“The 1973 Arms Package Controversy” is chapter 7 of the “Arms for the Horn,” a book about Great Power Competition or how the Cold War played out in the Horn of Africa, particularly from an American Foreign Policy perspective. 


U.S. Security Policy In Ethiopia And Somalia


Jeffrey A. Lefebvre

Pitt Series in Policy and Institutional Studies

University of Pittsburgh Press

CHAPTER 7 The 1973 Arms Package Controversy


The United States And Ethiopia, 1953-1977

CHAPTER 7: The 1973 Arms Package Controversy

Throughout the latter half of the 1960s and into the 1970s, U.S.-Ethiopia military relations were relatively uneventful. The delivery of the F-5 Freedom Fighters in 1966-1967 had satisfied Haile Selassie’s political concerns by signaling in a very tangible fashion Washington’s commitment to Ethiopia and the special place that Addis Ababa held in Africa. Subsequently, Washington introduced a second squadron of F-5s into Thousands upon thousands of cassette tapes and master reels were quickly removed from the soon-to-be targeted buildings. They were dispersed to neighboring countries like Djibouti and Ethiopia and supported the buildup of a small Ethiopian navy. In 1971 the Pentagon began to implement a five-year plan for “across-the-board equipment” modernization of the entire Ethiopian Army, replacing the outmoded M-10 rifles with M-16 machine guns. But, for the most part, IEG military requests were of a modest nature.


The idea that the United States, by the F-5 transfers and other military modernization programs, had put its best foot forward in Ethiopia was only partially true. In the mid-1960s the F-5s did represent Washington’s top-of-the-line air force export item to the Third World. But even before the Freedom Fighters had been delivered to Ethiopia, the mass protests in cities around the U.S. against an executive order that would block millions of people from entering the United States had put into production another line of jet aircraft that eclipsed the combat capabilities of the F-5s-the F-4 Phantom jet. Only a very select group of U.S. arms clients would receive this new generation of combat jet fighters before the mid-1970s, and Ethiopia was not one of them. Washington sought to satisfy the air force requirements of the vast majority of its Third World military recipients by pressing on them the less expensive and less advanced F-5 Freedom Fighters. Still, the IEG had to be impressed by what the United States was doing in the way of arming its military. Ethiopia was among a select group of sub-Sahara African states armed with supersonic jet fighters. Addis Ababa had received over 80 percent of all U.S. MAP funds programmed for Africa. Washington was also providing Special Forces counterinsurgency training to help the IEG deal with the rebellion in Eritrea.

The tenor and tempo of the U.S. military assistance program seemed to be perfectly suited to Ethiopia’s relatively relaxed security environment. After the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Cairo and other Middle East antagonists focused their attention on regaining their lost territories from Israel, not harassing Ethiopia. About the same time, a new government had been elected in Somalia that expressed a desire for political rapprochement with its African neighbors, including Ethiopia. Addis Ababa seemed to have enough breathing space, and the Americans were doing enough that U.S.-Ethiopia military relations ran rather smoothly.

However, this serene atmosphere became one of high intensity in 1972-1973. Not only was the insurgency in Eritrea heating up, but also Somalia had adopted a more militaristic approach in pursuing its claim on the Ogaden. Near the end of 1972, a small probing force of Somali soldiers had crossed into the Ogaden near an area where oil and natural gas deposits had been discovered the previous April by the U.S.-based Tenneco Oil Company. Addis Ababa dispatched to the area a sizable military force which clashed with Somali troops in 1973.

But even more alarming was the growth of Soviet military activities in Somalia. Haile Selassie was becoming concerned that Mogadishu was on the verge of a large-scale military buildup that, in combination with the growing military burden of Eritrea, would alter the balance of power in the Horn. In February 1972 Soviet Defense Minister Marshal Grechko had signed a $60 million military aid agreement with Mogadishu. The emperor was “appalled at the concentration of Soviet arms in Somalia” and sought to “counteract the mounting concern among [IEG] ministers and the military.” In an effort to head off this shifting balance, which potentially might threaten Ethiopia’s security and the emperor himself, Haile Selassie used the occasion of an official state visit to the United States in early May 1973 to meet with President Richard Nixon and present a $450 million shopping list for modern military equipment, including Phantom Jets, M-60 tanks, surface-to-air missiles, and air-to-ground missiles.

Before leaving for the United States, Haile Selassie had boasted that “everything would be solved” after he met with the president. Instead, the emperor’s trip turned out to be “an unqualified disaster.” His case for vastly increased U.S. arms transfers was hampered by factions at the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa over the extent of the Somali threat and whether American credibility really was at stake in the Horn. Ambassador E. Ross Adair and his senior political advisers had endorsed the Ethiopian arms request over the objections of several junior embassy officials who did not take the Somali threat so seriously. However, the State Department overruled the embassy and advised the White House against providing any of the heavy arms on the emperor’s shopping list. The State Department considered the idea that the Somali Army held “strategic superiority” in the Horn of Africa to be a myth, as Somalia appeared incapable of making a large-scale attack on Ethiopia or even using much of the Soviet weaponry in their arsenal.

