USSR

August 13, 1957 – Syria Ousts American Diplomats

Afif al-Bizreh

Syrian Army Chief of Staff Afif Al-Bizreh, assassination target

On August 13, 1957, the government of Syria expelled three American Embassy officials, Vice Consul Francis J. Jeton, Second Secretary Howard E. Stone, and Army Attaché Colonel Robert W. Molloy.  The previous day, Syria had announced their discovery of an undercover plot by the United States to assassinate top government officials and overthrow their regime.  Jeton, Stone, and Molloy, they alleged, had contacted dissident members of the Syrian military and offered money in exchange for their assistance, including purging leading loyalist officers in the Syrian army.  They had also allegedly promised the US would block Israeli aggression, settle the Arab-Israeli conflict, end the arms race in the Middle East, and provide substantial unconditional economic aid.

Syrian Director of Intelligence Abd al-Hamid al-Sarraj, assassination target

Following the Suez Crisis in 1956, when Egypt’s attempt to nationalize the Suez Canal led to an invasion by Britain, France, and Israel, and hard on the heels of the USSR’s invasion of Hungary, President Eisenhower promulgated his Eisenhower Doctrine in January of 1957.  The Doctrine, in an effort to halt the spread of communism, offered American military and economic aid to nations in the Middle East who wanted help to resist the advances of nations dominated by “international communism.”  Developments in the Middle East had led President Eisenhower to fear that Syria was becoming a Soviet “outpost,” an escalation of the Cold War, and had acted accordingly.  Internal government reports informed Eisenhower that Syria was “more inclined to accept Soviet influence than any other country” in the Middle East and that “the Soviets are making Syria the focal point for arms distribution and other activities.”  He believed the Syrian government was dominated by a radical, pro-Soviet faction, that direct Soviet control was imminent, and ordered the CIA to execute Operation Wappen, spearheaded by Jeton, Stone, and Molloy.

On the day following the expulsion of the three embassy officials, Eisenhower responded by denying U.S. participation in an anti-Syrian government plot and expelling the Syrian Ambassador and his second secretary.  The American ambassador to Syria, home on leave, would remain in the United States.  Did the Eisenhower administration order Operation Wappen?  In The United States and Arab Nationalism: The Syrian Case, 1953-1960, author Bonnie F. Saunders states, “Other documentary evidence indicates almost certain State Department knowledge of the plot and perhaps its cooperation with the CIA in perpetrating it.”  From Encroachment to Involvement: A Documentary Study of Soviet Policy in the Middle East, 1945-1973, offers the same conclusion by author Yaacov Ro’i.  “The fact of the establishment and maintenance of secret contacts by the American Embassy in Damascus with a number of Syrian military personnel as well as with political dissident groups, with the possibility in mind of overthrowing the regime, seems proven.”

Image Credits: syrianhistory.com

August 11, 1957 – Russia and Iran Sign a Treaty

Iran’s Shah Reza Pahlavi with President Eisenhower in 1954

On August 11, 1957, the Imperial Government of Iran and the Government of the United Soviet Socialist Republics signed an agreement “concerning the preparation of preliminary plans for the joint and equal utilization of the frontier parts of the rivers Aras and Atrak for irrigation and power generation”.

At the time, Iraq was a member of the Baghdad Pact, otherwise known as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), along with Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.  CENTO, formed in 1955,  was modelled after NATO to promote member countries’ mutual cooperation, protection, and non-interference in each others’ affairs.   The United States joined the organization in 1958 but was very interested in the region from an early date as a bulwark against the spread of international communism.  The CENTO nations shared borders with southwestern USSR, and it was hoped that a strong alliance among them would contain the Soviet threat.

The United States had cultivated a long and friendly relationship with Iran as of 1957.  Close relations existed with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who reigned from 1941 until the Islamic Revolution in 1979.  He followed a modernizing, secularizing policy which made him a very valuable asset for the US during the Cold War.  Iran was the largest, and possibly most powerful oil-producing country in the Middle East at the time, and over the next few years received more than a billion dollars in aid from the American government.  A 1953 coup to remove Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq, who threatened to nationalize the 85%-British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), was organized by the US and Great Britain and carried out through the CIA, code-named Operation Ajax.  Although initially unsuccessful, a second effort ultimately led to Mossadeq’s downfall.

So imagine the rise in Washington’s anxiety level on this day.  Russia and Iran had established hydro-economic agreements in the 1920s, and the Shah had visited Moscow in 1956.  Probably Russia hoped to weaken ties between Baghdad and Washington with this mutually beneficial treaty, but no significant change in relations resulted.  Analysis of the agreement concluded that the Soviets also stood to gain financially from the river projects contemplated; sizeable tracts of land in Soviet-controlled Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan would receive irrigation as a result.

