If judged only by what is heard on his White House tapes, Richard Nixon appears to have been a man obsessed with Jews, stewing in negative feelings, never hesitating to use the crudest of slurs. But if talk alone is the true measure of a man, Harry Truman – who habitually made derogatory remarks about Jews and whose home in Independence, Missouri, was off-limits to them – would have to be considered an anti-Semite of the first order. It`s a safe bet that those who complain the loudest about Nixon`s anti-Semitic statements say nary a word about Truman`s Jewish problem. Alexander Haig, who at the time was White House chief of staff, writes in his memoir Inner Circles: When Schlesinger initially wanted to send just three transports to Israel because he feared anything more would alarm the Arabs and the Soviets, Nixon snapped: “We are going to get blamed just as much for three as for 300…Get them in the air, now.” Haig recalls that Nixon, frustrated with the initial delays in implementing the airlift and aware that the Soviets had begun airlifting supplies to Egypt and Syria, summoned Kissinger and Schlesinger to the Oval Office on October 12 and “banished all excuses.” The president asked Kissinger for a precise accounting of Israel`s military needs, and Kissinger proceeded to read aloud from an itemized list.
Nixon`s attitudes toward Jews, observes the historian Herbert Parmet in Richard Nixon and His America, “were not particular to Nixon but rather reflect those of his times and culture…Still, there is no evidence that anyone felt that he was being treated differently by Nixon because he was Jewish.”
William Safire, a Nixon speechwriter prior to embarking on a career as a New York Times columnist, wrote that Nixon was a man “whose hero as a lawyer…was Louis Brandeis; whose model of a strict constructionist Supreme Court justice was Felix Frankfurter; whose favorite writer of fiction was Herman Wouk; who, upon becoming president, named a German Jewish immigrant named Henry Kissinger to be his foremost foreign policy adviser and an Austrian Jewish immigrant named Arthur Burns to be his chief domestic counselor; who later placed one Jew, Herbert Stein, at the head of the Council of Economic Advisers, and another, Leonard Garment, at the head of his double-every-year commitment to the arts and humanities, and named another, Ed David, to be his chief science adviser….”
The aforementioned Leonard Garment candidly addressed the issue of Nixon`s anti-Semitism in his memoir, Crazy Rhythm: “[On] an anti-Semitic continuum running from 1 to 100, my personal experience would put Nixon somewhere between 15 and 20 – better than most, worse than some….If there was one group he hated with a particular passion, it was the Left. Within that group, he reserved a particularly intense hatred for the journalistic Left. Most of all, he hated people who caused personal hurt to himself and his family. For reasons of history, many of these people were Jewish, but I do not think that was the defining personal characteristic that got Nixon`s bile flowing.”
From his earliest days in Congress, when his high-profile pursuit of suspected Communists in government – most notably State Department insider Alger Hiss – made him a household name, Nixon was anathema to liberal Jews, who early on came close to derailing his political career. Just weeks before the 1952 presidential election, with Republican nominee Dwight Eisenhower and his running mate Nixon cruising toward an eventual landslide victory over Democrat Adlai Stevenson, the New York Post, at the time a Jewish-owned liberal newspaper, splashed this across its front page: “Secret Nixon Fund! Secret Rich Men’s Trust Fund Keeps Nixon In Style Far Beyond His Salary.”
The fund, it turned out, consisted of perfectly legal contributions from political supporters (other politicians – including Stevenson – had similar arrangements), but the media frenzy that erupted in the wake of the Post story nearly forced Nixon off the Republican ticket.
Premature Obituary, Political Resurrection
In November 1962 it seemed that Nixon was finished in politics. Two years after losing a painfully close presidential election to John Kennedy, Nixon suffered a humiliating defeat in his bid to become governor of his home state, California. ABC News aired a special report titled, “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon.”
But Nixon still had a pulse, and before long his old ambitions stirred – ambitions that would not be satisfied by his new career as a Wall Street lawyer. He kept himself in the public spotlight by speaking out on issues of the day, writing articles on foreign policy, and traveling the country on behalf of Republican congressional candidates. His comeback culminated in his election as president in 1968.
As he had in 1960, Nixon fared poorly among Jewish voters. At one point during the 1968 campaign, shortly before he was scheduled to address a major Jewish organization, his speechwriters debated whether to tone down his support for maintaining Israel`s military superiority over its neighbors. Nixon instructed them to go with the stronger wording, though he had no illusions of any political gain.
