It all started as a misunderstanding.
Spider-Man inadvertently prevented Silver Sable from capturing a terrorist named Chakane who was involved in an unknown plot against Silver's home country of Symkaria. Wanting to atone for his mistake, he helps her capture Chakane, waiving his usual fee. They soon discover an assassination plot on Symkarian's King Stefan. At this point, Silver hires Spider-Man to travel to Symkaria to protect Stefan. Going through some serious financial problems in his personal life, he takes the job.
The terrorist group Ultimatum strike at Stephan during their Jubilee Celebration. Stefan survived but his fiancée Vivian and Prime Minister Limka were killed in the process. Ironically Limka was hired to assassinate Stephan to further his political agenda but was double crossed.
They soon discover evidence that links the United States to the assassination. The alleged involvement of the U.S. has created an international crisis with Symkaria formally severing all ties with America and preparing for war.
Working with Captain America, Silver Sable and Spider-Man discover that Toler Weil has engineered the Symkarian assassination attempt and that the mutant Sabretooth was the hired assassin. This information is not enough to ease the tension between the countries.
Toler Weil (captured last issue) has revealed that the Symkarian ambassador to the U.S. will be targeted to escalate tensions between Symkaria and the United States.
Despite the recommendation from Captain America, Spider-Man is denied the official security clearance to participate in their mission to protect the ambassador. According to the Army representative (an unnamed colonel), he's being rejected because he won't reveal his identity. Without that he will not be given clearance.
Spider-Man returns to Aunt May's house in a foul mood. When he tells MJ of the rejection, she encourages him to go ahead and help out because - frankly - that's what he does. Despite their financial difficulties, she assures him that they can afford a round-trip train ticket to Washington, D.C.
The next day Spider-Man sneaks into the Pentagon and meets up with Captain America and Silver Sable after a final mission briefing. Spider-Man tells the others that Weil cracked too easily; this must be a red herring. Cap and Silver remind him that they already have their orders to protect the Symkarian ambassador. As they leave, Cap "casually" mentions that Weil and the other members of Ultimatum are being held in the basement.
Assuming Cap meant for him to follow his instincts, Spider-Man decides to do something radical (and treasonous). He impersonates a member of Ultimatum and frees Weil, planting a spider tracer on him as he leaves. He then follows him to the real target: the National Archives, home of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Spider-Man quickly realizes that if these documents were discovered missing and in their place evidence pointing to Symkaria, there would be an all-out war between the countries.
Knocking out the few Ultimatum recruits in the main lobby, Spider-Man makes his way to the basement vault (where the "big three" are kept) through the ventilation shaft. He reaches the basement and watches Ultimatum make their preparations while he makes a few of his own.
When everything is in place, he reveals his presence to the terrorists. Just as he is about to start a brawl, the mastermind introduces himself: the Red Skull. He informs Spider-Man of his intention to blow up the documents and leave incriminating evidence linking this incident to Symkaria. This will complement the assassination of Limka that he orchestrated and planted evidence of U.S. involvement. In the ensuing war between the two countries, he plans to to cause the total collapse of the United States.
Being aware of the U.S. government's rejection of him earlier, the Skull offers Spider-Man one million dollars - in cash - to walk away. Momentarily tempted Spider-Man quickly regains his senses and tells the Skull he can't be bought. The Skull replies, "Patriotism must exude its own hormone. One that promotes stupidity. Kill him."
The Skull escapes in the maze of hidden corridors leading into the basement while the remaining terrorists try to complete their mission. Spider-Man prevents Weil from blowing up the main vault by firing a spider tracer between the main lever and the contact point on the detonator. This gives him all the time he needs to knock out the remaining terrorists. He tries to find the Skull, but by this point he is long gone.
Retrieving his camera and miniature tape recorder from the air shaft, he returns to the Pentagon with enough evidence to prove that the Red Skull - not the United States - was behind the assassination of Prime Minister Limka. The Colonel is amazed at this discovery and offers an apology and his gratitude to Spider-Man for averting a major war. Silver and Cap also express their gratitude.
Our hero then swings off to the train station for his trip back to New York.
Who else but the Red Skull would have the audacity and resources to provoke a war between two countries? Targeting the United States was a given since - as a Nazi - he loathes everything the U.S. represents. The choice of Symkaria does seem to be an unusual choice. Why not a larger country that would have a comparable military to the United States? Possibly it was easier to infiltrate a country that had a power-hungry prime minister that isn't above murder to achieve his goals.
I want to comment on one line I intentionally put into the review. The comment from the Skull about "patriotism-induced stupidity". That line has stuck with me over the years as possibly the single most ingeniously evil line I've ever read. I say this as a compliment to Michelinie's writing ability. It seems to reach out from the panel and grab you by the throat. It's definitely something that the Skull would say: arrogant and totally misinformed.
Good ending to a great arc. The reason it's not "great" is that it seems a bit rushed. I like stories to wrap up quickly, but not too quickly. They could have condensed the previous issue to the bare bones to show the Cap/Silver mission to capture Sabretooth and Spider-Man/Solo's capture of Toler Weil. The remainder of the issue could have then shown the grand reveal of the Red Skull as the mastermind and hinted at the next phase of his plan. Then the cover of this issue wouldn't have given away the surprise.
Another minor thing is the use of a spider-tracer to stop the detonation. I don't see how it would actually stop contact from being made. However since they never mention what metal is used, we'll assume it's tough enough for a one- time use.
And yes I know it's very easy to play "backseat comic book writer". My biggest complaint is that issues 320 - 323 were done very well and if the last two chapters could have been done differently, it would have been perfect. The story lost a bit of steam last issue (for me at least) and had to play catch-up in this one. Overall it's still a great arc.
The other instance in which the "mystery villain" was revealed on the cover occurred in Amazing Spider-Man #311 oddly enough with Mysterio.