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Target Damascus:

The Israeli Invasion of Syria, 1967


Part 16



by Chris Oakley





Summary: In the previous fifteen 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; the US Air Force’s saturation bombing campaign against North Vietnam; the ouster of Leonid Brezhnev as CPSU first secretary; the opening of cease-fire negotiations between the United States and North Vietnam; Alexei Kosygin’s first days as new Soviet premier; and the superpowers’ first tentative steps towards an end to hostilities in the Persian Gulf. In this chapter we’ll look at the peace accord that ended the Gulf War; the death of Ho Chi Minh and its consequences for the cease-fire talks between Washington and Hanoi; and the domestic turmoil engulfing the US as the 1968 presidential campaign was heating up.


Hubert Humphrey had set a tall order for himself in the spring of 1968, trying not only to win election to a full term as president but also to negotiate an end to two of the bloodiest wars in the history of the United States. Vice-President John McCormack had an equally daunting task ahead of him; as the Humphrey Administration’s chief point man, he had the responsibility of selling the US peace plans for the Gulf and Vietnam to America’s allies overseas and to American voters at home. On top of that, both men had to fend off what now increasingly looked like a serious challenge for the Oval Office from Richard Nixon, who’d come in from the political cold of his 1962 gubenatorial campaign defeat1 and was increasingly looking like the favorite to win the GOP nomination at the party’s convention in Miami that summer.

Of the two peace bids in which the White House was involved, the negotiations with the Soviets to end the Gulf War held the greater promise. Whereas the North Vietnamese had penetrated deep into South Vietnam and were still in position to resume the drive for Saigon if they got the chance, the Soviets had been pushed back to the Iran-Iraq border and were on the defensive; thus, Washington had a better chance of obtaining favorable terms with Moscow than it did with Hanoi.

In any case, much of the American electorate was ready for both wars to end regardless of on whose terms the end was decided; they’d had it with the endless stream of body bags coming home from the jungles of Vietnam and the deserts of Iran, not to mention the massive financial strain being placed on America’s domestic social programs by the sheer expense of militarily opposing Communism abroad on such a huge scale. There were sufficiently large numbers of these people that Minnesota senator Gene McCarthy, one of the few people brave enough to challenge Humphrey for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, campaigned on a staunchly anti-war platform-- in his first major campaign speech he explicitly stated that if elected he would bring all US combat troops home from the Middle East and Southeast Asia immediately.

Richard Nixon too wanted to bring the troops home, but on a more gradual basis and only after the United States had pushed the Soviets out of Iran and the NVA out of South Vietnam. McCarthy’s call for an immediate pullout struck the former vice-president as a gold-engraved invitation to disaster, and he told anyone who would listen that this policy should automatically disqualify McCarthy from the Oval Office. Nixon’s remarks touched off a roiling controversy but won him plaudits from conservative voters who feared for American prestige abroad if the Democrats retained control of the White House in November.

By far the most jingoistic candidate in the race that year was Independence Party candidate and longtime Alabama governor George A. Wallace, who openly advocated the use of strategic nuclear weapons against North Vietnam. His running mate, ex-SAC commander-in-chief General Curtis LeMay, was no shrinking violet either; a year before the Eleven-Day War began LeMay had notoriously suggested that "we should bomb Hanoi back to the Stone Age and let world opinion go fly a kite". In scores of campaign speeches during the spring and summer of 1968, Wallace and LeMay both castigated the White House for not having promptly destroyed Moscow after the Coral Sea attack.


Under different circumstances Wallace’s hyper-belligerent stance on foreign policy might have doomed him to the fringes of the campaign. But the Alabama segregationist had a populist economic platform that resonated with a large segment of the American working class who felt the late Lyndon Johnson’s "Great Society" programs hadn’t sufficiently lived up to their promise of alleviating poverty in America. With former US Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey’s number two rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, also espousing a populist economic agenda, the working class vote was highly fragmented and would remain so right up to the November elections.

The middle class, on the other hand, lined up solidly behind Nixon. They liked his no-nonsense stance on fighting crime and his ideas for cutting federal taxes, and his "peace with honor" pledge vis-à-vis the Vietnam and Gulf wars carried a great deal of weight with the families of servicemen killed or maimed in those conflicts. These people, who Nixon referred to in numerous campaign speeches as "the great silent majority"2, were actively courted by the former VP in a media blitz that would not seem out of place in today’s information-saturated political climate.

