The Nord Stream Pipelines and the Perils of Containment

The sabotage in the Baltic Sea was the result of a long-standing US policy of driving a wedge between Russia and Western Europe

Thursday marks one year since I reported President Joe Biden’s decision in the fall of 2022 to send a signal of resolve to Vladimir Putin by destroying Nord Stream 1 and 2, the Russian natural gas pipelines. Nord Stream 1 had turned Germany into the most powerful economic force in Western Europe.

I won’t dwell on the failure of the mainstream media to follow up on that story—some reporters, as I learned decades ago, have inside sources and others do not. But I will relate a lesson I learned about presidential signaling of the sort that is going on now against the Houthis in Yemen; against the Iranians, who are believed to be behind much of the anti-Americanism in the Middle East; and, of course, against Moscow in the Ukraine war.

Fossil Future: Why Glo... Epstein, Alex Best Price: $6.99 Buy New $9.29 (as of 02:52 UTC - Details) It’s a Cold War story I was told by someone who was steeped in the history of the early days of American intervention in Vietnam. After the Second World War, the United States backed the wrong side in China, and the communist forces led by Mao Zedong declared victory in 1949. This was seen as yet another setback for America’s effort to contain worldwide communism. Containment was the overriding US policy then, and there was worry about Mao’s support for Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese leader who defeated the French in 1954, in the battle at Diem Bien Phu, despite much off-the-books American help for France. A little-noted international peace conference that year in Geneva concluded, in a triumph for rational diplomacy, that Vietnam would be divided, with Ho dominating the North and a non-communist regime to be set up in the South.

American fear of communism determined what happened next in the South, as the Eisenhower administration, buttressed by support from the Catholic Church and many in the US Congress, including newly elected Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, as well as his powerful father, businessman Joseph Kennedy, installed the French-speaking devout Catholic southerner Ngo Dinh Diem as president. Diem had little in common with the Buddhists and Catholics in the South who hated the French, but his installation as president was a signal to Ho Chi Minh and the Chinese that America was in the South to contain the spread of communism throughout the peninsula, to Laos and Cambodia.

We think we understand what happened in the next nineteen years as America fought its war of containment, but mostly we do not. After the deaths of millions of Vietnamese and more than 58,000 Americans, Saigon fell to the North on April 30, 1975. The brutal scene of desperate Vietnamese clinging to the landing gear of the last American helicopter fleeing the rooftop of the embassy in Saigon is an image my generation will never forget. Cambodia, whose various regimes had been supported by thousands of American bombs, fell to the communist Khmer Rouge in the last days of April, with a new government in place by the end of May. And in August the communist Pathet Lao consolidated a victory won months earlier in the battlefields by formally taking over the government.

And what happened next?

We lost a war, shrugged it off, and moved on.

Cambodia was taken over by the fanatical Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, that initiated a wave of murders and atrocities that horrified the world. The communist winners in South Vietnam began a purge of thousands who were deemed, fairly or not, to be Western sympathizers, many of them southerners who had been drafted or dragooned into the South Vietnamese army. They were flung into re-education camps that combined physical labor with mental torture. The jailed included many members of North’s loyal allies known to Americans as the Viet Cong who were not communists but nationalists.

Today consolidated Vietnam is non-communist and America is its largest trading partner, and it is a major tourist stop for Americans and Europeans. The same can be said for Cambodia’s Ankor Wat, with its array of thousand-year-old temples. I played golf at a resort there a few years ago and went sightseeing with my family. Communist Laos remains relatively remote, but is modernizing rapidly and is a major trading partner of China.

All that America fought, died, and killed for was gone within a few months. So much for containment. And so much for signaling. It was a lesson not known, or not interesting, to the Biden administration in early 2022, when it seemed clear that Vladimir Putin was going to lead Russia to war with Ukraine. Biden had long been a strong opponent of Russia, and before that Soviet communism, throughout his political career, and he especially reviled Putin. Never Split the Differ... Raz, Tahl Best Price: $14.11 Buy New $14.09 (as of 11:15 UTC - Details)

It is now widely accepted that Putin would have delayed or canceled the invasion if Secretary of State Antony Blinken had assured him that Ukraine would not be permitted to join NATO. That promise was not made. Instead, Biden publicly warned Putin two weeks before the Russians attacked that America would destroy the newly constructed pipeline, Nord Stream 2, that was prepared to funnel Russian gas to Germany. Putin had already slowed down and then cut off the earlier pipeline, Nord Stream 1, that began delivering gas to Germany a decade earlier.

The cheap gas helped propel Germany into becoming the dominant manufacturing entity in Western Europe. Since the late 1950s, the United States and its Western European allies had worried about the political impact of Russian energy.

The idea of blowing up Nord Stream 1 and 2 had come from the American intelligence community, spearheaded at the time by the CIA. The community had been asked in late 2021 for options—American actions—that could convince Putin to back off. It was with this understanding that a most secret CIA unit was organized to find a way to do what President Biden wanted: to present Putin with a threat that could stop the Russian president from going to war. Bolstered by the CIA’s confidence, Biden stunned the intelligence community by threatening to blow up Nord Stream at a White House news conference on February 7, 2022, with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz standing at his side.

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