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A lesson from history

In January, 1968, when Lyndon Johnson was still President, the British government reached a decision which has a lot to do with today's problem of getting oil for the factories and highways of the West out of the Arabian Gulf through the Straits of Hormuz.

The British decided that they could no longer afford the expense of maintaining a military presence in the Gulf. There already had been a decision to close down that presence by 1975. But such was the budget situation in London at the beginning of 1968 that the government headed by Harold Wilson decided to speed up the withdrawal date to 1971.

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That is all part of the public record. What is not yet on the official record is that the decision to pull out of the Gulf had been reached in substance months earlier and had been communicated to the US Embassy in London. Washington was being given an opportunity, with plenty of time to think it over, to take up the burden of policing the Gulf which the British felt they could no longer afford to carry.

This was a repetition of what had happened shortly after the end of World War II when the British found that they could not sustain the cost of helping Greece and Turkey fight off communist pressures. They let Washington know well in advance that they would have to pull out. They asked Washington whether it wanted to take over the task.

In that earlier case Washington had agreed. The Truman Doctrine was the public expression of the decision. As the British pulled out of their roles in Turkey and Greece the Americans took over. Both countries won out over communist pressures and became members of the NATO community.

But in late 1967 and early 1968 the story went the other way. The US Embassy in London believed that the British offer to let the US take over in the Gulf was an opportunity which should have been seized. David Bruce was then the ambassador. He held detailed talks with the British about the possibility of the British staying on if the US would underwrite some of the cost. There was even at that time a figure of $12 milion a year as the possible cost to the US of a continuing British military presence.

Washington could have had protection for the oil route either way, by subsidizing the British presence or by taking over with a small US presence. The cost would probably have been about the same either way. The British force was a small one -- two infantry battalions supported by five air squadrons and a few light patrol boats. Ambassador Bruce considered the opportunity to be a bargain. He recommended it strongly to Washington.

But Washington was heading down a different road. Instead of subsidizing a continued British presence or arranging for a US presence to replace it President Johnsonbegan talks with the Iranians who had large ideas about their own future military role in the Gulf.

Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi played a shrewd hand in the game. In April, 1968, he received Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin in Tehran and concluded a deal with him for selling most of Iran's natural gas production to the Soviet Union. In return he was to get a steel mill, a pipeline, various lesser industrial items -- and $110 million worth of Soviet weapons. Then, in June, the Shah went to Washington and asked President Johnson for permission to buy $600 million worth of US weapons over the next five years. He wanted easy terms, but particularly the long-term commitment. He went from the White House in Washington to the McDonnell-Douglas aircraft plant in St. Louis to check on an order he already had with them for 36 F-4 Phantom supersonic fighter-interceptors.

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The Shah was skillful at playing Washington against Moscow, and vice versa, President Johnson thus made the initial arrangemnts with Shah which blossomed during the Nixon and Ford administrations and blew up in disaster for President Carter in 1979.

Had Ambassador Bruce's advice been ac! cepted in late 1967, it is probable that a British or American or joint US-UK force would be patrolling the Straits of Hormuz today. It is relatively easy and natural to continue an arrangement like the British military presence in the Gulf. It is much more difficult to replace it once it has been removed. Ambassador Bruce had a real bargain in hand. But he was outmaneuvered by the Shah.

President Carter is now trying to rebuild a US military presence in the Gulf. The cost is running well over that $12 million per year which might have kept the British there. They are not eager to come back now.

Hindsight is so much clearer than foresight.

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