Nixon’s emphasis on winning the hearts and minds of middle-aged voters was a sharp contrast to the youth-oriented campaigns of Robert Kennedy and Gene McCarthy; it was also, in the eyes of the antiwar movement, a major threat to the younger generation’s hopes for creating a new American society. They saw Nixon as a symbol of the Establishment that had created most of America’s problem’s in the first place, and they weren’t entirely sold on his "peace with honor" approach to ending the US government’s involvement in southeast Asia the Persian Gulf. For that matter, they distrusted the incumbent president’s reluctance to declare an immediate halt to conventional bombing raids against North Vietnam and Iraq-- this reluctance, they felt, was a sure sign that sooner or later Humphrey would go back on his pledge to continue the American nuclear moratorium, and that was a risk they were unwilling to take.

Even without the Gulf war as an issue, there most likely still would have been a great deal of turmoil on America’s streets in the spring and summer of 1968; opposition to American involvement in Vietnam had hit a peak following the Tet Offensive, and the murder of Martin Luther King had created a climate of anger and polarization in America’s cities that shocked even the most jaded social commentators. Some people were going so far as to predict a second Civil War was just around the corner...


Thousands of miles around the world, a sudden changing of the guard in Hanoi would drastically alter the tone of the peace talks between the United States and North Vietnam. On March 22nd, 1968 Ho Chi Minh died in his sleep of a cerebral stroke, sending the North Vietnamese government into a political crisis as it scrambled to appoint a successor. With the seat of power in Hanoi temporarily vacant, the Geneva cease-fire talks were halted while the North Vietnamese delegation went home to pay their last respects to Ho and the US and South Vietnamese delegates waited to see who would take Ho’s place as North Vietnamese head of state. Perhaps now, thought President Humphrey, it might be possible to get Hanoi to accept(at least in the short term) South Vietnam as an independent and separate state-- Ho had always insisted on Vietnam’s reunification as a precondition for peace with the United States.

The succession issue was finally resolved on April 2nd when Ho’s most senior deputy, Le Duan, was confirmed by the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Politburo as North Vietnam’s new president. Though Duan shared Ho’s desire to see North Vietnam eventually reunify with the South, he was willing to defer such a reunion until after a cease-fire agreement had been finalized. In return, the new North Vietnamese leader sought a guarantee from the White House that when the Geneva peace talks resumed the United States would suspend conventional bombing attacks on North Vietnam for 90 days; he also wanted the Humphrey Administration to agree to an exchange of POWs between the US and its South Vietnamese allies and North Vietnam.

While Humphrey was ready to consent to the POW exchange, he had a few qualms about the proposed 90-day bombing moratorium; the longest suspension he would accept was 65 days, and even that concession only came under serious pressure from the more dovish elements of his inner circle. He was somewhat distracted by the domestic turmoil continuing to plague America’s cities as well-- just two days after Duan was formally installed as president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Robert F. Kennedy was shot and mortally wounded during a campaign appearance in San Francisco. Senator Kennedy’s death less than six hours after the San Francisco shooting triggered fresh waves of civil violence in cities already devastated by the rioting that had followed Martin Luther King’s death; things got so bad at one point George Wallace called for martial law to be imposed nationwide and all anti-war activists to be jailed indefinitely.

Humphrey didn’t go quite so far, but he did deploy National Guard troops to restore order in some of the nation’s more dangerous cities. For a time there were even National Guard units defending Capitol Hill and the White House; Arizona senator and former presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, never one to shy away from confrontation, started to carry an automatic pistol everywhere he went and dared anti-war radicals to come after him.

But said radicals were more interested in making their presence felt at the Republican and Democratic national conventions which were to be held that summer. They were particularly eager to challenge the Humphrey Administration’s power at a time when press coverage would be at a maximum-- and the Democratic convention set to take place out in Chicago that August fit the bill nicely. Just about anyone who could carry a picket sign or bullhorn was making plans to participate in the massive demonstrations expected to be staged near the convention hall.

On the other side of the coin, those who still backed US military efforts in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf were planning equally massive and dramatic counterdemonstrations to oppose the radical left’s ever- more strident antiwar rhetoric. Leading the pack at the counter-rallies would be Chicago’s labor unions, who by and large cleaved to a mostly conservative political stance which in retrospect sharply contrasts with with the leftist ideology that currently prevails in most quarters of the US labor movement. In short, a perfect storm of social and political unrest was brewing, and when the storm finally broke its effects would be felt well beyond the Windy City.


