By Zina Hemady
The first US overt military intervention in the Middle East took place 60 years ago, when the Marines landed on a beach just south of Beirut on a sizzling summer day. While Washington was responding to a plea by Lebanon’s beleaguered Maronite Christian president Camille Chamoun, whose government was facing a rebellion by a coalition of mainly-Moslem political opponents, the real motive for the muscle flexing was the overthrow of Iraq’s pro-Western regime while the popularity of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, a Soviet ally, swept the region at the height to of the Cold War. This invasion, now tucked away in the folds of history, stands out as a swift and nearly bloodless operation with tangible results as compared to the more recent US military fiascos in the region. Many credit this accomplishment to level-headed diplomacy and collaboration between US and Lebanese officials to avoid all-out war.
The intervention, code named Operation Blue Bat, had no clear military objectives besides making the beach landing, seizing the airport, and moving into the city. Moreover, the plans originally made jointly with the British military kept shifting until the last minute when President Dwight Eisenhower decided that his troops, a combined Marine and army force of 14,000, would take on this mission single-handedly and with half the 24 hour warning time that he had promised the commanding officers.
Retired Marine Colonel, Charles Smilie, who goes by Chuck, was a First Lieutenant with the third of the three battalions of the Sixth Fleet which participated in the initial beach landing. The 26-year-old Marine and his mates were heading to Athens for a few days’ leave when “all of a sudden we thought the boat was going to capsize when it made a sharp turn and started heading south to go to Lebanon.” They had never heard of the country nor did they know what to expect. “We were told that we were there to maintain order, maintain peace, but it’s not like we were given a whole lot of intelligence.”
Despite the ambiguity and logistical challenges, the first contingent of the 6,000-strong Marine force to participate in this operation successfully landed on July 15 at Red Beach, just north of the town of Khaldeh and half a kilometer from Beirut International Airport. The scene that the “leathernecks” encountered was far from the hostile scenarios that some had been apprehending. Ironically, it was the Marines who startled the locals made up of villagers carrying out their daily chores, construction workers, and bathers taking a break from the capital’s stifling summer heat. Curiosity drove these onlookers to converge onto the landing site where young boys even helped the Marines unload some of their heavy equipment as their wheeled vehicles got bogged down in the soft sand of the Lebanese coast. Street vendors popped up at the beach offering to sell their wares to the Americans.
These displays of normal life in times of turmoil, which would characterize Lebanon even during the bleakest days of the civil war that erupted nearly two decades later, did not downplay the seriousness of the crisis. The conflict was complex, with local, regional, and international implications, which seems to forever be Lebanon’s predicament. Internally, President Chamoun, who was nearing the end of his non renewable six-year term, had come under fire by his opponents for having allegedly manipulated the parliamentary elections of June 1957 to guarantee a legislative body that would amend the constitution to allow his reelection. The poll results, which heavily favored Chamoun, sparked riots and solidified the standoff between the president’s supporters and opponents. Although the two camps included leaders of different religious affiliations, many Christians stood by the president while most Moslems wanted him to step down. The most vocal opposition heads who would later emerge as the rebellion leaders were Saeb Salam, a Beirut Sunni, Kamal Jumblat, a Druze from the Chouf Mountains, and Rashid Karami, a Sunni from Tripoli. The regional and international contexts to this situation were the rivalry between the pro-Western Baghdad Pact and the pan-Arab movement led by Egypt and backed by the Soviet Union. Chamoun had refused to break relations with Britain and France after the 1956 Suez War when the two former colonial powers sided with Israel against Egypt. Subsequently, he supported the Baghdad Pact feeling the pressure from Egypt’s union with Syria in what became known as the United Arab Republic. Both these moves angered his opponents who saw them as a stab to Lebanon’s Arab identity.
Although the United States was keeping a close eye on developments in Lebanon, the real catalyst for the military intervention was the Iraqi Revolution of July 14, 1958. Army officer Abdel Kareem Kassem led the coup d’état which overthrew young King Faisal killing him and Prime Minister Nouri es Said. The violent events in Baghdad, the only Arab member of the pro-Western regional alliance, sent shock waves to Washington and Beirut. As the US leadership was considering the options to protect its strategic interests in the region, not least of all were Iraq’s oilfields, Chamoun invoked the Eisenhower Doctrine under which the United States would send military and economic aid to any Middle Eastern country threatened by communist aggression.
