Soviet Envoy Warned Nixon and Kissinger Against Mideast War in 1973, Documents Reveal

Soviet ambassador Gromyko warned Nixon and Kissinger just a week before the Yom Kippur War that they could 'all wake up one day and find that there is a real conflagration,' but the Americans didn't heed him.

Twenty years have passed since the breakup of the Soviet Union, which for almost two generations was the main source of support for Arab hostility toward Israel. The Soviets misled - and perhaps were also mistaken - with regard to the issue of Israeli preparations to attack Syria in May 1967, but they were correct regarding intentions, at least those of the General Staff headed by Yitzhak Rabin. The war that emerged out of the crisis led to the great Israeli victory in the Six-Day War.

It was too great a victory: Because of a few too many hours of fighting on the deserted Syrian front, and a few more kilometers gained by Israel on the Golan Heights, the Soviets lost patience and severed diplomatic ties. Israel lost its embassy in Moscow. With it, Israel lost the ability to sense the mood in the Kremlin and to maintain regular channels with authorized spokesmen from the Soviet leadership.

1973 war - Getty Images
Getty Imags

The insight that this was an expensive loss surfaces from another volume of previously classified, recently published documents from the Nixon administration. The high point is the report of a conversation from September 28, 1973, about a week before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Soviet ambassador to Washington Anatoly Dobrynin were guests at the White House. President Richard M. Nixon received them, together with his national security adviser and newly appointed secretary of state, Henry Kissinger.

"And now," said Gromyko, after a discussion of other matters, "just a few words on the Middle East. Your assessment and ours do not fully coincide, even if at first sight it seems that we agree, because both sides feel the situation is complicated and dangerous. But we have a different assessment of the danger because we feel the possibility could not be excluded that we could all wake up one day and find that there is a real conflagration in that area. That has to be kept in mind. Is it worth the risk?"

Nixon and Kissinger failed to take Gromyko's hint, and did not hasten to prevent the war that broke out on October 6, and the oil embargo imposed in its wake.

"Regarding the Middle East, it is a very important priority," declared Nixon. "You say we must realize the danger of waking up one morning and finding a war. But there is also the energy problem. The secretary has it as a direct assignment from me and we will push it, whatever the surface appearances may be. While we may have differences on how it turns out, we want progress on an interim basis certainly, or perhaps on principles."

Helmut Sonnenfeldt, the Sovietologist of the National Security Council, who was present at the meeting, didn't believe that an Israeli-Arab compromise was possible. "No matter how much in pain, the Israelis will probably use an atomic bomb before they concede the 1967 borders," he wrote.

At the end of the war Kissinger admitted that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had been correct at the San Clemente summit the preceding June, when he warned Nixon and Kissinger of an approaching military conflict. Kissinger said that on the morning of October 6, one of his colleagues had told him that some kind of problem had erupted between Israel and Egypt, something that Kissinger would be able to solve in two hours.

On the eve of October 6, 1973, a message was sent from Moscow to Nixon and Kissinger: "The Soviet leadership got the information on the beginning of military actions in the Middle East at the same time as you got it ... We repeatedly pointed in the past to the dangerous situation in that area ... We hope to contact you again for possible coordination of positions."

Another important message, via the same channel, was sent six days later, on the evening of October 12: "The Soviet leaders consider it necessary to bring in the most urgent way the attention of the President to the defiant, to put it straight, gangster-type actions of Israel, which, if they are not stopped from the very beginning, can still more complicate the situation in the Middle East and around it, which is dangerous even without such actions.

"The matter is, first of all, about the barbaric bombings by the Israeli aviation of peaceful population centers in Syria and Egypt, including Damascus, as a result of which there are numerous casualties among the civilian population. There are also Soviet citizens among those killed and wounded. The damage was also caused to the Soviet office buildings."

In a veiled reference to the Scud missiles that had clandestinely been placed in Egypt with their operators in the summer of 1973, the Soviets threatened: "We have the information, and we want the President also to know it, that the other side has a capability to deliver retaliatory strikes against Israeli cities, the action from which it has refrained up till now, if the bombings of the Arab cities by Israel are not immediately stopped."

That was a direct threat of independent activity, because the Scud units remained under Soviet control, while the process of absorption and training among the Egyptians continued. An even more direct threat appeared later in the message to the White House: "Further. During the night from the 11th to the 12th of October, in the Syrian port of Tartus, torpedo boats attacked a Soviet merchant ship, 'Ilya Mechnikov,' which delivered a peaceful cargo there. The ship caught fire and sank.

"There is hardly a need to explain what can be the consequences of such provocative actions against the Soviet ships on their way to the ports of Arab countries. Tel Aviv in this case should also realize absolutely clearly that it cannot expect that everything will go off all right for it. The Soviet Union will of course take measures which it will deem necessary to defend its ships and other means of transportation ... We expect that the United States will exert an appropriate sobering influence on the Israeli leadership."

'Our leaders always drove in Packards'

In transcriptions of the four hours of discussions on a cease-fire conducted by Kissinger in Moscow on October 21, Brezhnev revealed his main interest - American automobiles. He went into great detail about the features of the old Packard that served as a model for imitation for the Soviet government cars of the same, earlier period: "This is wider. The track is wider, achieves greater stability, center of gravity." He added that "Our leaders in those days, Stalin, Molotov, others, always drove in Packards." Kissinger asked if it was easy to drive. "Much better than the other car we use," replied automotive engineer Comrade Brezhnev, "but at 120 it starts vibrating."

