II: The March Crisis and the Berlin Airlift

1947 was a year of confrontation. In July the Soviets rejected the aid offered through the Marshall Plan and forced other Eastern Bloc countries to do the same in an effort to counter the growing American influence in Europe. In September, the Communist International was apparently reborn as the COMINFORM. At the end of the year the growing stalemate in the roundrobin Conferences of Foreign Ministers (CFM) climaxed with a complete breakdown in London.

These ominous developments prompted equally dire warnings from within the US intelligence establishment. On 22 December a CIA Intelligence Memorandum warned President Truman that the Soviets would try, through obstructionism and harassment, to force the Western Allies out of Berlin.1 On 26 and 30 December CIA's analysis was seconded by similar missives from the State Department in Washington, followed by a cable from the Ambassador to Moscow, Lt. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith.2

In Berlin itself, the political atmosphere grew more frigid with the replacement of the Soviet Military Governor, Marshal Georgiy Zhukov, by the hardline Marshal Vassily Sokolovskiy in March 1946. The US Military Governor in Germany, Gen. Lucius D. Clay, had hoped to work cooperatively with his Soviet counterparts, but in October he began to worry about the exposed position of the US garrison in Berlin as the Soviets stepped up security for military exercises inside the eastern zone.3 Rumors began to circulate that dependents would soon be sent home. The Allied garrison in Berlin became increasingly jittery over the winter.4 In January 1948 the Soviets began to interfere with trains to Berlin from the western zones, and on the 20th of January Marshal Sokolovskiy abruptly rejected Clay's proposals for currency reform within occupied Germany. The situation worsened over February when the Czech Communist Party overthrew the coalition government in Prague, even as the Allies were discussing plans for a new Western German state. Shuttling back and forth to London, Clay felt increasingly uneasy, and finally, on 5 March, Clay cabled his concerns to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington:

For many months, based on logical analysis, I have felt and held that war was unlikely for at least ten years. Within the last few weeks, I have felt a subtle change in Soviet attitude which I cannot define but which now gives me a feeling that it may come with dramatic suddenness. I cannot support this change in my own thinking with any data or outward evidence in relationships other than to describe it as a feeling of a new tenseness in every Soviet individual with whom we have official relations. I am unable to submit any official report in the absence of supporting data but my feeling is real. You may advise the Chief of Staff of this for whatever it may be worth if you feel it advisable.5

Although Clay later denied that he had intended his carefully worded telegram to be a war-warning,6 it was interpreted as such by the Pentagon. At the behest of JCS Chairman Omar N. Bradley, the Intelligence Advisory Committee ordered an ad hoc committee chaired by CIA's Office of Reports and Estimates to draft an Intelligence Memorandum for the President judging the likelihood that the confrontation in Central Europe would escalate into war.7 The committee quickly became mired in bureaucratic rivalries. Army and Air Force representatives feared that passage of the defense budget then being debated in Congress might hang on what was said about Soviet intentions in Europe. Seemingly at particular risk was the Army's proposal for universal military training. The Office of Naval Intelligence, by contrast, remained conservative in its estimates and resisted saying anything that suggested war might break out in 1948. Consensus was, to say the least, elusive. Although--after an initial period of alarm--no one on the committee was willing to say that war was likely, the military representatives refused to say that it was unlikely.

Finally, on 16 March DCI Roscoe Hillenkoetter demanded straight answers from the committee to three questions, to be given to the President that morning:

  1. Will the Soviets deliberately provoke war in the next 30 days?
  2. In the next 60 days?
  3. In 1948?

After some further hedging, the committee answered the first two questions in the negative and deferred the answer to the third, to be dealt with by ORE in an Estimate. A rider was attached to the memorandum dealing with the Army's concerns for the defense budget still before Congress.8 DCI Hillenkoetter took advantage of the opportunity to append yet another memorandum reminding President Truman that CIA had analyzed Soviet intentions in these same terms on 22 December.9 The promised follow-on Estimate, ORE 22-48, The Possibility of Direct Soviet Action During 1948, was published on 2 April.10 In it--and in two similar estimates that followed over 1948-49--ORE discounted the possibility that the Soviet Union would deliberately initiate a war in the immediate future. However, ORE did underline the likelihood that the Soviet Union would apply increased political pressure to the US position in Europe, and warned that, in an atmosphere of increasing tension, the chances that war might break out by accident would increase.11

