Returning and Redemption
Turning the clock back 50 years, when Washington invoked the Eisenhower Doctrine and sent in the Marines to thwart the forces of international communism in Lebanon
As Hizballah demonstrated its political and military dominance over Lebanon in early May, it’s doubtful that anyone in the Bush Administration seriously even entertained the thought that American military intervention was called for. Although the Lebanese proxy of the Iranian and Syrian arms of the Axis of Evil was consolidating its strategic grip on the Land of the Cedars, the United States, heavily committed in Iraq, could hardly contemplate getting involved in another Middle Eastern adventure.
And yet, twice before in the last 50 years, American presidents have sent in the Marines to save the situation in Lebanon. In 1982, after the Israeli invasion and the siege of Beirut, Ronald Reagan dispatched them as part of the U.N. peacekeeping force. That mission ended in tragedy, after a Hizballah suicide bomber drove a truck into the Marine barracks in October 1983, killing 241 U.S. personnel.
The earlier Marine intervention took place almost 50 years ago, when Dwight D. Eisenhower invoked the doctrine bearing his name and acted to thwart a perceived communist threat – in the form of Nasserite Pan-Arab nationalism – in the Middle East.
It was July 15, 1958, and Second Lt. Simon L. Leis Jr. was nervous. As he waited for orders aboard the Sixth Fleet’s Amphibious Force Flagship USS Taconic, he peered across the rough waters of the Mediterranean towards the yellow sands of Khalde beach, just five miles south of Beirut. Like the other members of the U.S. Marine Corps aboard the Taconic that day, Leis was preparing for battle. Briefed to expect the possibility of a hostile reception, the young leatherneck from Cincinnati, Ohio, knew little of the complexities surrounding the Lebanese crisis that the U.S. intervention was meant to help solve. But, when the call to serve finally came, he was ready. As whoops of anticipation and nervous tension rang out across the ship’s sun-scorched deck, Leis, together with his comrades from the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Marine Regiment, clambered into a landing craft and set off to assault “Red Beach” at Khalde, some 500 yards from their position.
“We left for the beach at three o’clock in the afternoon,” recalls Leis, then an English and History graduate fresh out of Xavier University, Ohio. “And that was the first time in the history of the Marine Corps that a landing was started in the middle of the afternoon. Landings like this were always done first thing in the morning, which gave us all day to unload the ships. Nevertheless, we were told that we were going into combat, and so that’s what we expected.”
Leis speaks to The Report from his offices in Hamilton County, Cincinnati, Ohio, where he serves as sheriff. After his discharge, he went on to gain a doctorate in law, and served as a public prosecutor and city solicitor until assuming his position as sheriff.
At 23 years old, Leis was one of the oldest members of the landing force. He didn’t have long to muse, and what little time he did have was spent thinking about home. “I’d been a married man for only about two months before being shipped out,” he remembers, then on his first military campaign. “And as the landing craft surged towards the beach, I thought, ‘Hell, I’m too young to die!’ I mean, I didn’t know what married life was all about.”
What awaited Leis, and some 2,000 other fellow Marines, however, was a welcome of a sort never experienced by the Corps in any operation, since its first amphibious landing in the Bahamas in 1776.
As the steel ramps of the landing craft hit the shore and the young, adrenaline-fueled Marines stormed the beach, their anxiety was tempered by the sight of bikini-clad girls and other sunbathers, ice-cream vendors and hordes of kids, all bewildered and excited by the appearance of a large, heavily armed body of men. Onlookers waved and cheered as the men – sweltering under the 90-degree heat – scrambled up the glistening shore, heading for their target – Beirut International Airport, carrying some 90 pounds of battle gear each, including Tommy guns, grenades and bazookas, and surrounded by the roar of amphibious tractors and the thunder of naval planes overhead. The surreal nature of the landing was compounded by peddlers touting souvenirs and by the local boys who made for the water’s edge and tried to help the Marines drag their equipment through the surf.
As described by Jack Shulimson, from the Historical Branch, G-3 Division Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, in a written history of the Marine Corps’ participation in the Lebanon crisis, the perplexing scene prompted one Marine to observe- “It’s better than Korea, but what the hell is it?”
Dickey Chapelle, a war correspondent who came in with the third wave of Marine landings, later wrote in an account of her career, “What’s a Woman Doing Here? A Reporter’s Report on Herself” that “the real thing didn’t look much different from a rehearsal, except for the hazard offered by Arab families sunbathing on the sand.” Chapelle, one of the world’s first female war correspondents who had been with the Marines in Iwo Jima and Okinawa and in Korea on assignment for magazines such as the National Geographic and Life and was later killed in Vietnam, recalled one of the strangest commands ever given to any Marine landing in the history of the USMC-
“You will make every effort in this assault not to disturb the swimmers on the beach…”
As Leis and his company moved swiftly towards the airport, PFC John E. Dreisbach, a Morse code operator and a member of the Naval Gunfire Team, also moved inland to set up a command post “When we landed, what hit me immediately was the heat,” recalls Dreisbach, then only 19 years old, in a conversation with The Report from his home in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania. “While the line companies went to secure the airport, we dug in, and although that night was pretty quiet, it was still so very hot and large mosquitoes buzzed all around us.”
