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Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea — The CIA Mission to Raise a Soviet Sub

In March 1968, a K-129 Soviet nuclear submarine cruising in the Pacific Ocean mysteriously disappeared from Russian radar. Following an unsuccessful search by the USSR, the United States, using sonic triangulation, secretly located the sunken submarine 1500 miles northwest of Hawaii. An operation was proposed to deploy a ship to recover the wreck of the K-129, its nuclear warhead and cryptographic material.

The Forty Committee, consisting of representatives from the White House, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) and U.S. intelligence agencies, met to consider the feasibility of recovering the submarine. The Forty Committee had been created in 1970 to provide greater oversight over U.S. covert missions. The State Department was represented by Ronald Spiers and Edward L. Peck, respectively the Director and Deputy Director of INR. The Forty Committee tasked the CIA with developing a salvage operation for the sunken submarine. This was easier said than done. Read more

China’s Fight for Tiny Islands — The Taiwan Straits Crises, 1954-58

Recent disagreements over Beijing’s claim to the South China Seas (in which a tribunal constituted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea issued a non-binding decision in July 2016 in favor of the Philippines) in many ways is reminiscent of the potentially far more serious clashes over the Taiwan Straits, the first of which occurred shortly after the Korean War broke out.

Following the Chinese Civil War, tensions remained high between the Republic of China (ROC) and the Chinese Communist Party. In 1950 with the Communists victorious, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was created and established in mainland China. The ROC was forced to relocate to Taiwan and the outlying islands of Penghu, Quemoy, and Matsu. However, no armistice or peace treaty has ever been signed, thus the civil war never formally ended. People have used this for justification of the PRC’s attack and capture of islands under the ROC’s jurisdiction.

In early 1950, President Harry Truman stated that the United States would remain neutral in matters regarding the Taiwan Strait. However, the outbreak of the Korea War in mid-1950 complicated matters. Maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait became a high priority to the United States, as PRC occupation of Taiwan would pose a threat to the security of the region and U.S. forces fighting in Korea. Read more

Bad Blood: The Sino-Soviet Split and the U.S. Normalization with China

In the 1960s, in the depths of the Cold War, the world was viewed in terms of a zero-sum game: wherever the USSR won, the U.S. by definition lost. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), despite its massive size, was considered to be the Soviets’ little brother and thus not a real player. The State Department and others were hesitant to improve relations with China as they believed it was more important to focus on the Soviet Union which, after all, was a nuclear superpower. Cracks in the USSR-China relationship then began appearing, which led President Richard Nixon to pursue improving ties with Beijing, a move which drastically altered the dynamics of the trilateral power game. Read more

Far from the Madding Crowd — Leeds Castle and the Road to Camp David

“Where you stand depends on where you sit” – an oft-heard epigram used to describe negotiations. And it’s true – something as simple as a seating arrangement, with one side facing the other across a long table can only serve to encourage rigidity and a sense that the negotiations are a zero-sum game. Because of this, mediators will often get the conflicting parties in a neutral site to break the ice. That was precisely the idea behind the two-day conference of U.S., Israeli and Egyptian Foreign Ministers on July 18-19, 1978 at Leeds Castle in Kent, England.

Relations between Israel and Egypt remained tense after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Negotiations had gone on for five years and progress was frustratingly slow. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat helped break the logjam with his historic visit to Jerusalem in October 1977, while Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin countered with a 26-point plan, which would set up an interim local Palestinian government on the West Bank for five years, while Israeli troops would continue to handle defense and security matters.  Read more

Operation Storm — The Battle for Croatia, 1995

After the fall of Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s, the Balkans descended into a bloody ethnic and sectarian conflict. Although there were roughly six discrete Yugoslav conflicts, the first major war was the Croatian War for Independence. Starting in 1991, when Croatia declared its independence as a nation-state, the war was fought between forces loyal to the Croats and the Serb-controlled JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army). The JNA initially tried to keep Croatia within Yugoslavia by occupying all of Croatia. After this failed, Serb forces established the self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK) within Croatia. After the ceasefire of January 1992 and international recognition of the Republic of Croatia as a sovereign state, the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) was established and combat became largely intermittent in the following three years. Read more

