Around the Horn

Let’s talk about the Cold War. We’ll start with a couple of pictures.

That’s a Northrop F-5, an American-built fighter aircraft. They’re still in use but were very common during the Cold War.

And that is a MiG-21. It’s a fighter designed by the now-gone Soviet Union, and was also used in the Cold War. (This one was used by the Romanian Air Force, but ignore that part.)

The Cold War divided the world into two sides, kind of (the bonus fact today discusses that a bit), and if you wanted to know who was on what side, the planes could usually help you figure it out. American allies used American-provided fighters like the F-5; those aligned with the Soviets had MiGs. That makes sense, as you typically want to arm your friends and not your foes.

But in one case, things got flipped around.

That’s a map of Ethiopia and Somalia. The shaded region is where people who are ethnic Somalis tend to be predominant — this area is often known as “Greater Somalia” — and you’ll note that a lot of that pink area is in Ethiopia. (Greater Somalia also spills into Djibouti and Kenya.)

The border between Ethiopia and Somalia was drawn after World War II and the large number of ethnic Somalis placed in Ethiopia has led to years of conflict. For much of the 1970s, the region known as Ogaden — the eastern part of Ethiopia which juts into Somalia — was, in particular, the cause of consternation between the two nations. This mutual dislike for one another played into the hands of the Soviet Union which, hoping to maintain a foothold in the region, supplied the Somalis with arms — including MiGs. The United States, on the other hand, supported Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Air Force ended up with a fleet of F-5s, but the Somalian military grew in strength through the mid-1970s and, relatively speaking, the Ethiopians were weaker.

As the Ethiopian government’s relative strength faded, so did its power internally. In 1974, the military overthrew the emperor, causing — temporarily — even more destabilization, especially with the U.S.-backed government now out of power. Separatists groups challenged the military council, known as the Derg. One of those separatists groups was the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), a group of ethnic Somalis who lived in the Ogaden region, and wanted to make Greater Somalia a reality. As the strife between the Derg and the WSLF (and others) grew, and with America mostly out of the picture, Somalia saw an opportunity. They wanted to support the WSLF, and in July of 1977, the Somali National Army invaded Ethiopia in an effort to take Ogaden.

The initial Somali efforts were successful, with one exception: Derg-run Ethiopia maintained control of the skies due to their use of the F-5s. And they probably would have prevailed except for one quirk of history. The USSR saw the Derg as a leaders who could instill Communism in their nation, and, therefore, the Soviets had been secretly fueling the Derg’s efforts to repel the WSLF and other separatists. The Somali government had no idea, of course, when it invaded Ethiopia. This led to an absurd result: the Soviet Union was backing both sides in what was now known as the Ethio-Somali War. That was pretty stupid, so they cut off Somalia and instead, sent troops to Ethiopia, as did Cuba. And the tide quickly turned. Somalia ended up withdrawing from Ethiopia in March of the following year, admitting defeat.

But before they did, they found themselves a new ally — the United States began sending them aid. The amount and timing wasn’t enough to change the tide of the war, but it did lead to the absurd result. As Wikipedia notes, the two superpowers, effectively, switched sides: “In a notable illustration of the nature of Cold War alliances, the Soviet Union switched from supplying aid to Somalia to supporting Ethiopia, which had previously been backed by the United States. This in turn prompted the US to later start supporting Somalia.”


Bonus Fact: The term “third world country” often is taken to mean that the nation in question is underdeveloped, poor, etc. But that’s not what the term actually means — or, at least, not what it originally meant. The term has Cold War origins. First World countries were the United States, NATO, and its allies; Second World countries were the Soviet Union, China, the Warsaw Bloc, and the other Communist nations; the Third World was everyone else. (Here’s a map — blue is First World, red is Second, and green is Third. And yes, on that map, both Ethiopia and Somalia are red, even though Somalia dropped any affiliation with the USSR after the Ethio-Somali War.)

From the ArchivesBoom Goes the Natural Gas Pipeline: Another Cold War story.

Related: “The World’s Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia” by James Fergusson. 4.4 stars on 17 reviews.