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Back in the Day

Dateline: Berlin, 1948

How far back must one go to find an American act of national decency? Seventy years, it turns out.

Book Cover Richard Reeves, who is best known as a presidential biographer having written reliable and useful monographs on John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan (though my favorite of his oeuvre is his 1982 retracing of Alexis de Tocqueville’s American visit, American Journey: Traveling with Tocqueville, an undertaking French celebrity intellectual Bernard Henri Lévy recently refreshed) has published an account of what is frequently called the first shot in the Cold War: Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of The Berlin Airlift—June 1948-May 1949.

Explaining on how he came to write this book, Reeves writes:
I spent the better part of the last 20 years researching and writing a trilogy on the American presidency, doing books on John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. I knew I had said what I had to say on all that. I had to find some new subjects. At the same time, I continued writing a syndicated column for newspapers around the country, an exercise that kept me up on the politics and people of the day and of the 21st century. I was not happy many of those days. My country was becoming, or being—seen as, arrogant, self-righteous, and brutal—a monster using its very substantial power to try to enforce a new order, a kind of neo-imperialism. Of course, we meant well; Americans usually do. After all, didn’t these people want to be like us?
The Berlin Airlift is a piece of national history that at the least is a splendid example of enlightened self-interest. In June 1948, Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered the Red Army to blockade the city, a stranglehold that intended to drive Allied occupational troops out of Berlin, which through some bizarre accident of history was deep inside the Soviet zone. Despite a National Security staff and Joint Chiefs who were nearly unanimously opposed, President Truman opted to stay and additionally ordered the airlift, which was an intricate logistical operation—planes taking off and landing every 90 seconds delivering food, fuel, and medical supplies to a demolished Berlin’s two million inhabitants.

By combing service records and conducting hundreds of interviews, Reeves was able to assemble a truly feel-good adventure from the selfless efforts of the 20,000 veteran civilian airmen who flew the 300 beat-up old planes in an improbably altruistic adventure that was also a strategic victory for what came to be the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Daring Young Men is an uplifting, multi-level story—a good story about doing good. Yet, in ruminating about it, two thoughts grab me: what does it say about the United States that Richard Reeves has to go back 70 years for an example of the decent America he grew up in, and, wouldn’t it have been great if there had been some residue of national decency to spur the Bush government to help New Orleans?

But so it goes.
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