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Target Damascus:

The Israeli Invasion of Syria, 1967


Part 15



by Chris Oakley



Summary: In the previous fourteen 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; the political crises that enveloped Washington and Moscow as the Gulf war neared its end; and the beginning of the US Air Force’s saturation bombing campaign against North Vietnam. In this segment we’ll recall the ouster of Leonid I. Brezhnev as CPSU first secretary; the beginnings of cease-fire negotiations between the United States and North Vietnam; and Alexei Kosygin’s first days as new Soviet head of state.


It was just after 11:30 AM US Eastern Daylight Time on February 29th, 1968 when President Humphrey withdrew his National Guard bill from Congress. It simply wasn’t possible, his advisors had told him, to make the proposal work; the United States Army had already dug deep into its reserve and National Guard pools, so deep that the Army Reserve and National Guard recruiting bureaus couldn’t keep up with the demand. Like it or not, the wars in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf would have to be won or lost with the men who were already there-- at least until an adequate pool of recruits could be built up to take some of the pressure off the battle-weary veterans in both combat theaters.

Meanwhile, Hanoi was having troubles of its own; despite Chinese aid the North Vietnamese air defense grid was still taking a pounding from American saturation raids, and there was little if any evidence that the NVA was making any progress in reviving its stalled march on Saigon. Complicating matters still further, the North Vietnamese embassy in Moscow had noticed signs that relations between China and the Soviet Union, which had been poor for years, were in danger of deteriorating still further-- which left open the disturbing possibility of a Sino-Soviet military conflict and in turn meant there was a risk that North Vietnam might simultaneously lose its two chief sources of foreign military aid.

Perhaps, Ho thought, it was time to give diplomacy another try. On March 5th Secretary of State Dean Rusk received a letter from the North Vietnamese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia offering to begin peace talks with Washington within 5-7 days in exchange for a temporary suspension of the US saturation bombing campaign against North Vietnam. Rusk took the letter to President Humphrey, who immediately convened an emergency meeting of his cabinet and National Security Council to hash over what the appropriate US response to Hanoi’s peace feelers should be. After 36 hours of intense and at times bitter debate, it was ultimately decided that the White House should accept the offer; on March 7th, 1968 Rusk telegraphed the North Vietnamese embassy in Belgrade that the United States would send negotiators to Geneva to meet with Hanoi’s diplomats for the purpose of starting discussions on a cease-fire accord to end the Vietnam War.


In the Persian Gulf, meanwhile, the Humphrey Administration was considering instituting a temporary moratorium on the use of tactical nuclear weapons by US forces in the hope that such a move might convince the Soviet Union to holster its own nuclear guns and come to the peace table before it was too late. So far the superpowers, and the world, had been lucky in dodging the bullet of global nuclear holocaust, but that luck couldn’t hold forever-- especially with Moscow’s strategic position on the Iran-Iraq frontier collapsing like a house of cards.

There was an equally important, and considerably less noble, secondary motive for Humphrey’s grand gesture: he hoped to put the Brezhnev regime in a diplomatic bind whereby refusal to reciprocate the United States’ cease-fire gesture would at the very least cause the CPSU leader some serious embarrassment. The President had been told by his advisors, and concluded himself, that the moratorium gambit could well work to Washington’s advantage whether Moscow followed suit or not. If they did, it would ease global tensions and a mutually acceptable peace treaty could finally be worked out in the Gulf; if they didn’t, Soviet intentions abroad in general and in the Middle East in particular would be cast in a negative light and the White House would have the perfect opportunity to sway world opinion against Moscow.

And indeed the US nuclear moratorium touched off a new political crisis within the Kremlin, one from which Brezhnev would ultimately be unable to recover. The hawkish elements of the CPSU elite became locked in a bitter clash with the dove factions over the question of whether the Soviets should halt their own use of tactical nuclear weapons in the Gulf, and as Brezhnev hesitated in his decision on how to respond to the Humphrey Administration’s actions calls mounted for the CPSU chief to be removed from office; Alexei Kosygin, whose political fortunes had been on the decline in recent months, now saw those fortunes rise again as the peace wing of the CPSU Central Committee sounded a renewed call for Kosygin to take over as First Secretary.

