Its been almost exactly three years since Arianna asked me to join her soon to launch group blog and, while I've been excited to see the Huffington Post grow, I've only been able to write intermittently. I have my excuses (marriage, fatherhood, starting a new journal), but my main excuse is that I have been spending my extra minutes on my soon to be published book, The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour.
Now after four years of research and writing, The Candy Bombers is set to be published on April 17. It has already received some generous praise. Walter Isaacson (author of Einstein and Benjamin Franklin) said it was "exciting, inspiring, and wonderfully-written" and Douglas Brinkley (Tour of Duty and The Great Deluge) said it "reminds me of Stephen Ambrose at his best." But before it comes out in bookstores, I wanted to offer Huffington Post readers a sneak peak at the "making of the book" and the story behind the story.
In the coming days, I'll write about the transformative personal journey that was the writing of this book and I'll reveal -- ahead of time -- some of the historical revelations I discovered. But today, I wanted to introduce the book and why I decided to write it.
The Candy Bombers tells the interwoven tales of how America fed Berlin, one of the largest cities in the world, completely by air using rickety old planes; how Harry Truman exploited the issue of national security and the fear of war to win his upset reelection in 1948; and how America's first secretary of defense descended into madness during the very months we came the closest we ever have to World War III.
Some may think they know about the Berlin Airlift, Harry Truman's "give 'em hell" campaign, and the death of James Forrestal. But I guarantee you that much of what you think you know is wrong.
I have never written a work of history before. But I've always loved reading history. And I've long felt that we learn best about who we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do - as individuals and as a country - by looking at how others have grappled with similar challenges in the past.
My goal in writing The Candy Bombers was, first and foremost, to tell a good story that would appeal to both history buffs as well those who usually don't read nonfiction.
But I began writing this book in the spring of 2004. I was then in my last months of working on John Kerry's campaign for the presidency and I was consumed by two great realizations. One was that we as progressives didn't have the visionary ideas that were up to the task of responding to the enormous transformations taking place in America and the world. Out of this realization came the journal I helped launch in 2006: Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.
The second realization was that in this era of instantaneous communication, split-second news cycles, and a balkanized media, Americans didn't have enough context about where we were in the stream of history and where we've been. Out of that realization came The Candy Bombers.
That spring of 2004 was the spring of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and the descending situation in Iraq. I, like many, was left with the feeling that this was not what America was supposed to be about.
I asked myself the questions: "When was it that America was at its best? When was it that people around the world looked at us as an unquestioned force for good and an example to follow?"
The answer was clear: the Berlin Airlift. This was not only the greatest humanitarian effort of all time, but it changed the flow of history and put America clearly on the side of kindness and decency in the world.
And while many have heard of the Berlin Airlift, it is a subject that gets only a passing mention in most histories of the era. It is a mystery in plain sight.
But in this, the 60th anniversary year of the Airlift, it is a story that has immense relevance for our own time. It is about how America turned around an occupation of Germany that, three years after the war, was failing; how we married our moral power to our military strength to inspire people around the world; how we brought democracy to a place that many thought was culturally and historically incapable of such freedom; how Americans embraced sacrifice and service in a time of trouble; and how we bested a global ideological threat to our country without firing a shot. The year of the Berlin Airlift was the moment at the summit of the American century and the moment we learned for the first time how to act as leader of the free world.
The conundrum at the center of the book is this: Three years after the end of World War II, the American occupation of Germany was close to a fiasco. Despite all the efforts, the Germans were becoming less - not more - attracted to democracy and, according to polls, had greater faith in Nazism than they did when the war ended. Germans were becoming hungrier and colder and more despondent as the occupation went on. Soviet Communism was on the march across Europe, overthrowing one government after another. It was assumed that they were attempting to engulf the continent. America had disbanded almost all of its armed forces and had promised a Marshall Plan but then - in light of congressional opposition from the far right and far left - not delivered. Faith in America was at a low ebb.
Then, on June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union cut off all land and sea access to West Berlin, prepared to starve one of the largest cities in the world into submission unless the Americans abandoned it. Soviet forces around Berlin outnumbered the western allies' by 62 to 1. The choices before these western allies were seemingly to abandon the city to the Russians and sue for peace, allow the Berliners to starve, or start World War III.
I think we can all wonder what decision we would have made at the time.
June 24 was not just any night, however. It was also the night that Thomas Dewey won the nomination at the Republican convention. He was, by all accounts, the next president of the United States. Harry Truman watched the Republicans on TV from the White House - the first time a convention had been televised.
On that night, Harry Truman faced his greatest political crisis and America's most dangerous post-World War II military crisis -- all at the same time. How he managed his way out of both - and indeed managed to find triumph - is, in large part, what The Candy Bombers is about.
But to do this, Harry Truman had to do something we don't much remember today: He had to take on and defeat Henry Wallace, his predecessor as Franklin Roosevelt's vice president. Wallace had come within a few votes of staying on the ticket in 1944. If he had, then Wallace, and not Truman, would have become president upon FDR's death.
To save Berlin - and win reelection - Truman had to face down Wallace and the confirmed Communists who were supporting him. It was a battle for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party that still has repercussions today.
But more on that next time...