September 1972: Nixon Weighs Options Following Munich Terror Attack
President Nixon with Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin, June 1974. Nixon Presidential Library.
By Jason Schwartz
A hotbed of Cold War tension, the Middle East endured as a centrum of contrasting pressures throughout the Nixon presidency. Following the Six-Day War between Israel and their neighboring states in 1967, the subsequent territory exchange ushered in an especially volatile diplomatic atmosphere. It was this unstable character that defined regional associations as Nixon tried to broker peace. Any diplomatic progress to speak of regressed after an incident at the 1972 Munich Olympics, as a Palestinian organization identified as ‘Black September’ kidnapped 11 Israeli athletes by gunpoint on 5 September in the early hours of the morning. Motivated by a self-described nationalist struggle, the terrorist group demanded the return of 234 prisoners in exchange for the safe return of the abducted Olympians. After a failed attempt by German authorities to facilitate a rescue, the 21 hour ordeal left 19 dead– including 5 members of the group Black September, a German police officer, and all 11 Israelis.
While an undeniable tragedy within itself, the Munich attack carried additional complications for the ongoing negotiations between Israel and adjacent Middle Eastern nations. Heavily invested in brokering a settlement, the State Department closely monitored the overall levels of tension amongst the Israeli government and populous. According to a telegram via the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, the quantifiable level of anxiety caused by the terrorist attack had driven a wedge between the various actors in the larger Middle Eastern struggle.
Past the immediate region, the system of alliances that divided the Cold War into spheres also dictated the calculated responses of those involved. While maintaining close ties with Israel, the United States hoped to assume closer relations with various Arab nations that had historically sided with the Soviet Union – namely Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. The response needed to send a clear message against terror tactics, but should not alienate potential allies in the region.
Consistent with the overarching theme of ‘linkage’ that ran throughout Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy, the American response to the Munich attack on Israeli athletes carried further implications to geopolitical grand strategy. Appreciating the sensitivity towards any retaliation directly in the region, efforts were instead directed towards addressing the growing terrorist threat in the United Nations. Speaking with Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin, Kissinger anticipated the trouble of conscripting the People’s Republic of China and Soviet Union to agree with any joint resolution in the UN Security Council. Resolution would eventually come by means of three separate United Nations resolution measures which isolated terrorism as a worrisome phenomenon which required response. Though Nixon’s reaction brought the greater issue of international terror into the geopolitical conversation, hostility in the region was far from over – eventually reaching its zenith the following year during the Yom Kippur War.
Transcription of the telephone call between Henry Kissinger and Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin on the morning of 6 September 1972. Reacting to the deaths of all 11 Olympians, the two statesmen contemplated the joint reaction within the United Nations. Nixon Presidential Library.
Monitoring the political atmosphere of their Israeli allies, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv reports back to Washington describing the national climate in regards to peace negotiations. Nixon Presidential Library.