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The Limits of DetenteThe United States, the Soviet Union, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1969-1973$

Craig Daigle

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780300167139

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: October 2013

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300167139.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
The Limits of Detente

Craig Daigle

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter describes the war between Israel, Egypt, and Syria, and what led to this surprising turn of events. Shortly past 6:00 a.m. on Saturday, October 6, 1973, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and African affairs, Joseph J. Sisco, received an urgent message. It was from the American ambassador in Israel, former senator Kenneth Keating, and it warned him that Egyptian and Syrian troop movements, which had earlier been perceived by Israel and the United States as routine military exercises, had “suddenly taken a threatening turn.” According to Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, her government had received from “totally reliable sources” information that Syria and Egypt were planning a coordinated attack against Israel to begin later that afternoon and that Soviet naval vessels had been seen departing from Egyptian ports, a clear signal that Moscow had decided to get out of the way of the pending strike.

Keywords:   war, Israel, Egypt, Syria, Joseph J. Sisco, Kenneth Keating, Golda Meir, Moscow

The war came as a complete surprise.

Shortly past 6:00 a.m. on Saturday, October 6, 1973, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was sound asleep in his suite at the Waldorf Towers in New York, his headquarters for the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly, when Joseph J. Sisco, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and African affairs, barged into his bedroom. “Israel, Egypt, and Syria are about to go to war,” Sisco said as he watched the secretary force himself awake. Sisco had just received an urgent message from the American ambassador in Israel, former senator Kenneth Keating, warning that Egyptian and Syrian troop movements, which had earlier been perceived by Israel and the United States as routine military exercises, had “suddenly taken a threatening turn.”1

Hours earlier, Israeli prime minister Golda Meir had informed Keating that her government had received from “totally reliable sources” information that Syria and Egypt were planning a coordinated attack against Israel to begin later that afternoon and that Soviet naval vessels had been seen departing from Egyptian ports, a clear signal that Moscow had decided to get out of the way of the pending strike. At first, said Meir, the government of Israel thought the Soviet evacuation from Syria might mean a break in diplomatic relations, but considering that many Soviet military advisers remained in Cairo, it soon became apparent what was about to happen. Before the meeting concluded, she assured the American ambassador that (p.2)


Prime Minister Golda Meir and Chief of the Southern Command General Shmuel Gonen visit an IDF outpost in the Sinai Peninsula, October 1973. (Yehuda Tzioin, Israel Government Press Office)

her government did not intend to launch a preemptive strike, as they had done during the 1967 war, and requested that American officials quickly pass this information along to leaders in Cairo, Damascus, and Moscow.2

Kissinger refused to believe the news. Not only had US and Israeli intelligence recently determined that an Arab attack remained unlikely, but as Kissinger later wrote, it was “extraordinary” for an Israeli leader to be at work on that day—for it was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year.3 Moreover, the secretary of state did not believe that a war with Israel made any sense from the Arab standpoint. Even with the arrival of Soviet-made tanks and aircraft following the Six-Day War, as well as the SA-3, the most sophisticated of the Soviet antiaircraft defense system, Egyptian and Syrian armies were no match for the Israeli Defense Forces. “Every Israeli (and American) analysis before October 1973 agreed that Egypt and Syria lacked the military capability to regain their territory by force of arms” and therefore would not attack, Kissinger confessed in his memoirs. “The premises were correct,” he said, “the conclusions were not.”4

(p.3) Within minutes Kissinger had Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, on the telephone trying to figure out what had occurred during the night and hoping to get matters under control before the shooting began. “We have information from the Israelis that the Arabs and Syrians are planning an attack within the next 6 hours and that your people are evacuating civilians from Damascus and Cairo,” Kissinger said, clearly concerned about the global consequences of a Middle East war. On behalf of Israel's leadership, the secretary of state stressed that Israel had no intentions to move against Egypt or Syria but warned that in the event of a foreign attack, Israel would “successfully defend itself.”5

