of the city, and hope the population of the biggest city in Europe could somehow survive without food or fuel.