On the morning of Yom Kippur, or the Jewish Day of Atonement, October 6, 1973, Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a massive armor attack across highly defended cease-fire lines in the Israeli-occupied Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights. It was the start of the fifth and, to date, last war between Israel and the two most formidable Arab “frontline” states. It turns out that the two architects of the October surprise, Egypt’s Muhammad Anwar al-Sadat and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, had conflicting objectives that contributed to a reversal of fortune on the battlefield following their surprising initial success. Assad sought the reconquest of territories he lost in the 1967 Six-Day War, and he thought that Sadat did too. Their victory would alter the strategic balance such that the Israelis would be forced to address Palestinian demands for a state of their own in the occupied West Bank. Sadat, knowing that conquest was out of the question, had hoped instead to compel Israeli prime minister Golda Meir to accept his previously spurned offers of a negotiated settlement, as he secretly informed Richard Nixon’s administration.
The Israelis suffered significant losses on both fronts in the first days, before mounting successful counterattacks in the southern Golan, where they were soon advancing on Damascus, and in the Sinai, where they managed to cross the Suez Canal and threaten Cairo. They were able to do so not only because the Egyptians had fed their Syrian allies a false war plan but also due to the Nixon administration’s rapid resupply of the Israel Defense Forces, which began after Nixon learned that the “poor dumb Egyptians,” as he described them, had not crumbled over the weekend of fighting but had instead destroyed five hundred Israeli tanks and dozens of its advanced fighters. The administration wanted to keep the assistance a secret, first using unmarked Israeli commercial planes, because if news got out it would both lead the Soviet Union to rearm its two allies and “drive the Arabs wild.”
The subterfuge didn’t work. The Russians, who had feared the consequences of a war and were pushing for an early cease-fire, began resupplying Syrian and Egyptian forces, hoping to stave off a humiliating defeat of, and a loss of influence over, their own clients. On October 17, Saudi Arabia and other (but not all) Arab oil producers announced a 5 percent cutback in production to apply pressure on Western consumer countries and, a few days later, an embargo on the United States as well as Portugal and the Netherlands, the only two European countries that had permitted the Americans access to their facilities as part of the resupply effort. On October 20, the Nixon administration’s celebrity secretary of state Henry Kissinger — who had successfully pursued détente with the Soviet Union, arranged the opening with China, and just won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Paris accords that ostensibly ended the Vietnam War — flew to Moscow to meet Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and hash out the terms of a cease-fire.
The Russians thought they had a deal, but Kissinger secretly urged the Israelis to ignore the October 22 United Nations cease-fire resolution and press their advantage on the battlefield, which led to their seizing more ground and cutting off the supply route to Egypt’s beleaguered Third Army. The Egyptians, threatened with the destruction of their forces, resumed the fight, and both sides ignored a second UN cease-fire resolution adopted on October 23. The next day, a desperate Sadat called on the two superpowers to intervene militarily to enforce the cease-fire and halt the advance of the Israelis. No wonder. The Soviet embassy in Cairo was warning of the imminent annihilation of the Third Army and collapse of Sadat’s regime.
What troubled Kissinger, though, was the idea of Soviet troops returning to Egypt after Sadat had sent them packing in 1972, which explains the bizarre turn of events on the evening of October 24. With the Russians signaling their readiness to guarantee a third cease-fire resolution, Kissinger ordered his UN ambassador to oppose it. Later that night, an urgent message from Brezhnev reached the White House, reiterating the need for a joint peacekeeping force. Otherwise, Brezhnev said, he would have to consider the possibility of unilateral Soviet action. Kissinger went ballistic, seeing it as an ultimatum, albeit one provoked by his own perfidy (“they realized they were taken”). With the support of his protégé, retired general Alexander Haig, Kissinger, in a Dr Strangelove moment, put worldwide US naval and air forces on heightened alert — DEFCON 3 — and sent an augmented carrier task force and two thousand marines to the Mediterranean. He did so in Nixon’s name, although the president, facing the prospect of impeachment by the House of Representatives after he fired the special Watergate prosecutor, was in a “drunken stupor” that night (among many others). The White House never bothered to alert its NATO allies, though Haig was predicting a Soviet invasion at daybreak. Kissinger wants us to believe the Soviet leaders quickly “backed off.” What really happened is that the Israelis, under enormous pressure, finally halted their offensive, and Sadat, responding to Kissinger’s appeal, said he preferred that a UN force rather than the superpowers oversee the cease-fire. The eighteen-day-long October War was over.
The charitable interpretation of Kissinger’s solo round of brinkmanship is that it comprised “a worst-case interpretation of the facts.” Brezhnev and his advisors chose to ignore the provocation. Although it reinforced their view of Kissinger’s betrayal, they were in no way prepared to go to war in the Middle East. In a follow-up meeting, the Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, asked, “What kind of relationship is this if one letter produces an alert?” Kissinger had acted without the counsel of the State Department’s intelligence analysts or its experts on Soviet military capabilities, who disputed the alarmist view of Soviet intentions in charges that would later be aired in public in Foreign Policy magazine and the New York Times.
Within days, leading journalists and syndicated columnists were accusing Kissinger of ordering the nuclear alert to distract the nation from the Watergate crisis. Kissinger blew up. “It is a symptom of what is happening to our country that it could even be suggested that the United States would alert its forces for domestic reasons.” He simultaneously told an angry and bewildered Dobrynin the opposite: that the (side)show of force was “mostly determined by domestic considerations.”
In the mid-1980s, when the enemies of détente controlled the White House and imagined, absurd as it appears now, that the Russians were poised to seize the oil fields of the Persian Gulf, the Brookings Institution Soviet specialist Raymond Garthoff concluded that the USSR had not been angling for a war with the United States in the Middle East in 1973. Kissinger’s dramatic show of force was basically a “maneuver” to secure “diplomatic leverage in the region.” When asked by veteran Middle East diplomat Martin Indyk about these forty-year-old machinations, Kissinger said, “You know, we were determined; this was not the Obama administration.”