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Start of the Cold War - The Berlin airlift and the creation of NATO

Learn about the Berlin airlift, NATO, and the National Security Act.

Overview

  • Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union came to a head in 1948, when the Soviet Union blockaded Berlin and the United States led a year-long airlift to supply citizens stranded in the western zone of the city.
  • Realizing that conflict with the Soviet Union might escalate into war, the United States joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) defensive alliance and ramped up security measures at home with the National Security Act.

The Berlin airlift

The growing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union finally erupted into crisis in 1948. For three years, the Big Four powers had followed the plan of occupation decided at Yalta, with each power administering a zone of Germany as well as a zone of the capital city of Berlin. But ideological divisions over what should be done with Germany tore the former allies apart.
Believing that a reunified Germany would prevent a repeat of the economic catastrophe that had followed World War I, the United States, Britain, and France decided to consolidate their zones of Germany. The Soviet Union, which wanted to ensure that Germany could never attack it again, strongly objected to this plan. In 1948 the Soviet Union flexed its might by cutting off all highway and railroad access to the city of Berlin (which fell within its occupation zone), hoping to absorb all of Berlin under Soviet control. West Berlin would either starve or the Western Allies would surrender to the Soviets' wishes for Germany.1
Map of partitioned Germany showing the nations in control of each region: England in the northwest, France in the southwest, the United States in the southeast, and the Soviet Union in the northeast. The city of Berlin falls within the Soviet zone.
Map of partitioned Germany showing the nations in control of each region: England in the northwest, France in the southwest, the United States in the southeast, and the Soviet Union in the northeast. Note that the city of Berlin, which was itself divided among the four powers, fell within the Soviet region. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
The United States, Britain, and France refused to allow the Soviet Union to hold Berlin hostage. Instead, they arranged for a massive support mission to supply West Berlin. From June 1948 to May 1949, they sent hundreds of airplanes filled with food and fuel every day, in what became known as the Berlin airlift. They also instituted a counter-blockade on East Berlin.2
After 11 months, the Soviets realized that the blockade was a failure and ended it. But the standoff over Berlin had crystallized the divisions of the Cold War. The Western Allies turned their combined occupation zones into the new country of West Germany, and the Soviet Union responded by creating East Germany. The Soviets also began the process of building a barrier between the eastern and western zones of Berlin that would stand for the next forty years.3

NATO and the National Security Act

As tensions raged in Europe, the United States realized that long-lasting peace was not going to follow on the heels of World War II. When Britain, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg asked the United States to join its defensive alliance in 1948, the United States broke its longstanding aversion toward entangling alliances abroad and signed on.4
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as the pact was named, started with 12 member nations (today, it has 30). NATO promised that an attack on one of its members would provoke a response from all of its members. NATO became the major international body opposing communism in the twentieth century.5
The United States also strengthened its commitment to defense at home. In 1947 Congress passed the National Security Act, which united the branches of the armed services under the new Department of Defense. It also created the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council to gather intelligence and advise the president on foreign policy. In addition, Congress reinstituted the Selective Service military draft for young men in 1948. If any hope remained that the world would be tranquil after Hitler's defeat, by the end of the 1940s it had gone. 6

What do you think?

Why do you think the United States was so determined to help West Berlin when it had no real interests to protect there?
Do you think it was a good idea for the United States to join NATO? What are the potential benefits and drawbacks of being part of a defensive alliance?

Want to join the conversation?

  • leaf green style avatar for user Tim.Gorst66
    Why is the division of Austria after world war two less well known?
    (17 votes)
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  • stelly blue style avatar for user Jorge Daniel Garcia
    How is NATO different than the alliances that started (caused) WWII?
    (7 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user alexam.berry
    what causes the cold war
    (0 votes)
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    • old spice man blue style avatar for user Ramesh969
      The Cold War were tensions between the USSR and America. When America dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan, the USSR felt their national security was at stake, so they made their own nuclear bombs. As each side made more and more nuclear bombs, the world grew tense because if another world war came, it would most likely use nuclear bombs.

