The Soviet Bloc and the Aftermath of the June 1967 War

By
James G. Hershberg
CWIHP e-Dossier No. 13
 

In recent years, scholars have taken considerable strides toward the construction of a comprehensive international history of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War, moving beyond a literature once largely dependent on memoirs, journalistic renditions, and political science analyses. In his well-received Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, for example, published in 2002, Michael B. Oren extensively tapped declassified U.S., Israeli, and British archives as well as both Hebrew- and Arabic language accounts by the opposing combatants.[1] Similarly, Amb. Richard Parker's edited collection of essays from a 1992 international conference on the war presents an impressively multi-national and multi-archival line-up.[2] Increasingly, the groundwork is being laid not only to resolve many mysteries and uncertainties surrounding the immediate conflict, and to analyze its lasting and lamentable implications and consequences for the ongoing Arab-Israeli (and Israeli-Palestinian) antagonism, but to weave the dynamics of the regional clash into the broader tapestry of Cold War and world history.

However, serious evidentiary gaps persist. While of course the most important continuing hindrance to a fuller version of events remains the almost total inaccessibility of archives in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and other Arab countries, an equal frustration for scholars interested in the Cold War and superpower context of the events has long been the secrecy surrounding the machinations of the Soviet Union and the entire communist world. For decades during the Cold War, scholars of Soviet policy toward the war were reduced to the equivalent of reading tea leaves from propagandistic Pravda articles and turgid communiqués, and distilling more delectable but sometimes dubious press leaks and defector exposés. Although the advent of Gorbachev's glasnost and then the USSR's collapse in 1991 seemed to herald an epoch of archival openness in the former Soviet Union, scant progress has been made since then toward the opening of Russian archives relevant to the June 1967 events, even as crucial materials emerged from Moscow repositories on other Cold War conflicts such as the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Berlin and Cuban Missile Crises, and the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan.[3] Even the linguistically versatile and internationally industrious Oren, who sought such materials—he thanks scholars in Moscow in his acknowledgments and lists the Soviet Foreign Ministry Archives in Six Days of War's abbreviations—failed to obtain any useful Russian archival documents worth citing in his footnotes.[4] Lacking access to the most vital high-level materials, whether in the Foreign Ministry or Defense Ministry archives, the former KGB or CPSU files, and above all, in the Presidential Archives, where minutes of Politburo discussions and conversations with foreign leaders during the crisis, among other records, should reside, scholars seeking to clarify the Kremlin's actions in 1967 have tried to fill the gap by using oral history interviews (with voluble mid-level former officials or taking a "bottom-up approach," in the words of Isabella Ginor[5]), newspaper articles, memoirs, and, more recently, compilations of published documents.[6]

The purpose of this e-dossier is to draw attention to, and offer examples of, a generally accessible, but so-far under-utilized, source available to scholars interested in probing Soviet-bloc behavior during the 1967 Middle East crisis: the archives of Moscow's Central and East European allies. More than a decade of international scholarship in these archives has shown that they frequently offer a side door to materials still closed (or in some cases, re-classified) in Moscow. Whether in Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, (East) Berlin, Bucharest, or Sofia—and now even in Belgrade—researchers may find records of high-level multi-lateral meetings involving the Soviet leadership; records of conversations and correspondence with Soviet and other officials; state and party contacts around the globe (which in this case should include both government and Communist Party figures in Arab states), including reports from embassies in various capitals and of visiting delegations; and frequently, copies of internal Soviet and CPSU documents passed for information to the "fraternal" allies. Of course, some scholars of the Middle East conflict have begun to take advantage of these materials and to publish their findings. For example, CWIHP has published on its website a copy found in Polish archives of Soviet communist leader Leonid I. Brezhnev's 20 June 1967 report "On Soviet Policy Following the Israeli Aggression in the Middle East" to a CPSU CC Plenum, as well as a rebuttal citing an East German version of the same speech[7]; and at a conference hosted by the State Department in January 2004, two scholars, Rolf Steininger and William Glenn Gray, cited materials from the former GDR and its ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED), whose voluminous archives are now readily available.[8]

One should plainly state that the East-Central European archives are no panacea, or substitute for the necessary complete access to Russian sources, especially the Presidential Archives; yet, more than a decade of experience of working on this region's repositories by CWIHP and its partners suggests that many, if not all, of the answers to questions about the Soviet role in the Middle East may be discovered by careful and comprehensive work in the more accessible archives of Moscow's allies—as well as the archives in former USSR republics, particularly in the Baltics, where copies of materials still closed in the Center may be available. In addition, switching from a narrow focus on Moscow to a wider examination of Soviet-bloc consultations may offer new analytical insights. (To take one off-hand example, two of the Polish records of multi-lateral gatherings presented here point attention to the role of Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito due to his close relationship with Nasser—and the prospective opening of archives in Serbia could yield fruitful materials on this connection.)