In Germany, Washington's alarm over Clay's 5 March telegram came as something of a surprise. On 12 March a quick poll of intelligence officers attached to the various commands in Germany produced a near-consensus that the Soviets were not ready for war12--only Clay's G-2, Maj. Gen. Robert L. Walsh disagreed. While this was going on, the Soviets moved some 20,000 troops into frontal areas from within the Eastern bloc, along with an additional 12,000 MVD (internal security) troops from the Soviet Union. On 19 March a planned Communist takeover in Helsinki failed when the Finnish Minister of the Interior, Yrjo Leino, himself a Communist, alerted the Finnish army.13 The next day Sokolovskiy and the entire Soviet delegation walked out of the Allied Control Council in Berlin. This was followed by two weeks of exercises involving Soviet ground forces and police units inside East Germany. At the same time, the Soviets staged a series of carefully orchestrated incidents near the intra-German border, including the kidnapping and interrogation of German civilians, apparently with the intent of convincing Allied observers that the Soviets were preparing to take some undefined military action.14

In the time that had passed between the first Soviet provocations and the staged military incidents at the end of March, the Western Allies had the opportunity to consider possible Soviet actions in detail. As might be expected, the onset of large-scale Soviet military exercises triggered an alert in the Western zones, but by the time the Soviets began staging incidents along the intra-German border the debate over the Soviets' intentions for the near future was over. When, on 30 March, Sokolovskiy's deputy formally notified his Western counterparts that, effective midnight, 31 March, all Allied traffic through the Soviet zone would be forced to submit to inspection, both General Clay and his superiors in Washington knew that they faced a political challenge to the US presence in Berlin--not the threat of war.15

From the intelligence standpoint, the chief effect of the March crisis was to provide a precedent by which future Soviet actions could be judged. In effect, Stalin had telegraphed his punches, so that, by the onset of the Berlin blockade that June, Western analysts had a better understanding of just how far he was willing to go. Under these circumstances, the outcome of the June crisis was pretty much a foregone conclusion--assuming that Western resolve remained intact.

Stalin hoped, of course, that by challenging the Allied position in Berlin, he would be attacking the Western coalition at its weakest point. Anticipating a postwar crisis in capitalist system, Stalin believed that Berlin was the point where, if he pushed hard enough, he would cause the Western alliance to come apart at the seams.16

In pursuit of this goal, Soviet harassment of Allied military trains to Berlin continued over April and May, all but halting passenger traffic, although food shipments continued. On 5 April a Soviet Yak-9 fighter harassing a British airliner inadvertently collided with it, killing all on board both aircraft. Simultaneously, the Soviet Berlin Commandant, Gen. Alexander Kotikov, launched a blatant campaign to hamstring the Kommandatura. The scale of Soviet provocations increased until 16 June, when Kotikov denounced the American Commandant, Col. Frank Howley, for leaving his deputy to represent him in a meeting of the Kommandatura and walked out himself, thus abrogating the last vestiges of the quadripartite administration of Berlin.17 Over 18-20 June the Soviets blocked the Western powers' plans for the introduction of a reformed currency into Berlin. On 19 June they finally halted all rail traffic into the city, and on 23 June they halted road and barge traffic and cut off the supply of electricity to West Berlin.18 The Soviet blockade of Berlin had begun. On 26 June the first Allied transports began to airlift supplies into Berlin.

The Berlin blockade illustrated just how poorly Stalin was being served by his intelligence services. Soviet planning for the blockade was superficial at best: the Soviets apparently never anticipated that the West might hold out,19 while no one in the Kremlin seems to have realized how much the eastern zone itself was economically dependent on the West.20 Moreover, there is evidence that Soviet intelligence officers feared to bring bad news to Stalin and "cooked the books" in their reporting about the effectiveness of the blockade and Allied airlift.21 Had they not done so, the Soviet blockade might never have gone on as long as did, despite its manifest failure.

By contrast, the record shows that US reporting accurately gauged Soviet intentions both before and during the crisis. In Washington, ORE persisted in its belief that Stalin would not deliberately push the Berlin confrontation to war.22 Meanwhile, CIA intelligence officers provided insights into the strengths and weaknesses in Soviet planning23 and were able to provide some of the first indications of cracks in Soviet resolve.24 Policymakers in Washington were also kept apprised of the situation in Berlin through a stream of reporting on Soviet intentions and operations.25

II-1: Memorandum for the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, General of the Army Omar Bradley, 31 July 1947 (MORI No. 144273). [PDF Only 215KB*]

Tensions were running high in the summer of 1947, as reflected in this extract from a routine status report prepared in Berlin. The writer of the report would not have used such candor in referring to his military compatriots, were the report intended for other than internal consumption. It is interesting that the branch chief in Washington, future DCI Richard Helms, felt the report to be important enough that it be shared with JCS Chief Bradley without altering the language.

