43 years ago, the deadliest Arab-Israeli military conflict commenced with a surprise attack, coordinated mainly by Egypt and Syria, on the Israeli occupied territories in Suez and the Golan Heights. The Yom Kippur War would instantly go down in infamy as the bloodiest military confrontation between Israel and its Arab neighbors totaling nearly 53,500 total casualties on all sides involved; compared to 5,500 casualties during the 1967 Six-Day War, and 10,000 casualties during the 1956 Suez Crisis.
A map of the military maneuvers that happened 43 years ago this week. Israel (shown with the blue arrows) began to regain territory by October 10.
Though often overshadowed by its more recognized predecessor, the Six Days War of 1967, the Yom Kippur War would produce arguably more lasting and resounding geopolitical effects and consequences:
• President Nixon seized upon the timely opportunity that this crisis presented in that it allowed the U.S. to gain new allies – namely those states that, as the tide of the war turned increasingly in Israel’s favor, realized that they received nothing substantial from the Soviet Union – and restart the long-stalled Middle East peace process.
In a recently declassified cable to his Secretary of State dated October 20, 1973, President Nixon wrote:
I believe that, beyond a doubt, we are now facing the best opportunity we have had in 15 years to build a lasting peace in the Middle East. I am convinced history will hold us responsible if we let this opportunity slip by… I now consider a permanent Middle East settlement to be the most important final goal to which we must devote ourselves.
As Nixon aide and historian Frank Gannon noted, “[I]t was precisely this kind of multi-dimensional diplomatic chess that was RN’s forte.” His decisive vision ultimately culminated in the signing of the Camp David Accords during the Carter administration in 1979, creating a set of international policies, Henry Kissinger noted at the Nixon Centennial Gala in January 2013, “whose main outlines survive to this day.”
• The solid defeats of both Egypt and Syria ensured the expulsion of the Soviet Union from the Middle East, all while expanding American influence in the region that continues to the present day.
Egyptian forces cross into the Suez Canal on this day, 43 years ago.
• While the Soviet Union failed to provide at best a solid victory, and at worst a negotiated settlement, for its client states, Egypt turned to the U.S. as an ally, becoming – until 2010 – an important stabilizing force in the region.
• The War represented, too, not the failure of détente, RN’s acclaimed strategy to peacefully coexist with the Soviets, but a knowledge and understanding of its limitations. Even as the Soviet Union was embracing détente and promoting cooperation, it was undermining U.S. interests by actively supplying the Arabs with arms before and during the war. President Nixon wrote about this in his Memoirs:
I evaluated the Soviet behavior during the Mideast crisis not as an example of the failure of détente but as an illustration of its limitations – limitations of which I had always been keenly aware. I told the bipartisan [Congressional] leadership meeting on October 25, “I have never said that Soviets are ‘good guys.’ What I have always said is that we should not enter into unnecessary confrontations with them”… All we can hope from détente is that it will minimize confrontation in marginal areas and provide, at least, alternative possibilities in the major ones.
• Perhaps most importantly, Americans can take comfort in knowing that when Israel’s very survival was on the line, their President – already consumed with overwhelming challenges on the domestic front – took decisive action to ensure Israel’s survival. Not to mention that Prime Minister Golda Meir would for the rest of her life refer to RN as “My President” and credit him with saving her country.
In an artist’s rendering, an M-60 is unloaded from an Air Force cargo plane in Operation Nickel Grass, the Nixon-approved military campaign to resupply Israeli losses.
Nixon biographer and historian Stephen Ambrose wrote about this:
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.
Waging Peace: In June 1974, the President and First Lady visited Egypt, seizing on the Yom Kippur War to reshape the geopolitical landscape.