The Israeli Invasion of Syria, 1967
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the previous thirteen episodes of this series we reviewed the Israeli invasion of Syria during the Eleven-Day War; the July War between Israel and the Soviet Union; the outbreak of conflict in the Persian Gulf between the Soviet Union and the United States and the escalation of that conflict into regional nuclear war; the NVA invasion of South Vietnam; and the political crises that enveloped Washington and Moscow as the Gulf war neared its end. In this segment we’ll outline the consequences of the Soviet-Iraqi defeat at Rasht, remember the struggle for Saigon, and review the Humphrey Administration’s first efforts to reach a cease-fire with North Vietnam.
Lyndon Johnson was buried on February 7th, 1968 at Arlington National Cemetery amid a climate of global anxiety which dwarfed even the fear of the days of the Cuban missile crisis. NVA and Viet Cong divisions were fighting American and South Vietnamese troops just twenty miles outside Saigon; American and Soviet ICBMs were practically on hair triggers; war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact seemed likely to erupt within days if not hours; and Soviet field commanders on the Iranian battlefront were perilously close to using tactical nuclear missiles on US and Iranian troops as a last resort to keep their already shaky toehold in Iran from collapsing altogether.
The US-Iranian victory at Rasht had been just as great of a shock for the Soviet Union as the Tet Offensive was for the United States. The Red Army high command in Moscow had been confident in a Soviet-Iraqi victory right up until the moment the last pockets of Soviet resistance in the city had surrendered to US troops; when Rasht fell, it dealt a huge blow to Moscow’s strategic interests in the Middle East and tore a gap in the Soviet-Iraqi front that promised to widen in the days ahead.1
In Iraq, Iranian-backed Kurdish and Shiite rebels had started a guerrilla war against the Baathist regime in Baghdad; while not on the same level as the Viet Cong insurgency in South Vietnam or the FARC uprising in Colombia, the rebellion was a serious enough concern for the Baghdad government that the Iraqi regular army was ordered to divert a fifth of its reserve strength from the fighting in Iran to suppress the guerrilla forces.
Among the East German, Czech, and Polish satellite contingents in the Gulf dissent was growing exponentially in the wake of the US-Iranian victory at Rasht. This dissent was particularly pronounced among the Czech soldiers, who like many of their fellow countrymen back home were growing steadily more disenchanted with Czechoslovakia’s participation in the Warsaw Pact in general and the Gulf War in particular. Incidents of mutiny, suicide, and drug abuse were becoming more common by the day; there were also a handful of instances when enlisted men tried to kill their officers using fragmentation grenades. These attacks, colloquially known in the American press as "fragging", put the lie to the Kremlin propaganda machine’s cheerful portrayals of the Warsaw Pact satellite armies as willing and enthusiastic partners of the Soviet Union in its struggle with the West.
They also raised disturbing questions in the upper echelons of the Soviet government about the morale of the Soviets’ own armed forces in the Gulf. Yuri Andropov was sufficiently concerned about the matter to arrange a private meeting with the Red Army’s highest-ranking political officer; to his dismay, the officer told him that the same troubles plaguing the Czech, Polish, and East German troop contingents on the Iranian battlefront had already started to manifest themselves inside the ranks of the Red Army expeditionary forces in the Persian Gulf. When the KGB chief passed on this dire report to Brezhnev, the CPSU First Secretary was nonplussed to say the least.
The only place where the tide of battle was rolling indisputably in favor of the Communist bloc was South Vietnam, where demoralized ARVN2 troops were running like scalded cats from the NVA onslaught; American forces in the country, despite having a technical advantage over the North Vietnamese invaders, were hard-pressed to hold their own given that most of the US military’s resources and manpower were still being allotted to the fighting in the Persian Gulf.
