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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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The First Soviet Threat, January–May 1970

The First Soviet Threat, January–May 1970

(p.83) Three The First Soviet Threat, January–May 1970
The Limits of Detente

Craig Daigle

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the Israeli air attacks on Egypt that began in January 1970. At a glance, the attacks were just a continuation of the cycle of violence that had resumed in July 1969, and only further indication of Israel's vast air superiority in the Middle East. The attacks, however, marked a distinct change in Israel's military strategy in the War of Attrition. In the ten months since Nasser had formally declared war on Israel, the Israeli government had confined its counter bombardments to the area around the Suez Canal, fearing that to strike deep inside Egypt ran the risk of drawing Soviet intervention and would alienate support in Washington while Israel anxiously awaited Nixon's response to a request for twenty-five more Phantoms and one hundred additional Skyhawks.

Keywords:   cycle of violence, Israeli air attacks, Egypt, air superiority, Middle East, War of Attrition

At approximately 2:00 p.m. on January 7, 1970, three squadrons of Israeli F-4 Phantom IIs crossed over the west side of the Suez Canal, headed deep into the Egyptian hinterland. The stated military objectives of the mission were, first, to reduce Egyptian military pressure in the forward Canal area by bombing military bases and supply depots in the rear and disrupting logistical support to Egyptian forces stationed along the Canal; second, to disrupt Egyptian military planning for launching a full-scale war against Israel; and third, to bring the War of Attrition to an end by compelling Nasser to observe the UN-decreed cease-fire that had ended the Six-Day War.1 Of course, there were also unstated objectives of the mission, which no Israeli leader would publicly acknowledge. In striking the Egyptian heartland, there could be no question that the Israelis intended to punish Nasser severely for having launched the War of Attrition in March 1969 and potentially bring about a change in the Egyptian regime.

The Israeli fighter planes struck that afternoon at three targets: a training camp at Dahsur, just south of Cairo and less than ten miles from the industrial suburb of Helwan; a military airfield at Tel el-Kebir in the eastern Delta; and the atomic energy research facility at Inshas, not far from Cairo. The attacks were followed within days by another round of strikes at military installations at el-Khanka, Huckstep, Jabal Hawf, and along the Cairo-Suez road. All planes returned safely to Israeli bases without incident setting up more attacks of the Egyptian heartland in the following weeks and months.2

(p.84) To the casual observer, the Israeli air attacks that began in January 1970 were just a continuation of the cycle of violence that had resumed in July 1969, and only further indication of Israel's vast air superiority in the Middle East. The Israeli government did little to highlight the success of the missions, nor did press accounts draw attention to the fact that this was the first time the Israeli Air Force had struck Egyptian targets significantly west of the Canal line since 1967. The attacks, however, marked a distinct change in Israel's military strategy in the War of Attrition. In the ten months since Nasser had formally declared war on Israel, the Israeli government had confined its counterbombardments to the area around the Suez Canal, fearing that to strike deep inside Egypt ran the risk of drawing Soviet intervention and would alienate support in Washington while Israel anxiously awaited Nixon's response to a request for twenty-five more Phantoms and one hundred additional Skyhawks.3

The change in Israel's strategy was spurred in large part by Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli ambassador to the United States. For months, Rabin had urged leaders in Jerusalem to step up attacks against Nasser. A former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, and the man who helped guide Israel to victory in 1967, Rabin believed that the American position in the Two Power talks, calling for Israel to withdraw to the international boundary, was directly linked to Israel's misguided handling of the War of Attrition. In September and October 1969 he sent numerous cables to Jerusalem arguing that only by undertaking deep-penetration raids and striking military targets in the Egyptian heartland could Israel induce the Egyptians to halt the war and reverse the direction of American policy.4

For Rabin, moreover, attacks beyond the Canal line would be viewed as a welcomed development in the United States. Despite pressure from the State Department to agree to a diplomatic solution, the ambassador firmly believed that the White House wanted Israel to escalate the military pressure on Egypt to undermine Nasser's standing with his people and to weaken the Soviet position in the region. “A man would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to sense how much the administration favors military operations,” he explained in a cable to the prime minister in the fall of 1969. Some circles in Washington, he argued, were even encouraging Israel to destroy the Egyptian army in a large-scale offensive, and many wanted officials in (p.85)

The First Soviet Threat, January–May 1970

Israeli ambassador Yitzhak Rabin talks to reporters as he leaves the State Department after a two-hour meeting with the acting secretary of state, Elliot Richardson, on February 13, 1970. Rabin had been summoned to the State Department to discuss the Israeli bombing of an Egyptian factory near Cairo. (Bettman/Corhis)

Jerusalem to initiate a full-scale offensive that could bring down Nasser's regime. “Sources have informed me that our military operations are the most encouraging breath of air the administration has enjoyed recently,” he continued. “The willingness to supply us with additional arms depends more on stepping up our military activity against Egypt than reducing it.”5

Rabin's calls for deep-penetration bombing of the Egyptian heartland touched off a fierce debate among the Israeli leadership. The question was not over Israel's military capabilities to carry out the missions. Even those who opposed the escalated bombardment recognized that with the recent arrival from the United States of more than a dozen F-4 Phantom aircraft, which surpassed anything technologically that the Soviets could offer Egypt, there was little the Egyptian military could do to prevent the Israeli Air Force from penetrating deep inside Egyptian territory. Rather, the concern centered on what the US reaction would be to the increased attacks at a (p.86) time when Washington wanted improved relations with the Arab world and the Soviet Union. Other Israeli officials raised questions regarding the potential Soviet response to seeing Moscow's client repeatedly attacked with American-made weapons. And if the attacks forced the collapse of Nasser's government, was Israel prepared to live with a new, and possibly more hostile, Egyptian regime on its border?

Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon, a longtime ally of Rabin's dating back to the 1940s when Rabin had served under Allon's command in the Palmach, the elite “strike force” unit of the Haganah, strongly supported the bombing. In speeches and writings, Allon argued that it was “inconceivable” the Soviets would send to Egypt an expeditionary force large enough to counter the bombing given that Moscow had never sent forces to a non-communist government beyond the Warsaw Pact. Nor, Allon maintained, would the Kremlin risk a confrontation with the United States over differences in the Middle East when it was clear that Nasser had initiated the war.6 General Ezer Weizman, who recently joined the cabinet as minister of transportation, concurred, arguing that Israel needed to “use our power to the utmost, so as to win the War of Attrition and to remove any doubt as to who was the victor.”7

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Foreign Minister Abba Eban led the opposition to the bombings. Dayan was not opposed to limited bombing around Cairo, but he did not share Allon's confidence that the Soviet Union would turn a blind eye to increased attacks on their ally and watch indifferently as Nasser's regime collapsed. Eban, by contrast, felt certain that Rabin was leading the cabinet down a dangerous path by suggesting without “sufficient evidence” that the United States supported the bombardment of Egypt in depth. At a cabinet meeting on December 21, 1969, in which Rabin returned from Washington to advocate for the deep-penetration raids, Eban disputed the ambassador's analysis of the American position. When it appeared that his argument fell on deaf ears, Eban took the dramatic step of publicly criticizing Rabin's position in an article of January 2, 1970, in the daily paper Ha'aretz: “If fate wills it that Nasser should fall … I presume that there will be no mourning in Israel,” he wrote. “But one should not conclude from this that the U.S. encourages actions taken deliberately in order to overthrow him. That is no sign of a U.S. desire (p.87) for an energetic increase of activity beyond the cease-fire lines if Egypt does not force us into this.”8

Eban was certainly correct to challenge Rabin's claims. No evidence has surfaced suggesting that the Nixon administration welcomed the increased attacks or favored Nasser's removal. But Eban's opinion did not hold the weight in the Meir government that it formerly held under Levi Eshkol and David Ben-Gurion. Meir, moreover, appeared prepared to live with the consequences of the escalated attacks. “We shall not go into mourning if Nasser falls,” she said in an interview in the newspaper Davar shortly after the cabinet voted to initiate the deep-penetration raids. “I don't know if Nasser's successor would be any better than he is, but I don't think he could be much worse.”9

The deep-penetration raids that began on January 7 continued unfettered until April 13, 1970. During those three months, the Israeli Air Force conducted more than three thousand sorties and dropped an estimated eight thousand tons of ordinance on Egyptian territory, inflicting heavy casualties on both military and civilian populations. They struck major supply depots for the Egyptian air force, attacked military bases around Cairo, and destroyed the Canal line air defense systems installed by the Soviet Union after the 1967 war. On January 28, in perhaps the most brazen attack of the entire deep-penetration campaign, Israeli fighter planes deliberately hit a main training center near Cairo full of Soviet personnel, killing and wounding dozens.10

