PART 28/Good Fences Don’t Always Make Good Neighbors
To many top Soviet political and military leaders in the early winter of 1968-69, the phrase “Happy Holidays” would have sounded like a macabre joke at best. In just six short months they had watched the seemingly unbreakable Warsaw Pact crumble into dust; NATO essentially kick the Red Army out of eastern Europe; Finland start to assert itself for the first time in generations; an armed rebellion break out in the Ukraine, the USSR’s agricultural heartland; and growing numbers of ordinary Soviet citizens raise their voices in protest not just of the Brezhnev regime’s intervention in Czechoslovakia but of the regime itself. In Hungary, the Romanian army was getting closer every day to making good on the late Nicolae Ceausescu’s promise to have the Romanian flag flying over Budapest by Christmas. And as if a bell had been rung to signal the commencement of further misfortune for the besieged Soviet Union, China’s Mao Zedong was now energetically laying the groundwork for the People’s Liberation Army to launch a campaign to take control of the disputed Ussuri River region along the Soviet-Chinese border. Every day Chinese state radio would boast of a “forest of bayonets” ready to crush any Soviet attempt to move into northern China; propaganda posters all over Beijing displayed slogans predicting the swift liberation of the Ussuri territories from the “despicable revisionists” in Moscow; China’s fledgling nuclear weapons program had embarked on a crash expansion under the premise that the People’s Republic would sooner or later need to resort to the Bomb to protect its interests in the disputed region; and last but not least Chinese spy planes repeatedly penetrated Soviet airspace to photograph potential targets for a PLA attack.
The border dispute itself was nothing new; long before Mao’s takeover of China in 1949 or even the October Revolution of 1917 that toppled Russia’s Kerensky government, the two countries had been arguing over ownership of Damansky(a.k.a. Zhenbao) Island and the surrounding countryside. But the sharp break between Moscow and Beijing following Khrushchev’s post-mortem denunciation of Stalin in 1956 served to intensify the acrimony over the border question, and as the Sino-Soviet split widened in the early ‘60s, many outside observers feared a territorial war between the rival Marxist powers was not just possible but maybe inevitable. For many Soviet military commanders in the Far East the start of the Czech War couldn’t have come at a worse time-- it meant many crucial resources would be diverted away from the Siberian theater precisely when the Red Army would most need every bit of materiel and troop strength it could get in order to mount an effective defense of Soviet interests in the region. Those commanders’ anxieties would only deepen as NATO held the line in Czechoslovakia and pushed deep into East Germany. The collapse of the Gomulka regime in Poland escalated their fears into full-fledged terror. And when it became clear Gustav Husak’s puppet state in eastern Czechoslovakia was going to fall to NATO troops, it felt to these generals and their soldiers like a sign of the Apocalypse.
If he hadn’t been an atheist, then-Chinese defense minister Lin Biao would have regarded these events as the answer to a prayer. In any event he had to pleased at the strategic and tactical opportunities that were opening up for the People’s Republic along its Siberian border. On November 23rd, 1968 he called a special conference of the People’s Liberation Army general staff to outline his vision for bringing the Ussuri River territories under Beijing’s control. With the Kremlin effectively ejected from central Europe and stuck in a quagmire of a guerrilla war in the Ukraine, Lin said, the time was right for China to make its move. None of Lin’s generals had any doubt that his goal of capturing the disputed regions could be achieved; their only uncertainly was what would be the best way to go about accomplishing it. Some of the generals favored launching a massive Blitzkrieg-style assault to take the entire region in one sharp blow; others advocated a series of smaller-scale attacks to gradually wear down Red Army defenses in the region. A few advocated the bold step of launching a surprise offensive from the Heilongjiang area to occupy the Soviet Pacific port of Vladivostok and use it as a bargaining chip to force Moscow to give in to the CPC’s territorial demands. The meeting adjourned early on the morning of November 24th with Lin's generals having agreed on a multi-stage plan to establish a Chinese foothold in the disputed border regions.
But if Lin and his advisors thought Moscow would simply sit on its hands while the PLA turned southern Siberia into a Chinese colony, they were in for a rude awakening. Even as the PLA was marshalling its troops for the expected initial thrust into the Damansky region the Red Army's Far Eastern command-- stretched thin though its resources were --weren't about to surrender the island to Beijing without putting up a fight. When KGB operatives in North Korea cabled Yuri Andropov on November 27th with confirmation of Beijing's military buildup along the Siberian border, the Red Army Far East Military District headquarters in Khabarovsk swiftly activated all its available first and second line divisions and placed a number of Soviet air force attack squadrons in positions where they could hit Chinese bases on a moment's notice. And if those weren't enough to make the PLA think twice about marching across the Soviet border, the Soviet Navy's Pacific fleet had a half-dozen Yankee-class ballistic missile submarines ready to unleash the fires of hell on Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing. Western intelligence analysts were deeply alarmed by the rising hostilities between the rival Communist powers-- and the Soviet deployment of a squadron of nuclear-armed Tu-16 bombers to positions within striking range of the Heilongjiang provincial capital of Harbin in early December certainly didn't calm anyone's nerves.