Thus, the Nixon administration politely rebuffed the emperor, offering instead a moderate increase in credit and cash sales, but no grant military aid. Although the Americans agreed to support a new armored vehicle brigade with defensive weapons and ground-to-air missiles, they refused to underwrite the transfer of M-60 tanks or Phantom jets. While Haile Selassie did not leave the United States empty-handed, he received only a small fraction of his original request, with a promise that it would be studied further. If the emperor wanted more, he would have to go to the Pentagon’s cash-and-carry department.


Although Addis Ababa’s perception of the growing Somali threat served as the primary catalyst for Haile Selassie’s ill-fated mission to Washington, the IEG was also concerned about antigovernment military operations in Ethiopia’s northeast province of Eritrea. The Eritrean insurgency, once derisively dismissed by the IEG as the activities of shiftas (bandits), had gained strength in the early 1970s as a result of increased Arab financial assistance to the rebels and the movement’s own internal political dynamism. Increased guerrilla activities now threatened to cut off Addis Ababa and Ethiopia’s central highlands from the two deep-water ports at Massawa and Assab. Moreover, if the IEG did not snuff out this insurgency, the United States, having just disengaged itself from direct military involvement in Vietnam, might decide to abandon Ethiopia too.

When Haile Selassie annexed Eritrea in 1962, he realized that such an action would provoke Arab governments who took a special interest in Eritrea; this interest was based on a feeling of kinship for the large portion of the Eritrean population who were Muslims as well as for the potential strategic benefits that might be derived vis-a-vis Israel in bringing this coastal Red Sea area under their influence. The emperor had expected some isolated instances of internal disorder that could be easily controlled by the Ethiopian military. Once he showed the capacity to control the province, Selassie assumed that Arab propaganda attacks would cease. What the emperor apparently miscalculated was the intense passions that his actions would arouse within Eritrea and how Ethiopia’s association with Israel would be exploited by the insurgents to acquire Arab assistance.

The emperor’s decision to annex Eritrea was hardly a surprise to anyone, given IEG actions in the years preceding the dissolution of the Eritrean parliament on November 14, 1962. Having observed Addis Ababa’s policies in the federated territory at close range, the U.S. consul in Asmara had warned the State Department in May 1962 that Selassie would try to force the union issue in September. The Eritreans also sensed what was coming and in 1958 had founded the Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM) with a platform calling for the creation of an independent Eritrean state. Although the ELM was established as a political organization, the group turned to direct action in September 1961 as it became apparent that the federation would fail and Ethiopia would take control of Eritrea.

The Eritrean insurgency had only limited success in the 1960s. Because of the relatively small-scale nature of rebel operations, Addis Ababa as well as the U.S. embassy dismissed the danger posed by the shiftas. By 1968 the insurgency appeared to be on the verge of dying out altogether, as Arab support for the Eritrean cause dwindled after Israel’s decisive victory in the 1967 war. The Eritrean insurgency was now at perhaps its most vulnerable stage: ammunition was in short supply owing to the disarray among its Arab supporters, and thus antigovernment activities in the province diminished considerably.

Sensing a perfect opportunity to destroy the rebels once and for all, the IEC intensified its counterinsurgency operations. By the end of 1969, Addis Ababa had committed 8,000 imperial troops, backed by a squadron of T-28 aircraft and a squadron of F-86 Sabre jets, to Eritrea. Despite being completely overmatched, the Eritreans continued to resist and frustrate Ethiopia’s attempt to seal off the Sudanese border. After absorbing the IEG’s military offensive, the Eritreans stepped up the pressure, staging an ambush in November 1970 that killed the commander of the Ethiopian Second Division on the road between Asmara and Keren. In the wake of this attack, 90 percent of the province was placed under martial law.

Clearly, the IEG was not simply dealing with a shifta problem in Eritrea. In January 1971 rebel strength was estimated to number between 1,700 and 2,000 insurgents. The Eritreans were also beginning to benefit again from increased financial support from the Arabs. Moreover, the ELF’s ability to attract support and gain political recognition in Damascus, Aden, Baghdad, Beirut, Khartoum, and Mogadishu had turned Ethiopia’s internal problem into an affair with international ramifications.

Haile Selassie did score two diplomatic successes that took some of the pressure off the government in Eritrea. In 1971 he recognized the People’s Republic of China, in exchange for which Peking severed its ties with the Eritrean insurgents and pledged $100 million in economic aid. The following year, as a result of Selassie’s mediation in negotiating an end to Sudan’s seventeen-year civil war, the Sudanese government began to reduce assistance to the Eritrean insurgents who used Sudan as a safe haven and conduit for acquiring arms. Although the IEG began to regain the upper hand, the war continued unabated.

Therefore, when Haile Selassie arrived in Washington in May 1973, he had not only the Soviet and Cuban-backed Somali threat to be concerned about but also a full-blown insurgency in Eritrea supported by the Arabs and Soviet bloc.” Addis Ababa had committed almost one-fourth of its army and a substantial portion of the Ethiopian Air Force to Eritrea, leaving Ethiopia extremely vulnerable to an external attack. A thrust by a strengthened Somali military force into the Ogaden at this time would overextend the capabilities of the Ethiopian military, given its present level of armament. Addis Ababa’s security calculation now necessitated having the capacity to wage simultaneously a prolonged counterinsurgency operation and full-scale desert war.