To offer some illustrations of the sources available in Central European archives on the 1967 crisis, this compilation presents five translated documents—three from the Polish communist party archives, two from the Romanian foreign ministry archives. The Polish documents, from the collections of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers' Party (KC PZPR) in the Archiwum Akt Nowych (AAN) in Warsaw, are records of conversation in the aftermath of the war. The first document describes a talk in Moscow between Polish communist politburo member Zenon Kliszko and Soviet communist leader Leonid I. Brezhnev on 24 June 1967—four days after the Brezhnev plenum report described above (and to which he refers here), and just as Brezhnev's two senior Kremlin colleagues were abroad on important foreign visits connected with post-war diplomacy: President Nikolai V. Podgorny in Cairo to see Nasser, and Premier Alexei Kosygin at the Glassboro, New Jersey summit with President Johnson, a side trip from his attendance at United Nations meetings in New York City. Like many communist consultations at this juncture, the talk mingled consideration of the Middle East crisis with the ongoing war in Vietnam. Brezhnev's comments here struck, in briefer form, several of the key notes he would sound in the subsequent documents—a highly critical evaluation of Arab conduct, both military and political, balanced by the imperative to support Nasser and other "progressive" Arab regimes against Israeli aggression and, especially, its American patron.

The second document presents the Polish record, apparently verbatim although one cannot rule out the possibility of gaps or alterations, of a gathering of communist party leaders in Budapest, Hungary, on 11-12 July 1967 to discuss the Middle East situation. During the war, on June 9-10, many of these communist leaders had gathered in Moscow for an emergency meeting on the war, and this session offered a chance to coordinate postwar diplomatic, political and military actions, with the Soviets laying down the basic policy outlines in the form of an opening briefing by Brezhnev and a report by Kosygin on his recent travels. Those in attendance included not only such Warsaw Pact leaders as Poland's Wladyslaw Gomulka, East Germany's Walter Ulbricht, Hungary's Janos Kadar, Bulgaria's Todor Zhivkov, and Czechoslovakia's Antonin Novotny, but also Yugoslavia's Tito—a close associate of Egypt's Nasser in the leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement—while Romania, having cemented its "maverick" status in the Warsaw Pact by refusing to join other Soviet allies in breaking diplomatic ties with Israel during the war, stayed away.

Although the detailed formerly secret record does not appear to detonate any bombshells, it does provide a far more candid indication of attitudes toward the Middle East situation, and the Arab leaders in particular, and of concrete measures being considered to promote Moscow's influence in the region, than the laconic public communiqué reaffirming support for the Arab cause and eschewing any mention of military aid.[9] While not shedding any light, unfortunately, on Moscow's pre-war actions, particularly its mysterious warnings of Israeli troop concentrations on the Syrian front, the record shows how the Soviet leaders attempted to deflect blame for the military disaster and to justify their own actions—boasting of success in limiting the Israeli military advance, and in keeping Nasser in power despite American plotting to topple him—even as the discussion reveals a pervasive awareness that the Soviet-bloc had suffered a humiliating defeat, albeit one that the Kremlin hoped to exploit in order to expand and cement its own influence in Cairo and Damascus.

The third document provides the Polish record of another gathering of the same cast to review the post-war Middle East situation on November 9, 1967, in Moscow, where they had come to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Again, much of the discussion centered on Nasser's regime, its political, diplomatic, and military predicament, as well as on Soviet-American diplomatic exchanges on a possible political formula at the United Nations—a process hampered, the Soviets at times complain, by Arab intransigence on the issue of recognizing, or terminating the state of belligerency with, Israel. Just two weeks after this meeting, the superpowers would finally agree on UN Security Council resolution 242, which envisioned an Israeli military withdrawal from Arab territories in exchange for secure and recognized borders.

Reading over this translated record, Richard B. Parker, who at the time of the June 1967 war was political counselor at the US embassy in Cairo, noted that the Kremlin's privately critical attitude toward Nasser's rejection of the post-war joint superpower initiative in late July, for a proposed resolution which would have required a total Israeli withdrawal from the captured territories in exchange for Arab recognition, mirrored Washington's.