The following day, as the initial deployment was reinforced by further Marine landings – others from the Airborne Division would arrive within days, until the U.S. force numbered some 14,000 troops- Pennsylvania-born Dreisbach joined the long military push into Beirut itself. “On the long column – containing tanks, amtracks [amphibious tractors], trucks and jeeps – that entered Beirut, I was sitting on a jeep fender,” remembers Dreisbach. There were thousands of people lining the streets, half of whom seemed to welcome us. The looks of the others made me get off the fender and jump into a truck, as they didn’t look that friendly. I was also uneasy about the buildings, which seemed to be damaged by explosives. A lot of one town… was damaged pretty badly.”
Dreisbach’s observation was an accurate reflection of the simmering political crisis in Lebanon and the wider Arab world that threatened the integrity of the government of pro-Western Christian Maronite President Camille Chamoun. As Arab nationalism swept the Middle East spurred on by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser whose close ties to the Soviet Union caused great unease among the Western powers – Chamoun signed up to the 1957 Eisenhower Doctrine. Largely aimed at the Middle East, the doctrine proclaimed the readiness of the United States to use its armed forces to assist any nation requesting assistance against armed aggressors from any country controlled by international communism.
Chamoun’s move was seen as a direct and open challenge by the country’s Muslim population, whose suspicion of the West was stronger than ever, especially after the abortive attempt by Israel, France and Britain to topple Nasser in the 1956 Suez War. The Americans had saved Nasser then, but still narrow-mindedly and still questionably saw all and any manifestations of Arab nationalism as communist-inspired. This included the pressure on Chamoun by Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims, headed by Prime Minister Rashid Karami, to resign and for Lebanon to join the newly created United Arab Republic (UAR), formed in February 1958 by Egypt and Syria. Civil unrest, exacerbated by reports that Chamoun wished to change the constitution so he could serve a second term, quickly spread.
Were it not for a nationalistic coup d’etat in Iraq on July 14, which led to the murder of the then-pro-Western country’s King Faisal and Prime Minister Nuri Said, Lebanon’s internal fracas may have remained no more than that. But the bloody revolution in Baghdad was too much for Chamoun and he appealed to the United States for immediate assistance. It soon became clear, however, that Eisenhower had used a boulder to crack a nut.
Eisenhower, of course, viewed the events in Lebanon in the context of the Cold War, waged between the United States and the Soviet Union, which reigned supreme over much of the world’s political discourse and acts of war for almost half a century. Indeed, the Marines landed on the shores of Beirut on July 15, 1958 – almost five years to the day since the end of the Korean War (1950-53), which claimed the lives of more than 35,000 American troops. The subsequent war in Vietnam (1965-73) would go on to claim the lives of some 58,000 U.S. combat personnel.
Yet the several thousand deaths notwithstanding, Lebanon’s first civil war had never been likely to lead to outright revolution, nor did it represent the stirrings of international communism, against which the Eisenhower Doctrine was specifically aimed.
The crisis was finally resolved when Chamoun gave up the presidency in favor of army commander Fouad Chehab, who was also a Christian but had refrained from using the military against the Muslim rebels for fear that the army would split up along religious lines.
Intriguingly, 50 years later, in early May 2008, the Lebanese army refrained from intervening when Hizballah took over West Beirut for the same reasons that motivated Chehab – the fear that the army would split up along religious lines. Now, while the Lebanese constitution still mandates that the president be a Christian and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the Shi’ites are by far the largest section of the population and have made up for their official under-representation by building a powerful militia and communal organization that has been termed a state within a state. This time, too, the army’s diplomatic conduct gave Hizballah the opportunity to climb down and stop its armed assault on the pro-Western regime of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
Much has changed in world politics too in the last 50 years, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. But the United States still sees itself as the global policeman, this time against the threat of global jihad and it might find itself once again embroiled in Lebanon if the forces of radical Islam, in the form of Hizballah, try to drive home their advantage and turn Lebanon into an Iranian base on the Mediterranean.
Back in 1958, things ended quietly. There was only one American casualty in the three months that the U.S. forces spent in Beirut. For some of the greener members of the U.S. military, a campaign that had promised much in the way of combat turned out to be a disappointment. “As young men, we were still holding out for the possibility that something [in the way of real combat] would occur,” recalls Pennsylvania-born Rod LaPearl, then a 17 year-old private in the 187th Airborne Infantry and 24th Airborne Brigade.
Speaking with The Report from his home in Pennsylvania, LaPearl, who is now a retired pipeline construction worker, also recalls that, like many of his comrades, he spent much of the campaign killing time in Beirut’s lively social scene.
The U.S. troops were puzzled, not only by the lack of opposition but also by the politics behind their presence. Many even wondered what they were doing there at all. “We didn’t know anything,” recalls Dreisbach. “We didn’t even know how to spell ‘politics’! We just did what we were told to do and I don’t even think we asked anyone about it. To this day, I bet the Marines that landed in Lebanon then still don’t know why they were there.”