Podcast: William Quandt on the October 1973 Middle East War
President Nixon, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, and Israel Prime Minister Golda Meir at the White House in on May 1, 1973 (National Archives)
William Quandt served as Middle East Advisor to Presidents Nixon and Carter
Interview Date: October 7, 2019
October 6 marked the 47th anniversary of the beginning of the October 1973 War between Israel and Arab States Egypt and Syria.
After over four years of a war of attrition between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and diplomatic efforts moving at an unhurried pace, President Nixon woke up on the morning of October 6, 1973 to a cable from Ken Keating, America’s Ambassador to Israel, reporting that Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir told him Egypt and Syria had launched a two-pronged surprise attack as Israel stood unprepared to defend itself on Yom Kippur (or Day of Atonement) the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.
On this edition of the Nixon Now podcast, we explore this topic with William Quandt.
He served as the Middle East hand on the National Security Councils during the Nixon and Carter administrations, and was actively involved in the negotiations that led to the Camp David Accords in 1978.
He is author of the definitive book on the issue, “Peace Process” and is currently professor emeritus in the department of politics at the University of Virginia where he has worked for 25 years.
Jonathan Movroydis: You’re listening to the “Nixon Now” podcast, I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation, we’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or @nixonfoundation.org. Yesterday marks the 47th anniversary at the beginning of the October 1973 war between Israel and Arab states, Egypt and Syria.
After over four years of a war of attrition between Israel and its Arab neighbors and diplomatic efforts moving at unhurried pace, President Nixon woke up on the morning of October 6th, 1973, to a cable from Ken Keating, America’s ambassador to Israel, reporting that Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir told him Egypt and Syria had launched a two-pronged surprise attack as Israel stood unprepared to defend itself on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.
On this edition of the “Nixon Now” podcast, we explore this topic with William Quandt. Dr. Quandt served as the Middle East hand on the National Security Council during the Nixon and Carter administrations and was actively involved in the negotiations that led to the Camp David Accord in 1978. He is author of the definitive book on the issue, “Peace Process,” and is currently professor emeritus in the department of politics at the University of Virginia, where he’s worked for 25 years. Dr. Quandt, welcome.
WIlliam Quandt: Nice to be with you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just to start off, could you tell us the situation in the Middle East? It’s between October 1st and October 5th, 1973. What’s going on in the Middle East at this point in time?
WIlliam Quandt: Well, we had been noticing in the actually weeks leading up to this crucial week, October 1st through 6th, a heightened tension primarily on the Egyptian-Israeli front. The Egyptians typically undertook military exercises in the spring and in the fall and some people said, “This is nothing new, we’ve seen this pretty much every year. The Egyptians go through this and the Israelis are watching it carefully, so we don’t really need to worry very much.” But a few other things made Kissinger, and I think probably President Nixon as well, aware that this might be different.
They had met with Secretary General Brezhnev of the Soviet Union earlier in the summer and Brezhnev had told them in a kind of late night meeting where he was really quite upset. He said, “You know, we are concerned that there’s going to be a war in the Middle East before the end of the year.” And so they talked a bit about it and I think at the time, President and Kissinger thought, “This is just Brezhnev trying to pressure us to put pressure on the Israelis to make concessions. And Israelis have elections coming up and we’ve already told the Egyptians that after the elections, we’ll undertake some kind of new political diplomatic initiative. So, there’s nothing really more that needs to be done right now and in any case, the Egyptians aren’t strong enough to start a war.” That was pretty much the attitude.
But toward the end of September, Kissinger had ordered that we go on a higher level of intelligence collection. So, we were getting a lot of information coming in about these Egyptian exercises and then we saw the Syrians joining, but the Israelis still didn’t seem to be reacting with any great alarm and they, after all, were on the front lines literally and they had seen these things many times before and analyzed them very carefully.
And what we weren’t as aware of then as we are today, is they had what they thought was a very, very reliable intelligence source inside the Egyptian presidency. And they were pretty sure that if anything was ever going to be happening that would threaten them, they would learn about it from this source. So, a man named Ashraf Marwan, there’s a whole story about that, but he had not signaled them anything. Now what changes is that on about October 4th, they do get a message from their source in Egypt, demanding an immediate meeting with their head of intelligence.
And they meet in London on either the 4th or 5th of October, this is 2 days before the war begins, and their source tells them correctly that the war is going to begin on October 6th and he says that it will began at 2:00 in the afternoon, which was wrong, it started at 6:00 in the afternoon. But when he…I believe, but I don’t know this firsthand, that he told them what he knew at the time and that, in fact, they have changed the timing of the beginning of the war. So, the Israelis had about one day to figure out first, “Is this warning something we need to do anything about?” They had told President Nixon that they would not launch a preemptive war and Golda Meir seems to have taken that commitment seriously.
And so we heard from them on the day before the war started that they were looking carefully at the situation but, again, they didn’t seem to be panicked. Now on October 6th, very early in the morning, it was about 6:00 a.m., I was the one who received the message that you referred to from Ambassador Keating, it was sent to Washington. The President was actually in Florida at the time and Dr. Kissinger was up in New York, I was in Washington and I was basically on duty to be called in the event that anything happened. So at 6:00 in the morning, I was called at home and I was read the cable from Ambassador Keating which did not say that the war had begun because it hadn’t yet, but he had said that the Israelis now were convinced that the war would begin shortly.
