Tank battles, Cold War politics, and nuclear alerts. This is the epic conclusion of a two-part series on the Yom Kippur War. On October 6th, 1973, Egypt and Syria launch a brilliant surprise attack on the nation of Israel. Golda Meir struggles to restrain her generals from unleashing doomsday weapons, and Dr. Henry Kissinger navigates the perilous world of Cold War diplomacy in hopes of bringing the conflict to a swift end. Even Nixon makes an appearance.
Tank battles, Cold War politics, and nuclear alerts. This is the epic conclusion of a two-part series on the Yom Kippur War. On October 6th, 1973, Egypt and Syria launch a brilliant surprise attack on the nation of Israel. Golda Meir struggles to restrain her generals from unleashing doomsday weapons, and Dr. Henry Kissinger navigates the perilous world of Cold War diplomacy in hopes of bringing the conflict to a swift end. Even Nixon makes an appearance.
Morse, David R. Kissinger and the Yom Kippur War. 2015.
Boyne, Walter J. The Two O’clock War. 2002.
Blum, Howard. The Eve of Destruction. 2003.
Klagsbrun, Francine. Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel. 2017.
Herzog, Chaim. The War of Atonement. 1975.
Charles Rivers Editors. The Yom Kippur War. 2017.
Abraham Rabinovich. The Yom Kippur War. 2004.
Bregman, Ahron. The Spy Who Fell To Earth. 2016.
Oren, Michael B. Six Days of War. 2002.
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Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.
Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcasts Network, and as always, I’m your host, Zach Cornwell.
You’re listening to Part 2 of a two-part series on the Yom Kippur War of 1973. If you haven’t listened to Part 1, you might wanna do that first. Or if you like to live dangerously, you can just jump right in, free of context.
When we left off last time, it was the afternoon of October 6th, 1973. The nation of Israel had been caught off guard by a two-pronged surprise attack from its sworn enemies Egypt and Syria. The resulting struggle would have profound consequences for the entire world. Now let’s dive in and untangle this thing.
Welcome to Episode 16: The Third Temple, Part 2
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Nati Ben-Hanan woke up in her hotel room just after dawn on October 7th, 1973.
Nati was 22 years old, and she was on her honeymoon.
It was much colder here in Nepal than in her home country of Israel, but she didn’t care. She looked over at her new husband, Yossi, who was still asleep next to her. Of the two newlyweds, Nati was the early riser. She decided to let him sleep.
Nati got dressed and looked out the window. She could see the colossal, snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas grasping up into a clear, cloudless sky. As she looked out over the Nepalese capital city of Katmandu, her thoughts returned to her wedding day, just two months earlier – back in Tel Aviv.
In truth, Nati had not wanted a big wedding.
Neither had her fiancé Yossi. But in the end, 830 people had come to the reception. She remembered standing in her dress, with a garland of fresh flowers in her hair, swarmed by guests, generals, and politicians; Some of the most important people in Israel had attended.
But they weren’t there for the young bride Nati. Not really. They were there for her new husband. Because Yossi Ben-Hanan was a bit of a celebrity.
He had appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine six years earlier, in a candid shot taken at the end of the Six Day War. A handsome, smiling soldier, swimming in the cool water of the Suez Canal, raising a rifle above his head. In the weeks and months that followed, that simple image became a potent symbol of the young nation’s unlikely victory in ’67.
In Israel, posters of the dreamboat infantryman decorated the walls of every teenage girl’s bedroom.
Yossi’s career in the military took off after ‘67. And that’s when he met a young IDF lieutenant named Nati. She immediately caught his eye, and after a short (if turbulent) courtship, they were engaged.
Everyone came to the wedding. And I mean everybody. Moshe Dayan was there in his black eyepatch, all the head honchos from the IDF. Golda Meir couldn’t make it, but Moshe said she sent her regrets. The newlyweds, Nati and Yossi, were part of the first generation of homegrown Israeli youth. Two young people who had been born, raised, educated, and fallen in love in the new nation of Israel. They were a powerful symbol of hope, and the future.