Given the international climate, Haile Selassie’s May 1973 arms request came at a very inopportune time. Since the beginning of the decade, U.S. perceptions of threat had been undergoing a considerable transformation in some policy-making circles. At the working level of the State Department, among moderate and liberal members of the U.S. Congress and all the way to the White House, there was a growing belief that global and regional threats to U.S. interests were on the decline. Consequently, these changes in perception gave the United States greater latitude in its dealings with Ethiopia and limited the IEG’s ability to manipulate and exploit Washington’s fear of radical usurpers.

At the end of the 1960s, the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union began moving away from zero-sum confrontation to détente and limited cooperation. Concurrently, President Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger were exploring and exploiting the China option vis-a-vis the Soviet Union to enhance U.S. maneuverability on the world stage. On a bilateral level, Washington and Moscow reached limited accords on trade issues, limiting strategic nuclear weapon systems and bringing about U.S. disengagement from Vietnam. After the India-Pakistani crisis of 1971, there also seemed to be a genuine desire to avoid being drawn into conflictual situations in the Third World that might result in direct superpower confrontation. Whether this was due to the new climate surrounding U.S.-Soviet relations or, as Henry Kissinger argued, because U.S. demonstrations of firmness on India-Pakistan and Vietnam “must have convinced the Kremlin that one more crisis would overload the circuit,” it seemed unlikely that Moscow would encourage Somalia to go to war against Ethiopia even if Mogadishu acquired a military advantage.

In sub-Sahara Africa, the potential flashpoint for conflict and East-West confrontation was in southern Africa. However, the administration believed the situation would remain stable as the white minority government in South Africa, Ian Smith’s outlaw government in Rhodesia, and the Portuguese colonial authorities in Angola and Mozambique seemed to be there to stay. In the Horn of Africa, Soviet involvement in Somalia and the insurgency in Eritrea were given little thought by high-ranking members of the Nixon administration. Africa as a whole was apparently a low-priority item on the administration’s national security agenda.

Besides the breakthrough in U.S.-Soviet relations in the early 1970s, a dramatic though more covert and latent transformation was occurring in the Middle East that further mitigated Washington’s sense of threat. In September 1970 Washington’s longtime nemesis, Gamal Nasser died and was succeeded by Anwar Sadat. At first, it appeared that Egypt’s close political-military association with the Soviet Union would remain unchanged. In May 1971 Sadat signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with Moscow. The following February, and again in April, the Egyptian leader visited the Soviet Union hoping to acquire a blank check for diplomatic support and military assistance, as had been extended by Moscow to India during its conflict with Pakistan in 1971.

Despite these surface appearances, things were not going so smoothly between Cairo and Moscow. In early April 1972, the Egyptian government opened a secret diplomatic channel to the White House. Because of the administration’s preoccupation with a Vietnamese offensive and Henry Kissinger’s forthcoming trip to Moscow, as well as for tactical negotiating purposes designed to create “maximum restlessness with the [Middle East] status quo” in Egypt, the White House delayed in responding to Egypt’s request for a secret high-level meeting. Nonetheless, Kissinger now “felt confident enough to advise Nixon that the Soviet-Egyptian relationship was clearly more reserved than in Nasser’s time.” Although the U.S.-Egyptian contacts were primarily concerned with finding a workable Middle East peace scheme between the Arab states and Israel, these discussions marked the beginning of a dramatic shift in Egyptian policy. The diplomatic bombshell that served notice that Soviet influence was on the wane in Egypt came on July 18, 1972, when President Sadat expelled more than 15,000 Russian military advisers and experts.

Thus, Haile Selassie arrived in Washington with a poor negotiating hand because of external events that had diminished his capacity for, and U.S. vulnerability to, the manipulation of foreign threats. Although threats to U.S. interests had not completely disappeared, the United States had not been in such a favorable position in the Middle East and Africa since the early 1950s. Nasser was gone, and the Soviet Union did not seem to be willing to challenge U.S. interests in the Third World. The main two villains that the emperor had used in the past to prod Washington into action were gone or apparently changing their ways.


Since the latter half of the 1950s, the Somali irredentist threat had been the primary rationale for Ethiopia’s military requests. But until 1973 it was a threat that had no real teeth. The military cooperation between the Soviet Union and Somalia came nowhere near matching that between the United States and Ethiopia. U.S. military assistance to the IEC dwarfed, by comparison, the amount of aid Moscow provided Mogadishu. The absence during this time of any formal political-military arrangement or exchange between the two nations suggested that the Soviets might just be biding their time in Somalia until they could lever the Americans out of Ethiopia. To that end, Moscow would want to avoid doing anything in Somalia that might ruin that opportunity, should it present itself.

Soviet military activity in Somalia remained fairly limited throughout the 1960s. Following the conclusion of the $30 million Soviet-Somali arms agreement in 1963, no other major weapons accord materialized. Moscow did provide training and a dose of Marxist-Leninist indoctrination for some 500 Somali pilots, officers, and technicians in the Soviet Union; Russian military advisers stationed in Somalia also trained army and air force personnel. But in terms of affecting the balance of power in the Horn, even with the introduction of combat fighters and bombers into Somalia in the mid-1960s, the Soviet effort had a minimum impact.