And that they wanted…and this was a message from Golda Meir to the President, and that if by chance this was based on any misunderstanding that Israel was about to launch an attack of its own, she wanted to assure the Egyptians that that was not the case and she wanted the Americans to tell them that. And that was pretty much the message and then I remember being asked by the guy in the situation room, “Should we tell the President and Secretary Kissinger?” I said, “Of course, and immediately,” and I went into the office as quickly as I could and arrived there at about 7:00 a.m. which was about an hour before the war began, and there was a huge pile of paper on my desk. They had been collecting and collecting and collecting intelligence. I had no staff, I had no assistant, I thought, “Somewhere in there there must be something that I need to know but I don’t even know how to start,” and by 8:00, we learned that the war have actually begun.
Jonathan Movroydis: Why the demand…or why Israel’s assurance that they wouldn’t launch a preemptive attack and why did Dr. Kissinger demand restraint on part of the Israelis if they believe an attack were imminent and they were an ally of the United States?
WIlliam Quandt: No, it’s not entirely clear how or when the commitment was given but at one point, Israelis had made the argument that because they were in occupation of the Sinai Peninsula, there was no immediate threat to the heartland of Israel from any military operation that Egypt might carry out and therefore they would not be in a future crisis under pressure to launch a preemptive war the way they had been in 1967 when Egypt troops were literally right on their border.
And basically, what the Israelis said is that, “If you accept that we hold the occupied territories until such time as the Arabs are prepared to make peace, we will undertake, in future crises, not to launch preemptive wars. We’ll be able to kind of hold our fire until…you know, and we’re stronger anyway, we don’t expect them to attack us, but we won’t be on this kind of razor’s edge of having to launch preemptive wars in order to protect our borders because we have strategic depth.”
And I think they tried to consolidate that understanding probably about two years earlier when Nixon and Golda Meir had a kind of historic meeting in which it seems as if they reached an understanding of how they would play the game over the next year or so, during which time President Nixon had a reelection campaign of his own and he basically told the Israelis that he wasn’t going to be launching any Middle East initiatives during that year but that he thought the situation needed a diplomatic solution and that he had in mind that after if he got reelected, that there would be a need to address the issue.
And the Israelis said, “Well, that’s fine, but 1973 is our reelection year so let’s reach an agreement that over the next 2 years, we just manage the situation as it is but after that, we, Israelis, understand that you will want us to be more engaged in some kind of diplomacy.” But that was all built on the idea that the balance of power was in Israel’s favor. If there were any threats, they didn’t need to immediately go to war to respond to them because they had strategic depth. That was the basic understanding, as I understand it.
Jonathan Movroydis: It’s a day later, October 7th, 1973, what are the…at this point, what are the Israel…or what are the Egyptian and Syria military positions vis-a-vis the Israeli military position?
WIlliam Quandt: Well, this is the day on which the Egyptians and the Syrians felt pretty good about what they had achieved. They had achieved strategic surprise for all intents and purposes and the Israelis were aware that war was going to happen but they weren’t prepared to do anything in that short amount of time they had. The Egyptians made this remarkable crossing of the Suez Canal which was not an easy operation, and by the second day, October 7th, they were digging in on the eastern side of the canal. They weren’t advancing much beyond it but the Israelis had been obliged to pull back from the canal and they were encountering, for the first time, Egyptian troops armed with anti-tank missiles that were fairly effective.
And so as the Israelis tried to counter attack with tanks and artillery, they were running into a kind of weaponry that they were not used to and they were taking losses. In addition, they were taking some losses in the air from surface-to-air missiles that had been brought up close to the canal and the Israelis weren’t used to this level of loss. I mean, there was no attack from Egypt inside the Israeli heartland, let’s be explicit about this. Egyptian troops attacked into territory that had been Egyptian territory. Historically, it was, and in the eyes of most people including the Israelis, it was the Egyptian territory that they were fighting to recover, they weren’t carrying out military operations inside Israel proper against civilian targets or anything like that.
But there was this concern about if Israel couldn’t hold the line in Sinai, Egyptian troops might advance further and further and further, closer toward their borders but the Sinai is pretty big, it’s like 150 miles or 200 miles. And so, there was still no sense of imminent panic but the Israelis weren’t used to having this degree of kind of setback. On the Syrian front…and one has to note that the Egyptians and Syrians launched the offensive simultaneously at the same time, 2:00 in the afternoon on October 6th, their time. The Syrians moved very quickly across a relatively undefended Golan Heights and were approaching the old border between Egypt and Israel.
Now, we know today but nobody knew at the time on neither Israelis nor Americans that the Syrian tank commanders have been told, “If you get to the border, stop, don’t cross into Israel proper because goodness only knows how the Israelis would respond to that.” But anyway, on the second day, the Syrian tanks in the Golan Heights were making considerable amount of progress. Now, that didn’t last for long but we did notice all this, you know, it took hours for us to get good intelligence reports and we depended on Israelis briefing us. And a lot of the diplomacy was just beginning to kick and it also involve Kissinger calling his Soviet counterpart…not quite counterpart, but his contact, Ambassador Dobrynin in Washington and trying to make sure that the Soviets knew how seriously we took this and so forth.