II-2: Memorandum for the President, 16 March 1948 (MORI No. 9259). [PDF Only 401KB*]

DCI Hillenkoeter's memorandum brought the curtain down on the March 1948 "war scare." Because General Clay's so-called "war warning" emanated from outside normal intelligence channels, Hillenkoetter apparently felt that CIA's credibility was at stake. He thus appended a CIA memorandum from the previous December evaluating the situation and forecasting Soviet moves. That CIA was still a very young agency is reflected in the use of recycled Central Intelligence Group (CIG) stationary.

II-3: ORE 22-48: Possibility of Direct Soviet Military Action During 1948, 2 April 1948. [PDF Only 631KB*]

II-4: ORE 22-48, Addendum: Possibility of Direct Soviet Military Action During 1948-49, 16 September 1948. [PDF Only 451KB*]

II-5: ORE 46-49: The Possibility of Direct Soviet Military Action During 1949, 3 May 1949. [PDF Only 729KB*]

One of the most valuable functions played by the Intelligence Community during the crisis of 1948-49 was to provide policymakers with perspective on the changing situation in Berlin and Germany. In these three Estimates, the Office of Reports and Estimates (ORE) used assessments of Soviet capabilities to discount the possibility of Soviet military action in 1948 and 1949. Reporting of this kind helped policymakers understand Soviet actions in Berlin in context with broader Soviet intentions. Throughout this period, however, ORE was handicapped by a consistent lack of reliable information on Soviet intentions and capabilities, a deficiency clearly reflected in these Estimates. Interesting, too, is the fact that all these Estimates warn of the likelihood that war might break out inadvertently, should tensions continue to run high--a reminder that the memories of Sarajevo and the outbreak of World War I lingered in the minds of high-level officials on both sides.

II-6: ORE 29-48: Possible Program of Future Soviet Moves in Germany, 28 April 1948. [PDF Only 585KB*]

In the aftermath of the March Crisis, ORE attempted to forecast possible Soviet moves in Germany. Although the Estimate raises the possibility of a blockade, the emphasis throughout is on the projected establishment of a Soviet-backed East German Communist regime.

II-7: Memorandum for the President, 9 June 1948 (MORI No. 9260). [PDF Only 357KB*]

Although the lines of confrontation certainly were being drawn, in June 1948 the situation in Germany remained fluid. This memorandum, prepared just before the Soviets severed land links between the eastern zone and the west, discusses likely Soviet reactions to the proposed merger of the three western zones of occupied Germany. It serves as a reminder of just how new--and unprecedented--the Cold War was in 1948. The governments here discussed as being established "provisionally" were to last nearly half a century.

II-8: ORE 41-48: Effect of Soviet Restrictions on the US Position in Berlin, 14 June 1948. [PDF Only 668KB*]

But a few days before the onset of the Berlin blockade (20 June), ORE considered the impact of Soviet efforts to restrict US military rail traffic to and from Berlin. Already Berlin's value as a base for the collection of strategic intelligence inside Soviet-dominated Europe is being emphasized.

II-9: CIA Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense, Subject: Situation in Berlin, 28 June 1948 (MORI No. 144438). [PDF Only 198KB*]

II-10: CIA Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense, Current Subject: Situation in Berlin, 30 June 1948 (MORI No. 145210). [PDF Only 152KB*]

II-11: Memorandum for the President: Russian Directive Indicating Soviets Intend to Incorporate Berlin into the Soviet Zone, 30 June 1948 (MORI No. 97992). [PDF Only 57KB*]

II-12: Intelligence Report: Russian Unilateral Dismissal and Appointment of Berlin Police Officials, 15 July 1948 (MORI No. 145211). [PDF Only 72KB*]

The four intelligence reports above demonstrate Soviet confidence that the blockade would bring an end to the quadripartite regime in Berlin. The reports of Soviet planning to assume full control of Berlin (Documents. II-9, II-11, II-12) reveal a thoroughness in operational matters that contrasts sharply with the more strategic failure to consider the effect the blockade would have on the East German economy. Document II-10 shows how the Soviets depended on German food supplies, even as they were taking actions that would throttle the East German economy. The documents also suggest that the Soviets never expected West Berlin to hold out for nearly a year.

