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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Nuclear Threats - Yugoslav ‘Crisis’ - 1946

Historical data on the Yugoslav ‘Crisis’ is scant, mostly a result of its insignificance. On 9th August 1946 a USAAF C-47 transport plane was shot at and forced down over Ljubljana. Its crew were held hostage. Ten days later near the Yugoslav town of Bled, a second C-47 was shot at by a Yugoslavian fighter, this time killing all five crew members. An ultimatum was sent to Yugoslavia demanding the release of the captured airmen. While these events occurred against a background of mounting international tension, the idea that an atomic bomb could have been dropped on Yugoslavia is risible. Prior to the C-47 incidents, Yugoslavia was a candidate for Marshal Plan assistance.

Perhaps the only major consequence of the crisis was a loss of potential revenue and Yugoslavia, fiercely resistant to Soviet expansionism, remained a pillar of America’s evolving strategy of containment. The downed C-47s presented not so much an opportunity for military action as a chance to send a signal to the Russians. The purpose of the signal was to influence the outcome of the real crisis, which was elsewhere.

On August 15th 1946, President Truman held a meeting in the White house. The subject under discussion was not the C-47 incidents in Yugoslavia but renewed Soviet demands for joint control of the Black Sea Straits. These, thought the Truman administration, “reflected a desire to control and dominate” Turkey. If could not be prevented, it would be almost impossible to stop Russian domination of “the whole Near and Middle East.”

The Soviet aim was to renegotiate the 1936 Montreaux convention which established Turkey’s right to arm the Straits and seal the passage when engaged in or threatened by war. Turkish policy had little weight in the pre-Cold war era and the treaty was of minor relevance. In the light of new tensions, Russian demands for joint control carried a sinister undertone.

Earlier in 1946, Soviet suspicions had been stirred by the establishment of US Strategic Air Command in Dhahran. Now it was the increasing American naval presence in the Mediterranean that was causing renewed concern and making the Straits central to Soviet foreign policy:

In April the battleship Missouri had arrived in Istanbul, the first US warship to drop anchor in the Bosporus. The American naval build-up was itself a result of growing concern over Soviet intentions in Greece and Turkey and the United States had hastened to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of British forces from the Mediterranean. The latest Soviet pressure was an attempt to exclude all outside powers from any interest in the Straits.

On the 7th August Truman received an ultimatum from the Soviet Union and met with his advisors on the 15th to co-ordinate a response. It is in this period that the Yugoslav ‘crisis’ is supposed to have been at its height. In fact, acting Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Secretary for the Navy James Forrestal and acting Secretary for war Kenneth Royal had spent the week engaged in meetings concerning the Straits. The C-47 incidents were a minor distraction and the American response conciliatory. Policy makers in Washington were far more worried about troop movements in Transcaucasia and Bulgaria.

When the United States delivered its ultimatum to Yugoslavia over the C-47s, the aim, if there was one, was to signal resolve to the Soviet Union: A rejection of Soviet demands for the Straits was handed to the Soviet ambassador a day later, coinciding with the movement of Twelfth fleet destroyers into the Mediterranean and the ordering of the aircraft carrier Roosevelt to Athens. Yet these moves were neither antagonistic nor decisive and American persuasion stopped well short of coercion: Rather then seeking confrontation, the American counter-proposal to the Soviets suggested referral of future problems in the Straits to the United Nations.

By the time the Straits crisis reached its peak the Missouri had returned to home waters and was cruising off New England, while the Roosevelt did not enter Turkish waters. Firmness, without provocation, was the idea behind American policy – a crisis would be damaging to the administration’s hope of retaining congressional majorities. Also, the country as a whole was unprepared for conflict. The Soviets’ eventual acceptance of the Montreaux convention had as much to do with overwhelming US military superiority, particular nuclear superiority (the USSR had no atomic weapons at the time) as American coercion.

This leaves “Yugoslavia Crisis,” as an adjunct to the much broader issue of the Straits, Soviet expansion and containment. Far from threatening the dropping of an atomic bomb on Yugoslavia, as many commonly available sources claim, Washington regarded the crisis as a peripheral interlude, provoking little response and having few consequences. Yugoslavia, which still hovered in the balance between Eastern and Western alliances, was regarded as much as a potential ally as an enemy.

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Page last modified: 23-07-2019 17:50:26 ZULU