General Creighton W. Abrams, the man who’d succeeded William Westmoreland as supreme commander of US combat forces in Vietnam, was in the same unenviable position as that fairy-tale boy who had to hold back a flood by sticking his finger in a dike. Against an adversary whose numbers and confidence were both growing rapidly, Abrams tried to hang on to what was left of the Republic of South Vietnam even as fresh NVA regiments marched across the 17th parallel. Though the Viet Cong had sustained casualties which under any other circumstances would have stopped the invasion cold, the North Vietnamese were doing a splendid job of picking up the slack, and as a result intelligence analysts at Abrams’ headquarters in Saigon were grimly predicting that South Vietnam would collapse by the end of the month if not sooner.
The main reason the NVA hadn’t overrun Saigon already was that jets from the remaining US and VNAF3 airbases in South Vietnam were slowing the North Vietnamese advance with round-the-clock bombing raids on the enemy front lines. B-52s out of Thailand and Okinawa also participated in the bombing offensive, and even the Filipino air force had a nominal role in the campaign, flying recon planes out of Luzon to assist US and South Vietnamese aircraft in finding their assigned targets.
Another major thorn in the NVA’s side as it tried to complete the conquest of South Vietnam was the continuing resistance of the besieged US Marine garrison at Khe Sanh. Kept going by supplies air-dropped from C-130s flying a narrow and quite precarious delivery corridor, the men of the Khe Sanh garrison were a source of great frustration for Hanoi, which had hoped to overwhelm the base by sheer force of numbers during the opening days of the Tet Offensive.
But round-the-clock bombing was only a partial solution to the Americans’ woes in Vietnam-- what was really needed were more "boots on the ground", to coin a phrase, and even with the US Army dipping deep into its reserve pool such boots were proving harder and harder to come by. Humphrey’s administration was deeply divided on the issue of using National Guard troops to make up the shortfall; Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Earle K. Wheeler was the main spokesman for those who favored the deployment of such troops, while the opposing side was led by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who said the Guardsmen might be needed to deal with the escalated unrest at home.4
In Congress most Democrats, and a growing number of Republicans, advocated a cease-fire with Hanoi as soon as one could be arranged. The most vocal advocate of such a cease-fire was Senator Mike Mansfield of Minnesota, who had opposed US military intervention in Vietnam for years and felt that the time was at hand for Washington to shed the burden of propping up the corruption-riddled Saigon government; if American combat forces left southeast Asia, he reasoned, the Soviets might reciprocate by withdrawing their own troops from the Persian Gulf.
Former Vice-President and eventual Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon wasn’t against the idea of an eventual American withdrawal from Vietnam in and of itself-- indeed, in his 1968 campaign he would repeatedly stress the theme of "peace with honor" not only in regard to southeast Asia but also concerning the Persian Gulf. What he did oppose was pulling out of South Vietnam too precipitously; he warned that if US combat troops were extracted from that country before suitable peace terms had been arranged, it would constitute a black eye to American interests around the world and might even embolden the Soviets to send more troops to the Iranian battlefront.
Nixon, a shrewd politician if ever there was one, reinforced his image as a peacemaker by pledging to reduce nuclear tensions between East and West if he were elected President. He also went out of his way to remind voters that both the Vietnam situation and the Persian Gulf war had happened under Democratic administrations; at a Valentine’s Day campaign rally in Missouri, Nixon told his audience: "The Democrats claim to be the party of peace, yet on their watch this country has been plunged into a seemingly endless war in Vietnam and finds itself poised on the threshold of global nuclear war with Russia...isn’t it time that we as Americans elected a President who, instead of just talking about making peace, actually goes out and does it?"5
The Soviets were unsure what to make of Nixon’s entry into the 1968 US presidential campaign; on the one hand he was known on both sides of the Iron Curtain to be fiercely anti-Communist, but on the other hand he seemed to be showing signs that he might be more willing than Johnson had been-- or Humphrey was proving to be so far --to seek a diplomatic rather than a military solution to the question of ending the Gulf war. Even Yuri Andropov, who prided himself on being able to read people like an open book, admitted to his comrades in the Central Committee that he had trouble interpreting the contradictory signals that the former VP was sending out in his speeches.
