During the Iran-Iraq War from 1980-1988, a low level parallel naval conflict in the Persian Gulf, known as the Tanker War, was waged where each side tried to sink as many of their adversary’s oil tankers as possible. Iran relied exclusively on tankers to export its oil which was its sole source of funding for the war. Iranian mines, and Revolutionary Guard small boat attacks and airstrikes forced Iraq to export most of its oil via pipelines to friendly Saudi Arabia. However, Iran expanded its attacks to neutral flagged ships of those countries friendly to Iraq, such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, to intercept Iraq’s oil. Along with the British and French, the US deployed a Mid-East Task Force to the Persian Gulf to protect neutral flagged ships from both Iranian and Iraqi attacks.
On 17 May 1987, a US Navy Oliver Hazard Perry class frigate, USS Stark FFG-31, sailed on a routine patrol in the Persian Gulf just outside of Iraq’s declared war zone, as part of the Mid-East Task Force. About 1900 that night (7 pm) a joint US-Saudi Arabian E-3C Sentry aircraft acquired what it thought was a French made Iraqi F-1 Mirage but it was actually a militarized business jet converted into a long range reconnaissance plane and armed with several air to surface missiles. The Sentry passed the contact off to the USS Stark at 2055. The plane was more than 200 miles out.
The Stark knew about the incoming aircraft for fifty minutes at that point, flipped on her air search radar, and belatedly acquired the aircraft after wrestling with several false reports of a surface contact nearby. (Turning on a powerful radar like the SPS-49 makes the ship a big target for surface to surface missiles.) Just before that, the electronic warfare officer (EWO) went to get a cup of coffee. The Stark’s tactical action officer (TAO) in the combat information center (CIC) ordered the comms duty officer (the acronym for that is insane) to wait on hailing the approaching aircraft as it looked as if the plane would pass benignly by. As the unidentified aircraft continued to approach, the TAO ordered the weapons control officer (WCS) to go find the EWO because his console controlled the chaff (“chaff” are small metal strips launched into the air to confuse incoming radar lock missiles) and was one of the only two stations in the CIC where an incoming threat could be tracked and a weapon assigned (guess where the other one was…). This action left both the EWO and WCS stations vacant, though the ship’s executive officer did enter the CIC on administrative business, and occupied the WCS’ station to observe the TAO while he waited.
At 2104, the TAO gave permission to the comms duty officer to hail the aircraft, presumably because the XO was watching. The aircraft did not respond, and turned slightly toward the Stark to further close the distance, though this was missed by the air tracker watching the radar. At 2108, the Stark tried communicating with the aircraft again, which was 32 nautical miles out and well within range of known Iraqi and Iranian air to surface missiles, and again received no response.
As the Stark was futilely trying to contact the aircraft a second time, the Iraqi pilot launched his first French made Exocet missile. After another minute inputting data into the fire control and locking on a second missile, he launched another Exocet. He was less than twelve miles out.
The Exocet (French for “Flying Fish”) flew across the Persian Gulf three meters above the water at nearly Mach one. As “sea-skimming” missiles, they were never picked up by the air-search radar, and the only stations with the capability to detect the incoming threat were vacant with one’s operator getting coffee, and the other looking for him.
At 2109, the TAO ordered a young ensign to occupy the WCS’s console to activate the weapon systems and the fire control radar. This included a young sailor running topside to manually turn on the chaff launcher, which was completed and probably saved the sailor’s life. As the young ensign jockeyed with the intimidating executive officer at the WCS station, a lookout topside using a pair of binoculars and Mark 1 Eyeballs spotted a white glow on the horizon and spoke into his mic “Missile Inbound Missile Inbound”. The first Exocet struck the USS Stark four seconds later.
It penetrated the hull just below the CIC but didn’t explode. Its remaining fuel spread fires throughout its path into the ship, particularly in the petty officers quarters, where it came to lie. The Stark’s luck however would not repeat: 30 seconds later, the same lookout said, “inbound missile, port side… all hands brace for shock!”; the second missile struck eight feet forward from the initial hit, and exploded. 29 sailors were killed instantly, many in their sleep or burned to death shortly thereafter. Eight died later of their wounds or were lost at sea. Twenty more were wounded.
From aircraft acquisition to detonation was just 14 minutes. From the first hail to detonation was less than four minutes.
