Where Have All the Blue Helmets Gone?

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The 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors brought an end to the UNEF peacekeeping mission, as Egypt demanded the withdrawal of U.N. blue helmets. But the United Nations came back in 1973, after Egypt and Syria launched a military strike against Israel on Yom Kippur, triggering the third Arab-Israeli war. The new peacekeeping force, which was authorized to monitor a ceasefire, included many of the traditional Western peacekeepers -- Austria, Canada, Finland, and Sweden -- but it also drew more widely from the developing world, including Ghana, Indonesia, Nepal, and one Warsaw Pact country, Poland.

In this 1975 photo at a UNEF II observation post in the Sinai, a Finnish peacekeeper cuts his countryman's hair while an Indonesian soldier stands sentry.

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The Soviet Union had been deeply skeptical about the virtues of U.N. peacekeeping, particularly following the Security Council decision to authorize a U.S.-led intervention in Korea in 1950 (Moscow was boycotting the Security Council at the time to protest Communist China's exclusion from the U.N. body). But in 1973, the Soviets entered the game when Moscow and Washington agreed to send 36 observers each to the UNTSO mission in the Middle East.

In this 1973 photograph, we see 12 newly arrived Soviet observers in Cairo being briefed by Col. R. W. Bunmorth (Ireland), UNTSO's acting chief of staff.

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Before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran was a participant in U.N. peacekeeping missions in the Middle East, providing 385 peacekeepers to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, which was established in 1974 to monitor a ceasefire between Israel and Syria. Today, Iran has only two military observers serving in U.N. missions.

Above, Capt. Ahmed Salehe (second from right) briefs his men in the Golan Heights in 1975.

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The U.N. mission in the Congo, which began in 1960, was the organization's first peace enforcement operation (a peacekeeping mission that uses force to implement its mandate) and the first mission to draw extensively on sub-Saharan African nations, many of which had only recently gained independence. Ghana, which gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1957, was the first sub-Saharan African nation to strike out on its own and among the first to participate in a U.N. peacekeeping mission. (A Ghanaian, Kofi Annan, would later become the top peacekeeping official at the United Nations and the secretary-general of the organization.)

Ultimately, the Congo mission -- which cost the life of U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, who died in a plane crash while pursuing peace in the country -- was so traumatic that it led to a general retreat by the international community from peacekeeping. In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan's administration took a dim view of the efficacy of U.N. peacekeepers, sending U.S. Marines, who were joined by French soldiers, to try to keep the peace in southern Lebanon.

In this 1960 photo, a Ghanaian officer stands patrol in Leopoldville.


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The early United Nations had no planes of its own and relied on the U.S. Air Force to transport its budding international peacekeeping force into action. In this 1960 photograph, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie greets a crew of U.S. Air Force pilots who are preparing to airlift Ethiopian troops to the Congo. 

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The U.N. mission in the Congo may have relied heavily on a mix of European and African peacekeepers, but command of the operation continued to rest primarily in the hands of white, Western officers.

Major General C.E. Welby-Everard, the last British officer to command the Royal Nigerian Army, is seen here visiting the 2nd Queen's Own Nigerian Army in Leopoldville in 1962.

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In the years following the Cold War, the United States mobilized U.N. support for its effort to repulse Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The operation signaled a reconnection with the United Nations, and President George H. W. Bush deepened this engagement in 1992 by launching a U.S.-led multinational intervention in Somalia in support of a U.N. humanitarian effort. The following year, President Bill Clinton forged an unprecedented partnership with the United Nations by supporting the establishment of a U.N. enforcement mission, UNOSOM II, commanded by a Turkish general and reinforced by a U.S. rapid reaction force.

By the mid 1990s, however, U.S. enthusiasm for U.N. peacekeeping had come to an end. The United States suffered one of its most devastating military setbacks since the Cold War when Somali militia fighters downed two Black Hawk helicopters, killing 18 U.S. servicemen and injuring more than 70 others. Although the ill-fated operation was carried out by a U.S. rapid reaction force, not blue helmets, the Clinton administration soured on peacekeeping and pledged to severely restrict the role of U.S. military personnel in U.N. missions.

In this 1993 photo, a U.S. military observer wearing the U.N. blue plays with a baby from the Krung-Brau tribe in Cambodia, where a U.N. mission sought to establish a transitional government after decades of violence.


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