“The 1977 Collapse of U.S.-Ethiopian Military Relations” is chapter 8 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 8 The 1977 Collapse of U.S.-Ethiopian Military Relations


The United States And Ethiopia, 1953-1977

CHAPTER 8: The 1977 Collapse of U.S.-Ethiopian Military Relations

Following Washington’s rebuff of Haile Selassie’s May 1973 military request, U.S.-Ethiopia relations were a continuing series of crises. These problems emerged as the old imperial regime slowly disintegrated during 1974. The overthrow of Haile Selassie on September 12, 1974, was the culmination of the so-called creeping coup that over an eight-month period stripped away the powers of the emperor. What began in early 1974 as an isolated mutiny at a small army garrison over food and water shortages soon spread throughout the military and sparked civilian actions against the government. Selassie’s feeble attempt to salvage the situation by appointing a new cabinet and promising constitutional changes and broad reforms was ultimately met by the seizure of power by the armed forces. The Armed Forces Coordinating Committee (later known as the Dergue), established in the spring of 1974, snipped away at the powers of the emperor so that by early summer Selassie had been reduced to nothing more than a figurehead. On September 15, three days after Emperor Selassie had been deposed and imprisoned, the Dergue created a Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) to rule over 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.


CHAPTER 8 The 1977 Collapse of U.S.-Ethiopian Military RelationsThe first of many controversial arms decisions to arise over the next three years occurred in May 1974, when Haile Selassie was still clinging to power. At a meeting of the Washington Special Action Group, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ordered a moderate step-up in U.S. arms deliveries to lamented Beijing’s economic engagement model, saying it undermined democracy and mired African countries in debt. When he landed in Ethiopia, including thirty-six M-60 tanks. Kissinger felt that the United States could not risk compromising its credibility by seemingly turning its back on a longstanding MAP partner. In ordering this action, he had overruled the advice of State Department and Pentagon officials who felt that Addis Ababa was again exaggerating the Somali threat. But by the end of the summer, the Africa Bureau was in agreement with Kissinger that more had to be done for the Ethiopian military.

Earlier that summer 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 agreed to increase arms transfers to Ethiopia, extending $11 million in FMS credits on concessionary terms and increasing MAP aid to $11.5 million for FY 1974 as well as allowing large-scale cash purchases. A Department of State issue paper prepared on August 29 argued, “As long as there exists a distinct possibility that the present situation will result in a strengthened, more moderate state, and in a continuation of the traditional Ethiopian ties with the West, we should continue to carry out our program of military aid and sales as agreed.” It was hoped that this action “would bolster Ethiopia’s confidence in its ability to defend itself and in the death of four U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Niger on Oct. 4 has lead some in the United States as a reliable associate” as well as strengthen more moderate elements within the military. Because the administration was “severely limited” in the amount of military assistance it could provide owing to congressional restraints, the State Department also recommended that the United States “should continue to encourage appropriate third countries, namely Iran and Saudi Arabia, to provide any assistance they can to Ethiopia in acquiring the arms it considers necessary to face the Somali threat.” As Washington’s longtime friend slipped from power, the United States still sought to maintain influence with the emperor’s eventual successors. However, what the Americans considered a generous arms offer was not well received in Addis Ababa, whose military rulers were dissatisfied with the slow delivery time for some items and the high proportion (over 50 percent) of cash purchases compared to the level of credits and grant aid.

Two months after Haile Selassie was removed from power, the United States, now led by Gerald Ford who had replaced Richard Nixon as president on August 9, confronted an even more perplexing situation in Ethiopia. In November, Gen. Aman Adorn, a moderate and leader of the PMAC, was killed and fifty-nine former officials of the IEC were summarily executed. Then in December the PMAC declared its intention to turn Ethiopia into a one-party state and at the beginning of 1975 announced plans to nationalize the enterprises and properties owned by aristocrats— an action extended late in 1975 to U.S. businesses and properties. At the same time, the war in Eritrea had intensified, prompting an urgent request from the PMAC on February 12, 1975, for an emergency U.S. airlift of $30 million worth of small arms and ammunition. A month went by before the administration agreed to sell Ethiopia up to $7 million worth of ammunition. What was seen in Washington as a compromise solution to a controversial problem involving Arab and Ethiopian interests angered the PMAC, which interpreted the delay and small quantities offered as “an unambiguous sign that Washington was opposed to the revolution and was backing out of a long-term commitment to supply Ethiopia with arms.

In mid-1975, the United States confronted a new problem regarding the transfer of two squadrons of F5-E fighter bombers to Ethiopia. Early that summer the PMAC had indicated a desire to purchase one or two squadrons of F-5E aircraft as well as M-60 tanks. The State Department favored increasing FMS credits for Ethiopia from $5 million (the amount justified before Congress) to $25 million and to provide these credits on concessionary terms to help finance these purchases, which were expected to total between $100 million and $135 million. Because of mounting concern in Congress about the administration’s lack of a coordinated policy regarding arms sales worldwide, President Ford considered delaying any response to Ethiopian approaches in order to await the outcome of a National Security Council review to be concluded by the end of the summer. Arguing that the NSC review was general, not specific to Ethiopia and that the credit terms for FY 1975 had to be signed before July 1, Henry Kissinger and the State Department pressured Ford into signing a presidential determination (PD) granting the credit request. This allowed for the transfer of ten F-5 jets on the basis that “it is important to [U.S.] national security.” This authorization was done despite Ethiopia being one of the countries falling under section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act, stating a sense of Congress that except in extraordinary situations the president should “substantially reduce or terminate security assistance to governments which engage in a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights.”

However, in October the question was raised, in light of events that had transpired in Ethiopia, whether the United States should go ahead with the delivery of the jets. Although the F-5E delivery was part of a comprehensive modernization plan for the Ethiopian armed forces drawn up by the U.S. MAAC in Addis Ababa a few years before, and although it was Ethiopia’s turn on the waiting list to receive delivery of these aircraft, the United States was becoming more involved in government military actions in Eritrea. At the time, four Americans were being held hostage by Eritrean insurgents. Due to “larger policy considerations,” namely, that the “acquisition of these aircraft at an early date is a matter of great importance to the Ethiopian government and has become a touchstone of our bilateral relations,” the United States proceeded with the delivery of eight F-5Es which arrived in Addis Ababa on April 15, 1976.