Yet although the attacks were militarily successful, the deep-penetration campaign must be judged a political failure. Not only did the attacks fail to compel Nasser to end the War of Attrition immediately, but the Israelis grossly miscalculated the Soviet response. Between February and May, Moscow responded to the deep-penetration raids by sending to Egypt more than ten thousand of their own “instructors” and “advisers.” Soviet pilots, moreover, became active participants in the Egyptian air defense, flying reconnaissance missions and intercepting Israeli aircraft, while additional Russian units manned the new SA-3 surface-to-air missile systems installed along the Suez Canal. The Kremlin also bolstered its naval presence in the Mediterranean, rivaling what the United States had in the region as part of its Sixth Fleet. “It is a unique turn of Soviet policy,” wrote NSC staffer William (p.88)

The First Soviet Threat, January–May 1970

Israeli deep-penetration raids, January 7–April 13, 1970

(p.89) Hyland of the Soviet move. “Never before have the Soviets put their own forces in combat jeopardy for the sake of a non-communist government.”11

The Soviet decision to intervene in the War of Attrition, however, did not just affect the military situation in the Middle East. By choosing to send forces to Egypt, Moscow unleashed an arms race in the Middle East that would have far-reaching implications on US-Soviet relations and the future of détente. Instead of turning 1970 into year of “promoting US-Soviet relations on a mutually acceptable basis,”12 as many in the upper echelons of the Soviet leadership had wanted, Moscow and Washington repeatedly made decisions that inched the superpowers closer to a confrontation in the Middle East, proving that détente was still very much on hold.

The Kosygin Letter

Around 8:30 p.m. on January 31, 1970, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, arrived on short notice at Henry Kissinger's office in the White House with a letter addressed to President Nixon from Premier Alexei Kosygin. Dobrynin had become a frequent visitor at the White House in the first year of the Nixon presidency. Since establishing the back channel with Kissinger in February 1969, the two men had forged a strong working relationship, often meeting at odd hours and almost always in private, without interpreters or secretaries. During their conversations, which generally took place in the Map Room of the White House, Kissinger and Dobrynin discussed topics as far-ranging as arms control, Vietnam, Berlin, the Middle East, and Soviet-American trade. In part, this reflected Nixon's desire of “linkage,” whereby progress on each issue, particularly issues of importance to the Soviet Union, would depend on progress on several others. Yet it also ensured, according to Kissinger, that the “major negotiations” with the Soviet Union would be conducted from the White House, under the president's direct supervision.13

The success of “the channel” rested in large part on the confidence their leaders placed in their private meetings and the faith that both Kissinger and Dobrynin had in each other's ability to speak directly, without polemics, and hold their discussions in the “strictest confidence.” Kissinger described Dobrynin as “highly intelligent,” possessing an exceptional (p.90) analytic ability. “Within the scope of discretion granted him by his government,” said Kissinger, “he was flexible, skillful and reliable … devoted to the improvement of US-Soviet relations. I respected his human qualities.” Dobrynin, similarly, believed that in Kissinger he had found a negotiating partner with whom he did not have to resort to ambiguities or avoid specific problems. “He could give you a big headache,” Dobrynin later wrote of Kissinger, “but he was clever and highly professional, and never dull or bureaucratic.”14

For the Soviet ambassador, moreover, the private meetings with Kissinger were a refreshing change of pace from the more formal discussions he often had with the State Department officials, especially Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco, whose meetings he once described as “like throwing beans against the wall.”15 Kissinger and Dobrynin, by contrast, conducted their dialogue in “a polite and at times even jocular manner,” which enabled the channel to emerge by 1971 as the “principal venue for Soviet-American relations,” producing a number of agreements, including the Anti-Ballistic Missile agreement and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty that would largely symbolize the period of détente.16

The letter Dobrynin brought with him on the evening of January 31, however, could hardly be described in the spirit of détente. In this letter, confined exclusively to the Middle East, Kosygin launched into a four-page diatribe against Israel's recent bombing of Egyptian territory, which he claimed violated United Nations Security Council resolutions. He argued that the Israeli Air Force had deliberately targeted civilian populations, brought destruction to Arab towns, villages, and industrial installations, and exacerbated “tension” in one of the most important areas of the world. “The aims of these adventurist actions are clear,” declared the Soviet premier, “to force the neighboring Arab countries into accepting the demands which are put forward by Israel.”17

In addressing the United States, Kosygin's comments were equally blunt. He accused Nixon of conspiring with Israel to attack Egypt and insisted that it was the responsibility of the United States to “compel” Israel to cease its attacks and to agree to the “speediest withdrawal” of “all” the occupied territories. More important, though, the Soviet premier made it clear to Nixon that if Israel's attacks continued, not only would Israel face “highly (p.91) risky consequences” but, he added, the Soviet Union would have no choice but “to see to it that the Arab states have means at their disposal with the help of which a due rebuff to the arrogant aggressor could be made.”18

The decision to send Kosygin's letter came after weeks of intense discussion inside the Kremlin's political and military circles over how to respond to Israel's deep-penetration bombing of Egypt. Much like the Israeli debate to initiate the bombings, Soviet officials wrestled with the idea of what defending Egypt would entail and if the bombings warranted the risk to get further entrenched in the Middle East less than two years after having forcefully intervened in Czechoslovakia. The Politburo also considered whether Soviet forces would have to be introduced into Egypt covertly and how the introduction of Soviet forces would affect Moscow's relationship with the United States.19

At a more basic level, though, the Israeli bombings forced Soviet leaders to reassess its strategic relationship with Egypt. In less than three years, Nasser had inadvisably launched two separate wars against Israel, leaving the Soviet Union largely responsible for picking up the pieces of Egypt's broken army. The Soviets were partly to blame in 1967 for giving Nasser faulty information that the Israelis were preparing to attack and encouraging him to mobilize the Egyptian army.20 Yet few Kremlin officials welcomed Nasser's decision to launch the War of Attrition and believed that with the deep-penetration raids Nasser got what was coming to him.

On January 22, two weeks into the deep-penetration campaign, Nasser arrived in Moscow for secret meetings with Kosygin, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, and Soviet president Nikolai Podgorny to plead his case for massive Soviet military assistance to defend Egyptian cities against the Israeli attacks. “The fate of the whole Middle East,” he said, “was going to be decided in the strip of land about 30 kilometers [nineteen miles] either side of the Suez Canal.” Nasser remained particularly concerned with the fate of Alexandria, Egypt's only remaining functional port, and stressed that his people felt “naked” to the Israeli bombardments. He requested that the Soviets send to Egypt its new SA-3 surface-to-air missile systems to replace the SA-2, which he argued proved ineffective against aircraft flying below sixteen hundred feet.21

The Soviet leadership put up some resistance to Nasser, insisting that Nasser's request required approval by a full meeting of the Politburo. Yet by (p.92) the time Nasser left Moscow, Soviet officials had all but decided that they would come to his aid. As historians Dima P. Adamsky and Isabella Ginor have shown, preparations were already under way to send to Egypt air defense units from Moscow, Leningrad, Byelorussia, and Dnieperpetrovsk.22 The tipping point for the Soviet decision to intervene massively in the War of Attrition, however, may have come on January 28, after the Israeli attack on a house that killed Soviet personnel. “We have the hardest possible intelligence that the decisions leading to the present situation were approved by Brezhnev on January 28–29, in the wake of Nasser's secret visit to Moscow,” William Hyland of the NSC staff explained in a memorandum to Kissinger. “The Soviets had no choice but to support Nasser and strong moves were obviously called for.”23

Hyland was most likely referring to the report of an intercepted telephone conversation between Brezhnev and defense minister Marshal Andrei Grechko shortly after the Israeli attack, which revealed that Brezhnev was “obviously bitter” about the accuracy of the strike. The conversation also indicated that top Soviet leaders had been meeting on the Middle East and that the general secretary had informed Grechko that he wanted to send to Egypt “a system” to provide a “means of defense” against continued Israeli attacks. Brezhnev did not specify what sort of “system” he had in mind, but the only logical choice was to provide Nasser with the low-altitude SA-3 system, the most sophisticated of Soviet surface-to-air missile systems, requested by the Egyptian president during his visit. In the meantime, the Soviet leaders settled on sending Kosygin's letter, which Brezhnev had a “personal hand” in drafting.24

