30. Memorandum From the Vice Director of the Joint Staff (Freeman) to Secretary of Defense Laird 1


  • The Suez Canal (U)


(S) The Joint Chiefs of Staff have conducted a review of the strategic, economic, and political implications of a reopened Suez Canal.
(S) Strategically, a reopened canal, operating as an international waterway, would provide the naval forces of all nations with a short, direct line of communications between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea/Indian Ocean/Persian Gulf.
The Soviet Union has demonstrated interest in the Indian Ocean area since 1967, when a Soviet Pacific Fleet naval task force made its first deployment to the area. The continuous presence of a Soviet naval force, averaging three to four naval combatants, in the Indian Ocean, coupled with the fact that this force periodically visits various ports on the Indian Ocean/Persian Gulf littoral, indicates that the area is of [Page 101] strategic interest to the USSR. With the Suez Canal open, the Indian Ocean would be more readily accessible to the Soviets. Soviet Pacific coast ports, from which most of the Soviet naval deployments to the Indian Ocean originate, are handicapped severely by fog in spring and fall and by ice in winter. Furthermore, the south coast of Arabia is over 6,100 nm from the nearest Soviet Pacific port. From Soviet ports in the more favorable Black Sea environment, the same destination is nearly 11,500 nm via Gibraltar and around the southern tip of Africa. However, if the Suez Canal were open, Soviet ships sailing from the Black Sea would steam only 3,200 nm to reach the same point. This shorter line of communication would facilitate Soviet economic and military activities in the Indian Ocean area.
The principal strategic impact of a reopened canal would be to make possible more rapid increases in Soviet military presence throughout the Red Sea/Indian Ocean/Persian Gulf area and to reduce the cost of Soviet resupply, repair, and military/economic aid actions. These factors could combine to enhance Soviet influence in the littoral countries and might encourage the USSR to undertake greater political and military risks.
Access to the Suez Canal would also permit more rapid reinforcement of US naval forces stationed in the Persian Gulf and could enhance US political influence in the littoral countries of the area. However, the strategic value of the Suez Canal to the United States is reduced by the constraints on operation of NATO-committed forces outside the NATO area and the fact that the larger aircraft carriers cannot transit it. On balance, the strategic value of a reopened canal favors the USSR.
(S) In view of the interests and strategic advantages to the Soviets of a reopened canal and the fact that the Soviets have established a considerable military presence in the United Arab Republic (UAR), it appears prudent for the United States to explore the possibility of using US support for the reopening of the Suez Canal as a lever in seeking UAR agreement to reduce the Soviet presence in the UAR. This course may also offer potential for easing Israeli reluctance for movement on this intermediate step toward peace.
(S) The primary significance of the Suez Canal, at present, is its importance as an essential element in ongoing efforts to reduce regional tensions and create movement toward a viable Middle East peace agreement. With the continued, substantial Soviet presence in the UAR and the US commitment to the survival of Israel, the danger of great power confrontation in the Middle East is clear. It is equally clear that this threat to world peace requires that the United States continue to pursue initiatives which could lead to a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. An interim agreement to reopen the Suez Canal could demonstrate good faith and facilitate further negotiations to achieve a [Page 102] final settlement. However, there is the possibility that reopening the Suez Canal without resolution of other substantive issues might reduce pressures for continued meaningful negotiations and, with a continued extensive Soviet presence in the UAR, could serve to perpetuate Middle East tensions and instability.
(S) Economically, a reopened Suez Canal probably would benefit US NATO Allies, Japan, and countries which produce primary products along the Indian Ocean littoral. This economic impact could be beneficial to the United States. For the Soviets, a reopened canal would provide some economic benefit, but its principal consequence would be strategic.
(C) The US Government has traditionally held that international waterways should be open to all international shipping. Therefore, any contrary position regarding the reopening of the Suez Canal would be at odds with the traditional US position and could hinder US initiatives to obtain international agreement regarding territorial seas and fishing areas.
(S) The Joint Chiefs of Staff conclude that:
A reopened Suez Canal offers a greater strategic advantage to the Soviets than to the United States.
On balance, the relative disadvantage of an open canal should be accepted in the interest of promoting peace and regional stability. If, as a part of reopening the canal, Soviet presence in the UAR were reduced, this relative disadvantage to the United States would tend to be offset.
The US Government should support a diplomatic initiative which might seek an understanding for a significant reduction of Soviet military presence within the UAR in return for US support for a canal reopening.
The primary significance of the canal, at present, is its importance as an element in Middle East peace initiatives.
The reopening of the Suez Canal, as part of a viable agreement between the UAR and Israel providing for equal access to the Suez Canal by all nations, would be in the best interest of the United States.
(S) The Joint Chiefs of Staff will introduce background information used in the development of the above conclusions to the National Security Council Interdepartmental Group, Near East and South Asia, for review.
For the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
Mason Freeman
Rear Admiral, USN
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330–76–0197, Box 70, Middle East. Secret.