After the massive wedding, the exhausted newlyweds left the country to spend a couple months traveling East Asia. Nati had always wanted to travel the world. And in the first week of October 1973, she and Yossi were too beautiful people in a beautiful country, starting their life together.
Nati put on her clothes and went downstairs to the lobby of the hotel. She wanted a recommendation for a good restaurant for her and Yossi to break their Yom Kippur fast. Immediately, the front desk clerk called out to her:
“You’re Israeli, right?”
“Yes…” Nati responded.
The clerk said. “I just heard something on the BBC…”
60 seconds later, Nati burst into her hotel room. She woke up her husband Yossi and told him the news: Israel, their home, was under attack. And they were stuck, helpless, a thousand miles away.
18 hours earlier, on the afternoon of October 6th, 1973, Egyptian Chief-of-Staff Saad El-Shaazly was staring at a clock. The hands pointed to 1:50 PM. In just ten minutes, years of planning would finally come to fruition.
His uniform was clean, pressed, perfectly creased. But his thoughts were a jumble of anxiety. Shaazly was nervous. His entire career, his livelihood, maybe even his life, hinged on what happened over the course of the next few hours.
He had planned almost every tactical detail of what the Egyptian army called Operation Badr, named after the prophet Mohammed’s victory over his enemies in 624 AD.
For years, Shaazly had pored over maps, memorized weather patterns, reorganized entire divisions, trained his soldiers to clockwork precision – all for this one day. Egypt’s President, Anwar Sadat, had chosen him – above thirty more seasoned and senior officers - to accomplish a simple, but monumental task:
Get the Egyptian Army across the Suez Canal.
And it was about to happen in five minutes. As nervous as he was, the 51-year-old Shaazly tried to remind himself that he’d done the best he could. His men were ready. Every single one – all 200,000 of them, knew exactly what they were supposed to. They’d drilled and drilled and drilled until their responsibilities were chiseled into their brains, as deep as a reflex.
For years, the Egyptian army had been a laughingstock. The butt of a cruel joke. It was a sting Shaazly knew intimately. The last time he’d been on the East bank of the Suez Canal, he’d been running for his life. Retreating from IDF tanks in the Six Day War of 1967, hounded by Israeli soldiers like Yossi Ben-Hanan, now on his honeymoon in Nepal.
Well today, Saad El-Shaazly was going to prove them all wrong. And best of all, the arrogant Zionists had no idea that an attack was coming. They had been deceived and misled. As much by the Egyptians as their own hubris. But even if the Israelis found out this very moment, at this point, it was already too late.
Shaazly looked at the clock again. 1:58PM. There was no turning back now. All he could do was pray and wait.
BAR-LEV / THE CROSSING
Two minutes later, 2,000 Egyptian artillery pieces simultaneously opened fire, hurling 10,500 high-explosive shells across the Suez Canal.
The tiny Israeli garrisons on the other side of the waterway were completely unprepared. The first thing they notice is the ground literally shaking – violently, like an earthquake. Then the shells start detonating all around them. Throwing up huge geysers of sand and water, several stories high. 175 explosions per second.
With that rate of fire, the ears of the Israeli soldiers would not have been able to perceive the sound of individual explosions. You can’t discern individual “booms” or detonations. It’s just one long, excruciating roar. For 53 minutes, this bombardment batters the forts along the Bar-Lev line.
The sheer scale of a bombardment like this is almost impossible to fully get your mind around. You read the kind-of, cold arithmetic of this many shells from that many guns at this rate of fire, and it’s a little numbing, honestly. It’s too abstract. You can’t envision in it.
You can go back and read accounts of what it’s like to experience an artillery barrage like this, whether it’s in Vietnam, World War One, even the Napoleonic era, and the baseline experience is always the same. The common takeaway from soldiers is that it’s sensory overload. It short-circuits your five senses. It just hurts - everywhere.
It doesn’t let up either. And that’s the point. The Egyptians want to shock the Israelis on the Bar-Lev line into catatonia if they can. They want to pull their nerves apart like a brisket, to soften them up for what’s next.
Eventually, after about two hours, the shelling stops. One Israeli commander named Major Meir Weisel, huddling in a fort with his men on east bank of the Canal, tries to calm their nerves:
“Guys, that’s as bad as it gets. The next heaviest thing is an atom bomb.”
