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The Psychology behind American Leaders during the Berlin Blockade

Book Essay on: Avi Shlaim, The United States and the Berlin Blockade, 1947-1949:
A Study in Crisis Decision Making

(Berkeley: University of Califpronia press, 1983), 463 pages.
UCSB: DD81.S46 1983

by Brian Thomson
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
Amazon.com page

About Brian Thomson

I am a third year student at UCSB and although I came in as a history major I switched to a psychology major while keeping history a minor. In history I have a great interest for studying America's military past, with emphasis on World War II and the Cold War. I chose to write about Shlaim's book because it dealt with one of the most crucial moments of the Cold Car and involved the psychology behind the decisions which seemed very interesting to me.

Abstract (back to top)

Avi Shlaim's book, The United States and the Berlin Blockade, 1947-1949: A Study in Crisis Decision Making goes into great depth on why President Truman, Secretary of State Marshall, and Military Governor Clay, the three main American decision makers, made the crucial decisions they did during the Berlin Blockade. Shlaim attempts to go into the psychology of these great American leaders by analyzing hundreds of memoirs, letters, and interviews from these leaders and their closest advisors during this crisis. Shlaim attempts to disprove the idea that during a time of crisis, leaders make impaired decisions because they are under great stress. Shlaim instead argues that in a time of crisis, decision-makers are not dealing with stress, but make better, more accurate decisions because they must deal with new time constraints, military hostility, and a change in the external environment. These new pressures on the decision-makers force them to quickly make an effective response in a time of crisis, rather than slowly working through processes and hearing useless information during a time of peace. I agree with Shlaim's argument that the hard psychology of a decision-maker in a time of crisis does not allow stress to affect their decisions, but instead allows them to focus on a single situation and make an effective decision.

Essay (back to top)

In Avi Shlaim's book, The United States and the Berlin Blockade 1948-1949: A study in Crisis Decision Making, the incident of the Berlin blockade, between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, is used to analyze the psychology behind several prominent American leaders: President Truman, Military Governor Lucius Clay, and Secretary of State George C. Marshall. This book evaluates the decisions made by these leaders in a time of crisis compared to a time of peace, and addresses some of the more prominent questions as to why leaders make the decisions they do. A few of the more important questions addressed in Shlaim's book include: what is the determining factor behind why leaders act different in a time of crisis? Why is the psychology behind each leader different, and how much of a role did this have in their decision making? Why was stress an unimportant factor when it came to decision making during a crisis. The depth of Shlaim's answers are astounding as he draws many of his resources from the writings and memories of the American leaders themselves. Shlaim's main argument counters the widely held belief by previous historians that stress severely lowers a leader's capability to make crucial decisions in a time of crisis. Shlaim argues that time constraints, presumed military hostility, and change in the external environment all combined to form the distinct psychology of America's decision makers, the most important of whom were President Truman, Military Governor Clay, and Secretary of State Marshall during the Berlin blockade. The distinct psychology of these leaders resulted in unique approaches to crisis situations. The thought process of these leaders rather than their advisors led to the decision of an organized airlift and the use of diplomacy to secure Berlin. This radical decision placed the Western Allies in a strategic position, that constricted Stalin and the Soviets in Berlin, and forced them to reevaluate their actions in the international arena. I believe it was the psychology, influenced by the environmental factors of the decision-making individuals, which finalized the decision to use an airlift during the Berlin blockade, rather than stress. It was their understanding of the situation, and not the guidance of advisors, that led to their decision regarding the situation.

Shlaim begins his book with a description of what a crisis period is to give a better understanding of why decision-makers are forced to adjust their thought process during a crisis, and why the Berlin Blockade was one of these situations. Giving a thorough description of a crisis, Shlaim is able to illustrate his first point that, even though the “American decision-makers were not altogether surprised by the occurrence of the crisis” which would advert some from calling it a crisis, “the blockade constituted a change in the external environment, had a high probability of military hostilities; and there was a finite time for response” (11). These reasons presented a clear threat to the United States interests in Europe, and especially Germany, which was vital to securing a strong democracy in Europe in order to prevent the spread of Communism. The Berlin blockade therefore can be seen as a clear crisis situation for American decision-makers, as U.S. interests were threatened to a great extent.

Shlaim illustrates the importance of a change in external environment in the psychology of decision makers through frequent examples in his book. The problem of no longer being able to reach Berlin by land was a radical change in the environment of the decision makers, because they now felt that America's security in Europe was threatened. Shlaim uses many references throughout his book to point out the importance of Berlin to the United States. He quotes the CIA which warned President Truman that “A western withdrawal from Berlin under Soviet compulsion would ‘constitute a political defeat of the first magnitude'” (12). Secretary of State Marshall supports Shlaim's argument by constantly making clear to the Soviets through numerous letters that the “determination of the Western powers [is] to remain in Berlin” (141), and President Truman constantly reiterated to his advisors that America “is to remain in Berlin even at the risk of war” (251). Throughout the crisis, Shlaim argues that the largest concern was the change of the environment in Europe for U.S interests.

