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The Yom Kippur War

The Yom Kippur War

by William H. Benson

October 9, 2014

     The twin attacks came at 1400 hours on October 9, 1973, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. First, Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, dispatched his troops to cross the Suez canal with the intent to reclaim the Sinai peninsula, land that Israel’s soldiers had seized from Egypt in the Six Day War in June 1967. At the same time on the same day, Syria attacked Israel’s northern border, along the 36-mile-long Golan Heights, also to reclaim land that the Israeli army had seized in 1967.

     After six years, both Egypt and Syria’s governing officials and citizens still felt a grinding humiliation because of the loss of their real estate, land that belonged to them. They wanted it back.  

     Thus, Israel was forced to fight a two-front war that hit its army Pearl-Harbor-style. Defeat appeared inevitable because the state of Israel was unprepared. It “came as a surprise, though it was not unexpected,” wrote the Israeli general, Moshe Dayan. Convinced of its army’s invincibility, Israel had neglected military preparations and drifted into a state of complacency. When told of Egypt’s military build-up on the Suez Canal’s west side, Israel’s officials dismissed it as “training exercises.”

     Only 436 Israeli soldiers were positioned to stop Egypt’s 80,000 soldiers from marching across the Sinai Peninsula. Israel’s 180 tanks were far less than Syria’s 1,400, and Egypt’s 2,000. Nine other Arab states, plus the Soviet Union, supported Egypt and Syria, and so Israel felt alone and unprepared. 

     Because the Soviet Union had provided the tanks, missiles, aircraft, training, arms, and munitions, the Egyptian and Syrians’ Soviet Union-styled massive frontal assault overwhelmed the Israelis. In just four days the Israelis lost one-fifth of their air force, and a third of their tanks. By October 14 the Egyptian army was dug into the Sinai peninsula along a hundred-mile line and set to march north.

     The next night the war changed when Israeli commandoes slipped through a seam in Egypt’s line and then swept north and south to attack the Egyptian army’s rear, a plan devised by Ariel Sharon. Within days the Israelis had encircled Egypt’s army that was now facing annihilation. To prevent that, the Soviet Union and the United States initiated a tentative ceasefire on October 24, but by the war’s end, weeks later, Israel had regained the Sinai peninsula and the Golan Heights.

     How did that happen? How was the Israeli army, so outmanned and outgunned, able to defeat both Syria and Egypt? The person most responsible for this turnabout was President Richard Nixon.

     Because Nixon judged an “Arab victory by Soviet arms,” a political disaster, he decided to supply Israel the tanks and aircraft the army needed. He initiated Operation Nickel Grass, a series of airlifts to carry military supplies from the United States to Israel, and it lasted 32 days, from October 14 until November 15. A CIA official said that “Nixon gave it the greater sense of urgency. He said, ‘You get the stuff to Israel. Now. Now.’”

     He did this at a time when his enemies wanted his head. His vice-president Spiro Agnew had resigned that month due to a scandal. “The Washington Post had put Watergate stories on its front page seventy-nine times.” Congress was threatening impeachment, and inflation was wrecking the economy. At great political cost, Nixon decided that he must assist Israel’s army. 

    The United States Air Force flew 567 missions, and delivered a total of 22,300 tons of supplies. The transports carried their loads over the Atlantic, landed in Portugal’s Azores to refuel, and then flew east, down the middle of the Mediterranean Sea to land in Israel. Israeli soldiers quickly changed the decals and insignias, and sent the tanks, aircraft, and missiles to either the northern or southern front.

     Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister said, “For generations to come, all will be told of the miracle of the immense planes from the United States bringing in the materiel that meant life to our people.” The airlift allowed Israel to reverse its earlier losses, surround Egypt in Sinai, and retake the Golan Heights.

     Historians consider it likely that without Nixon’s support the Egyptians and Syrians would have destroyed the Israeli army and may have exterminated the state of Israel. If Nixon’s enemies had driven him from the White House in August of 1973 instead of August of 1974, those twin disasters may have happened. Instead, Nixon was still around to save Israel, and he did. The historian Paul Johnson wrote that “October 1973 was his finest hour.”

     One wonders about Nixon’s motivation. He was not above uttering hostile anti-Semitic comments, never hesitated to use the crudest of slurs, which his White House tapes recorded, and some argue that he just wanted to defeat the Soviet Union’s allies in the Middle East. Despite his words, his actions indicated that he felt driven to help Israel survive the attacks.

     The historian Steven Ambrose wrote, “Those were momentous events in world history. Whatever the might-have-beens, there is no doubt that Nixon made it possible for Israel to win. He knew that his enemies would never give him credit for saving Israel. He did it anyway.”