"It is good to know the Soviets saw Arab reaction more or less as we did," Parker commented. "If they had not been so convinced that we were out to get Nasser, and we were not so persuaded that they were plotting to impose Nasser on Arabia and the Gulf, we might have had a more cooperative, or less antagonistic, relationship."[10]

In combination with the considerable amount of Soviet-bloc materials that have emerged on Moscow's relationship with other troublesome allies—from the North Vietnamese[11] to Castro's Cuba to Ulbricht's East Germany[12] to Mengistu's Ethiopia[13] to Amin's Afghanistan[14]—these documents begin to suggest a fresh case study of the vicissitudes and problems of Soviet relations with sometime belligerent and uncontrollable allies. During the Cold War, both superpowers occasionally found that dealing with smaller allies could be at least as exasperating as confronting enemies[15]—and these documents make clear that Moscow was torn between wariness toward the Arabs, particularly Nasser and Algeria's Boumedienne, their militancy, nationalism, focus on military rather than political means, and inflexibility, on the one hand, and what they saw as the necessity to compete for influence in the Middle East with the United States.

The Kliszko-Brezhnev 24 June 1967 memorandum of conversation was obtained by Douglas Selvage (Office of the Historian, Department of State) during a research trip to Warsaw in May 2003 and translated by Malgorzata Gnoinska (George Washington) with support from George Washington University's Cold War group ("GWCW"). The records of the Budapest and Moscow gatherings from July and November 1967 were ordered from AAN by the present author during a research trip to Warsaw in June 2003, undertaken with the help of GWCW, CWIHP, and the National Security Archive, shipped to Washington by Polish scholar Wanda Jarzabek, and translated with CWIHP's support by Jan Chowaniec.

Following these Polish documents, two Romanian diplomatic telegrams are presented from late June and mid-July 1967. Though neither suggests any shocking revelations, they provide glimpses into Bucharest's ostentatiously independent policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict, as it broke ranks with the rest of the Warsaw Pact and refused to follow Moscow in severing relations with Israel and throwing full support to the Arab side. The first document, from June 20, describes a contact between a Romanian diplomat and an Israeli communist leader, in which the two share disdain for what is seen as Moscow's blind favoritism toward the Arab side in the crisis. Interestingly, in light of the Polish record of the Budapest conference presented here, the second Romanian document, from July 14, shows how Romania's absence from that gathering stimulated diplomatic gossip about whether it would even remain in the Warsaw Pact. Both appeared in a collection of diplomatic documents on Israeli-Romanian relations published by the Romanian foreign ministry in 2000: Ministerful Afacerilor Externe, Directia Arhivelor Diplomatice, Romania-Israel: Documente Diplomatice, vol. 1, 1948-1969 (Bucuresti: Editura SYLVI, 2000), edited by Dr. Dumitru Preda. They were translated by GWU doctoral candidate and CWIHP associate Mircea Munteanu.

This compilation was originally prepared for the conference, "The United States, the Middle East, and the 1967 Arab-Israeli War," Office of the Historian, Department of State, Washington, D.C., 12-13 January 2004, to mark the publication of the volume of Foreign Relations of the United States containing documents on the war.[16]
The Cold War International History Project is continuing its efforts to obtain communist documents on the Arab-Israeli conflict and invites scholarly collaboration to seek and disseminate the widest possible range of historical documentation and, in this case, to pool resources in the acquisition, exchange, translation, assessment, and publication of documents and findings regarding the 1967 crisis and war as well as other conflicts in the Middle and Near East.[17] Given their accessibility and potential importance, yet the complications involved in finding and translating them, the Project invite in particular contacts from scholars and scholarly projects interested in working together to gather and translate Soviet and Soviet-bloc documents and to make them available for general scholarly research. All communist documents obtained by CWIHP are opened for research through its Russian and East-bloc Archival Documents Database (READD), a collection housed at and organized by the National Security Archive at The George Washington University. For further information, please contact the present author at jhershb@gwu.edu; CWIHP director Christian F. Ostermann at ostermac@wwic.si.edu; or, for information on READD, Malcolm Byrne of the National Security Archive at mbyrne@gwu.edu. The compiler also welcomes comments or corrections on the translated documents presented here.

DOCUMENTS:

Document 1, 24 June 1967, Polish Record of Conversation between Polish Politburo member Zenon Kliszko and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Moscow.

