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the candy bombers

17 june 2010

A certain kind of piece that I post here can't really be considered a "review," because its timeliness is so dubious. If I read some French pulp novel from the 1930s that nobody else's picked up in decades, that's a "review"; same if I write about something brand new, or at least no more than a few months in bookstores. But a two-year-old frontlist book from a major publisher has already had all the "reviews" it's going to get. So I guess I should call my remarks on Andrei Cherny's excellent The Candy Bombers nothing more than a "belated appreciation."

The Candy Bombers is one of those popular histories that truly does read like a suspense novel, to use the standard cliché. It works as suspense even if we know the outcome, and in general terms we obviously do, or you'd be reading this website in Russian. West Berlin succored, World War III averted. But for a while there, in 1948 and into 1949, the destiny of the world was not so obvious.

When dominoes started toppling all over Eastern Europe, the lesson of Munich indicated to the Western allies that, at some point, Soviet imperialism would have to be resisted. The problem was where: the Elbe, the Rhine, the English Channel? Most Allied military leaders agreed that a notional line between the sectors of occupied Berlin was not tenable. To maintain a western presence in Berlin, deep within the Soviet sector of Germany, was implausible.

When the Soviets blockaded the Western sectors of Berlin early in 1948, five-star members of the brain trust like George Marshall and Omar Bradley assumed that the city would have to be ceded to the Red Army; the question was just how to do so gracefully and face-savingly. As a stop-gap measure, the US Air Force started to send supplies into the city by air; the effort was seen, with some reason, as futile.

And then, gradually, the airlift, as Cherny puts it, became the Airlift: the brand-name siege-relief operation of modern times. Much of Cherny's book is concerned with crediting the unsung, or lesser-sung, or too-briefly-sung heroes of that transformation, which kept the whole of West Berlin supplied entirely from the skies for the better part of a year. Cherny's principal hero is General Bill Tunner, the drab organizational genius who turned the Airlift into an operation of clockwork efficiency. Scarcely less important was General Lucius Clay, the querulous master of brinksmanship who commanded American occupation forces.

But the title of the book refers to the sentimental hero of the whole story, Gail "Hal" Halvorsen. Halvorsen, still alive as of this writing, is the kind of gee-whiz American character that a screenwriter would reject as impossibly hokey. Halvorsen, a Utah farm kid turned clean-cut young pilot, was spending the late 1940s on active duty flying military transports hither and yon in the New World, and (as Cherny portrays it) failing to get up the nerve to propose to his longtime girlfriend. Suddenly he found himself in Berlin, schlepping supplies to barefoot children. As if inventing his own cliché, Halvorsen decided to give out candy and gum to the children of Berlin. By the time he and his squadron of "candy bombers" were through, hundreds of thousands of confections had rained down on the city, winning the hearts and minds of Berliners ever since.

Hokey, maybe; but even the grimly unsentimental Bill Tunner realized that the Airlift was as much rhetoric as economic. The effort succeeded not just because the Americans were better at relieving Berlin by air than the Russians were at besieging it on the ground. The Airlift won out because it was aligned disinterested benevolence with global realpolitik. The Soviets tried offering Berliners cellarsful of coal, but what is that to a Hershey bar? Man does not live by fossil fuel alone.

Halvorsen went on to drop chocolate over Bosnia in the 1990s, and Wikipedia asserts that "in 2004 Halvorsen hoped to launch a similar action for the children of Iraq." I take that to mean that he didn't get to do so. Like many recent histories, Cherny's Candy Bombers is a post-9/11 take on America's standing in the world. At two moments in modern world history, Cherny argues, nearly everyone on the planet sympathized with the United States: during the Berlin Airlift, and after the World Trade Center towers fell. The magic of Berlin faded only slowly, dissipating in Korea, the Cold War, and Vietnam. The moment of 9/11 was gone, by contrast, within a few months – when planes commanded by Bush and Cheney flew over Iraq without even thinking about Butterfingers.

Cherny, Andrei. The Candy Bombers: The untold story of the Berlin airlift and America's finest hour. New York: Putnam, 2008.