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Berlin and Cuba

Jim Broderick looks at the crisis management of two moments when the spectre of nuclear war shadowed relations between the superpowers.

The status of Berlin had been an ongoing problem to the Allies since the conferences of Yalta and Potsdam in 1945 when the ‘Big Three’ (Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union) had agreed to divide the defeated Germany into four occupied zones. They also split Berlin, which was located some 110 miles inside the Soviet zone, into four sectors each governed by a military commander from the respective victorious powers. But divisions among the Allies soon emerged concerning the future of Germany in general and Berlin in particular. Instead of treating Germany as a single economic entity – as decided at Potsdam – the Soviet Union governed its zone as if it were an independent unit and opposed Western moves for German reunification along democratic lines.

These disagreements led to the first of the Berlin crises, when in March 1948 the Soviet Union announced a series of measures aimed at curbing access to West Berlin, culminating in the suspension of all rail passenger and freight traffic on June 24th. The ostensible reason for the Soviet blockade was in response to plans for currency union in the newly merged Western sector, but its deeper purpose was to test the commitment of the US to West Berlin. In response, President Truman applied counter-sanctions to Eastern Germany and undertook a massive operation to supply West Berlin by air. The next few months witnessed futile diplomatic negotiations, but the airlift and counter-blockade did eventually cause the Soviet leadership to reconsider its strategy and on May 4th, 1949, after a series of secret meetings of their ambassadors at the UN, the two superpowers agreed to a mutual lifting of restrictions.

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