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Target Damascus:

The Israeli Invasion of Syria, 1967


Part 12


by Chris Oakley




Summary: In the previous eleven episodes of this series we looked at the Israeli invasion of Syria during the Eleven-Day War; the July War between Israel and the Soviet Union; the outbreak of hostilities in the Persian Gulf between the Soviet Union and the United States; and the escalation of the Gulf conflict into regional nuclear war. In this segment we’ll review the NVA invasion of South Vietnam and the nuclear brinkmanship that nearly pushed the Soviets and the Americans into World War III.




News of the first US-Soviet nuclear exchange in the Persian Gulf panicked civilians on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The nightmare of atomic confrontation between East and West had become reality on the Iranian battlefront, and it seemed that the combatants might soon be exchanging nuclear strikes elsewhere too. Highways all over Europe and North America were jammed with people trying to make it to safety as NATO and Warsaw Pact missile commanders began arming their warheads; in Japan, where the chilling memory of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A- bomb strikes nearly a quarter-century earlier was still fresh, the Diet passed a resolution urging the prime minister to use his influence to call for UN mediation of a cease-fire in the Persian Gulf conflict before it escalated into full-fledged global nuclear war; in China, Mao Zedong denounced both the Soviet Union and the United States as "vicious warmongering dogs"1 for letting this situation come to pass.

Even in Baghdad, where the Iraqi general staff had welcomed the news of the Coral Sea’s demise, there was concern that Iraq might come under nuclear attack if the United States were sufficiently provoked: there were, after all, large concentrations of Soviet combat personnel on Iraqi soil, and likely as not they’d make tempting targets for missile submarines or B-52s. For that matter, the Iranian high command worried that Soviet nuclear warheads might explode over Tehran, Abadan or Qom in revenge for the sinking of the Alexander Suvorov.

The destruction of Coral Sea and Suvorov deepened existing ruptures within the ranks of the Czech government. With Czech troops in Iran staring nuclear holocaust square in the face and Czechoslovakia itself confronted with the risk of nuclear attack, growing numbers of Czech lawmakers and ordinary citizens found themselves sympathizing with Alexander Dubcek’s antiwar stance; at the same time, however, many other Czechs-- especially those in the upper echelons of the nation’s armed forces --still backed Novotny’s policy of aiding the Soviet war effort in the Gulf. Czech parliamentary sessions turned into screaming matches between Novotny and Dubcek, and CIA operatives in Prague had even picked up vague hints that Dubcek supporters within the Czech Communist Party’s central committee might move to oust Novotny.

To a lesser degree this same phenomenon was also happening in Poland, where a group of Gdansk university students calling themselves Solidarity for Peace had started braving the winter cold and secret police surveillance to protest the involvement of Polish troops in a war which as far as the students could see had no direct bearing on their country’s interests. No one in Poland’s national legislature, the Sejm, was yet advocating the withdrawal of Polish troops from the Persian Gulf, but there were definite rumblings that not everyone in the Warsaw government was satisfied with the prosecution of the Gulf conflict.

Even East German ruler Walter Ulbricht, the Kremlin’s staunchest ally in Europe for almost twenty years, privately confided to an aide that he was starting to wonder if the Communist bloc hadn’t bitten off more than it could chew. Ordering round-the-clock updates on the Gulf nuclear standoff from his counterintelligence staff, he began to quietly evacuate key elements of his cabinet from East Berlin lest the nuclear carnage spread to Europe.


For North Vietnam, the atomic standoff between Washington and Moscow meant just one thing: an opportunity to drive the Americans out of South Vietnam once and for all. NVA commander-in-chief General Vo Nguyen Giap was convinced that the time was right for an offensive that would bring the Saigon government to its knees, and he had put the word out to Viet Cong cells in the south to be ready at a minute’s notice to attack US military and diplomatic installations in South Vietnam. On the northern side of the DMZ, regular NVA divisions stood ready to cross the 17th parallel the moment their VC brethren struck at the Americans. Under any other circumstances Giap would have been reluctant to confront US troops in South Vietnam en masse, but with the Johnson Administration fixated on Iran he was willing-- no, eager to challenge the US-ARVN alliance on its home turf.

36 hours after the Coral Sea’s destruction, Giap gave the signal for NVA and VC units to begin their attack on American forces inside South Vietnam; within minutes of that signal, six NVA divisions had crossed  the DMZ while VC suicide squads assaulted US installations all over the south, with the hardest blows directed at the US embassy in Saigon and the US Marine Corps base at Khe Sanh. These assaults, which Giap and his staff referred to by the combined nickname "the Tet Offensive" because they hoped to have most of South Vietnam under Hanoi’s control by the start of the traditional Vietnamese Tet lunar new year, dealt further injury to an American military presence already greatly strained by the diversion of resources to the Persian Gulf. By January 15th, the cities of Hue and Quang Tri were in North Vietnamese hands; the US embassy in Saigon was a smoldering ruin; and Khe Sanh was under siege from Viet Cong guerrillas.