Image Credit: National Security Archive/George Washington University

August 6, 1957 – The USSR and Syria Reach an Agreement

 

Syrian Defense Minister Khalid al-Azm with Chief of Staff Afif al-Bizreh, 1957

On August 6, 1957, a Syrian delegation led by Minister of State and National Defense Khalid al-Azm and a Soviet delegation led by Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers Iosif Kuzmin reached an economic (and possibly military) aid agreement.  According to The United States and Arab Nationalism: The Syrian Case, 1953-1960, by Bonnie F. Saunders, the agreement included $570 million in Soviet bloc credits for weapons which Syria would pay for with future grain production.  President Eisenhower and the United States’ government were deeply concerned about the increasing influence of the USSR on the Arab nation.  “The Soviet Union had already given Syria about $60 million worth of military aid in 1956,” Saunders writes.  “Early in 1957, rumors about even greater Soviet military penetration into Syria circulated in London and Washington.  Supposedly, hundreds of Soviet technicians and military personnel were busy setting up and manning Soviet air and naval bases in Syria.  The Soviet Union was ostensibly providing the Syrian army with huge numbers of new Soviet weapons, furnishing the Syrian air force with two dozen sophisticated MiG jets and Soviet trainers, and creating a small Syrian navy armed with Soviet-built ships.”

A joint communique regarding the agreement was published on August 6, 1957, according to From Encroachment to Involvement: A Documentary Study of Soviet Policy in the Middle East, 1945-1973, by Yaacov Ro’i. Ro’i reprints the communique, signed by Azm and Kuzmin,  in his book.  It stressed the friendly, frank exchange between the delegations, the sympathy of the USSR for Syria’s efforts to escape colonialism, and the desire of the USSR to participate in the economic development of the Arab nation.  The USSR promised support in the areas of railroad and road construction, irrigation, hydroelectric stations, geological prospecting, research, and industrial plants.  The Soviets would supply specialists, equipment and materials.  Credit would be granted to Syria, in an amount to be determined, “without any conditions of a political or analogous nature, on a basis of equality and reciprocal economic advantage, of non-interference in internal affairs and complete respect for the national dignity and sovereignty of the Syrian Republic.”  The Soviet Union hoped to purchase grain, cotton, and other commodities, and both countries believed the amount of potential trade between the nations had yet to be fully exploited.  According to the communique, delegation visits and discussions would continue.

Image Credit: syrianhistory.com

July 3, 1957 – Khrushchev Ousts Molotov, Malenkov, and Kaganovich

Embed from Getty Images

 

The coffin of Joseph Stalin is carried by (on the near side, front to back) Premier Georgi Malenkov, General Vassily Stalin, Vyacheslav Molotov, Marshal Nikolai Bulganin, and Lazar Kaganovich. 1953

On July  3, 1957, Nikita Khrushchev took control of the Soviet Union with the ouster of three hard-line Stalin loyalists whose failed coup attempt earlier in the year sealed their fate.  Vyacheslav Molotov, Georgi Malenkov, and Lazar Kaganovich were opposed to Khrushchev’s policies of reform, including easing repression and censorship, releasing millions of Stalin’s political prisoners, promoting economic reforms and increased international trade, and allowing cultural exchanges and sports competitions with non-Communist countries.

Khrushchev spent years building his power base; he recruited Marshall Georgy Zhukov and groomed Leonid Brezhnev for the day when he could take the reigns of the Soviet Union in his hands.  He waited for Stalin to die, then slowly built his coalition.  In 1956, Khrushchev denounced Stalin in a speech which angered his pro-Stalin enemies in the ruling presidium  A year later, Molotov, Malenkov and Kaganovich believed they had enough votes to remove Nikita from the government.  They were wrong.  Zhukov, Breszhnev, and a host of other carefully positioned and cultivated men within the communist hierarchy threw their support behind Khrushchev.  Nikita was reaffirmed as First Secretary and his adversaries were voted off the presidium and demoted to minor government positions.

The United States looked favorably on Khrushchev, at least in the beginning.  Seen as much more moderate than the Stalinist hard-liners, Nikita’s purge of the presidium was welcome news to US officials hoping for a thaw in the Cold War.

November 3, 1957 – Sputnik 2 Sends First Living Animal into Orbit

Monument to Laika, Moscow

Monument to Laika, Moscow

On November 3, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched their second Sputnik earth satellite from an ICBM R-7 platform.  The 13 foot high, 2 foot diameter capsule contained compartments for radio transmitters, a telemetry system, a programming unit, regeneration and temperature control systems, scientific instruments (including photometers to measure ultraviolet and x-ray solar radiation), and in her own separate padded and pressurized cabin, a part-terrier, part-Samoyed female dog named Laika.  Other than hitchhiker microbes, no living animal had ever blasted off into space before little 13-pound Laika (which meant “Barker” in Russian) went up, fitted with a harness, electrodes to monitor her condition, and supplies of oxygen, food, and water.