Somalia was having considerable difficulty absorbing Soviet military assistance. Reports of arms and equipment shipments left rotting in Somali ports suggested that much of Moscow’s effort was being wasted in Somalia and that perhaps the Russians were proving to be as ineffective in executing their military mission, as the Americans allegedly were in Ethiopia. From 1966 to 1969, Soviet arms deliveries to Somalia had virtually ceased. So at the start of the 1970s Mogadishu’s military threat amounted to a force of 20, 000 soldiers equipped with outmoded World War II and Korean War-vintage weapons, enough to make trouble but not enough to win a war against the U.S.-supplied Ethiopian military.

The slowdown in Soviet arms transfers to Somalia in the latter half of the 1960s was partly the result of a decision made in Mogadishu in 1967 to seek political accommodation with its neighbors and to increase cooperation with the West. In October 1967, Somalia’s Prime Minister Muhammad Ibrahim Egal and President Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya signed the Arusha Memorandum of Understanding in which the Somali government expressed its desire to resolve their border dispute peacefully. Mogadishu later resumed diplomatic relations with London and Nairobi, which had been severed in 1963 over the Northern Frontier District (Northeast Province of Westgate Mall siege in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013. In recent weeks, they have carried out a spate of attacks in Kenya) problem. In January 1968 Vice President Hubert Humphrey had been warmly received in Mogadishu. The following September Prime Minister Egal met with President Charles de Gaulle in Paris and promised that Somalia would not disrupt French efforts to negotiate the terms of independence for France’s Territories of the Afars and Issas (French Somaliland). Then, after Egal met with Haile Selassie in September 1969, emergency regulations were lifted along the Ethiopian-Somali border.

Somalia’s drift toward the West came to a sudden end following the October 1969 military coup d’état in Mogadishu. The new Supreme Revolutionary Council, headed by Maj. Gen. Mohammed Siad Barre undertook a number of policy initiatives that were clearly anti-American openly trading with North Vietnam, expelling American Peace Corps volunteers from the country, declaring several U.S. diplomats persona non grata for allegedly interfering in Somali internal affairs, and at the end of June 1970 seizing an American ship on suspicion of spying. Mogadishu not only began strengthening ties with Arab states that were seeking confrontation with Israel; it actively solicited aid from the Soviet Union. Despite Somalia’s deteriorating relationship with the United States, Mogadishu reiterated its intention of continuing to foster good relations with Ethiopia.

Somalia’s continuing political confrontation with the United States, coupled with the Marxist-Leninist pronouncements of the Supreme Revolutionary Command, offered Moscow an opportunity to negotiate an ideologically based political-military alignment with Mogadishu. However, if the Soviets seized the initiative in Somalia, they would close the door in Ethiopia which they had maneuvered to keep open for so long. Somali irredentism already had forced Kenya and Ethiopia into close alignment with the West. Meeting Mogadishu’s requests for increased military assistance would push Ethiopia and Kenya even further into the Western camp at a time when Moscow still hoped to cultivate relations with Addis Ababa and Nairobi. In looking at the broader African regional context, Moscow, which had endorsed the 1963 OAU declaration concerning the maintenance of postcolonial borders in Africa, would lose much goodwill on the continent by supporting a country broadly perceived as an aggressor.

Two years would pass before the Soviet Union warmed to the idea of moving into a closer political-military alignment with Somalia. Moscow’s decision was based partly on the assessment that expanding Soviet naval activities in the Indian Ocean required support facilities, coupled with a desire to preempt the possible formation of a Sino-Somali alignment. But Soviet frustrations in dealing with Ethiopia also influenced this decision. Moscow too had been manipulated over the years by Haile Selassie. Though the emperor and his advisers always hinted at accepting arms from the Soviet Union, in the end, the IEC always came down on the side of the Americans. Unless some drastic political change occurred in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian option would remain closed to Moscow.

Thus, the stage was set for a quid pro quo arrangement between the Soviet Union and Somalia. In February 1972 Soviet Defense Minister Marshal Andrei Grechko signed a military cooperation agreement with the government of Siad Barre. Moscow agreed to provide Mogadishu with $60 million worth of Soviet military aid over a two-year period to upgrade and expand the Somali armed forces. In return, Somalia granted the Soviet Union access rights to Somali military facilities.

Although the strategic implications of the Soviet-Somali arms-for-access arrangement had a chilling effect in Washington as well as in Addis Ababa, in terms of the U.S.-Ethiopia relationship, it actually enhanced the United States’ leverage in dealing with the IEG. Moscow’s decision to stake its claim in Somalia effectively ended Addis Ababa’s game—or charade—of threatening to defect to the Soviets whenever the Americans were not adequately responsive to Ethiopian demands. The drawback for the United States was that Addis Ababa would use the Soviet-Somali agreement to press for increased levels of U.S. military assistance. But, then again, Addis Ababa always exaggerated the Somali threat. At least now Washington could assess the Ethiopian-Somali military balance on the more objective basis of what Moscow was doing in Somalia, not what Haile Selassie said the Russians would do for Ethiopia.