Even without nuclear weapons in the mix, the situation along the Sino-Soviet border was still highly volatile; Soviet and Chinese infantry detachments regularly traded gunfire whenever they came face-to-face and outposts on both sides of the frontier sustained heavy damage from artillery fire. It was a situation to give even the most optimistic people nightmares. And it wasn't the only one; thousands of miles away from the disputed Damansky territories, political tensions in Northern Ireland were on the verge of hitting the boiling point as the already sharp divide between Irish Protestants and Catholics was being exacerbated by acrimonious debate over London's treatment of Irish veterans of the Czech War....
BTW, what happens in Albania, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria?
Well, to bring you up to speed, the TL;DR version is that as we get to Part 29 Bulgaria has been knocked out of the war as the result of a botched attempt to invade Romania while Yugoslavia has just declared war on the Soviet Union after a massacre of anti-Brezhnev protesters in Moscow. As for Albania, I haven't talked about them much since they're practically a non-factor in military terms but I might expand on their domestic political situation a bit in the next ten-episode segment.
Even without the pressure of the Czech War it’s likely the political tensions which existed in Northern Ireland in late 1968 would have exploded into armed violence sooner or later. Ulster’s Protestants and Catholics had been at odds with each other for more than three centuries, and when the Northern Irish Catholic community initiated a U.S.-style civil rights movement to try and end the discrimination they’d been subjected to for generations by Ulster’s predominantly Protestant leadership it inevitably sparked a major backlash from the Protestant side. But the war certainly helped accelerate the intensification of these tensions into full-blown internal armed conflict. There was a strong-- and not totally unfounded --perception among Ulster Catholics that their Protestant neighbors were getting preferential treatment when it came to things like aid for dependents of Ulster nationals who had volunteered for service with the NATO forces in central Europe. It was in this atmosphere that a number of prominent religious and political figures met in Belfast in mid-November of 1968 to organize a protest rally for the first Sunday in December. The principal aim of this rally: to pressure the government of then-Ulster prime minister Terence O’Neill, and by extension the Harold Wilson administration in London, into agreeing to a more equitable system for supporting Ulster Czech War veterans and their families.
Despite the typically cold winter weather, tens of thousands of Ulster Catholics gathered in the streets around Belfast’s Grand Central Hotel at 10:30 AM local time on the morning of December 1st to start the rally. A counter-protest led by controversial Protestant evangelist Ian Paisley got underway around that same time near Belfast City Hall, and it wasn’t long before the two groups of demonstrators started to exchange threats and insults. But there was no violence between them yet-- and there wouldn’t be until Terence O’Neill made the surprising and still highly controversial decision to leave the protection of his residence at Stormont Castle to address both rallies in hopes of defusing the situation before it got out of control. O’Neill arrived at the Grand Central Hotel just after 12 noon with megaphone in hand, flanked by two aides and a Royal Ulster Constabulary sergeant who tried repeatedly to talk him out of what he was about to do.
Although he came from a Protestant background, O’Neill had considerable sympathy for the frustrations of the Catholics in Ulster and pursued largely moderate political policies in his capacity as Northern Irish prime minister. He began addressing both groups of protesters in a conciliatory tone….and immediately found himself the target of a barrage of jeers as well as thrown fruits and vegetables. Ian Paisley in particular denounced him as a traitor and subjected him to verbal abuse that would have made a sailor blush. Undeterred, O'Neill continued to speak to the crowds in hopes of pacifying them while police tried to keep the Catholic marchers and the Protestant counter-demonstrators from physically confronting each other. The tension steadily mounted until, at 1:04 PM, a Protestant extremist pulled out a Browning pistol and fired three shots at O'Neill. The first shot missed, but the next two struck O'Neill squarely in the heart and killed him within seconds. Before O'Neill had even drawn his last breath all hell broke loose as the rival crowds of protesters overwhelmed the police and attacked each other with a violence rivaling any battle which had been fought in central Europe so far during the Czech War. By 5:00 PM full-scale riots were raging in downtown Belfast and then-Belfast mayor William Duncan Geddis was forced to request British military assistance to save the beleaguered police forces in his city from what he aptly described as "utter disaster". Accordingly, at 7:00 PM that evening thousands of British Army reservists who had been previously scheduled to report for duty with NATO forces in Poland were redeployed to the Belfast area to help the RUC quell the riots. The British troops' presence did restore calm in Belfast for a short time, but it triggered serious outbreaks of unrest in other parts of Northern Ireland as pro-republican militants launched attacks on RUC stations in Antrim, Dungiven, Newry, and Strabane. Most modern historians cite these events as the beginning of "the Troubles", the quasi-civil war that would ravage Northern Ireland for most of the next thirty years.
The violence that erupted in the aftermath of Terence O'Neill's assassination would also serve as a key inspiration for one of the most famous songs to come out of the Czech War era. Beatles founder John Lennon had been shaken to his core by the seemingly endless parade of violence that had torn through Vietnam, Czechoslovakia, the United States, and his native Britain in recent years; when he heard about the Belfast riots and the O'Neill assassination, it moved him to start penning the rough draft of what would be his first major solo recording....