So, that was all kind of going on on day two. But there wasn’t…I think, on the American side, Kissinger certainly felt…and I think Nixon came back to Washington on the 7th, he wasn’t there for the first day’s deliberations. So, there was a lot of kind of sorting out what’s really going on and how serious are the Israeli losses and, you know, is there any real need to do anything immediate or do we have a little time to figure out what’s going on and to see what kind of diplomatic options we have. So, that was kind of day two, October 7th. Day three was probably the most tense day for the Israelis because at that point, their Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan, didn’t quite have a breakdown but he really panicked.
He thought that there was a chance that they were losing control of the battlefield, both on the Egyptian front and on the Syrian front, and he famously made some kind of comment about how, you know, Israel’s existence was at threat, which I think most of the military people did not believe but they thought that maybe under the stress of events, Dayan was having almost a breakdown of his own. And this is the day, if there is a moment when there was a kind of nuclear shadow cast over this crisis, it may have been on that day when Dayan tried to persuade the Israeli leadership to activate…not to use a nuclear weapon but to get it ready, in case.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you tell us a little bit about the Washington Special Action Group, its mission under the National Security Council, and what was it deployed to do specifically in this crisis on the U.S. side?
WIlliam Quandt: Well, you probably know that Kissinger had strengthen the National Security Council compared to anything that had existed before during his first period as National Security Advisor. By 1973, he was both National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, which was a very unusual arrangement, but one of the reforms he had made was to concentrate more crisis decision-making authority with the National Security Advisor. And in pursuit of that, there is in the White House something called a situation room, it’s a conference room basically and this was all strengthened and built up more under Nixon and Kissinger.
There is a staff of intelligence professionals who man computers, which were new but very useful for conveying data and information communications and we had that all installed in the White House at that time. And so, you had a group of maybe 10 or 15 intelligence professionals who were reading diplomatic cables, intelligence cables, and trying to sort things so that people like me on the National Security Council staff had access to the best flow and quickest flow of information so that we could keep our bosses, Kissinger and Nixon, informed of what they needed to know.
And as part of that, there were a number of interagency meeting formats that Kissinger could call to deal with different kinds of crises and the Washington Special Action Group, the so-called WSAG, had been designed as an interagency meeting pretty much at the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, head of CIA level. The President would not attend these, but it was one step below a full National Security Council meeting where the President would be there to evaluate breaking crises. And the WSAG then would be called by the National Security Council or by the National Security Advisor and the staff, in anticipation of one of these meetings, would pull together the most recent relevant information, diplomatic cables, intelligence, whatever seemed to be most important for making decisions.
I had the job of doing that for Kissinger and trying to get him prepared, he was as prepared on his own as he needed to be but just in case there was anything additional. And then we would call the meeting for usually one in the morning, one in the afternoon as a way of making sure that State Department, Defense Department, Intelligence, sometimes Treasury, sometimes Department of Energy, depending on what the issues were, would all be pretty much working from the same script and we must have had 20 or 30 of those meetings over the next 2 or 3 weeks.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was there any…within this group and in the administration at large, was there considerable debate on how to manage this crisis and what the goals of the administration would be?
WIlliam Quandt: First, I wouldn’t say there was very much division of opinion. There was one possible exception to that, which maybe we have time to talk about, but by and large, you have to remember the moment we’re at. This is a moment when Kissinger is both Secretary of State and National Security Advisor. Historically, there had been times when Secretary of State and National Security Advisor saw things differently and that had been true in the first Nixon term with William Rogers as Secretary of State and Kissinger as National. That no longer was a problem, the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor were the same person.
Although weirdly enough, the Secretary of State would write memos to the President, sending them through the National Security Advisor who would add a separate memo of his own to the Secretary of State’s note. It’s just a bureaucratic kind of gimmick, but it gave him a slightly more private channel that his colleagues at State wouldn’t necessarily know about. Anyway, that was not a problem. There were institutional kind of differences in terms of the way people look at crises. I mean, Defense Department has a major job of mobilizing and using military resources so they’re not consulted on the diplomacy, it’s just not their job, but they’re very important when it comes to moving military equipment and how do you do it and what’s the most efficient way and so forth and so on.
So, we weren’t expecting that we were going to go to war, in fact, we were pretty sure that it wouldn’t come to that, although toward the end, we weren’t so sure. But at the beginning, we were pretty sure that the Israelis would turn this around to their advantage fairly quickly as they had in the 1967 War. But what we hadn’t known is that the Israelis, by about the third or fourth day, became very insistent that they needed resupplies with military equipment and needed it very urgently. And that did become an issue, not so much between Kissinger and the Defense Department, but between the United States and Israel over the timing of this because by the time we were in a position to respond to the Israeli requests when we thought maybe they really did need some, we were also exploring the possibility of an early ceasefire in place that would end the war quickly.
