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Fumes from the gas works and lime kilns combined with the slimy flow of the Potomac River to create on certain days a stinky smog along the swampy lowlands of the nation’s capital. When the polluting industries were finally removed by 1928, The Washington Post declared it was time to drop the neighborhood name, Foggy Bottom, but to no avail. When the State Department moved there in 1947, Foggy Bottom became its nickname—a running smirk at the overdressed Ivy Leaguers who implemented the foreign policy of the United States of America. Long lunches with at least two bottles of decent Bordeaux preceded many directions to Chad or Chile. Career ambassadors around the globe would sometimes snarl about Foggy Bottom as a center of uninformed isolation from the realities of foreign lands.
Full of energy at 50, Henry Alfred Kissinger endeavored to shed this out-of-touch image. The German-born former Harvard professor became President Richard Nixon’s secretary of state on Saturday, September 22, 1973. He decided to make his first day on the job Sunday, September 23, when few were around. “Just to see what we had,” Kissinger recalled.
On his desk were two new intelligence reports from the day before. “There were Egyptian concentrations near the Suez Canal. And … there were Syrian concentrations on the Golan Heights. Being an amateur and not yet a professional, I thought this was rather strange. So I asked the various services what it meant.” The reply was terse, blunt, and dismissive.
Nothing. It meant nothing. Just maneuvers.
Instinctively, Kissinger was uneasy about rumblings in the most volatile of all regions now under his purview. Israel was the most important ally of the United States in the Mideast. Egypt and Syria were the most important clients of the Soviet Union in the region. Washington and Moscow had armed and trained the armies of all three. There were simmering confrontations after Israel defeated Egypt and Syria in wars in 1948 and 1967. Any conflict between Arabs and Jews could threaten the world supply of oil from the Persian Gulf and intensify Cold War tensions between Washington and Moscow as they bolstered their client countries. On Monday, Kissinger demanded updates. “And every two days I was told that these were just maneuvers,” he said. “The Israelis reported the same thing.”
Pressed by Kissinger, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and his department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research came up with a combined conclusion on October 4, 1973:
We continue to believe that an outbreak of major Arab-Israeli hostilities remains unlikely for the immediate future, although the risk of localized fighting has increased slightly as the result of the buildup of Syrian forces in the vicinity of the Golan Heights. Egyptian exercise activity under way since late September may also contribute to the possibility of incidents.
Two days later, the CIA once more complied with Kissinger’s request for an update. A redacted version said:
Both the Israelis and the Arabs are becoming increasingly concerned about the military activities of the other, although neither side appears to be bent on initiating hostilities.… Exercise and alert activities in Egypt are continuing, but elements of the air force and navy appear to be conducting normal training activity.… A build-up of tanks and artillery along the Suez Canal, this cannot be confirmed.… For Egypt, a military initiative makes little sense at this critical juncture of President Sadat’s reorientation of domestic and foreign policies.… For the normally cautious Syrian President [Hafez al-Assad], a military adventure now would be suicidal.
When the analysis landed on Kissinger’s desk the morning of October 6, Anwar el-Sadat, the president of Egypt, had already launched a war that turned the world upside down. Code-named Operation Full Moon (Operation Badr), it was a two-pronged attack to recover Arab land Israel had seized six years earlier. At the Golan Heights in northern Israel—you can the see the lights of Damascus—Syria sent 1,300 Russian- and British-made tanks against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) position. In the south, as the minute hand struck 2 p.m. (9 a.m. Washington time) on the west side of the Suez Canal, 4,000 Egyptian cannons erupted in a 53-minute barrage. The first of 40,500 shells—175 per second—landed on the east side of the canal and Israel’s massive Bar-Lev trench line, a World War I–style rampart erected by Chief of General Staff Haim Bar-Lev. For 93 miles along the canal, from the Mediterranean entrance at Port Said to the town of Suez, there were 20 forts and 35 strongpoints, each with 26 machine-gun bunkers. Concrete bunkers for troops could withstand a 1,000-pound bomb. A barrier of concrete-reinforced sand berms reached 82 feet high in front of minefields, interlocking artillery positions, antitank guns, and thousands of automatic weapons. Armored brigades of tanks were staged in support positions. Oil storage containers along the Bar-Lev fed underground pipes into the canal; once the fuel was ignited, invaders would face a three-foot wall of fire on the canal, radiating an incinerating 1,292°F. “One of the best antitank ditches in the world,” Defense Minister Moshe Dayan told Prime Minister Golda Meir. She and Dayan had poured $300 million ($1.7 billion today) into the Bar-Lev for the same sort of invulnerability and national pride that France once sought from the Maginot Line.
