LONDON - The U.S. government seriously contemplated using military force to seize oil fields in the Middle East during the Arab oil embargo of 30 years ago, according to a declassified British government document made public yesterday.
The top-secret document reveals that the U.S. government, under President Richard M. Nixon, was prepared to act more aggressively than previously thought if tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors continued to escalate after the October 1973 Middle East war or if the oil embargo did not abate. In fact, the embargo did dwindle, by March 1974.
If this "dark scenario" played out, the British memorandum continued, the United States would consider launching airborne troops to seize oil fields in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi. The use of military force would be a measure of "last resort," the document said.
At the time, Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger delivered the warning to the British ambassador in Washington, Lord Cromer, the documents show. Lord Cromer quoted Schlesinger as saying that "it was no longer obvious to him that the United States could not use force."
The seizure of the oil fields was "the possibility uppermost in American thinking when they refer to the use of force," the intelligence memo said. This "has been reflected, we believe, in their contingency planning."
The potential for conflict was taken so seriously by British intelligence that it wrote a report assessing the situation and listing the likeliest scenarios for the use of force and their consequences. The report, dated Dec. 12, 1973, was titled "U.K. Eyes Alpha" and was sent to Prime Minister Edward Heath, a Conservative, by Percy Cradock, head of Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee.
The memorandum was one of hundreds of documents released by Britain's National Archives under a law that makes government papers public after 30 years.
The exchange between Schlesinger and Lord Cromer came after the three-week war between Israel and Egypt and Syria in October 1973. Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries imposed the embargo to try to pressure the United States and other Western nations to force Israel to withdraw from Arab land.
The oil embargo lasted almost six months. It led to sharp increases in the price of fuel and long lines at gasoline stations, and it prompted Washington to question its reliance on Arab oil in a region long known for its instability and insularity.
As recounted by Lord Cromer, Schlesinger said the United States was unwilling to abide threats by "underdeveloped, underpopulated" countries.
The documents did not rule out the possibility that Washington would consider pre-emptive strikes if Arab governments, "elated by the success of the oil weapon," began issuing greater demands. "The U.S. government might consider that it could not tolerate a situation in which the U.S. and its allies were in effect at the mercy of a small group of unreasonable countries."
As outlined, military action would be relatively straightforward; two brigades were seen as needed to seize the Saudi oil fields and one each for Kuwait and Abu Dhabi. In the case of Abu Dhabi, the Americans would perhaps ask for British military cooperation.
The greatest threat would arise in Kuwait, "where the Iraqis, with Soviet backing, might be tempted to intervene," the document stated.
The British warned in their assessment that any occupation of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi might have to last 10 years. The use of force would also anger and alienate Arab countries and the Soviet Union, although a military confrontation with that country would be unlikely, the document said.
Discontent among Western allies was also noted as a possible consequence of military intervention. "Since the United States would probably claim to be acting for the benefit of the West as a whole and would expect the full support of allies, deep U.S.-European rifts could ensue," it said.
The oil embargo fizzled in March 1974, and Israel and Egypt later went on to sign a peace agreement.
A separate document, also just released, illustrated Heath's anger toward Nixon when the president failed to inform him that he was putting U.S. forces on a global nuclear alert during the war in the Middle East. Heath suggested that Nixon was attempting to deflect attention from Watergate.
"An American president in the Watergate position apparently prepared to go to such lengths at a moment's notice without consultation with his allies," Heath wrote, adding that there was no "military justification" for it at the time.
The alert was ordered after Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev warned that he might send Soviet forces into the Middle East after Israeli forces crossed the Suez Canal. The Israelis eventually pulled out.