And for a brief moment, we thought that the Soviet Union was in favor of that and we thought…and we got the Israelis to agree to it and sort of the understanding on Kissinger side, and he was the one who was trying to manage all this, was that we’re very close to seeing the war possibly come to an end if we can end this without a massive intervention of our own through military resupplies to Israel, that it would end without massive intervention by the Russians, that would be the best ending for this war. And so we don’t want to overreact by sending Israel a lot of military equipment if the war can be ended through diplomacy, which we think it can be. So there were two or three days when that was largely a discussion that went on between Kissinger and Nixon with the Israelis pressing for a quick answer, “When are we going to know? What are you going to be able to do for us?”
And meanwhile, Kissinger was dealing with the Russians, dealing with European allies, and engaging in backchannel negotiations with the Egyptians. And he thought he could see it coming together, at least for a brief moment, in terms of a ceasefire on about October 11th or 12th. Meanwhile, the Defense Department was told, “Get ready, just in case,” and what seems, in some accounts, to be a major split between Defense Department and Kissinger came about because in order to deflect criticism from himself, I believe, Kissinger said to the Defense Department, “I’ve got to explain to the Israelis why there seems to be a delay and you’re gonna have to take the blame for that because I have to deal with Israelis day in and day out on the diplomacy and I don’t want them to think that I’m the bad guy in this.”
So there was a very explicit understanding that if it came to the point where we needed to explain to the Israelis why it would take another day or two to get the airlift going, it had to be the bureaucratic obstructionism of the Defense Department. And that did come out later into the open and Kissinger denied it publicly, Kissinger wrote it into his memoirs, even though I don’t think it was quite accurate, and it has left the impression of more discord within the U.S. decision making process than was actually warranted.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you take us through some of the iterations of the airlift? I understand that on October 9th, Nixon and Kissinger were beginning to order consumables to the Israelis via El AL commercial flights and then that manifested itself into a full on Defense Department airlift a couple days later. Could you take us through that process and how that happened?
WIlliam Quandt: Right. On the night of October 8th, if I recall correctly, Kissinger met with the Israeli ambassador, Simcha Dinitz, who had just returned from Israel and was conveying the sense of how upset the Israelis were and how the war wasn’t going the way they had expected, their casualties were much higher than they had admitted, and they were losing more planes and tanks and artillery and all the rest. And so, he met privately with Kissinger and there’s at least one part of the meeting where nobody else was present and so we have no record of it. But he seems to have said to Kissinger that Golda Meir is so worried that she’s considering making a quick trip to the United States to appeal in person to the President for help. Kissinger tells Dinitz, “That would be a real mistake, it will make it look like you’re panicking and it also will not…you know, we can make the decisions without being pressured that way.”
So, beginning the next day… And he said, you know, “We will replace any of your losses, so we guarantee you that whatever losses you…you know, military equipment and things like that that you lose during war will be replaced and how quickly we can do some of it is just logistical, but you can start picking up consumables that is ammunition, the things that are ready to go or easy to put together or packaged for you to pick up. You can start carrying them in your own planes but we want to keep our role as discreet as possible, so paint out your El Al colors on your own civilian planes, come to a discrete air base where there aren’t a bunch of journalists watching and we’ll start the deliveries, like, tomorrow.”
And that began, but it was the lower order of things like…some actually quite important things like communications equipment and ammunitions and things like that, but you couldn’t put an aircraft on one of their planes or a tank on one of their planes. The things that were more visible and, you know, over the long term that would need to be replaced, would normally have been either flown in with several stops along the way. None of the fighter aircraft could fly all that distance without refueling, so you could get them there but only if you could land somewhere to refuel and the Europeans weren’t going to allow us to stop and implicate them in our military resupply of the Israelis, so that became an issue between the United States and Europe about resupply.
And then tanks simply didn’t fit on any of the aircraft we had except for the C-5, the really huge transport planes, and I think you could carry one or two at a time which given the number of losses the Israelis were taking, wasn’t going to make a very big impact at best. And, you know, so Israelis wanted everything and they wanted it immediately, so there was some genuine gap between their hopes and our abilities but then there was also this period when we consciously decided for the sake of our future diplomatic credibility that we didn’t look like…or we didn’t want to look like we were intervening militarily on the Israeli side if we could bring the war to an end quickly through diplomacy.
And part of the reason for that was that we were in backchannel communication with the Egyptians who were saying, “When the war is over, we want the Americans to launch a diplomatic initiative to end this conflict once and for all.” And I think Kissinger was beginning to think, “Maybe Sadat is different from what we have expected and if so, I want to be able to deal with him and with the Israelis when this is over,” which is a very delicate balance to try to maintain while you’re also resupplying the Israelis with the equipment that they’re using to ultimately nearly defeat the Egyptian army.
So, what tips the balance? What tips the balance is that the Soviet Union starts to resupply Syria, Iraq, and Egypt on the 10th of October and we don’t know what they’re sending, but we know how many planes they’re sending. And so one of the things that would happen at each of these WSAG meetings in the mornings and then in the afternoon is we would tally up the number of planes that had flown from the Soviet Union to Egypt, to Syria, and Iraq was getting some as well, and theoretically figured out they could have delivered X number of tons, like 1,000 tons of military equipment through these various flights, and Kissinger began to react to that by first of all, trying to persuade the Soviets to stop or to slow it down and to try to get the ceasefire in place.