By the end of 1975, however, global rather than regional considerations began dominating U.S. policy calculations. As a result of the Victory in Angola by the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), and following the final defeat of the South Vietnamese army in spring 1975, top-ranking administration officials, including the president, felt that other nations would view these communist-backed victories as symbols of U.S. helplessness. They believed U.S. credibility was at risk following reports of Cuban troop movements into Somalia in early I976—joining an estimated 2,500 Soviet military advisers already there. In February 1976 the Dergue had published a thirty-nine-page memorandum entitled “War Clouds in the Horn of Africa” warning that Somalia was preparing for war. The United States eventually agreed in early July 1976 to provide approximately $175-$200 million worth of arms to Addis Ababa on a cash and credit basis. The proposed arms package—to include the transfer of two squadrons of F-5E and a squadron of F-5G jet fighters, several dozen M-60 heavy tanks, three to six C-130 transports, an early warning radar system, a number of armored personnel carriers (APCS), and several thousand antitank weapons—was designed to counter what the administration viewed as a post-Angola trend of expanding Soviet influence throughout Africa.

Although U.S. arms transfers to Ethiopia reached an all-time high in 1976, including more than $100 million in cash sales, hardline and radical factions within the PMAC, whose informal memberships overlapped, were still unhappy with the United States. The hard-liners, who favored continuing the war in Eritrea, were dissatisfied by Ethiopia’s increasing reliance upon cash purchases and reductions in MAP assistance from the United States at this critical time. Radicals felt uncomfortable being in league with an imperialist power whom they did not trust. In late December 1976 Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the leader of the radical faction (and a hard-liner as well) within the Dergue and first vice-chairman of the PMAC, visited Moscow and signed a secret military agreement worth at least $100 million.

Before the revelation of this secret Ethiopian-Soviet military agreement several months later, the State Department still hoped to salvage the situation in Ethiopia by doing more of the same in supplying arms to the PMAC. But there was growing discontent on Capitol Hill. In November 1976 the U.S. Congress had designated Ethiopia as one of nineteen countries whose government engaged in such a persistent pattern of gross violations of human rights that it should be declared ineligible to receive U.S. military assistance. That same month, the American people elected Jimmy Carter president, a man who campaigned for the promotion of human rights overseas and reductions in U.S. arms sales abroad.

On 3 February 1977, a shoot-out occurred in the old Menelik Palace that left Gen. Teferi Banti, the PMAC chairman, and several of his principal supporters dead, and elevated Colonel Mengistu to the top spot as the undisputed leader of Ethiopia. This event, coupled with the government’s continuing repression of the civilian population, resulted in Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s informing the Senate Appropriations Committee on Foreign Operations that grant military assistance to Ethiopia was being suspended because of human rights violations. For all practical purposes, the Carter administration’s human rights-based aid suspension was largely symbolic, since Ethiopia was being phased out of the military assistance program anyway on budgetary grounds as part of the Pentagon’s worldwide MAP reductions. However, this action was cited by the PMAC as evidence of Washington’s hostile attitude toward the revolutionary developments in Ethiopia, and further justification for drawing closer to Moscow.

The U.S.-Ethiopia military relationship came to a swift end several months into the Carter presidency in a series of retaliatory actions. On April 22, 1977, Washington informed Addis Ababa that the United States would close down Kagnew Station before the end of September—eight months before the twenty-five-year lease expired—and because of congressionally mandated cuts, the number of U.S. MAAG advisers in Ethiopia would be reduced from forty-six to twenty-four by the end of the summer. The next day Ethiopia ordered the closure of the U.S. MAAG, Kagnew Station, the Naval Medical Research Unit, the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) office and the consulate general’s office in Asmara, and subsequently unilaterally abrogated the 1953 MDAA treaty. On April 28 the United States suspended the remaining $10 million FMS credit program and $6 million in outstanding MAP funds for FY 1977 and halted the delivery of some $100 million worth of arms still in the pipeline. A month later Mengistu ordered a 50 percent reduction in the U.S. embassy staff. Then in June, Congress passed the International Security Assistance and Arms Export Control Act of 1977, which stated that military assistance, training, and FMS credits for Ethiopia as well as FMS cash sales and deliveries of military equipment financed by military assistance, credits, or guarantees, were prohibited unless the president declared that U.S. national security interests were at stake. No such recommendation was forthcoming; in a calculated move to irritate the Ethiopian government, the Carter White House made a public issue of the horrendous human rights crimes in Ethiopia and declared its intention not to consider future arms requests from Addis Ababa. According to Carter’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Richard Moose, in using the human rights issue to justify the U.S. position on arms transfers to Ethiopia, the Carter administration “slammed the door on the way out for emphasis.”


The collapse of the U.S.-Ethiopia military partnership had its origins in Ethiopia’s increased demand for arms resulting from its desire to impose a military solution in Eritrea. On the one hand, Washington wished to demonstrate that the United States was not inherently hostile to the Ethiopian revolution, whose ideology of “Ethiopian socialism” seemed to be another version of African socialism rather than a companion of Marxism-Leninism or Maoism. On the other hand, after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, which heightened Washington’s sensitivity to the concerns of moderate Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, supporting the Ethiopian war effort in Eritrea might be construed as an anti-Arab action. Apparently taking a page from the 1973 war, the American design was to bring about a stalemate by giving Addis Ababa enough arms to turn back any Eritrean offensive but not enough to win the war outright. By continuing to supply a moderate level of arms to Ethiopia, the United States hoped to open the way to negotiations between the two sides. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian military government was not interested in a political compromise in Eritrea.

The formation of the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) in mid-September 1974 held out some promise that the civil war in Eritrea might be resolved peacefully. General Aman Michael Adom, an Eritrean and a known quantity to U.S. embassy officials and the State Department, had been appointed head of the new government council. Aman had chaired an armed forces group established the previous August to conduct an investigation into the Eritrean rebellion. Although the Eritrean guerrilla organizations declared that they would negotiate only if Addis Ababa acceded to their demands for full independence, Aman apparently believed that with a free hand he could solve the Eritrean problem short of granting full independence.

While General Aman’s political solution—believed to be a return to federation status for most of Eritrea—found favor among the Americans, it set him at odds with the majority of the PMAC. Ethiopian nationalism, embodying the idea that it was the Ethiopians’ patriotic duty to preserve the unity of the empire, was one of the few ideological positions on which members of the military government could find common ground. Aman’s initiative ran counter to the predominant PMAC belief in an indivisible Ethiopia. In favoring a dictated political settlement or imposed military solution, both of which would mean continued war in Eritrea, this majority ensured that Ethiopia would continue to place heavy emphasis on acquiring arms from foreign sources.