While this bombardment is happening, the first wave of Egyptian commandos starts crossing the 500 foot width of the Canal. If you were to zoom out and look at the scene from the sky, you would’ve seen 720 rubber boats, almost too many to count, moving across the Suez Canal under the cover of thick white smoke.
As intense and nerve-shattering as the bombardment was for the Israelis, the experience of crossing the canal was equally rigorous for the Egyptians the boats. The water is choppy, the noise is deafening, the Israelis are already starting to lay down machine gun fire on the boats. Egyptian Chief-of-Staff Saad-El-Shaazly had anticipated the stress this would have on his men. To stiffen their morale, he comes up with the idea to set up loudspeakers along the canal, blasting a chant at full volume:
“Allahu Akbar”, which means “God is great”.
So you have thousands of Egyptian soldiers, in boats, paddling to the rhythm of this chant. Reciting it over and over, until they reach the other side.
But Israelis on the Bar-Lev line know they have a secret weapon to stop this crossing in its tracks. I mentioned it in Part 1. The underground pipes that pump flammable liquid into the canal, creating a sticky coating on the top of the water. The IDF officers scramble to release the fuel into the canal, that once ignited, would burn the Egyptian soldiers alive. But when they start turning the release valves and engaging the pipes….nothing happens.
The Egyptians really had thought of everything. The night before, divers had located the pipes, and clogged them up. The defenders of the Bar-Lev line had the sobering realization that there was little standing between them and the entire Egyptian army.
The Egyptian shock troops swarm ashore, quickly overwhelming the sparsely defended Israeli forts. In less than a few hours, it’s over. The forts are captured and a penetrative bridgehead is established on the East of the Sinai.
Back in the Egyptian command center, called Center 10, Chief of Staff Saad El-Shaazly breathed a sigh of relief. The first step was complete. Now comes the hard part, he thought.
One of the most difficult, but unsung, aspects of war…is logistics. Getting stuff, heavy stuff, from point A to point B. Good logistics is one of the hallmarks of every single successful army in world history. Whether it’s Hannibal crossing the Alps, the Mongols crossing the Gobi, or the Egyptian army crossing the Suez Canal, campaigns live or die on the ability to get the stuff to you need to the place you need it.
Saad El-Shaazly had gotten thousands of men across the Canal. Now he had to get the hardware across. Tanks, Armored Personnel Carriers, pallets of ammunition, shells, food, supplies. Moshe Dayan had called the Suez Canal “the best anti-tank ditch in the world”. Well, Shaazly had figured out how to beat it.
The biggest obstacle was the sand walls. We discussed them briefly back in Part 1. These are three story tall walls of iron-packed sand. The Israelis had used bulldozers to move and compress millions of metric tons of sand into towering impenetrable embankments. Sand is a notoriously great shock absorber. As a result, these things could withstand a 1,000-pound bomb.
But Shaazly and the Egyptian army had found a way through.
Off the top of your head…What’s the quickest way to destroy a sand castle? You’re at the beach, you wanna knock down a sand castle, whaddya do? Well you can kick it down, stomp it, throw rocks at it. Or you can just throw a pail of water on it and watch it melt away.
Someone in the Egyptian army had the idea to get dozens of industrial-strength firehoses and literally spray their way through the wall.
At 6:30 PM, four hours after the initial crossing and bombardment, seventy teams of men carrying these huge firehoses start blasting holes in the sand walls of the Bar-Lev Line. The firehoses could put out 1,000 gallons of water per minute. And the sand just dissolves, melting away like butter.
Saad El-Shaazly had expected this would take about 7 hours. It took two. By 8:30PM, sixty giant holes in the sand walls had been opened. They were wide, just wide enough to fit a state-of-the-art Soviet tank. While the firehose teams are blasting holes in the wall, thousands of other men are assembling the bridges that would carry tanks, armor, APCs, and supply trucks across the Canal.
