On this week’s episode of Stay Tuned in Brief, “Is Iran Provoking War?” former CIA Director John Brennan talked with Preet about the strikes by U.S. and British forces against Yemen’s Houthi rebels – and about the legal, political, and humanitarian complications raised by the conflict. Back in 1979, the Carter administration pushed for American military involvement in another tense, internecine conflict in “the Yemens” – a decision that sparked a divisive national conversation about an expanded U.S. role in the Middle East that would be very much at home in 2024. 

There were two Yemens in 1979. The capitalist North Yemen was supported by Saudi Arabia, already a close U.S. ally. The Communist South Yemen, which gained its independence in 1967 and existed until 1990, had increasingly come under the sway of the Communist bloc – with as many as 1,000 Soviet military advisors and 800 Cuban advisors in the country by the late 1970s. 

The tensions between the neighboring nations became increasingly violent in 1978. In late June, North Yemen’s President, Ahmad al-Ghashmi, was assassinated by a mysterious suitcase bomb while meeting with an emissary sent by South Yemen’s President, the relatively moderate Salim Rubai Ali. Three days later, Ali was killed in a coup led by a far more hardline and confrontational Marxist, Abdul Fattah Ismail.

The assassinations, in turn, led to the outbreak, in late February 1979, of a border war between the two countries. 

The Carter administration, fearful of a Soviet-backed takeover of the North and a resultant weakening of Saudi Arabia’s position, sprang into action. On March 7th, after a meeting with his pro-intervention National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and his Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, President Carter ordered the 80,000-ton U.S.S. Constellation into the Persian Gulf.

Carter also signed a presidential determination that sent an accelerated arms package worth $390 million to North Yemen – via the Saudis – to defend against the South. The bundle included 12 F-5 fighter jets, 50 armored personnel carriers, and 64 M-4 tanks. 

Carter came up against the 1976 Arms Export Control Act (AECA), a law put in place in partial response to President Ford’s somewhat shadowy promises of weapons to Jordanian leader King Hussein in 1975. The law was designed to bring arms transfers under Congressional control by giving legislators 30 days to review all large sales. To get the arms to Yemen particularly quickly and without open debate, Carter invoked – in its first ever usage – a waiver provision in the AECA that allowed him to bypass any review if “vital United States interests” were at risk. 

Carter’s actions were a departure from his prior decisions regarding shows of force in the Middle East. He had not sent warships into the Gulf during the disastrous fall of the Iranian Shah several months earlier – a decision that a State Department source told The Washington Post on the day of the Constellation’s move was a “major factor in the Administration’s determination to make a stand in North Yemen.” 

Another unnamed congressional source told the Post, in the same article, that Carter was attempting to stop a pattern of Communist takeovers of African nations that was pushing into the Middle East: 

There is a feeling that Carter is drawing the line to stop the Russians and Cubans in North Yemen. He seems to think that the progression from Angola through Ethiopia has to be stopped here.

Not all Congresspeople were thrilled by Carter’s new, highly unilateral shows of geopolitical strength. 

On March 12th, 1979, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, chaired by Indiana Democrat Lee Hamilton, converged to debate the arms transfers to North Yemen. The full transcript of the hearing is available on Google Books. 

Career foreign service officer William Crawford, a Deputy Secretary of State who had served as Ambassador to North Yemen from 1972 until 1974, was the principal witness representing the administration. Crawford argued that the U.S. military actions were designed as relatively low-risk attempts to defuse the volatile situation between the Yemens: 

Our military responses to the situation are designed to reinforce the prospect for cessation of hostilities, withdrawal from occupied territories and an end to violence in this long-troubled and strategic part of the Arabian Peninsula. 

Another witness, Alan A. Platt, Chief of the Arms Transfer Division of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, echoed Crawford’s positioning of the arms as a relatively low-key endeavor: 

What is called for is a careful, measured response, tailored to the evolution of events. Our current policy is that sort of response.  

Immediately after the two officials gave their version of events, however, Hamilton – a young, consistent arms control watchdog since his 1972 House election – offered a decidedly blunt question about Carter’s eagerness to get involved: 

Is the United States prepared to go to war to protect Saudi oil? 

Crawford attempted to avoid a direct answer, but reiterated Carter’s rationale for invoking the waiver of congressional review – America’s vital interests, in part the Saudi oil, were indeed at stake: 

I think the best answer I have to that is that we regard the integrity – maintenance of the integrity – of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as vital to American interests in the Middle East, and that we should be prepared to act in implementation of that consideration, obviously in full consultation with Congress in the circumstances. 

Crawford also offered a brief gloss of America’s informal agreement to protect Saudi Arabia and its ample resources: 

We have no formal treaty commitment to the King of Saudi Arabia, but a succession of American Presidents – every American President since Harry Truman – has in word and deed made clear that that is of vital concern to the United States, and that the integrity of the Kingdom was of importance to, and would be protected by, the United States. 

Hamilton, unwilling to let the point slide, asked for further clarification on whether the U.S. was, indeed, ready to fight for Saudi Arabia: 

I want you to know, Ambassador Crawford, that I consider that response an affirmative response to my question. Would you so interpret it? 

