The generic title of the Medal of Humane Action belies the significance of the events that spurred its establishment by Congress on July 20, 1949: The Soviet blockade of rail, road, and waterway access to the areas of Berlin controlled by the United States, United Kingdom, and France. The decoration is awarded to members of the U.S. Armed Forces and others who meritoriously participated in the Berlin Airlift that brought essential supplies into the city, with a service requirement of 120 days between June 26, 1948 and September 30, 1949, the official end of the airlift.
Relations between the Soviet Union and the other major Allied powers had grown increasingly tense following the end of World War II, with Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe leading Winston Churchill to describe the “Soviet sphere” as residing behind an “Iron Curtain”—and this less than a year after the Soviets and Allies had together defeated Nazi Germany. Following its surrender, Germany had been divided into four zones occupied by the Allied powers, with the capital of Berlin—deep inside the Soviet zone—carved into four similar occupation zones.
For Stalin, however, the arrangement was merely a step to the establishment of a single, Communist Germany as part of the Soviet Union; the other Allies, however, envisioned the creation of a new German state comprising their zones of occupation. When this became clear to the Soviets, they began restricting both military and passenger traffic between the Allied national occupation zones and Berlin.
After several months of intermittent obstruction of rail and road traffic, on 24 June 1948 the Soviets implemented a full-blown blockade of all routes of entry to the Allied zones in Berlin save for three air routes, spurred to this dramatic action by the announcement of a new Deutschmark currency for use in Allied occupation zones and in West Berlin. The Soviets had similar notions, and introduced an Ostmark for use in East Berlin and the Soviet occupation zone. If there can be any doubt as to how important a role currency and its acceptance played in the crisis, consider this: the Soviets offered to drop the blockade if the Western Allies withdrew the Deutschmark from West Berlin.
Currency wars very often become shooting wars, but the Allied troops on hand were hugely outnumbered by Soviet forces. Instead, the decision was made to use the three air corridors to airlift in supplies not only for the Allied occupation forces, but for the residents of West Berlin. Early efforts fell far short of realistic goals—only ninety tons of supplies were shipped in each day during the first week of the operation—but the numbers continued to increase as the various organizations involved in the airlift began to adjust to optimize the number and types of flights into the city.
The idea of supplying an entire city by air alone for more than a few weeks or months was considered ridiculous when the crisis began. But as time went by, it became abundantly clear that while life might not have a bed of roses inside West Berlin, the citizen and occupation forces were managing quite well on the tonnage that was being airlifted in. Realizing the futility in maintaining the blockade, the Soviets ended it just after midnight on May 12, 1949, less than a year after it had been launched.