The Stark never fired any of her weapons. The Perry class frigates are primarily surface combatants or escorts conducting anti-submarine warfare, activities for which they are admirably equipped. They rely on other ships, or preferably planes, for wide area anti-aircraft coverage. They possess point air defense weapons i.e. self-protection only, in the form of the 20mm Phalanx CIWS (Close In Weapons System, a giant Gatling gun) for just such incoming threats. However, the system was down with parts on order, and the crew mistakenly believed they couldn’t calibrate the auxiliary targeting system except in an approved gunnery area. The CIWS was never activated and remained on “stand-by mode”, even though it was operational. Furthermore, there was confusion as per the rules of engagement/readiness condition – The CIC crew believed they could not fire unless fired upon, which was not the case. They could have defended themselves any time after the plane didn’t respond to queries and continued to approach. (Condition III Yellow vs Condition III White, or for US Army folks, roughly the difference between Yellow Tight and White Hold).
If the first missile would have exploded, the USS Stark would have been a catastrophic loss. As it was, “only” a 10’ by 13’ flaming hole was bored into the ship. The fires created by the missiles destroyed the storesroom, the berths, the small postal room, and eventually the CIC. The damage created a severe list which was counteracted by reverse flooding to keep the hole above the waterline. However, the essentially Second World War damage control techniques barely kept the 3000 degree fires and list from sinking the ship. The fires were twice as hot as needed to melt the bulkheads. One third of the crew was incapacitated, and there were simply too many tasks needed to be done. Furthermore, the water used to fight the fires threatened to capsize the ship despite the counter flooding. This fate was avoided by the time consuming and difficult process of sledgehammering holes in the aluminum bulkheads to redistribute the water. The Stark had no modern rescue equipment such as cutting torches or Jaws-of-Life. Only the timely arrival of the destroyer USS Waddel several hours later prevented the exhausted and wounded crew from succumbing to the list and flames. The Stark was further aided by the USS Conyngham who departed Bahrain with only a third of her crew: the rest were on shore leave and couldn’t be found. The fires raged for 24 hours. It was only the combined effort, ingenuity, and perseverance of the three crews that saved the Stark. The next day they managed to escort the stricken ship back to port.
Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government initially blamed the US for violating the declared war zone, but when confronted by conclusive evidence to the contrary, apologized for mistaking the Stark for an Iranian tanker. The attack on the USS Stark was the first incident in the increasingly larger American involvement in the Tanker War.
Before Hitler committed suicide on 30 April 1945, he appointed Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz his successor as National Socialist Germany’s head of state. On 2 May, Dönitz sent Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg to Field Marshal Montgomery’s headquarters to negotiate the surrender of the three German armies still fighting the Soviets in northern Germany. Montgomery, unwilling to offend the Russians, said the Germans had to surrender to the Soviets. The only other option was if all German forces in Northern Germany and Denmark surrendered to him. If that happened, the capitulation would look like a tactical surrender to Monty’s 21st Army, which shouldn’t upset the Soviets. Friedeburg said he didn’t have the authority to surrender everyone Monty demanded, but he’d ask. He returned the next day and acquiesced. 1,000,000 German troops surrendered to Monty. After the details were worked out, Friedeburg asked for passage to negotiate directly with Eisenhower for the surrender of all German forces facing the Western Allies.
Bad weather kept Freideburg from flying directly to SHAEF headquarters at Reims, France, but he eventually arrived on 5 May. Eisenhower told Friedeburg to pound sand. There would be no conditions on the German surrender. There would be no partial surrenders, either he negotiates the surrender of all German forces, including those facing the Soviets to the Soviets, or none at all. Eisenhower’s chief of staff LtGen Bedell “Beetle” Smith showed Friedeburg the situation maps confirming Germany’s hopeless position, including a fake one with arrows continuing the Allied drive east, deep into Czechoslovakia and the Balkans. With tears in his eyes, Friedeburg again professed that he didn’t have the authority. He cabled Dönitz for additional instructions.
The next day, the SHAEF staff wrestled with itself trying to create the surrender documents. There were several competing versions. The first was by the European Advisory Commission, signed in the summer of 1944 and approved by all of the Allies and the Soviets. But there was also a Yalta Conference version that wasn’t officially approved by all parties, specifically France. And everyone knew how touchy DeGaulle was. He could ruin the whole thing, maybe even restart the war just out of pride. Smith compromised – he created a new one.
