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Target Damascus:

The Israeli Invasion of Syria, 1967


Part 18


by Chris Oakley



Summary: In the previous seventeen 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; the peace accords that finally ended the Gulf War; the domestic turmoil racking the US during the early months of the 1968 presidential campaign; and the riots that tore up the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In this final chapter of the series, we’ll remember the outcome of the 1968 US presidential elections and see how Israel’s experiences in the Eleven-Day War and the July War shaped its defense policies in the runup to the October War of 1973.


It wouldn’t be an exaggeration, or at least not very much of one, to suggest that all of America was so quiet you could hear a pin drop as the American public waited on the morning of November 9th, 1968 to finally learn who’d won the titanic struggle between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon for the presidency. All throughout the previous night the advantage had swung from Humphrey to Nixon and back again, and there were already rumors circulating that a recount might be necessary. Some of the more pessimistic commentators in the press were even suggesting that the matter might end up going all the way to the Supreme Court-- a nightmare scenario both candidates desperately wanted to avoid.

But at 11:15 AM word came via the Associated Press that a clear, if narrow, winner had emerged in the presidential election; by a margin of 49.6 % Richard Nixon had won the late Robert Kennedy’s home state of New York, making him the 38th President of the United States.1 At 12:30 that afternoon, a tired but jubilant Nixon flew to Los Angeles for a victory speech at a Beverly Hills hotel. Following a congratulatory phone call from President Humphrey, who’d made his concession speech in the White House East Room at 11:45, Nixon told his audience he would do everything in his power to reward the trust the voters had placed in him.

In the end, Nixon’s own inner demons would make it increasingly difficult if not impossible for him to make good on that particular vow, but that was in the distant future. For now, the prevailing mood in the Nixon camp was one of euphoria as the President-elect basked in the glow of having finally succeeded in attaining the prize that had eluded him eight years earlier. After returning from Los Angeles and getting some much-needed rest, Nixon phoned Harvard professor and foreign policy specialist Dr. Henry Kissinger, his choice for Secretary of State, and asked him to draft a memorandum outlining possible options for ending the US-North Vietnamese stalemate at the Geneva peace talks. He then set to work lining up the rest of his proposed cabinet for his incoming administration.


Richard Nixon was sworn into office on January 20th, 1969 amid growing frustration about the United States’ inability to break its deadlock with Hanoi either at the diplomatic table in Geneva or on the battlefields of South Vietnam; with neither side’s armies able to make much headway against the other’s, the Vietnam War had become a static defensive conflict and the already massive casualty toll for American combat personnel in Southeast Asia was getting even higher. This state of affairs greatly agitated the new commander-in-chief, and he resolved to change it as swiftly as he possibly could.

On February 16th, in a televised press conference at the White House East Room, Nixon gave a statement hinting that the current moratorium on saturation bombing raids against North Vietnam would be cancelled as of March 1st if Hanoi did not agree to withdraw some NVA units from South Vietnam right away as part of the conditions for reaching a cease-fire with the US-South Vietnamese alliance. Some of Le Duan’s intelligence advisors thought Nixon might be bluffing, but Duan wasn’t about to take any chances and instructed the NVA general staff to recall a quarter of its troops back to North Vietnam in hopes that this token of goodwill might move the Americans to continue their moratorium.

Two weeks later, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made his first official visit to the Geneva talks for consultations with the senior negotiators on both sides. Surprisingly, he seemed to get on better with the North Vietnamese delegates than with their South Vietnamese opposite numbers: the South Vietnamese delegation in Geneva at that time was made up overwhelmingly of loyalists to South Vietnam’s president Nguyen Van Thieu, an implacable enemy of Hanoi, and on Thieu’s behalf they were angry at Kissinger for suggesting the United States might be willing to accept a Saigon government that included the Communists.