Kissinger responded with high praise: "Coming to the Kremlin this morning, my car started vibrating at 250." Brezhnev confirmed, "A few days ago I arrived here on time and we drove 140 kilometers an hour, and I was sitting in the car as if sitting at my desk." In response Kissinger described two of the problems he faced. He said that he had a Mercedes but the Secret Service didn't allow him to drive, and that he had told the president that it wasn't fair to make him handle Vietnam and Israel in the same year.

The small talk didn't conceal the deepening dispute between the great powers over the cease-fire lines and the timing - where to stop the Israel Defense Forces, which had crossed over to the west bank of the Suez Canal and was trying to encircle the Egyptian Third Army on the east bank. On October 24, Brezhnev sent a sharply worded message to Nixon: "Let's both send forces [to separate the Israelis and the Egyptians ], or we'll act unilaterally. We cannot allow Israel to act arbitrarily."

After the tension had escalated to the point of American nuclear preparedness - a demonstrative and cautionary move without any real justification - things calmed down and the cooperation was ostensibly renewed, before the convening of the Geneva Conference.

In a long conversation in Geneva on December 22, Kissinger dragged Gromyko into stories about the old days: "I've always had respect for Stalin's foreign policy. He had a long-range vision." Gromyko agreed and Kissinger said: "In 1939, you had to make a big decision. I think you were essentially right on the pact with Ribbentrop." Gromyko: "We didn't have any reasonable choice."

Kissinger expressed his agreement: "One could say that the pact made the war inevitable ... but there was very stupid leadership in Western Europe."

The Soviets had not yet realized at the time that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had abandoned them, gone over to the Americans and left Syria alone under their patronage. When they realized that Sadat and Kissinger had double-crossed them, they became bitter. On February 4, 1974, about two weeks after the separation of forces between Israel and Egypt, Gromyko and Dobrynin returned to Nixon and Kissinger.

"If we had wanted to act in the same way to trip the U.S. up on some Middle East matters, we could have done so. We could have found Arab leaders to work with us. But we did not take this course. This is plain speaking. It is for you to judge who gained and who lost. We feel that you lost."

Kissinger made a suggestion: We'll transfer the Israelis to our friends the Soviets. How will you do that, wondered Gromyko, and asked Nixon if he had a message for Brezhnev. "Personally I would tell the General Secretary he should not drive too fast," dictated the president. "I remember at Camp David when he drove his new car with me in it down the one-lane road, I was frightened to death we would meet a Marine in a jeep coming the other way and there would be an international incident. But I know that he is a very good driver." In response to Gromyko's words to the effect that the trade agreements between the two countries were still "virgin territory," Nixon declared that the moment Kissinger was installed in the State Department, there wouldn't be any virgins left there.

Widows and orphans

The following day Gromyko and Kissinger met again. Kissinger adhered to Israel's opposition to Soviet participation in Israel-Arab talks so long as the Soviets refused to renew relations with it. Gromyko reacted by asking whether the Israelis were concerned about their security and how big their nuclear arsenal was.

On March 25 Kissinger came to Brezhnev. On his table was a dome-shaped brass object which held six brass cartridge-like objects pointed upward - which held six cigarettes. Kissinger asked if it was a model of a MIRV (a collection of nuclear weapons carried on a single intercontinental ballistic missile ). Brezhnev said: "Living generations of Americans have never experienced war on their own territory and never experienced a fascist advance as far as Stalingrad ... In Belorussia, every fourth person died in the war." Gromyko added: "Think of how many widows and orphans there are."

When Brezhnev mentioned that he had received two messages from the Japanese prime minister, Kissinger mentioned the continuing Soviet occupation of four Japanese islands. One message for every two islands, he said cynically.

That was an introduction to Brezhnev's suggestion to evacuate all the nuclear weapons from the Middle East, including aircraft carriers and submarines, in other words, to give up the advantage of the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the region. Kissinger anticipated the reaction of his navy. "Our chief of naval operations [Admiral Elmo Zumwalt], who is already very melancholy, would fall into a deep depression." Brezhnev wondered, "Why don't you find a more cheerful man for the job?" Kissinger reassured him that the chief of naval operations would be replaced in another three months.

"But our impression is you do have nuclear weapons in socialist countries," said Kissinger.

Brezhnev: We have no atomic weapons anywhere and don't give atomic weapons to anyone.

Kissinger: We don't give them to anyone but these aircraft carriers are related to the situation in the Middle East.

Brezhnev: That would be tantamount to our giving surface-to-surface missiles to Egypt and Syria."

Kissinger: That is different. Aircraft carriers are under American control.

Brezhnev: Egypt and Syria would be only too happy to have surface-to-surface missiles.

Kissinger: The Egyptians told us you gave them surface-to-surface missiles. And Arabs never tell an untruth.

Brezhnev: Sadat was offended at us for not allowing him to fire surface-to-surface missiles even without nuclear warheads."

Kissinger: One [Scud] was fired on the last day of the war.

Brezhnev: They were under our control the whole time.

Kissinger: We thought it was a very constructive move. But we haven't given surface-to-surface missiles to the Israelis.

Brezhnev: Incidentally, Egypt tells you one thing and us another.

Kissinger: I find it hard to believe Arabs wouldn't tell you the exact truth.

For the benefit of the readers who were not present, the recorder of the conversations added in parentheses: "Brezhnev and Gromyko smile, Kissinger laughs."