With Sputnik 1 still orbiting Earth, transmitting radio signals and ICBM nightmares across the globe, Sputnik 2’s successful launch introduced an even greater level of perceived alarm and threat by Cold War antagonists to the USSR’s new space supremacy.  Sputnik 2 did not carry out its mission entirely as planned, however.  While the satellite-bearing rocket achieved earth orbit, where it successfully jettisoned its nose cone, a portion of the rocket called “Blok A” did not separate, inhibiting the thermal control system.  Vital thermal insulation was torn loose during the nose cone separation as well, and Sputnik’s internal temperatures soon reached 104°F.

Sputnik 2’s fate to burn up in earth atmosphere reentry occurred on April 14, 1958, after 162 days of circling the globe.  The original plan for Laika – painful for all animal-lovers everywhere to contemplate – was for her to provide information for a limited period of time on the effects of space flight on living beings, through monitoring her vital signs.  After ten days, she was to be euthanized by lethal medication-supplemented food.  Once sent into orbit, she could never return.  But after the early loss of her capsule’s thermal insulation, Laika was only able to survive for a few hours before succumbing to the heat and stress.  Her death was a small, but significant tragedy on the road to man’s Race to Space.

Sputnik 2 Module

Sputnik 2 Module. Photo: Raumfahrer.net

October 12, 1957 – General George Kenney on the Mike Wallace Interview Show

General George Kenney. Photo: US Air Force

General George Kenney. Photo: US Air Force

On October 12, 1957, Mike Wallace opened his Interview television broadcast with the following dramatic words:

“Tonight we had planned to interview one of the great fighters of our time, Sugar Ray Robinson.  But because of the alarming turn in world events this week, Sugar Ray has consented to a postponement of his interview so that tonight we can go after the story of the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union for control of outer space.”

Instead of a champion of the boxing ring, Mike hosted a champion of World War II’s war on Japan: retired Air Force General George Kenney, Commander of Allied Air Forces under General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific.  MacArthur said about Kenney: “General Kenney has no superior as an air commander.  His creative imagination and his brilliant leadership mark him as one of the unique figures in aviation.”  Wallace also credited Kenney with “a reputation as a fearless military analyst”.

The alarming world event Wallace was referring to was the recent successful launch of the USSR satellite, Sputnik 1.  Mike lost no time in getting right to the point with Kenney: How serious was the threat posed by Sputnik, and how should the United States – and the world – respond?

Kenney, his words and manner confirming him to be a principled man of demonstrated ability, succinctly and persuasively made the following points:

  • The successful launch of Sputnik 1 proves that the USSR has developed the rocket technology necessary to propel an ICBM into United States air space, posing a serious threat to the security of our nation.
  • America has been too complacent and apathetic about the Soviet ability to develop weapons and produce them in quantity.
  • The day the Soviet political and military staff decide they can win a nuclear war, they’ll pull the trigger.  They follow the teaching of Marx and Lenin, which confirm this world mission.  Khrushchev reiterates this point in every speech he makes.
  • A preventive first strike (Wallace repeatedly proposed this option) is not the answer.  Like the sheriff of our western heritage, don’t shoot the bandit on first sight.  Warn him he has so much time to get out of town, and if he doesn’t leave and reaches for his gun instead, beat him to the draw.
  • We are behind the Soviet Union in nuclear weapons development because the American public has not taken the threat seriously enough.

Kenney, while not eager to lay blame anywhere for the United States’ having fallen behind in the Cold War arms race, stressed that US leaders mostly followed the desires of the electorate, based on the average voter’s priorities.  “If the people of this country really want defense they can have it,” he asserted.  “All they’ve got to do it demand it.  The feeling in Washington is that they wanted the budget balanced, want taxes reduced, they want bigger Social Security benefits,  more pensions, better roads, and all kinds of things.”

Kenney went on to make insightful and cogent remarks on a variety of issues related to American military defense, the performance of key government and military officials, and recent scientific research.  He shared his views on the stance the United Nations should take with member nations headed by dictatorships and explained why, in his opinion, the Russian government newspaper Isvestia had labeled him a “high ranking lunatic”.

General Kenney concluded the interview with a glimpse of his personal integrity.  He explained why he chose not to work for defense contractors after his retirement from the Air Force – “they would expect me to be down in Washington to help them sell their stuff and I couldn’t do that if one of the competitors of the company that I was working for had a better missile or a better engine or a better airplane”.  Kenney, instead, chose to spend part of his retirement contributing his time and talents to a cause he felt passionate about – the Arthritis Foundation.