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Soviet Invasion of Yugoslavia - 1951

Gen. Omar Bradley said on 15 May 1951, at the Senate hearings on President Truman's firing of General MacArthur, that "Enlargement of the war in Korea to include Red China ..." - which MacArthur was willing to risk - "would involve us in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time and with the wrong enemy." Possibly Yugoslavia was the right war, at the right place, at the right time, with the right enemy.

Determined to destroy Tito and his heretic Communist regime at any cost, Stalin was impatiently planning for an all-out invasion of Yugoslavia by the Soviet military and East European satellite forces. As U.S. and NATO records indicate, the thoroughly planned Soviet attack would have resulted in Western military commitment and almost certainly nuclear response. It would have been the Third World War.

Beginning in mid-1947, Tito's intelligence apparatus opened the "Greek line," supplying Communist insurgents in neighboring Greece with weapons and supplies, an effort which quickly outpaced Soviet support to the guerrillas; 10,000 Yugoslav "volunteers" fought alongside their Greek allies too. Stalin found Tito's fervor and undue risk-taking troubling; indeed, the Greek issue was the last of a long series of Yugoslav actions Moscow disliked. Stalin sent Tito a letter criticizing the "Greek line," observing that the Communist insurgency stood no chance of success due to support for Athens by the United States, "the strongest state in the world."

When Belgrade astonishingly refused to back down, Moscow exacted retribution. On June 28, 1948, Serbia's national day, Stalin expelled Yugoslavia from the Communist Information Bureau - the Cominform, the Moscow-led successor to the Comintern - setting off an unprecedented conflict in Communist ranks which would nearly provoke the Third World War.

The Soviets immediately dispensed vitriolic propaganda, denouncing Tito and his government as a "spy group" in the pay of American and British "imperialism." Purges of alleged "Titoists" began with fervor throughout the Soviet bloc, nowhere more thoroughly than in Hungary, the satellite on the frontline of the Yugoslav menace. Laszlo Rajk, Budapest's interior minister, was executed in mid-1949 for his supposed ideological deviation, while the Hungarian People's Army simultaneously saw a dozen generals and 1,100 high-ranking officers purged, and some executed, for alleged pro-Yugoslav sentiments.

Purges and executions were by no means limited to the Soviet side. The split drove a wedge through Yugoslav Communism. To rid his regime of pro-Soviet elements, Tito commenced a cleansing of his party, army, and secret police every bit as thorough and brutal as any Stalinist depredations. Against suspected Soviet loyalists, Tito unleashed his formidable secret police, UDBa, setting off an intelligence war of epic proportions. The hunt for traitors, known as ibeovci (from IB or Informbiro, Serbo-Croatian for the Cominform), was pursued with vigor, led personally by Tito and his feared secret police chief, Aleksandar Rankovic. It was a fight which Tito, the former star NKVD illegal, with thirty-three covernames to his credit, was well equipped to pursue.

The UDBa crackdown on suspected ibeovci was particularly severe in Montenegro, Yugoslavia's smallest republic, where Communism had the deepest roots and an entire UDBa division was employed to quell local dissent. Tito's fears of Soviet subversion were not misplaced. Not only did Stalin's intelligence service, the MGB, possess numerous agents throughout Yugoslavia, but Tito's military and secret police were among the most deeply penetrated institutions. Thousands of army and state security officers trained in the Soviet Union were immediately placed under suspicion; in the end, 7,000 army officers and 1,700 UDBa officials, many of them high-ranking, were purged as ibeovci. Probably 100,000 Yugoslav Communists suspected of disloyalty were sent to brutal political prisons, where thousands died.

MGB moles existed throughout the Tito regime. Two cabinet ministers and even the head of Tito's bodyguard were uncovered as ibeovci. Particularly embarrassing for Belgrade were the defections of many officials to the Soviet bloc. The worst incident came in August 1948, when three senior army officers plotting a coup d'etat with Soviet backing attempted to defect. UDBa captured Major General Branko Petricevic and Colonel Vlado Dapcevic from the main political directorate, the latter being head of military agitprop, while the third plotter, Colonel-General Arso Jovanovic, was killed near the Romanian border. Significantly. all three men were Montenegrins, while Jovanovic had been the wartime chief of staff of the Yugoslav Army. The Soviet conspiracy could go no higher.

The ranks of Yugoslavs who sought refuge in the Soviet bloc, what Tito termed the informbirovska emigracija, swelled to 3,500 in neighboring satellites, where they were put to work in the rising propaganda war. The Soviets soon formed special combat units, including three "international brigades," in Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, an ominous development for Belgrade. Their ranks were filled with Yugoslav emigres but others too; the 2nd International Brigade, garrisoned in western Bulgaria, included 6,000 "volunteers" from East Germany as well as a battalion of parachutists. Significantly, its commander was Aleksa Micunovic, a former senior staff officer in Tito's army.

