What was the Berlin Airlift, and why did it happen?

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Near the end of World War II, Russian, American, and British leaders met at the Crimean resort city of Yalta to discuss the postwar world. Photos of the conference show British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a very frail and sick looking President Franklin Roosevelt, and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. At this meeting, the three planned the fate of Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe after the fighting stopped. It was decided that Germany would be broken up into four zones, governed by British, French, American, and Soviet officials. Berlin, the capital city of Germany, was also partitioned with the Soviets occupying East Berlin, and the Western Allies taking the western part of the city. Since Berlin was deep in the Soviet sector of Germany, supplies to the war torn western section of the city had to be transported through Soviet controlled territory.

Although Stalin had guaranteed to Churchill and Roosevelt that free democratic elections would take place in East Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe, he soon reneged on these promises, and relations between the United States and the Soviet Union disintegrated, leading to the beginning of the Cold War. Some critics at the time, and historians since, have blamed Roosevelt for not arguing more forcefully on behalf of Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe. Roosevelt would die a mere two months later.

By 1946, it was clear that Stalin had no intentions of lessening the Soviet grip on these countries. In a famous speech in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill claimed that an "iron curtain" had "descended" on the nations of Eastern Europe. Indeed, these once free countries had succumbed to the influence of the Soviet Union with puppet governments established in the great capitals of Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Bucharest and Sofia. East Berlin, too, was ruled by a group of politicians beholden to Stalin.

In 1948, grown comfortable with his domination over Berlin, Stalin ordered highways, railroads, and canals with access to Berlin from the west to be closed. He believed the Western powers would just give up and abandon Berlin to Soviet control. Instead, Britain and the United States began airlifting supplies into the beleaguered section of Berlin. Known as the "Berlin Airlift" (American servicemen labeled it "Operation Vittles"), more than 2.3 million tons of goods were dropped to supply West Berlin.

During the airlift, life was difficult for West Berliners with vital necessities such as electricity and fuel in short supply. Nevertheless, they would not yield and the Soviets eventually gave up nearly one year later. In fact, the Soviet blockade, instead of strengthening the Soviet Union, only added to the tensions around the Cold War and made the Soviets look bad in the eyes of the rest of the world.

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The Berlin Airlift happened in 1949.  It was a time when the American and British air forces supplied the city of West Berlin with everything it needed to survive -- everything from food to coal.  It all had to be flown in.

The reason it happened is that the Russians had cut off access from the Allied zones of occupation in West Germany to West Berlin, which was in the Russian zone (what became East Germany).  So the Allies had to either surrender West Berlin or they had to supply it by air.

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