They were pontoon bridges, supplied by the Soviets. These bridges are so buoyant and light, you could literally push them with your arms and guide them into place. All these sections click together perfectly, and boom – you’ve got a bridge you can literally drive a tank across. A tank brigade, actually. Historian Howard Blum said these pontoon bridges fit together “like Legos”.
At 8:30 PM, the full force of the Egyptian army starts streaming over the pontoon bridges.
Back at Egyptian Command, Chief of Staff Saad El-Shaazly breathed a huge sigh of relief. Casualties had been expected to be in the thousands. But the Egyptian army had only lost 200 men in the crossing. Everything had gone off without a hitch. He’d done it. As historian Abraham Rabinovich described:
“Not since the construction of the pyramids—at least not since construction of the canal itself—had Egypt witnessed such a massive and well-executed enterprise.”
THE HUMBLING OF IAF
As the Egyptian army was paddling across the Suez Canal, the Israeli Air Force was scrambling hundreds of jets to try and stop it. Since 1967, air power had been the crown jewel in Israel’s military machine. It was the tip of the spear, and they were about to sink it deep into the heart of the Egyptian army.
“The Arabs are so stupid”, an Israeli lieutenant colonel sneered, “They are making a fatal mistake.”
From airfields all over Israel, dozens of Phantom and Skyhawk fighters leapt into the sky, heading straight for the Egyptian border. They would destroy the Sadat’s offensive in its crib. “Full burners to the Suez”, the Israeli controller said. The plan was simple: Blow the pontoon bridges, destroy the tank columns, and turn the Suez Canal red.
As the Israeli pilots approach the waterway, the horizon bursts into flame. Black puffs of flak, fire, and twisting white smoke trails filled their fields of vision. They had flown straight into the Egyptian missile wall. As we mentioned in Part 1, the Soviets had supplied the Egyptians with a new weapon: surface-to-air missiles or SAMS. Heat-seeking, auto-locking anti-aircraft projectiles that could turn a brand-new Israeli jet into a fireball just 43 seconds after launch.
The Israeli pilots had no protection against these missiles. Their equipment was not tuned to alert them if a SAMS frequency was detected. And they couldn’t jam the signal. All they can do is erratically twist, turn, dive and climb in a desperate bid to outrun the missiles locking on to the heat of their exhaust ports.
As Howard Blum describes:
The SAM-6’s tracking radar with its rapidly changing frequencies could not be jammed or blinded. Flares or chaff did not easily fool its homing device. And the pilots did not have a “black box” capable of alerting them that the radar had locked on. Without warning, tree-trunk-sized SAM-6 missiles zooming at Mach 2.8 slammed into the planes. […] They’d be fired in salvos of four or eight; a pilot might find the skill or the luck to evade one missile, possibly even another, only to be hit by the next. And if a jet swooped in low hoping to avoid the intricate web of complementary surface-to-air missile systems, then the guns went to work.”
In just a handful of minutes, 12 Israeli jets were falling from the sky. The pontoon bridges remained intact. And the surviving Israeli pilots were forced to fly back to their airfields in a dumbfounded retreat. They had never anticipated the Egyptians being able to nullify their greatest advantage.
As Saad-El Shaazly had said to his commanders months before: “The Israelis have air superiority not just over the Syrians but over us as well. Our plan is devised to operate within that constraint.”
But as bad as things looked for Israel on the Suez Canal, they were even worse in the North. On the Golan Heights. To the IDF’s horror, this surprise attack had two prongs. The Syrians were pouring in from the North.
And they posed an existential danger to Israel’s heartland itself.
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United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was asleep when an aide burst into his hotel room at the Waldorf Astoria at 6:15AM.
There was a 7-hour time difference between New York and Tel-Aviv. And on October 6th, 1973, America was just waking up while 100,000 Egyptian soldiers streamed across the Suez Canal. Kissinger put on the pair of black-rimmed spectacles that were his trademark and listened to the news.
His first reaction was shock. His second reaction was a command: “Get the Soviets on the phone”, he said. Thirty minutes later, he was speaking to his Russian counterpart.
Henry Kissinger is as divisive a figure in global politics as you will ever find. He’s been called a war criminal, a man without conscience, and one of the most brilliant diplomats who ever lived. His legacy is hotly debated, even now. And the man is still alive, in fact. He’s 97 years old.