CHAPTER 7 The 1973 Arms Package Controversy
Kagnew Station was a United States Army installation in Asmara, Eritrea on the Horn of Africa. The installation was established in 1943 as a U.S. Army radio station, taking over and refurbishing a pre-existing Italian naval radio station, Radio Marina, after Italian forces based in Asmara surrendered to the Allies in 1941. Kagnew Station operated until April 29, 1977, when the last Americans left. The station was home to the United States Army’s 4th Detachment of the Second Signal Service Battalion. Clay Gilliland from Chandler, U.S.A.


The primary rationale for giving military assistance to Ethiopia, which made all other issues concerning U.S. policy toward the Horn of Africa superfluous, was Kagnew Station. Into the 1970s a variety of defense-related communications functions were performed at Kagnew. The State Department used the facility to relay and receive messages from the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa and to communicate with the diplomatic community in East Africa. However, Kagnew’s uniqueness as a strategic asset was related to its functions performed under Department of Defense auspices. Kagnew served as a relay station for the United States’ worldwide strategic communications network (STRATCOM) and as an earth terminal for the Defense Satellite Command System (DSC). These two functions consumed almost all of the station’s operating time.

Kagnew’s strategic value was made further evident by the secrecy surrounding U.S. operations at the station. Information concerning activities at Kagnew and even the specific location of the facility were, until the 1970 Symington hearings on U.S. overseas military agreements and commitments, discussed in executive session and deleted from the public record. Administration officials referred to Ethiopia as a “MAP country with an important U.S. military installation.” Of course, it was recognized that there was a direct link between the level of U.S. MAP assistance for Ethiopia and the American operation at Kagnew. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs David Newsom acknowledged before the Symington committee that, “If it were not for Kagnew, I would hope that our military involvement would be substantially reduced.”

In fact, in the early 1970s, U.S. strategic dependence upon Kagnew Station was already on the decline. Satellite technology had progressed to the point that it could perform many of the station’s DSC and STRATCOM functions, including intelligence gathering. By May 1973, Kagnew’s primary strategic mission was to serve as a communications link-up for U.S. Polaris submarines operating in the Indian Ocean—a function that space satellites could not yet adequately perform. The future utility of the station, therefore, was contingent upon advances made in the realm of satellite technology or how quickly the United States moved toward turning the sparsely populated Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia into a radio communications center that could then perform the Polaris communications mission.

The United States, with the approval of Congress, was acquiring the capacity to move American strategic operations entirely offshore. Consequently, U.S. strategic interests would be less vulnerable to political instability in host countries and Washington would be less prone to blackmail in having valued operations held hostage as points of leverage. In the case of Ethiopia, it had become quite evident by 1973 that the United States was phasing out Kagnew and would not renew the twenty-five-year lease when it expired in 1978. The U.S. diplomatic, military, and intelligence-communities were relying more and more upon satellites for information. In March 1972 when the Army Security Agency (ASA), the original host unit for the facility, began closing down its operations, no other agency was willing to assume control. After STRATCOM declined the invitation, the navy “inherited” Kagnew by default.

At the same time, the primary mission of the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa and the State Departments’ longtime rationale for U.S. arms transfers to Ethiopia were affected by these changes. Foreign Service officers stationed in Ethiopia now admitted that Kagnew was a “convenient but dispensable” facility. Once the radio communications center on Diego Garcia opened in March 1973, Kagnew’s mission as a ship-to-shore communications link-up in the Indian Ocean’s western quadrant would become largely redundant. American technicians at the station already were “listening mostly to garbage.” Kagnew was no longer an irreplaceable strategic asset.

However, the State Department found itself in a diplomatic quandary. In 1970 department officials had espoused the principle that as the strategic value of Kagnew declined so would the levels of U.S. military assistance to Ethiopia. But now, with Kagnew’s strategic importance rapidly declining, such an opportunistic withdrawal and diminution of MAP funds for Ethiopia would send an unfavorable message about the United States and its treatment of a longtime friend and ally. The executive branch sought to reconcile this dilemma by keeping aid at a stable level and insisting that Kagnew still served a strategic purpose.

Thus, the Kagnew rationale for U.S. arms transfers to Ethiopia died a slow death as the Pentagon and State Department continued to use it as the primary MAP justification. In June 1971 Gen. Robert H. Warren, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for military assistance and sales, described the communications facility as “one of the most important the United States has anywhere in the world” and noted that as a practical matter the Ethiopian military assistance program related explicitly and exclusively to Kagnew. Congress seemed to know better, but nonetheless only marginally reduced MAP and IMETP funds for Ethiopia from $11.75 million to $10.6 million for FY 1972. In the FY 1973 budget, another $1.25 million was slashed, leaving Ethiopia with $9.35 million worth of military assistance—the lowest level since FY 1960.

Whatever bargaining leverage Kagnew had given the Ethiopians had diminished significantly when the emperor arrived in Washington in May 1973. The huge depreciation in Kagnew’s strategic value meant that the emperor had no valued asset to offer the United States in exchange for arms. Moreover, the Ethiopian arms request came just as high-level U.S. decisions were being made concerning further reductions at Kagnew. Less than two months after Haile Selassie met with Richard Nixon, the DSC Stonehouse space communications project was shut down. Then in August 1973, Nixon approved a Defense Department recommendation that Kagnew is phased out. The days of Addis Ababa using Kagnew to coerce or blackmail the United States were over.