Crawford capitulated: 

I believe so, yes.

Hamilton, having gotten his admission, continued the line of questioning: 

The U.S. policy is such that we are prepared to go to war to protect the Saudi oil fields; is that your impression? 

Crawford, likely aware of the particular sensitivity surrounding the waiver, backpedaled somewhat: 

Obviously, we would not – to use your words – “go to war” without full consultation with Congress.

Hamilton was not the only Subcommittee member to grill Crawford. Massachusetts Democrat Gerry Studds, another congressman with particular suspicions toward arms deals, asked the former Ambassador a volley of rapid-fire questions about the stability of the North Yemen government and the quality of the intelligence coming out of the warzone. He eventually compared the North Yemen situation to the wealth of advanced weapons and radar systems America had transferred, ultimately unwisely, to pre-Revolutionary Iran: 

It seems to me that all of this has such a frighteningly familiar ring. We had the hearings before this committee at great length about whether or not it was wise for the administration to sell the AWACS aircraft to Iran. Here was a government where we were assured there was no question whatsoever about its stability, and where certainly no one raised any questions at the time about the caliber of U.S. intelligence. Look what happened there.

Where many of the Democrats on the Subcommittee heaped invective upon Carter – their Party’s standard-bearer – and his State Department, the Subcommittee Republicans largely stood behind Carter’s move against Communist influence in Yemen. 

Illinois Republican Paul Findley led the support. Findley was not a totally predictable choice to be in favor of Carter’s foreign policy independence. He was generally suspicious of American entanglements in far-away wars; he turned against Vietnam very early, helped to write the War Powers Act in 1973, and routinely spoke out against unequivocal American support for Israel. 

But Findley had developed a personal relationship with slain South Yemen President Ali and had been working to restore relations between South Yemen and the United States before the hardline Marxist coup and the subsequent war. He was, resultantly, smarting at the Soviets in a big way and wanted to shift South Yemen back toward a more democratic posture: 

What really counts in this region is the perception – the perception on the part of the Soviet Union, on the part of Saudi Arabia, on the part of all of our allies and other countries throughout the world – the perception that the United States has vital interests in this region and is willing to take decisive action with dispatch to represent those interests. My only criticism is that the administration has been so late coming to this sort of approach. 

New Jersey Republican Millicent Fenwick joined Findley, although she acknowledged the increasingly reverse-partisan optics of the Subcommittee’s opinions on Carter’s intervention: 

I do not want to turn this into a partisan issue because, as you see, we are greatly outnumbered as Republicans and I do not know that we would be of much help to you. But, I do heartily concur with what my colleague, Mr. Findley, said. I cannot understand how anybody could think that we should do anything different. It seems to me that the time has come for precisely this kind of emergency action.

The opinions did not all fall neatly along Party lines. Ohio Democrat Don Pease joined the Republicans, even beginning his remarks by saying he wanted to “show some bipartisanship on the committee.” Pease argued that he didn’t love the whole concept of a proxy war in the Yemens, but that the Americans could not look like they were backing down with a fight against the Soviets by refusing to get involved: 

I think the Arab world, and certainly the people in the United States are, to use a phrase, fed up with being pushed around by the Soviet Union and not making an adequate response. I think, as distasteful as we might find it to have the little area of South and North Yemen turn into an international battlefield with strings being pulled on the East side and from the West, if that is the way the Soviets want to play it, then that is the way we have to do it. I for one, see no reason at all why the administration would have to shrink from that.

Despite the moves toward supporting Carter, Studds reemerged near the end of the hearing to ask Crawford whether sending arms to North Yemen could inflate the significance of the conflict and turn South Yemen into a symbol of rebellion against Western interests for the rest of the Arab world: 

Do we run the risk, if we start pouring in some half-billion dollars of military weaponry, to converting the little, tiny, less than 1 million people country, South Yemen, into some sort of heroic fighter against the United States, and thereby unifying the Arab League on the other side? 

Crawford argued that the Arab nations would be just as incredulous toward the Soviets, and would thus not turn against the United States or romanticize South Yemen: 

I seriously do not think so because, as I mentioned, the other Arab countries have a very good appreciation of the extent of the Russian and Cuban presence in the South, which is a matter of real concern to them.

Studds’s concerns did not come to pass in the immediate; South Yemen was indeed weakened by the North’s bombardment, and over the course of the 1980s collapsed in internal conflict. 

But as the successive streams of outsized violence in Yemen – the Yemeni Civil War and its Saudi Arabian and Iranian proxy elements, not to mention the current strikes against the Houthis – have demonstrated, Yemen has indeed taken on an unpredictable and often-tragic role in the Middle East. 

Two very good recent articles have also explored the 1979 Yemen crisis: Benjamin V. Allison’s  2021 Wilson Center piece, “Jimmy Carter and the Second Yemenite War: A Smaller Shock of 1979?” and Bruce Reidel’s March 2023 Brookings Institution piece “Jimmy Carter’s Forgotten Crisis in Yemen.”

And head to my Twitter account for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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