We Saved Berlin
“For 467 days during 1948 and 1949, the City of Berlin was kept alive by an Airbridge of Allied Aircraft bringing food and other essentials from the West.”
“The Airlift, called ‘Operation Vittles’ by the Americans, was the result of a Soviet blockade of all land, rail, and water routes into the city.”
So reads the inscription on a plaque outside what was once Templehof Airport, where Americans and Brits saved the city once hell-bent on destroying them.
How did they do it, and why? What can we learn from the story of Daring Young Men (and women), as told by Richard Reeves, for American political culture today?
It’s been a few years since I read the book in its entirety, but I’ve picked it up again, drawn to the magnitude of what was accomplished after the world’s most horrific war. For if beauty will truly rise from the ashes of dysfunctional, fearful, and angry politics, we’re going to need inspiration from great stories and even greater generations.
I’ll leave the telling to Reeves; the fact that “American and British planes landed or took off every forty-five seconds to keep Berlin and Berliners alive” (p. xiv) is no doubt enough to make you want to turn the pages of their story with your own hands. But as we enter their story, what might it change about our own?
The answer is stunning in its simplicity.
A Compelling Vision
On the first page of the Introduction, we find the words of Harry Truman:
“We stay in Berlin. Period.”
His advisors told him otherwise. But the vision was cast, and out of great vision rises great possibilities. And so 277,500 flights were made, and 2.3 million tons of food delivered over the following eleven months (p. xv).
The Soviet blockade of the city, which cut off access to supplies by land, rail, and water, was ruined by the vision to keep the city alive, and the ingenuity of the “airmen, mechanics, weathermen, ground controllers, and uncommon laborers who were among the sixty thousand men and women who kept the airlift going.” (p. xvi).
Too often in politics there isn’t a clear vision for what needs to be accomplished. There’s no daring destination, as Cheryl Bachelder would say. And in her own words, “a leader unwilling to take the people to a daring destination paralyzes the organization”. At best, in politics, staffers are left wandering through pointless news cycles and hearings, all totally disconnected from any sense of a common purpose. Perhaps at first glance it all looks very productive, because it’s so busy. But after living and working in American politics for a decade, too often it feels like nothing more than a blockade of the nation’s capital.
Instead, we need a new vision; we need an airlift. The vision of LIBERATUS looks at political culture holistically: our destination is healing, and we get there through creatively pursuing Truth and Beauty. In politics, everything—every decision, every policy proposal—is driven by philosophy, by ideology, by ideas, including ideas that we should hate the other side, that we will find personal significance through power, and the idea that we should only represent the grassroots instead of lead them to a deeper knowledge of freedom. So we need an idea that will transcend the blockade and empower the people going to work every day in politics to lead the nation to healing through freedom. I believe defining freedom as the creative pursuit of Truth and Beauty would radically reshape our politics, and could be the core, the starting point, of any political endeavor.
From Enemies to Allies
A clear vision—especially one like healing through freedom—can turn enemies into allies. To pull off the airlift, American enlisted men were tasked with supervising Luftwaffe mechanics, keeping C-54s in the air with supplies. A great vision will have that unifying effect. As Reeves notes, the Americans and British “were supposed to feed the people they had been trying to kill, and who had been trying to kill them, only three years earlier”. (p. xvi).
Does this even sound like the outcome of an election cycle? Too often the answer is no—because instead we kind of like the dysfunction. We kind of like viewing our fellow Americans as Soviets. But when we live in that hellish mindset, we wind up acting a lot more like the Soviets, blockading the very place where all of America should be represented, instead of finding a way to airlift bigger and better ideas into the country’s soul. We like being afraid and angry, and in our paranoia blockading anything we fear will keep us from gaining leverage and power.
Instead we need to see the shared humanity of those we perceive to be our enemies. Instead of projecting the “dark forces” we think exist onto the other party, we need to see the darkness within—doing so will actually open our eyes to the reality of our shared humanity and set us free to lead the nation well. It’s not, to be very honest, out of reach. But truly looking inward will lead us to a deeper knowledge of costly grace, and that in itself is a deeper knowledge of freedom!
The Better Angels
“Those were the kids—real, live innocents abroad who refused orders to pour gasoline in the cans of trash outside Air Force mess halls so that emaciated Germans, mostly women and children, could not scrounge for leftover food. Soon enough, German mothers were telling their children that the Americans were ‘angels in uniform.’ That was hardly true—and not all Germans were devils—but this great and amazing effort did tend to bring out what Abraham Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature.’” (p. xvii).
A compelling vision, born in the tension between what is and what could be, will lead us to turn enemies into allies, and doing so will bring out “the better angels of our nature”. I am confident that when we do, out of the ashes of our anger a beautiful new idea will rise: LIBERATUS—we are set free.
WEEKLY ACTION ITEM:
Where do you need to cast or recast a compelling vision, turn a political enemy into an ally, or motivate the people around you to aspire to ideas greater than the status quo?
Share your ideas with someone you trust, or send us a note. We’d love to hear from you!
LIBERATUS is a weekly journal creatively pursuing Truth and Beauty by empowering writers in American politics to tell the story of healing through freedom. You can join the pursuit by applying to write, subscribing to the journal, or funding our vision by donating monthly or making a purchase in our store.
Cover Photo Credit: Heather Gibbons