Reflections on Obama in Berlin

As Barack Obama conducts a campaign event in front of a column memorializing three wars of aggression by 19th century Prussia I hope every Berliner realizes what an Obama-like presidency in 1948 would have meant for them. Today Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus helps us recall:

But there are lessons from the airlift that should be more unsettling for those, like Obama, who want to be done with Iraq. The impulse of many Americans then, just as now, was to be finished with the entire project. ” ‘Get Germany off the American taxpayer’s back’ was the call of conservatives in Congress,” [Democratic strategist and author of The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest HourAndrei ] Cherny writes.

An occupation that looked irretrievably lost by spring 1948 turned paradoxically into success as the blockade continued. Berliners’ misery deepened, but so, too, did their faith in America and democracy. Berliners who had told pollsters since the war’s end that they would choose “economic security” over “freedom” changed their attitudes in the face of American kindnesses.

At home, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concerned about strains on the military, pressed to halt the airlift. So did the CIA, whose analysts, Cherny notes, “concluded that the United States was now worse off than if the airlift had never been attempted.” Truman overruled them all. “We’ll stay in Berlin — come what may,” he wrote in his diary in July 1948.

Sixty years later, as Obama arrives in a prosperous, thriving Berlin, it is fair to wonder whether the Cold War might have unfolded differently had Truman decided not to draw the line there against Soviet aggression.

The allure of quick and definite withdrawal from Iraq is evident. The reward of careful perseverance may become visible only in the long arc of history.