So, the second day went on with the Soviets continuing to resupply. I mean, their credibility was on the line and on the Syrian front, the Syrians were losing territory…excuse me, the Israelis have pretty much re-conquered most of the Golan Heights by the 9th of October, so on the Syrian front, the Russians were sending in equipment fairly quickly. And of course, for them, it’s a shorter flight and they could get more things there than we could. So on the 11th and 12th, Kissinger is trying to get the ceasefire in place, he thinks he’s about to get it, and it falls apart on the 12th of October when Sadat rejects the proposal. And at that point, Nixon and Kissinger jointly but particularly Nixon, I believe, says, “If Sadat doesn’t understand that this is the time to stop the war, we have to make sure he understands that he’s not going to be able to sit there and drag this out. We have to change the balance of power by resupplying the Israelis massively and visibly.”
And that began on the 12th to 13th with the direct airlift, American C-5s could fly all the way on their own, C-130s had to refuel, and we had to pressure the Portuguese government, which was the only European government that we could pressure sufficiently to get them to give us landing rights to allow refueling in the largest air base in the Azores. And so by the 13th, we were beginning to see a flow of some equipment. In all honesty, the Israelis fought mostly the entire war without making much use of the equipment that came by the airlift but the airlift was visibly underway by the 12th and 13th, and it gave the Israelis the confidence to launch a military operation on the Egyptian front on 13th, which resulted in their eventually, two days later, crossing the Suez Canal and beginning to envelop the Egyptian forces that were in the Sinai.
And at that point, the dynamic of the war changes dramatically. The Israelis are on the offensive, the Egyptians are under a lot of pressure to bring this to an end quickly, and the balance of forces is such that the Soviets began to worry that their clients are about to experience a major defeat and they get nervous, and they continue the airlift but they also asked for Nixon to send Kissinger to Moscow for talks to bring the war to an end.
Jonathan Movroydis: Do you think…had the airlift not happen, do you think the war…do you think it would have been ended as quickly or whether the Israelis would have been able to envelop the Egypt’s Third Army at the Suez Canal?
WIlliam Quandt: It’s an interesting question. I mean, on the Syrian front, most of the Israelis who had already made their advances were actually fairly deep into territories that they hadn’t held before in 1973 so, really, the airlift has nothing much to do with the dynamic on the Syrian front which was already pretty much resolved. The point about the Egyptian front is that Sadat had crossed the canal and then just dug in and sat there, he haven’t moved, and that was the case up until about the 12th of October. Under pressure from the Syrians who were annoyed that Egypt was sitting tight and they were getting clobbered, was beginning to call for their help and all the rest and I guess they were under some pressure to respond, they launched probably an ill-considered offensive deeper into Sinai and they got out from under the cover of the surface-to-air missiles that had been protecting them along the canal.
And the Israelis use their Air Force…and this was all equipment that they had before the airlift had ever started, to decimate the Egyptian tanks coming toward their forces in what were called the passes about halfway across the Sinai. So that was probably the crucial battle, all fought before the airlift made any impact. And at that point, I think the Egyptian had a…that was a serious setback for them, the chance that they could advance further into the Sinai and hold territory deep into Sinai had been lost. The question was, would that then mean a ceasefire in place would go into effect at that point where they would still have their bridgehead across the canal but not much more or would the Israelis launch this counter-offensive that began on about the 13th or 14th?
The question is a political one, would Golda Meir have authorized the counter-offensive if she had not knowing that the airlift was on its way? And I don’t know the answer to that but she did on the 13th give the green light to Ariel Sharon, the most aggressive of her generals who wanted to launch the counter-offensive, and he didn’t fight…he didn’t cross the canal making use of anything that came in the airlift. He was ready to go but he knew that whatever losses he would take would soon be replaced. So I think psychologically, it made it easier for the Israelis to take what is a difficult operation, you know, you’re crossing a border barrier.
I mean, they actually had it very well planned and it was textbook crossing, it went right between two Egyptian armies and then they ended up being in a position to encircle them. So I think the question is, would the political leadership on the Israeli side have had the guts to launch, to give the order to the military? The military was ready to do it, they were eager to do it and they probably could have done it without the airlift. But I think the political leadership felt much more confidence knowing that the airlift was underway, even though, as I say, the bulk of the resupplies that we eventually sent to the Israelis came by ship weeks after the war was over.
Jonathan Movroydis: You talked a little bit earlier about the possible use of nuclear weapons. Could you expand on this possible consideration on the part of the Israelis?
WIlliam Quandt: No, at the time I didn’t have the so-called Q clearance, nuclear clearance, so I didn’t ever see very much that would have given me more knowledge about Israeli nuclear capabilities than I had, there were people who probably knew more, but generally, it was no one on the American side that Israelis had some number of nuclear weapons. We didn’t know probably in detail how many, they had not at that point been tested, at least not in any way that we knew of but we did know that they had F-4 aircraft that we had supplied them that they had flown during exercises in a pattern that suggested that they were training pilots on how to deliver a nuclear weapon because if you’re dropping a nuclear weapon, you don’t want to fly over where it has just exploded.