The Stars and Stripes newspaper recently published the Italian surrender document in its entirety. Smith used the wording of the Italian document, which the French had approved, and inserted “Germany” where “Italy” had been. One of his staff officers updated it. At the hysterical urging of the US Embassy in London, he inserted an “enabling” clause at the last second, stating that the Allies can add conditions in the future as needed. The final version was still being translated when a new German negotiator finally arrived that evening.
General Alfred Jodl was the OKW operations chief, and only departed for Reims after his own awards ceremony in which Dönitz awarded him a Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. After Friedeberg’s message, Dönitz felt that Jodl, a member of Wehrmacht, might convince Eisenhower to accept the surrender of just the German forces facing the Western Allies. Or maybe even convince Eisenhower to join the Germans in fighting the Soviets, for the sake of the German population. The Soviets were raping and looting their way across Germany, and “You’ll have to fight them eventually”, as Jodl stated matter-of-factly.
Eisenhower angrily reiterated unconditional surrender. Jodl, now fully aware that it was all or nothing, began to stall. Eisenhower told him he had 48 hours to sign the freshly produced surrender documents, or he was going to close his lines to any Germans, military or civilian, and force them to surrender to the Soviets. Jodl, aghast, said he didn’t have the authority. Eisenhower just looked at him and said the clock was ticking. Jodl quickly cabled Dönitz, and just after midnight, received permission to sign the documents.
At 2:40 am on 7 May 1945, General Alfred Jodl signed the capitulation of Nazi Germany. The surrender ceremony took just ten minutes. No one said a word, and Eisenhower didn’t even attend. When Jodl finished signing, he asked that the victors treat Germany with generosity. Smith took Jodl to Eisenhower’s office. Ike asked if he understood what he did and that he was personally responsible. Jodl nodded, saluted, and left.
Ike and Smith broke out a bottle of champagne. Ike told the staff to quickly compose a suitable message to send to London, Paris, Moscow, and Washington DC informing them of Germany’s surrender. Every staff officer in the building wanted a piece of the message, and each version was longer and more grandiose than the last. Ike took out a piece a paper, wrote a single line and told Smith to have it sent. It said,
“The mission of this Allied force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7, 1945, Eisenhower.”
By 1950, the Iron Curtain had fallen across Europe and Soviet control of its satellite states in Eastern Europe was nearing completion. In Czechoslovakia, Communist control of the Czech Parliament was won in the relatively free elections of 1946. Following Socialism’s historical playbook of never giving up power once taken, the Communists seized complete control of the country in a coup in 1948. Power was consolidated, and by 1949, only one institution stood in opposition to the Czech Communists: the Czechoslovak Catholic Church.
Czechoslovakian StB (state security) agents and troops, trained and controlled by the Soviet Ministry of State Security (MGB, predecessor of the infamous KGB, the Committee of State Security), closed down churches and schools, outlawed all religious printed materials, and arrested priest and laity. The Stb engineered show trials to discredit Czechoslovak Catholics and parade them as agents of the Vatican, the Americans, and the British. The most famous show trial was that of the Číhošť Miracle, where 19 parishioners swore that a cross on the main alter moved on its own. The StB brutally tortured the priest to confess that he mechanically linked the alter and pulpit, from where he could control the cross. The show trial failed when Father Josef Toufar died from the torture before testifying that he staged the miracle.
The Číhošť Miracle show trial inflamed Czechoslovak passions, particularly the only remnants of the Catholic Church left in the country: its monasteries and nunneries. The Czechoslovak religious orders had emerged from the state sponsored violence relatively unscathed. They were socially isolated and physically distant from population at large and initially deemed no threat to the state power. However after the death of Father Toufar, the Church was no longer “an opiate of the masses” but a potential source of insurgent political power.
On the night of 13 April, 1950, StB plainclothes agents and troops, “People’s Militia”, and their Soviet handlers launched Operation K (for kláštery, Czech for monastery) to eliminate the monastic system in the country. In one coordinated operation, 75 Czech and 62 Slovak monasteries, belonging to the Salesian, Jesuit, Redemptorist and Benedictine orders, were raided that night. 13 more monasteries were raided later in the week. The monks were loaded onto trucks and sent to concentration camps, if not outright shot. Most of the older monks were not seen again, while the younger ones were worked to death in slave labor battalions. Prominent abbots were found guilty of treason in public show trials. The buildings were looted and the land confiscated for state use. In the most notorious example, the oldest monastery in the country, the Břevnov Monastery in Prague was converted into the Interior Ministry’s Central State Archive. About 2500 monks were killed or imprisoned during Operation K.
Several months later the Communists launched Operation R against Czechoslovak Catholic nunneries. Little evidence (in English, that I can find anyway) exists regarding Operation R, other than it happened and the Catholic nunneries in Czechoslovakia ceased to exist afterwards. The lucky nuns were sent into exile to live in the village of Bílá Voda. The vast majority were never heard from again. One can only speculate as to the nuns’ fate, but the Soviet proclivity of sexual violence toward female “enemies of the state” during and after the Second World War probably provides a clue.
After being replaced in power by a soft coup in 1967, the Soviet faction inside North Vietnam led by Võ Nguyên Giáp was forced to watch impotently as the Chinese faction prepared to engage in large scale battles against the US, Allied, and South Vietnamese units. Led by Le Duan, the Chinese faction believed that the Americans could be beaten by large scale pitched battles, just as the French had been defeated the decade before, not through guerilla warfare as Giap proposed. Though a political victory in the United States for the Communists, the General Offensive/General Uprising, aka the Tet Offensive of 1968, was a complete disaster for the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies in South Vietnam. The Tet Offensive thoroughly discredited the Chinese faction. Giap returned to power.
Throughout the late 60s, Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia believed in inevitable Chinese Communist domination of the Indochinese peninsula and was firmly allied with the Chinese faction in North Vietnam. Cambodia was all but a formal North Vietnamese and Chinese ally. Eastern Cambodia was essentially a North Vietnamese colony with the Ho Chi Minh trail and large areas along the border of South Vietnam under PAVN’s (People’s Army of North Vietnam) control. Soviet and Eastern Bloc ships routinely used Cambodian ports, and most of Cambodia’s rice harvest went to PAVN troops. The Cambodian Communists, the Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer) were a small indigenous guerilla auxiliary of the PAVN.
By 1969, Sihanouk was caught up in complicated plots while attempting placate all sides in the conflict. Cambodia’s support for the Vietnamese communists was one sided and destroying Cambodia’s economy. Sihanouk thoroughly supported the Chinese faction and had purged most urban i.e. Soviet supporting communists from the country. In 1970, Cambodian nationalists overthrew Sihanouk when they felt he wasn’t going far enough to restore Cambodian autonomy from Vietnam. The coup created an unholy alliance between the Sihanouk monarchists, the discredited Chinese faction of the PAVN, intellectuals outside the capital of Phnom Penh, and the agrarian peasants of the Khmer Rouge led by the unassuming and nondescript Pol Pot, to oppose the pro US Khmer Republic.
As Giap reconsolidated his hold on the PAVN in the wake of the Tet Offensive, the PAVN and the Khmer Rouge launched an offensive into north eastern Cambodian to continue the Maoist struggle against the Khmer Republic. In 1972, when Giap and the Soviet faction finally regained control of North Vietnamese leadership, the Khmer Rouge, like a petulant teenager who ran away from his parents, broke with their Vietnamese socialist brothers, and sought direct support from the Chinese Communist Party. By the end of 1973, all Sihanouk loyalists were purged. The agrarian-intellectual Khmer Rouge was greatly expanded by support from Mao Zedong’s CCP. The Khmer Rouge became the dominant force in the war against the Khmer Republic and Pol Pot the most powerful man in Cambodia.
Pol Pot was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), the official name of the Khmer Rouge, since 1963. Known “First Brother” to his socialist allies, Pol Pot was born in French Cambodia and an early French Communist. Pol Pot patterned the Khmer Rouge on the secretive French Maquis in the Second World War and Maoist agrarian socialism, combined with a Cambodian cultural distinctiveness. Pol Pot exploited the Khmer cultural divides between urban and rural, Heaven and Hell, civilization and the wild to create an indisputable boundary between the Khmer Rouge and its enemies, whomever they may be. Sihanouk’s purge of Soviet communists i.e the proletariat, in Phnom Penh left no place in the Khmer Rouge for industrial workers, just an ideal of happy and ignorant peasants lorded over by their supposedly intellectual superiors. Pol Pot’s ideology was especially effective on teenagers and younger children. Hundreds of thousands of Khmer children were indoctrinated and desensitized to violence. They were given power of life and death which their developing minds were incapable of handling. The CPK controlled areas were “Lord of the Flies” on an exponential scale. Pol Pot’s volatile political concoction led to an ideological violence seen only in the darkest depths of socialist and pseudo religious identity politics.