Violent border incidents along Yugoslavia's long Eastern frontiers quickly expanded sevenfold. Soviet-sponsored saboteurs (diverzanty) conducted regular cross-border raids as part of a constant insurgency campaign to destabilize Yugoslavia. UDBa border detachments fought frequent firefights, resulting in hundreds of deaths; according to Belgrade, in the five years after the split, over 700 emigres attempted to infiltrate Yugoslavia from Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, and 160 of them were captured and forty were killed by Tito's security forces. Over a hundred Yugoslav soldiers and policemen also died, including some senior UDBa officers.

Stalin's declaration of war on the Titoist heresy was initially greeted with unconcealed glee by the U.S. government. To the US ambassador in Moscow, the split was nothing less than "a Godsend to our propagandists," offering Washington novel options in the budding Cold War. Even the more analytic Policy Planning Staff at the State Department concluded immediately that the break amounted to "an entirely new foreign policy for this Government." Yet the State Department's goal of maintaining balance in the Stalin-Tito struggle would prove almost impossible to achieve. The West at once accrued strategic benefits from the Belgrade-Moscow split. Immediately following Yugoslavia's expulsion from the Cominform, Tito suspended aid to the Greek Communist resistance in Greece, even sealing the frontier, an action which trapped 4,000 Greek guerrillas on the wrong side of the border.

Stalin was determined to exterminate the Titoist menace. As Robert Conquest, the preeminent scholar of Soviet totalitarianism, explained, the Yugoslav upstart became "a major villain almost at Trotsky's level in Stalin's personal psychodrama." Stalin planned to employ the same methods which had silenced Trotsky - propaganda, intimidation, and assassination. Fittingly, he had admonished Tito with the warning: "We think the political career of Trotsky is quite instructive." Stalin confidently informed Khrushchev, "I will shake my little finger and there will be no more Tito." The reality was far different.

In addition to the hundreds of raids conducted by Soviet bloc commandos inside Yugoslavia, Moscow attempted to assassinate Tito on several occasions. In one case, the MGB planned to gun down the Yugoslav Politburo while its members relaxed over a pool table at Tito's villa. All the assassination schemes were cut short by UDBa's tenacious counterintelligence work.

In response, Stalin sought a direct military solution to his Yugoslav problem. Subversion and sabotage having failed, crushing the Titoist heresy with the might of the Red Army became the preferred option. The details of Soviet military planning to annihilate Titoism, suspected by NATO intelligence, were confirmed by the defection of General Bela Kiraly after the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Kiraly, appointed commander of Hungary's planned invasion force, witnessed the Soviet bloc's decision for invasion and the dramatic increase of his country's military in preparation for war. As Kiraly recounted, a Soviet colonel who visited hisoffice in July 1951 castigated him for teaching officers the geography of any country but Yugoslavia: "Your students must be taught one battleground only, the territory of the enemy, Yugoslavia".

Soviet invasion plans forecast a massive push by an infantry-heavy first echelon, composed of Hungarian and Romanian troops; the brunt would be borne by the 300,000-strong Hungarian People's Army, which would pierce Yugoslav defenses in the flat northern province of Vojvodina, opening the door to Belgrade, which would be taken by mechanized Soviet forces forming the invasion's second, decisive echelon.

While Tito's forees were expected to offer stiff resistance, a rapid, if hard-fought victory was anticipated. Crushing Yugoslavia had become the entire raison d'etre ofthe satellite armies. The purpose of Hungary's unprecedented military buildup was, Colonel-General Mihaly Farkas, the army chief, explained, to counter "aggression by Titoist bandits against the sacred territory of our socialist fatherland."

By early 1951, Yugoslav fears of a Soviet invasion had reached a fever pitch. Washington lacked vital intelligence regarding Soviet intentions; the SIGINT system in particular offered few insights into high-level Soviet military and political planning, thanks to the treachery of AFSA employee William Weisband, which compromised numerous high-level cryptologic successes against Moscow.

Nevertheless, in August 1950 CIA assessments concluded that while Yugoslavia's quarter-million strong army might stand a chance against the satellite armies of Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, the presence of six Soviet divisions in those satellites tipped the balance; against a combined Soviet bloc invasion, Tito's forces would be soon overwhelmed. Hence the CIA concluded that Yugoslav resistance was dependent "on the degree and promptness of Western assistance."

Washington's concerns grew grave. George Kennan, the early Cold Warrior, initially greeted the Moscow-Belgrade split as an unparalleled opportunity; Kennan reasoned that the "gain" of Yugoslavia in the Western camp offset the recent "loss" of China. Yet by late May 1950, a month before Korea exploded, Kennan had grown concerned about a proxy war in the Balkans, speculating that a Soviet attack was likely.