“You’ll see,” Nixon told William Safire, “there won`t be a single vote in this for me. They’ll cheer and applaud, and then vote for the other guy – they always do. But we`re right on the issue, and it wouldn`t hurt to say so.”
Despite an early flap over remarks by Nixon’s first secretary of state, William Rogers, that seemed to suggest the U.S. would pursue an even-handed Mideast policy, relations between the U.S. and Israel grew unprecedentedly close during Nixon’s first term, particularly after Israel, at Nixon’s request, aborted a Syrian invasion of Jordan in 1970 by threatening military intervention on behalf of King Hussein. (As for Rogers, he was soon eclipsed in terms of influence by Henry Kissinger, Nixon`s national security adviser and Rogers’s eventual replacement.)
Meanwhile, Anwar Sadat, who had become the Egyptian president following the death of Israel’s implacable foe Gamel Abdel Nasser, was making overtures to the U.S., none more fateful in its long-term implications than his decision in July 1972 to expel all Soviet military advisers from Egypt. Sadat was also putting out tentative peace feelers to Israel, but Prime Minister Golda Meir, whose attention was focused on the wave of Palestinian airplane hijackings and terrorist attacks that would come to define the era, was in no mood for negotiations. Not that she saw any need to negotiate; as far as she was concerned, Sadat would never dare go to war.
Meir was hopelessly off the mark, and Egyptian and Syrian forces attacked Israel on Yom Kippur 1973. Israeli intelligence knew an attack was imminent, but Meir was worried about negative international reaction to an Israeli first strike.
Meir’s terrible miscalculation nearly lost Israel the war. A few days into the fighting, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan told Meir that Israel faced imminent defeat. Urgent word was sent to Washington that only a massive infusion of arms could turn the tide. Israeli officials began planning for a doomsday nuclear option.
Nixon’s Day of Judgment
If two-thirds of American Jewish voters had had their way, the man sitting in the White House at that critical moment would have been George McGovern. Though Nixon in 1972 doubled his share of the Jewish vote from the paltry 17 percent he received four years earlier, his Democratic opponent – an isolationist who spoke of drastic military cutbacks, had stated that Israel should not be allowed to use U.S.-supplied planes over Arab territory, and whose closest political allies were not known for holding staunchly pro-Israel views – received the support of 65 percent of Jewish voters.
Fortunately for Israel, Nixon crushed McGovern among non-Jewish voters and easily won a second term. Now, a year after the election, Israel’s fate was very much in Nixon’s hands.
Precise details of what transpired in Washington during the first week of the Yom Kippur War are hard to come by, due mainly to conflicting accounts given by Kissinger and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger regarding their respective roles.
What is clear, from the preponderance of information provided by those who witnessed or were involved with the unfolding events, is that Nixon – overriding inter-administration objections and bureaucratic inertia – implemented a breathtaking transfer of arms. During a 32-day period beginning October 14, jumbo U.S. military aircraft touched down in Israel close to 600 times, delivering some 22,300 tons of material. This enabled Israel to reverse its earlier setbacks, surround the Egyptians in the Sinai, and advance deep into Syrian territory.
This was accomplished, as Walter J. Boyne noted in an article in the December 1998 issue of Air Force Magazine, while “Washington was in the throes of not only post-Vietnam moralizing on Capitol Hill but also the agony of Watergate, both of which impaired the leadership of Richard M. Nixon. Four days into the war, Washington was blindsided again by another political disaster – the forced resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew.”
According to those with firsthand knowledge, it was Nixon’s stubborn insistence that propelled the massive arms transfer, code-named Operation Nickel Grass.
“Both Kissinger and Nixon wanted to do [the airlift],” said former CIA deputy director Vernon Walters, “but Nixon gave it the greater sense of urgency. He said, ‘You get the stuff to Israel. Now. Now.'”
Boyne, in his book The Two O`Clock War, describes a high-level White House meeting on October 9:
As preoccupied as he was with Watergate, Nixon came straight to the point, announcing that Israel must not lose the war. He ordered that the deliveries of supplies, including aircraft, be sped up and that Israel be told that it could freely expend all of its consumables – ammunition, spare parts, fuel, and so forth – in the certain knowledge that these would be completely replenished by the United States without any delay.