Kosygin's letter quickly grabbed the attention of Nixon's senior foreign policy advisers. Less than forty-eight hours after being informed of the contents of the note, Secretary Rogers informed Nixon that the letter “had an element of threat” and “could signal that the Soviets have taken a decision to give more arms to Nasser.” He recommended a “prompt” and “firm” reply to Kosygin to dispel the notion that the United States had “colluded” with Israel and to convey to the Kremlin the need for “positive reaction” to the Rogers Plan.25 Kissinger, though, went even further in his assessment. In his estimate, the Kosygin letter constituted the “first Soviet threat” to the administration and warranted a reply from Nixon that would not only “come down very hard” on the Soviets but would press the Kremlin to spell out its (p.93) views on what the Arabs would commit themselves to if Israel agreed to a cease-fire and withdrew from the occupied territories.26

For Kissinger, moreover, there seemed to be no doubt in his mind that Moscow had already decided to ratchet up tensions by sending weapons and personnel to the region. He warned Nixon that for the Soviets to provide Egypt with “effective means” to offset Israeli supremacy, they would have to insert their own people into “more exposed combat positions” and “supplement” Egyptian pilots with Soviet “volunteers.” Another possibility Kissinger feared was the development of an air defense system similar to that employed by North Vietnam, which would entail saturating areas with SA-2 missile sites and the use of more conventional antiaircraft systems to protect against Israeli planes flying at lower altitudes.27

Even if the Politburo proceeded with the scenario Kissinger laid out, however, it still, in his mind, did not explain the “diffuse” nature of the Soviet threat. In fact, the more Kissinger reflected on the Kosygin letter, the more “inept” and, for that reason, “disturbing” he found it. In his third memo to the president analyzing the letter in less than a week, Kissinger argued that what made the Soviet warning so surprising was that there was very little upside for the Kremlin to get Israel to desist in its attacks. If the cease-fire was not restored, as seemed likely in view of Moscow's inability to deliver their clients, the Soviets were “stuck” with their threat to “provide means for a rebuff.” But, he added, sending more equipment, even if it was more advanced, was unlikely to encourage the Israelis to curtail their deep-penetration bombing of Egyptian territory. “So the onus of escalation is on the Soviets and the Kosygin letter has added to its weight,” he concluded. Nixon concurred with Kissinger's assessment: “I agree,” he scribbled on the top of Kissinger's memo. “Confused men do the unexpected and wrong things.”28

It was exactly because of the “unexpectedness” of the Kosygin letter that the White House gave the utmost consideration on how to respond to such a threat. On February 4, Nixon replied to Kosygin, rejecting his interpretation of the events and placing responsibility for Israel's deep-penetration raids squarely on Nasser's inability to curtail the fedayeen attacks against Israel. Any implication that the United States had been a party to or had encouraged violations of the cease-fire was “without foundation,” he charged, and he warned that the United States would carefully monitor the (p.94) military balance in the Middle East and would “not hesitate to provide arms to friendly states as the need arises.” The president concluded the letter by rejecting the notion that Israel would have to withdraw before there was a “full agreement” between the parties on all elements of a peace settlement, and reminded the Soviet premier that the Rogers Plan met the “legitimate concerns” of both sides on all key questions, including withdrawal.29

The president, however, did not stop there. Despite seeking Soviet cooperation on Vietnam, arms control, and other areas of mutual concern, he wanted to make sure that the United States did not appear a paper tiger in the Middle East or that he was too preoccupied with Vietnam to deal with the events in the region. As his advisers prepared the president's first annual report to Congress on foreign policy, Nixon made sure the report included a stern warning on the Middle East that would grab the Kremlin's attention. When the report arrived on Congress's doorsteps in mid-February, the message was quite clear: “The United States would view any effort by the Soviet Union to seek predominance in the Middle East as a matter of grave concern.” He added that “any effort by an outside power to exploit local conflict for its own advantage or to seek a special position of its own would be contrary to that goal.”30

At the same time, Kissinger indicated his concern over the potential US-Soviet confrontation in the Middle East by organizing two separate meetings of the Washington Special Actions Group (WSAG)—the NSC subcommittee for contingency planning and crisis management—to develop a strategy in the event that Moscow openly assumed responsibility for Egypt's defense. During its first meeting on February 9, Kissinger indicated that he felt it was “essential we make sure our plans were in order” and that “all possible eontingences” be examined. He ordered the development of a US position for responding to Soviet moves in Egypt and asked both the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency to assess the overall power balance in the region, pointing out that the United States could not afford to stand back in the face of Soviet aggression. “This would in effect be an extension of the Brezhnev doctrine to the Mid-East,” he said, “drawing the UAR symbolically into the area of Soviet predominance.”31

When the WSAG convened again two days later, there remained widespread concern that should the Soviet Union assume responsibility for the (p.95) Egyptian defenses there was little the United States could do to counter the move other than to supply Israel with a new shipment of Phantoms. Yet even that move, the WSAG acknowledged, could “blow the place apart” and could force Moscow to respond with its naval forces in the Mediterranean. Just as important was the glaring fact that militarily the Soviets would be left in a superior position in the event that a crisis in the Middle East erupted. A CIA National Intelligence Estimate on Soviet policies in the Middle East prepared in February concluded that the Soviet military presence in the region is “likely to prove durable” and that “radical nationalist forces” will continue to receive Moscow's support.32 “We could mount a strike,” said air force lieutenant general John W. Vogt during the February 11 meeting of the WSAG, “but if the Soviets responded they could rapidly outbid us.”33

One conclusion that certainly emerged from the two WSAG meetings was the potential arms race likely to erupt in the Middle East if a cease-fire was not quickly reached. Writing to the president on February 10, Kissinger again warned that that “substantial numbers” of Soviet “technicians” were likely to arrive in Cairo to assist Egyptian ground-to-air defense systems; that Soviet pilots could assume responsibility for Egyptian air defenses; and that new “offensive weapons systems,” such as surface-to-surface missiles, could be installed to thwart continued Israeli missions inside Egypt. If any of these steps were taken, he explained, the administration had to consider seriously whether it could afford to let Moscow “openly” assume responsibility for the defenses of a Middle Eastern country without responding. “So far we have indicated our determination not to let the local arms balance shift against Israel,” he wrote. “But if the Soviets enter the picture, more may be required and our response would assume a direct anti-Soviet character.”34

Thus, hoping to avert what quickly emerged as a showdown between the superpowers, Kissinger summoned Dobrynin to the White House to discuss how to defuse the unfolding crisis in the Middle East. Kissinger assured the ambassador that the president attached the “utmost importance” to Kosygin's message and gave “special attention” to the Soviet threat to adopt measures to ensure that Arab countries had the capabilities to repel Israel. But he also made it clear that the president would be especially troubled if he were to learn that Moscow had dispatched its military personnel to Arab countries.35 Kissinger also suggested that given the fact that the Two Power (p.96) talks between the State Department and Soviet ambassador ended unsuccessfully, Moscow and Washington should “bypass the usual diplomatic channels” and therefore should discuss the Middle East situation through the “confidential Soviet Ambassador-Kissinger channel,” not point-by-point as Dobrynin had done with Sisco and Rogers, but in much broader terms. “Wouldn't it still be possible to do something to alleviate the situation and find ways to make some progress on the settlement issue?”36

Dobrynin would not admit it during the meeting, but Kissinger's reaction was exactly what the Soviets had wanted. As soon as he returned to the embassy, he gleefully dashed off a telegram to the Foreign Ministry indicating that Kosygin's letter “obviously troubled” the president and had forced the White House to depart from its “very convenient position” of using Israeli military action to exert diplomatic pressure on the Arab countries. Dobrynin encouraged his bosses to get tough with the administration and “exploit” Nixon's fear of further Soviet military involvement in the Middle East: “We can make use of Nixon's aforementioned interest especially if, in this connection, the U.S. Government could be informed … of our pilots' appearing in the UAR (for example, to defend Egypt strictly within its own borders). Under current conditions, such a prospect could perhaps turn out to be the most effective way to compel Nixon to look seriously at the Middle East situation and at his own U.S. position in this regard.”

