Not About Oil? Better Think Again
United States considered invading middle east during 1973 oil embargo.
UK feared Americans would invade Gulf during 1973 oil crisis
Heath feared US planned to invade Gulf
Thursday January 1, 2004
Ted Heath's government feared - at the height of the 1973 oil crisis - that the White House was planning to invade Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to secure fuel supplies, according to Downing Street files released today.
Suspicions about Richard Nixon's administration as it struggled to shake free from the Watergate scandal, the documents show, were reinforced when the prime minister was only belatedly informed of a worldwide nuclear alert declared by the US.
The files, handed over to the National Archive in Kew under the 30-year rule, expose a disturbing and acrimonious episode in "the special relationship" between London and Washington.
In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war, America blamed Britain for failing to open its military bases. The defeated Arab nations then imposed an oil embargo on the west.
The US defence secretary, James Schlesinger, told Britain's ambassador in Washington, Lord Cromer, "it was no longer obvious to him that the US could not use force".
Schlesinger had already clashed with Lord Carrington, the British defence secretary. The ambassador's interview was no more amicable. "Couthness is not Schlesinger's strong point," he said in a cable to London. "One or two of his remarks bordered on the offensive."
But it was the substance of Schlesinger's remarks which set alarm bells ringing. "[One] outcome of the Middle East crisis," he told Lord Cromer, "was the [sight] of industrialised nations being continuously submitted to [the] whims of under-populated, under-developed countries, particularly [those in the] Middle East.
"Schlesinger did not draw any specific conclusion from this but the unspoken assumption came through ... that it might not ... be possible to rule out a more direct application of military force".
A week later, in mid-November, Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state, warned that if the Arab oil embargo continued unreasonably and in definitely, America would have to decide what counter-measures were necessary.
In the grip of an international security crisis, Heath commissioned a report - titled Middle East: Possible Use of Force by the United States - from Percy Cradock of the joint intelligence committee.
The 22-page survey, delivered to the prime minister in December, warned that the most likely US military action was the seizure of oil-producing areas. Such a move might be triggered by a resumption of the Arab/Israeli war and protracted oil sanctions.
"The United States might consider it could not tolerate a situation in which the US and its allies were at the mercy of a small group of unreasonable countries. We believe the American preference would be for a rapid operation conducted by themselves to seize oilfields ... The force required for the initial operation would be of the order of two brigades, one for Saudi operation, one for Kuwait and possibly a third for Abu Dhabi.
"The build-up would require the presence of a substantial US naval force in the Indian Ocean, considerably more than the present force. After the initial assaults ... two [extra] divisions could be flown in from the USA."
British bases such as that at Diego Garcia would probably have to be used, Cradock observed. The Russians might well fly troops into the region to defend the Arabs. US/Soviet confrontations were unlikely but could not be ruled out.
"The greatest risk of such confrontations in the Gulf would probably arise in Kuwait where the Iraqis, with Soviet backing, might be tempted to intervene." Nato allies, including Britain, would be pressed to provide political and military support.
During the Yom Kippur war, in October 1973, Schlesinger had told Carrington that: "The Americans had paid £14m for facilities in Diego Garcia and might be expected to be allowed to use them."
But it was the full-scale nuclear alert - declared on October 25 that year, supposedly in response to Soviet fleet movements in the eastern Mediterranean - which most infuriated Ted Heath.
The prime minister, the documents reveal, only learnt about it from news agency reports while in the Commons.
"Personally," he told his private secretary Lord Bridges, "I fail to see how any initiative, threatened or real, by the Soviet leadership required such a worldwide nuclear alert.
"We have to face the fact that the American action has done immense harm, both to this country and worldwide."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003
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