Kissinger's call to Dobrynin—the first of more than fifty telephone calls made to Israeli, Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, and United Nations officials on the first day of the October War—was a telling sign that he believed a Middle East war was just as much a contest between the United States and the Soviet Union as it was between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Throughout his numerous calls with Dobrynin on October 6, he informed the ambassador that the United States and the Soviet Union had a “special responsibility” to restrain their respective clients and made a plea to the ambassador to not let the outbreak of another Arab-Israeli war damage détente: “I would like to tell you as you no doubt [know]—that this is very important for our relationship, that we not have an explosion in the Middle East right now.”6

During the next three weeks, Kissinger worked in his capacity as both secretary of state and national security adviser to end the fighting and preserve the relationship with the Soviet Union that he and President Richard M. Nixon had built during the previous four and a half years. On October 20, at the height of the crisis and amid the unfolding events of Watergate, Kissinger made a special trip to Moscow to negotiate an Arab-Israeli cease-fire with Soviet leaders and then stopped in Israel to discuss the cease-fire and the fate of the encircled Egyptian Third Army. When Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev threatened “unilateral” Soviet intervention in the Middle East to prevent Israeli violations of the cease-fire agreement on October 24—in Kissinger's estimate “one of the most serious challenges” to an American president by a Soviet leader—the secretary of state urged Nixon to call the Soviet bluff by placing US military forces on high alert. Kissinger then drafted a letter to President Anwar Sadat of Egypt under (p.4) Nixon's name warning that should Soviet forces appear in the region, the United States would have to resist them on Egyptian territory. “I ask you to consider the consequences for your country if the two great nuclear countries were thus to confront each other on your soil,” the letter stated as the crisis quickly abated.7

In their respective memoirs, both Kissinger and Dobrynin argued that it was a testament to détente that they could negotiate an end to the war and open a period of active diplomacy in the region. “The crisis demonstrated that tension could be localized and prevented from disrupting relations between Washington and Moscow,” said Dobrynin, as “the two countries found themselves deeply involved … as partners seeking the earliest possible end to the war.”8 Kissinger was even more emphatic in his assessment: “I believe détente mitigated the succession of crises that differences in ideology and geopolitical interest had made nearly inevitable; and I believe we enhanced the national interests in the process.”9

Kissinger and Dobrynin were not alone in the belief that détente had passed a significant test. On the morning after the military alert, the Washington Post and the New York Times ran lengthy editorials suggesting that the result of the crisis was “the single most significant vindication of détente” and proof that the relationship Nixon and Brezhnev had created “served both of them well in their contest.” On an ideological level, moreover, the Post argued that the crisis helped shape and define détente not as “an easy solvent of great power tension” but rather as “an attitude, an understanding, a frame of mind in which the two great powers could pursue their various political interests, and conduct their rivalry, with some sense of the need for pulling back on this side of the brink.”10

It is certainly true that détente had both created the mindset in which Washington's and Moscow's first instinct was to prevent disruptions in great power relations and provided the foundation on which Soviet and American officials could conduct the negotiations needed to end the war. Nevertheless, these comments obscure the fact that the October War was in large part a product of Soviet-American relations and decision-making during the previous four and a half years. Although through détente the Soviet Union and United States reached agreements on the limitation of strategic arms and the prevention of nuclear warfare, established scientific and cultural (p.5) exchanges and trade agreements, and formalized treaties to curb rivalries and tensions in Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and Berlin, détente rarely, if ever, extended to the Middle East.

Indeed, both Soviet and American officials resisted attempts to place pressure on their respective clients to agree to a Middle East peace settlement and continually adopted policies that brought their two countries closer to confrontation in the region. In 1969–1970 the Soviets rejected a US peace proposal (which they helped construct) and responded by moving more than ten thousand military personnel into Egypt. After the United States successfully brokered an Egyptian-Israel cease-fire agreement in August 1970, ending the War of Attrition, the Soviets exploited the terms of the agreement by helping Egypt build a missile shield against Israeli aircraft along the Suez Canal. For its part, the United States continued to send Israel its most advanced weapons, attempted to broker separate deals with the Egyptians, and sought to remove the Soviet military presence from the region. “After all,” said Kissinger, “a principal purpose of our own Mideast policy was to reduce the role and influence of the Soviet Union, just as the Soviets sought to reduce ours.”11

When in 1972 the superpowers agreed to place their difference in the Middle East on ice and accepted the status quo in the region for the benefit of détente, Egypt's Anwar Sadat felt compelled to launch a war against Israel. After months of failed diplomacy with Secretary of State William P. Rogers and Israel's repeated rejections of his peace overtures, Sadat concluded that his only hope of recovering the territories seized by Israel in June 1967 was to create a “crisis of détente” by attacking Israel and drawing the superpowers into a regional confrontation.