Of course, Dobrynin recognized the possibility that the United States could just as easily respond by increasing American shipments of Phantom aircraft to Israel to offset the additional Soviet weapons and personnel. But he firmly believed that for Nixon to take such measures at a time when Israeli aircraft were attacking Arab countries was extremely remote. “The Arab world, even the so-called ‘moderate countries,’ would never forgive the current President, and U.S. prestige there would be completely undermined for a long time,” the Soviet ambassador argued in his telegram. Just as important, though, Dobrynin believed that without a credible threat, the White House had no incentive to pressure the Israelis to desist in its attacks. “One can say with almost complete certainty that another discussion with Kissinger of the main issues pertaining to a settlement is unlikely to produce any kind of result. The Americans will adhere to their well-known positions.”37 (p.97)

The First Soviet Threat, January–May 1970

Kissinger and Dobrynin in the Map Room of the White House. (Nixon Presidential Library)

(p.98) The problem for the Nixon administration, therefore, was how to call for cessation of hostilities between Egypt and Israel without also appearing to capitulate to Soviet demands. On February 11, Jacob Beam, the US ambassador in Moscow, spent nearly two hours with Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko attempting to reach a compromise on the escalating problem in the Middle East. Beam informed Gromyko that Washington favored “scrupulous adherence” by both sides to United Nations cease-fire resolutions but warned that if Moscow introduced “more sophisticated weaponry” or took other steps of an “extraordinary nature,” the United States would have “no alternative” but to consider steps to restore the military balance favorable to Israel.38

Two days later, Undersecretary of State Elliot Richardson quietly summoned Rabin to the State Department to encourage his government to agree to a cease-fire. Richardson explained that the recent developments had created a “critical” and in many ways “intractable” situation not only between Egypt and Israel but also for the United States and the Soviet Union. But Rabin did not seem interested in trying to promote US-Soviet relations. He replied that his government had to consider its own position in the Middle East, not just the tensions that continued fighting would cause in US-Soviet relations, and he insisted that Kosygin's letter made it even more necessary to convince Nasser that the War of Attrition was far more costly to him than it was to Israel. Rabin added that it was important that his government “bring realities home” to the Egyptian people that Israel would not tolerate further casualties along the Suez Canal. “To stop now would be a sign of weakness,” he added, “particularly in light of [the] recent Kosygin approach.”39

Operation Kavkaz

Rabin's bold assertions would not last long. On March 17, just a little over a month after having so confidently encouraged his leadership to continue the deep-penetration bombing, despite calls from the United States to agree to a cease-fire, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) informed the Israeli military attaché in Washington that a “substantial shipment” of Soviet arms had arrived in Egypt, including ten sites of SA-3 surface-to-air-missiles—the (p.99) most advanced Soviet antiaircraft system. The missiles were accompanied, according to the DIA report, by fifteen hundred Russian “experts,” quickly interpreted by American officials as merely the “first installment of a major Soviet military move” in the Middle East that would no doubt be followed up by additional Soviet troops to Egypt and possibly Syria.40

The Soviet intervention in the Egyptian-Israeli War of Attrition, known as Operation Kavkaz, proved to be one of the most significant military operations outside the Warsaw Pact the Soviet Union had ever made, and it was no doubt a clear sign of Soviet frustration over Israel's continued success over its Arab client. Before 1970, the Soviets had often threatened to send its combat forces to the Middle East in Arab-Israeli crises, but they had always showed restraint for fear of confrontation with the United States. During the 1956 Suez Crisis, for example, Moscow sent letters to the governments in Great Britain, France, and Israel insisting that the Soviets would use force to “crush the aggressors and restore peace” to the Middle East, but they did not intervene out of concern that the United States might respond by resisting the concurrent Soviet invasion of Hungary.41 In 1967, the Soviets had plans for a naval landing on Israeli shores to support the Arab states, but the Kremlin later aborted the mission when it became evident that President Johnson would resist.42 And following the Six-Day War, the Kremlin helped rebuild Egypt's army and continued to train its pilots but rejected repeated requests by Nasser to dispatch Soviet pilots to Egypt for fear of escalating the conflict into a superpower confrontation.43

What made this situation different, however, was Moscow's belief that the United States would not respond militarily to its intervention in Egypt. Kremlin leaders concluded that with Washington increasingly preoccupied by the Vietnam War and still seeking Soviet cooperation on arms control and European security, Washington would avoid taking steps that would lead to a superpower confrontation in the Middle East. It was also fair for the Kremlin to reason that since the United States failed to respond military to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, it would not make a stand in the present crisis. As Dobrynin wrote in a telegram to the Foreign Ministry, “Even if we currently have no plans to deploy our crews with Egypt's air-defense system, we should—in the Embassy's view—make use of this issue for political and diplomatic ends, to put pressure on the Nixon administration now.”44

(p.100) Preparations for Operation Kavkaz, we now know, had been in the works for some time. Beginning in the summer of 1969, after months of watching Egypt suffer significant losses to Israel's “flying artillery,” air defense units from Moscow, Leningrad, Byelorussia, and Dnieperpetrovsk were organized to be sent to Egypt sometime later that year. The units were composed of a SA-3 brigade, along with two regiments (roughly seventy planes and one hundred pilots) of MiG-21 intercept planes, and SA-7 personnel antiaircraft missiles. By December 1969, approximately ten thousand men had been chosen for Operation Kavkaz, and the division's air defense units were being sent to the Ushuluk training area in Kazakhstan.45 It was also during December that Brezhnev told an Egyptian delegation led by Vice President Anwar Sadat that the Kremlin had selected more than sixty Soviet pilots to go to Egypt within a month under the name of “experts” and promised to dispatch a large number of SA-3s, as well as an “additional batch” of missiles to defend major Egyptian cities and towns against Israeli air attacks. “Such missiles would be effective against low-flying aircraft,” Brezhnev asserted, “and would be accompanied by about 1,000 Soviet military personnel to operate them in the first phase of the action.”46

Nasser urged Brezhnev to make the operation overt, but the Soviet leader objected, fearing a reciprocal response by the United States. Accordingly, Soviet soldiers (and eventually pilots) were disguised in Egyptian uniforms and their aircraft painted with Egyptian markings to conceal the nature of the mission. In most instances, Soviet pilots did not cross over into Israeli-controlled territory. “The pilots were forbidden to cross certain boundaries,” defense minister Marshal Grechko said years later of the instructions the pilots had to respect. “If you fly across the Canal or Gulf [of Suez] you're not longer ours.”47

The Soviets attempted to conceal their new military commitment to Egypt by simultaneously beginning a new diplomatic offensive that would produce an Egyptian-Israeli cease-fire. The Kremlin hoped that it could keep the military aspects of the operation secret until its antiaircraft systems and personnel were firmly in place, leaving Egypt in a stronger position militarily vis-à-vis Israel by the time the cease-fire was reached. Egypt could then break the cease-fire at a later date if it desired, leaving Israel at a great disadvantage.

(p.101) Early signs of the strategy appeared in a session of the Four Power talks at the United Nations on March 5 when the Soviets rather suddenly began to indicate their willingness to resume a “constructive dialogue” with the United States after weeks of attacking American officials in that forum. During the meeting, Yacov Malik, the Soviet permanent representative to the United Nations, set forth in detail for the first time his country's reactions to the United States peace proposal of December 18 dealing with Jordan, which contained language almost identical to that contained in the Rogers Plan. He stated explicitly that Moscow would accept “minor rectifications” of the Israeli-Jordanian border and agreed to language calling for the mutual recognition between Egypt and Israel, as well as the right to live in peace.48 Two days later, Foreign Minister Gromyko cemented the plan with instructions to Dobrynin to bring the cease-fire proposal to the United States and conduct a series of talks with the American side on Soviet proposals for a settlement in the Middle East “based on the unfolding situation.”49

Had American intelligence not detected the missile systems and personnel, it is quite clear that the Soviets would have succeeded in their deceptive plan. Kissinger, in fact, concluded that the cease-fire offer, which Dobrynin presented to him at the White House on March 10,50 proved that “our policy of relative firmness has paid off” and demonstrated that the Soviets were concerned to “defuse the growing appearance of confrontation, which they themselves launched with the Kosygin letter.”51 In a meeting with Rabin on March 12, Kissinger asked Israel to cease its deep-penetration raids and immediately agree to a de facto cease-fire. To entice the Israelis to accept the Soviet offer, he informed the ambassador that the United States would agree to replace Israeli aircraft losses during the period 1969–1971 and in the longer term would supply the major part of the Israeli hardware request should there be “more significant” Soviet arms shipments into Egypt.52 The Israelis accepted the cease-fire offer on March 17 but withdrew their agreement within hours on learning from the Pentagon of the arrival in Egypt of the SA-3s and the fifteen hundred Russian “experts.”53