Of his own doing, Haile Selassie found himself in a very precarious political situation in the spring of 1973. Selassie’s boast that he would succeed in his mission to Washington created expectations that if not met would negatively affect his ability to rule. However, perhaps the emperor had cause for confidence. First, the Nixon Doctrine suggested that the United States would be amenable to meeting Ethiopia’s security needs. Second, if that was not enough, Selassie expected his longtime personal relationship with Richard Nixon to pay big dividends.

Since the Nixon administration’s first year in office, the declared policy of the United States had been to use arms transfers to secure U.S. interests overseas. The central thesis of the Nixon Doctrine, first enunciated at Guam Island at the end of July 1969, called for the United States to reduce its need to act as world policeman by looking to “the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense.” Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird subsequently elaborated on this theme, stating that the United States would be willing to “participate in the defense and development of allies and friends, but that America cannot—and will not—conceive all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions, and undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world.” The Nixon Doctrine was designed to project a low profile overseas and to limit U.S. military commitments by promoting self-help. Washington would supply “the fire extinguisher, but not fight the fire.”

The implications of the Nixon administration’s formula for maintaining international peace and stability were apparently not considered very carefully in Addis Ababa. First, it repudiated the Ethiopian interpretation of Washington’s I960 political-military commitment to Addis Ababa because the United States would not commit American forces to defend the Kagnew facility or Ethiopia. Second, the administration continued to place Africa at the bottom of Washington’s list of foreign policy priorities. Secretary of State William Rogers outlined the administration’s four-point policy for Africa while in Addis Ababa in early February 1970, recognizing the United States’ “special obligation” to provide aid to Africa, although African leaders would have to remember that “[U.S.] resources and capacity are not unlimited.” Moreover, the types and quantities of arms the emperor was seeking in May 1973 were more on a scale of what the United States would give to special clients like Israel or Iran, not a low-priority arms client in a low-priority region. Given Washington’s low-profile policy for Africa and the diminishing threats to U.S. interests, the Nixon administration was not about to grant such a request and turn Ethiopia into the regional policeman of Africa.

Selassie apparently also believed that his personal relationship with Richard Nixon would open the door to the U.S. arsenal. But he was staking his political fortune on a president who was coming under partisan attack in the United States and whose ability to conduct foreign policy was being eroded daily. With the Watergate scandal beginning to blow up in Nixon’s face and the United States still indirectly involved in supporting the South Vietnamese government, the president was reluctant to undertake any action that might draw additional fire. Selassie did not appreciate the implications of the political storm that had gathered over Nixon’s head.

Selassie’s belief that he could persuade President Nixon to override political or bureaucratic resistance to the IEG arms requests perhaps Could be attributed to his last meeting ‘with Nixon in July 1969. In greeting the emperor at the White House, the president spoke of a relationship between the two countries that would be “further broadened, not to the exclusive advantage of one party, but with a View toward bringing forth mutual benefits and advantage.” Nixon later recalled that evening, in a lengthy toast to the emperor, full of accolades, how the emperor had treated him so royally when he had visited Ethiopia in 1967 as a supposedly washed-up politician and remarked, “This is a man with an understanding heart.” Perhaps in debt of personal and political gratitude Richard Nixon might repay Selassie with some kindness of his own.

Thus, in May 1973 the emperor used the occasion of the White House state dinner in his honor to make Ethiopia’s case before the president and invited guests. Replying to President Nixon’s toast in Amharic, Selassie began by noting “the mutually beneficial cooperation of long-standing that has existed between our two countries.” He then proceeded to suggest that a review of these matters was in order and that “these relations, covering a wide part of our mutual interest, [needed to] be sustained at increasing levels.” Obviously, this was a thinly veiled reference to the IEG military shopping list. Selassie concluded his remarks by attempting to box the administration into a corner by observing that “Ethiopia is gratified to know that she can always count on the continuation of this assistance.”

Emperor Selassie’s last-ditch plea for the United States not to abandon Ethiopia in its hour of need had only a marginal effect if any. There was nowhere else he could go for arms on such favorable terms (grant aid). Now Selassie would have to deal with the political consequences of not getting what he had promised. A quick trip to Moscow shortly thereafter failed to restore his prestige, as he again returned home empty-handed. In overestimating the value of his personal relationship with Nixon (and perhaps the Somali threat as well), and misinterpreting what the Nixon Doctrine meant for Ethiopia, he set himself up for a largely unnecessary personal political failure.


If the Nixon administration had been operating in a political vacuum, perhaps it may have been more receptive to Haile Selassie’s May 1973 arms request. But it was not. The battle between the U.S. executive branch and Congress over control of U.S. foreign policy was at its peak. Stung by what it viewed as presidential deceit, manipulation, and arrogance in waging and expanding the war in Southeast Asia, the legislative branch sought to assert its constitutional authority to avoid a replay of Vietnam in other Third World countries. Although the balance of power ultimately still favored the executive branch in the planning and execution of American foreign policy, the White House would have to exhibit greater political sensitivity to the concerns of Congress. Such awareness would be required particularly with regard to U.S. arms transfers to the Third World because these transactions in the form of military assistance were viewed by many as lying at the root of Washington’s escalating involvement in Vietnam.

