Stupid Question ™
Aug. 16, 2004
By John Ruch
Q: A common Cold War-era plot device in spy thrillers was to have the U.S. or NATO forces team up with their Soviet counterparts to battle a common menace. Did anything like that happen in real life?
—Kim Philby, Chicago, Illinois
A: I’ll never say never, since there could be some mission hidden in still-secret files. But with all due respect to GI Joe’s comic-book partnership with the Oktober Guard and Arnold Schwarzenegger buddying up with Jim Belushi in “Red Heat,” it almost certainly never happened. However, both countries did offer (or demand) such a super-team-up—on only two occasions, and unsuccessfully both times.
It’s funny to look back on some of our most militaristic Cold War entertainment and realize it had a heavy dose of peace ’n’ love wish fulfillment to it. But that’s what was going on in most cases (and in the rest, a dire warning about our real mutual enemy—nuclear war). Now the Soviet Union is gone, we do partner more with the Russians, and there really are independent, international terrorist conspiracies we can both fight. Er, hooray?
Even when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were World War II allies, the two countries conducted very few joint military operations. A major one, the airbase-sharing plan Operation Frantic, didn’t get very far.
In the first decades of the Cold War, the two countries weren’t inclined to share much of anything. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963 sobered both countries about the seriousness of their nuclear posturing. After that, they buddied up with lots of joint programs to reduce the tension—or at least keep the lines of communication open so that neither side would destroy the world over a misunderstanding.
Nuclear disarmament was first and foremost. But as time went on, there were U.S.-Soviet joint efforts in nearly every field, from agriculture to the space program to postage stamps.
Starting in 1988, there was even a U.S.-Soviet military exchange program (a U.S. Air Force general was in the U.S.S.R. when it collapsed in 1991). But this wasn’t a team-up to battle international villains. It was a softball goodwill program of ships visiting the enemy’s ports, planes landing at the enemy’s airbases, and officers visiting their counterparts’ headquarters.
In fact, the Americans and the Soviets got together from time to time to do just about everything except fight side-by-side.
There were a couple of really good reasons for that. For one thing, the two countries really did still hate each other. Putting U.S. and Soviet troops together in any number in combat could instantly create a sticky situation. Who would have the most troops? Who would leave first? Who would stay the longest?
Keep in mind there was absolutely nowhere on the planet that was not of strategic interest to the two superpowers. Anywhere they teamed up, it would have major implications, probably lead to disagreements and posturing, and could easily blow up into World War III.
The threat of nuclear war was so strong that the two countries could never fight each other directly. They either did it through proxies, as in Korea and Vietnam, or through chess-style pawns, as in Central America and the Middle East. They were already opposing each other in so many places, it’s hard to think of where they could have collaborated. And it was impossible for them to have minor collaborations—everything either side did was magnified by the nuclear threat.
This also meant that the raving dictators, terrorist masterminds and drug barons who we might think of today as excellent targets for U.S.-Soviet combined assault were in fact already being used by one side or the other. And whenever a new one popped up, both countries would most likely try to co-opt him, not suggest a joint effort at eradicating him. So, for example, the U.S. embraced hijackers of Soviet airliners, and both countries helped set up dictators for a variety of countries.
The countries even avoided the main, fundamentally neutral way they might have joined military forces—United Nations peacekeeping missions. In some cases this was because one country or another had some regional interest already there; but in general it was because the presence of either country’s troops would have been a provocation more than a peacekeeper.
A case study is the first time they were asked to work together—the chaos following the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War in 1973. This was an invasion of U.S.-backed Israel by Soviet-backed Egypt and Syria. It led to threats of World War III.
The Israelis successfully fought back thanks to massive U.S. military aid, and pressed their advantage to the point of nearly destroying the main Egyptian army, despite two United Nations resolutions telling them to stop.
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat asked the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to form a peacekeeping force to enforce the ceasefire—essentially, asking Mommy and Daddy to step in and stop the fight.
The U.S. refused. For one thing, it didn’t want to make the Soviets look like equals or somebody developing countries could turn to for help. More importantly, it knew that such intervention was as likely to start a U.S.-Soviet war than to end an Arab-Israeli one. It would be a huge standoff, not a bilateral force.
But the U.S.S.R. not only said “yes” to Sadat, it demanded the U.S. join in or it would intervene unilaterally. In other words, it would occupy the entire region. The U.S. responded to this threat with its own nuclear saber-rattling until Sadat gave up and got a United Nations peacekeeping force instead.
In 1991, it was the U.S.’s turn to ask for a team-up. Asking for Soviet support for an invasion of Iraq and occupied Kuwait, the U.S. even invited the Soviets to contribute troops to the coalition. This apparently appealed to then-President George H.W. Bush’s highly flawed comparison of Saddam Hussein with Adolf Hitler and the coming Gulf War with World War II—this would be the Americans and Soviets fighting together again; even more closely, in fact, than they did back then.
The Soviets declined, because they probably couldn’t spare the troops; they weren’t going to play second fiddle to the U.S.; and they were still seeking a peaceful solution right up to the moment of the coalition invasion. Of course, these were all the reasons the U.S. felt comfortable asking for the team-up in the first place. It was very late in the Cold War, and the U.S. knew it was winning, so some of the old taboos were gone.
Indeed, the U.S. and the Soviets both ended up serving on the United Nations observer team in post-war Iraq and Kuwait in 1991. It was still an unarmed, non-military team at the time of the Soviet Union’s disintegration in December of that year.