Thieu’s ire at the Nixon Administration was matched by growing paranoia about his domestic political foes. He took it for granted that any Vietnamese who disagreed with his authoritarian method of governing the country was automatically in the Viet Cong’s pocket; the notion that who disagreed with his policies might do so precisely on the grounds they played right into the hands of the VC never once crossed his mind. Nor did he seem to notice-- or care --that his high-handed dismissal of legitimate concerns about the state of civil liberties in South Vietnam was making him a great many enemies in his homeland. Even the constantly looming threat of the NVA resuming its southward thrust and overrunning Saigon couldn’t motivate Thieu to modify his autocratic style in the tiniest degree.

His cabinet was bitterly divided, although they took great pains not to let these divisions show in public, and the tension within their ranks would have told a more perceptive and less arrogant head of state the conditions were becoming ripe for a coup d’etat much like the one which had ousted Ngo Dinh Diem six years earlier. Thieu, however, failed to grasp the reality of the situation until it was too late; by the time Nixon was ready to make his first state visit to Saigon as commander-in- chief, Thieu had been overthrown and placed under house arrest by his own air force chief of staff, Nguyen Cao Ky, who was more receptive than Thieu to the Nixon-Kissinger ceasefire proposals.

After dismissing the Thieu loyalists from the South Vietnamese negotiating team at Geneva, President Ky met with Nixon in August of 1969 at Ky’s private retreat in the countryside west of Saigon. Thieu himself was quietly bundled off to exile in the Philippines, where he struck up a friendship with another notorious Southeast Asian autocrat, Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos. Ten days after Ky hosted Nixon in South Vietnam, he flew to the US and visited the American president at Camp David; the two discussed at length what their response would be to Hanoi’s latest cease-fire offer, and before he returned to Saigon Ky secured from President Nixon a guarantee that the United States would back Ky against any future countercoup attempts by Thieu supporters.


The attention of the world press was suddenly and shockingly diverted from the Geneva cease-fire talks in early October of 1969 when the New York Times printed an article alleging that a US Army infantry lieutenant named William Calley had been responsible for orchestrating a massacre of over 200 South Vietnamese civilians at the village of My Lay around the time of Nguyen Cao Ky’s Camp David summit with President Nixon. Calley vehemently denied the accusation and insisted the massacre had actually been the work of the Viet Cong; by December the US Army Judge Advocate General’s office had convened a court-martial to hear the charges against the lieutenant.

My Lai was a propaganda windfall for the Communist bloc. Radio Moscow and Radio Hanoi, individually and collectively, went out of their way to fan the flames of anti-American sentiment around the world; despite still-simmering tensions with Moscow, China joined the Soviets in denouncing the massacre and painting it as being typical of American military policy. Antiwar groups in the Western world also condemned the massacre, adamantly rejecting any suggestion that anyone other than Lt. Calley could have been responsible for the deaths at My Lai. For a while the Nixon administration feared Hanoi might use the massacre as an excuse to pull out of the Geneva talks-- but the Le Duan regime was more interested in using the uproar over My Lay to try and leverage more concessions from the White House.

The My Lai court-martial, and the hue and cry surrounding it, lasted well into the spring of 1970. For a short time the American public was unified by the drama surrounding the effort to bring the astronauts of Apollo 13 home from space after their lunar mission was abruptly derailed by an explosion in their ship’s oxygen tanks; once the Apollo 13 crew had returned to Earth, however, the divisions over My Lai in particular and the Vietnam War as a whole resurfaced with a vengeance.

Those divisions would only be exacerbated by the horrific Kent State massacre of May 1970, when a confrontation between Ohio National Guardsmen and student antiwar demonstrators turned into a firefight that left five students dead and more than two dozen wounded, most of whom had nothing whatsoever to do with the protests. Vice-President Agnew blamed the tragedy as well as the unrest which had preceded and followed it on disproportionate coverage of the antiwar movement by the mainstream press, whom he derided as "the nattering nabobs of negativity". Most people, however, held the Nixon Administration’s Vietnam policies responsible for these situations and demanded that the White House sign a cease-fire with Hanoi without further delay.

