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Britain Considered Nuking Middle East Oil Fields if USSR Invaded, Documents Show

June 23, 2016
Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud ruled Saudi Arabia from 1953-1964. It is not known whether he was aware of the oil denial plans drawn up for the Kingdom. (Credit: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, Robert Yarnall Richie Photograph Collection.)

Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud ruled Saudi Arabia from 1932-1953. It is not known whether he was aware of the oil denial plans drawn up for the Kingdom. (Credit: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, Robert Yarnall Richie Photograph Collection.)

The United States and Great Britain concocted plans in the late 1940s to destroy Middle Eastern oil wells in case the Soviet Red Army ever decided to invade the region, according to a posting by the National Security Archive today. The plans changed over time but a version of them remained in place at least until the Kennedy administration.

Furthermore, British military officials went so far as to contemplate going nuclear to get the job done if suitable conventional weapons were not available.

These and other revelations appear in a group of records journalist Steve Everly uncovered through research at Britain’s National Archives. Everly first broke the story of the Truman administration authorizing plans to blow up petroleum facilities in a story for the Kansas City Star in 1996, co-written with Charles. R.T. Crumpley.

These activities contemplated by Washington and London would have constituted interventionism on a scale hard to imagine nowadays. (They bring to mind images of Kuwait’s smoldering oil fields after Saddam Hussein’s retreat in February 1991.) But a key point to keep in mind was the objective of blocking a Soviet invasion.

It’s easy in this day and age to forget the dread many in the West felt at the notion of advancing world communism. By 1948 and 1949, when Harry Truman signed NSC 26 and 26/2, approving the oil denial operations, Moscow had already subjugated the nations of Eastern Europe, the communist coup in Czechoslovakia had just taken place, and the Berlin Airlift was underway after the Soviets tried to blockade the city.

A couple of years earlier, Stalin had used brute military strength and subversion in the so-called northern tier states of Turkey and Iran to try to intimidate their governments into granting concessions. U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers serving in Iran in the late 1940s and early 1950s took it for granted the Red Army had its sights on the geographically strategic and oil-drenched Gulf states. John Waller, who was stationed in Iran at the time and later rose to become a senior CIA official, told this author in an interview several years ago that local authorities in the northern provinces of Iran assumed it wasn’t a matter of if but when the Soviets would come marching through.

The Shah (right) with Fazlollah Zahedi, Mosaddeq's replacement as prime minister. (

The Shah (right) with Fazlollah Zahedi, Mosaddeq’s replacement as prime minister. (

Still, the idea of destroying another country’s industrial infrastructure is jarring. And this was Harry Truman, whose ideas on interventionism are usually seen as far less extreme than his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, who approved the infamous 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, which Truman had rejected almost a year earlier.

Of course, the architects of the plans described in these documents would not have described themselves as interventionists. They saw themselves as saviors of not only the Western world (against a Soviet juggernaut intent on choking off vital oil supplies) but of the powerless Gulf states that would be condemned to years of harsh occupation. Difficult as it is for many to accept nowadays, this was also one of Eisenhower’s primary rationales for the 1953 coup. The British and even some of Ike’s advisers may have had other objectives including naked profiteering from the oil industry, but it is a mistake to overlook the motive of altruism (however self-deluding it was at times) when trying to understand the United States’ vision of itself in the modern world.

These documents uncovered by Steve Everly (see the related article on Politico) are also interesting from the standpoint of government classification/declassification decisions. Iran has been a super-sensitive topic for policymakers since the revolution of 1978-1979. Quantities of records on Iran from the archives of the United States, Britain, Russia and elsewhere have been withheld for decades on various grounds, notably the concern not to spark blowback inside Iran by hardliners looking for excuses to denounce the outside world.

The 1953 coup is the poster child here. (See here, for example.) Yet somehow the British (MI6, at least) are more comfortable with the world knowing some of their representatives contemplated nuking the sovereign states of the Gulf than they are acknowledging their part in a political operation that has been an open secret for decades.

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