Any hope of achieving a quick political settlement in Eritrea vanished in mid-November when the split between the moderate accommodationists and hardline militarists within the Dergue was settled in a bloody manner, giving the upper hand to the latter faction. General Aman had resigned as PMAC chairman to protest three of the council’s policy decisions: (1) the summary execution of former government officials, (2) the establishment of a new penal code to legalize the arrests, forthcoming trials of former officials, and seizure of property, and (3) the order sending another 5,000 troops to Eritrea. Aman was later killed in a firefight at his home on November 22. That same night the PMAC decided by a simple majority vote to execute without trial fifty-nine political detainees, including two former prime ministers and seventeen generals. “Bloody Saturday,” as it became known, marked the ascendance of a hard-line policy faction within the PMAC which selected Brig. Gen. Teferi Banti as the new chairman and Major Mengistu Haile Mariam as its first vice-chairman.

In late January 1975, the PMAC announced its intention to achieve a military settlement in Eritrea, ending what it called Addis Ababa’s policy of restraint in the province. However, Ethiopia’s military offensive would confront rebel forces that over the previous six months had substantially increased their armed strength, reinforced positions around Asmara, and ended the self-destructive infighting between the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) by forming a united Revolutionary Council. By early February, a full-scale battle was being waged in and around Asmara between rebel and government forces. Reports filed from Ethiopia gave the nation’s military little chance of sustaining this vastly increased level of conflict much longer without more aid and supplies.

In contrast to Ethiopian presentations made to Washington in the past, now the insurgency in Eritrea, not the Somali threat, was cited as the primary rationale behind Addis Ababa’s newest arms request. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had discussed the arms issue with the Ethiopian foreign minister, Kifle Woduju, in early February. A week later the U.S. military mission forwarded an Ethiopian shopping list requesting some $30 million worth of light weapons and ammunition. Framing an appropriate reply to this request proved difficult, given the events that had taken place in Ethiopia over the past several months, including Dergue’s deliberate escalation of the civil war in Eritrea.

Following the “Bloody Saturday” executions the Ford administration had postponed all major decisions regarding new arms shipments to Ethiopia in order to allow the State Department time to evaluate the political situation in the country. As a result, U.S. responses to Ethiopian arms requests were now being formulated on an ad hoc “wait-and-see” basis. Decision-making was further burdened by increasing congressional attention to the Eritrea problem. Moreover, in the wake of the reorientation of foreign policy in the region following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Ethiopia’s security requirements were being viewed in light of Washington’s Middle East policy, which produced a clash between Arabists and Africanists at the State Department over the PMAC’s February 1975 arms request. Arabists opposed Addis Ababa’s request because of growing Arab concern over Ethiopia’s military policy in Eritrea. The Africa Bureau countered that (1) the breadth of Arab support for the Eritrean cause was not so great; (2) Washington, in acting as Ethiopia’s sole arms supplier for over twenty years, had created a heavy dependence upon the United States for spare parts and ammunition, and could not now be totally unresponsive to their request; and (3) by turning down the Dergue it might create the perception in Africa that Washington was unwilling to help reform-minded or leftist-leaning governments.

A compromise solution was finally reached in mid-March designed to appease all parties — Africanists and Arabists at the State Department as well as the Ethiopians and Arabs — except the Eritreans. The United States agreed to provide $7 million worth of ammunition to the Dergue, far less than the original request, but enough to demonstrate continued U.S. interest in Ethiopia. It was hoped that the five-week delay in responding to Addis Ababa, as a result of keeping the request under review, would lend credence to Washington’s claim that it was not taking sides in the conflict. To reinforce this impression of neutrality, in announcing its decision on the arms package, the administration expressed the “hope that the two sides in the Eritrean conflict would soon enter into negotiations in order to end the fighting in the province and find an acceptable solution.”

This episode and subsequent events illustrated that the security calculations of Washington and Addis Ababa were fundamentally at odds. American policy was being influenced by the desire to maintain U.S. credibility in Ethiopia and, at the same time, not to antagonize any of the Arab governments being courted by Washington. On the other hand, it was quite clear by the end of Dergue’s first six months in power that the new government was determined to pursue the military option in Eritrea. Consequently, if not the United States, then some other power would have to be found who would be willing to underwrite Ethiopia’s hardline policy in Eritrea.


During the mid-1970s, a new security environment was developing for the United States that had the somewhat paradoxical effect of decreasing the U.S. strategic stake in Ethiopia. Détente between the two superpowers did not put an end to the expansion of military capabilities on both sides. Of particular concern to the United States was increased Soviet naval activity in the Indian Ocean region. The 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the 1973-1974 Arab oil embargo had heightened U.S. sensitivity to potentially threatening activities that might disrupt the How of oil to the West. However, U.S. defense planners ultimately made no strategic connection between the growing Soviet naval threat, and securing sea lanes in the Indian Ocean region, with providing military assistance to Ethiopia.

The demise of Kagnew’s strategic value in the 1970s did not spell the end of U.S. interest in Ethiopia. A past, present, and future U.S. strategic objective in the Red Sea and northwest quadrant of the Indian Ocean concerned the protection of the sea lines of communication (SLOCS) connecting the Middle East and South Asia with the Western world. Access to the Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab, coupled with control over Ethiopia’s Dahlak Island chain, could prove useful in countering any threat to shipping in the southern Red Sea and northwest quadrant of the Indian Ocean. Questions concerning U.S. security assistance to Ethiopia, therefore, could be linked to a broader regional objective of maintaining Western access to Middle Eastern oil.

The Soviet naval threat in the Indian Ocean began to materialize during the latter part of 1973. Before the perceived emergence of this strategic threat, the United States had been content to assume a “low-key, low-profile” position in the region. This policy was based on the apparent absence of any grand Soviet scheme to control the oil faucets. A successful naval interdiction along the sea lanes leading from the Middle East and Persian Gulf oil fields to Western markets seemed to lie beyond the Soviets’ capability. In 1972 James H. Noyes, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Near Eastern, African, and South Asian Affairs, described the Soviet naval threat in the Indian Ocean as “moderate.”

Moscow’s naval weakness stemmed in part from the lack of regional strategic infrastructure. The Soviet navy had to rely primarily upon its own bases for logistical support and had only limited access to onshore facilities. As Secretary Noyes explained to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Near East, “This lack of Indian Ocean shore bases for repair, maintenance, and the long supply lines from the Far East place practical limits on the size and length of Soviet naval deployments to the Indian Ocean.” However, as Noyes warned, “These limitations could be alleviated by gaining access to shore facilities in the Indian Ocean, or by the reopening of the Suez Canal, or both.”

