At 6 a.m. on Saturday October 6, 1973, White House chief of staff Alexander Haig woke up President Nixon at his home in California with news that Egypt and Syria had attacked Israel. The news of Middle East aggression shocked the American foreign policy and intelligence communities to such an extent that a study prepared by the CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence in conjunction with the Nixon Presidential Library concluded, “To intelligence historians, the October 1973 war is almost synonymous with ‘intelligence failure.’”
It became clear in the hours after the attack that the Arabs had surprised Israeli forces and the Jewish state faced the greatest threat to its survival since the original war of independence three decades earlier. Along the border with Syria, in the so-called Golan Heights, 180 Israeli tanks faced 1,400 Syrian tanks supplied by the Soviet Union; likewise Egypt crossed the Suez with 80,000 soldiers facing little Israeli opposition.
In the days following the Yom Kippur attacks Israel suffered a number of setbacks, and Washington became increasingly concerned. Nixon alone concluded that the United States must back Israel against Arab forces whose primary military supplier was the Soviet Union. The 1973 war became more than necessary to save the Jewish state. It became a struggle between the world’s preeminent super powers. Kissinger opposed the U.S. action.
It is one of history’s great ironies that Nixon’s proposed airlift played an integral role in the salvation of the Jewish state, as in the years since the release of the Watergate Tapes it has become one of the established facts of the Nixon mythos that the president was a raving anti-Semite. The tapes continue to damn Nixon, who maintained a cognitive dissonance when it came to several prominent Jewish members of his senior staff, including Kissinger, White House counsel Leonard Garment, and speechwriter William Safire, as well as economist Herb Stein.
In one rant from 1971, Nixon railed against the Jews, who in his estimation were both “all over the government” and disloyal. He told Haldeman that the Jews needed to be controlled by placing someone at the top “who is not Jewish.” Incredibly, given the position in which he would find himself in two short years, Nixon would argue to Haldeman that “most Jews are disloyal,” and “generally speaking, you can’t trust the bastards. They turn on you.”
In another exchange, just months before the 1973 war, Nixon ranted to Kissinger about American Jews and what he saw as their selfish view of foreign policy. On a call on April 19, 1973, Nixon revealed his concern that American Jews would “torpedo” a U.S.-Soviet summit, vowing that, “If they torpedo this summit… I’m gonna put the blame on them, and I’m going to do it publicly at nine o’clock at night before eighty million people.” Then, perhaps most damning, Nixon would go on to argue, “I won’t mind one goddamn bit to have a little anti-Semitism if it’s on that issue… they put the Jewish interest above America’s interest and it’s about goddamn time that the Jew in America realizes he’s an American first and a Jew second.”
Yet Nixon would play a pivotal role in protecting the Jewish state. He recognized that the defeat of Israel was unthinkable for U.S. interests. Nixon went to Congress to request authorization for emergency aid for Israel despite the Gulf States announcing a price increase of 70 percent in the wake of the Arab assault. After Nixon went to Congress for authorization, the Gulf States responded vigorously, announcing a total boycott of the United States, causing the oil shock of 1973.
The Gulf States’ retaliation entrenched the opposition of many who had fought to slow (Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Kissinger) or halt (Secretary of Defense Schlesinger) the shipment of weapons to the Israelis. Nixon hit the roof when he learned that Kissinger was delaying the airlift because of a concern that it would offend the Russians. Despite the opposition of his national security and foreign policy brain trust, Nixon ordered the airlift, saying, “We are going to get blamed just as much for three planes as for three hundred.” Later, in exasperation at the slow start of U.S. support, he said, “Use every [plane] we have—everything that will fly.”
Finally, after several days of internal politicking amongst the upper echelons of the Administration, Nixon got his airlift: “Operation Nickel Grass.” Over the course of the airlift 567 missions were flown, delivering more than 22,000 tons of supplies, and an additional 90,000 tons were delivered to Israel by sea. Later in her life, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir would admit that upon hearing of the airlift during a cabinet meeting, she began to cry.
After Nixon saved Israel with U.S. aid in the Yom Kippur War, Chaim Herzog, Israel’s sixth president, said this of Nixon’s ugly comments about Jews revealed in the White House tapes: “He supplied arms and unflinching support when our very existence would have been in danger without them. Let his comments be set against his actions. His words may have raised eyebrows but not his actions. And I’ll choose actions over words any day of the week.”
In 1972, Yitzhak Rabin, then serving as Israel’s ambassador in Washington, was accused of taking sides in the U.S. election after saying in an Israeli radio interview that no president in American history had been more committed to Israel’s security than Nixon. Rabin proved prescient.
Nixon’s loyalty drove him to save a U.S. ally from the threat of utter destruction despite the risks of economic crisis and political cost to himself. To borrow the phrase from the Kennedy clan, Nixon’s decision to aid Israel was a true “profile in courage.”