But as controversial as he is, he would have a pivotal part to play in the Yom Kippur War. The actions he took and decisions he made over the course of a handful of weeks would send deep ripples into the fabric of coming decades.
Like Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, Henry Kissinger was a European Jew who made his way to America at a young age. His family fled Nazi Germany as refugees in 1938, narrowly evading the Third Reich’s crushing, mechanized genocide of 6 million Jews. Thirteen of his relatives were not so lucky. Kissinger was just 15 years old when he stepped foot into a strange country: The United States.
In a different life, on a different path, Kissinger might have ended up in Palestine like Golda. Like her, he was in possession of a towering intellect and a forceful personality. Like her, he fell in love with politics at an early age. Who knows? In another world, he may have ended up steering Israeli policy as a citizen in 1973.
But Kissinger stayed in his adoptive home of America, fought for it as a young man in World War 2, and served at the Battle of the Bulge. After World War Two, he found a welcoming embrace in the halls of academia. He was a professor at Harvard for a time, before eventually making the leap to politics.
In 1973, Kissinger was serving the dual role of Secretary of State and National Security advisor to Tricky Dick himself, President Richard Nixon. Kissinger and Nixon had a deeply complex relationship. Nixon was notoriously anti-Semitic and conspiracy-minded in both public and private life. As he said:
“The Jews are all over the government. Generally speaking, you can’t trust the bastards. They turn on you. Am I wrong or right? Their whole orientation is against you…. And they are smart. They have the ability to do what they want to do—which is to hurt us.”
But Nixon’s bigotry ended where Kissinger’s usefulness began. Nixon looked at Kissinger and saw a sharp tool and a trusted confidante. A smart guy who knew how to get stuff done. Nixon was results-oriented if nothing else, and he appreciated Kissinger’s pragmatic approach to diplomacy. As different as the two men were, they were hand-in-glove on one particular issue: Keeping Soviet Russia out of the Middle East. As Kissinger summarized:
“At the end of the day, he would pursue, in the national interest, the same strategy: to reduce Soviet influence, weaken the position of the Arab radicals, encourage Arab moderates, and assure Israel’s security.”
As a rule, Kissinger didn’t play favorites with Israel and the Arabs. In fact, he went out of his way not to. He and Nixon believed that the administration would lose credibility if there was any perception that Kissinger harbored sentimentality towards the Zionist state because of his Jewish heritage. But Nixon himself did have occasional doubts about Kissinger’s impartiality:
Even though Henry’s as fair as he can possibly be, he can’t help but be affected by it. You know, put yourself in his position. Good God! You know, his people were crucified over there. Jesus Christ! And five million of them, popped into bake ovens! What the hell does he feel about all this?”
Israel was an American asset, yes. Israel was despised by the entire Arab world, yes. But ultimately the big dog on Kissinger’s radar was Russia. If he could broker a long-lasting peace between Israel and the Arab world, simultaneously bringing the two adversaries into the arms of America and pushing the Soviets out of the picture, that would be a huge win. He’d be the toast of the international community.
And Kissinger had peace-brokering bona fides already. In late 1973, he would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in bringing the Vietnam War to a close. Many would say an embarrassing, disastrous close, but a close nonetheless. So when war broke out between the Arabs and Israel on October 6th, 1973, the world needed a peacemaker.
And Kissinger believed he was that peacemaker.
Peace was the last thing on the minds of Israeli tank crews looking out over the Golan Heights on the afternoon of Saturday, October 6th.
They’d heard the news that was spreading fast all over Israel. The Egyptian army was crossing the Suez Canal, cutting 70 ft holes in the Bar-Lev line. But that was far to the South. Here, on the Golan Heights, the Israeli tank brigades had their own problems to worry about.
Because Syria was attacking too. From the North.
The Golan Heights, if you’re not familiar, is a 3,000 ft high volcanic plateau that separates Israel from Syria. It is a highly coveted piece of real estate, offering a strategic overlook of Israel’s northern farmlands. It’s very important, but not because it’s pretty.