With declining support from America, the Khmer Republic declared a unilateral ceasefire with the Khmer Rouge when the United States signed the Paris Peace Accords with North Vietnam. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge saw no reason to abide by the terms. Throughout 1973 and 1974, they launched continuous offensives that eventually took them to the gates of Phnom Penh, the “Pearl of Asia”. After a yearlong siege, Phnom Penh fell to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge on 17 April 1975, just a few days before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.
The Khmer Rouge’s popular slogan at the time was “The Rotten Must Be Purged”. They killed anyone that did not fit their ideal. These included:
-Anyone associated with the former Cambodian government, their extended families and neighbors.
-Anyone with foreign connections or even knew the basics of a foreign language.
-Intellectuals. The Khmer definition “intellectual” included students who did not drop out of school to fight for them, anyone who could read, anyone who owned a book, or even anyone who wore glasses.
-The sick and infirm, and any caretakers.
-Anyone who owned a business or employed people.
-Anyone who displayed any signs whatsoever of individualism.
-Anyone who resisted, did not support the party, or offended a member of the party.
The punishment for being an enemy of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was swift, brutal, and agonizing.
The Khmer Rouge forcefully evacuated all three million residents of the city. Phnom Penh went from bustling metropolis to ghost town in less than a month. What was left of the population of the city went on a weeks long Death March into the Cambodian countryside. Anyone who stopped moving or fell out of the march was killed. Way stops became torture centers. The Khmer Rouge played god with people’s lives just because they could. Once there they were used as slave labor on the collective farms.
20,000 mass grave sites were later identified, results of Khmer Rouge’s capture of Phnom Penh in 1975, the subsequent Death March, and the atrocities born from forced collectivization. At least 1.7 million Cambodians were murdered during Pol Pot’s and the Khmer Rouge’s Chinese sponsored reign in Cambodia.
Cambodian journalist Dith Pran coined the term “Killing Fields” to describe the clusters of skeletons and corpses he encountered on his forty mile journey during his escape from Cambodia in 1978.
Almost ten years to the day after the first US combat troops entered South Vietnam, Communist North Vietnam launched their war winning conventional offensive against South Vietnam.
In 1964, the South Vietnamese Army was almost completely combat ineffective and had to be rebuilt. To buy the time to do so, General William Westmoreland, the commander of the US and SEATO Military Assistance Command- Vietnam (MAC-V), brought in US airpower and US combat troops. Between 1965 and 1968, Westmoreland used US and Allied troops to search for and destroy VC and NVA main force units, while relying on special forces, indigenous militias and the ARVN for counter insurgency and security. These tactics proved effective to a point, but didn’t play well on TV and certainly weren’t quantifiable, though Westmoreland tried with “body counts”. When Westmoreland was denied the authority to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail and seize communist base camps in the Laotian panhandle and the Fishhook in Cambodia, the war was militarily unwinnable for the US and South Vietnam. North Vietnamese Minister of Defense and commander of the North Vietnamese Army, General Võ Nguyên Giáp, took advantage of this reality and advocated for a slower insurgency campaign that avoided costly big unit engagements. This approach would empower the VC, increase US casualties, embolden the US anti-war movement, and allow time for the Soviet propaganda machine to work over America.
This slower, but inevitably successful, course of action was backed by the Soviet faction inside the North Vietnamese Communist Party, led by Giap and Ho Chi Minh. In 1967, when Ho was ill and Giap at a conference in Moscow, the Chinese faction in the government and armed forces staged a soft coup. The Chinese faction, led by COSVN commander Tran Van Tra and North Vietnamese politician Le Duan, came to power and demanded big unit battle with the Americans, because that was how the French were defeated previously. Returning to Vietnam, Giap was forced to accept the new strategy.
In January 1968, the NVA and VC launched the “General Offensive/General Uprising” i.e. the Tet Offensive, which shocked the Americans and South Vietnamese. However, though the General Offensive portion of the plan was executed, the General Uprising of South Vietnamese was nonexistent. The South Vietnamese populace on the whole refused to support the communists. The NVA and VC were defeated in a few weeks, the VC decisively so. Although the communists suffered extremely heavy casualties, the Tet Offensive turned the US public opinion against the war. The scale of the offensive gave lie to the official Johnson and Westmoreland position that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Gen Westmoreland was replaced that spring by General Creighton Abrams.
