Flight Lieutenant Victor Belenko was one of the Soviet’s best and most experienced pilots, and in 1972 was assigned to fly the newest fighter in the Communist arsenal: the MIG-25 Foxbat. (Cue ominous music)
In the early 70s the Foxbat was the Boogie Man. It’s radar could see farther than any comparable American or NATO system, and the plane itself could accelerate, cruise, and climb faster, with greater range, than any fighter in the Free World. The CIA, much less the US Air Force, knew precious little about it, and what they did was only picked up from electronic hints by SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance pilots trying to outrun its missiles.
Belenko was the training officer for a MIG-25P fighter squadron outside Vladivostok in eastern Siberia. As such, he was responsible for not only flight instruction but political indoctrination, which he considered a waste of precious time. He was a smart and practical man, and for several years, struggled with the cognitive dissonance inherent in a Communist society. The propaganda simply did not match reality. As a fighter pilot, he intimately knew the consequences of ignoring information that contradicts a perceived situation. But unlike most of his peers whom just became subdued cynics, Belenko turned skeptical of the entire system.
He was constantly bombarded by his commissars about “the greatness of the Soviet state and progressive society”, but he slowly noticed evidence to the contrary. His base conditions were horrible, and was called a “Bad Communist” for suggesting improvements to his men’s quarters. Due to a horribly inefficient and under funded maintenance system, he was routinely forced by his superiors to doctor training records, an act the commissars threatened with imprisonment. He found the entire system rife with corruption, and had to use his wife’s party connections to get anything done.
Belenko began to question everything. “If Communism worked, why did he, an elite fighter pilot, have to help with the harvest?”, “If America was backwards, why were their fighters so much better in Vietnam?” and, “If the West was falling apart why did they have so many more Nobel prize winners in science?” were just a few. Soon after his wife’s divorce due to their bleak existence in Siberia, Belenko reached the tipping point when he was presented with unmistakable proof of the commissars’ lies.
In June 1976, Belenko and his squadron were shown films of homelessness and poverty in American cities as affirmation of the failure of Capitalism. However, a closer analysis of the films’ backgrounds revealed stunning discoveries: he saw stores, but no massive queues. And they were lit with signs, and large windows that showcased huge varieties of goods. One film had a woman with bags of groceries with toilet paper poking out the top. (He “hadn’t used toilet paper in years”. He and his wife “cleaned themselves with old copies of the Pravda.”) Moreover, there were single houses completely at odds with the massive drab poorly maintained tenement block that he was forced to live in. Great swaths of Soviet society lived much worse than what he saw in the background of the propaganda films. The “‘Eureka!’ moment” came as cars drove past in all colors, shapes, and sizes. In a few frames passing by in a split second, he noticed “a Cadillac driven by a black man!”
The propagandists had said that African Americans were the most oppressed minority in the United States, but “how much worse must Communism be if a member of this oppressed minority can own a Cadillac, while I, an elite pilot high in the system, must wait for years on a list for a much smaller car?”
Belenko was convinced the propagandists were lying, and with no more ties to the USSR, decided to defect. Because the Soviets didn’t trust the pilots with a full tank of fuel for that very reason, he overstated his usage on a previous mission, and bribed his maintenance chief not to check. The next mission he received his allotment and with the prior overage, he figured he had enough to make the trip to Japan. Belenko smuggled operators and maintenance manuals into the cockpit, and hoped to buy his life in the West with his knowledge and his plane (the commissars told him the West tortured and killed prisoners).
On the afternoon of 6 September 1976, he broke formation, dove for the wave tops, slammed the plane into afterburner, and sped for Japan. Before his wingman could react, Belenko was gone.
He landed at Hakedate airport on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, with just 30 seconds of fuel left. Opening his cockpit, he fired two rounds in the air, and gave the startled white flag carrying Japanese officials a pre-written note asking for concealment of his plane, contact with American analysts, and asylum in the US (which he was eventually granted).
Belenko and his Foxbat were an intelligence windfall. The Air Force dissected the MIG-25 and found it to be far from the Boogie Man: it was a One Trick Pony. The Foxbat was the second fastest plane on the planet, but it was unmaneuverable, overly heavy, maintenance intensive, and extremely fragile. It was still a generation behind its contemporary the F-15 Eagle in all aspects but raw power.
