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How We Launched Our Forever War in the Middle East

Photograph Source: US Government – Public Domain

Late on the night of July 14, 1958, I navigated our KC-97 aerial tanker to refuel a lone B-52 on a secret radio-silence mission near the Arctic Circle. On our way home, our number three engine conked out as we approached the Gaspé Peninsula. We got permission to make an emergency landing at Loring, the big B-52 base in northern Maine. As soon as we touched down, we were ordered to clear the runway. Suddenly the squawking of Klaxon horns pierced the night. Jeeps flashing red lights materialized out of the darkness and sped to the row of giant B-52s on standby alert, each loaded with thermonuclear bombs. Flight crews raced from the jeeps to the planes. One after another, the B-52s started their eight engines, taxied out, and launched into the black sky.

When our crew of six finally got to the operations building, we stopped one of the men wildly scurrying around and asked, “What’s going on?”

“We’re going into Lebanon!” was the answer shouted over his shoulder as he darted off.

We returned with our repaired plane to Dow early the next day, July 15, where we found all crews on full-scale alert. Later that day the combat crews of both squadrons were to have a briefing on the situation from the wing intelligence officer. Meanwhile radio bulletins were excitedly updating the news. Yesterday’s overthrow of the king of Iraq had been led by left-wing revolutionary officers. In response, the United States was sending a nuclear-equipped armada of seventy-four ships, including three aircraft carriers and two squadrons of destroyers, to Lebanon. American marines were landing in Lebanon to quell disorder.

For a time at Amherst, I had intended to become a historian of the Middle East. So I was aware of the enormous historic forces that were colliding in the region, and I was trying to figure out what role our SAC bombers were supposed to play in the collision.

The Arab world in the early and mid-1950s was being swept by rebellion against European colonialism and its own feudal monarchies. By 1956, Syria, Morocco, and Tunisia had all won independence from France, which was being torn apart by Algeria’s long and bloody war of independence. Britain’s vast global empire was rapidly disintegrating. It had lost its greatest colony, India, which it had divided into India and Pakistan in 1947. The next year it lost Burma. The empire was desperately struggling to maintain its dominance over Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq through ties to their puppet monarchies, but had suffered a huge setback in Egypt when nationalist forces, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, overthrew King Farouk and established a secular republic. So in 1955 Britain instituted the counter-revolutionary Baghdad Pact among the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Two years earlier, the United States had orchestrated the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government and the establishment of Shah’s brutal dictatorship. Nasser opposed the Baghdad Pact, supported the Algerian war of independence, and linked up with India in pushing a global movement of the nonaligned nations that would accept aid from either side in the Cold War while allying with neither. As punishment, the Eisenhower administration on July 19, 1956, withdrew its promised offer of aid in building the giant Aswan Dam, designed to harness the power of the Nile and expand agriculture in its floodplain.[1] Nasser responded a week later by nationalizing the Suez Canal. Israel, Britain, and France promptly invaded Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the Suez, leading to the closure of the canal for several months. Like most Americans, Jane and I were relieved when President Eisenhower in October vowed “there will be no United States involvement in these present hostilities” and felt proud of our nation when he rebuked the invaders and led the United Nations to force their withdrawal from Egypt.[2]

But just three months later, in January 1957, the president in his “Special Message to the Congress on the Situation in the Middle East,” announced a policy soon known as the Eisenhower Doctrine, which was codified into U.S. law by Congress in March. The law empowered the president to use our armed forces “to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence” of any Middle East nation “requesting such aid against armed aggression from any nation controlled by international communism.” So was Lebanon requesting such aid? If so, what nation “controlled by international communism” was engaged in “armed aggression” against it? Was it Iraq, the home of the Baghdad Pact, whose king, a staunch ally of Britain and the United States, had been overthrown just the day before? A more likely culprit was the United Arab Republic (UAR), formed in February 1958, when Syria had merged with Egypt. But because Nasser had outlawed the Communist Party, Syria had to outlaw its own Communist Party as a condition of the merger.[3]

To find out what was really going on, I eagerly awaited the wing briefing, an assembly of all the officers and flight crews of both squadrons. The wing intelligence officer, a captain in a spiffy starched uniform, strode to the map in front of the large auditorium where we sat, now not in uniforms but in flight suits.

“Over here is Egypt,” he indicated with a tap of a long wooden pointer. “It is now run by a man named Nasser. Nasser is a Communist dictator. The first thing he did when he took over was to seize the Suez Canal from its legal owners and start to run it in the interest of his bosses in Moscow. A few months ago he grabbed Syria, which is over here,” he said, tapping with his pointer. “This country over here is Iraq.” Tap, tap. “Yesterday, Nasser’s fifth column inside Iraq overthrew the democratic government and set up another Communist state.

“Now, notice the position of Lebanon.” Emphatic tap, tap, tap. “Lebanon is right in the middle. It is the next target for Nasser’s Communist aggression. Last month the Communists in Lebanon began open warfare against the democratically elected government. We have landed in Lebanon to protect the legitimate government, to safeguard world peace, and to show the Communists they can’t keep making incursions into the Free World. If we don’t hold the line here, the entire Mideast will fall to Moscow.”