Through the years, historians and political scientists have devoted considerable attention to the Soviet-American “jockeying” during the October War, especially to Kissinger's role during the crisis and to the shuttle diplomacy that followed. Many have subscribed to the notion that Kissinger's handling of the crisis was “a model of crisis management” and proved that the cease-fire ending the war resulted in large part from Washington and Moscow's mutual desire to preserve détente.12 Others have underlined the fracture in Soviet-American détente evident during the negotiations and the (p.6) October 24–25 military alert, as well as Kissinger's desire to leave the Soviets out of the postwar negotiations.13

By devoting so much attention to the war and the ensuing diplomacy, however, historians have largely ignored the US and Soviet involvement in precipitating the conflict. William B. Quandt's Decade of Decisions was the first significant study to examine American policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict during the presidencies of Nixon and Gerald Ford, and his revised Peace Process is still widely considered the authoritative account of American diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli conflict. But Quandt's study lacks archival documentation, and as a former National Security Council staffer under Kissinger, Quandt is quick to dismiss State Department efforts to bring about peace in the Middle East.14 Several former American diplomats serving in the Middle East have written studies on the great power diplomacy during the Egyptian-Israeli War of Attrition that highlight the effects of Arab-Israeli tensions on détente, but these studies generally conclude during the summer of 1970 and thus do not address the three critical years leading to the October War, including Anwar Sadat's rise on the Egyptian scene.15

The ending of the Cold War and the subsequent opening of former Soviet and Eastern European archives gave rise in recent years to a number of studies focusing on the Soviet intervention in the War of Attrition. These accounts are significant for understanding Soviet decision-making and have shed important light on Moscow's decision to introduce Soviet military units into Egypt—dubbed Operation Kavkaz—in February 1970. Yet these authors do not place the Soviet decision to intervene in the War of Attrition in the broader context of détente, nor do they adequately address how the Soviets' experiences during this conflict influenced their behavior in the Middle East before and during the October War.16 The preponderance of more recent US-Soviet and détente studies have also failed to grasp the role that the Middle East played in contributing to and limiting détente.17

Studies on the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli dispute have ignored détente's role in contributing to the outbreak of the 1973 October War. Although a consensus has emerged in recent years that Sadat's objectives during the war were largely political in that he wanted to give the peace process a “jolt,” not embark on large-scale reconquest of Arab territory, most studies focus on Sadat's desire to move the Israelis off their frozen position (p.7) rather than on how he was trying to budge the United States and the Soviet Union off their rigid adherence to the status quo.18

This book fills this historiographic gap by presenting the first detailed survey of US-Soviet relations in the Middle East in the era of détente. In it, I reveal not only that the Arab-Israeli conflict repeatedly caused problems for détente to the point of risking a US-Soviet confrontation but also that détente exacerbated Arab-Israeli tensions. I begin by demonstrating how, during the early months of the Nixon presidency, both Washington and Moscow viewed Arab-Israeli peace discussions as a needed venue to ascertain each other's intentions and willingness to negotiate on a broader scale. For both countries the successful completion of an Arab-Israeli peace agreement would eliminate a potential arena for a superpower confrontation and prove to officials in both capitals that bilateral negotiations on major areas could succeed and overcome differences in the Third World. Nixon's authorization of the “Two Power” talks with the Soviets in the first month of his presidency to discuss an Arab-Israeli agreement reflected his larger concept of “linkage.” According to Nixon, “The great issues are fundamentally interrelated,” and linkage thus represented a way to convey to the Soviets that they “cannot expect to reap the benefits of cooperation in one area while seeking to take advantage of tension or confrontation elsewhere.”19

In chapter 2, I place the Rogers Plan squarely in the context of Soviet- American relations. Although traditionally interpreted strictly through the lens of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Rogers Plan was primarily a closing chapter of the “test” of Soviet intentions in the Middle East, which the president had ordered at the beginning of his administration, rather than a definitive statement of what the Nixon administration believed would ultimately constitute a long-term peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.