Unfortunately, the Foxbat’s stay was much shorter than its pilot’s. The plane was ordered returned to the Soviets by President Jimmy Carter who wanted to increase goodwill with the Communists. The Air Force did exactly as the President ordered, but to their credit, with a bit of panache – the plane was completely disassembled down to individual bolts, and returned in thirty crates. Attached was a note that said:
“Dear Russian Bear, the US has everything we need anyway so here are the pieces to prove it. With best wishes, the Secretary of the Air Force.
PS: Nice plane, but nothing we need to keep.”
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the beginning of serious American involvement in Vietnam in 1965 began a new and more volatile phase in America’s Civil Rights Movement. The booming post war economy of the 50s and early 60s couldn’t keep up with the competing fiscal requirements of enforcement of the CRA, Johnson’s Great Society Programs, and the Cold War. A combination of Southern Democrats (for mostly racial reasons) and Northeastern Republicans (for mostly economic and political reasons) consistently steered money away from urban programs creating a widening economic gulf in America. In response to this, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, at the forefront of America’s Civil Rights Movement, organized the Poor People’s Campaign in late 1967 and early 1968, focusing on jobs and income for America’s urban poor.
As part of this campaign, Dr. King traveled to Memphis Tennessee in March 1968 to give support to the plight of black sanitation workers who received unequal pay and benefits compared to their white counterparts. Memphis was no stranger to Dr. King: he was there often and routinely stayed in the same hotel, even the same room. At 6pm on 4 April 1968, a gunman, James Earl Ray, took advantage of this situation. Ray shot and killed Dr. King as he stood on the 2nd floor balcony of his usual room in the Lorraine Hotel. Ray would escape, but would be captured in London two months later.
Later that evening, at a campaign stop in Indianapolis, Senator Robert Kennedy learned of Dr. King’s assassination. He had one last campaign speech to make that day but he tore up his remarks. During this impromptu address he gave one of the most memorable speeches in American history. He focused on Dr. King’s belief of non-violence and abhorrence of racial divisiveness. He concluded by saying,
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”
In 1962, the Geneva Accords declared Laos a neutral country in the fight for Vietnam. US and SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organization, the Pacific’s NATO) pulled out immediately, but North Vietnam kept about 7000 troops in the north of the country to support the Pathet Lao, the Laotian Communist insurgents. Unwilling to accept the political costs of sending troops back into Laos, Kennedy and later Johnson supported the Royal Laotian government with cash, mercenaries, and covert support. The war in Laos became the purview of the CIA. The “Secret War in Laos” was the largest CIA covert operation of the Cold War until Afghanistan in the 80s.
In 1965, the monsoon disrupted US bombing campaigns against the Communists, specifically Operations Rolling Thunder in North Vietnam, Steel Tiger on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Laotian panhandle, and Barrel Roll against the Pathet Lao in northern Laos. So a navigational station was put on top of Phou Pha Thi, a jagged and steep mountain in the Hmong dominated area of Laos. The Hmong, like the Montagnards in Vietnam, were a tough mountain people who had been fighting Communists for a decade. A tactical navigational aid (TACAN) transponder was placed at Landing (Lima) Site 85 on the very top of Phou Pha Thi, a Hmong sacred mountain whose summit was thought to be impenetrable to anyone who hadn’t lived in the area their entire lives.
Lima Site 85 was just one of hundreds of landing sites for the CIA’s proprietary airline in Laos, Air America. Also, LS-85 was quickly discovered to be the perfect place for radar to cover the North Vietnamese heartland, and its height gave a straight shot to cover Hanoi and Haiphong, just 175 miles away to the east. The site was expanded but still small, just a landing pad, and three small buildings for commo, operations, and living quarters. However, the TSQ-81, a portable version of the venerable and reliable MSQ-77 radar, required a team of 12 US Air Force technicians to operate. This posed a problem: No US military personnel were allowed in the country. So the CIA “sheep-dipped” them. Sheep Dipping is the practice of asking for military volunteers for a covert mission, discharging them from the service, hiring them through a civilian company, in LS-85’s case Lockheed Aircraft Service Corp, and when the mission was over they releasing themd back into the service.