On the afternoon of October 6, more than 100,000 Egyptian troops watched 240 Mirage and MiG fighter-bombers streak low overhead to attack the Bar-Lev, Israeli airfields, and bunkers on the Sinai Peninsula. In the north, 60 Syrian MiG fighters struck IDF positions around the Golan Heights. The Muslim troops were given an extra meal, a dispensation from dawn-to-dusk fasting during the month of Ramadan; avoid impure thoughts and evil deeds is the admonition of Islam on these holy days. Egyptian frogmen had plugged the Israeli underwater oil outlets the night before the attack started. That afternoon, Egyptian commandos slid down the sandy west bank with rubber boats. On the east bank they rigged rope ladders for the infantry to scale the Bar-Lev. The night of October 6, when the moon set and the canal’s tide was low, boats with laser-like water cannons cut away Israel’s sand and concrete defensive berms. Other army engineer craft deployed 10 classic assault bridges—a line of pontoon boats supporting platforms strong enough for 1,250 tanks in the strike force. The bridging locations were picked to outflank the fixed Israeli forts, igloo-shaped redoubts manned by 20 to 30 men. Much of the Bar-Lev shared the same fate as the Maginot Line of World War II—fixed fortresses were simply bypassed. At dawn on October 7, five divisions of Egyptian infantry and armor slammed into the Bar-Lev and five points along the canal. The Egyptian navy performed an amphibious landing, at a sixth assault site just west of Port Said. “It was one of the most memorable water crossings in the annals of warfare,” said US Army Colonel Trevor Dupuy, a strategist at the Pentagon for most of his career. With the Bar-Lev a smoking ruin, Sadat’s armies surged into the Sinai.
In the Golan, the IDF in Mount Hermon—the mountain range’s highest point—oversaw 14 fortified blockhouses that could fire on an array of tank ditches and antitank mounds just inside the Purple Line, the 1967 border imposed on Syria. Minefields and barbed wire were laid to hamper infantry. President Hafez al-Assad wore his uniform on October 6. He had been trained as a jet fighter pilot in the Soviet Union and now commanded 60,000 troops and 1,300 tanks. Israeli forces in the Golan were more prepared for a Syrian attack than their counterparts in the Bar-Lev trench line on the Suez Canal. As a result, Assad’s troops made uneven advances on October 6. Yet by the night of October 7, his tanks were in striking distance of the Sea of Galilee and the West Bank of the Jordan.
In Washington on October 7, the intelligence community had no inkling that Egyptian and Syrian armies had overwhelmed Israeli forces. They could only tell Kissinger that fighting was under way.
“Who started this?” Kissinger demanded.
All three intelligence agencies agreed that it must be Israel attacking Egypt. The inbred analysts could only assume the Jewish nation was once more wiping the floor with Arab armies, as it had done in 1948 and again in 1967. As in past failures—Berlin, Cuba, Vietnam—the American intelligence community reported today exactly what they reported yesterday. Intelligence amateur Kissinger ended the briefing.
“I finally said, ‘Listen, I’m of Jewish origin. The Israelis do not start wars on Yom Kippur when half of their army is in synagogue.’ It took us until the end of the day to put it all together.” His displeasure grew after he was presented with maps of the Sinai both vague and dated. “Who in the hell made these maps?” Kissinger was said to have snapped. “Moses?” He, his department, and the Government of the United States were all badly out of touch. Few understood Sadat’s real goal, although he had proclaimed it in public two years earlier. War was key for Sadat’s plan to achieve peace with Israel. Sadat recounts in his memoir what he used to tell his predecessor, President Gamal Abdel Nasser: “If we could recapture even 4 inches of Sinai territory (by which I meant a foothold, pure and simple), and establish ourselves there so firmly that no power on earth could dislodge us, then the whole situation would change—east, west, all over.”