Document 2, 11-12 July 1967, Polish Record of Meeting of Soviet-bloc leaders (and Tito) in Budapest.(excerpts)

Document 3, 9 November 1967, Polish Record of Meeting of Soviet-bloc leaders (and Tito) in Moscow

Document 4, 20 June 1967, Telegram from Valeriu Georgescu, Minister of Romania in Tel Aviv, to Petru Burlacu, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Regarding the Position of the Israeli Communist Party vis-à-vis the Israeli conflict with Arab Nations.

Document 5, 14 July 1967, Telegram of the Romanian Legation in Tel Aviv to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Romanian Socialist Republic, regarding some positions taken by foreign diplomats and Israeli officials toward Romania, in light of the position adopted in the Middle East Conflict.

NOTES:

[1] Michael B. Oren, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (New York: Random House, 2002; paperback ed., Presidio, 2003).

[2] Richard B. Parker, ed., The Six-Day War: A Retrospective (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1996).

[3] See the publications of the Cold War International History Project at www.cwihp.si.edu

[4] Oren, Six Days of War (paperback edition, 2003), pp. ix, xii, 416

[5] Comments at the conference, "The United States, the Middle East, and the 1967 Arab-Israeli War," Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C., 12 January 2004.

[6] For recent provocative efforts to discern Moscow's actions in relation to the war from these fragmentary sources, see the works of Isabella Ginor, "The Russians Were Coming: The Soviet Military Threat in the 1967 Six-Day War," Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA), Vol. 4, No. 4 (December 2000), http://meria.idc.ac.il/journal/2000/issue4/ginor.pdf; idem., "The Cold War's Longest Cover-Up: How and Why the USSR Instigated the June 1967 War," MERIA, Vol. 7, No. 3 (September 2003), http://meria.idc.ac.il/journal/2003/issue3/ginor.pdf. ; and Ginor and Gideon Remez, "Un-Finnished Business: A never-sent diplomatic note reveals Moscow's premeditation of the Six-Day War," scheduled to be presented at the Nordic Conference on Middle Eastern Studies, Copenhagen, October 2004. For a recent published compilation of Soviet documents, see V.V. Naumkin, ed., Blizhnvostochnyi konflikt 1957-1967 (Moscow, 2003), cited by Yaacov Ro'i, "The Soviet Stake in the Middle East Conflict of June 1967," paper for conference, "The United States, the Middle East, and the 1967 Arab-Israeli War," Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C., 12-13 January 2004. Prof. Ro'i reports that a volume containing Presidential Archive materials on the 1967 Middle East crisis is in preparation, the appearance of which would certainly mark important progress.

[7] See Uri Bar-Noi, "The Soviet Union and the Six-Day War: Revelations from the Polish Archives," CWIHP e-Dossier No. 8, and "New Evidence on the Origins of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War" at the CWIHP website at www.cwihp.si.edu.

[8] William Glenn Gray, "War and Opportunism: East Germany and the Arab States in 1967," and Rolf Steininger, "The Soviet Union and the Six-Day-War," paper for conference, "The United States, the Middle East, and the 1967 Arab-Israeli War," Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C., 12-13 January 2004.

[9] Alvin Z. Rubinstein, Red Star on the Nile: The Soviet-Egyptian Influence Relationship since the June War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977), p. 28.

[10] Richard B. Parker, e-mail message to author, 30 January 2004.

[11] See Ilya V. Gaiduk's two monographs on the relationship between Moscow and the Vietnamese communists during the Cold War: Confronting Vietnam: Soviet Policy Toward the Indochina Conflict, 1954-1963 (Washington: Wilson Center/Stanford University Press, 2003), and The Soviet Union and the Vietnam War (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996).

[12] See Hope M. Harrison, Driving the Soviets Up the Wall: Soviet-East German Relations, 1953-1961 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).

[13] See translated Soviet and East German documents, plus accompanying commentaries, in CWIHP Bulletin 8/9 (Winter 1996/1997).

[14] See translated Soviet and East European documents, plus accompanying commentaries, in CWIHP Bulletins 8/9 (Winter 1996/1997) and 14/15 (Winter 2003/Spring 2004).

[15] See Tony Smith, "New Bottles for New Wine: A Pericentric Framework for the Study of the Cold War," Diplomatic History 24:4 (Fall 2000), pp. 567-591.

[16] FRUS, 1964-1968, Vol. XIX: Arab-Israeli Crisis and War (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2004), full text available on-line at www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/johnsonlb/xix/.

[17] On 19 July 2004, for instance, CWIHP hosted a one-day session, "Toward an International History of the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988: A Critical Oral History Workshop." The Project seeks support and collaborators for further meetings, documentary compilations, and publications on this and other conflicts and crisis both in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East during the Cold War.
 

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