Thus it was with keen interest that the Pentagon observed Soviet military construction activities, which got underway at Somalia’s port of Berbera in the fall of 1972. The Soviets began constructing an army barracks at Berbera and assigned a Soviet naval repair vessel to operate from the port. In December a long-range communications facility became operative. The following year, the Soviet Union started constructing missile-holding and storage facilities. Given enhanced Soviet naval support capabilities in the area, as Moscow was also cultivating political-military relations with South Yemen, defense analysts were prone to envision a worst-case scenario in which the Soviet Union could interdict Western SLOCs.

Confronted with a growing Soviet naval threat in the Indian Ocean region, executive branch officials attempted to make a strategic connection between the Horn of Africa and the United States’ interest in securing access to Middle Eastern oil. Testifying before Congress in June I974, Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cited Ethiopia’s “strategic location in the Horn of Africa” along with the residual communications operations still being performed at Kagnew Station as grounds for continuing U.S. military assistance to Ethiopia. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger declared in 1974, “The Horn of Africa is of particular strategic importance due to its geographical proximity to the troubled Middle East.” During the FY 1975 congressional appropriations hearings, the director of politico-military affairs and acting undersecretary of state for security assistance, George Vest, described Ethiopia as occupying a “geographical place right at the hub of northeast Africa” and as a “major center of moderation in a geographically vital area sitting astride oil lanes . . . [and] the Soviet-supported base in Somalia.” Even after the overthrow of Haile Selassie, the argument was made that the termination of U.S. arms transfers to the Dergue would allow an uncontested Soviet “takeover” of the Horn that would seriously threaten Western SLOCS running through the Red Sea and along Africa’s northeast littoral.

However, by 1975 the Soviet naval presence in Somalia was viewed by the Department of Defense as a way to justify the construction of a large U.S. naval base at Diego Garcia, rather than as an argument to preserve the U.S. position of influence in Ethiopia. In early 1975 Defense Secretary Schlesinger had presented evidence of a “significant new facility” at Berbera and a Soviet missile buildup in Somalia to justify an additional $108 million to expand the U.S. base at Diego Garcia. Even if Diego Garcia were not in the picture, the case for Ethiopia’s geostrategic importance was tenuous at best. Any advantage the Soviet navy would gain following the reopening of the Suez Canal in 1975 could be effectively negated in wartime by Western military technology. Moreover, Ethiopian bases would not be required to perform sea control operations at the Suez Canal and Bab al-Mandab. Besides, if war closed the Suez Canal, the strategic importance of the southern Red Sea, at least for the Western powers, would be greatly diminished. Therefore Washington could disengage from Ethiopia without diminishing its ability to protect the Indian Ocean sea lanes and the oil traffic.

Moreover, by early 1975 indigenous political forces were conspiring with technological developments to encourage a rapid U.S. disengagement from Ethiopia. Following the outbreak of heavy fighting in the Asmara area in early 1975, Washington ordered an emergency evacuation of more than 100 American dependents and nonessential personnel from the province, leaving only a residual staff of forty-four military and civilian technicians at Kagnew and nine members of the consulate general’s staff in Eritrea. Despite increased safeguards, in 1975 several Americans were kidnapped by Eritrean rebels, and Kagnew Station itself came under attack. Moreover, given the Pentagon’s desire to locate transmitting and receiving facilities at a single site (Diego Garcia) and the fact that satellites were already on order in early 1975 that would be able to take over Kagnew’s remaining naval communications functions, an early U.S. withdrawal from Ethiopia was feasible. Although administration officials would continue to argue into the latter part of 1976 that Kagnew Station was required to perform a residual ship-to-shore communications service in the Indian Ocean region, in private conversations high-ranking State Department officials admitted that Kagnew was essentially a backup facility whose loss would mean only minor reductions in U.S. military communications capabilities in the region. Given the deteriorating political-military situation in Eritrea and a congressional go-ahead for construction at Diego Garcia, it seemed a safer bet to counter Soviet activities in Somalia and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean region from a more secure location.


By the end of 1975, the Soviet arms option, which had been considered largely a bluff in the past, became a very real possibility. Since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the Soviet Union had been more willing to undertake high-risk operations in the Third World. Policymakers in the Kremlin who favored restraint had apparently lost out to other top-level officials willing to commit Moscow more deeply in providing military support for Third World clients. The forceful manner in which the Soviet Union had seized the initiative and consolidated its position in Angola during 1975-1976 contrasted with Washington’s perceived timidity following the collapse of South Vietnam in April 1975. Soviet geopolitical momentum in the Third World seemed to be growing, sending a potent message that, unlike the United States, the Soviet Union would use all military resources at its disposal to meet its commitments to client states—an important consideration for the hard-liners as well as radicals within the Dergue.

Even before its intervention in Angola, the Soviet Union had demonstrated in the Horn of Africa what it could do for an arms client. In the latter part of 1973, Moscow had started delivery to Somalia of 100 T-54 heavy tanks to add to the estimated 150 T-34 tanks already in the Somali arsenal. In February 1974 the Soviets began supplying to the Somali Air Force, which had been equipped with some twenty-one outmoded MiG-15 and MiG-17 jet fighters and bombers, the more modern MiG-19 aircraft and a squadron of advanced MiG-21 jet fighters, along with SA-2 surface-to-air missiles. This compared quite favorably with the Ethiopian arsenal, which included approximately fifty M-41 medium tanks and twenty M-24 light tanks and 37 aircraft, the best of—which—the F-86 Sabre jets and F-5 Freedom Fighters—would be outclassed by the MiG-21 fighters. The Soviet-sponsored arms buildup in Somalia demonstrated Moscow’s ability to alter the balance of forces in the Horn if it so desired. Combined with its military activities in Angola and the Middle East, the buildup drew Addis Ababa’s attention to the possibility of defecting to Moscow.

However, the USSR viewed events in Ethiopia with caution. During the first year of the revolution, the Soviet Union had expressed sympathetic interest in Dergue’s radical rhetoric and revolutionary program. Although the Soviets renewed their offer to replace the United States as Ethiopia’s arms supplier, it was not until early 1976 that they agreed to supply Ethiopia with nonlethal equipment. Like Washington, Moscow was not sure what to make of Ethiopia’s new military leaders. The Soviets also had to consider whether it was worth risking the political-military investment it had already made in Somalia to pursue the Ethiopian option, given the uncertainty of the PMAC’s pro-Soviet credentials.

