By LISA HOFFMAN
For Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, the current crisis in Lebanon might seem to be a "been-there, done-that" situation.
That’s because, in essence, it is. When the United States evacuated American civilians from that war-wracked country in 1976 – almost exactly 30 years ago – Rumsfeld was secretary of defense and Cheney was a key part of the White House inner circle that oversaw the emergency rescue.
There even was a George Bush who took part in the decision-making, albeit the current president’s father, George H.W. Bush, who was director of the CIA in late June 1976, when U.S. Marines evacuated about 250 Americans and foreign nationals as Lebanon’s civil war worsened.
On Tuesday, when U.S. forces will kick into higher gear a major sea and air effort to ferry as many as 25,000 Americans from Beirut to escape an Israeli bombing offensive, Rumsfeld again is defense secretary, Cheney is vice president and the younger Bush is commander in chief.
"History is repeating itself," said Randy Gaddo, an ex-Marine staff sergeant and founding member of Beirut Veterans of America, an association of former service members who took part in any of a series of U.S. military missions in Lebanon since 1958.
The 1976 evacuation was ordered after the American ambassador to Lebanon and an aide were kidnapped and killed on June 16, 1976. Beirut was ground zero in an escalating, four-sided civil war, and conditions were deemed too dangerous to move Americans out by an overland convoy.
So, President Gerald Ford _ after conferring with Rumsfeld, Bush and White House chief of staff Cheney, as well as his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, and national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft _ ordered "Operation Fluid Drive" to commence.
Americans and Lebanese nationals were transported by a Marine landing craft and helicopters to a five-ship U.S. naval task force that took the evacuees to safety. About 1,500 Americans opted to stay behind in Beirut.
At the time, news accounts noted that White House and Pentagon officials had devoted a substantial amount of attention to what was a relatively easy mission. Critics portrayed the episode as one designed to showcase Ford _ who was facing a tough race against Georgian Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election _ in a tough, "presidential" role.
This time, President Bush has ordered the USS Gonzalez destroyer to accompany a commercial cruise ship that will serve as a primary evacuation destination. He also has directed Marine CH53 Super Stallion helicopters from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit into action.
No one is sure how many Americans will want to leave, although the U.S. Embassy in Beirut said 15,000 have registered there, but far from all have indicated they want to leave.
Whatever the number, Marines will be prepared, Gaddo said, noting the Corps’ expertise in evacuating civilians in even the most dire of circumstances.
"They’ve got it down," said Gaddo, 53, of Peachtree City, Ga.
(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com.)