Shlaim argues that in the Berlin blockade there were three main men that stood out as making crucial decisions throughout the crisis, President Truman of the United States, Secretary of State George Marshall, and American Military Governor in Germany Lucius Clay. Although there were other decision makers, Shlaim stresses that Truman and Marshall stood out because “their position within the decision-making structure was central, and the influence they exercised on U.S policy was fundamental.” Although Clay was not stationed in Washington with a direct position of executive power, Shlaim states that because he “played such a crucial part both in the formation and in the implementation of U.S. policy, that he must be included in the group of key decision-makers” (43). To further support Clay as a crucial decision-maker, Shlaim expresses that when Washington was unsure of its options available and how to evaluate them, “there was a tendency to sit back and wait for Clay to come up with suggestions” (129). These decision-makers had the enormous responsibility to determine U.S actions in a time of crisis, and while past historians believed that the decisions that were made occurred under great stress, and were thus not as effective, Shlaim believed that this is largely false.

Shlaim's main argument is that in a time of crisis and stress, leaders tend to make better decisions, rather than worse ones because they refrain from irrelevant information. Even during the peak of the Berlin blockade, Shlaim states that, all “the key American decision-makers were robust, confident, and stable individuals who had considerable experience dealing with difficult situations and could be expected to stand up well to pressure, however intense” (406). To show the confidence and stability of these three main American decision-makers, and that stress did not affect them; Shlaim retrieves journals and letters written by these leaders and their many advisors during the Berlin blockade.

President Truman had a history of military leadership behind him which gave him a large amount of confidence in his decision making. Shlaim cites Truman's book, Mr. Citizen in which Truman wrote about his “‘spot decisions'… decisions which were almost instinctive with [Truman] – when [he] had to confront an emergency or serious situation” (78). Shlaim also writes that President Truman was “remarkably successful at avoiding the stress usually associated with the making of difficult decisions” (78). In Truman's memoirs, Shlaim stated, Truman wrote that in a time of pressure as with “the threat of Russian totalitarianism… a President has little time to meditate, but whenever such moments occurred, I was more likely to turn my thoughts toward this key problem that confronted out nation” (79). Because Shlaim attempts to understand Truman's personal ideas, we can see that a crisis would have changed his actions in a situation towards a more positive manner, and to be more assertive towards the crisis. However it also can be seen that stress had little to nothing to do with Truman's change in decision-making.

Military General Clay played an extremely important role in the Berlin crisis as he was largely responsible for the initial allied airlift into Berlin, and acted as an important source of information to Washington. Shlaim gathers a vast amount of information on Clay's personality because of this, and gives many quotes from his subordinates that showed him as being known for his “strong character and assertive personality”, and that “his decisiveness was almost legendary, his self-assurance knew no bounds” (98). Shlaim also used a significant number of Clay's papers to show the toughness that this general had against the Soviets. Clay had planned a massive convoy of over 200 trucks to be sent to breakthrough to Berlin as stated in his papers, but this was never approved in Washington (232). Clay is shown to be extremely resilient towards pressure as Clay's papers and other reports during the blockade characterized his assertiveness and resolve against stress.

Secretary of State George Marshall unfortunately was much more stubborn, and wrote less in journals and memoirs than Truman and Clay, but Shlaim is still able to use some of Marshall's letters and his associate's references to infer his personality. Through many of Marshall's letters to Douglas the reader can see the patience and preparation of Marshall during the crisis. In one letter from Marshall to Douglas, Marshall wrote that although “the current supply situation in Berlin means that the zero hour will not be reached for two to three weeks. We intend to utilize this period in every way possible to reinforce our general position and to keep the initiative in dealing with the Soviets” (182). Another letter stated that even if the Soviets were to stop the blockade and ask for a meeting, the “ U.S. decision-makers should consider very carefully whether they should refuse such a meeting” (184). Shlaim uses these letters because they show that in a time of crisis, Marshall was able to remain calm and level headed in order to get what he perceived as the best outcome for America.

Shlaim shows through these decision-makers that stress was not a significant factor on these individuals as previously proposed by other historians. It was the environment around them that dictated their views on how to best end the Berlin blockade. This was the determining factor in shaping the American decision-makers belief of what Soviets true intentions were behind the Berlin blockade, and how the decision makers would choose the best way to respond. While the majority of Washington decision-makers held the belief that the Soviet Union was “an aggressive, ruthless, and implacably hostile adversary” and felt that the Soviet Union “was more risk acceptant and unpredictable”, this stood in contrast to clay's view because he was in Germany during the crisis. Clay saw the Soviets as a “blustering but risk-averse great power, and maintained that the Soviets were bluffing and would not go to the brink of war if confronted by the West with a strong show of force”, which led to a great deal of controversy as to how to respond (174). General Clay felt strongly that a military convoy was the only certain way that the United States could end the blockade, but this idea was strongly disregarded in Washington for fear of World War III. Shlaim shows through this example, and several others, that it is not the stress that causes leaders to act differently, but the situation they perceived and the impact of their surrounding environment.