The Israelis were not the only ones, however, who felt deceived by the Soviet maneuver. Both Nixon and Kissinger were furious that the Kremlin had used the ruse of a cease-fire to conceal the fact that they were making a major military move in the Middle East. Indeed, just hours before Nixon (p.102) received the news about the arrival of the Soviet forces and equipment in Egypt, he had dictated a tough memorandum to Kissinger in which he made it clear that he expected the Israelis to accept the Soviet cease-fire proposal. Obviously frustrated that Israel's continued shelling of Egyptian territory threatened the prospects for détente with the Soviets, Nixon wanted the message sent that Israel should stop relying on what he called the “peace at any price” Democrats in Congress—Mike Mansfield, William Fulbright, and Stuart Symington—who professed to support Israel almost unconditionally but who were “very weak reads” and would “cut and run” when any Middle East conflict “stares them straight in the face.”54

Yet once the Soviet ploy became apparent, the president quickly changed his tone, worried that the US offer to resupply Israeli aircraft losses would invite continued deep-penetration raids on Egypt and could lead to a broader regional conflict. “I would be remiss in my duty if I did not tell you that our course involves the most serious dangers of a Middle East war and of a profound misunderstanding by the Soviets,” Kissinger wrote to Nixon following a telephone conversation with Rabin late on March 17. “The Israelis are getting desperate. Convinced that they have nothing to lose, they may well attack.”55

Nixon understood the dangers of a looming Middle East war and the potential it would have to draw the superpowers into a confrontation there, but he was not about to back down in the face of Soviet aggression. The following day, March 18, he invited Rabin to join him for a meeting in his private office in the Executive Office Building. He wanted the ambassador to know that he remained committed to maintaining the power balance in Israel's favor. “Within our bureaucracy, there are many who don't agree,” said Nixon. “They think our real interests in the Middle East lie with the Arabs but those others don't have my power.” More important, though, Nixon wanted the Israelis to know that the United States would not stand in the way should the Israelis feel the need to attack the new Soviet installations. He also left Rabin with a message to take back to Jerusalem that could profoundly alter the conflict: “I am aware of the Soviet SA-3s and I hope you knock them out. You can't let them build up.”56

Rabin was not the type of person who displayed much emotion or was prone to passionate outbursts. Nor did Rabin ever express his gratitude for (p.103) the support the United States continued to show his country. “Yitzhak Rabin had many extraordinary qualities, but the gift of human relations was not one of them,” Kissinger later wrote of the ambassador. “If he had been handed the entire United States Strategic Air Command as a free gift he would have a) affected the attitude that at last Israel was getting its due, and b) found some technical shortcoming in the airplanes that made his accepting them a reluctant concession to us.” Yet even Rabin could not contain his response to the president's suggestion to take out the SA-3s: “Attack the Russians?” Rabin blurted out, totally “flabbergasted” at the potential consequences such an action could invite.

The president did not reply to the ambassador's outburst, but all the better in Rabin's opinion. “I didn't want him to elaborate on the subject,” he later wrote of the bizarre exchange with Nixon. “If the President said, ‘No, do not attack them under any circumstances!’ and developments later made it imperative for Israel to destroy the missiles, she would run the risk of defying the President of the United States and disrupting relations with her strongest ally,” said Rabin.57 It was highly doubtful that Israel would ever deliberately attack the Russians given that the Soviet Union now had the capabilities in the region to deliver a fierce response.

Kissinger, moreover, also felt the need to hit back at Soviets. In the thirteen months since he had established the back channel with the Soviet ambassador, Dobrynin had always been honest and up-front with him, which allowed the two to work on a range of topics of mutual interests unencumbered by the normal bureaucratic channels. For Dobrynin to double-cross him by offering a cease-fire proposal while at the same time Soviet military equipment and personnel were being sent to Egypt was a cheap stunt. The move, he believed, was reminiscent of the tactics employed by Moscow during the Cuban Missile Crisis and warranted a firm “dressing down.”58

Kissinger delivered his rebuke of the Soviet tactic in a meeting with Dobrynin on March 20. He explained that the White House had taken the offer of a cease-fire from the Soviet government with “extreme seriousness” and had even encouraged the Israelis to accept the deal. But as a result of the new developments the president canceled his request to the Israelis for a cease-fire, and the matter was now off. More important, though, Kissinger (p.104) believed that the Soviet stunt could have a detrimental impact on Washington's ability to negotiate with Moscow. “We are at an important turning point,” he explained to Dobrynin, obviously upset about the entire episode. “We were prepared to deal with the Soviet Union precisely, correctly, unemotionally, and thoroughly in the direction of détente, if the Soviet Union would forgo its policy of attempting to squeeze us at every opportunity.”59

Dobrynin professed to have no knowledge of any missiles being sent to Egypt, and he rejected Kissinger's accusations. “To equate this issue with the piratical raids by Israeli aircraft is like portraying burglars who systematically rob other people's homes as the injured parties when the homeowner decides to install a lock to keep the burglars out,” he retorted, according to the account posted in his journal.60 But, he inquired, if the missiles were defensive, why did the president object?

“Because it might be that the ceasefire was just being used to improve the Egyptian military position,” Kissinger quickly shot back. Kissinger added that if the Soviet Union wanted to make a more equitable solution, then it should reconsider its position. Until then, he argued, the United States felt no obligation to ask Israel to accept the cease-fire proposal. “The introduction of Soviet military personnel could only lead to a Vietnam for the Soviet Union,” he warned the ambassador, “since all we had to do was send in equipment which could be matched only by personnel.”61

Although Kissinger took a tough line privately with Dobrynin, Nixon wanted to send a public message to Moscow that he was not interested in ratcheting up tensions in the Middle East. On March 23, he hastily arranged a press conference at the White House and announced that it was simply “too early” to determine whether the recent deliveries of the SA-3s to Egypt changed the military balance in the region, maintaining that one of his primary objectives for the Middle East was to “reduce the flow of arms” into the region.62 “I hoped that since Israel was already in a strong military position, I could slow down the arms race without tipping the fragile military balance in the region,” he later wrote in his memoirs about his decision to postpone the delivery of Phantom jets to Israel. “I also believed that American influence in the Middle East increasingly depended on our renewing diplomatic relationships with Egypt and Syria, and this decision would help promote that goal.”63

(p.105) Listening to Nixon's remarks from the Soviet embassy in Washington, Dobrynin was highly skeptical that Nixon's refusal to provide Israel with additional aircraft was a model of restraint. “Judging by our own observations and information from a variety of sources,” he wrote in a telegram back to Moscow after the press conference, “the issue of Soviet crews for SAM-3 [SA-3] missiles … represents the new factor obliging Nixon to take action.” As far as the US government was concerned, Dobrynin believed, the appearance of Soviet crews for these missiles would constitute a “qualitatively new factor” in the entire Middle East situation, since it would inevitably lead to the deployment of Soviet pilots in Egypt to defend against the new installations. “The prospect in itself of the appearance of Soviet missile crews brings the Nixon administration face-to-face with the difficult question of what the U.S. would do in that eventuality: to grant the Israelis additional ‘Phantoms’ in response or deploy American air-defense installations in Israel,” he concluded. “In both cases the consequences for the U.S. in the Arab world could be catastrophic.”64

Dobrynin had good reason to be skeptical. The president, however, was not about to let the Soviet Union off the hook. Following a meeting of the National Security Council on March 25, he met with CIA director Richard Helms and instructed him to step up covert operations against Moscow any place in the world he could find. “He was as emphatic on this as I ever heard him on anything,” Helms recorded immediately after the meeting. Though it was not entirely clear as to exactly what kind of “black operations” the president had in mind, he wanted Helms to be “as imaginative as we could,” including an increase of the use of Radio Free Europe, among other ideas. He also agreed with Helms's assertion that the United States “should give up nothing which constituted a pressure on the Soviet Union … without exacting a specific price in return,” pointing out that “we had had nothing from the Russians in the recent past except assistance on the shape of the table at the Paris Peace talks.” “Just go ahead,” Nixon instructed. “Hit the Soviets, and hit them hard.”65

“The More Perilous Crisis”

Nixon had other reasons for eschewing a protracted arms race with the Soviets in the Middle East. Not only did he still hold out the possibility of a (p.106) major summit with the Soviet leadership in Moscow sometime during the year, but beginning in late March, the president shifted his attention almost entirely away from the simmering crisis in the Middle East to the escalating problems in Cambodia. Earlier in the month, Cambodian general and prime minister Lon Nol orchestrated a coup against the long-standing leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk, throwing the country into violent civil war. Although Lon Nol was a staunch anticommunist with ties to the South Vietnamese and American forces, and opposed the presence of North Vietnamese forces in Cambodia, the White House initially appeared reluctant to throw its weight behind the new regime. Speaking at a news conference on March 21, Nixon described the situation in Cambodia as “unpredictable” and “fluid,” and insisted that although the United States had established a “temporary” relationship with the new government in Phnom Penh there could be a possibility of Sihanouk's return. “I think any speculation with regards to which way this government is going to turn, what will happen to Prince Sihanouk when he returns, would both be premature and not helpful.”66

