The Berlin Airlift’s lessons for Taiwan

  • Themes: Geopolitics, History

If China blockades the Taiwan Strait, Taipei's friends would need to launch an airlift even more comprehensive than the Berlin one of 1948.

C-47 Skytrains unloading at Tempelhof Airport during the Berlin Airlift.
C-47 Skytrains unloading at Tempelhof Airport during the Berlin Airlift. Credit: CBW / Alamy Stock Photo

On 24 June 1948, the Soviets blocked Western access to Berlin’s Western sectors. Such was Josef Stalin’s fury over Britain and America’s decision to introduce a currency reform in their sectors of Germany and West Berlin and thus take the first step towards the new Deutschmark. The United States and Britain responded with the now-legendary Berlin Airlift, a non-aggressive act that the Soviets had such trouble responding to, that they eventually lifted their blockade. Nearly eight decades later, Western leaders can draw important lessons from the airlift’s achievements.

‘I came back because I knew that if we could get some more DC-4s, the airlift would be successful,’ General Lucius Clay recalled. He was referring to a trip he made to Washington immediately after the Soviets had imposed their blockade of West Berlin. The general, who wanted to thwart the blockade by means of an extraordinarily audacious air bridge into the city, told President Harry Truman that he had a mere 40 DC-4s at his disposal for the airlift he wanted to launch to save the people of West Berlin. That number was woefully insufficient given that, if the portion of Berlin’s 2.5 million population living in the three Western sectors were to be fed and supplied with other necessities, flights every few minutes would be required.

With the Cold War intensifying, and with it the risk of a ‘hot’ conflict with the Soviet Union, the US military chiefs didn’t want to lend Clay aircraft for an initiative whose success was entirely uncertain. ‘If a war came they [the aircraft] would be destroyed and we’d be without transport,’ Clay later said, summarising the US military chiefs’ thinking. Clay, though, was allowed to make his case at a meeting of top officials, including the Joint Chiefs. Truman presided. ‘The Joint Chiefs and everybody else were opposed. Without these airplanes I don’t think the airlift could have made it, and I was obviously quite depressed,’ Clay later recalled and went on: ‘As the meeting ended and as we were walking out of the door the President said to me and Ken Royall, the Secretary of the Army, “Come on into my office”. We went into his office and he said something like this, “You’re not feeling very happy about this are you, Clay?” I said, “No, Sir, I’m not. I think that this is going to make our efforts a failure, and I’m afraid what will happen to Europe if it does fail.” He said, “Don’t you worry, you’re going to get your airplanes.”’

Clay did get his aeroplanes. Truman’s courage, paired with the general’s vision and logistical genius, brought about an aerial delivery machine of such sophistication that planes carrying food and other necessities landed at Gatow and especially Tempelhof airports more than once per minute. The airlift saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Berliners, demonstrated that Britain and the US weren’t going to give up on their German sectors or innocent civilians – and stunned the Soviets. Indeed, the Soviets were left incapable for stopping or even disrupting the blockade because it was an entirely peaceful act. On 11 May 1949 the Soviets lifted the blockade.

The Berlin Airlift’s success has important lessons for Western leaders today. Not every act of aggression by Russia or other increasingly belligerent countries needs to be avenged with military force. Indeed, like the Soviets’ blockade of West Berlin many such blockades involve no military aggression, which would make it foolish to escalate in response. By the same token, just like Britain and America didn’t simply accept the Soviets’ blockade of West Berlin, Western leaders today don’t need to accept egregious Russian behaviour.

What’s the prospective Berlin Airlift of today, or rather the Berlin Airlift that may be needed tomorrow? Consider how Russia might try to blockade, say, Estonia, or that China might try to blockade Taiwan. The latter is far more than a thought experiment. When then-President Tsai Ing-wen travelled to California to meet then-Speaker of the US House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy in April 2023, China reacted by launching a military exercise targeting Taiwan – and by dispatching an ‘inspection flotilla’ to the Taiwan Strait. The Strait is crucial to global trade, not to mention the supply of goods in and out of Taiwan. By threatening to inspect goods across the Strait, including on Taiwan’s side of the median line that divides it, Beijing signalled that it’s willing and able to disrupt global shipping and blockade Taiwan. If that were to happen, Taiwan’s friends would need to launch an airlift even more comprehensive than the Berlin one.

Lucius Clay acted fast. As soon as Truman had promised him the planes, the general told reporters as much, and with that the airlift took off. On 28 June the first US and British planes landed. Some time later, during one 24-hour stretch, an astonishing 1,398 flights carried necessities to Berlin. Let’s hope Western countries will be able to repeat this feat for other people in need, should it become necessary.


Elisabeth Braw