Looking out over the Golan Heights, you will see a vast, bumpy landscape of volcanic cones or “tels”, as they’re called in Hebrew. One historian describes it as looking like a bunch of giant ant hills. “austere but strangely beautiful.”
The Israelis had fought hard for this territory during the Six Day War. The Syrians were forced to slink back to Damascus, deprived of their prized geographic possession. Well now, they were back. To reclaim what had been stolen.
The IDF had been expecting an attack since that morning. Golda Meir and her cabinet had made the decision to mobilize the army, but they were too late. It would take days to reinforce the borders. For now, the paper-thin line of Israeli tank brigades guarding the Golan Heights is on its own.
Just after 2 o’clock, an Israeli tank commander peers through his binoculars and notices something approaching from the North. He sees a vast cloud of dust. A wall of sand and dirt, rolling like clouds over the arid landscape of the Golan. He lowers his binoculars and tells his crews to get ready.
This huge cloud of dust was being created by a fast-approaching shock force of 1,460 Syrian tanks. The Israelis… only had 177 tanks. They were laughably outnumbered. 8:1 No one wanted to make the comparison to Leonidas and his Spartans, because they all knew how that turned out. One rattled commander remembered:
“They flowed in like water. I never knew there were so many tanks in the world.”
But the Israelis were confident. In the early years of the IDF, Moshe Dayan and the other generals had embraced the hard, fast, lightning warfare doctrine that had been perfected in the Second World War. Ironically, one of their biggest inspirations had been a Nazi. Erwin Rommel, the famous “Desert Fox” who’d given the Allies so much grief in North Africa.
The IDF trained its tank crews in a style that reflected the reality of their situation. They would never be able to match the sheer numbers that the Syrians could put in the field. So they had to make every second matter, and every shot count.
The IDF tankers were incredibly accurate; you’ll often hear the word “snipers” used to describe them. But instead of picking off men with bullets, they were picking off tanks with shells. The Israelis were also fast. Famously fast. One tank crew in the Golan was renowned for being able to hit three moving targets with three shells in 6.5 seconds When I read that initially I didn’t believe it, but they could do it.
The Syrian army had the inverse strategy. They knew their gunners couldn’t match the Israelis on skill alone. But the Syrians were brave, tenacious, and motivated by a fierce hatred. If they could overwhelm the thinly-spread Israelis with sheer numbers, the Golan front would crack, and they’d be shelling Tel Aviv withing 72 hours. As historian Chaim Herzog wrote: The Syrians reached the conclusion very rapidly that quality could be overcome only by quantity.
As the dust cloud grew larger and larger, the Israelis were apprehensive, but they had a job to do. And as jobs go, fighting in a tank is a really, really unpleasant one. Historian Walter J. Boyne describes:
A tank is inhospitable even in peacetime: Quarters are cramped, the noise is deafening, and temperatures can shoot up to 140 degrees during the day, then drop to near freezing at night. The air is filled with fumes—fuel, oil, human, and, if there is some practice firing, gunpowder.
But in war, life aboard a tank is brutal. The tankers sweat in the unbearable heat, their hearing dulled from the impossible noise, and except for the tank commander they are almost unable to see. All of the tankers, without exception, are wracked by fear, for as thick as the armor seems, they know they are vulnerable to cannon and missile attack. A quick hit on a tank track would be a blessing; if the tank is disabled, they might be able to scramble out and perhaps survive the machine-gun fire. But even a glancing hit might mean the explosion of the fuel tanks or of the ammunition carried inside and sometimes strapped outside, setting off a blazing fire from which escape was improbable.
The worst possibility of all was a direct hit, when the shaped charge pierces the tank armor as if it were cloth, entering as a jet-fast, jet-hot stream of molten metal that sprays over the interior, incinerating everyone at their posts.
In spite of the overwhelming odds, the Israelis had one tactical advantage. A series of earthen “ramps” on the hills overlooking the Syrian approach.
When you’re shooting at someone, and they’re shooting at you, the general idea is to expose as little as yourself as possible. You want to make yourself a smaller target. Well these ramps allowed the Israeli tanks to peak their big guns over a ridge, like snipers, and fire their shells without being overly exposed. They Syrians however, were completely exposed. There is very little cover in the Golan Heights.