Two weeks after the Kent State shootings the tribunal in the My Lai court-martial finally delivered its verdict. Calley was cleared of committing the massacres but convicted on the lesser counts of perjury under oath and obstruction of justice and sentenced to five years in a military prison; Nixon commuted that sentence to two and a half years, further inflaming his already outraged domestic critics and sparking the first calls for Nixon’s resignation.

Unmoved by criticism, Nixon continued to defend his Vietnam policies; in the early fall of 1970 he lashed out at Democratic senators who had condemned his then-just uncovered secret invasion of neutral Cambodia to sever Viet Cong supply routes through that nation. Furious that the invasion, or "incursion" as he called it, had been leaked to Congress and the media before he was ready to disclose it himself, Nixon directed senior White House aides John Ehrlichman and H.R. "Bob" Haldemman to set up a special undercover surveillance unit inside the Oval Office to identify the source of those leaks and make sure they were stopped.

The new unit was rather appropriately nicknamed "the plumbers". In time, they would shift their emphasis from defense to offense, seeking to identify and prevent potential troubles before they cropped up. Nixon would also use them to go after his political adversaries both real and imagined; that practice would sow the seeds for his final downfall when he sent the team to break into the headquarters offices of the Democratic National Committee. The building where said offices were located, a hotel complex known as the Watergate, would in the end become a synonym for corruption, political scandal, and abuse of power....


...but in the meantime Nixon got a much-needed PR boost on the foreign policy front in late July of 1971 when Hanoi finally agreed to sign a cease-fire with the United States. Under the terms of the agreement, both the United States and North Vietnam would withdraw their remaining combat troops from South Vietnam within 90 days; the independence of South Vietnam would be recognized and guaranteed by Hanoi; the Vietnamese Communists would have a voice in the Saigon government; and international monitors under UN supervision would be assigned to make sure both Washington and Hanoi were keeping their end of the deal.

Basking in the glow of increased approval ratings following the signing of the cease-fire, President Nixon wasted no time declaring himself as a candidate for re-election. In his first official foreign policy statement following his official filing as a candidate, Nixon reiterated his commitment to the US-South Vietnamese alliance; he also proclaimed that in a second Nixon Administration the United States would continue Washington’s long-standing policy of supporting Israel.

The latter statement was welcome news in Tel Aviv, where new Israeli prime minister Golda Meir was picking up disquieting signs that Syria was beginning preparations for another war against Israel to avenge the defeats it had suffered in the Eleven-Day War and the July War. In March of 1972 she met with Nixon at Camp David to seek an increase in US military aid to Israel; Nixon was quick to grant that request.

Three months after Meir’s Camp David visit Nixon inadvertantly laid the groundwork for his own political demise by authorizing the "plumbers" team to break into the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the Watergate; when the burglars were caught, Nixon made it a point to disavow any knowledge of or ties to their actions even though one of his top White House staffers, E. Howard Hunt, had been arrested along with the burglars and the police had discovered a phone book in his possession which included the numbers of several other White House staffers-- and Nixon himself.


Nixon’s re-nomination for President at the 1972 Republican National Convention came amid whispers that the Watergate break-in was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it came to illegal actions on the part of the White House. Two then-little known beat reporters from the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were pursuing leads related to the Watergate case that not only deepened suspicions of Nixon having been involved in the "third-rate burglary", as H.R. Haldeman dismissively labeled it, but pointed to questionable campaign finances on his part along with possible cover- ups regarding the so-called "incursion" into Cambodia.

It was also around this time that the Israeli Defense Forces stepped up their efforts to reinforce their defenses along their border with Syria; Israel had paid for its foothold along the Golan Heights in oceans of blood, and it wasn’t about to let that foothold go without a fight. Nor were they going to run the risk of their Arab foes succeeding in the early 1970s where they’d failed in 1967.

