By David Kurlander

The Biden administration last week announced the end of U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemeni Civil War—a brutal proxy conflict between the Saudi-backed government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels. The U.S. first became involved with Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen back in 1962, during another proxy war between the Saudis and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s expansionist Egypt. The Kennedy administration’s uneasy collaboration with the Saudis showcased many of the same moral and strategic fault lines that dominate the U.S. relationship with the oil-rich kingdom today.

On September 27th, 1962, a military coup ousted the Imamate of Yemen, which had become increasingly plagued by corruption. The Imam, the freshly ascendant Muhammad al-Badr, fled to the hills and began rallying Royalist supporters, while the revolutionary government, the Yemen Arab Republic, summarily executed most of his court. A civil war had begun.

Nasser, reeling from setbacks in his attempts to create a Pan-Arabian state called the United Arab Republic, may or may not have orchestrated the coup. In any case, Egypt enthusiastically embraced the new Republic and began sending weapons and troops. The Saudis—led by Prince Faisal, in the midst of wresting power from his ailing brother, King Saud—were threatened by the maneuvering and moved to arm the Royalists. National Security Council staffer Bob Komer, who effectively ran White House Middle East policy, wrote to Kennedy on October 4th: “The Yemen revolt has brought to boil all Saudi fears of Nasserism…The House of Saud well knows it might be next.”

Other global players began to take sides. The Soviets, sensing an entrée to Nasser, immediately recognized the new Republic and promised Egypt materiel help. The United Kingdom and Israel, both fearful of Nasser and still stinging from his nationalization of the Suez Canal five years earlier, joined the Royalist side, with the U.K. even sending covert mercenaries.

President Kennedy was in a tough spot over whether to recognize the Republic. He’d had some success with Nasser and was hoping to meet with him. Recognition could help. And he really didn’t need a quasi-war with the Soviets. The United Kingdom would likely understand (“I don’t even know where it is,” Kennedy shrugged to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan shortly after the coup in a mollifying gesture). But Kennedy worried that the Saudis would be totally alienated by the move. 

Luckily, Kennedy already had a meeting with Faisal on the books. Only ten days after the coup, on October 5th, the Saudi Prince paid President Kennedy a visit at the White House. Kennedy stayed mum on whether he would support the Royalists or the Republic, but pressured Faisal to push through a number of domestic reforms, including outlawing slavery—Saudi Arabia was one of the only countries in the world where the practice was still formally legal. Faisal agreed. 

As Egypt sent more troops to help the Republican forces and Saudi Arabia stepped up their arms drops to the Royalists, an even more pressing military imbroglio emerged. 

Beginning on October 16th, 1962, President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were locked in a near-apocalyptic standoff over U.S.S.R. nuclear missiles in Cuba. The Yemen conflict hovered on the periphery; a shipment of SA-2 missiles that the Soviets had promised Nasser ended up in Cuba, where one shot down Air Force reconnaissance pilot Rudolf Anderson—the only American casualty of the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Upon resolution of the Crisis, Kennedy decided he had to act. The U.S. would recognize the Republic to save face with Nasser and avoid further tensions with the Soviets. Kennedy also wrote to all relevant parties pleading, naively, for total withdrawal and Yemeni self-determination. Almost as soon as Kennedy made his decision, however, Egypt upped the ante, sending fighter jets to bomb an arms depot on the Saudi side of the border.

Faisaly was already furious about Kennedy’s choice to recognize the Republic, as was the American oil establishment. Kermit Roosevelt, Teddy’s grandson and a major player in the 1953 installation of the Shah in Iran, worked by this point for Gulf Oil and complained to Komer about “State’s failure to keep the oil companies clued in.” The press wasn’t too kind, either. “Did Nasser Lure the U.S. Out on a Limb?” New Republic correspondent Patrick Seale subtitled his haunting January 1963 dispatch from Yemen.   

The NSC team tasked with calming the Saudis was headed up by Komer and McGeorge Bundy. The men would continue to work closely for several years and would become two of the “Best and the Brightest” who were most associated with escalating the Vietnam War. Komer gave an oral history shortly after Kennedy’s assassination that showcased the jarring level of detachment with which the men viewed their mission: “Yemen itself didn’t count for very much. If this place were on the moon or in the center of Africa and the Russians and the Egyptians or other people were not involved, we couldn’t care less what went on in Yemen… As long as it didn’t impinge on our interests, no problem.”

But clearly, interests were impinged upon. And on February 27th, 1963, Komer and Bundy finalized their plan. Bundy wrote to Kennedy suggesting that he send a “special emissary” to Faisal to offer a “temporary station of a token air defense squadron.” 

The administration sent a much-vaunted negotiator and former Ambassador to India, Ellsworth Bunker, to offer the squadron to Faisal. Bunker was fresh off a miraculous turn defusing a potential war between the Netherlands and Indonesia. Bunker, too, would see his luster dimmed by the Vietnam War, serving as Ambassador to South Vietnam during the six worst years of the conflict. But in early 1963, he had good news to report—Faisal was enthusiastic about the planes. 

The proposed “squadron” was only eight F100D jet fighters, but with 500 military personnel attached. In theory, they would defend the Saudis if Egyptian jet fighters returned, although their combat capabilities were exceedingly limited. “Kennedy really kept a hawk eye on this little squadron exercise,” Komer recalled. The mission was dubbed “Operation Hard Surface”—the first and only time that Kennedy dispatched American troops to the Middle East. 

After initial optimism, Bunker’s negotiations with Faisal fell apart. He didn’t believe that Nasser would pull out his troops. Nasser didn’t believe Faisal would stop assisting the Royalists. The planes were recalled, without seeing any action, in January 1964. And the war continued until 1970, killing up to 200,000 Yemenis, with the Saudis and Egypt (and the British mercenaries) continuing to stoke the flames for most of the conflict.

Kennedy ultimately didn’t get bogged down in Yemen. But all of the elements that have defined the global response to the current Yemen tragedy—oil pressure, bellicose competition between superpowers, and a growing sense of cynicism and numbness to loss of life—were already in place almost sixty years ago. Perhaps the Biden administration can do something to finally change these patterns. 

For more on the origins of the U.S.-Saudi military partnership, read then-Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Parker T. Hart’s memoir, Saudi Arabia and the United States. For a look at Kennedy’s broader Middle East strategy, check out Warren Bass’ Support Any Friend: Kennedy’s Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance. And for a sweeping take on the Yemen crisis, pick up Ginny Hill’s more recent Yemen Endures: Civil War, Saudi Adventurism, and the Future of Arabia.

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