Transcript Shows That Kissinger Dreaded All-Out Israeli Victory in Yom Kippur War 

Then-U.S. secretary of state feared too much winning would make Israel harder to influence.

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Foreign Policy illustration/AFP/Getty Images

For Henry Kissinger, the prospect of an Israeli defeat during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War was always unthinkable. A victory by a Soviet-armed Arab coalition against a U.S.-armed Israel would shatter Washington’s strategic advantage in the Middle East and send the message to other Cold War clients that they “need to rely on the Soviet Union,” the then-U.S. secretary of state told his staff.

But Kissinger also harbored doubts about the virtues of an all-out Israeli victory that resulted in a decisive Arab surrender. As he participated in cease-fire talks to end the war, in a phone conversation with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, he confessed that, “My nightmare is a victory for either side.” It was a sentiment that Dobrynin shared, according to a declassified transcript of the Oct. 13, 1973, conversation made public Friday by the National Security Archive. The superpower phone chat is Foreign Policy’s Document of The Week.

It possible that Kissinger’s remark was made to lift Dobrynin’s spirits as he was seeking the Soviet diplomat’s support for a cease-fire that would leave the Soviet Union’s Arab clients with less land than they started with and a bloody nose they would not long forget.

An Arab coalition, led by Egypt and Syria, had launched a surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur, in an effort to reclaim land it lost in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The offensive initially caught Israel and the United States—whose intelligence agencies saw little prospect of an Arab strike—entirely off guard, and it rattled Israel’s sense of military invincibility.

At the time of the conversation, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was still holding out hope that his forces could reclaim lands captured by Israel. But just over a week later, Israel had largely surrounded Egypt’s Third Army, forcing the Arab coalition to accept the terms of a U.S.- and Soviet-brokered cease-fire.

But there may very well have been more to Kissinger’s preference for a negotiated peace. He believed that Israel’s reliance on a massive airlift of U.S. tanks, artillery, and ammunition—dubbed Operation Nickel Grass—to repel a series of Arab military forays would make Israel realize it was not powerful enough to go it alone.

“The Israelis have learned that their original idea—that they could use the stockpiled equipment that they had from us to score a big victory over the Arabs if we pressed them too hard is no longer possible,” he said in a previously declassified briefing to his staff. “If they get into another war, they must do it with our enthusiastic backing or they are lost.”

“As far as Israel is concerned, we have to be taken even more seriously than we have been in the past,” he added. “And our insistence on a more politically oriented policy cannot go unheeded.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch