April 28, 2014

1948. Letters from the Berlin Blockade

The Berlin Blockade
Bill Downs in 1945
From 1948 to 1949 Bill Downs and his wife Rosalind "Roz" Downs lived in West Berlin as he covered the blockade and airlift. In these two letters home, Bill and Roz describe the city's condition, the rations, and the political situation. Small portions unrelated to the subject matter (well wishes, etc.) have been removed for clarity. They are designated by ellipses between paragraphs.
Oct. 19, 1948

Dear Mom and Dad,

We are having one of our first quiet evenings at home since we arrivedhence the burst of letter writing. As Roz has probably told you, we have one of the fanciest ice-boxes of any residence this side of the Rhine. We are taking three German lessons a week. I work not too hard since the UN has taken the story away from here. All in all it is chilly but pleasant life. We get about 500 lbs. of coal a month, which means we can have baths about twice or three times a week.

However in the backyardbeyond the swimming pool and near the air raid shelter which has never been destroyedwe have a dozen trees. Three now are missing and we have about a cord of wood in the basement. Then I think we can get some brown coal for the fireplace. It will be on the black market but it all is pirated from the Soviet zone, and we don't feel badly about it since it helps more than hinders the air lift.

You know just about as much as we do about what is going to come out of this mess. The decisions will not be made here. However the reflection of our policy shows here first and as far as I can make it out, we are preparing to continue this air lift for two years if necessary. There has been nothing that gives any hope for the lifting of the blockade in the near future. The Russians go as far as they dare without overtly precipitating war. I get the feeling that we do the same more or less. And the feeling is that there will not be any open, official conflict between the two major powers.

But there is one other possibility. The Russians are supposed to be organizing a "people's police"an unofficial armed group of communists in the Soviet zone and sector of the city. They have proposed that all of the Allies withdraw. This move, as it did in Korea, will leave an armed minority favorable to them behind to take over. This may happen, but it would not officially be war. In this sense, Berlin has become a symbol. Because we will not abandon our sector to this kind of default power politics.

Another possibility is that the so-called "people's police" being armed and organized here in Berlin will try a putsch and take over the city. However we won't stand for that and now it appears that the city will really be split politically and economically. The trouble is that if things really get serious we won't be able to maintain our position, even with the air life. That is if the Russians want to move with their army. They can take the air fields and all the rest. We don't have enough power here.

But neither Russia nor America nor anyone else seems ready for war. So we feel very, very safe.

Incidentally, this stuff is off the record—not for passing along for any local publication.

I have had dinner with Gen. Clay and Ambassador Robert Murphy several times. Clay is terrific. Murphy is a Republican but a nice guy. The American set up here is much better than I expected. The troops are tops, the press is high caliber, and the entire military government personnel is better than anywhere else I have seen it.

.   .   .

Bill
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Roz Downs in 1948
Friday, Sept. 24, 1948

Dear Mom and Dad,

I'm finally getting around to writing to you again and there is really a lot to say. Ed Murrow has been staying with us for a week and everyone is pretty tired, and especially your son. Bill has been working very hard—has been on the air every day at 7 AM your time and 8 on Sunday. He's enjoying the work more though than any time since we've been married.
.   .   .

To get food we drive to the commissary which is about eight miles away. We have no refrigerator, and anyway there's not enough electricity in Berlin to keep an electric refrigerator going. So I should go to the commissary every day to get fresh food. But gas is rationed (ten gallons a week) and Bill needs it for his work. He has his office at home and he broadcasts about seven blocks away from here. And it's really wonderful having him around the house so much. He just got back from broadcasting and says hello. He's on his way to pick up Ed, who's decided he'll have to leave to go back to New York tonight.

We drove into the city the other day. Ed wanted to see what was left of it. The only opinion I have of the Germans after seeing Berlin and the other parts of Germany we've driven through is that they sure were damn fools. I think before the war Berlin must have been one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Now, there is no city. For miles on end three is nothing but rubble. You are startled when you see a building standing until you drive close to it and see it's only four walls with no insides.

Once also there was a Tiergarten—several miles of garden, walks, statues, monuments, trees, grass—a lovely place that I had seen pictures of. Now the trees have been chopped down for firewood, there is no grass. There are bomb craters all over, and the statues and monuments are only rubble.

It is very depressing to go into Berlin proper. As Ed said, it looks like the end of the world. It looks like something out of a fantastic story magazine; something that looks like a civilization of the past, now dead. It's pretty horrible how a people with what must have been a truly beautiful city could have started the war, I don't know; the people here also look terrible. Their clothes look like what you would find only in the tenement districts in America. Their food is still almost entirely bread and potatoes, what they can get.

Bill said I would feel depressed by it all—and morbid. That is true for you cannot see all this and help but think it might happen to the whole world if we're not careful. But I cannot feel pity for the German people. I have tried; I do feel sorry for the children. But I don't believe the people have changed. They're beaten down now, but if we were to give them twenty years of building, they would be back again, demanding. They are a very strong people, and they frighten me.

I think that is all I have time to say now. Sorry for the essay but there is so much here to talk about. I shall write again next week. 
.   .   .
Roz