Of course our lecturing captain had not written this script. Much the same briefing was no doubt being given to every SAC unit and throughout the U.S. military. In truth, it was just a slightly dumbed-down application of the Eisenhower Doctrine. In order to invoke the doctrine, the president needed to brand the UAR as a nation controlled by the international Communist conspiracy to take over the world. This was indeed central to the speech that he delivered on national radio and TV at 6:30 p.m., a few hours after the wing briefing, in which he cited “Soviet and Cairo” support of the revolution in Iraq and turmoil in “tiny Lebanon” as part of the Communist campaign of “direct and indirect aggression throughout the world.” This was how, Eisenhower declared, “the Communists attempted to take over Greece in 1947,” “took over the mainland of China in 1949,” and “attempted to take over Korea and Indo China, beginning in 1950.”[4]

“Any questions?” the captain asked, as he concluded his briefing. “Lieutenant Franklin, you have a question?”

“Well, sir,” I said, standing up with an acceptable military posture, “it’s more of a statement. Nasser is not a Communist, and there are no Communist governments in the Mideast. In fact, Nasser actually outlawed the Communist Party in Egypt. I think that we’re driving these people into the arms of the Communists by invading their country. And I think we here in the wing should be told the truth about what’s going on.”

I hastily sat down. A wing briefing was not a college class, so what were they going to do with me? To make matters worse for the captain, the smart-ass guy who was arguing with him was the intelligence officer of one of the wing’s two squadrons. He reddened, looked around uncertainly, and then walked over to whisper with Colonel Zethren, the wing commander.

“Lieutenant Franklin,” the captain said finally, “we just want the men here to understand the basic facts of the situation. I’ll be glad to discuss these more intricate details with you privately. Please report to me at wing headquarters.”

This was my one and only political act in my Air Force career. If one can even call it a political act. Maybe it was more like all my talking out of turn that had kept getting me suspended from P.S. 99 in Brooklyn. I had no idea in 1958 how many times in the future my big mouth would get me in trouble.

When I went up to wing headquarters, I expected at least a reprimand and maybe the threat of a court-martial. But all I encountered was the captain, who seemed flustered and embarrassed as he asked me, as a favor, “not to confuse the men.” “After all,” he said, “we’re not being asked to make policy, just implement it. Our responsibility in Intelligence is to explain it in such a way that the men are willing to carry it out.”

What a revealing statement. Would any intelligence officer have uttered such words on December 8, 1941?

The captain’s words, however, apply beautifully to all of our wars ever since, most obviously in the Middle East and southern Asia stretching from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Each requires some simple rationale that ignores history.

Life for all the intelligence officers, presidents, and other Pied Pipers leading us off to war was sure a lot easier when they had that good old Cold War narrative about the international Communist conspiracy against the Free World, even though it did take lots of red makeup to make Gamal Abdel Nasser look anything like a Soviet puppet and total ignorance of Middle East reality to justify a U.S. invasion of Lebanon. After the final dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 flushed that handy Cold War narrative down the garbage disposal, the hawks had to work much harder to create narratives to feed to the public.

So the 1991 invasion of Iraq relied on spurious narratives, such as one concocted by PR firm Hill & Knowlton of Saddam Hussein’s army murdering babies by throwing them out of incubators in Kuwait, as well as the extremely effective myth of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran, which was used to turn the impending war into a demonstration of our loyalty to the American soldiers sent to fight it.[5] Our 2003 invasion of Iraq depended on a melodramatic fantasy about Saddam’s fictitious arsenal of nuclear bombs and chemical weapons raining down on America. In 1958, President Eisenhower could safely count on Congress, the media, and the American people to back all necessary military action—even by those nuclear-loaded B-52s and Sixth Fleet aircraft carriers—to defend “tiny Lebanon” from “armed aggression” by “international Communism.” In 2003, faced with a skeptical Congress and a swelling antiwar movement, President George W. Bush had to scare us into war with the specter of Iraq’s alleged intercontinental drones, part of its “growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons” on “missions targeting the United States,” as well as a “mushroom cloud” looming over America.[6]

So now we have a tangle of narratives that resembles a box of miscellaneous fishing worms, any of which we are free to bite on. Besides those weapons of mass destruction now casually known as WMDs (Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and Libya), there’s the Brutal Tyrant (Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin) and the Axis of Evil (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea). Then of course there’s the omnipresent and eternal War on Terror with its cast of generic “bad guys,” not to be confused with the heroic Freedom Fighters—such as the jihadists we armed and organized in Afghanistan in 1978, who would ride victory in 1988 as those glorious Mujahedeen led by Sylvester Stallone in Rambo III.

Looking backward from today’s Forever War to what we now know about the events of the 1950s, we can clearly see a continuum of U.S. Middle East policy, remarkably consistent in its hidden and masked real purposes.

