Eager to Shift Narrative, Biden Team Puts Airlift in Historical Context

By comparison, the undertaking in Kabul does not exactly resemble the Berlin airlift, in which food was flown into West Berlin, rather than people being flown out.

But as a model for humanitarian and political recovery, the rescue operation — which happened when Mr. Biden was just a child — is not a bad one. The city of Berlin had been divided between the West and the East since the end of World War II and tensions were growing. When the Soviet Union blocked food, electricity and other resources from reaching West Berlin by land, the United States and Britain took to the skies to carry in material by plane.

The two countries managed to get just shy of 300,000 flights into Berlin over 11 months, from June 24, 1948 to May 11, 1949, and the State Department’s record notes that “at the height of the campaign, one plane landed every 45 seconds at Tempelhof Airport,” until recently Berlin’s main air hub.

Harry S. Truman, the president who directed the now-famous airlift, was re-elected in its midst, though not by much — something that Mr. Biden must have noticed. But history has been kind, describing the Cold War-era airlift as one of the greatest emergency humanitarian efforts. It helps that the Soviet Union ultimately collapsed, 40 years after the airlift ended, and Germany became both unified and free.

Mr. Biden mentioned the Berlin airlift on Sunday to explain his decision to make use of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, which was created after the Berlin crisis to make sure that commercial planes could be used in times of emergency. It has been invoked only rarely, mostly to move troops to the Persian Gulf. But this is a very different kind of mission.

“The comparison is largely right,” said Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, who wrote about the 20th-century effort in his book “The Conquerors.”

“In both the Berlin airlift and the effort to bring refugees out of Afghanistan, American humanitarian values and impulses are on big display for the rest of the world,” Mr. Beschloss said. “The difference between the two is that in 1948, we were flying food and other supplies to Berliners who were endangered by the Soviets to show that America would keep its promise to guarantee freedom in Berlin.”

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