By the end of 1967, Lima Site 85 directed nearly a quarter of all US airstrikes in theater. The North Vietnamese knew of the site and in mid-1967 began a concerted effort to break into Hmong territory and seize Phou Pha Thi. By 1968, almost half of LS-85’s airstrikes were in support of Royal Laotian troops or CIA led Hmong militia. In January 1968, the first direct assault on LS-85 occurred when two North Vietnamese Antonov-2 Colt biplanes attempted to bomb the site. But the slow moving planes were shot down by Air America Huey crewmembers with small arms, a submachine gun in one case.
With the failure of their air attack, the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao began ground operations against LS-85 in earnest. They were close enough to shell and rocket the site, but its position meant almost all of the incoming rounds either hit the side of the mountain or flew harmlessly overhead. Nonetheless, the indicators were ominous. The CIA brought in several companies of Hmong militia and a Thai Army infantry battalion that were under cover as “mercenaries” to defend the base of the mountain.
The Hmong were excellent guerrilla fighters but they were unsuited for a static defense against a deliberate attack by North Vietnamese regulars and a swarm of Pathet Lao. On 18 February 1968, a North Vietnamese officer was captured five miles south east of the site. On him were papers that indicated an imminent attack on the site by four battalions of the veteran 766th PAVN Regiment and one PL battalion, supported by a battalion of artillery. However, LS-85 was integral to the air campaign and would not be evacuated. The authority to evacuate rested solely with the American ambassador in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, and then only at the sole request of the Air Force. Furthermore, no more troops were brought in to defend the site as air power and the terrain were thought to be sufficient.
On 9 March, 1968, the Communists attacked. Despite massive American airstrikes, the North Vietnamese and Communist Laotians pushed the Hmong and Thai soldiers with their CIA commanders slowly up the mountain. Even during the attack, the Air Force did not want to request evacuation as the inclement weather in North Vietnam made the radar exceptionally valuable. But for the first time, they did issue the technicians M-16s, who up to this point had been unarmed because they were posing as civilians working for Lockheed. Only the senior NCO, CMSgt Richard Etchberger, knew how to competently operate the weapon. On 10 March, the fighting was dangerously close to the site, but even as late as 9pm the Air Force thought they could hold out. The ambassador authorized a dawn extraction by Air America for the technicians and the remaining Thai and Hmong soldiers. The CIA station chief immediately commented that it “was a day too late.”
The Air Force might have been correct, the Communists sustained significant casualties assaulting the mountain and looked to suspend attacks. But they were just waiting on their trump card – Communism is nothing if not dangerously seductive and a dozen local Hmong mountaineers volunteered to scale the northern cliff face to show their dedication to the cause. At 3 am on the morning of 11 March, the Hmong sappers attacked the compound from the rear. They killed several Air Force technicians in the barracks and surprised several more exiting the ops building fumbling with their weapons. The technicians weren’t ignorant of their precarious situation and knew they couldn’t rely on the ambassador and their own command for a timely evacuation. So they prepared ropes to rappel down the mountain to safety. The off-duty shift immediately did this, but the sappers killed them on the shelf below the cliff face. That any Americans survived the initial attack at all was due to Etchberg fighting from the commo building.
Upon hearing firing from the top of the mountain, the senior CIA commander, a former Green Beret Huey Marlow, took his Hmong radio man and trotted toward the site’s buildings. With his shotgun and some gratuitous close combat, he killed a sapper machine gun crew positioned to stop any counterattack from below, and scattered the remaining sappers. However, his missing presence from the fight at the base of the mountain was the final straw that broke the Hmong and Thai resistance from the unceasing Communist attacks.
After dawn Air America helicopters evacuated 8 of the 19 Americans on Lima Site 85, and as many Hmong and Thai soldiers as they could in four chaotic landing attempts. The last American brought off was the wounded TACAN technician Jack Starling, who had been playing dead underneath one of the buildings. At 9:46 am, nearly four hours after dawn and six after the sapper attack, an MH-53 Jolly Green Giant returned for him after a friend said he was probably still alive. Starling sprinted and jumped into the helicopter hovering off the cliff face while the door gunners returned fire against the multitude of Communists then at the site. Hollywood has nothing on reality.
