The 1973 Yom Kippur War
Last week we reviewed the 1967 Six-Day War that Israel fought
with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan wherein Israel captured the Sinai
peninsula, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. Following the
war the Soviet Union went about rearming Egypt and Syria. And
in Egypt, Anwar Sadat succeeded Arab world leader Gamel
Abdel Nasser in 1970 as President of Egypt upon Nasser''s death.
Sadat immediately set about holding Israel to the provisions of
UN Security Resolution No. 242, signed after the Six-Day War,
which stipulated that Israel was to return the territories captured
by it in the conflict. Israel would have none of that. Sadat
proceeded to initiate one crisis after another in an attempt to gain
back the Sinai peninsula.
At the same time, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were in the midst
of the era of dTtente. President Nixon and Soviet leader
Brezhnev had various goals, however, when it came to the Middle
East. Nixon, along with his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger,
sought to reduce the role of the Soviet Union in the region. The
Soviet''s goal was, in the words of Ambassador Anatoly
Dobrynin, "to win back Arab confidence, prevent their military
rout, and to bank on our hopes that the new collaborative
relationship with the Nixon administration would allow us to
share in the peace process."
Over the course of 1973 Dobrynin, as Soviet ambassador to the
U.S., repeatedly warned the U.S. that the Soviet''s suspected a
new war may be on the horizon. The American assessment was
dominated by the belief in Israel''s military superiority and that all
the warnings could be dismissed as bluff.
So it was that both Israel and the U.S. were taken completely by
surprise when on October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a
massive, Pearl Harbor type attack on the Holy Day of Yom
Kippur. At the outset, Israel was in a dire position. A meager
force of 180 tanks faced an onslaught of 1,400 Syrian tanks in the
Golan Heights region, while in the Suez just 500 Israeli defenders
were attacked by 80,000 Egyptians. It''s not hard to understand
why Israel suffered a devastating initial blow. They lost a 5th of
their air force and a third of their tanks in the first 4 days of battle
before a massive call-up of reserves helped to slow the advancing
Egyptian and Syrian armies.
After the war broke out, the Soviets pushed for Israel to
withdraw from territories taken in 1967 while Washington
opposed any Israeli withdrawal. The Soviets began to re-supply
the Egyptian and Syrian forces (who were also aided by forces
from at least 9 other Arab nations), but in Washington the debate
was over how much the U.S. would aid Israel. Some in the
Nixon administration felt that aid to Israel would do irreparable
harm to our relations with oil-rich Arab nations. Nixon held fast
and approved a massive airlift of some 550 flights and 1,000 tons
of military supplies a day, far bigger than the Berlin airlift of
1948-49. [It is interesting to note that our European "allies" in
NATO would not let our planes use their airspace.] Historian
Paul Johnson calls it "Nixon''s finest hour." Without the support,
the fate of the state of Israel was in serious doubt.
Nixon had a lot on his mind back then. Watergate was
preoccupying him in a big way. As a result, Henry Kissinger took
While the forces were slugging it out, the UN was frantically
trying to put an end to the war and the U.S. and Soviet Union
were at odds. On October 12, Kissinger informed Moscow that
the U.S. would not send its troops to the Middle East unless the
Soviets did likewise. By October 17, the Israeli''s were ready to
counterattack. President Sadat of Egypt was offered a cease-fire
resolution but he opposed it, a move that Dobrynin described as
"a gross political and strategic blunder."
On October 20, Nixon agreed with Brezhnev that the two great
powers "must step in, determine the proper course of action to a
just settlement, and then bring the necessary pressure on our
respective friends for a settlement which will at last bring peace to
this troubled area." At least that is the note that Nixon wanted
Kissinger to deliver to Brezhnev. But Kissinger didn''t, thinking it
would undercut his own diplomatic tactics.
The Israeli troops advanced and were close to outflanking the
Egyptian Third Army in the Sinai. This was the time of the
"Saturday Night Massacre" back in Washington when Nixon fired
the attorney general and lesser officials from the Department of
Justice for refusing to dismiss the Watergate prosecutor,
As a cease-fire resolution drew near, Kissinger stalled to allow
Israel to encircle the Egyptian forces.
Finally, on October 22, the Security Council adopted resolution
338, declaring a cease-fire. Fighting in the Golan subsided but
after just a few hours, the agreement collapsed as the Israelis
advanced to the Suez Canal in an attempt to crush the 25,000
men still on the eastern side of the canal. Both sides claimed the
other resumed the shooting.
About this time, Sadat told Brezhnev that Israel was marching on
Cairo. Help us save Egypt, he exclaimed. But it turned out that
3 or 4 Israeli tanks were simply on a reconnaissance mission.
On October 23, a new cease-fire resolution called on both sides to
return to their cease-fire positions and provided for UN
observers. But on the 24th, fighting erupted on both sides of the
Suez. At this point some in the Politboro argued for Soviet
troop involvement but Brezhnev said no. A message was sent to
Nixon, however, hinting of Soviet participation.
In the early hours of the 25th, Kissinger gathered a small group of
administration officials (while the President slept) and put
American nuclear forces on a higher state of alert. It was a ploy.
At the same time broadcast reports in the U.S. said Soviet aircraft
were moving closer to the region. Dobrynin argued with
Kissinger that the U.S. government was trying to create the
impression of a dangerous crisis. Kissinger argued the order
would be withdrawn the next day (and it was).
Finally, later on October 25, the UN Security Council adopted
still another resolution which finally put an end to the war by
sending a UN peacekeeping force to the Middle East, pointedly
excluding contingents from any of the 5 permanent members of
the Security Council. According to Dobrynin, Kissinger later
conceded to him that putting the forces on a high state of alert
was a mistake. And, contrary to most stories told today about
this time, there never was a serious threat of direct military
involvement between the two super-powers.
Of course, during the course of the three week war, a new Arab
organization by the name of OPEC began wreaking its own
havoc, initiating an oil-embargo on nations supporting Israel and
raising prices some 400 percent. In the end, however, the
American reliance on Arab oil led to closer ties with Egypt and
Sadat, and some would say more restrained support for Israel.
Kissinger launched his "shuttle diplomacy" and quickly became a
hero in Arab capitals as well as Jerusalem. While the process
failed to produce a comprehensive formula for peace, it set the
stage for future successes.
The human cost of the Yom Kippur War was substantial. The
Israeli army lost 2,700 soldiers, Syria 3,500, and Egypt 15,000.
Sources: "A History of the Arab Peoples," Albert Hourani
"In Confidence," Anatoly Dobrynin
"A History of the American People," Paul Johnson
"Diplomacy," Henry Kissinger
"The American Century," Harold Evans