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Hijacked! | Article

The American Response to the Hijackings

Before September 6, 1970, the United States had never faced terrorism on a global scale. In formulating the American response, President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger kept another global consideration foremost in mind -- the balance of power between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

President Nixon meets with Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig at Camp David, National Archives

Nixon's Initial Middle East Policy
Nixon's presidency began as Lyndon Johnson's had ended: preoccupied with Vietnam. The sole significant Middle East peace initiative during Nixon's first 18 months, dubbed the "Rogers plan" after his secretary of state, envisioned an Israeli withdrawal from territory captured from Egypt during the Six Day War in exchange for peace between the two countries. Although it would anticipate the central tenets of the successful Camp David Accords a decade later, the 1969 Rogers plan was rejected by Egypt, the Soviet Union, and Israel. Only Jordan showed any interest in the restoration of pre-1967 borders in exchange for peace. And other than the Rogers plan, Nixon's chief consideration in the pre-hijacking days was the amount of arms to sell to Israel.

Crisis Management
Nixon was in California for the Labor Day weekend when the planes were hijacked and flown to Jordan, and he returned to the White House that evening of Sunday, September 6. Nixon decided that he and Kissinger would manage the government's response. Their chief concern was the impact the crisis would have on the balance of power between America, Israel's chief ally, and the Soviet Union, who supported Israel's Arab neighbors. In September 1970 the Palestine Liberation Organization and allied militant organizations like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the group behind the hijackings, operated a de facto state within Jordan. King Hussein of Jordan was one of the region's most pro-American leaders, and the hijacking crisis created the possibility that his government would fall and be replaced by a more radical regime, particularly if Iraqi or Syrian forces decided to intervene. That, Nixon feared, would tip the Middle East balance in favor of the Soviets.

A Show of Power
For the crisis' first 36 hours, the White House made few public comments. The U.S. and Western European governments with citizens held hostage authorized the Red Cross to negotiate with the P.F.L.P. Israel, out of concern for our relations with the pro-U.S. Arabs, refused to participate. But behind the scenes, Nixon was in no mood for diplomacy. He called his advisers together on the evening of September 8 and subsequently ordered Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird to bomb the P.F.L.P. positions. Laird, who feared another military operation while U.S. forces were heavily committed in Vietnam, gave the pretext that the weather was not right for an air strike, and the idea was dropped. But Nixon remained determined to send signals of U.S. resolve to the Soviets, putting the 82nd Airborne Division on semi-alert, ordering part of the Sixth Fleet to sea, and sending transport planes and a fighter jet escort to Turkey.

Civil War in Jordan
Although most hostages had been released when the P.F.L.P. forces blew up the three empty airplanes sitting in the Jordanian desert on September 12, more than 50, including 34 Americans, remained in captivity at secret locations. Meanwhile, King Hussein decided he could no longer accept the P.L.O.'s de facto government, and on September 16, his army attacked the militants. While Nixon and Kissinger supported Hussein's actions, they also feared outside intervention in Jordan's civil war. Nixon ordered the Sixth Fleet to continue east across the Mediterranean, and he dropped hints through the American press that the U.S. would respond directly to any involvement by Iraq or Syria. On September 19, the administration learned that Syria, under the mistaken impression that the P.L.O. was succeeding in its efforts to overthrow King Hussein, had in fact sent tanks into Jordan; the U.S. promptly warned the Soviets that this would escalate the conflict. Meanwhile, Hussein was appealing for American, or if necessary, even Israeli assistance. U.S. forces were still too far away to be of much help, but Nixon approved Israeli military action if necessary to stop the Syrians. Emboldened by this support, Hussein sent his own air force against the Syrian tanks, and by the afternoon of September 22, the Syrians had begun to withdraw. No Israeli intervention occurred, by the end of the month the remaining hostages had all been freed, and within a year the P.L.O. would be expelled from Jordan to Lebanon, thus leading to the Lebanese civil war of 1975-82. From the American perspective, the crisis in Jordan had been successfully managed. But for a few dramatic days, the skyjacking had threatened to spark a much wider war.

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