No Farewell for This Admiral: Reflections on Diego Garcia

Vijay Prashad

On 2 January 2000, Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. died. The New York Times

reported the next day that Zumwalt left behind two principle legacies, his

attempt to desegregate the US Navy in the 1970s and his order to spray Agent

Orange in Vietnam (which led to the death of his son, Lt. Elmo Zumwalt III,

among countless others). I want to add a third legacy, one felt each day in the

Indian Ocean: his statement, as Chief of Naval Operations, in 1974 that the

creation of a denuclearized ‘zone of peace’ in the Indian Ocean was a ‘very

dangerous idea.’

Zumwalt’s statement came in light of Afro-Asian pressure against such

institutions as the US base at Diego Garcia (7.18s and 72.24e) in the Chagos

Archipelago, smack dab in the center of the Indian Ocean. Currently, the base is

home to, at least, the following units: (1) The 630th Air Mobility Support

Squadron (which maintains the Ground-based Electro-Optical Deep Space

Surveillance system). (2) The 18th Space Surveillance Squadron. (3) The 613th

Air Support Squadron (it offered logistical support to 1991 Desert Storm, 1996

Desert Strike, 1997 Desert Thunder, and 1998 Desert Fox, as well as ongoing

operations in Iraq). (4) The 22nd Space Operations Squadron (the Diego Garcia

Tracking Station, to assist in the operation of Department of Defense satellites

that ‘provide enhancement to conventional forces’ (as the DoD reports). (5) Navy

Support Facility (a liaison for the Japan Self Defense Force as well as

coordinator of US Navy activities in the Indian Ocean). (6) The 7th Fleet (which

is responsible for over 52 million miles of ocean, from San Diego to Diego

Garcia, with a forward-deployed force at Yokusuka, Japan, and Diego Garcia). (7)

The Naval Central Meteorology and Oceanography Detachment (to provide

information to the US Navy). Diego Garcia is a monument to Zumwalt at a time

when the US Navy seems to be on the defensive (for example, at Vieques, Puerto


In December 1999, the US turned over the Panama Canal to its owners. It

seems, in some measure, as if the US is ready to demobilize its forward

positions and remove itself from some of its bases across the globe. This is

what it looked like in 1991 when the Filipino people refused to allow the US to

use its Subic Bay facility. It looked like that too in Japan with the uproar

over Okinawa, as it does now at Vieques. Is the iron hot for making the waters

peaceful? Will Diego Garcia join these familiar names as the US pulls up the

stakes on the island? Clinton pledges himself to a New Humanitarianism, to a

time of peace. Yet, as outmoded ships return home, cutting-edge vessels quietly

take their place at forward positions. (The US withdrew Southern Command from

Panama to Puerto Rico, one example of this re-arrangement, rather than


On 27 May 1999 the Senate of the Philippines approved the Visiting Forces

Agreement that allowed US troops to resume large-scale military exercises and to

use its docks. This was an augmentation of a deal struck by Admiral Charles

Lawson (Commander of the US Pacific Fleet) and Lisandro Abadia (Philippines

Chief of Staff) in November 1992, which allowed US ‘ship visits, aircraft

transits, [and] small unit exercises.’ Since September 1997 the Japanese

government has violated Article 9 of its 1946 Constitution in its more

aggressive use of the Jiei-tai (Self-Defense) Forces and in the potential

US-Japan Theater Missile Defense project (which revokes the Anti-Ballistic

Missile Treaty). The US Navy seems keen to dominate the Indian Ocean further,

making the idea of the ‘zone of peace’ all the more remote. With the May 1998

nuclear tests in India and Pakistan, it looks unlikely that the US will

willingly leave these waters. The Senate’s cancellation of CTBT was not alone in

sending a message of renewed US imperialism to the world; places like Diego

Garcia already do so.

Most people in the US know little of the US Navy’s role in the Indian Ocean.

Few know that there was once a very real initiative to stop the entrenchment of

the waters, the ‘zone of peace’ concept. The Cairo Non-Aligned Summit (1964)

recommended ‘the establishment of denuclearized zones’ in those oceans of the

world as yet without nuclear weapons. This followed the 1959 Antarctic Treaty

and the 1963 Treaty of Tlatelelco (to keep Latin America free of nuclear

weapons). By 1970, the Lusaka Non-Aligned Summit took a more forthright position

and called upon all states to ‘respect the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace from

which Great Power rivalries and competition, as well as bases’ be excluded.

The US government ignored this declaration and signed a treaty with Britain

in 1966 to make Diego Garcia available for a US base. The British pullout of the

Indian Ocean, the crisis of the Suez and the Vietnam imbroglio drew the US

toward this strategic island. By 1974, Admiral Zumwalt told the US Congress that

the Indian Ocean has ‘become a focal point of US foreign and economic policies

and has a growing impact on our security.’ The context of the oil crisis weighed

heavily on the US Congress (so much so that some expected US military engagement

in the region — this was to come some decades later). Zumwalt noted that the

USSR stood atop the ‘central part of the West’s energy jugular down to the

Persian Gulf’ (this was a decisive exaggeration). Two other historical events

are of significance: the war to liberate Bangladesh of 1971 and the 1973 Yom

Kippur War. In both the US played a significant role (in 1971, the 7th Fleet

sailed up the Bay of Bengal to help prop up the corrupt Pakistani regime in what

was to become Bangladesh).

The Indian Ocean Zone of Peace notion was an affront to Zumwalt, who told the

US Congress that ‘a permanent presence is mandatory’ since the USSR was trying

to ‘Finlandize’ the Afro-Asian littoral. He was in favor of an additional fleet,

so that use of the Pacific Fleet in the region would not provide a ‘dangerous

vacuum in US presence through the Western Pacific region.’ Indeed, this is the

case today, as the US base at Diego Garcia offers logistical support to

nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed military ships as well as aircraft — all of

which allow the US to threaten and cajole the powers in the region into its


To join the campaign against Diego Garcia send an email to gherao@yahoo.com.


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