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Cherny book cover

The Candy Bombers: An Overview of the Sticky Sweet Intricacies of the Berlin Airlift

Book Essay on: Andrei Cherny, The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour
(New York: Penguin Group, 2008), 648 pages. UCSB: n/a

by Kristin Van Ramshorst
December 5, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Preview at Amazon.com

About Kristin Van Ramshorst

I am a senior history and psychology double major. I have family in Germany and have been interested in the sociopolitical issues arising from the World War II era. My specific interests are the United States' foreign policies during the Hitler era, spy networking, and military occupation in Germany during the 1940s. I chose to write about Andrei Cherny's book because I found the lecture on the candy bombers to be intriguing and I wanted to learn more about the political framework behind such an undertaking.

Abstract (back to top)

The book focuses mainly on the events leading up to and the resulting actions taken to resolve the Berlin Blockade. Its central theme revolves around the Berlin Airlift and subsequent development of the candy parachutes lessening German animosity toward American democracy. Cherny's book examines the political tension the Blockade created, the reaction from the White House, as well as how Berliners were coping with the occupation and the Airlift efforts. In analysis of the book, Cherny's main argument is that during a time when Berliners had been hungry and cold for almost three years prior to Allied occupation, the Airlift was meant not only to fly in provisions to Berlin, but also to be an inspiration to its peoples' struggle. The argument I propose is that the culture of Berlin and the attitude toward American democracy were encouraged by the kindliness of American pilots.

Essay (back to top)

Andrei Cherny’s book, The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour, is one of the most recent and thorough contemporary sources on the Berlin Airlift. Using historical data, German and American military correspondence, media coverage, firsthand accounts, and many books from experts in the field, Cherny sets out to unravel the political and social intricacies surrounding the Berlin Blockade, its reception on the home front, and the importance of what would become known as “Operation Little Vittles” in molding German popular opinion. On an international scale, the Berlin Airlift ushered in a new era of political warfare. As World War II came to a close, the world, especially the victors who were to decide Germany’s future, lay war-wearied, their nations bogged down by economic hardship. Where World War II gladly waved goodbye to the atrocities of personal warfare, aerial assaults, and the toppling of the infamous Third Reich, the political tensions heightened as Allied forces, differing in ideologies, clashed over Germany’s capital, Berlin, which became a focal point of the Cold War. Although Cherny argues the Berlin Airlift made the situation in Berlin immeasurably worse and did not assist in alleviating the hunger, pestilence, and misery experienced by its approximately two million inhabitants, I argue that we should not ignore the importance of the Airlift’s “Little Vittles” mission and the positive psychological ramifications it produced. During a time where Berliners had been hungry and cold for almost three years prior to Allied occupation, the Airlift was meant not only to fly in provisions to Berlin, but also to be an inspiration to its peoples’ struggle. The Airlift would change the culture of Berlin and the attitude toward an Allied power that now dropped supplies and candy instead of bombs. A surge in morale and a positive outlook toward American democracy were encouraged by the kindliness of American pilots.

In contrast to Cherny’s argument that the Airlift was a flop, the transportation of provisions into Germany was quite successful. As evidence from the book shows, the Airlift conducted approximately 277,000 flights and 4.6 billion pounds of food and supplies (Cherny, 2008: 543). Out of all airlift efforts, none had been anywhere near as large. Not only were Berliners fed, but through the kindness of strangers and the unwavering efficiency of the Airlift during the winter of 1949, the threat of Soviet confrontation was temporarily negated. Furthermore, the outlook of the German people, who once saw democracy as a moniker, laid new hope in their American saviors and cast off the temptation of communism.

Prior to the Allied occupation of Berlin, the capital had received quite a beating. After nearly four hundred aerial bombing raids by the Americans and the British, Berlin lay pockmarked, collapsed, and its once flourishing infrastructure all but demolished under the sordid mountains of debris (Cherny, 2008: 77-78). With its apartments, government offices, private industry and factories lying in crumbled heaps along the streets of Berlin, the lack of these modern edifices, along with food crops and other means of economic stability destroyed, its inhabitants fell into poverty, its crime rose dramatically, and the severe shortage of food became an increasingly pervasive subject of conversation both in Germany and abroad. It had been decided upon the partitioning among the Allied forces that each power would feed those in its zone of occupation and in its sector of Berlin. Because Berlin lay in the heart of the Soviet zone, the Western allies transported all food and supplies into the city over long distance (Cherny, 2008: 126-128). Each day tens of millions of pounds of foodstuffs, shoes, clothes, newsprint, and coal barely supplied the population of over two million people (Cherny, 2008: 127). Even with rationing of foodstuffs to Berliners, the death rate in late 1947 was three times as high as the birth rate (Cherny, 2008: 127). With their fate temporarily on hold, Berliners found themselves at the hands of an occupier who had wrought havoc on their city, defeated them in battle, and was now the sole way to rebuild.