During this time, key political decisions were being made within the PMAC that laid the groundwork for Ethiopia’s later political-military realignment. At the end of 1974 and again in 1975, the PMAC reportedly made approaches to the Soviet Union for arms. In 1975 the PMAC sent some of its members to Eastern Europe for political training. These military cadres would eventually become the nucleus of the Marxist-Leninist political organization, Abyot Seded (Revolutionary Flame), established by the Dergue in the latter part of 1976. At the end of 1975, Mengistu established ties with the Marxist-Leninist student group, the All Ethiopia Socialist Movement (known as MEISON), and made its leader Haile Fida his ideological adviser. In summer 1976, Ethiopia’s government-controlled press, already quite critical of U.S. policy, launched a series of anti-American attacks. Every insurrectionary act was attributed to the “paid agents of the EPRP, EDU, ELF, and CIA.” The Dergue attempted to discredit opposition from the civilian Marxist-oriented Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) by claiming it was in league with the CIA. This all seemed to be part of a carefully orchestrated plan to establish Dergue’s ideological credentials and credibility with Moscow. It also had the short-term effect of making Washington more responsive to Ethiopia’s arms requests to prove it was not hostile to the revolution.

By early 1975, Ethiopian, as well as American policymakers, held mirror images of each other, neither side considering the other much of an ally. Given Ethiopia’s vast security requirements resulting from the situation in Eritrea and the Somali threat, the PMAC now actively explored the Soviet arms option. While there were fewer constraints on Moscow’s behavior than on Washington’s, several things had to be set in order to open the way for a realignment: (1) moderates within the PMAC, who favored the continuation of the U.S. arms connection, would have to be eliminated; (2) Moscow would have to offer an arms package more attractive than the terms offered by Washington; and (3) the Soviet Union would have to feel confident about risking its strategic investment in Somalia to acquire a larger, more powerful, and ideologically compatible, though unstable, arms client.


By 1975 the rationalization of U.S. policy toward Ethiopia had little to do with strategic interests. Instead, international political considerations and rather subtle manipulation of Congress by the executive branch created an atmosphere in which the United States avoided forcing a decisive confrontation with the PMAC over its military policy in Eritrea and increasing human rights abuses. In the first instance, U.S. policy was based on (1) the Africa Bureau’s desire to maintain American political credibility in the region by demonstrating a willingness to work with left-of-center progressive governments, and (2) Henry Kissinger’s obsession with enhancing U.S. global credibility in the face of Soviet intrusions into unstable regions of the Third World. Since such rationales found few adherents on Capitol Hill, especially given their role in prolonging U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, the executive branch began to invoke more frequently and publicly the Israeli security argument to distract congressional critics of U.S. arms transfers to Ethiopia.

Throughout the 1960s and into the 19705, the Israeli security argument was rarely evoked by the executive branch to justify military assistance to Ethiopia. It was unnecessary since Kagnew made all other rationales largely superfluous. But the State Department occasionally reminded Congress that the Ethiopian military was engaged in operations against a radical Arab-supported insurgency. This was a backhanded way of justifying the Ethiopian military assistance program, and Addis Ababa’s counterinsurgency operations in Eritrea, on the grounds of Israeli security. Although this rationale would strike a political nerve in Congress, U.S. officials did not elaborate on this point or speak of the Israeli-Ethiopian military aid connection publicly in order to avoid placing Addis Ababa in an even more precarious position vis-a-vis its Arab neighbors.

Israel’s interest in Ethiopia, like that of the United States, revolved around Eritrea. Israeli defense analysts feared that an independent Eritrean state would adopt a pro-Arab, anti-Israel foreign policy orientation. Arab pressures applied against the Ethiopian empire were seen as part of Israel’s own battle with Egypt and Islam, and Eritrea was a part of this confrontation. Thus, Tel Aviv viewed the Eritrean civil war as a southerly extension of the Arab-Israeli conflict—a perception reinforced by allegations that surfaced after the June 1967 war of a PLO-ELF link.

Israel’s strategic objective in Ethiopia, therefore, was quite simple and dovetailed with U.S. and Ethiopian interests—to prevent the emergence of an independent Eritrean state. To this end, Israel established an elaborate intelligence network inside Ethiopia, trained Ethiopian police and counterinsurgency units, and maintained extensive trade links with Addis Ababa. According to Edward Korry, the Israelis had established a better exchange system with Ethiopian security than the CIA, which seemed to have no interest in what was going on in Ethiopia and sent few informative reports back to Washington. However, Ethiopia’s Israeli connection did have its costs: Arab states used it to justify their intervention in the Horn on the pretext of fighting Israel, even though Arab actions were also motivated by a desire to counter leftist forces. Although as the result of Arab pressure Haile Selassie severed diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, trade relations, as well as covert military assistance, continued unabated.

The Israeli security argument, as presented in Washington, was based upon a worst-case analysis constructed by Israeli defense officials. It envisioned the Red Sea being converted into an Arab lake in the event of an Eritrean victory in the civil war. Consequently, the Arab states would be able to bring pressure to bear on Israeli commerce at Bab al-Mandab, and off the Eritrean coast in the two-mile strait between the islands of Zugar and Abuail, which formed part of Ethiopia’s Dahlak Archipelago. Israeli as well as Western shipping would have to travel through a waterway completely engulfed by Arab, or Arab-oriented states—a prospect that on the surface would appear to present a strategic problem for the United States as well.

The Israeli security argument became public in Washington at about the same time that the Eritrean forces were repelling the Ethiopian military offensive in early 1975. During the debate on Capitol Hill about the Dergue’s $30 million arms request, the Africa Bureau had attempted to play down the Arab-Eritrean connection. However, while Addis Ababa’s request was under review, Israeli military analysts were publicly expressing concern over the future of Israel’s shipping in and out of the Red Sea if the Eritreans were to gain control of Ethiopia’s coastal province. In August 1976 the political impact of an independent Eritrean state upon Israel’s security was discussed by several leading experts on the Horn of Africa before a U.S. Senate committee. Although no consensus was reached during this hearing, the fact that the subject received such scrutiny demonstrated the seriousness with which the U.S. Congress approached any question that might affect Israel’s security.

Despite its power of persuasion on Capitol Hill, the reasoning underlying the Israeli security argument was seen by some as flawed. An Arab position in Eritrea would be largely redundant. Egypt had successfully blockaded the Bab al-Mandab during the 1973 war with existing facilities. Moreover, an independent Eritrea would be economically dependent upon foreign commerce and have a common interest in preserving regional stability and the free flow of trade in the Red Sea. Besides, Israel’s proven military capabilities would be enough to deter or retaliate against any aggression. The Israeli security argument seemed to be a diversion used to buy time on Capitol Hill while the administration attempted to make sense of events in Ethiopia.