Two weeks after Dean Rusk’s telegram to the North Vietnamese embassy in Belgrade, the Central Committee convened a special midnight session to debate a resolution that, if passed, would effectively end Brezhnev’s political career and appoint Kosygin as Brezhnev’s replacement in the First Secretary post. Outside the committee chambers, pro-Kosygin and pro-Brezhnev factions of the KGB and the Soviet military were jockeying for position as each side sought to defeat the other’s man in one of the most intense power plays the Kremlin had seen in decades.

The debate lasted almost eighteen hours, during which emotions ran so high that two Central Committee members actually came to blows and had to be separated by Kremlin security police. The committee finally begin voting on the resolution at 5:57 PM Moscow time on the evening of March 23rd; by 6:45 the Soviet foreign ministry had issued a statement confirming that Alexei Kosygin had replaced Leonid I. Brezhnev as CPSU First Secretary. Kosygin’s first official act as new Soviet head of state was to meet with Andrei Gromyko, who’d switched his loyalties from Brezhnev to Kosygin when it became clear Brezhnev was about to fall, and ask him for his candid assessment of the Soviet tactical situation in the Persian Gulf.

Gromyko’s assessment was indeed candid, and also highly pessimistic. In his opinion the Soviet military position in the Gulf had been going steadily downhill since the U.S.-Iranian victory at Rasht, and that downward trend could only continue as the anti-Baathist insurgency in Iraq grew stronger and more confident. Direct Soviet intervention in the guerrilla war was a chancy proposition at best; just like the Vietnam War had serious drained the American military’s reserve manpower, the fighting on the Iranian battlefront was taking a huge toll on Soviet reserve strength. Furthermore, the Czech and Polish satellite military contingents in the Gulf were increasingly proving to be politically unreliable, and with NATO-Warsaw Pact tensions in Europe continuing to simmer even East German support was starting to look shaky as Walter Ulbricht faced the grim prospect of having to recall some of his troops from the Gulf to guard the inter-German border against possible NATO attack.

Kosygin inquired of Gromyko point-blank whether he thought a defeat of US forces in South Vietnam might prompt Washington to quit the fight in the Middle East. Gromyko responded that it was indeed possible but not necessarily a given-- such a defeat might just as easily have the exact opposite effect and spur the United States to fight even harder in order to avenge the setback. It might even, in extreme cases, provoke a resumption of tactical nuclear conflict between the superpowers which would in turn finally bring about the global ICBM confrontation both sides had been trying to avoid for so long. In the foreign minister’s best considered judgement, the time had come to start peace talks with the United States and Iran. The new CPSU first secretary thanked Gromyko for his time and retired to his dacha to weigh his options.


On March 27th, 1968 a courier from the Soviet UN mission in New York City arrived at the White House with a personal telegram from CPSU First Secretary Kosygin for President Humphrey. It was brief and to the point, with Kosygin asking on what terms the United States would be willing to end hostilities with the Soviet Union and Iraq and withdraw US nuclear weapons from the Persian Gulf. Combined with this inquiry was an offer from the Soviet leader to stand down Red Army and Warsaw Pact troops in central Europe in order to lessen tensions between Washington and Moscow and foster what Kosygin called "a climate of reflective tranquility".

Needing to think things over, Humphrey visited Camp David for two days before sending his reply. While the President didn’t want to give too much away to the Kremlin at the bargaining table, by the same token it would be madness to reject a genuine effort by the Soviet government to end the bloodshed in the Gulf. On March 30th he returned to the White House and contacted the Iranian embassy in Washington to consult with Iran’s ambassador in the US on Kosygin’s peace feeler. Shortly after those consultations were finished, Humphrey went to the Oval Office and began composing a personal message of his own to Kosygin...


To Be Continued


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