Shlaim is successfully able to show that despite previous beliefs, stress is not the reason why decision makers some times made rash decisions in a time of crisis, but was due to the information they received and how they perceived it. This was shown as the reason behind why Truman, Marshall, and Clay may have had some differing opinions, they were all sure that their opinion of the situation was the most accurate for getting the United States through the Berlin blockade.

I believe this book's audience is primarily American military history enthusiasts, and those interested in the origins of the Cold War. I felt that this was an excellent book for anyone who wishes to learn more about why certain decisions were made during critical times. Not often do I read a book by an author and get excited to read more by that same author, but Avi Shlaim did that for me.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 12/17/08)

Book Reviews

  • Sellen, Robert W. Review of The United States and the Berlin Blockade, 1948- 1949: A Study in Crisis decision-Making, by Avi Shlaim. American Historical Review (April 1984): 549-550 (ebsco link)
    Sellen compliments Shlaim’s ability to refine our knowledge of the Berlin Blockade and his impressive amount of research into the origins of the event. Although he claims there is a fair amount of errors and typos in the book, he believes that Shlaim was able to prove his point that political scientists’ models need to be re-examined when looking at how leaders make decisions in a time of crisis.
  • Williams, Phil. Review of The United States and the Berlin Blockade, 1948- 1949: A Study in Crisis decision-Making, by Avi Shlaim. International Affairs (Winter 1983/84): 137-138 (ebsco link)
    Williams emphasizes the enormous value of this book for historians analyzing the Cold War. Williams articulates that this book is an excellent source for facts on the Berlin blockade and the amount of depth put into the leaders decisions makes the book a must read for all.
  • Smith, Gaddis. Review of The United States and the Berlin Blockade, 1948- 1949: A Study in Crisis Decision-Making, by Avi Shlaim. Foreign Affairs (Summer 1983): 1201 (ebsco link)
    Smith agrees with many of Shlaim’s positions in the book and feels he does a great job expressing his points. Smith writes that anyone who is skeptical of the use of psychology models must read this book to understand what is really behind a leader’s decision making.

Related Books and Articles

  • Hopkins, Michael.Oliver Franks and the Truman Administration: Anglo-American Relations, 1948-1952 (Routledge, 2003) 278 pages (Amazon link)
    This book goes into great detail about the Truman administration through the British Ambassador Sir Oliver Franks between 1948 and 1949. The book supports much of Shlaim’s evidence of the pressure that America’s decision-makers were under during the Berlin Crisis by going into depth of the conditions and relations during the Cold War in the Truman administration.
  • Clay, Lucius. The Papers of General Lucius D. Clay: Germany, 1945-1949, Edited by Jean Edward Smith. (Indiana University Press, 1974) UCSB: DD257 .C58 1974
    Through these papers and letters, the reader can see how Clay’s psychology changes over the crisis, and how this effects his decision making during the Berlin Blockade. These papers are an excellent source to go even more in depth into the psychology and thoughts of Military Governor Clay.
  • Mayers, David. George Kennan and the Dilemmas of US Foreign Policy (Oxford University Press US, 1990) 416 pages (Amazon link)
    Mayers examines Kennan’s political effects in the United States, and particularly his prominence during the late 1940s. Although George Kennan is not one of Shlaim’s main advisors, he is a very important analyst for President Truman and most importantly Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson during the end of the crisis. A close analysis of George Kennan during the Berlin blockade gives an excellent second point of view of what the Truman administration was under during this time.
  • Miller, Roger. To Save a City: The Berlin Airlift 1948-1949 (Texas A&M University Press, 2000), 241 pages, UCSB call number: DD881 .M525 2000.
    Miller’s book goes into great depth on the Berlin blockade and is able to give a large amount of historical information into the decisions and outcomes of the choices that were made during the crisis.

Web Sites

  • The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, “The Berlin Airlift”
    This site contains a vast number of documents involving President Truman, covering the years 1948 through 1952. These documents give an extensive look into the psychology of Truman during the Berlin blockade and gives more support to the decisions he made like the airlift and the choice not to use force.
  • Wikipedia, “Berlin Blockade” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Blockade
    Wikipedia gives a brief but thorough summary of the Berlin airlift and why it was so crucial for American superiority during the Cold War.
  • APA Online, “Psychology Matters: Decision Making”
    This web site, created be the American Psychology Association, is a great resource for getting more background information on psychology and its role on decision making. The site gives multiple links to studies that have been done to better understand the decision making process.

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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 12/16/08; last updated: 1/3/09
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