For General Westmoreland, who’d been growing more disenchanted by the day with President Johnson’s conduct of the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive was the straw that broke the camel’s back: on January 16th Westmoreland finally broke his public silence regarding his criticisms with a three-page press release typed in a command tent after grenade attacks forced him to evacuate MACV2 headquarters. Johnson’s response was to relieve Westmoreland of his command, which drove the general to resign from the US Army in protest.


The same ripples from the Coral Sea and Suvorov nuclear strikes being felt in eastern Europe were also touching the western half as well. British prime minister Harold Wilson, in an emergency session of the House of Commons, gave a speech that, while stopping short of directly condemning US actions in the Gulf, did give voice to his fears that the Persian Gulf showdown might be escalating into global nuclear war. West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, in a private telephone conference with President Johnson, voiced concerns that the incidents might lead to a US-Soviet nuclear confrontation in the Fulda Gap, and his worries were somewhat justified-- even as Johnson was reassuring Adenauer that the White House was doing everything possible to keep tensions from growing further, an AP bulletin came over the wires that the same Soviet submarine responsible for the Coral Sea’s sinking had itself been sunk by American nuclear torpedoes. There were also unconfirmed stories that Belgium and the Netherlands had put their respective armed forces on full alert in anticipation of a possible Warsaw Pact invasion.

By far the most vocal and negative reaction to the US-Soviet atomic skirmish was that of French president Charles de Gaulle. In a nationally televised address from Paris, de Gaulle flatly accused Johnson of starting World War III and said that the Coral Sea and Suvorov strikes had vindicated his decision two years earlier to pull France out of NATO. And millions of his fellow Frenchmen seemed to agree with him; they turned out in Paris, Bordeaux, and Marseilles for massive anti-Johnson rallies.

In Rome, Pope Paul VI gave a special homily calling for the United States and the Soviet Union to cease all hostilities in the Persian Gulf. The Italian Communist Party, despite having espoused a pro-Soviet ideology for decades, staged an all-day rally bitterly condemning the Kremlin’s use of nuclear weapons in the Persian Gulf; at least one well- known CPI3 politician called for Leonid Brezhnev’s expulsion from the CPSU. The British and French Communist parties issued a joint statement denouncing Brezhnev as "a warmonger worse than any capitalist" ; the Danish Communist party became embroiled in fierce internal dissension as disagreements over what the party’s position should be on the Gulf nuclear crisis mushroomed into a turf battle for the soul of the party itself.

For the American peace movement, the nuclear showdown rubbed fresh salt in wounds which hadn’t fully healed after the collapse of the 1967 San Francisco forum.4 Abbie Hoffman, still shaken by the violence which had prematurely brought about the forum’s end, was conspicuously missing from the vitriolic arguments that roiled the New Left after the Coral Sea and Suvorov nuclear strikes, but the other major antiwar leaders more than made up for his absence, hurling charges and countercharges at each other as quarrels over the implications of the nuclear attacks imperiled what little unity the New Left had been able to salvage after the accusations of anti-Semitism that had dogged it when it opposed the United States’ intervention on behalf of Israel during the July War.

Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman’s closest friend and the de facto leader of the Youth International Party since Hoffman had gone into seclusion, tried his best to heal the breach by hosting a summit of peace activists in Baltimore on January 20th, 1968. But as had been the case with the San Francisco forum a month earlier, Rubin’s summit collapsed in a storm of fear and violence as then-Maryland governor and future vice-president Spiro Agnew was forced to call out his state’s National Guard to quell a riot that broke out just hours after the summit began.

The more radical elements of the black power movement were not quite so disturbed by the Gulf nuclear crisis as many of their white comrades on the far left seemed to be; in fact, Black Panther Party activist and spokeswoman Angela Davis welcomed it as "the ultimate sign the evil and corrupt white power structure of mainstream America is about to be taken down for good".5 Such comments fueled Establishment suspicions towards black power ideology in general and made Davis in particular a potential target for prosecution on treason and sedition charges; they also earned her a surprising rebuke from fellow Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, who deemed them irresponsible given that if the Gulf atomic standoff did escalate into global nuclear war, among the first targets for Soviet ICBMs would be San Francisco and Los Angeles-- both home to substantial African-American communities and bases of support for the Black Panther Party.