Since 1952, Washington had been financing Camille Chamoun, Lebanon’s Christian president, who served as a reliable guardian of U.S. economic interests, particularly the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, constructed by the Bechtel Company to bring the oil from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon’s port city of Sidon, from which it was shipped to Europe and the United States.[7] Owned and run by Aramco (the Arab-American Oil Company), then a consortium of U.S. companies now known as Exxon, Mobil, Texaco, and Chevron, the Trans-Arabian Pipeline seemed threatened by the waves of anti-imperialism rising throughout the Arab world, especially after the 1956 invasion of Egypt by Britain, France, and Israel. Planning for Operation Blue Bat, the official title of the 1958 invasion of Lebanon, began in the fall of 1957, a few months after Congress signed off on the Eisenhower Doctrine.[8] Civil war soon broke out in Lebanon, with much of the Muslim population and even many Christian Arabs eager to link up with the UAR. On May 13, 1958, Secretary of State Dulles sent detailed instructions to Chamoun on how to word a request for U.S. military aid, explaining that since there was no “armed aggression from any country controlled by International Communism,” the request would simply have to ask for help “in protecting American life and property” and preserving “the independence and integrity of Lebanon.” On the same day, the Sixth Fleet was ordered to sail toward Lebanon. By May 26, the Sixth Fleet was routinely stopping merchant ships off the Lebanese coast. By late June, Chamoun’s government, despite U.S. military aid, controlled at most 30 percent of Lebanese soil, according to U.S. intelligence estimates.[9]

Washington turned for help to King Faisal of Iraq, asking him to back up the regimes of both Jordan (ruled by his cousin King Hussein) and Lebanon, and thus provide an Arab component to any U.S. intervention. Faisal responded by ordering Iraq units from its frontier with Iran to move to Jordan. Since the intended route would take the troops near Baghdad, their officers decided to seize the opportunity to overthrow the hated royal regime. They met practically no resistance in Baghdad. At 6:30 a.m. on July 14, the rebels proclaimed on Baghdad radio the end of the monarchy and the establishment of the Republic of Iraq, to be governed by a democratically elected president and parliament. The army units stationed in Baghdad joined the revolution, and the population of the city jubilantly poured into the streets, shouting anti-imperialist slogans, destroying the statues of King Faisal and the British general who had seized Baghdad in 1917, and burning down the old British Chancellery.[10]

When Chamoun heard the news from Baghdad, he sent the request dictated to him by Dulles a month earlier when Washington, despite its secret funding of the monarchy, had no inkling of any impending revolution in Iraq.[11] By the afternoon of July 14, Eisenhower ordered the Sixth Fleet to commence Operation Blue Bat. According to the official chronology, the first military action came just before 1 p.m. Lebanon time (7 a.m. EDT) on July 15, as the Marines were landing. But, as I knew from our experience at Loring, those B-52s had launched on their SAC Emergency War Plan hours earlier, speeding with thermonuclear bombs toward the Soviet Union late in the night of July 14–15.[12]

Like the wing briefing, President Eisenhower’s speech to the nation in the late afternoon of July 15 was also a briefing designed to explain policy in a way to get us all willing to carry it out. When he included what he called the Communist attempt to “take over” “Indo China, beginning in 1950,” it meant little or nothing to me in 1958. Within a few years, trying to undo that little falsification of history would become central to my life.

This essay is adapted from H. Bruce Franklin’s Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War.

Notes.

1) David Wise and Thomas B. Ross, The Invisible Government (New York: Bantam, 1965), 125.

2) President Eisenhower’s speech to the nation, October 31, 1956, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=10685, accessed October 10, 2016.

3) Richard J. Barnet, Intervention and Revolution: America’s Confrontation with Insurgent Movements around the World (New York: New American Library, 1968), 147–151.

4) “Statement of the President following the Landing of United States Marines at Beirut, July 15, 1958,” American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=11133, accessed January 27, 2018.

5) Jerry Lembcke, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 20; Lembcke argues persuasively that the myth of the spat-upon vet was what won widespread emotional support for the war.

6) “President Bush Outlines Iraqi Threat,” White House news release, October 7, 2002, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/10/20021007-8.html, accessed January 27, 2018.

7) Wise and Ross, U-2 Affair, 337; Irene Gendzier, Notes from the Minefield: United States Intervention in Lebanon and the Middle East, 1945–1958 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), passim. Deeply researched in previously classified documents, this updated edition shows the central role of U.S. oil interests; it is indispensable for any understanding of the history and chronology of events.

8) Gendzier, Notes from the Minefield, 310–311.

9) Gendzier, Notes from the Minefield, 13, 245–249, 253.

10) Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), chap. 41, which is the primary source for all other accounts of the 1958 revolution. Widely recognized as the indispensable history of modern Iraq, this 1,300-page masterpiece of scholarship and analysis is difficult to obtain. Therefore, references are to the Kindle edition (London: Saqi Books, 2012), Kindle locations 16904–16918, 16936–16942, 16987–16994.

11) Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (New York: Anchor Books, 2008), 258, 262.

12) While writing this, I wondered if my memory might be wrong and the B-52 launch was really on the night of July 15. But my Air Force Form 5A, the official log of my flights, records my night flight from Dow to Loring on July 14 and my day flight from Loring to Dow on July 15.

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