The Covid pandemic severely disrupted schools, commerce, and public and private services of every description. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the West’s focus on the “manmade climate crisis” continue to drive energy and food prices ever higher.
Western energy, healthcare and national security policies are increasingly exposed as weak, confused and feckless. In Europe they are hugely exacerbated by the needs of millions of Ukrainian refugees trying to escape Vladimir Putin’s brutality by fleeing to Europe, the UK, America, Turkey and Israel.
Practical solutions are essential. But we don’t have to address or solve this or any entire crisis with one approach. Successful interventions can come in small, inexpensive, incremental packages, rather than massive government programs, prohibitively expensive prescription-only drugs, or total transformations of our energy and economy.
U.S. Air Force Colonel Gail Seymour Halvorsen understood that. If he saw these women and children fleeing Russian aggression, he’d probably airdrop chocolates and chewing gum. Really. Because that’s what he did in 1948, when Joe Stalin blockaded West Berlin, deep inside East Germany, to freeze and starve its people and intimidate the Allies into submission.
This history is real and inspirational for me. I was born in 1948. My father served three years in WWII’s Pacific Theater, and many years afterward in the Army Reserves as a command sergeant major. I spent time in East and West Berlin in 1969, where I saw the stark contrasts between the two sectors, in recovery levels, prosperity and freedoms.
West Berlin was already quite dynamic and prosperous. It had rebuilt, preserving Kaiser Wilhelm Gedaechtnis Kirche as a memorial to wartime horrors, and turning 98,000,000 cubic yards of rubble into the 260-foot-tall Teufelsberg (Devil’s Mountain) and ski slope. East Berlin was personified by spies and repression, Soviet-style apartments, and “restored historic buildings” that were just facades with acres of rubble behind them.
East Berliners were doomed to 44 years of Russian domination, following the devastation, rapes and butchery inflicted by Soviet troops in reprisal for Nazi devastation, rapes and butchery in Russia. West Berliners didn’t love American-British-French rule, but they wanted nothing of Russian rule.
The Allies responded to Stalin’s threats with the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift. With planes landing every 90 seconds at its peak, the airlift delivered nearly 2.5 million tons of food, medicines, coal and other supplies, averted a humanitarian disaster, and kept West Berlin alive and free.
Col. Halvorsen flew some of those C-47 and C-54 cargo planes. He became known as “the Berlin Candy Bomber” and “Chocolate Pilot,” because he went beyond the call of duty to launch “Operation Little Vittles.” He began dropping candy bars and chewing gum attached to miniature parachutes, to lift the spirits of Berlin’s children during the airlift.
With his commander’s support – and thanks to the generosity of American families and companies that donated gum, chocolate and handkerchiefs – little Berliners shared 23 tons of candy dropped on 250,000 tiny homemade parachutes.
Halverson had ingenuity, empathy and common sense in abundance. He didn’t have modern research to support his Little Vittles concept. He just knew instinctively that the candy drops would help.
Incredibly, or perhaps not, recent scientific studies have found that chewing gum actually can help reduce stress and keep anxiety and panic at bay, for kids and adults alike. Some therapists even recommend that schools and parents keep little “coping tool boxes” handy and stock them with gum and chocolate for anxious kids – preferably sugar-free, of course.
Chocolate and chewing gum are certainly not the answer to every stressful situation, but they may help in many. They might even calm nerves a little and bring a few smiles among kids and parents enduring Putin’s fury, fleeing from it, coping with refugee life in strange lands, or praying he won’t obliterate their maternity ward, school, home or bomb shelter.
An even more amazing study has come out of the Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine. The researchers’ colleagues must have thought them daft when they proposed to assess the effectiveness of xylitol-sweetened chewing gum in preventing preterm birth among pregnant poor rural East African women who faced high risks of premature birth.
But they pressed ahead, believing that simple, accessible, affordable, even tasty healthcare possibilities should at least be investigated, and not rejected out of hand. Moreover, there’s a clear, well-known connection between the oral health benefits of sugar-free gum (SFG), the impact of good oral health on human biological systems, and the correlation between periodontitis and premature birth.
Lo and behold, they discovered that the gum actually cut preterm births nearly by a quarter! Far fewer babies were born too early or too small. “There is some real science behind the choice of xylitol chewing gum to improve oral health,” said lead author Dr. Kjersti Aagaard, “and our novel application to improving birth outcomes is exciting.”
It certainly is, especially in a world where governments, charitable foundations and companies routinely spend billions or even trillions of dollars, pounds and euros on fancy, complicated programs that often invite waste and corruption. (For other benefits of chewing SFG, check this out, and this and this.)
As economist and author of The White Man’s Burden William Easterly famously observed, during five decades the West spent $2.3 trillion in foreign aid to poor countries – but proved unable to distribute $4 mosquito nets to help prevent malaria in Africa. As I have often noted, the West was equally unable to get behind spraying inexpensive DDT on the walls and doorways of cinderblock and mud-and-thatch homes, to keep deadly malaria-infected mosquitoes out for six months or more with a single spray.
At $41 per pregnancy, Dr. Aagaard’s chewing gum is one of those humble but ingenious and fantastically effective interventions that ought to be contemplated and implemented early and often. It’s clearly a product of the Chocolate Pilot School of Problem Solving.
But does it have to be sugar-free gum and candy? Sugar-free wasn’t even available in 1948. And to suppose Berlin or Ukrainian moms should worry about tooth cavities under their dire circumstances is as preposterous as saying John Kerry would worry that Putin’s butchery might distract the world from the “existential threat” of “fossil-fuel-driven climate change.” Still, sugar-free is definitely preferable.
Col. Halvorsen was right to think that simple solutions may offer real answers, especially in a crisis when lives are at stake. As we ponder the war, our stretched resources and Europe’s humanitarian crisis, we should keep that in mind. Not every remedy has to be national or global in scope; not every program has to be expensive or complicated to be effective. Common sense and can-do ingenuity can go a long way – and both are resources we have in greater abundance than do our totalitarian adversaries.
Following his Berlin exploits, the “Candy Bomber” spent 25 years advocating for children in conflict zones and performing candy drops in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, Iraq and elsewhere. After logging over 8,000 flying hours, he retired and went on to help develop reusable manned spacecraft, become a college dean, and serve as a Mormon missionary in London and St. Petersburg, Russia. Among his many awards was the Congressional Gold Medal.
Col. Halvorsen remained a hero in Germany, as well. When he died this year at age 101, a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, Berlin mayor Francisca Giffey said his “deeply human act has never been forgotten.” The Allied Museum in Berlin called him “an immensely charismatic and lovable person.”
We salute him, his legacy, and the concept of simple yet effective solutions.