II-13: CIA 7-48: Review of the World Situation, 14 July 1948 (MORI: 8840). [PDF Only 1.6MB*]

The dramatic success of the Berlin airlift has tended to obscure just how perilous a situation Berlin was in the summer of 1948. As this CIA report shows, there were real doubts about the Allies' ability to maintain themselves in Berlin. Moreover, with both the Western and Eastern alliances in flux, more than the Allied position in central Europe was at stake. As the confrontation dragged on, each side's freedom of action gradually diminished.

II-14: Memorandum for the President on the Situation in Berlin, 10 December 1948 (MORI No. 145213). [PDF Only 257KB*]

II-15: Intelligence Report: Soviet Measures to Further Tighten the Sector Blockade in Berlin, 30 December 1948 (MORI No. 145214). [PDF Only 176KB*]

II-16: Soviet Plans to Control the Western Sectors of Berlin, 6 January 1949 (MORI No. 145215). [PDF Only 126KB*]

The Allied capability to supply West Berlin with needed food and fuel was strained to the utmost in the frigid North European winter. Apparently believing that they could bring the confrontation to a decisive conclusion, the Soviets prepared to isolate West Berlin from the eastern half of the city and to abrogate what remained of the quadripartite governing arrangements. Once again, a Soviet intelligence failure is revealed in their ignorance of the economic interdependence of the city as a whole. Soviet efforts to halt economic intercourse between East and West Berlin failed, while the winter brought only a redoubling of Western supply efforts.

II-17: IR: SED preparations for Illegal Work in West Berlin, 7 March 1949 (MORI No. 145217). [PDF Only 142KB*]

II-18: IR: Progress of the SED Membership Purge, 7 March 1949 (MORI No. 145218). [PDF Only 117KB*]

By the spring of 1949 a change in mood was evident in the East German Communist leadership, if not in Moscow. Having apparently reconciled themselves to the failure of the blockade to drive the Western powers out of Berlin, the SED prepared itself for long-term subversive activity in the western half of the city and began a purge of its leadership cadres.

II-19: CIA 5-49: Review of the World Situation, 17 May 1949 (MORI No. 8872). [PDF Only 1.18MB*]

With the blockade at an end, Western optimism is shown in the hope that the Soviets would be willing to negotiate a solution to the "German question." In fact, a solution already had been found: in the division of Germany into two separate states. Probably neither side recognized at this point just how enduring this solution was to be.




1 This memorandum is appended to Document II-2.

2 FRUS 1947, Vol. II, pp. 905-908.

3 William R. Harris, "The March Crisis of 1948, Act I," Studies in Intelligence (1966), p. 3.

4 See Document II-1.

5 Harris, p. 7.

6 Lucius D. Clay, Decision in Germany (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1950), p. 354.

7 Harris, p. 10.

8Ibid., pp. 20-21.

9 See Document II-2.

10 See Document II-3.

11 See Documents II-4 and II-5.

12 David E. Murphy, Sergei Kondrashev, and George Bailey, Battleground Berlin,(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), p. 54.

13 Harris, p. 10.

14Ibid., p. 13.

15Ibid., p. 25.

16 Zubok and Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 48-49.

17 Frank Howley, Berlin Command (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1950), pp. 181-82.

18 The Soviet effort to cut off West Berlin's electrical supply was only partially effective. Because the electrical net for the city of Berlin had been designed for a unified city (and not, of course, for one broken into two hostile halves) the Soviets found it impossible to completely cut off West Berlin's electrical supply without also severing their own. William Stivers, "The Incomplete Blockade: Soviet Zone Supply of West Berlin, 1948-49," Diplomatic History (1997), p. 586.

19 Murphy, et al., p. 57.

20 The Allied airlift was able to meet Berlin's basic requirements for food and fuel, but the continued functioning of the city's economy depended on interchange with the eastern zone. This continued illegally under the blockade. Stivers, "The Incomplete Blockade...," passim.

21 Murphy, pp. 62-63, 64-65.

22 See Documents II-3--II-6. See also Woodrow J. Kuhns, ed. Assessing the Soviet Threat: The Early Cold War Years (Washington, DC: Center for the Study of Intelligence, 1997), Docs. 67, 85, 145.

23 See Document II-8.

24 See Documents II-17 and II-18.

25 See Documents II-9--II-16.



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Historical Document
Posted: Apr 19, 2007 07:34 AM
Last Updated: Feb 04, 2014 12:22 PM