Privately, though, the administration took a number of steps to signal that they welcomed Lon Nol as an ally in Southeast Asia. Shortly after the coup, Nixon instructed the CIA director to develop and implement “a plan for maximum assistance to pro-US elements in Cambodia”67 and began the initial plans for ground operations against North Vietnamese sanctuaries inside Cambodia.68 Over the coming weeks, the White House approved ten million dollars in secret aid to Lon Nol and extended recognition to his government.69 On April 22, just a little more than a week before the president authorized the American incursion into Cambodia, Nixon wrote Kissinger to make it clear where he stood: “I think we need a bold move in Cambodia … to show that we stand with Lon Nol. I do not believe he is going to survive. There is, however, some chance that he might and in any event we must do something symbolic to help him survive.”70

That the White House appeared entirely preoccupied with the events in Southeast Asia was most evident to the Soviet ambassador in Washington. After two separate meetings with Kissinger in early April, Dobrynin informed the Kremlin that “in terms of urgency a Middle East settlement is not currently item No. 1 on the White House foreign policy agenda.” For Nixon (p.107) and Kissinger, he argued, “that issue continued to be Vietnam.” At the same time, though, Dobrynin did point out that Kissinger's persistent questioning about Soviet military personnel inside Egypt was “noteworthy” and was “forcing the White House—perhaps for the first time—to take stock of events in the Middle East seriously and with increasing wariness.” The ambassador added that during his conversations with the national security adviser he criticized the fact that the United States was not giving the “requisite priority attention” to seeking an early peace settlement in the Middle East while the Soviet government had proposed a cease-fire to quell the violence in the region.71

With Washington focused on the unfolding events in Laos and Cambodia and the White House showing no signs that it would challenge the latest Soviet moves inside the UAR, Moscow pressed for further strategic gains in the Middle East. On April 18, the Soviets completed the final stage of Operation Kavkaz by unleashing Russian pilots to participate in the air defense of Egypt. That day, two Israeli Phantom jets returning from a routine reconnaissance mission inside Egypt were chased down by eight MiG-21s all manned by “Russian-speaking pilots,” according to Israeli intercepts of the mission. The Israeli planes were not shot down by the Soviets, but the encounter was stunning nonetheless. “It was a quantum leap in Soviet intervention,” historian David Korn concluded in his study of the War of Attrition. The move showed that Moscow was willing to engage the Israelis and openly challenge a key American ally.72

It is possible that Soviet decision to make its mission inside Egypt overt could have been a preemptive move to what Moscow believed the United States was about to do to communist forces in Southeast Asia. One of the reasons the Kremlin brought Ambassador Dobrynin back to Moscow during the second week in April was to get his personal assessment of what the Americans were planning. More important, however, Moscow simply could no longer tolerate Israel's continued attacks on its ally in Cairo and on its own personnel inside Egypt. Just days before the Soviet-Israeli encounter, in fact, Brezhnev gave a speech lambasting “imperialist” designs in the Middle East and made it clear that the socialist countries were not only “loyal friends” of the Arab peoples but would provide the Arab states “all the necessary assistance to frustrate the plans of the aggressors in the Middle East.” (p.108) In concluding his comments on Soviet foreign policy, the general secretary explicitly warned that Israel's “aggressive” policy “placed in jeopardy the security of its own people, whose future lies in good neighborliness and not in antagonism to the Arabs.”73

The Israelis guarded the news that Soviet pilots had taken an active role in the Egyptian air defense for nearly a week, through the Passover holiday, but quickly saw this development as a way to extract more arms shipments from the Americans. On the evening of April 24, Rabin met with Kissinger at the White House and informed him of the recent encounter with the Russian pilots. According to Israeli estimates there were at least fifty Soviet pilots involved flying from three bases, two southwest of Cairo and one near Alexandria. Just as important, Rabin told Kissinger, was the “corollary” to the Soviet move, whereby the Egyptians had increased their air attacks on the Israeli positions in the Sinai. The ambassador concluded by stating “emphatically” and “with some emotion” that this was no longer an issue of Israeli-Egyptian military balance. “Now there is a new element,” he said. “Israel wants more planes.”74

The Israelis, too, felt that the policies adopted by the administration over the preceding months, especially President Nixon's decision not to provide Israel with additional aircraft following the discovery of the SA-3s, had encouraged Moscow to adopt such an aggressive policy in the region without fear of American retribution. Rabin told Kissinger that “the Soviets will fill a vacuum whenever they feel one exists” and asked for a prompt reaction from the administration to the latest Soviet move. He also told Joe Sisco at the State Department that the Kremlin's decision to fly combat missions over Egypt constituted a “drastic and significant” change to the power balance in the Middle East and maintained that the Nixon administration had an obligation to provide Israel with additional aircraft based on the commitments President Nixon had made to him back in March.75 Three days later, Prime Minister Meir sent Nixon an emotional letter pleading for a “clear and vigorous public American reaction on the highest level of authority.”76

Although Rabin had been in Washington only a brief time, he knew that these closed-door meetings with Kissinger and Sisco would not make the president focus on this issue when he clearly was preoccupied with the (p.109) events in Southeast Asia. Thus, on April 29, in an effort to increase public pressure on the White House, he distributed a paper to members of Congress, the news media, and numerous private Americans and organizations detailing the Soviet Union's new “combatant” role against Israel. The report explained that Soviet pilots based on Egyptian airfields had been carrying out “combat missions” against Israeli planes, with instructions to “intercept and engage” them in battle. The Israeli paper also left little doubt that the Soviets, bent on aggrandizement, had systematically wrecked prospects for a relaxation of tensions in the Middle East: “This development is the culmination. ‥ of a progression of escalatory steps undertaken by the Soviet Union in which an increasing disposition is being displayed to assume direct combatant functions against Israel.”77

Nixon was not averse to reconsidering his decision on Israeli arms requests, but he viscerally opposed receiving any pressure from the Israelis or Jewish groups while he was absorbed in planning the Cambodian operation. Kissinger made this point to Rabin the following morning, April 30, the very day the Cambodian mission was set to commence. In a brief, seven-minute meeting Kissinger made sure that the ambassador understood that despite problems in areas of the world that appeared to be very different, the “critical situation” in Cambodia was closely linked to the problems in the Middle East and made attacks against the administration's policy “most unfortunate” since they could not but have concomitant effect on the administration's attitude with respect to the Middle East. “It is inconceivable that the United States could be crushed in one place and be expected to take a firm stand with even higher risks in another,” he said.78

If Kissinger had hoped that his conversation with the Israeli envoy would quiet the storm, he was sadly mistaken. Over the next two weeks American newspapers and weekly magazines were filled with stories and editorials detailing the “ominous escalation toward the Big Power confrontation” that had emerged in the Middle East and were openly critical of Washington's perceived weakness in the region. “It [is] doubtful that a U.S. warning, even if Washington decided to issue it, would compel the Soviets to diminish their growing involvement,” Time magazine reported. Even in the midst of the Cambodian incursion, the New York Times editorialized that the continuing crisis in the Middle East remained “more perilous” than the (p.110) escalating Indochina conflict. “This step toward direct intervention by the Soviet Union on the Arab side,” the Times concluded, “has forced the United States to reconsider its restrained policy regarding additional arms aid to Israel and raises the specter of a Big Power confrontation in the Middle East.”79

Still, Kissinger knew that even though Cambodia was the administration's top priority at the moment, the Soviets had taken a step in the overall contest for preeminence in the Middle East that the United States could not afford to bow to or ignore. During the first week of May, while domestic protests against the Cambodian invasion erupted, he instructed his staff to prepare a series of policy options to confront the growing Soviet threat in the Middle East. Specifically, he wanted to know whether the United States was prepared to join a US-USSR power contest and whether the administration should prepare to confront Moscow by military force via Israel as a proxy or by direct US military involvement.80

When members of the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council met on May 8 to discuss these questions, it was evident that Washington had few plausible options for directly confronting the Soviet Union while at the same time leaving the door open to continue working with Moscow on issues like arms control and ending the Vietnam War. If they made it known that President Nixon was preparing for a direct US-Soviet military confrontation, the United States would strengthen its relationship with Israel and demonstrate that the administration did not lack determination regardless of the consequences for its positions elsewhere in the area. The problem, as the wave of antiwar protests across the country demonstrated, was that it was almost inconceivable the president could convince the American people to support military action in the Middle East when they would not support it in Southeast Asia. “Without domestic support,” one study concluded, “the Administration might have to back down in a crunch and therefore should avoid one. Unless the US is prepared to attack Soviet forces, it should not assume that a show of force will produce a negotiated settlement.”81