With the partitioning of Germany into provisional zones, a buildup of tensions between East and West began to take hold of Europe. With the Soviet Union controlling the largest region of eastern Europe and the relative mobility of its army, Moscow began to clash with the policies and democratic institutions the West was attempting to assert in Berlin. With Berlin lying in the center of the Soviet zone, the four Allies would inevitably have to rub against each other, ideologies and all. Berlin would now become the platform for an East versus West showdown. The tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, who had been allies during WWII, now faced off as bitter enemies. Cherny best sums up the conflict when he writes:

A new global conflict between two very different ideologies had arisen, and now was focused on Germany’s capital, a once-great city, toppled by its own evil and hubris, where the Soviets and the Americans had trapped themselves together like scorpions in a bottle. Now the decisive hour had finally come. (Cherny, 2008: 241)

In June 1948, the Soviets, in a decision to take Berlin entirely, halted all travel in and out of the western sectors of Berlin. The Berlin Blockade forced the United States and its Western allies to formulate a plan of action to aid Berliners, stem the threat of socialist overtake, and more importantly, raised the question on how to avoid the possibility of nuclear war.

According to Cherny’s sources, before the blockade Berlin had been bringing in 31 million pounds of supplies a day. Even with the support of the American and British planes, only an estimated half a million pounds could be delivered each day (Cherny, 2008: 252). Indeed, the Airlift could not bring in nearly enough supplies. Cherny asserts that in the early reactions to the Berlin Blockade, the so-called Berlin Airlift never really began. He argues that instead, it was a “ragtag transportation” of insufficient materials in planes ill-equipped to take to the air flown by pilots hardly qualified to fly (Cherny, 2008: 262).

Although one could look to several airlifts in the history of Europe as comparisons to the Berlin Airlift, it is fair to argue the Berlin Airlift was, in fact, successful. With the only other recorded success of an airlift being the American airlift to China during World War II, few other attempts even came close (Cherny, 2008: 323-341). Where the American airlift to China only sought to supply 60,000 military servicemen in need of food and ammunition, the Berlin Airlift supplied two million civilians with food, clothing, fuel, and numerous different consumer goods (Cherney, 2008: 323). However, the two were different undertakings altogether. As previous airlift attempts failed, the Berlin Airlift not only supplied the minimum level of tonnage for daily survival in Berlin, but also symbolically transformed attitudes partially through the distribution of chocolate parachuted from planes landing in Tempelhof airport.

The book suggests the Airlift was not necessarily a direct solution, but was successful in buying time for peace talks between the United States and the Soviet Union as well as molding new viewpoints towards American democracy. Where past airlifts had been merely to sustain a given population, the Berlin Airlift’s purpose was twofold. It did supply Berliners with sufficient provisions, but was also a political power play. As the Cold War became a competition for allegiance, the need to rekindle the element of human compassion for Germany was critical. The distrust between occupiers and occupied was mutual: Germans were weary of their enemies-turned-saviors, and likewise, Allied servicemen had seen Germany as the central figure in two world wars.

The turning point in German attitude came as a result of a highly regimented flight pattern of planes in and out of West Berlin’s airport in addition to the mere human kindness shown in the distribution of hundreds of thousands of pounds of candy to Berlin’s children. The psychic boost of parachuting candy over Berlin drew attention toward the planes landing in the pockmarked runway of Tempelhof airport and the magical candy surprises that rained on rooftops, front lawns, and in the rubble of Berlin’s streets (Cherny, 2008: 343). As 1948 came to a close and with no end to the Blockade in sight, the American Air Force perfected the mechanics of its Airlift program and in addition, had officially adopted the dropping of candy parachutes to Berlin’s children, an operation that became known as “Little Vittles.” As an excerpt from Cherny’s book reflects:

These children had been Hitler’s last hope, inculcated since birth with a hatred for Americans and their wickedly egalitarian democracy. When the war had ended, they had been so scarred by the American aerial attacks that the sight of a lit match sent them into convulsions of terror. An American in uniform--even a Salvation Army uniform--caused them to burst into tears. They had been the children who played the game of “rape.” Now social workers observed that a new game was dominant amid the craters and rubble-strewn streets of Berlin. The city’s children were playing the game of “Airlift.” (Cherny, 2008: 358)

It is hard to ignore the dramatic results the Berlin Airlift produced. As Berlin suffered through one of its harshest winters, the feeling of crisis passed (Cherny, 2008: 508-510). With the Airlift surviving the winter and morale relatively high, the Soviet threat of war fell away. The Soviet technique of instilling fear no longer had validity. Stalin’s strategy to choke out the Western forces had backfired. As the book suggests, many western European nations once threatened by impending Soviet expansion banded together and were seeking defense treaties with the United States (Cherny, 2008: 510). The Airlift had provided evidence that the United States was rejecting its previous isolationist approach to foreign policy and was making headway not only as a strong world leader, but as a humane one as well. The blockade was lifted in May of 1949 and the Airlift ended shortly after. The skies emptied of cargo planes over a newly united democratic West German state.