In the post-World War II period, the legislative branch had virtually ignored or viewed with great skepticism and paternalism the effect of U.S. arms transfers to the Third World. This was especially true in the case of Africa. In the late 1960s, Congress had imposed a ceiling of $25 million on grant military assistance and a $40 million limit on all arms transfers (including MAP and FMS sales) to Africa. Some justified this action on the grounds that providing military equipment “to primitive nations all over the world” was not the way Washington should be running its overseas security program.” Others voiced the concern that by diverting the scarce resources of an impoverished country like Ethiopia away from its enormous development needs American policy would in time lead to serious internal upheaval.

Despite these reservations, the levels of U.S. military assistance proposed by the executive branch for Ethiopia and other arms clients passed through Congress virtually untouched year after year. In the case of Ethiopia, this constancy was due to the U.S. communications operation at Kagnew. But as a result of the increasing scrutiny that U.S. military involvement in Vietnam came under at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, however, controversy arose on Capitol Hill as to whether the U.S. tenure at Kagnew threatened to draw the United States into another Vietnam-type situation in Eritrea. While the executive branch dismissed this idea, some influential members of Congress saw a very disturbing analogy between the two situations.

When the IEG annexed Eritrea in 1962, the United States had remained silent, so as not to risk its tenure at Kagnew. State Department officials realized, however, that Washington had inherited a problem which would keep the United States on the “hot seat” in Ethiopia for some time. The U.S. embassy’s standard operating policy toward the problem in Eritrea was to stay clear of any involvement in the civil war. Americans were to avoid intermingling with Ethiopian forces in Eritrea or showing any signs of support for IEG actions in the province. Despite the intentions of the State Department directive, the United States could not totally dissociate itself from local actions taken by Addis Ababa.

The State Department’s disclaimer of noninvolvement in Eritrea did not match reality, however, in spite of the embassy’s efforts to enforce such a policy. Edward Korry recalled that in 1965 he felt obliged to dismiss an army colonel attached to the Army Security Agency (ASA). The colonel, who had already been reprimanded by Korry for disobeying the embassy’s standard operating procedure, sent twelve to sixteen U.S. soldiers in full battle gear parading around Asmara in jeeps as a “show of force.” According to a Peace Corps volunteer, in the spring of 1965 politically inspired strikes in Eritrean schools started a rumor that Eritrean insurgents were ready to invade Asmara. The commander of Kagnew, fearing for the security of his base, ordered all military personnel to wear the battle dress and arm themselves. Military jeeps patrolled the city with U.S. soldiers alert behind machine guns. Although U.S. officials later claimed that the guns were not loaded, many Eritreans resented this parade of strength, which had the effect of supporting the IEG.

Despite State’s disclaimers, the U.S. approach to getting the United States off the “hot seat” was to help Addis Ababa put an end to the rebellion by political-military means. The civic action training program implemented by the United States in 1964 constituted part of the general approach to counterinsurgency warfare. Finding water and drilling wells, among other things, were intended to decrease Eritrean hostility toward Addis Ababa. But the presence of U.S. Green Berets in Ethiopia highlighted Washington’s indirect support for the emperor’s attempt to impose a military solution in Eritrea.

In the fall of 1966, a 164-man advisory team operating under the code name “Plan Delta” was sent to Ethiopia for two to three years to “try to increase the professional skills in the Ethiopian army.” Another team of twelve advisers spent twenty-six weeks in Ethiopia during 1968 training the armed forces in civic action. During the 1960s, the U.S. AID Office of Public Safety also provided approximately $3 million to train the Ethiopian police on routine matters as well as in paramilitary and counterinsurgency techniques. If not in fact, then at least symbolically and certainly indirectly, these actions implicated the United States in the IEG’s attempt to suppress by force the insurgency in Eritrea.

Washington’s role in Ethiopia did not go unnoticed by the Eritreans. During the latter part of 1969, the ELF kidnapped for several hours the American consul-general in Asmara, Murrey Jackson. They gave Jackson a full briefing on the Eritrean struggle and had him sign a statement acknowledging that he had spoken with ELF representatives and observed their troops. Following Jackson’s release, houses in a nearby town were destroyed by Ethiopian troops, prompting one U.S. official to comment, “It did not seem to me to be too good an idea; . . . it puts us too closely in league with everything the army does.” At the time of the Jackson kidnapping, the U.S. Senate was conducting hearings to review U.S. defense commitments around the world; to avoid drawing attention to the hidden war in Eritrea, the State Department classified the incident as highly confidential and kept it under wraps for several months.