Kissinger left the meeting obviously frustrated with the seeming lack of options, and he felt that a new strategy was needed. In a telephone conversation with Sisco on May 11, he pleaded with the assistant secretary (p.111) of state, who had been the architect of much of the administration's Middle East policy, that “we are making a Middle East war” and increasing the “domestic storms” against the president.82 The following day, he proposed to Nixon an entire reevaluation of American policy in the Middle East. In two separate memoranda, Kissinger conceded that the basic foundations of US policy in the Middle East since the beginning of the administration “had been wrong across the board.” The assumption that “major power talks” would break the impasse between the parties had not brought any of the parties to modify their positions in “any significant way,” he argued. The belief that the Soviets would limit its involvement in Egypt and press Nasser to adopt a “more positive attitude” had also proved incorrect. And the notion that Israel would accept a “properly guarded U.S. position,” he concluded, had not just been “flatly rejected” but had brought on the administration only increasing pressure to support Israel military and economically whether or not there was progress in the negotiations. “Perhaps it is time to shift our attention from the two-power and four-power exercises to direct action vis-à-vis the principal actors—Israel, the Palestinians, and the UAR.”83

Although Kissinger was certainly correct to point out that a new approach was needed, by the time his memo reached the president's desk it was too late. The Soviet Union had outmaneuvered the United States in the Middle East without any retribution and had left both Washington and Jerusalem searching for new strategies to combat the Soviet threat. By the end of May, the SA-3 antiaircraft missiles were firmly emplaced inside Egypt, more than 150 Soviet pilots were aggressively defending Egyptian cities, and at least ten thousand Soviet “experts” had been sent to Egypt to defend against continued Israeli attacks. The Israelis, moreover, were no longer in the strategic position to penetrate beyond the Suez Canal zone without risking direct confrontation with the Soviets, and the Egyptians no longer felt as apprehensive about Israeli air raids. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan perhaps put it best when he said that the new situation could lead to “something we did not intend—our attacking the Russians and Russians attacking our aircraft. In whatever words you may wish to define it, this means war with the Russians.”84

For the United States, the situation was equally dangerous. NSC staffer William Hyland aptly described the dilemma the Soviets moves in the Middle East had left for the White House:

(p.112) One of the dangerous consequences of their forward policy in the Middle East is that having accumulated a large vested interest, they have had to devise new ways to protect their gains. It is not only a question of Soviet willingness to accept a much higher level of risk, it is their willingness to do so in a situation over which their control is limited, and in which no one, including the Kremlin, can foresee the outcome. This is why it is a dangerous path the Soviets have embarked on, and why we must treat it with the utmost seriousness.

… Having scored an immense psychological gain, with apparent impunity, it has generally been the Russians tactic first of all to consolidate their gains, and then press forward, testing the ground they move. Clearly, there is no evidence from the Soviets that their bargaining position has softened. To seize on minor changes in old Soviet formulas as ‘movement’ is a delusion. If anything, the Soviet position is tougher now.

… The toughening can only spring from their estimate of what their moves have cost thus far and what the future risks and gains are. Looking at our position and the Israeli standdown from deep raids, the Soviets must conclude that we have acquiesced in their direct intervention…. Thus the question of whether the Soviets will in fact, begin to inch forward becomes a crucial determinant. The policy issue is: are the Soviets more likely to extend their protective umbrella if we proceed with the sale of aircraft of Israel, or if we withhold them?85

Combined with the massive Soviet intervention and the president's own problems stemming from the Cambodian operation, it was not even practical to think that a new policy could develop in time to thwart Moscow's recent gains. Even Kissinger, who led the charge for a new American policy in the region, understood the realities of the moment: “The surrounding circumstances prevented the mustering of energies for such a battle. The physical and psychic toll of the Cambodia incursion was too great. Not until Watergate was Nixon so consumed and shaken; he was not prepared to add to his problems.”86


(1) . Avi Shlaim and Raymond Tanter, “Decision Process, Choice, and Consequences: Israel's Deep Penetration Bombing of Egypt, 1970,” World Politics 30 (1978): 483–516.

(2) . David A. Korn, Stalemate: The War of Attrition and Great Power Diplomacy in the Middle East, 1969–1970 (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1992), 176–178; Richard B. Parker, The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 143; 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), 134–135. See map 2.

(3) . Korn, Stalemate, 178.

(4) . Rabin's telegrams to Jerusalem can be found in ISA, MFA, 9360/1, 5969/1, 5969/2.

(5) . Rabin to Jerusalem, Sept. 19, 1969, quoted in Yitzhak Rabin, The Rabin Memoirs, expanded ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 151–152.

(6) . Korn, Stalemate, 173–174; Abba Eban, Personal Witness: Israel Through My Eyes (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1992), 484.

(7) . Ezer Weizman, On Eagles' Wings (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976), 271–272.

(8) . Shlaim and Tanter, “Decision Process, Choice, and Consequences”; Eban, Personal Witness, 482–483.

(9) . Quoted in Bar-Siman-Tov, Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition, 123; Rabin, Memoirs, 165; Korn, Stalemate, 176–183; Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000), 291–292; Shlaim and Tanter, “Decision Process, Choice, and Consequences”; “Israel and Egypt Renew Air Raids,” NYT, Jan. 7, 1970.

(10) . Korn, Stalemate, 180–181; Bar-Siman Tov, Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition, 134–135; James Feron, “Israeli Jets Raid U.A.R. Army Depot in a Cairo Suburb,” NYT, Jan. 14, 1970; Kissinger to Nixon, “Further Background on the Kosygin Letter,” Feb. 6, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 711, CF, EUR, USSR, vol. 7.

(11) . William Hyland to Kissinger, June 8, 1970, FRUS, 1969–1976, vol. 12, doc. 163.

(12) . Andrei Gromyko to Politburo, Apr. 6, 1970, quoted in Anatoly Dobrynin, In Confidence: Moscow's Ambassador to America's Six Cold War Presidents (New York: Times Books, 1995), 212.

(13) . Henry A. Kissinger, “Foreword,” Soviet-American Relations: The Détente Years, 1969–1972, ed. David C. Geyer et al. (Washington, DC: US Department of State, 2007) (hereafter cited as Soviet-American Relations), ix–xviii.

(14) . Dobrynin, In Confidence, 204–205.

(15) . Kissinger-Dobrynin Memcon, July 9, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 489, PTF, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1970.

(16) . Ibid.; Kissinger, “Foreword,” ix.

(17) . Alexei Kosygin to Nixon, Jan. 31, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 340, SF, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1970; Rogers-Kissinger Telcon, Jan. 31, 1970, 9:20 p.m., NARA, NPMS, HAK Telcons, box 4; Kissinger to Nixon, Feb. 1, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 489, PTF, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1970.

(18) . Kosygin to Nixon, Jan. 31, 1970; WHY, 560–561.

(19) . Dima P. Adamsky, “‘Zero-Hour for the Bears’: Inquiring into the Soviet Decision to Intervene in the Egyptian-Israeli War of Attrition, 1969–1970,” Cold War History 6, no. 1 (2006): 115.

(20) . On the Soviets, see Michael B. Oren, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); Yaacov Ro'i, ed., The Soviet Union and the June 1967 Six Day War (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008); and Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, Foxbats over Dimona: The Soviets' Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

(21) . Mohamed Heikal, The Road to Ramadan (New York: Quadrangle, 1975), 83–90.

(22) . Adamsky, “‘Zero-Hour for the Bears,’” 124; 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.

(23) . Hyland to Kissinger, June 8, 1970.

(24) . Kissinger to Nixon, Feb. 6, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 711, CF, EUR, USSR, vol. 7. Although the memo has been declassified in full at NARA, reference to the intercepted conversation was omitted in the recent publication of the memo in FRUS, 1969–1976, vol. 12, 379–380. In a memorandum to Kissinger on February 5, Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the NSC staff concluded that “the interesting intercept of the Brezhnev-Grechko conversation … suggests an emotional reaction to the killing of Soviet officers, and indicates Brezhnev's personal involvement in drafting the [Kosygin] letter.” Ibid.

(25) . Rogers to Nixon, Feb. 2, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 340, SF, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1970.