Eight of the eleven remaining Americans were known to have been killed in the attack and three were initially thought captured. Later in the day, it was determined that they also were killed, and the Air Force bombed the hell out of the site to prevent the equipment from being analyzed by the Communists.
The surviving technicians of the Battle of Phou Pha Thi returned to Air Force service. Marlowe received an Intelligence Star for actions on the mountain during the night 10/11 March 1968. In 2003, a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command expedition to Laos found the remains of one technician and the equipment of four more, whose bodies were thrown off the mountain by the North Vietnamese. CMSgt Etchberger’s widow (he was killed in the evacuation from ground fire that penetrated his helicopter’s floorboards) received a Medal of Honor from President Obama at a small White House ceremony in 2012.
The Fall of Lima Site 85 was a grievous blow to Operation Rolling Thunder. Without the TACAN and the radar, the bombing had to be severely curtailed during the monsoon season. Politically, ending the operation became more useful than any military effect it had when the monsoon arrived. President Johnson suspended Operation Rolling Thunder in May, 1968, and cancelled it completely in November.
The first year of President Ronald Reagan’s first term was dominated by the economy and domestic politics. Even in 1982, he only gave one important foreign policy speech, at Westminster to the British House of Commons. For several years, the Soviet Union had moved more SS-20 intermediate range nuclear missiles into Eastern Europe. Reagan and NATO leaders wanted to counter this with a “dual-track” policy of arms control negotiation and deployment of US Pershing II missiles to Europe. However, the Soviets stonewalled the negotiations, and encouraged a “freeze” of nuclear weapons in Europe, which of course they could violate much more easily. Reagan’s domestic opposition, and European anti-nuclear parties supported the freeze as a step toward “de-nuclearizing” Europe.
In early 1983, the “freezniks” were making inroads into a core element of Reagan’s base: religious leaders. Several prominent religious organizations had already publically come out in support of the freeze, including the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Synagogue Council of America. On 8 March 1983, Reagan made a speech in Orlando, Florida at a convention of the National Association of Evangelicals to clarify the stakes of the Cold War in Europe.
The televised speech was 32 minutes long, but it was one large 72 word sentence, toward the end of the speech, that sent shockwaves throughout the world:
“So in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals I urge you to beware the temptation of pride – the temptation to blithely declare yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”
For the first time in the Cold War, an American leader had the courage to use the word “evil” in a public forum to describe the totalitarian nature of world Communism. Up to this point in Reagan’s presidency, speech censers excised the word, which was originally supposed to appear in the Westminster speech, or removed it at behest of Reagan’s domestic opposition as a “sign of respect” for the Soviet Union.
The New York Times derided the speech as “primitive and dangerous”, but the “Evil Empire Speech” galvanized dissidents in Communist countries. Millions of people around the world that suffered under Communism and state socialism felt that finally someone understood their travails. In Poland, the Solidarity Movement was reeling under the Communist marshal law, and Lech Walesa credited the speech as breathing new life into the movement. The speech broke the tradition of “détente” with the Soviet Union and cemented the Sino-Soviet split. The crusade to end Communism led by Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II had begun, and would hasten the end of the Soviet Union by decades.
No one in 1983 would have predicted, even in their wildest fever dreams, that the Soviet Union would fall just seven later.
The Tet Offensives of 1968 and 1969 destroyed the Viet Cong as a viable military entity, and forced Gen. Vo Nguyan Giap to move PAVN regular units into South Vietnam to take their place. 1969 was an unsuccessful rebuilding year for the Communists in South Vietnam, and they couldn’t prevent the US and South Vietnamese invasions of Laos and Cambodia in 1970 which caused serious damage to hitherto untouchable PAVN base camps in those countries. PAVN’s weakness and the disruption of the Ho Chi Minh Trail gave Gen Creighton Abrams, the new commander of the Military Assistance Command – Vietnam, 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 training of South Vietnamese troops and militias). From 1969 through 1972, the strategy was successful, and with President Richard Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization, the ARVN took over security of the country. Almost all American combat troops left Vietnam by the autumn of 1972.