The kidnapping of the U.S. consul general was evidence of the increasing vulnerability of the 1,500 U.S. military personnel and the more than 3,200 Americans (including dependents) stationed at Asmara. There was a growing perception among Eritreans of U.S. complicity with the IEG’s policies in the area. Washington could no longer deny a connection between the potential threat to those Americans living in Eritrea, U.S. security at Kagnew, and internal instability in Ethiopia. These issues became matters of public record on June 1, 1970, when for five hours members of the Symington committee, which for the past eighteen months had been examining U.S. security commitments worldwide, scrutinized the political-military relationship between the United States and Ethiopia. As a result of these hearings, the 1960 executive agreement, the series of other military agreements concluded between Washington and Addis Ababa in the early 1960s, as well as the counterinsurgency nature of U.S. civic action programs instituted during the second half of the decade, were revealed.

During the hearings, the State Department and Pentagon attempted to draw a distinction between the policies of the IEG in Eritrea and the role played by Washington and to minimize the threat posed by the ELF to Americans and the internal stability of Ethiopia. Committee members pictured instead of the makings of another Vietnam. Ethiopian colonialism and Eritrean nationalism (an echo of French colonialism and Vietnamese nationalism), mixed with Washington’s desire to maintain access to a communications facility located in the midst of this caldron, would only lead to deepening U.S. involvement. The United States was walking a fine line in trying to separate U.S. military support for Ethiopia from Addis Ababa’s policies of repression in Eritrea.

The Symington hearings had no immediate effect on U.S. policy toward Ethiopia. Military assistance continued at approximately the same levels over the next several years. Despite the increasingly anti-American statements made by ELF leaders, Washington equipped three Ethiopian battalions operating in Eritrea with new automatic M-16 rifles in 1971. The executive branch appeared to have calculated correctly. Except for a few isolated and largely accidental incidents, the ELF refrained from direct attacks on U.S. personnel.

However, the Symington hearings would have a more subtle, latent impact upon American policy. Whether members of Congress truly believed that the situation in Eritrea could develop into another Vietnam was not so important. Rather, the secrecy that appeared to surround U.S. dealings with foreign governments had been broken. Presidents could not expect to increase U.S. military commitments to countries like Ethiopia and not have their policy challenged. Since the stakes (Kagnew) and the risks (the Eritrean insurgency) had been spelled out, administration officials would experience more trouble convincing Congress of the need to maintain the level of military assistance to Addis Ababa, especially as the value of Kagnew diminished and the problem in Eritrea deepened.

Thus, by the time Haile Selassie arrived in Washington with his military shopping list, the U.S. Congress had established itself as a counterbalance to an executive branch prone to making unbridled, or deepening, U.S. military commitments to Third World governments. Vietnam had destroyed the American foreign policy consensus in Congress. To avoid another such debacle, Congress was now willing to challenge or force the executive branch to be more accountable for U.S. policy in a far-off, little-known place like Ethiopia. But by placing this political-constitutional constraint on the executive branch, the U.S. Congress gave the administration a built-in excuse for denying, trimming, or putting off Ethiopian military requests.


Whatever the emperor’s illusions about a special political-military relationship with the United States, they were shattered by his May 1973 visit. The rebuff not only severely damaged the emperor’s personal prestige; it also signaled declining U.S. interest in Ethiopia. This change was particularly dangerous for Addis Ababa: IEG military requirements were on the upswing, while U.S. strategic requirements in Ethiopia were moving in the opposite direction. The State Department was now forced to invoke the credibility argument to justify MAP aid to Ethiopia. In using this rationale, the Nixon administration managed to win a $1.3 million increase in military assistance to Ethiopia for FY 1974. But maintaining U.S. credibility in Ethiopia was not going to be worth much more than $11 million per year because Kagnew, a tangible asset, had never been valued at much more than that during the peak of U.S. operations at the station.

Thus, Haile Selassie arrived in Washington with a very weak hand to play. By May 1973 the quid pro quo arrangement underlying the U.S.-Ethiopia relationship was for all intents and purposes dead. Threatening the U.S. tenure at Kagnew was no longer a viable bargaining tactic. Moreover, because of deepening Soviet military involvement in Somalia, the emperor could not use the traditional Ethiopian bluff of threatening to defect to the Soviet Union for arms. Addis Ababa really had little choice but to accept whatever Washington provided since its military depended upon U.S. arms. The emperor had no interest in jeopardizing the U.S.-Ethiopia relationship: despite Washington’s diplomatic rebuff, Selassie’s personal relationship with Richard Nixon might pay some dividend in the near future.

The American bargaining position vis-a-vis Ethiopia was never stronger. External threats to U.S. interests had receded in recent years and Kagnew was almost worthless, so there was no compelling reason to do anything extraordinary for Ethiopia. Further, as a result of the new political climate that had taken hold in Washington during the early 1970s in response to the war in Southeast Asia, the possibility of U.S. military disengagement from Ethiopia was very real. Addis Ababa had no lever with which to force Washington’s hand.

The diplomatic rebuff of Selassie’s 1973 arms request marked the beginning of a new period in U.S.-Ethiopia military relations. It was evidence of a trend already emerging in Washington’s relations with other arms recipients: increasing client reliance upon FMS financing (loans) and FMS sales. Given this worldwide MAP phase-out, the IEG could take satisfaction in the fact that the United States continued to give Ethiopia some grant military funds. But if Ethiopia wished to respond to the Soviet-supported arms buildup in Somalia and suppress the insurrection in Eritrea, it would have to pay its own way if it wished to acquire increased levels of arms from the United States.

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