The Ethiopia-Eritrea-Israel triangle highlighted a domestic political reality that constrained U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa as well as the Middle East. Before Washington would pursue any Arab-Islamic option, whether it entailed support for a government or an insurgency movement, it would first have to apply the Israeli litmus test. Were the security interests of a particular government (Somalia) or nongovernmental (Eritrean movement) actor compatible with those of Tel Aviv? Because Ethiopia had already passed this test, it was less risky domestically for the Ford administration to maintain relations with the Dergue than to pursue politically provocative options.

By the time Jimmy Carter entered the White House in January 1977, the political-strategic situation in northeast Africa had changed dramatically. While the Israeli security argument was still potent, it was now bending under the pressure of change and the emergence of forces in certain Arab capitals favoring accommodation with the West. In July 1976, Anwar Sadat had expelled the few remaining Soviet military advisers from Egypt and quickly invited the United States to replace the USSR as Cairo’s arms patron. Then at the end of 1976, several months after a Libyan-sponsored coup failed to overthrow Sudan’s President Jaafar Nimeiri, the United States declared Khartoum eligible to buy U.S. military equipment. At about the same time, the Somalis were sending signals to Washington that they too were dissatisfied with their Soviet military connection and would consider a U.S. security connection. So, as the Carter administration assumed control over U.S. foreign policy, Ethiopia not only became expendable from a strategic vantage point but also because the United States had acquired increased political flexibility in the region.


CHAPTER 8 The 1977 Collapse of U.S.-Ethiopian Military Relations
Ethiopian Derg Rally, 1977. Photo by William Campbell.

Since the early 1960s, the Department of State had pondered the question, “After Haile Selassie, what?” The working assumption at the State Department was that the emperor would not survive in power to the end of the decade. Haile Selassie’s age was starting to catch up with him; he was showing signs of senility and inability to keep up with the affairs of the state. While the State Department believed it was time for a change, few foresaw that pressure from Somalia and Eritrea, discontent among those seeing an opportunity to establish a limited form of democracy or a more radical socialist experiment, together with the IEG’s attempted cover-up of the Wollo famine that killed tens of thousands, and the declining physical condition of the emperor, would produce a “creeping revolution” that would bring down the monarchy and subsequently take a bloody, leftward turn. All that could be predicted was that a change in leadership would occur as the result of a coup d’état or the death of the aging monarch. In either case, U.S. diplomats were confident that the U.S.-Ethiopia relationship would survive.

Twenty years of U.S. political-military penetration of Ethiopia had created bonds that Washington believed could withstand a change in Ethiopia’s government. If the Ethiopian military took control, the leaders of such a government would likely be familiar figures with close ties to the U.S. military establishment. In the event of an orderly transition upon the emperor’s death, Crown Prince Asfa Wossen, considered the probable successor to the throne and part of the Western-educated political establishment, was expected to maintain close ties with the United States. Whatever the outcome, it seemed probable that any new Ethiopian government would desire stability in its foreign relations while it adjusted to life without the emperor.

Through the years, however, the U.S.-Ethiopia military relationship had been steadied by the wide ideological gulf that separated Addis Ababa and Moscow. This chasm had effectively ruled out any serious bid on the part of the Soviet Union to develop a partnership with Ethiopia. The United States represented a more politically compatible and safer source for arms for the conservative, feudal-based imperial government. But the ideological gulf between Ethiopia and the Soviet Union began to close after the Dergue seized power in 1974. The dismemberment of the old imperial institutions throughout 1974, culminating in the emperor’s overthrow, had left a vacuum that would be filled by a militant, Marxist faction led by Colonel Mengistu.

The secrecy in which the Dergue shrouded itself upon assuming power made it virtually impossible for any outsider to gauge what was going on inside the Ethiopian government. The political and economic contradictions of the military government’s domestic policies contributed to the confusion. Sweeping social and economic reforms implemented during the first half of 1975 suggested that the Dergue might be a leftist-leaning reformist government that would eventually return power to the people. But the Dergue’s forceful repression of the radical intelligentsia and labor activists in the fall of 1975 pointed to the emergence instead of a military dictatorship. The unfolding political program of the Ethiopian revolution was difficult to decipher as “the contradiction between social advance and political regression spread a pal] of confusion on the scene which obscured the real trend of events.”

The Dergue’s leftward drift was accelerated by civilian pressures for reforms which the military government attempted to deflate by “outlefting” the left. As a response to pressure from students, the labor unions, and the civilian left, the Dergue issued a land reform decree in March 1975 and in July nationalized all urban land and extra housing. However, these economic reforms only partially met the objectives of civilian political activists, who began demanding the removal of the military from power. Resisting these demands to surrender power, the Dergue responded to strikes, demonstrations, and work actions with a sweeping crackdown on all forms of political dissidence, using Ethiopian security forces to stamp out opposition.

The repression of the civilian left, most particularly the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP)—MEISON’s rival—during the fall of 1975 produced a deep rift within the PMAC. Leading moderates, such as Air Force Maj. Sisay Habte, chairman of the PMAC’s Political and Foreign Affairs Committee, favored reconciliation with the civilian opposition and negotiations with the Eritreans. A hard-liner/ radical coalition led by General Banti (PMAC chairman) and Colonel Mengistu (first vice-chairman) wished to continue with the repression of the civilian opposition—especially of the EPRP—and to escalate the war in Eritrea. The outcome of this internal schism would have a profound effect not only on Ethiopian domestic policies but also on relations between Addis Ababa and Washington.

Briefly in the spring of 1976 the moderates held the upper hand in influencing PMAC policy. On April 20 Addis Ababa had announced the Programme of the National Democratic Revolution, which recognized the right of self-determination for all nationalities within Ethiopia. Four weeks later the government issued a Nine-Point Policy on Eritrea, which further elaborated upon the theme of regional autonomy for the province. An apparent attempt to subvert this peace initiative by organizing a “peasant march” was halted in May after Secretary of State Kissinger sent an ultimatum that if the plan went forward it would jeopardize U.S. military assistance, including the delivery of the F-5Es still in the arms pipelines. Although the “peasant march” was resumed in June on a smaller scale, it ended in a military rout and decreased the influence of the hard-liners and radicals within the Dergue. Thus, through the summer and fall of 1976, the moderates had an opportunity to consolidate their position, resolve some of the political-security dilemmas confronting Addis Ababa, and ease Washington’s diplomatic predicament as well.

However, the PMAC’s move toward moderation met another setback that summer. Upon his return from the annual OAU summit meeting in July 1976, Major Sisay was arrested, tried, and executed on five counts of counterrevolutionary activity. One charge in particular—that Sisay had made contact with “imperialist agents” (presumed to be the CIA) in an attempt to destabilize the government—was a forewarning of things to come in relations between Addis Ababa and Washington. Despite the anti-American attacks appearing in the Ethiopian press, there were still moderate and even hardline members on the military council who favored continuing close ties with the United States.

Although the coalition of military hard-liners and radical ideologues were united in their approach toward Eritrea and the repression of the civilian opposition, they differed over whether Ethiopia should turn to the Soviet Union for arms. A December 1976 reorganization of the Dergue had removed a number of Colonel Mengistu’s main supporters and elevated to powerless radical members who seemed ready to improve relations with the United States and to block Mengistu’s pro-Russian policy. The division within the PMAC now found some of the so-called military hardliners (such as PMAC chairman Banti) aligned with ideological moderates in desiring to maintain cordial relations with Washington. This pro-U.S. versus pro-Soviet schism within the Dergue was resolved by the February 1977 shoot-out that left Colonel Mengistu in control of the PMAC.

The now dominant radical faction within the Dergue, led by Mengistu, believed that the best way to ensure the integrity of the Ethiopian revolution and their own political survival was to defect to the Soviet Union. They could thus forge an arms partnership based on compatible ideological beliefs. While an examination of U.S. policies toward Ethiopia between 1974 and 1976 might suggest that the United States was willing to work with the new government, the perception in Addis Ababa was that the United States would eventually act to prevent the emergence of a truly leftist-oriented revolutionary government. Thus, after coming to power Mengistu quickly moved to align Ethiopia with the socialist bloc and pressed the Soviets to implement the secret arms agreement he had signed with Moscow in December. Soviet weapons, supplies, and military advisers began to arrive in Ethiopia from South Yemen in March 1977, rendering the U.S. military connection expendable. Interestingly, unlike Haile Selassie, Mengistu never got into the cold war game of playing the United States and the Soviet Union off against each other. Mengistu appeared to be firmly committed to the Eastern bloc, at least until international conditions changed in the late 1980s.


Military relations between the United States and Ethiopia might well have moved along an entirely different track had effective control over U.S. policy remained in the hands of the Africa Bureau. The institutionalized decision-making at the State Department would have been less prone to or perceived as less engaged in, ideologically motivated behavior of hostile intent. Though deemed a bit radical, Dergue’s 1975 land reform and nationalization programs suggested to the State Department that the new government was attempting to improve a lot of the masses at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale and thereby to create a more stable political environment for the conduct of U.S.-Ethiopia relations. As late as spring 1977, as the “red terror” spread throughout Ethiopia, State Department officials continued to favor providing some form of security assistance to the Dergue in order to maintain a long-run relationship with Ethiopia. State feared that severing the military connection would mean the end of the U.S. position in Ethiopia. Moreover, an American presence was deemed desirable to contain Soviet penetration in the region, maintain Western access to Middle East oil, and provide for freedom of passage for Israeli shipping in the Red Sea. Thus, before Ethiopia ran afoul of Washington on human rights grounds, the Carter administration was prepared to request $10 million in FMS credits, $1 million in IMETP funds, and an additional $1.1 million in MAP aid for the delivery of equipment for FY 1978.

By the fall of 1976, there was little interest outside of the Africa Bureau in salvaging U.S.-Ethiopia relations. After his July 1976 order to allow massive FMS credit and cash sales to Addis Ababa, Henry Kissinger seemed to lose interest in the situation. The White House’s only stake in Ethiopia was to ensure that the Republican right-wing would not attack President Ford for “losing” another African state to the Soviet Union (Angola being the first). Later Ethiopia became a showpiece for jimmy Carter’s arms sales and human rights policies, being one of only three states singled out for U.S.-imposed military sanctions.

Although the formal break with the United States came several months into the Carter presidency, the PMAC’s belief that to survive it would have to switch arms partners was generated during the last few months of the Ford administration and concerned the chief architect of U.S. policy, Henry Kissinger. At first glance, Kissinger appeared to be the ideal policymaker to take charge of U.S. policy toward Ethiopia during such a tumultuous period. His willingness to continue relations with the military government in Chile after the bloody September 1973 coup against President Allende was based on the notion that not to do so would run the risk of driving the junta toward “anti-American nationalism or collapsing it in favor of the totalitarian left.” Kissinger’s reflections about the situation in Chile appear relevant to the Ethiopian situation: “I do not mean to condone all the actions of the junta . . . but it did inherit a revolutionary situation in which government-sponsored violence played an important role.” Particularly maddening to Kissinger was the “exceptional severity” with which American and foreign critics attacked the junta, eventually resulting in the termination of U.S. military assistance in 1976 “while it faced near-civil war conditions.” Ethiopia seemed to be confronting a similar situation.

Ironically, Kissinger’s reputation for realpolitik contributed to the belief that the United States, as an enemy of progressive revolutionary movements, would attempt to subvert the Ethiopian revolution. A significant difference between the Chilean and Ethiopian situations had to be factored into Addis Ababa’s calculations: the military coup-makers in Santiago were right-wing; those in Addis Ababa were leftists. Although the United States provided Ethiopia with some $15 million in MAP and IMETP funds, $25 million in FMS credits, and had delivered almost $130 million worth of arms through FMS cash sales in 1975 and 1976, these transactions occurred at a time when the Dergue was suppressing the leftist civilian opposition and moderates, and pro-American hard-liners still held sway within the PMAC. After the execution of Major Sisay, the Ford administration seemed to write off Washington’s chances of preventing the further leftward drift of the Dergue. Kissinger’s attitude toward the PMAC may have been hardened by his annoyance at what he saw as the double standard of Democrats in Congress who singled out right-wing governments (for example, Chile) for harassment while continuing to support many radical left-wing states. Thus, when Congress condemned Ethiopia for human rights violations in the fall of 1976, the administration made no special plea on behalf of the Dergue.

The Ford administration handed Jimmy Carter a rapidly deteriorating situation that may have had as much to do with Secretary Kissinger’s reputation as with Washington’s slow, reactive policy. Accurate or not, a perception abounded that the Nixon administration, under Kissinger’s guidance, had conspired to bring down the Allende government in Chile only three years before. Given the administration’s known preference for a moderate leader to emerge from within the Dergue, radical ideologues might logically assume that Washington would prevent them from coming to power. Thus, the Carter administration began dealing with a government of which some members may have felt that a U.S. campaign was underway to bring about their political demise.