The Tet Offensive destroyed the Viet Cong as a viable military entity, and forced Giap to move NVA regular units into South Vietnam to take their place, setting the insurgency back years. This gave Abrams the opportunity to implement new tactics in Vietnam dubbed the “Inkblot Strategy”. American and ARVN troops secured the cities, town, hamlets, and then the countryside of S. Vietnam through counterinsurgency tactics the way ink blots spread on a piece of paper. Combined with targeted strikes on high value targets and partnering and training of South Vietnamese troops and irregulars, the “inkblot strategy” proved effective. Dubbed “Vietnamization” the strategy was successful, and the ARVN took over security of the country with most American combat troops out of Vietnam by 1972.
Though Abrams’ strategy was successful, the four years of lost time under Westmoreland meant that the South Vietnamese still needed American advisors, air support, supplies, and financial assistance to deal with the increasingly conventional NVA attacks. With American assistance, the ARVN held its own against the NVA coming out of Cambodia and Laos. On New Year’s Eve 1972, Giap conceded that “We have lost the war” (his words) after Operation Linebacker II and the disastrous Easter Offensive, both of which prompted the North Vietnamese to accept the Paris Peace Accords in early 1973. South Vietnam repelled North Vietnam’s 1972, 1973, and 1974 spring offensives, without American combat troops.
As usual for modern American peace deals, the United States kept its part of the bargain and its adversaries did not. In February 1975, the US public was tired of the war. The newly elected Democratic congress cut off all funding to South Vietnam, while North Vietnam was awash in funds and supplies from various Communist bloc countries. On 10 March 1975, Giap launched the spring offensive, named after the deceased former leader of North Vietnam Ho Chi Minh, with hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces. “The Ho Chi Minh Campaign” was the fourth massive conventional spring offensive in as many years against South Vietnam. Giap had reached the bottom of his manpower pool, but unfortunately South Vietnam had neither the resources nor the will to properly defend. The NVA broke through within days and Saigon fell on 30 April.
Contrary to popular historical opinion, South Vietnam did not fall to a popular insurgency, but a conventional attack that would not have been out of place in the Second World War.
130,000 South Vietnamese fled the country and 200,000 more were be murdered by the North Vietnamese over the next month. Hundreds of thousands more were forced into re-education camps. Following their victory in Vietnam, Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge, and Laos fell to the Pathet Lao. A further 1.6 million men, women, and children were murdered by the Communists.
In early 1965, there were 22,000 US Special Forces advisers, pilots, and support personnel in South Vietnam assisting the Republic of South Vietnam in the war against the communist National Liberation Front insurgents aka Viet Cong (VC), and their backers in North Vietnam. The situation in South Vietnam steadily deteriorated over the previous two years and the chaos reached a crescendo in February 1965. The Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) was recently defeated in two conventional battles against the VC and regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Also the civilian government of South Vietnam endured a successful coup by the ARVN Army Chief of Staff, Gen Nguyen Khanh and his Buddhist supporters, only to be immediately followed by another failed coup by communist sympathizers on the Armed Forces Council (The Vietnamese version of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). Furthermore, the South Vietnamese village pacification program was recognized as a complete failure in February. Additionally, Viet Cong terror bombings became increasing common in South Vietnam’s major cities. But the final straw was the attack on Pleiku Air Base which killed eight Americans, wounded 128 others and destroyed 20 aircraft in the first large scale attack directed solely at Americans.
In response to the chaos, on 2 March 1965, President Lyndon Johnson authorized Operation Rolling Thunder, a sustained bombing campaign against the Viet Cong’s supply routes aka the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”, and military and industrial targets inside North Vietnam. Rolling Thunder was a major escalation to the war. The operation was scheduled to last eight weeks; it would go on for three years.
In order to protect the Rolling Thunder airbases from further Pleiku style attacks, the Military Assistance Command – Vietnam commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, requested American ground combat troops. The first of these arrived on 8 March 1965 when two battalions of US Marines landed on the beach at Danang, where they assumed security of the US airbase there. They could have flown directly to the airbase, but Westmoreland thought it more dramatic for the cameras if they landed on the beach like their fathers did in the Pacific War.
