Nuclear Threats - First Berlin Crisis - 1951
The most critical event of the early Cold War, the Berlin crisis determined a balance of power which would last until the fall of the Berlin wall. It was the culmination of the struggle for control of Germany, the keystone of European hegemony for either East or West.
At Potsdam, the victorious allies had agreed to regard Germany as a single unit. In practice, this was difficult. As frequently happened in the postwar scramble for ascendancy, the powers’ incompatible strategic concerns took precedence over the rhetoric of their alliance. Each ally’s separate zone of occupation crystallized gradually into a distinct entity; polices for reconstruction differed and tension grew.
When the March 1947 meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers in Moscow failed to suggest a solution, British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin and US Secretary of State George Marshall concluded something must be done, even if a divided Germany was the result. This marked the start of a move away from the Potsdam consensus toward an attempt by the Western allies to seal of Western Germany from Soviet influence and integrate their zones into the Western European system.
The London meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers later that year “proved decisive precisely because it decided nothing.” Bevin and Marshall ordered their military governors to begin planning a political infrastructure in the now merged British and American zones and agreed to ask the French to participate.
The result was the London Programme for the economic revival and reconstruction of the Western zones. As predicted by Western officials, the Soviets attempted to disrupt the programme by exerting leverage over the isolated enclave of West Berlin. A partial blockade imposed on April 1st failed to achieve Soviet aims and on 24th June, all links to the city were severed. Although there were some fears that the blockade presaged a Soviet thrust across the Elbe, Bevin himself was confident that that it was not intended as a preliminary to war.
Churchill, then leader of the British opposition, advocated the open threatening of nuclear attack to coerce the Soviets. His advice was ignored.
Allied land forces in Europe compared poorly to the Soviets’ and an attempted armoured breakthrough was not an option. At British insistence, the supply of Berlin by air was begun. The airlift would last over a year.
As the airlift continued, America made inquiries as to the possibility of transferring B-29 bombers to Britain. Well known to the public as the ‘atomic bombers,’ many B-29s were already in Europe. These, however, were not of the modified "Silver Plate" type capable of carrying atomic bombs. In making their request, the National Security Council calculated that the planes would become a permanent fixture. As for the British, Bevin was happy to lock the United States into a role as guarantor of European security.
It was not known to the public at the time whether or not the planes were carrying atomic bombs. Although the deployment was described as a mission of ‘good will and training,’ deliberate leaks suggested a nuclear capability. It was not until the early 80s that newly released documents showed that not only were the B-29s not carrying nuclear weapons, they were also not of the modified type and were therefore unable to do so. Nevertheless, the bluff seemed to have the required deterrent effect and there were no Soviet fighters or barrage balloons to obstruct the air corridor to Berlin, allowing the Western attrition to continue until the blockade was lifted the following year.
The deployment of the ‘atomic’ B-29s was, in hindsight, an improvisation by the Truman administration, which was responding to a crisis for which it was ill-prepared, at a time when American war plans were incomplete. America’s nuclear stockpile was also in disarray, consisting of no more than fifty devices, many of which were found later to be defective. The Berlin Crisis was not a nuclear ‘near miss’ as such, marking rather the return to the realities of nuclear planning after a period in which Truman had expected a global ban on atomic weapons. Although America was willing to go to war over Berlin, a war in which atomic attacks on the Soviet Union were a foregone conclusion, it was the airlift itself, rather than the B-29 deployment, which allowed the West to retain its position in Berlin and Germany.
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