So the way of, apparently, flying the plane is you do a very quick reversal of direction, you do a loop backwards after you’ve dropped and we noticed that they were flying in that pattern just to get their pilots ready. So we knew that the F-4 was being…the F-4 pilots were being trained for the hypothetical possibility that one day they might be dropping a nuclear device. And we also knew that they had acquired Jericho missiles from France, which were surface-to-surface missiles that were not particularly accurate, therefore, not appropriate for a conventional warhead and we knew where they were based and we monitored them.
And as I have said in other places and will repeat here, I remember that on about the 8th of October, I saw a fragment of intelligence that said that the Jericho base, which would be the one that…if they did use nuclear weapons on missiles would be the base they used, the Jericho missiles were put on a higher state of alert than they had been on previously. I never heard this discussed in an intelligence briefing, it wasn’t of such magnitude that other people were worrying about what it meant but I remember reading it and thinking that the Israelis are signaling to us by this action that they’re getting nervous and have…and probably not just signaling us but also the Russians and through the Russians, the Syrians and the Egyptians.
In other words, if this was intentional, the message would be, “If you have any illusions that we will sit back and allow ourselves to be militarily defeated, think again.” Now, we do know now, I didn’t know at the time, that probably on about that day, there was some concern on the part of the Israeli Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan, that the military situation was getting so bad that it would be worth considering what he called a demonstrative nuclear blast in the Sinai just to remind everybody that we’ve got these things.
And he apparently wanted to discuss it in the security cabinet meeting with the Prime Minister and he wanted his nuclear specialist to be brought into the cabinet meeting to brief the Prime Minister so she would know what her options were. And we now know, but I didn’t know at the time, that she refused to have that meeting. She said, “No, we’re not going to do that, it’s not going to be necessary,” and she turned him down and that’s the last I know of any active consideration by the Israelis of the possible use of a nuclear device.
Jonathan Movroydis: Towards the end of the month, there were ceasefires put into place, there was a first and a second ceasefire. And on the second ceasefire, to enforce that ceasefire, the Soviets had talked about bringing their troops in and conducting a joint…inviting the United States to conduct a joint peacekeeping operation. Could you talk about this a little bit and specifically the decision on the part of the Nixon administration to raise the alert of military readiness to DEFCON 3?
WIlliam Quandt: Right. Okay, so Nixon does agree to send Kissinger to Moscow with authority to negotiate a ceasefire and while he’s there…it must have been October 20th to 21st or so, they do reach agreement on a so-called ceasefire in place that should go into effect at a certain hour on October 22nd and that’s about 24 hours after the meeting in Moscow. So Kissinger leaves Moscow and flies to Israel to tell the Israelis that it’s time to wrap this up because the Israelis are still carrying out this envelopment operation that surrounded the Egyptians Second and Third armies, and they had the bit in their teeth at this point and they thought they were going to be able to basically destroy two full Egyptian armies if they had a bit more time.
But Kissinger just agreed with Nixon support that it was time for the war to end and he gotten the Russians to agree and so, a UN Resolution had been passed, UN Resolution 338, calling for an immediate ceasefire and the beginning of negotiations under…I think it was called appropriate international auspices, which meant U.S. and Soviet Union. So Kissinger goes to Israel, meets with Golda Meir and says, “You’ve got a few more hours and then you’re gonna have to stop because we’ve got this UN resolution that we’ve worked out with the Russians and you’ve had plenty of time to ensure strong military position and now it’s time to stop.”
And she was not happy, because she thought they were on the verge of a big victory over the Egyptians and, you know, she was being blamed for having been hesitant at the beginning of the war and she was trying to save her political career by showing how tough she could be at the end, I suppose. Anyway, Kissinger leaves Israel with what he thinks is their understanding that the ceasefire will go into effect within a few hours and he unfortunately seems to say something as like the following, “I’ll be in the air for the next six or seven hours and during that time, nobody is going to pay too much attention if you, you know, go a little bit longer or a little bit further than you’ve gone already.”
In other words, he’s saying, “You’ve got a little bit more time than that I just told you you had. In other words, don’t take the ceasefire quite literally but you got to stop pretty quickly.” And unfortunately, that seems to have given the Israelis the sense that, “The Americans will understand if we just finish this operation of surrounding the Egyptian Third Army.” We have to then think about it from Sadat’s point of view, he’s about to have two of his army corps completely surrounded and dependent on, you know, Israel’s goodwill for allowing water, food, anything through.
And so, he panics and he calls for both the Americans and the Russians to immediately insist that the ceasefire go into effect right away. And Kissinger arrives back and this is the period when the discussion starts going on on the 23rd about getting the Israelis to stop their advance and the Russians start saying, “Yeah, you’re telling us you’re going to get the Israelis to stop but we’re watching this in real time and they’re not stopping, they’re still advancing.” And so Kissinger says…and Brezhnev says, “Why don’t we both jointly undertake to send some kind of enforcement force to impose the ceasefire?”
