This week marks the 36th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, so it seemed appropriate to revisit Richard Nixon’s role in enabling Israel to recover from the staggering setbacks it suffered in the first week of fighting.
As the Monitor noted four years ago in a Jewish Press front-page essay on Nixon and the Jews – elements of which appear this week at commentarymagazine.com and thenewnixon.org – precise details of what transpired in Washington during the first week of the Yom Kippur War are hard to come by, due in no small measure to conflicting accounts given by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger regarding their respective roles.
What is clear, from the preponderance of information provided by those directly involved in the unfolding events, is that President Richard Nixon – overriding inter-administration objections and bureaucratic inertia – implemented a breathtaking transfer of arms, code-named Operation Nickel Grass, that over a four-week period involved hundreds of jumbo U.S. military aircraft delivering more than 22,000 tons of armaments.
This was accomplished, noted Walter J. Boyne 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…. Four days into the war, Washington was blindsided again by another political disaster – the forced resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew.”
“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, described 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.
White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig concurred:
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.
“It was Nixon who did it,” recalled Nixon’s acting special counsel, Leonard Garment. “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 [expletive] out of here and tell those people to move.”
Haig, in his memoir Inner Circles, wrote 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.
“Double it,” Nixon ordered. “Now get the hell out of here and get the job done.” 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.”
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.”
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.
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org