On June 29, 1950, four days after the invasion of South Korea, Yugoslavia topped the National Security Council's list of "chief danger spots." Moscow propaganda denounced Tito as a "Syngman Rhee" in Belgrade, heightening Western worries. Kennan soon concluded that a likely Soviet attack on Yugoslavia would merely be a prelude to the Third World War.

To ready the Yugoslav military for war, the United States embarked on an adventurous military assistance scheme. In the year following the Korean invasion, Washington provided Belgrade with $77.5 million in military aid; by the mid-1950s, military aid would total a half-billion dollars. In June 1951, General Koca Popovic, the Yugoslav chief of staff, even visited Washington for joint planning discussions. Prodigious American military assistance to Yugoslavia was as ironic as it was unanticipated. Before the split with Moscow, the radical regime in Belgrade had justly been denounced as "Soviet Satellite Number One" in Western media, and the U.S.Yugoslav relationship had been tense; in the contested Trieste area, occupied by U.S. and British troops, Tito's forces in 1946 had forced down one U.S. C-47 cargo aircraft and shot down a second, killing the crew.

By late September 1951, the U.S. intelligence community already regarded Yugoslavia as a valuable de facto ally and anti-Soviet bulwark. A CIA special estimate projecting developments over the next twenty-four months counted Yugoslavia alongside future NATO members Greece, Turkey, and Spain in Western military totals, indeed as "a major increment to NATO strength" - in the event of war with the Soviet bloc. The estimate concluded that Soviet "local aggression" against Yugoslavia was likely: "the USSR may be compelled to act soon."

From NATO's viewpoint, Yugoslavia served as a "shield" for vulnerable Italy and Greece; Slovenia's Ljubljana Gap in particular was a critical component of Western defenses, and in mid-1952 Belgrade announced it would defend the vital gap vith four corps, a dozen divisions in all, more than a third of Tito's army. In September 1951, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) ordered that Italy would be defended at the Isonzo River line - half of which was actually inside Yugoslav territory.

Despite the West's crash military aid program to Yugoslavia, fears ofinvasion and a wider conflict continued to mount in NATO capitals. In early February 1951, the British Chiefs of Staff announced that a direct Soviet attack on Yugoslavia "would lead to world war." Washington agreed that Stalinist aggression on Yugoslavia "might well be the prelude to a global war." NATO concerns about what was termed a "second Korea" in Europe were increased by a broad acceptance that, unlike in Korea, a Communist offensive against Tito could not be localized; or, as the British Chiefs of Staff expressed it, "it is always likely that an attack on Yugoslavia would spread to a global war."

Given NATO's overwheJming weakness in conventional forces, it was inevitable that the nuclear issue came to the fore. Within weeks of the invasion of South Korea, Washington had accepted in principle that due to the dearth of conventional forces, atomic weapons would probably have to be used to defend Yugoslavia against Soviet attack. America's "freedom of action to employ atomic weapons in such a localized conflict if the situation dictates" was a jealously guarded prerogative, as well as the strategic logic underpinning NATO policy towards Yugoslavia. Given that the conventional balance in the Balkans continued to deteriorate - by early 1951, not counting Soviet garrisons, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria possessed standing forces more than twice the size of Tito's army - any NATO defense of Yugoslavia would require nuclear backing to be viable. Fortunately for all concerned, the longawaited Soviet attack never came. The war fever increased substantially with the June 25, 1950, invasion of South Korea; in the satellites, propaganda and planning grew more frenzied. To General Kiraly, the activities appeared coordinated with the putative attack on Tito: "That coordination indicated that there was a direct relationship between the timing of the Korean aggression and the completion of preparations for war against Yugoslavia." Washington's unexpectedly strong response to North Korean aggression was dismaying to the Soviets: If America would commit two divisions at once, and eventually more than a half-dozen, to save South Korea, what might it do to rescue the strategically vital Tito?

Soviet military planning continued, undaunted by events in the Far East. Major maneuvers in Hungary in January 1951, involving 80,000 satellite troops, simulated an invasion of Yugoslavia; it was a dry run. Ominously, the war games placed American troops in the Yugoslav second defensive echelon: war with NATO was now assumed. The Soviet Union, now a nuclear power too, was unintimidated by Western military power.

Yet the January 1951 maneuvers would be the high-water mark of the war that almost was. Thereafter, the threat slowly receded; Stalin's willingness to risk world war - even atomic war - waned, and plans for all-out invasion were quietly shelved. As Kiraly, who witnessed the high-level proceedings, recalled, a strong American defense of South Korea "nipped Stalin's pet project in the bud." Stalin resigned himself to resolving his Tito problem short of all-out war.

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