And Kissinger, I think, with Nixon’s authority says, “That’s a terrible idea because then it becomes a big superpower issue and we’re going to be face to face in the Middle East and it’s bad enough the way things are now, but we want to keep the superpowers out of this as military actors.” And meanwhile, he tries to convince the Israelis to stop, you know, “You’ve taken a little bit more time, you’ve advanced, but I didn’t mean just go crazy by what I told you when I was there, I meant stop and now is the time to really do it.” So toward the end of the day, I guess on either 23rd and 24th, I’m not quite sure, Brezhnev, the Secretary General of Communist Party of Soviet Union sends a message that is harsher in tone than the previous ones that he sent
I guess it’s 24th in Russia and it’s the 23rd in the evening, I think, in Washington and the message basically says, “We’ve been telling you and telling you that the Israelis are not abiding by the ceasefire. You keep brushing us off, saying you’re not going to join us in a joint intervention but we now must tell you if you do not succeed in getting the Israelis to stop, we must take all necessary means, including military, to get the Israelis to comply.” And that sounds like a threat of military intervention. Was it credible? It could have been because the Israeli had…the Soviets had stopped the airlift that they had been mounting, all of their aircraft for the airlift had been taken back to the Soviet Union and they had seven airborne divisions on alert and they had the transportation to get them there and, of course, to get from the Soviet Union to the Sinai would have been a matter of a few hours.
So, I don’t think that Nixon or Kissinger really believed that Soviet Union was about to send a massive invasion force to the Middle East to enforce the ceasefire, but they had the capability to send quite a substantial force on very short notice. And it was Kissinger’s idea at the National Security Council meeting held in the evening, I think, of the 23rd or maybe the 24th without the presence of the President to raise the alert level worldwide to so-called DEFCON 3, which it’s not like you’re about to go to nuclear war but it does mean that on air bases all over the world, American air bases, people will be recalled to duty, they’ll be put on high alert, B-52 bombers will be loaded with ammunition including nuclear weapons and put up in the air and missiles will be put on alert.
There’s still two more stages to go before you have nuclear war and all of the forces in the Middle East were already on DEFCON 3, so nothing changed on the Sixth Fleet, anything that was close to the region was already on alert. But it meant that anybody who was subject to military authority was getting messages overnight to report to their bases the next morning, so on the Americans scene, nothing was kept secret, everybody was talking about it the next morning. I think Kissinger was a little surprised how many people knew by the morning of the October 24th that we had done something overnight to increase the level of alert but it was designed to show to the Russians that we were really concerned with this threat that they had sent.
And as far as we know now, Brezhnev did this and kind of nobody in the room with him thought that it was a real threat that they were going to do anything, it was like a bluff, but, you know, in international politics between superpowers, you don’t know what’s a bluff and you can’t afford to assume there’s no consequence if you just ignore it. So by the next morning…and this, I remember pretty vividly, we didn’t know quite what the response was, we have an evening of trying to monitor whether there were any forces moving on the Soviet side and we convened one of the WSAG meetings early on the 24th.
And we got a fragment of intelligence, it was just that, it was an incomplete message from Moscow to its embassy in Cairo saying, “Troops arrived this afternoon.” That’s the piece we got, it didn’t say how many, it didn’t say who they were. But I remember I was standing right with Kissinger when the message came in and he said, “Oh, my God, they really are planning to send troops in.” And he looked at me and my colleague from the State Department and said, “You two, you figure out where we send troops if they really do go ahead with this, but not to Israel and not to any Arab country because we want to make clear this is aimed at deterring Soviet moves, we don’t want to get embroiled with the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
And he walked out of the room and I looked at my colleagues and I can’t think of any place to…you know, Cyprus, maybe? But the British wouldn’t be too happy about that. Diego Garcia, again, under British control, they didn’t want anything to do with that. So, we were totally stymied on where are we going to even imagine sending troops, the Europeans don’t want to have anything to do with this, there’s no other place in the Middle East…Turkey won’t take them. I mean, they were allowing Soviet planes to fly over their territory, they weren’t going to align themselves with us even though they were a NATO ally.
And within about 20 minutes, Kissinger walks back and says, “Forget about it,” and he said, “We misread that little bit of intelligence” He said, “I forgot that I had agreed when I was in Moscow that we would each send a small observer force to monitor the ceasefire, military observers, not combat troops, and this was the Soviets telling their embassy that the 32 observers are going to arrive that afternoon.” And I thought, “Well, glad we had the ability to clear that up very quickly because we were completely clueless as to where we would send, you know, units of our own had it come to that.”
And with that, United States and Soviet Union were back talking and agreed that the ceasefire would happen and then Kissinger went to the Israelis and said, “Now you’ve got to stop and if you don’t, we will come and resupply the Egyptians and you really don’t want us to be forcing our way through your lines to do that, so you’ve got to open up a passage for food and water to go to the troops, you cannot starve them out.” And that was a gesture toward Egypt, which was saying to us pretty clearly, “Once this is over, we want to talk to you immediately.” And of course, five days later, Kissinger was in…well, a week or so later, Kissinger was in Cairo having a meeting with Anwar Sadat.