For that matter, Nixon’s potential Democratic challengers were themselves confused by the tone of his rhetoric. He’d started out on the national political scene as a die-hard right-winger who actively collaborated with fanatical anti-Red crusader Joe McCarthy, but lately he was sounding more and more like Gene McCarthy. Was this just an election-year ploy to undermine the Democrats, or did it signal the beginning of a bona fide transformation in Nixon’s worldview? Whatever the answer was, President Humphrey thought, Nixon’s platform spelled trouble for his own presidential campaign unless he could do something to regain the initiative from the former Vice-President...
Humphrey’s own Vice-President, former Speaker of the House John McCormack, drafted a letter to the North Vietnamese embassy in Geneva the day after Nixon’s Valentine’s Day speech seeking to open the way for Washington and Hanoi to negotiate a cease-fire. North Vietnam’s initial response to the letter was tepid to say the least; now that the Vietnamese Communists were on the verge of attaining their two decades-plus-old dream of reunifying their country under Ho Chi Minh’s rule, Hanoi had little interest in anything other than final victory. Vo Nguyen Giap in particular hoped to take Saigon no later than February 21st.6
But North Vietnam would be singing a different tune eventually; on the advice of Air Force general Curtis LeMay, President Humphrey ordered that the majority of B-52s be re-assigned from the battle for Saigon to saturation raids against strategic targets on North Vietnamese soil-- with special attention being paid to Hanoi. The first of these raids happened on February 17th, 1968 and targeted Hanoi’s main water, gas, and electric stations. The North Vietnamese had barely finished picking up the pieces from that raid when another one hit the city the next morning, this time targeting the DRV7 capital’s industrial sectors along with NVA command/control centers; Radio Hanoi’s broadcast studios were also heavily bombed.
Outwardly General Giap continued to defiantly proclaim that North Vietnamese victory was inevitable and the Americans’ days in Vietnam were numbered; privately, he stared to fear if the saturation bombings continued long enough and hit his country hard enough, it would at the very least jeopardize the NVA’s timetable for capturing Saigon and finishing the conquest of South Vietnam. Likewise, Ho Chi Minh had concerns that the new saturation bombing campaign might succeed where previous bombing offensives had failed in sapping his countrymen’s will to fight.
Accordingly, the North Vietnamese ambassador in Moscow petitioned the Soviet government to dramatically increase the number of fighter aircraft it was sending to Hanoi. But with Soviet air squadrons in the Persian Gulf still taking massive casualties and their brethren in eastern Europe and on the home front needing spare parts if the conflict with the United States in the Gulf escalated to global war, granting the North Vietnamese government’s request would turn out to be easier said than done. Thus, as the saturation bombing campaign continued and escalated, the North Vietnamese government found itself compelled to turn for help to an ancient adversary of the Vietnamese people-- China.
For Beijing, North Vietnam’s plea to send fighters to mend their badly frayed air defenses represented a grand opportunity to expand China’s influence on the Asian mainland. Not only would furnishing such aid provide a means of binding Hanoi closer to China, but it also gave the Mao regime a convenient means of sticking a thumb in the eyes of its adversaries in Moscow and Washington. Mao despised the Soviets for their "revisionism"; the Americans for interfering with his efforts to spread the Chinese brand of Marxism across Asia; and both nations for endangering the survival of the People’s Republic with their continuing nuclear game of chicken.
On February 25th, 1968, eight days after the first American saturation bombing raids on Hanoi, Chinese pilots began flying MiG-17s and MiG-19s across the North Vietnamese border to aid their comrades in North Vietnam’s air defense squadrons in thwarting the American saturation raids.8 The White House was alarmed when they learned of this action; it recalled the massive intervention of the Chinese army on North Korea’s side during the Korean War and stirred up fears of a direct US-Chinese military confrontation. The Soviets were equally alarmed, but for different reasons-- they had long seen themselves as Ho Chi Minh’s number one foreign ally, and they weren’t about to let China usurp that position from them, Gulf war or no Gulf war.