Even in the Soviet Union there were whispers of dissent about the use of nuclear weapons in the Persian Gulf-- though those uttering such whispers were usually careful to first make sure that the KGB wasn’t eavesdropping on them. With the threat of global nuclear war now greater than ever, some Soviet citizens were wondering-- if only to themselves --whether military victory on the Iranian battlefront was worth the increasingly stiff price the Kremlin, and the world, was having to pay. Much to First Secretary Brezhnev’s dismay, one such person was his own premier, Alexei Kosygin-- the man who had helped him oust Nikita Khrushchev back in 1964. While he may have put on a united front with Brezhnev in public, behind closed doors Kosygin was beginning to voice genuine and deep fears that the USSR was committing what he deemed "national suicide" by continuing to fight the Americans in the Persian Gulf, with or without the use of A-bombs.

To the ire of Kremlin hard-liners, he began urging Brezhnev to open cease-fire negotiations with the United States and Iran and refrain from any further use of nuclear weapons lest things get any further out of hand. This caused a serious political dilemma for Brezhnev, who wanted to end the Gulf standoff as badly as anyone else yet still felt the need to protect Soviet prestige against the damage it would suffer from defeat on the Iranian battlefront; consequently, the usually decisive CPSU leader wavered between varying courses of action and his deputies had to assume a growing share of the decision- making burden the first secretary would have normally carried.

The Soviet bloc’s already highly complicated political situation became even more so on January 25th, 1968 when the Czech Communist Party’s central committee finally decided they’d had it with Novotny and appointed Alexander Dubcek to replace him as the party’s general secretary. Supporters of the deployment of Czech soldiers to Iran were outraged by the news, realizing that Dubcek would seek to end the Czech presence in the Persian Gulf; the antiwar faction, on the other hand, was elated at the change in command and hundreds rallied in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to cheer on the new Czech head of state.


Ordinarily such an upheaval in a Warsaw Pact country would have instantly attracted Washington’s attention. The White House, however, was preoccupied with other matters; the same day that Novotny was ousted as ruler of Czechoslovakia, Lyndon Johnson had been rushed to Bethesda Naval Hospital with cardiac arrest. The combined strain of dealing with the July War, the invasion of South Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf conflict with the Soviet Union had exacted a physical toll on Johnson even the normally robust Texan couldn’t endure. In his absence, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey assumed command of the Oval Office in an atmosphere he likened to "being in a cage with a lion that’s got a toothache and knowing you have to put your head in that lion’s mouth".6

Humphrey’s first hours as commander-in-chief were divided between reassuring the Iranian and South Vietnamese embassies in Washington that the United States wouldn’t abandon its allies; being debriefed by the CIA’s East European desk on the overthrow of Antonin Novotny; studying the latest battle reports from the Persian Gulf and Southeast Asia; and fielding questions from the Washington press corps about Johnson’s medical condition. He also devoted considerable time to keeping abreast of the domestic turmoil in his own country, and there was a great deal to keep track of-- even as he was coming down from the podium following the conclusion of his first press conference as chief executive, he was informed by one of his aides that civil rights leader and Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot to death just hours before he was scheduled to host an interfaith peace vigil in Nashville.


At the time he was killed, Dr. King had repeatedly expressed concern both in public and in private that the tactical nuclear showdown in the Gulf might lead to global nuclear confrontation between the superpowers; in fact, the sermon with which he had planned to open his peace vigil explicitly warned of "a second Holocaust" engulfing humanity if Moscow and Washington didn’t soon holster their atomic six-guns. Since the Coral Sea attack, six American and five Soviet warships had fallen victim to nuclear torpedoes, and each side had lost an airfield to the other’s ground-launched tactical missiles; King feared it was only a matter of time before ICBMs were blasting whole cities or even nations off the face of the earth.

Though King would never know it, similar thoughts troubled Alexei Kosygin; the Soviet premier knew that the Americans wouldn’t hesitate to use their strategic nuclear arsenal against military and industrial targets inside the USSR if push came to shove. Already at least half of the ICBM silos in the continental United States were on DefCon 2 and Strategic Air Command had given its B-52 wings authorization to bomb targets inside the Soviet Union on their own initiative if communication links between Washington and SAC headquarters in Omaha were disrupted.

Victory in the Persian Gulf, Kosygin suspected, might come at a higher price than the Soviet Union could afford to pay, and so on January 27th, 1968 he went before a special session of the CPSU Central Committee to introduce a motion that would rock the country to its political core...


To Be Continued



1 Quoted from a speech broadcast from Tienanmen Square the day after the nuclear strikes.

2 Military Assistance Command Vietnam.

3 Communist Party of Italy.

4 See Part 10 of this series for further details on the forum.

5 Quoted from a story in the January 19th, 1968 Oakland Tribune.

6 "Humphrey Admits Feeling Trepidation When He First Succeeded LBJ", from the February 20th, 1973 Minneapolis Star-Tribune.


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