As he continued to fight to retain possession of the Oval Office, President Humphrey got some much-needed good news on the diplomatic front on May 21st, 1968 when the Soviet UN mission in New York City cabled the State Department that CPSU First Secretary Alexei Kosygin had instructed all Soviet conventional forces in the Persian Gulf to institute a 72-hour cease-fire effective at noon New York time on May 22nd. For the Soviets, who had long insisted that it was up to the Americans to be the first ones to stop shooting, this was a significant concession indeed; in an official press release by the Soviet foreign ministry, it was stated that Kosygin was taking this measure "in hopes that the American administration would be inspired to undertake similar constructive action in the common interests of all peace-loving peoples throughout the world"3.

Even though it might not have seemed so at the time given the image of monolithic Soviet unity the state-controlled media tried to project to the outside world, Kosygin was just as vulnerable to public opinion as Humphrey-- the KGB had been picking up steady if subtle hints among the Soviet population that they were getting tired of the almost glacial pace of the Geneva peace talks with the United States. Thus, the 72-hour cease-fire had been instituted as much to soothe discontent among his own people as it was to hasten the end of hostilities with the United States.

Humphrey quickly telegraphed a reply to Kosygin that he would quickly issue a similar directive to US forces in the Gulf; once the cease-fire was in place, US and Soviet diplomats in Geneva got down to business on working out the final draft of a peace accord to end the Gulf war. In the pact that was eventually worked out over the next few days, the Soviet Union consented to withdrawing all remaining Soviet and Iraqi combat troops from Iran by September 1st; the United States agreed to complete the recall of its own ground forces from the Gulf within a month after the last Soviet troops had left; both nations consented to international monitoring by UN observers to guarantee that the troop withdrawals were going forward as planned; and both sides declared a permanent moratorium on the use of nuclear weapons of any kind in the Persian Gulf.

The peace accord was signed on May 25th, 1968; the next day NATO and Warsaw Pact front-line units in Europe stood down from full alert in accordance with an addendum to the peace pact. Finally, the Persian Gulf war was over and the threat of US-Soviet conflict in Europe had(at least for a while) subsided. However, the bloodshed in Vietnam continued to trouble the American people and their government....


...and all wasn’t exactly peace and quiet on the homefront either. In early June, as the first UN observers were arriving in Tehran and Baghdad, student antiwar activists occupied the administration buildings at UC-Berkley to protest the Humphrey Administration’s reluctance to commit to an immediate pullout of all US forces from southeast Asia; in a mimeographed statement distributed to reporters they also said the occupation was intended to condemn what its organizers called "a clear and blatant conspiracy to withhold crucial facts about the murders of Senator Kennedy and Dr. King"4. Then-California governor Ronald Reagan, who’d been elected two years earlier on a strong "law & order" program that in some respects echoed Nixon’s, deemed the occupation an affront to public safety as well as blatant sabotage of the Berkley faculty’s performance of their duties; in a press conference at his office up in Sacramento he demanded that the student radicals return control of the administration wing to Berkley’s faculty within 24 hours. Failure to do so, he warned, would mean that police-- and if necessary National Guard troops --would be called in to retake the buildings by force.

What happened next would, in later years, be viewed from some perspectives as a dress rehearsal for the carnage which erupted in the streets of Chicago that August....


To Be Continued



1 After losing the 1960 presidential race against John F. Kennedy, Nixon had hoped to gain the Republican nomination for governor of California in the 1962 gubenatorial campaign as a means of jump-starting his political career; however, his nomination bid abruptly ended with an embarrassing loss to Edmund G. "Pat" Brown in the August primaries, prompting a disappointed Nixon to tell the press after his concession speech: "You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore." From that moment until he was convinced by some of his friends to enter the 1968 presidential race, Nixon concentrated on his law practice and speaking out in support of various anti-Communist causes.

2 Nixon first used this phrase in an address given before a Manchester chapter of the American Legion during a campaign swing through New Hampshire just before that state’s 1968 Republican primary.

3 Quoted from an official press release by the office of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko dated May 21st, 1968.

4 "Antiwar Radicals Stage Takeover Of Berkley Campus", from the June 3rd, 1968 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.


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