Though Abrams’ strategy was successful, the South Vietnamese still needed American advisers, air support, supplies, and financial assistance to deal with the conventional PAVN attacks. The war in the south was being waged almost exclusively by North Vietnamese regular troops, not the indigenous Viet Cong. Contrary to what you learned in university, the PAVN were almost as alien to the South Vietnamese as the Americans. Giap decided to gamble on a conventional assault similar to the one that almost overran the south in 1964. However, Giap underestimated the destructiveness of the remaining American firepower, and the professionalism of ARVN, which by 1972 was relatively well trained and equipped. With American assistance, South Vietnam repelled North Vietnam’s spring offensive in 1972, the Easter Offensive, and inflicted debilitating casualties on forces that Giap had painstakingly concentrated throughout 1971.
With the North Vietnamese defeat during the Easter Offensive, the Paris Peace Talks took on a new fervor. By October, the US and North Vietnam had reached an agreement, but South Vietnam’s President Theiu would not sign, because he felt the US would abandon South Vietnam after the cease fire so he wanted better terms in case South Vietnam had to fight on itself. Theiu proposed many changes to the cease fire document, which convinced the North to renegotiate all the points in full to get their own better terms. Both sides infuriated Nixon. On 14 December 1972, the talks ceased completely when the North Vietnamese walked out and would not commit to a resumption of negotiations. Nixon sent North Vietnam an ultimatum to resume talks within 72 hours. Nixon needed a cease fire because the newly elected Democratic majority in the 93rd Congress would begin sessions just after New Year’s. They threatened to end all support to South Vietnam if there was no cease fire.
After the ultimatum deadline passed on 17 December, Nixon ordered Operation Linebacker II to bring the North back to the bargaining table and more importantly convince Theiu that America wouldn’t abandon his country after the cease fire. Unlike previous bombing campaigns, Linebacker II was a “maximum effort” and no targets not covered in Law of Land Warfare were off limits. Linebacker II would not consist of strictly tactical air support, but would unleash B-52’s over Hanoi and Haiphong. Furthermore, Nixon authorized the mining of Haiphong harbor which was the primary entrance point for support by North Vietnam’s primary sponsor, the Soviet Union. By 1972, the “Chinese” faction inside the North Vietnamese Communist Party had been thoroughly discredited by the defeats in 1968 and 1969. And the Sino-Soviet Split was permanent after Nixon’s policy of rapprochement culminating with his visit to China in February 1972. (China and Vietnam would eventually go to war in 1979.)
Starting the morning of 18 December, Operation Linebacker II pounded targets in North Vietnam. North Vietnamese infrastructure was smashed. But the repetitive and unimaginative nature of the strikes allowed the North Vietnamese to anticipate the third day’s strike and its Soviet-manned air defenses shot down several B-52s and other aircraft. Even worse a poorly placed B-52 strike destroyed a hospital outside Hanoi which galvanized the peace movement in America. Nevertheless, Nixon wasn’t backing down and ordered the US Air Force and Navy to continue strikes across North Vietnam. A-7 Corsair IIs from carriers in Gulf of Tonkin, F-4’s from bases in Thailand, and B-52s from Guam and the Philippines struck airfields, bridges, power plants, air defenses, storage areas, and military bases across the country. The operation was only supposed to last three days, but continued until 30 December. On 29 December, Hanoi asked to resume talks on the 2nd of January. That evening, Nixon ordered air operations against North Vietnam to cease the next day.
The next day, on New Year’s Eve 1972, Gen Giap wrote in his diary, “We have lost the war”.
On 27 January 1973, both North and South Vietnam accepted the original October 1972 draft of the Paris Peace Accords cease fire documents.
It didn’t matter. Though US ground troops were effectively out of the war, both Vietnam governments broke the accords almost immediately and both the US and the Soviet Union continue to supply their respective partners. Despite South Vietnam defeating Communist offensives in 1973 and 1974, the US Congress ceased all aid in 1975, and the well supplied PAVN forces overran the country that spring. Saigon fell on 29 April 1975.