The Candy Bombers is a plucky historical narrative full of definitive and groundbreaking insight. Although he argues that the Airlift was successful in warranting a positive political response in Berlin, his assertion that the material productivity of the Airlift was the source for a change of heart in Berlin and not, in the least, a direct result of American pilots’ generosity, is unwarranted. I argue that it was the convergence of these two that generated positive German feedback toward democracy and not, in Cherny’s opinion, one rather than the other. Cherny addresses a wide array of audiences. Regardless of previous background in the subject, his book is geared to read clearly and easily for any level of curious historian. Although he is an editor of the idea journal Democracy and a former speechwriter for the White House, he has also authored one other book and several small columns on history, culture, and politics. Cherny may not necessarily be a bona fide historian, but his historical and political insights contribute to the world of academia.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 12/x/08)

Book Reviews

  • “From the Publisher” (April 2008) (Barnes & Noble.com)
    The Barnes & Noble website contains comments from Penguin Group, Publishers Weekly, and Edwin B. Burgess. These reviews show few arguments for the main points of Cherny’s book. They are meant as summaries for interested readers before they purchased the book. They provide background knowledge of the Berlin Blockade crisis, yet do not delve into the main points of the book. I was unable to locate further reviews, as the book was published in April 2008. These reviews are of little scholarly use.


  1. American Forces Press Service, “'Candy Bomber' Showed Berlin Kids Affection Through Confection” (May 2008), http://www.defenselink.mil/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=49879
    I found this webpage to be quite helpful. The article reasserts the claims made in Cherny’s book and verify the validity of his statements. Furthermore, the article reaffirms Cherny’s main idea: The Airlift was successful in its disruption of Soviet communist aggression while at the same time giving hope to a hungry and beleaguered people.
  2. CNN [Conversation moderated by reporter Bruce Kennedy], “Cold War Chat: Retired Colonel Gail Halvorsen” (October 2008), http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cold.war/guides/debate/chats/halvorsen/
    This webpage consisted of a CNN news chat with Colonel Hal Halvorsen, the man who started “Operation Little Vittles.” I found the site to provide information the book did not. For example, Cherny fails to examine Soviet propaganda in response to Operation Little Vittles. Analyzing this propaganda campaign would have further strengthened Cherny’s argument that the Berlin Airlift transformed the culture of Berlin. Furthermore, I found Halvorsen’s reflections on the Airlift as well the conversations he had years later with the now-grown children of Berlin to maintain my own thesis. Overall, the webpage was extremely helpful in reaffirming my own thoughts on the Berlin Airlift and “Operation Little Vittles.”
  3. Der Spiegel, “Celebrating the Candy Bombers: Merkel Honors Berlin Airlift Veterans” (May 2008), http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,556027,00.html
    At first I wasn’t going to utilize this webpage because it didn’t seem relevant to Cherny’s book. However, after examining the article, I thought it would be best used to establish the continuing legacy the Airlift created and why it is significant in the current history of Germany. I found that the current plan in Germany to honor the anniversary of the Airlift as an important mark in an events historical significance. Chancellor Merkel honoring those who participated in the Airlift with a Berlin Air Show not only acknowledges the importance of the Allied response to the Blockade, but also how dramatically its success altered history.
  4. Ed Drohan, “Sweet Success—Candy Bomber Shares Berlin Air Drop Stories” (March 2006), http://www.cedarfort.com/news/2006/2006BerlinCandyBomber.html
    Overall, the article reinforced the general overview I found on the webpage published by the American Forces Press Service. One thing I noticed was the article was written in regards to a different book, The Berlin Candy Bomber, published by Halvorsen himself. Although the webpage was for Halvorsen’s book, it still functioned as another insight to solidify Cherny’s claims. It was helpful in providing first hand experience of the Airlift rather than factual recreation.
  5. Hill Air Force Base, “Berlin Candy Bomber” (unknown creation date), http://www.hill.af.mil/library/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=5979
    This webpage was similar to those of Ed Drohan and the American Forces Press Service. It compounded factual information I was already aware of, but also provided some interesting pictures of Halvorsen in the present and during the Airlift.

Books and Articles

  1. Avi Shlaim, The United States and the Berlin Blockade, 1948-1949: A Study in Crisis Decision-Making (Berkely: University of California Press, 1983), 463 pages. UCSB: DD881.S46 1983.
    This book examines the reasons behind US foreign policy and reactions to the Blockade. The book not only gave an overview of decisions made during the late 1940s, but also delved into the political framework of the United States’ decision to challenge the Soviet Union.
  2. Karin Finell, Good-Bye to the Mermaids: A Childhood Lost in Hitler’s Berlin (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006), 352 pages. UCSB: D757.9.B4 F56 2006.
    I found this book to give a broad outlook into the events leading up to the Berlin Blockade. There was only one chapter regarding the Berlin Airlift (chapter 15), however, it was useful in examining the social climate of Berlin rather just pure statistics, specifically that of the family reaction.
  3. Roger Miller , To Save a City: The Berlin Airlift (Air Force History and Museums Program: 1998), 253 pages. UCSB: D301.82/7:B45.
    I did not read the entirety of Miller’s book, but it was helpful in providing insight into the social and political framework of Berlin. It was also especially interesting because I was interested in the delineations that resulted in the decision to support the Airlift. It further provided evidence that supported Cherny’s statistical information.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 12/11/08; last updated:
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