As soon as the scope and pattern of Israeli battle losses emerged, Nixon ordered that all destroyed equipment be made up out of U.S. stockpiles, using the very best weapons America possessed….Whatever it takes, he told Kissinger…save Israel.Leonard Garment recalled:
It was Nixon who did it. I was there. As [bureaucratic bickering between the State and Defense departments] was going back and forth, Nixon said, This is insane….He just ordered Kissinger, Get your ass out of here and tell those people to move. “
“Double it,” Nixon ordered. “Now get the hell out of here and get the job done.”
Later, informed of yet another delay – this one because of disagreements in the Pentagon over the type of planes to be used for the airlift – an incensed Nixon shouted at Kissinger, “[Expletive] it, use every one we have. Tell them to send everything that can fly.”
Nixon acted despite threats of reprisal by Arab oil producers – indeed, the day after Nixon asked Congress for an emergency appropriation of $2.2 billion for Israel, Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal announced an embargo of oil to the U.S. – not to mention Europe’s overwhelming opposition to aiding Israel.
“European allies,” writes historian Melvin Small in The Presidency of Richard Nixon, “fearful of the Arab oil threat, would not permit the United States to use [America`s] own bases on the continent to refuel any cargo planes flying from the United States to Israel. At the same time, NATO allies Turkey and Greece permitted the Russians to overfly their countries on their way to the Middle East. Under pressure from the Arabs, Exxon even instructed [its subsidiary] Esso of Germany to stop delivering oil to American bases. Washington finally strong-armed NATO ally Portugal into permitting U.S. planes to refuel in the Azores on the way to the Middle East.”
“Miracle of the Planes”
There are those, like the historian David Greenberg, author of Nixon`s Shadow: The History of an Image, who argue that Nixon’s actions during the Yom Kippur War – specifically the airlift and the placing of U.S. forces on worldwide alert when the Soviets threatened to intervene on behalf of their Arab clients – were inspired, not out of real concern for Israel, but in Greenberg`s words, “from a real politik-based gambit to thwart Soviet allies.”
Whatever his motives, the fact remains that Nixon, as J.J. Goldberg, former editor of the left-leaning Forward, acknowledges in his book Jewish Power, “create[d] the now familiar U.S.-Israel alliance.”
“It was Nixon,” wrote Goldberg, “who made Israel the largest single recipient of U.S. foreign aid; Nixon who initiated the policy of virtually limitless U.S. weapons sales to Israel. The notion of Israel as a strategic asset to the United States, not just a moral commitment, was Nixon`s innovation.”
Addressing the question of Nixon’s anti-Semitism, the late Israeli president Chaim Herzog wrote:
[D]id his personal attitudes have any effect on his dealing with Israel and with Jews? None. He supplied arms and unflinching support when our very existence would have been in danger without them. Let his comments be set against his actions. And I`ll choose actions over words any day of the week.Veteran radio host Barry Farber put it this way:
Give me a Nixon who curses Jew boys over in Treasury but resupplies Israel…over a Franklin D. Roosevelt who professes great love for the Jews but lets all those Jewish refugees aboard the S.S. St. Louis be returned to the death camps of Europe rather than land in the U.S. even though they were close enough to see the lights of Miami Beach.
Wrote Nixon biographer Stephen E. Ambrose: “Those were momentous events in world history. Had Nixon not acted so decisively, who can say what would have happened? The Arabs probably would have recovered at least some of the territory they had lost in 1967, perhaps all of it. They might have even destroyed Israel. But whatever the might-have-beens, there is no doubt that Nixon…made it possible for Israel to win, at some risk to his own reputation and at great risk to the American economy.
“He knew that his enemies…would never give him credit for saving Israel. He did it anyway.”
Alexander Haig, who at the time was White House chief of staff, writes in his memoir Inner Circles:
When Schlesinger initially wanted to send just three transports to Israel because he feared anything more would alarm the Arabs and the Soviets, Nixon snapped: “We are going to get blamed just as much for three as for 300…Get them in the air, now.”
Haig recalls that Nixon, frustrated with the initial delays in implementing the airlift and aware that the Soviets had begun airlifting supplies to Egypt and Syria, summoned Kissinger and Schlesinger to the Oval Office on October 12 and “banished all excuses.” The president asked Kissinger for a precise accounting of Israel`s military needs, and Kissinger proceeded to read aloud from an itemized list.