The Soviet ambassador in Hanoi immediately went to see North Vietnamese foreign minister Tran Chanh Thanh and reassure him his country’s troubles hadn’t been forgotten by the Kremlin in spite of the Soviet Union’s own desperate struggles with the United States in Iran. Tran, however, had a hard time accepting those reassurances and as the world continued to teeter on the verge of full-scale global nuclear war CPSU First Secretary Brezhnev would finding his political career hanging in the balance just as President Johnson’s had during LBJ’s final months in the White House.
But while the Communist forces were gaining the upper hand in the air, on the ground their advance towards Saigon had slowed to a crawl as American troops, backed by substantial numbers of Australian and South Korean soldiers, stiffened their resistance. Stories of NVA and VC atrocities against anti-Communist Vietnamese had gradually filtered out into the world press; not all of these stories were true, as postwar investigation would later disclose, but enough of them were to frighten those who disagreed with Ho Chi Minh’s vision of a unified Communist Vietnam. Even some Vietnamese who’d previously been politically neutral became anti-Communist when confronted with the prospect of meeting what one Saigon newspaper called "savage and barbaric death"9 at the hands of the VC and their brethren in Hanoi’s army.
General Giap was understandably disappointed that his February 21st deadline for taking Saigon had not been met, and he was alarmed that the United States and its allies were continuing to hold out in South Vietnam despite the NVA and Viet Cong’s best efforts to evict them from the country. As soon as the first Chinese MiGs began flying air defense patrols over North Vietnam, he went to Ho Chi Minh and requested Ho’s permission to begin calling up NVA reserve divisions to shore up the regular forces’ battle front near Saigon; Ho, sharing Giap’s concerns about the situation in South Vietnam, immediately granted the request.
The first NVA reserve troops were shipped to the Saigon battlefront on February 28th just as the United States Congress was debating a bill that would, if passed, authorize President Humphrey to dispatch National Guard units to South Vietnam. In Moscow, the Soviet foreign ministry was drafting a cease-fire proposal aimed at ending the carnage in Iran. On the Iranian front, Soviet and Iraqi forces continued to wage a valiant if losing defensive struggle against US and Iranian forces pushing to cross the Iran-Iraq border. And all over the world, a frightened human race still waited for the other nuclear shoe to drop...
To Be Continued
1Rumors persist that certain junior Soviet officers were plotting to force a withdrawal of Red Army units from the Gulf by arresting Defense Minister Grechko and detaining him at a military prison until Brezhnev agreed to begin bringing the troops home. These rumors first circulated after a Soviet naval reserves lieutenant, Dmitri Mikhailovich Atvelenko, was court-martialed for starting a petition that called for Grechko’s resignation; other than this minor and quickly suppressed act of dissent, however, there is no proof that officers on the Soviet home front ever gave the slightest consideration to any plans for a coup d’etat against Grechko or any other senior Kremlin official.
2Army of the Republic of Viet Nam, the South Vietnamese army’s official designation.
3The South Vietnamese air force.
4Hoover conveniently omitted one small detail from his argument: his own agency was a major contributor to such unrest through its COINTELPRO(counterintelligence program) division, which sought to stir up the more violent elements of the American antiwar movement in order to discredit the movement as a whole. The full truth about COINTELPRO would not begin to surface until October of 1969, three months after Hoover’s death from a cerebral aneurysm.
5"Nixon blames Democrats for current nuclear standoff with USSR", February 15th, 1968 St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
6Officially Giap wanted to end the war before the spring rains set in and the NVA advance became bogged down in mud; unofficially, the veteran NVA general joked that he was hoping to give Ho Chi Minh a 21-gun salute when Ho returned to Saigon, where the Vietnamese Communist leader had once lived in his younger days.
7Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
8This gesture was reminiscent in many respects of the Soviet Union’s covert aid to North Korea’s fledgling air force during the Korean War.
9"President Thieu Warns Viet Cong Plan To Torture, Then Execute Political Opponents", from the February 22nd, 1968 Saigon Post.