Daring Young Men

The Heroism and Triumph
of the Berlin Airlift,
June 1948-May 1949

By Richard Reeves

Simon & Schuster.

316 pp. $28

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Reviewed by Steve Weinberg


After gigantic sacrifices, the United States was finally able in 1945 to celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. Only three years later, the United States found itself making even more sacrifices related to Germany, but this time to stave off starvation in West Berlin, a bombed-out city where countless former Nazis lived.

Richard Reeves, a prolific journalist-historian, decided to write a book about what became known as the Berlin airlift because so many Americans today know little or nothing about the seemingly impossible - and highly unlikely - humanitarian mission.

Before starting to write Daring Young Men, Reeves, born in 1937, had been contemplating the changed perception of the United States throughout the world. At the end of World War II, it seemed, citizens of other nations looked upon the United States as bighearted, willingly sharing its disproportionate wealth. But during the first decade of the 21st century, many inhabitants of other lands viewed the United States "as arrogant, self-righteous, brutal, even a monster using our very substantial power to try to enforce a new order, a kind of global neo-imperialism," Reeves writes.

While sorting through those disturbing thoughts, Reeves read a book on the history of Europe since 1945. He expected that the author, respected historian Tony Judt, would devote a plentiful number of pages to the Berlin airlift, a yearlong triumph of technology, geopolitics, and humanitarianism mounted by the United States, England and France to defeat the Soviet Union's land blockade of West Berlin.

(After World War II, the four victorious nations - the United States, England, France, and the Soviet Union - had split the spoils in a bizarre manner, dividing the nation of Germany and its capital city, Berlin, into western and eastern zones. The divided city of Berlin lay within communist East Germany, and the Soviets refused to allow supplies for West Berlin to cross East German territory, apparently in an effort to force the United States, England, and France to withdraw their troops from West Berlin.)

Judt devoted less than a page to the airlift. That caused Reeves to wonder whether the 277,500 high-risk, expensive flights through Soviet airspace to supply food and fuel to the West Berliners had disappeared in the mists of history.

Students questioned by Reeves said they had never heard of the airlift. Reeves' contemporaries generally guessed the effort had occurred during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, not the presidency of Harry S. Truman 13 years earlier.

Unable to restrain his enthusiasm, Reeves told audiences about Truman's heroic decision to supply Berlin by air, in the face of objections from his cabinet and the Joint Chiefs of Staff that it would be impossible to feed a city of more than two million by using cargo planes.

"Then I would babble on about the daring young men (and some women) from the States and Great Britain being pulled away from their new lives, their wives, their schools, their work for the second time in five or six years," Reeves writes. "This time they were supposed to feed the people they had been trying to kill, and who had been trying to kill them, only three years earlier."

Determined to write a book about the airlift, Reeves traveled to Germany, retained a translator, and began conducting interviews. He also read media coverage, visited libraries, and consulted archivists in multiple nations.

The result is a chronological narrative covering two years. As always, Reeves writes clearly and compellingly. His cast of characters is huge, meaning readers sometimes will need to concentrate deeply or lose track of names. A positive side of assembling such a huge cast is that Reeves emphasizes the sagas of the "common people" who supported and opposed the airlift. It is not a book just about powerful personages such as Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union, Truman in the United States, plus elected leaders in England, France, and Germany.

Because the airlift never spawned a shooting war, the number of casualties was to be relatively small, with 32 Americans among the total of 101. But short of death, those involved faced huge risks, especially the pilots of the transport planes, C-47s and C-54s among them. They flew every day, in good weather and bad, using planes not designed to carry coal or foodstuffs, planes that should have been retired after World War II, planes that suffered from lack of maintenance, planes landing on runways not in the best of condition.

Although Reeves never descends into mindless patriotism, he obviously is relating the saga to demonstrate to the community of nations the goodness of the American government and its citizenry, a goodness not always seen - and, if seen, not always appreciated.

Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His most recent book is "Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller."