The United States gave serious consideration to sending airborne troops to seize oil fields in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi during the 1973 Arab oil embargo, according to a top-secret British intelligence memorandum released Wednesday night.
The document, titled "Middle East -- Possible Use of Force by the United States," says that if there were deteriorating conditions such as a breakdown of the cease-fire between Arab and Israeli forces following the October 1973 Middle East war or an intensification of the embargo, "we believe the American preference would be for a rapid operation conducted by themselves" to seize the oil fields.
It cites a warning from Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger to the British ambassador in Washington, Lord Cromer, that the United States would not tolerate threats from "under-developed, under-populated" countries and that "it was no longer obvious to him that the United States could not use force."
Seizure of the oil fields, the memo says, was "the possibility uppermost in American thinking [and] has been reflected, we believe, in their contingency planning."
The document, dated Dec. 13, 1973, and sent to Prime Minister Edward Heath by Percy Cradock, head of Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee, goes on to discuss the likely scenario for an American invasion, how Britain could assist the United States and how Arab nations and the Soviet Union were likely to respond.
Arab members of OPEC imposed the embargo on the United States and other Western countries in October to try to force them to compel Israel to withdraw from Arab territories. The embargo, which lasted until March 1974, cut off only 13 percent of U.S. oil imports but caused steep gasoline price hikes in the United States, Europe and Japan.
U.S. officials at the time hinted that retaliation was possible but did not describe the form it might take. At a news conference on Nov. 21, 1973, Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger declared: "It is clear that if pressures continue unreasonably and indefinitely, then the United States will have to consider what countermeasures it may have to take."
In his memoir "Years of Upheaval," Kissinger added, "These were not empty threats. I ordered a number of studies from the key departments on countermeasures against Arab members of OPEC if the embargo continued. By the end of the month, several contingency studies had been completed."
Neither Kissinger nor Schlesinger, contacted through aides, responded to requests for comment.
The British document -- one of hundreds released by Britain's National Archives in an annual disclosure of government papers that are 30 years old -- goes beyond previous accounts in describing what the countermeasures might have been. It assesses as unworkable such options as replacement of Arab rulers with "more amenable" leaders or assembling a show of force. Instead, it describes an airborne military operation as the most feasible alternative, although "a move of last resort."
"The initial force need not be large," the document states, adding, "We estimate that the force required for the initial operation would be on the order of two brigades, one for the Saudi operation, one for Kuwait and possibly a third for Abu Dhabi." After the initial assault, it adds, "the remainder of the force which might eventually amount to two divisions could be flown in from the United States."
"The area would have to be securely held probably for a period of some 10 years," it concludes.
In Saudi Arabia, it says, "the operation could be fairly straightforward," with U.S. forces facing only a "lightly armed national guard battalion at Dharan" and a U.S.-made Hawk surface-to-air-missile battery. In Kuwait, it says, "operational problems are greater" because the Kuwaitis had stationed about 100 tanks near the airport. While the Saudis and Kuwaitis might attempt to sabotage oil wells and terminals, the memo concludes, oil could be flowing within weeks of occupation.
One complication, it notes, was that British officers were stationed in Abu Dhabi. "For this reason alone the Americans might ask the U.K. to undertake this particular operation," it says.
The document notes that military action could trigger a confrontation with the Soviet Union, lead to a long occupation of Arab territory and deeply alienate Arab and Third World public opinion. But it discounted the possibility that the Soviet Union would use military force against a U.S. invasion, saying it would seek instead to make political and propaganda capital from the move.
"The greatest risk of such confrontation in the Gulf would probably arise in Kuwait where the Iraqis, with Soviet backing, might be tempted to intervene," it says, presaging Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
In another memo released as part of the disclosure of government papers, Heath expressed deep anger with President Richard M. Nixon over the U.S. failure to inform or consult with Britain before imposing a worldwide nuclear alert during the Middle East war.
"We have to face the fact that the American action has done immense harm," Heath wrote after learning from a news service report that Washington had raised U.S. military readiness to Defcon 3, the highest peacetime state of readiness.
Heath characterized Nixon as "an American president in the Watergate position apparently prepared to go to such lengths at a moment's notice without consultation with his allies . . . [and] without any justification in the military situation at the time."
Nixon imposed the alert after Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev warned that Soviet forces might intervene militarily in the Middle East after Israeli forces crossed the Suez Canal. No intervention took place, and the Israelis eventually withdrew.
Staff researcher Robert E. Thomason contributed to this report.