In chapters 3 through 5 I discuss the consequences of the Soviet decision to intervene in the War of Attrition, perceived by Kissinger as the “first Soviet threat” to the Nixon administration. Not only did the Soviets threaten the chances for détente by directly intervening in the War of Attrition, but they attempted to undermine the Egyptian-Israeli cease-fire agreement of August 1970. In chapter 5, “Fighting for Sadat,” I explore the rise of Anwar el-Sadat on the Egyptian scene and show how the United States and the Soviet Union each exploited the transfer of power in Egypt following (p.8) President Gamal Abdel Nasser's death to improve its strategic position in the region relative to its rival.

In a broader sense, though, The Limits of Détente helps explain the roots of the 1973 October War. The war resulted largely from policies adopted in Washington and Moscow as much as it did from the competing interests between Arabs and Israelis: it was thus a consequence of détente. As I argue in chapters 6, 7, 8, the United States and the Soviet Union, in a genuine effort to promote détente and avoid a potential superpower confrontation in the Middle East, accepted agreements in 1972 and 1973 that solidified an untenable status quo in the region rather than promote a lasting Arab-Israeli peace agreement. Moreover, both superpowers largely ignored Sadat's threats that he would take his country to war with Israel if Washington and Moscow did not actively attempt to resolve the dispute. By effectively telling Arab leaders that Israel would indefinitely retain possession of their land, the Soviets alienated their clients in the Middle East and pushed the Egyptians and Syrians into another war.

In choosing to take his country to war, as I demonstrate in chapter 9, Sadat's primary objective was not to defeat Israel militarily, which he knew he could not do, but rather to reignite the stalled political process by creating a “crisis of détente”—drawing the superpowers into a regional conflict and forcing leaders in Washington and Moscow to forego the “no war, no peace” situation that had been produced in the Middle East as a result of their burgeoning détente.

In no way does this book imply that there were no other constraints on détente. America's continued involvement in the Vietnam War, the US effort to exploit the Sino-Soviet rift by establishing ties with the People's Republic of China, and the Soviet-American rivalry that erupted during the India-Pakistan War of 1971 all demonstrated the limits of détente. In 1973–1974, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which denied most favored nation status to nonmarket economies that restricted emigration rights, highlighted the domestic constraints of détente, while differences over the 1975 Helsinki Accords, US and Soviet involvement in Angola, and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan all contributed to détente's eventual collapse.

Few if any of these conflicts, however, brought the United States and the Soviet Union closer to military confrontation than did the Arab-Israeli conflict. (p.9) The Soviet-American rapprochement, a centerpiece of American foreign policy during the Nixon and Ford presidencies, failed to reach its full potential owing to the ongoing competition between Washington and Moscow for control of the Middle East. Although détente relaxed tensions and improved relations between the United States and the Soviet Union at the global strategic level during the early 1970s, at the regional level, détente undermined progress toward an Arab-Israeli peace settlement and in so doing helped trigger the October War.20


(1) . Henry Kissinger, Crisis: The Anatomy of Two Major Foreign Policy Crises (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), 13–14.

(2) . Telegram 7766 from Tel Aviv, Oct. 6, 1973, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 610, CF, ME, Israel, vol. 12.

(3) . YoU, 451–453.

(4) . Ibid., 459.

(5) . Kissinger-Dobrynin Telcon, Oct. 6, 1973, 6:40 a.m., NARA, NPMS, HAK Telcons, box 22.

(6) . Ibid. Kissinger's other calls to Dobrynin on October 6 came at 7:46 a.m., 9:20 a.m., 9:25 a.m., 11:25 a.m., 3:50 p.m., 5:45 p.m., 6:20 p.m., 7:20 p.m., and 9:10 p.m. Kissinger, Crisis, 15–84.

(7) . Richard M. Nixon to Anwar Sadat, Oct. 25, 1973, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 1175, HHSF, Middle East War.

(8) . Dobrynin, In Confidence, 292.

(9) . YoU, 600.

(10) . “… And the Meaning for Détente,” WP, Oct. 26, 1973, A26; “From Cuba to Suez,” NYT, Oct. 26, 1973, 42.