One thing they didn’t need to worry about was direct Soviet intervention on the Arab side: after having seen an ocean of Soviet blood spilled in the deserts and mountains of Iran and the USSR come to the brink of global nuclear war with the United States for the second time since 1962, Alexei Kosygin was in no hurry to get involved in another Middle East conflict. However, that didn’t stop Moscow from furnishing military aid to Syria and Egypt as those two countries continued their programs to rebuild their armed forces back to their pre-Eleven Day War levels.

Meir’s suspicions that Syria and Egypt intended to attack Israel once more were confirmed in early September of 1973 when the Israeli counterintelligence agency MOSSAD presented her with credible evidence that those nations would mount an invasion of Israel on or around the Yom Kippur holiday, which that year fell on October 6th. Not willing to take a chance that the invasion might succeed, Meir ordered Israeli air and ground forces to initiate a pre-emptive assault on the Syrian and Egyptian armed forces. It was a tactic that had worked brilliantly in 1967, and there was little reason to think it couldn’t work again. This time, though, the Arab armies recovered swiftly from the initial shock of the Israeli attack and hit the IDF with a fierce three-prong  counteroffensive. Consequently, the October War, as it became known in most countries outside the Middle East, became a conflict of attrition as each side struggled to wear the other down.

The Israelis sought Nixon’s help in applying diplomatic pressure to Syria and Egypt to accept a cease-fire, but Nixon was preoccupied by his own political troubles. Woodward and Bernstein’s probing into the Watergate affair had opened a Pandora’s box of troubles for the beleaguered president; to add insult to injury, Vice-President Spiro Agnew had to resign on October 9th after evidence surfaced suggesting the possibility of Agnew having committed income tax evasion. It would fall to Agnew’s successor, former Michigan representative Gerald R. Ford, to pull Nixon out of his fixation on Watergate long enough to bring the Israelis and the Arabs to the negotiating table.

The war finally ended in early November of 1973 with the signing of a cease-fire pact partially constructed by Henry Kissinger. It was the Nixon Administration’s last major foreign policy achievement; from that point until Nixon was finally compelled to resign in late July of 1974, the rest of his abbreviated second term would be defined by the Watergate scandal and his continuing efforts to stonewall the Justice Department’s investigation into that scandal. As for Gerald Ford, his his foreign policy record during his short stint in the Oval Office following Nixon’s resignation would be defined by a notorious gaffe during a 1975 televised interview in which he stated(despite sizable  evidence to the contrary) that "there is no terrorism in the Mideast".2


Ironically, the dream of Arab unity, one of the primary motives which drove Syria and its Arab allies to launch their 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel, proved to be the most notable casualties of those wars. Far from being unified, the Arab states became more hostile to each other than ever as each pointed fingers at the others for not having fought harder to crush Israel’s military power; eventually one of those states, Egypt, would conclude that it could not rely on its fellow Arab states in a future conflict with Israel and in 1977 take the radical step of opening talks with the Jewish state to establish full diplomatic relations. The result of those talks was the Camp David treaty of 1979 in which Egyptian president Anwar Sadat became the first Arab leader to recognize Israel as a sovereign nation, and the only one to do so until Jordan’s King Hussein signed his own accord with Tel Aviv in 1992.

Would any of these things have come about if the Israelis hadn’t seized Jerusalem at the height of the Eleven-Day War or the United States hadn’t fought the Soviet Union in the Persian Gulf? No one can say with any degree of certainty, but it does open some interesting counterfactual possibilities.


The End


1 Some of the votes that might have helped push Humphrey over the top in New York were siphoned off by Eugene McCarthy, who despite losing the Democratic presidential nomination still managed to earn a sizable number of write-in votes from liberals who saw McCarthy as the party’s best hope for advancing a progressive agenda now that RFK was dead and Humphrey had(in their eyes) drifted too far rightward.

2 That comment, made during an appearance on "Meet The Press", is thought by some to have cost Ford his best shot at defeating Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential elections.


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