Jonathan Movroydis: From the Nixon administration perspective, what did peace ultimately look like? What was it? Did they want a sort of parity in the Middle East? Do they want the enforcement of Resolution 242? What was their…I guess, what was the end game for peace for the Nixon administration?
WIlliam Quandt: I think here there’s a little difference between Nixon in his prime when he was really thinking strategically and Kissinger who was managing this crisis not entirely on his own, but without very much presidential guidance. Nixon’s view, which he expressed many times before the war had broken out, was that the Middle East was kind of like the Balkans before World War One. It was a an area where major powers had conflicting interests and local quarrels could explode and draw in these outside powers and lead to much bigger wars than the local issues warranted.
And he thought the Arab-Israeli issue needed to be resolved because it had the potential of disrupting the U.S.-Soviet relationship and perhaps even leading to a military confrontation. And he was relatively open minded about cooperating with the Soviet Union, remember, this was the era of detente, to see if the Soviets could use their influence with the Arab parties with whom they had better relations and we would use our influence with the Israelis to try to impose or at least persuade the parties to accept something like a UN Resolution 242 agreement, which simply stated would mean that the Israelis in return for peace agreements with their Arab neighbors and security arrangements like demilitarization and perhaps other assurances, would return virtually all of the territories that they had occupied in 1967. That is the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and Sinai.
And that’s pretty much the straightforward land for peace bargain built into UN Resolution 242 and I think Nixon felt that if we could do this with the Soviet Union, it would prevent this possibility of a confrontation that both parties would prefer to avoid. Kissinger who, on this issue, probably was more sympathetic to the Israelis just for personal reasons, you know, he was closer to Israelis, he had family members who died in the Holocaust. He came at this with more of a personal agenda than Nixon did but he also, I think, was more skeptical of the Soviet Union as a potential partner for kind of putting on this kind of U.S.-Soviet pressure to bring about a peace settlement.
Even though I think he understood that an Arab-Israeli peace was a desirable objective, he wanted to do it more through basically American-led diplomacy, not joint U.S.-Soviet diplomacy and he used to talk about expelling the Soviet Union from the Middle East as a goal of American diplomacy. So, there was some, I think, difference in tactics between Nixon and Kissinger but they both, I think, understood the strategic importance of trying to solve as much as possible of the Arab-Israeli conflict in order to avoid future superpower confrontations and the ’73 war was a reminder of how dangerous things could become if you couldn’t solve this problem.
So in the aftermath of the war, I think Kissinger was real convert to the idea that we need to now use our diplomatic power to bring about a peace settlement, if at all possible, at least with Egypt and possibly Egypt and Syria and Jordan. He didn’t take the Palestinian issue very seriously, I think nor did President Nixon at that time, but remember, as the crisis in October was coming to an end, we also had a new crisis confronting us, namely the Arab oil producers were cutting back production, imposing an embargo on shipments of oil to United States and to Japan and all of a sudden, the oil markets were going crazy and by the end of 1973, the price of oil had quadrupled and we’d never confronted anything like it in the United States.
We had gas lines and people were feeling the effects of Middle East crisis on a daily basis in the United States, they couldn’t get gas for their cars. I’m old enough to remember sitting in lines waiting and you could, after an hour or so, get to the front of line and you could get 5 gallons of gas and it was only $1 a gallon but there were price controls. And so instead of just letting the price go high and letting gasoline be rationed by price, for political reasons, Nixon put on price controls but that meant that were real shortages in various parts of the country and Americans were saying, “When is this going to end?”
So one of the motivations, you know, perhaps not the most strategically important, but for politicians and for people having to answer to the public every day was, “We’ll end this through diplomacy, we’ll get Arab-Israeli peacemaking going and the Arabs will lift the embargo,” which they eventually did but they didn’t do it till after Nixon and Kissinger had brought about 2 negotiated agreements, one between Egypt and Israel in January of 1974 and then between Syria and Israel in May of 1974, the so-called Disengagement Agreements. And then the embargo was lifted, the threat of kind of, you know, the oil problem going on and definitely was eased and American diplomacy was kind of established as, “We can get results, even with difficult regimes like the Syrians, we can produce results.”
But then we, of course, had a new president, President Nixon resigned, new president came in, he had to get his bearings, figure out his new team and how he was going to approach things and get himself properly elected to office in 1976, so we lost the momentum in after the first 6 months or so. We did have a second round of diplomacy under President Ford in September of 1975, there was a so-called Second Sinai Agreement but it was a much less satisfactory agreement. It was much more time consuming and much more expensive in terms of American commitments and it left a very bad taste, so nobody quite knew where to go next with this diplomacy and that’s kind of when the Nixon-Kissinger forward momentum in Arab-Israeli peacemaking kind of reached its end.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Dr. William Quandt, Professor Emeritus of Politics at the University of Virginia and former National Security Council official to presidents Nixon and Carter working on Middle East issues. Our topic was the Nixon administration’s actions during the October 1973 Middle East war. Dr. William Quandt, thank you so much for joining us.
WIlliam Quandt: You’re welcome.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.