(11) . YoU, 600.

(12) . On Kissinger's role during the October War and “shuttle diplomacy,” see Walter Isaacson, Kissinger: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 511–545; Robert Schulzinger, Henry Kissinger: Doctor of Diplomacy (New York: Columbia University Press,), 150–162; William P. Bundy, A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998), 428–472; Raymond L. Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1994), 413. Kenneth W. Stein, (p.348) Heroic Diplomacy: Sadat, Kissinger, Carter, Begin, and the Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace (New York: Routledge, 1999); Jussi Hanhimaki, The Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 302–331; Robert Dallek, Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 520–533; Jeremi Suri, Henry Kissinger and the American Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 257–269; Alistair Horne, Kissinger: 1973, The Crucial Year (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009), 226–265.

(13) . Hanhimaki, Flawed Architect, 303; Bundy, Tangled Web, 442–443; Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein, We All Lost the Cold War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 198–290.

(14) . William B. Quandt, Decades of Decision: American Policy Towards the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1967–1976 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977). In the revised edition of this study, updated to include discussion of the Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations, Quandt changed the name of this chapter from “Standstill Diplomacy” to “Kissinger's Diplomacy: Stalemate and War, 1972–73.” See William B. Quandt, Peace Process: American Diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli Conflict Since 1967 (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2001), 98–129. For a more recent interpretation of the stalemate during this period, see Salim Yaqub, “The Politics of Stalemate: The Nixon Administration and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1969–1973,” in Nigel J. Ashton, ed., The Cold War in the Middle East: Regional Conflict and the Superpowers, 1967–1973 (London: Routledge, 2007), 35–58.

(15) . David A. Korn, Stalemate: The War of Attrition and Great Power Diplomacy in the Middle East, 1967—1970 (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1992); Richard B. Parker, The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 125–163; Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, The Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition, 1969–1970: A Case Study of Limited Local War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980); Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Israeli Conflict, 1881–2001 (New York: Vintage, 2001), 347–386.

(16) . Dima Adamsky, “Disregarding the Bear: How US Intelligence Failed to Estimate the Soviet Intervention in the Egyptian-Israeli War of Attrition,” Journal of Strategic Studies 28 (2005): 803–831; Dima Adamsky, “‘Zero-Hour for the Bears’: Inquiring into the Soviet Decision to Intervene in the Egyptian-Israeli War of Attrition, 1969–70,” Cold War History 6, no. 1 (2006): 113–136; Dima Adamsky and Uri Bar Joseph, ‘The Russians Are Not Coming’: Israel's Intelligence Failure and Soviet Military Intervention in the ‘War of Attrition,’” Intelligence and National Security 21, no. 1 (2006): 1–25; Isabella Ginor, “‘Under the Yellow Arab Helmet Gleamed Blue Russian Eyes’: Operation Kavkaz and the War of Attrition, 1969–70,” Cold War History 3, no. 1 (2002): 127–156. Valerii Safonov, ed., Grif sekretno sniat. Kniga ob uchastii sovetskikh voennosluz-. hashchikh v Arabo-Izrail'skom konflikte [Secret classification removed: A book on the participation of Soviet military servicemen in the Arab-Israeli conflict] (Moscow: Sovet veteranov boevykh deistvii v. Egipte, 1997); V. M. Vinogradov, Diplomatiia: liudi I sobytiia: iz zapisok posla (Rossiiskaia (p.349) politicheskaia entsiklopediia, 1998) [Diplomacy: People and events: From an ambassador's notes (Russian political encyclopedia, 1998)].

(17) . Vladislav M. Zubok, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 192–264; Melvyn P. Leffler, For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007); Keith Nelson, The Making of Détente: Soviet-American Relations in the Shadow of Vietnam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

(18) . Patrick Seale, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 208; Saad el Shazly, The Crossing of the Suez (San Francisco: American Mideast Research, 1980), 245–246.

(19) . Richard M. Nixon to William P. Rogers, Feb. 4, 1969, NARA, RG 59, Secretary/Undersecretary Lot Files, WPR, box 25.

(20) . Thanks to Doug Little and Galia Golan for helping me better articulate this key point.