The problem was compounded by the new administration’s international agenda. Jimmy Carter brought to the White House a vastly different global outlook from that of his predecessors. The U.S.-Soviet rivalry was no longer perceived as the dominant issue in a highly interdependent and pluralistic world system. Instead, the Carter administration would attempt “to promote a new system of world order based upon international stability, peace, and justice.” Mutual cooperation rather than competition would form the core value for interaction in this new world order. Human rights, normalizing East-West and North-South relations, arms control, and resolving conflicts in the Middle East and Africa headed the administration’s global agenda.

Given Carter’s View of the new era into which U.S.-Soviet relations had moved, the new administration would be less likely to respond in a kneejerk manner to Soviet activities around the globe. Coupled with the theme of normalization, the implication seemed to be that the United States would be willing to work with and not subvert left-wing governments in the Third World. Moreover, Jimmy Carter’s expressed intention to return primary responsibility for crafting U.S. foreign policy to the State Department should have provided an opening for getting U.S.-Ethiopia relations back on track. However, the administration’s new policy direction was also geared toward reducing U.S. arms transfers overseas. During the 1976 presidential campaign, Carter had declared that he “would not hesitate as president to assess unilateral reductions in arms sales overseas.” Moreover, on a number of occasions including his inaugural address, Carter had expressed a general concern for human rights abroad and a willingness to link U.S. arms transfers to human rights conditions in recipient countries. Thus, the administration’s initial approach regarding the conduct of global and bilateral affairs did not fit the militaristic thinking in Addis Ababa.

Carter’s willingness to make an example of Ethiopia following the PMAC’s February 1977 internal purge was made easier in that, in terms of general principles, it was reflective of the mood in Congress to reduce the level of U.S. arms sales as well as to place greater emphasis upon human rights abroad. Since he had pledged in his campaign to reduce arms sales and to affirm human rights, Carter needed to demonstrate his willingness to bring U.S. pressure to bear in linking these two issues to preserve his own political credibility on Capitol Hill. The fact that the administration hoped to play down issues of East-West confrontation also mitigated the potentially adverse impact of Moscow’s introduction of arms into Ethiopia in March 1977. Thus, with his own human rights agenda added for color, Jimmy Carter merely put the finishing touches on an arms relationship that had already decayed beyond repair.

By the spring of 1977, voices favoring U.S. disengagement from Ethiopia completely drowned out all others. Conservatives had no sympathy for the plight of the leftist government. Moderates and liberals were put off by the human rights violations of the Dergue. Although the professional bureaucrats at the State Department had regained control of U.S. policy, they had a weak political basis from which to argue that the United States could or should recapture its position of dominant influence in Ethiopia.


The collapse of the U.S.-Ethiopia military relationship in April 1977 was indicative of the emerging shared belief that the tangible rewards of the partnership were marginal at best. Top-ranking American and Ethiopian decision-makers now believed that the rising political and military costs of maintaining the arms linkage outweighed the benefits. Moreover, the assets being offered by each side were considered expendable or replaceable. Continued cooperation between Washington and Addis Ababa might, in fact, hinder the attainment of their primary local and regional objectives. Thus, the security calculation of both supplier and recipient pointed to the conclusion that termination of the arms linkage was the best cure for this illness.

By 1977 the PMAC saw itself under siege and on the verge of being overwhelmed by the protracted war in Eritrea, the Soviet-supported arms buildup in Somalia, and domestic strife in Addis Ababa. The amount of grant military aid the United States was willing to provide to Ethiopia — the primary American economic payoff in fulfillment of the original 1953 quid pro quo — was no longer enough, given the PMAC’s determination to resolve the Eritrean problem by force, suppress the civilian opposition in Addis Ababa (as well as violently resolve its own internal disputes), and respond to Somalia’s growing military power. While Washington appeared committed at least to upholding Ethiopia’s territorial integrity in the Ogaden, even in that instance the Americans still required Addis Ababa to rely heavily on making huge cash arms purchases. In addition, the United States was perceived as eminently hostile toward the Ethiopian revolution. U.S. economic, political and military support seemed to be ultimately designed to subvert rather than promote the revolution and the dominant radical faction within the PMAC. Throughout the last months of the U.S.-Ethiopia arms partnership, Addis Ababa neither made use of the $10 million in FMS credits provided by Washington for FY 1976 nor drew on the $6 million in MAP funds or $10 million worth of FMS credits allocated for Ethiopia in the FY 1977 security assistance budget. Several months into 1977, Ethiopia had purchased only a few items on a cash basis. Given the growing ideological divergence between the two arms partners, coupled with increasing Soviet interest in Ethiopia’s revolutionary government, the PMAC’s threat of defection to Moscow not only was a viable and credible scenario; it had to be carried out.

By the end of 1976, Washington apparently had little to gain, but much to lose, by continuing its support for the PMAC. Kagnew Station was obsolete and at best a redundant strategic facility. Ethiopia was nonessential to protect oil routes. Israel had the proven military capability to protect its Red Sea interests. With human rights abuses being committed by the military government on such a level that Ethiopia was cited by Amnesty International and the U.S. Congress for gross violations, coupled with what were viewed as extremist economic reforms, the executive branch could not justify aid to Addis Ababa on any grounds. Furthermore, improving U.S. relations with a number of Arab states in the region had increased Washington’s policy options, so a continued presence in Ethiopia and association with Addis Ababa’s “anti-Arab” war in Eritrea did more harm than good.

By the spring of 1977, neither the United States nor Ethiopia exhibited much interest in salvaging a relationship that had been allowed to atrophy. Ideology had an important effect on both sides. Mengistu and his radical colleagues perceived the United States much as Haile Selassie had viewed the Soviet Union: as a threat to his political survival. The contradiction of a Marxist-oriented government tied to the leading world imperialist entity had to be resolved. Perhaps out of fear that such talk might provoke Washington into taking some preemptive action against them, Mengistu waited until he had consolidated his position before publicly defecting to Moscow and terminating the U.S. arms connection. While the initiative for the termination resided in the hands of the PMAC, for the United States it reconciled the dilemma posed by espousing human rights while providing U.S. weapons to a brutal military government. Thus, in the end, Washington and Addis Ababa, somewhat noisily and bitterly, but with an almost audible sigh of relief, called an end to their quarter-century-long military relationship.

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