(26) . Kissinger to Nixon, “Message from Kosygin,” Feb. 1, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 489, PTF, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1970. See also Robert Dallek, Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 220.

(27) . Kissinger to Nixon, Feb. 6, 1970, FRUS, 1969–1976, vol. 12, 380–383.

(28) . Kissinger to Nixon, Feb. 4, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 711, CF, EUR, USSR, vol. 7.

(29) . Nixon to Kosygin, Feb. 4, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 765, PC, Kosygin.

(30) . “Nixon's Report to Congress on Foreign Policy,” NYT, Feb. 19, 1970.

(31) . Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting, Feb. 9, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, H-Files, box H-114, WSAG Minutes (Originals), 1969–1970.

(32) . National Intelligence Estimate, Mar. 5, 1970, FRUS, 1969–1976, vol. 12, 414–432.

(33) . Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting, Feb. 11, 1970, ibid., 384–389.

(34) . Kissinger to Nixon, Feb. 10, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 711, CF, EUR, USSR, vol. 7.

(35) . Kissinger-Dobrynin Memcon, From the Diary of Anatoly Dobrynin, Feb. 10, 1970, Soviet-American Relations, 123–125; WHY, 562.

(36) . Ibid.

(37) . Ibid.

(38) . Telegram 738 from the Embassy in the Soviet Union, Feb. 11, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 711, CF, EUR, USSR, vol. 6.

(39) . Rabin to Meir, Feb. 13, 1970, ISA, MFA, 9360/3; Telegram 023085 to Tel Aviv, Feb. 13, 1970, NARA, RG 59, Central Files, 1970–1973, POL 27 ARB-ISR.

(40) . Rabin-Kissinger Telcon, Mar. 17, 1970, 10:10 p.m., NARA, NPMS, HAK Telcons, box 4.

(41) . “Text of Five Messages Sent by Soviet Union on Fighting in Middle East,” NYT, Nov. 6, 1956; William Jorden, “Moscow Aroused,” NYT, Nov. 6, 1956.

(42) . Isabella Ginor, “The Russians Were Coming: The Soviet Military Threat in the 1967 Six-Day War,” Middle East Review of International Affairs 4, no. 4 (2000): 44–59.

(43) . Adamsky, “‘Zero-Hour for the Bears,’” 115.

(44) . Dobrynin to the USSR Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mar. 22, 1970, AVP RF, f. 059a, op. 7, p. 13, d. 8, 1. 102–109, courtesy US Department of State.

(45) . Adamsky, “‘Zero-Hour for the Bears,’” 124; 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): 1–2.

(46) . Mahmoud Riad, The Struggle for Peace in the Middle East (New York: Quartet Books, 1982), 112–114.

(47) . Ginor, “‘Under the Yellow Arab Helmet,’” 127–156.

(48) . Telegram USUN 356, Mar. 6, 1970, NARA, RG 59, Central Files, 1970–1973, box 2064, POL 27-14 ARAB-ISR, 3/1/70.

(49) . Gromyko's instructions to Dobrynin were attached to a Soviet memorandum of conversation between Kissinger and Dobrynin on March 10. See Soviet-American Relations, doc. 50, n. 4.

(50) . Kissinger-Dobrynin Memcon, Mar. 10, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 489, PTF, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1970.

(51) . Kissinger to Nixon, Mar. 13, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 711, CF, EUR, USSR, vol. 7.

(52) . Kissinger-Rabin Memcon, Mar. 12, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, HAKOF, box 134, CF, ME, Rabin-Kissinger, 1969–1970, vol. 1; WHY, 568–569; Rabin, Memoirs, 169.

(53) . Kissinger-Rabin Memcon, Mar. 17, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, HAKOF, box 134, CF, ME, Rabin-Kissinger, 1969–1970, vol. 1; Rabin-Kissinger Telcon, Mar. 17, 1970, 10:10 p.m.

(54) . Nixon to Kissinger, Mar. 17, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 652, CF, ME, Negotiations.

(55) . Kissinger to Nixon, Mar. 18, 1970, NARA, NMPS, NSCF, box 652, CF, ME, vol. 2, March–May 1970.

(56) . Conversation Between the President and Israeli Ambassador Rabin, Mar. 18, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 612, CF, Israel.

(57) . Ibid.; Rabin, Memoirs, 171–173.

(58) . WHY, 570.

(59) . Kissinger-Dobrynin, Mar. 20, 1970, 2:15 p.m., NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 489, PTF, Dobrynin-Kissinger, 1970, vol. 1 [pt. 2].

(60) . Kissinger-Dobrynin Soviet Memcon, From the Diary of Anatoly Dobrynin, Mar. 20, 1970, Soviet-American Relations, 138–139.

(61) . Kissinger-Dobrynin Memcon, Mar. 20, 1970, 2:15 p.m., NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 489, PTF, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1970.

(62) . The President's News Conference of 21 March 1970, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard Nixon, 1970 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1971), 289–290.

(63) . Richard Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Touchstone, 1980), 480.

(64) . Telegram from Anatoly Dobrynin to the USSR Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mar. 22, 1970, AVP RF, f. 059a, op. 7, p. 13, d. 8, 1. 102–109, courtesy US Department of State.

(65) . Memorandum for the Record, Mar. 25, 1970, FRUS, 1969–1976, vol. 12, 451–452.

(66) . “Transcript of President's News Conference on Foreign and Domestic Matters,” NYT, Mar. 22, 1970; WHY, 464–465; Dallek, Nixon and Kissinger, 190–192.

(67) . Nixon's instructions were written on the bottom of a memorandum from Kissinger on Mar. 19, 1970. See FRUS, 1969–1976, vol. 6, doc. 205, n. 1.

(68) . Alexander Haig to Kissinger, Apr. 3, 1970, ibid., 753–756.

(69) . Kissinger informed Rogers of the president's decision in a telephone conversation on April 21. Rogers replied that he believed Nixon was “making decisions off the drop of a hat. We can make a good case for helping them [the Cambodians ] but we should do it openly.” Ibid., 838.

(70) . Nixon to Kissinger, Apr. 22, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, PPS, box 2, Memorandum from the President, January–December 1970, April 1970. See also WHY, 1484.

(71) . Kissinger-Dobrynin Memcon, From the Diary of Anatoly Dobrynin, Apr. 10, 1970, Soviet-American Relations, 145–148.

(72) . Korn, Stalemate, 197.

(73) . “Excerpts from Brezhnev's Speech on Arms Talks and Other Foreign Policy Issues,” NYT, Apr. 15, 1970, 17; Jim Fazio to Kissinger, Apr. 14, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 711, CF, EUR, USSR, vol. 7.

(74) . Kissinger-Rabin Memcon, Apr. 24, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 606, CF, ME, Israel, vol. 4, March 1–May 21, 1970.

(75) . Telegram 064278 to Tel Aviv, ibid.

(76) . Meir to Nixon, Apr. 27, 1970, ibid.

(77) . “Policy Background: The Soviet Union Assumes Combatant Role Against Israel,” Embassy of Israel, Washington, DC, Apr. 29, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 606, CF, ME, Israel, vol. 4, March 1–May 21, 1970; “Text of the Israeli Statement on Russians,” NYT, Apr. 30, 1970, 8.

(78) . Kissinger-Rabin Memcon, Apr. 30, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, HAKOF, box 134, Rabin/Kissinger, vol. 1.

(79) . “The More Perilous Crisis,” NYT, May 13, 1970; “Relief for Egypt, Anxiety for Israel,” Time, May 11, 1970; James Reston, “Washington: And Now the Middle East Again,” NYT, Apr. 29, 1970; “Reports from U.A.R. Confirm Role of Russian Pilots,” NYT, May 1, 1970, 10; “For U.S. The Pilots Are a Dangerous Challenge,” NYT, May 3, 1970; Stephen Kidman, “Soviets' Growing Role in Egypt Is Linked to Global Policy,” WP, May 3, 1970.

(80) . Saunders to Kissinger, May 7, 1970, NARA, NPMS, H-Files, box H-044, Meeting Files, 1969–1974, Senior Review Group Meetings, folder 4, Review Group–Middle East 5/21/1970.

(81) . Ibid.

(82) . Kissinger-Sisco Telcon, May 11, 1970, 10:40 a.m., NARA, NPMS, HAK Telcons, box 5.

(83) . Kissinger to Nixon, May 12, 1970, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 645, CF, ME, General, vol. 3.

(84) . “Relief for Egypt, Anxiety for Israel,” Time, May 11, 1970.

(85) . Hyland to Kissinger, June 8, 1970.

(86) . WHY, 573.