East Germany Builds the Berlin Wall

The summer of 1961 was fraught with tensions between Moscow and Washington. Berlin, which had been a Cold War flash point during the Berlin Airlift, was once again the source of tension. Between 1949 and 1961, some 2.5 million East Germans fled from East to West Germany, most via West Berlin. President John Kennedy in a speech delivered on nationwide television the night of July 25, 1961 reiterated that the United States was not looking for a fight over Berlin and that he recognized the “Soviet Union’s historical concerns about their security in central and eastern Europe.” That was viewed by Moscow as an indication the U.S. would not respond militarily to any move it took regarding East Germany.

And so, on the night of August 12-13, 1961, East German soldiers began to install more than 30 miles of barbed wire barrier through the heart of Berlin and blocked East Berlin citizens who tried to travel to West Berlin.  Read more

The Neutron Bomb — A Negotiating Dud

The neutron bomb, a low-yield thermonuclear weapon which would be especially lethal to enemy ground troops but would not seriously damage buildings, became the focus of international controversy when the U.S. and a few others had proposed deploying the weapon in Western Europe to counter the Soviet threat.

Many NATO countries were unwilling to accept the bombs on their territory, as they did not want to become Cold War hot spots. The United States, however, wanted a forward deployed weapon that could deter Soviet aggression, allow for great flexibility after it was used, and which presented a more credible threat to Soviet tanks. Read more

The Bombing of U.S. Embassy Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

On August 7, 1998, between 10:30 and 10:40 a.m. local time, the U.S. embassies in Nairobi , Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania were attacked in coordinated truck bombings. Approximately 212 people were killed and an estimated 4,000 wounded in Nairobi,, while the attack killed 11 individuals and wounded 85 in Dar es Salaam. The bombings were timed to mark the eighth anniversary of the deployment of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia and were later traced to Saudi exile and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

President Bill Clinton ordered retaliatory military strikes on August 20. In Afghanistan, some 70 American cruise missiles hit three of Osama bin Laden’s training camps. An estimated 24 people were killed, but bin Laden was not present. Thirteen cruise missiles hit a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan where bin Laden allegedly made or distributed chemical weapons. Read more

The Panama Riots of 1964: The Beginning of the End for the Canal

When President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty with Panama in 1903, the United States gained sovereignty over the portion of the newly formed country of Panama which would become the Panama Canal, a modern-day marvel that revolutionized international shipping and solidified America as a global power. While the benefits to the U.S. were enormous, the politics surrounding the Canal and the treatment of Panamanians themselves engendered profound social repercussions that persisted for more than half a century.

On January 9,1964, grievances between native Panamanians and “Zonians”, or Americans residing within the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone, boiled over into a series of anti-American riots which resulted in an evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Panama City, widespread looting, and dozens of deaths. Most importantly, this uprising, honored annually in Panama as Martyr’s Day, eventually led to a renegotiation of the original 1903 treaty and is commonly remembered as the beginning of the end of American hegemony over the Panama Canal Zone. Read more

“The World Was Tired of Haiti”: The 1994 U.S. Intervention

The United States found itself embroiled in several interventions in the 1990s that focused on upholding basic human rights standards and encouraging democratic regimes to flourish, from Somalia to the Balkans to America’s own backyard in the Caribbean. Despite Haiti being the second nation in the Western Hemisphere to proclaim independence, it has suffered from the beginning to establish an orderly and legitimate system of governance.

In 1991, anarchy ensued once again when the Haitian military, led by Commander-in-chief Raoul Cedras, overthrew Jean-Baptiste Aristide, a controversial yet nevertheless democratically elected President of the nation. The coup represented a decisive step backward from the overall positive trend towards democratization in the region and led many in the U.S. to call for an intervention to restore human rights and democracy.

In October 1993, the Clinton administration dispatched the USS Harlan County to prepare for the return of Aristide, but it was met at the pier in Port-au-Prince by a mob of Haitians, appearing to threaten violence. Read more