The coordinated October 6 strike by Egypt and Syria so threatened Israel by October 9 that the shaken Jerusalem government unsheathed its nuclear weapons. Fearing a nuclear strike, President Richard Nixon on October 12 yielded to Israel’s pleas for a massive resupply of weapons. Warplanes from American units in Europe began arriving in Israel on October 14. From the brink of defeat, a revived Israel crossed the Suez Canal on October 16 in a stunning flanking maneuver that had its tanks poised for an invasion of Cairo. Syrian forces were thrown back in the Golan. A $2 billion resupply of weapons to Israel was announced in Washington on October 19. In Riyadh the next day, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia announced the cutoff of Gulf oil to the United States, Japan, and the Netherlands. The embargo of Arab oil would remain until Israel withdrew from the Sinai, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, according to the king’s edict. On October 24, Israel’s counterattack into Egypt alarmed Sadat’s supporters in Moscow. Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev threatened insertion of Russian troops unless Sharon’s army halted. In Washington, Kissinger alerted US strategic forces to counter the Kremlin’s saber rattling. The superpower blustering lasted only a day, but it served to reinforce pressure by Moscow and Washington to end the conflict—just as Sadat had foreseen. A cease-fire was announced October 26.
In 20 days, both Washington and Jerusalem were outwitted and outmaneuvered by Sadat on the tactical Mideast battlefield. With American aid, Israel was able to regain balance on the battlefields in Egypt and outside Damascus.
It took Kissinger longer to comprehend Sadat’s strategy of bringing leaders of the Western world to their knees. Within hours of the predictable American rearming of Israel, Arab oil became a bigger weapon than silos filled with hydrogen warheads. King Faisal’s embargo on all supplies to the United States, Europe, and Japan would last until Prime Minister Golda Meir returned the West Bank to Jordan, the Sinai to Egypt, and the Golan to Syria. Soon, oil-consuming nations were lining up in favor of the Saudi demands and against Israel. It was also the start of rigged and unrelenting increases in the price of oil that continue to drain family finances to this very day.
At first for most Americans, the Yom Kippur War was another distant fight between Arabs and Jews. This time, the desert war quickly reached deep into America. By November, angry American motorists waited in lines around the block for a rationed 10 gallons of gas. The average price jumped from 38 cents a gallon to 55 cents. The price kept doubling. Soaring inflation caused rising unemployment. The American stock market crashed. A global energy conservation movement was launched. Dealing with energy costs became central to American politics. All US oil exports were halted, a ban that would last until 2017. At least two US presidents went down to defeat caused in part by crushing inflation and double-digit interest rates. American gasoline prices once set by the Texas Railroad Commission were now set by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries—OPEC. Hundreds of billions of dollars were transferred from the United States and other consuming nations to small Persian Gulf countries once inhabited by nomadic Bedouin tribes.
With the weapon of world oil supplies strapped to his side and newfound respect for Arab armies, Sadat now embarked on a goal first announced two years earlier—a peace treaty with Israel. It was unthinkable. It was impossible. But four years later, Sadat strode into the Knesset to applause from Israel’s lawmakers. “I come to you today on solid ground, to shape a new life, to establish peace,” Sadat said.
As these earthshaking events unfolded, Kissinger was awed. Before his eyes, this former Egyptian army colonel was transformed into a modern pharaoh who grabbed the Western world by the throat. Kissinger watched as a gambling Sadat dominated the world stage. “A statesman has to take his society from where it is to where it has never been,” Kissinger would say years later. “I mention all of these qualities because I met no other leader—and I’ve known almost all the top leaders of the last 50 years—who exemplified them better than Anwar Sadat.” Through war, Sadat would achieve the rarest of gains in the Mideast: peace. Kissinger could not say the same for his own record that year. Kissinger oversaw Nixon’s failure to achieve peace in Vietnam—his central campaign pledge in 1968—and implemented the 4,000 secret B-52 bombings of Cambodia and the bombing of civilian centers in North Vietnam. Seeking peace through war, Kissinger spread only death and destruction. Kissinger’s only real success was seducing the Washington press corps into promoting his celebrity campaign for the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiations with Hanoi that went nowhere. Sadat, by contrast, had pulled off in the same year the most audacious strategic initiative Kissinger had ever seen.
“I don’t know any expert who, 48 hours before Sadat announced that trip, would have believed that any Arab leader would simply and unilaterally announce himself on a visit to Israel, lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, address the Israeli Parliament, and make a breakthrough towards universal peace in the area,” Kissinger said years later. “This was a move of extraordinary strength and almost prophetic vision. That is why I call him the greatest man that I have met.”
Copyright © 2019 by Patrick J. Sloyan