Forty-eight years ago this week, Israel teetered on the brink of unthinkable disaster just days after Egypt and Syria launched a devastating attack on Yom Kippur (October 6 that year), making quick inroads in the North and South while inflicting heavy losses on Israeli troops and armaments.
This was also the week during which Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan increasingly recognized that Israel’s fate might well rest on the shoulders of one man, thousands of miles away and embroiled in a burgeoning scandal that would ultimately consume him; a man widely perceived by Jews as indifferent to them at best and hostile at worst.
Indeed, judged solely by his White House tapes, Richard Nixon was obsessed with Jews, stewing in envy and resentment, never hesitating to refer to them in the crudest of terms. But if talk alone is the true measure of a man, then Harry Truman – who routinely made derogatory remarks about Jews (and whose wife, for good measure, kept the Truman home in Independence, Missouri, off-limits to Jewish visitors) – would have to be considered an anti-Semite of the first order. Human beings are complex creatures, and Nixon was an unusually complicated one.
William Safire, a Nixon speechwriter prior to embarking on a long career as a New York Times columnist, addressed the question of Nixon’s feelings about Jews by noting 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….”
Nonetheless, Nixon never enjoyed anything remotely close to an amicable relationship with the American Jewish community, which he perceived as inordinately liberal and opposed to him on both personal and political grounds, and from which he received paltry backing in his various campaigns for office (his best showing being the 34 percent he received in his 1972 landslide reelection).
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Precise details of what transpired in Washington during that first week of the Yom Kippur War are hard to come by, due mainly to conflicting accounts given by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger regarding their respective roles in the drama.
But as I wrote some years ago in an online article for Commentary magazine that appeared concurrently as a Jewish Press column, what is clear, from the preponderance of information provided by those who were directly involved, is that Nixon – overriding inter-administration objections and bureaucratic inertia – implemented a breathtaking transfer of arms, code-named Operation Nickel Grass, during which, beginning on October 14 and continuing uninterrupted for more than four weeks, jumbo U.S. military aircraft touched down in Israel close to 600 times, delivering nearly 23,000 tons of military equipment. Separately, dozens of F-4 Phantom II fighter jets were flown to Israel by U.S. Air Force pilots and turned over to their Israeli counterparts.
This was accomplished, wrote Walter J. Boyne 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.”
“Both Kissinger and Nixon wanted to do [the airlift],” said CIA deputy director Vernon Walters, “but Nixon gave it the greater sense of urgency. He said, ‘You get the stuff to Israel, now. 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.”
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 Leonard Garment. “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.”
When Schlesinger wanted to send just three transports 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, in his memoir Inner Circles, reported 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.”
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 – the day after he 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. – and in the face of overwhelming European opposition to aiding Israel.
Israeli leaders were stunned by the sheer size and scale of Operation Nickel Grass. Mordechai Gazit, director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office, called it something “beyond our imagination.”
To the end of her life Golda Meir would refer to Nixon as “my president,” telling a group of Jewish leaders in Washington shortly after the war: “For generations to come, all will be told of the miracle of the immense planes from the United States bringing in the materiel that meant life to our people.”
In June 1974, two months before he resigned the presidency, Nixon became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Israel. He told the assembled dignitaries upon his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport: “I can only say that the friendship that we have for this nation, the respect and the admiration we have for the people of this nation, their courage, their tenacity, their firmness in the face of very great odds…makes us proud to stand with Israel…”
Nixon biographer Stephen E. Ambrose perhaps summed it up best:
“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.”