When the Marines made their landing at Khaldeh, their leadership was aware of the risks involved. The rebels, a lightly armed 10,000-strong force split into different factions, posed a benign threat, while the more significant danger came from the Syrian First Army which consisted of 40,000 troops equipped with Soviet tanks. However, as it turned out, the Syrians stayed out of the conflict except for facilitating weapon transfers to the rebels, and it was the Lebanese army which constituted the greatest diplomatic challenge to the Americans. From the beginning of the crisis, Army Chief General Fouad Chehab’s greatest concern was that the army would break up along religious lines, which is what happened during the 1975 Civil War and led to the country’s disintegration. Chehab had so far contained the situation by allowing the insurgents to protest, while at the same time keeping them in check. With US boots on the ground, the general was now worried that the United States would be perceived as an occupying force.
Using his good standing with Washington and Cairo, Chehab played a key role in maintaining stability and he did so in close coordination with US officials. When he heard of the landing, the army chief appealed to US ambassador Robert McClintock to send word to the Marines to reboard their ships. However, the request was turned down by one of the battalion leaders and the landing force proceeded with the plan to capture the airport and move into the capital. Confirming Chehab’s fears, a Marine column headed north from the airport to Beirut was stopped at a Lebanese army roadblock where soldiers aboard tanks stood ready to fire at the Americans. The situation was defused at the last minute when Chehab, McClintok and Admiral James Holloway who commanded the entire operation appeared at the scene. They immediately went into intense negotiations at a nearby school where they hammered out the agreement that would define the relationship between US forces and the Lebanese army and clarify the US’s military role in this intervention.
It took about a week for the two sides to finalize their agreement, and in the meantime the situation on the ground was still precarious as all sides continued their political maneuvering. In addition to the airfield, the Marines took control of Beirut’s dock area and some strategic bridges leading to the city. However, their most vulnerable position was the airport, where traffic had intensified with the landing and take off of military planes airlifting Marines and army troops. Rebels positioned in nearby hills fired towards the airstrip, but their pot shots proved largely harmless. In the city itself, two Marines on patrol lost their way and strayed into the rebel stronghold of Basta where they were kidnapped and released a few hours later. On the political front, Chamoun continued to press the Americans to interfere more aggressively to quell the rebellion and eliminate any regional threat to his regime.
Amid this state of uncertainty, Eisenhower sent Deputy Undersecretary of State Robert Murphy to Beirut. While his initial mission was to address the tensions between the military and the US Embassy officials, which turned out to have been defused, Murphy quickly turned his attention to the Lebanese situation. After shuttling back and forth between the different parties, the emissary determined that the country’s internal strife was a local issue which should be handled as such. He gave the rebel leaders assurances that the US military’s presence was not intended to keep Chamoun in power which promptly defused the situation and reduced attacks against the Americans. Moreover, Murphy openly declared his support for immediate presidential elections, a call which was surprisingly heeded by Chamoun without resistance. While the US envoy addressed the political crisis, Chehab and the US command reached an agreement stipulating that the Marines would be positioned north of the capital and the US army to the south,while Lebanese soldiers created a neutral zone between the US troops and the rebels in Basta.
As the country prepared for the July 31 presidential vote, the Marines settled into a routine which would characterize the remainder of their brief venture into Lebanon. Smilie, the Marine pilot who landed on the second day of the invasion, said that after a week at the airport, where he coordinated air traffic with Lebanese tower control officials, he was transferred to a camp in a pine forest near the hillside town of Beit Meri north of Beirut. “This wasn’t war. We spent a lot of time sitting on our duffs doing nothing trying to spur out some fun,” he recalled. To pass the time, Smilie and his buddies would venture to the local restaurant in Beit Meri or barrel down the hill to Beirut where they hung out at the pool of the Commodore Hotel, the beach of the Bain Militaire, and off course the iconic bar of the Saint George Hotel. To keep up with their training, and maintain their sanity, they flew sorties over Lebanon for about four hours a month.
Although the rank-and-file were largely oblivious of the political complexities of the crisis and its potential dangers, their predicament could have been bleaker had it not been for the open cooperation between the US command, American diplomats, and Lebanese officials namely Gen. Chehab. By the end of Operation Blue Bat in late October, one US soldier had been killed and one wounded by the rebels, while the two recorded Marine deaths were due to friendly fire. This was considered a glaring success compared to the next US deployment in Lebanon after Israel’s 1982 invasion when 220 Marines and a dozen service personnel were killed in an attack on a Marine compound near the airport. For Lebanon, the 1958 US intervention facilitated Gen. Chehab’s ascent to the presidency ushering in an era of nation building and prosperity which would become known as the Golden Age.