95,000 more American troops followed over the course of 1965.
In the late 80s, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev introduced “perestroika” (restructuring), “glastnost” (openness), and the lesser known “khozraschyot” (commercialization) reforms to make the Soviet system more efficient and alleviate the crushing social, political, spiritual, and economic problems of late stage socialism. However, Gorbachev’s reforms gave a small taste of life in the West and just acted as a catalyst for the demand of more reforms. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, communist and socialist governments fell across Eastern Europe culminating in the violent Romanian Revolution in December 1989. However, the iron grip of the Communist Party in Russia staved off revolution in the Soviet Union, though significant political turmoil and economic stagnation still existed. Reformers fought “moderates” who fought hardliners who fought everyone for the soul of the Russian people.
In a victory for the reformers, Western businesses were allowed access to Russian markets. One of the first business to capitalize (ahem…) on the new market was the McDonald’s Corporation. On 31 January 1990, the first McDonald’s fast food restaurant opened on Pushkin Square in the center of Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union. Thousands lined up and waited for hours to spend the equivalent of several days’ wages for a Big Mac.
The Golden Arches, the most recognizable symbol of Western Capitalism, had entrenched itself in the belly of the beast. The Russian people weren’t just lining up for a tasty burger, but to experience firsthand the inevitable changes on the horizon. For the first time, there was no jumping of the queue for party members. True egalitarianism was found in the order line; a queue that ended at the smiling face of the polite cashier. The politeness of the cashier was shocking to a people who were “used to the commercial boorishness” of the Soviet consumer goods’ sector and the unchallenged petty power of even the lowest members of the party and government bureaucracies. For years, the McDonald’s in Moscow was the most popular and trendy restaurant in the country.
Within two years, the Soviet Union would cease to exist.
In the late summer of 1944, Hitler pulled all Wehrmacht troops out of the Balkans to help stop the Soviets and the Allies as they raced towards Germany. Hitler’s Balkan allies, Romania and Bulgaria, sought an accommodation with the Soviet Union and switch sides. In Yugoslavia, Josef Tito’s highly organized communist partisans filled the vacuum left by the retreating Germans and successfully stiff armed “liberating” Soviet troops. In Greece however, the partisans were generally divided into two camps that were hostile to each other. The first were the various factions supported by Tito’s Partisans and the Soviet Union, the National Liberation Front (EAM), and the other was composed of the various groups and reformed army units supporting the Greek Government in Exile, backed by Great Britain.
Winston Churchill foresaw the coming post war conflict with Communism and vowed Stalin would not have direct access to a port on the Mediterranean. All through 1944, the British made a point of securing German occupied islands in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. The stage set, Winston Churchill quietly pulled British units out of Italy and the Middle East to accompany the return of the Greek Government in Exile after the Germans departed. On 3 October, British and Greek units occupied Athens and began funneling supplies to allied militias and disarming the EAM and the Greek Communist Party.
The EAM organized a general strike and on 3 December staged a massive protest in Athens to stop the complete erosion of communist power in Greece. The protest degenerated into a riot and eventually into open street fighting by the EAM against Greek soldiers, police and militias and their British backers. On 12 December, the tough 4th Indian Division, veterans of the 2nd Battle of Monte Cassino, arrived from Italy and this turned the tide against the Communists. By late January, the EAM was defeated. In February the various parties signed a ceasefire, supported by the US, Great Britain and even the Soviet Union. Stalin knew he could then use Churchill’s intervention in Greece as a pretext to openly do in Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, and Hungary what he was already doing in secret.
The Greek Civil War began in earnest in March 1946 when the Yugoslav and Soviet backed Democratic Army of Greece (DSE) attacked Greek policemen across the country (the DSE was formed from the remnants of the EAM). Great Britain was bankrupt from six years of war and asked for the United States to take their place as the Greek government’s patron.
In 1945, President Truman recognized America’s new found leadership role in the Free World, and with Secretary of State George C Marshall developed and adopted the “Truman Doctrine”, which vowed America would stop the spread of Communism, starting with Greece.
In the autumn of 1989, the people of Eastern Europe had had enough of Socialism. In Poland in September, Lech Walesa and Solidarity formed the first non-Communist government in a Warsaw Pact nation. In Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel was organizing the Velvet Revolution from his prison cell, and thousands of East Germans were openly using the West German Embassy in Prague to escape their Stasi-controlled socialist paradise. In Hungary, the border was effectively open and tens of thousands of Eastern European “tourists” were flooding Austria, never to return.