      Meanwhile, in the middle of this, there was the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Both of these were America trying to stop the spread of communism. The Korean War almost became the third world war, as General Douglas MacArthur wanted to extend the war into China. At the end of the war, almost 3 million lives were lost for mainly no reason, as Korea was still divided.

      The Vietnam War, however, didn't go so well for America. A lot of Americans were against the war, though Lyndon B. Johnson spent a lot of time and money in it and the Americans lost. North Vietnam won, and Vietnam became communist. The reason that the U.S. fought these wars is because they believed in the 'domino effect' — that if one country fell to communism, the surrounding countries would fall to communism. Plus, the more countries become communist, the U.S. would have less trading partners, and eventually the world would become communist.

      In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev broke down walls (literally, the Berlin Wall) and Gorbachev eventually ended the 'communist' regime. The Cold War got its name because the USSR and America never directly fought each other. Sorry if this is too long!
      (16 votes)
  • leafers sapling style avatar for user templin.seth
    I saw a small divided part of Germany from Communisim (red), what is that?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Jarel Palau
    So if the United States' territory is highlighted on yellow on the map, why is there two splotches of American territory in U.K. territory
    (3 votes)
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  • female robot ada style avatar for user Robyn of Lilyonia
    Why do you think the United States was so determined to help West Berlin when it had no real interests to protect there?

    I think that we were trying to prevent communism, which ruins countries and kills hundreds of thousands of people.
    (4 votes)
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    • duskpin tree style avatar for user Yuan Yuan Chen
      'Thisis what I think they did it for.
      Well, they did it to prevent World War Two possibly happening all over again. They didn't stop Hitler when he conquered small European countries, they let a world war start. If they didn't stop Stalin from taking a small thing like West Berlin, how would they stop him when he had all of Europe under his control?
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Anastasia Olaru
    why was the USA so interested in protecting West Berlin when it had no interests there?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user am1527665
    Why wasn't the dividing of Austria more talked about throughout history?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user chhuon.menglin
    Fundamentally, the United States was committed to helping West Germany as a result of the conflict of interest in geographical politics in Germany after WW1. Basically, the former Soviet Union intended to attack the three allies to surrender under the auspices of hostage. Actually, the USSR cut off all railroads and transportation in order to ensure that Germany would not be able to control its land and make West Germany starve. In addition to that, the Soviet Union wanted its allies to surrender under that plan. In spite of that, the three allies, the United States, France, and Britain, made an effort to send hundreds of planes and food to West Germany. Until the time was ripe, the Soviet Union abdicated its plan.
    (2 votes)
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    • leafers tree style avatar for user L. E.
      Not quite...

      "Basically, the former Soviet Union intended to attack the three allies to surrender under the auspices of hostage."

      The Soviet Union as a country didn't ever outright attack France, Britain, or the U.S... and I assume by "surrender under the auspices of hostage" you mean blockading Berlin to keep it under Soviet control until (so they hoped) the U.S. would give the capitol city to them.

      "Actually, the USSR cut off all railroads and transportation in order to ensure that Germany would not be able to control its land and make West Germany starve."

      I'm also assuming that in this specific instance you're referring only to traffic from the West to Berlin, though they certainly restricted general East-West travel as well. Germany wasn't really controlling its own land at that point, and West Germany never procured supplies from the Soviets anyways, so the effects of a blockade from the East would be all but negligible.

      "[T]he three allies, the United States, France, and Britain, made an effort to send hundreds of planes and food to West Germany."

      Those allies occupied West Germany-- it was East Germany, West Berlin.

      Apologies for the severe post-editing-- I applaud your effort to learn and share with others. Maybe check your facts next time, though ;)

      Hope this helped!
      (4 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user chhuon.menglin
    The United States becoming a part of NATO was a brilliant idea for the growing tensions outside its territory steadily appeared. Although WW2 was completely ended, long-lasting peace seemed not to come yet. As a result, Britain, France, and the Netherlands gathered to form a defensive alliance, which was called the" North Atlantic Treaty Organization", shortly named, NATO. Having joined NATO, the allies had a bulwark that protected them from invasion. Still, being part of a defensive alliance exacerbated the non-allied countries.
    (3 votes)
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