In East Germany, and Berlin in particular, massive but peaceful protests rocked the Communist government. In early November, the protesters stopped chanting “We want out!” and began chanting “We are staying!”. The new East German leader, Egon Krenz, recognized that he would not be in power for long if some changes were not made. On 9 November 1989, he and his advisors finished reviewing the new rules which greatly lessened the restrictions on travel and the burdensome bureaucratic process needed to obtain approval, but it did not open the border.
A note about the new regulations was passed to his spokesman, Gunter Schabowski, who was having a press conference that evening. Schabowski told reporters that there would be changes to the regulations, but not the details since he didn’t have them. When asked, Schabowski assumed they would also include Berlin and that they were effective immediately. The reporters then assumed the changes would open the border as it was in Hungary, and ran with it. This was most definitely not the case, but within the hour, it was broadcast around the world that the inter-German border was open.
Thousands descended upon the gates in the Berlin Wall demanding that they be allowed to cross into West Berlin, because “Schabowski said we could”. East German Stasi Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jager of the Bornholmer Street Gate made repeated calls to his superiors asking for clarification. His superiors mocked him and told him to use force to clear the protesters since they knew nothing of the new regulations, despite it being all over the news. Jager refused and let the East Berliners through. They were met by celebrating West Berliners. Within days all of the gates in the Berlin Wall were open and several new ones were established when jubilant Berliners smashed through with pick axes and bulldozers.
The Cold War was over.
For seven weeks starting in April 1989, university students occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the Communists were terrified. Though there were some hardliners, the Communists understood the need for economic reforms. They did not want a repeat of the disastrous Cultural Revolution of the 60s when Maoists doubled down on statism and Communism, and 30 million people died as a result. The Chinese people remembered this devastation from a scant twenty years before. In the spring of 1989, they would not stand for it again. In support of the students, millions protested across China for market reforms, free speech, free press, and a way to remove the intolerably corrupt politicians of the Communist government.
But unlike the Soviets and the communists of Eastern Europe, the Chinese Communists were under no illusions about what would happen if they held elections. However, they did have one advantage that the other communist governments did not have: the People’s Liberation Army was not state controlled as in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, they were party controlled. They could be relied upon for use against the Chinese people. First subjugation, then economic reforms. In early May 1989, a concerted effort was made to mobilize and bring formations up to fighting standard, and on 20 May 1989, the communists declared martial law.
250,000 PLA soldiers descended on Beijing. However, by 24 May, they were stopped cold by millions of peaceful protesters. For a week there was an impasse, but on 3 June, the communists had had enough. They ordered the PLA to use force to remove the protestors. Although some units refused to shoot civilians, thousands were killed when communist soldiers opened fire that night and into the next day. Almost immediately, vicious street battles broke out after students and shopkeepers banded to together to fight tanks and machine guns with rocks and fists. By the end of 4 June at least three thousand lay dead, and many more wounded. The fighting was largely unnoticed by the outside world.
The communists, like all tyrannical governments, feared scrutiny and transparency so they either coopted or coerced the domestic media into submission. But their censors did not apply to foreign journalists so they had placed severe restrictions on them, including harassment, isolation, and cutting their communications. Nevertheless, on 5 June 1989, those journalists locked in the Beijing Hotel witnessed an amazing event from their balconies. As a column of Type 59 tanks approached Tiananmen Square on Chang’an Avenue, an unnamed man crossed the broad street carrying two bags of groceries. The lead tank came to a stop just before hitting the man. The man, looking up, stood in front of the tank and then refused to move. The driver attempted to go around him, but the young man moved with it. The driver eventually stopped and shut down his engine, and soon the entire column did the same. For a long moment, it seemed that this one courageous individual had defeated the communist regime. The young man talked with the tank crew for a while, but was eventually seized by two goons from the People’s Security Bureau. The column continued on. Tank Man was never identified, nor was he seen or heard from again.
Despite the international exposure that the photos of Tank Man gave the events in China of early June 1989, the PLA successfully dispersed the protestors by 7th of that month. Afterwards, the communists rounded up and arrested anyone with connections to the protests. The People’s Republic of China is one of the few communist regimes that survived 1989. Today, due to censorship, Tank Man is unrecognized and unknown in China.