The Syrians were getting closer. Hundreds upon hundreds of armored tanks, Soviet-designed T-62s, literally the most advanced mechanized armor in the world. Rolling towards the Israeli line at 30 miles an hour.
On the southern part of the line, 24-year-old Major Shmuel Askerov , was organizing 7 Israeli tanks into a defensive line. The Syrians were just a few minutes from entering firing distance, concealed by a veil of smoke. When the veil lifted, dozens of Syrian tanks came into view.
Standing tall and exposed in the open turret, as IDF tank commanders often did, Askerov ordered his gunners to fire. The Israeli tanks used something called a “hesh” or “squash” round; the reason it’s called that is because when it hits another tank its squashes against the outside armor and creates a shockwave inside the vehicle, which basically blends the bodies and the equipment inside like a milkshake.
Askerov’s crew fire three of these rounds in a matter of seconds. One-two-three. And they hit three Syrian tanks. A hat trick, right out of the gate. Askerov and his crew were elated, but they notice something weird. Of the seven Israeli tanks, theirs is the one firing. The other six are at the bottom of the tank ramp. They won’t come up. Some combination of fear and paralysis kept them from exposing themselves.
Askerov turned to his driver and ordered “Put it in reverse” The tank reverses down the slope to sit beside the other six tanks. Askerov leaps off the main gun and climbs up beside one of the other tank commanders. Wordlessly, he pulls a revolver from his holster and presses it against the man’s temple.
“Get up there, or I shoot”, he said.
As Howard Blum writes, Askerov: “understood the man’s fear. He, too, was terrified. Yet he accepted what was about to happen. He knew they would all die today.”
90 seconds later, all seven tanks were at the top of the ramp, firing down on the Syrian onslaught. For the next five hours, they turned that expensive Soviet hardware into burning black clouds of diesel smoke and ripped metal. But the Syrians kept on coming. Every time the Israelis thought they’d driven them back, more tanks, more infantry, more vehicles surged forward. The Arabs had placed all their faith in numerical superiority, and they were right.
One by one, Maj Askerov watched his tank crews go down. 7 tanks turned into 5, then to three, then to 1. After being hit four times, Askerov’s tank was finally destroyed and he was thrown 20 feet from the turret. His throat filled up with blood and he passed out.
Ashkerov awoke several hours later in an Israeli field hospital. The doctors told him what the battle had done to his body:
“We removed a bucketful of shrapnel. Metal all over the place—chest, forehead, even your vocal cords,”
But Askerov didn’t want to hear about his injuries. He wanted to know what had happened on the Golan. Where were his men? What was the situation? The answer was not good.
The Syrians had punched through a portion of the Israeli line. The thinly-spread IDF tank brigades had not been enough to stop them. And the reserves were still far from the front. The Syrian army was descending like a knife onto the exposed throat of Israel’s heartland, ready to deliver the coup de gras.
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Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan stared out the window of the helicopter as it flew over the Golan. His mind ping-ponged between daze and despair.
In the first 24 hours of the war, he had rushed North to see the full extent of the crisis Israel faced. And it was dire. One after the other, his generals had reported a catastrophic state of affairs.
“Critical. The situation is critical”, General Iska Shadmi had told him.
Moshe’s old friend Gen. Dan Laner had agreed, saying:
“The fighting in the southern part of the Golan Heights is finished, and we have lost. We have no more force to stop them. Additional armor forces, from the reserves, will not be ready to move against the Syrians before noon.”
There was, however, still hope. If the Israeli Air Force could stop the Syrian armor, there might be a slim chance of turning the tide. Moshe appealed to the head of the IAF, Benny Peled:
“I want them to swoop down without stop so the Syrian tank crews won’t be able to lift their heads. Benny, unless we stop their tanks, this is the destruction of the Third Temple.”
With no strategy, no intel, and no plan, Israeli jets rocketed North to face off against the Syrians. And just like in the South along the Suez Canal, they ran face first into a wall of fire. An umbrella of surface-to-air missiles, protecting the Syrian advance. Retreating Israeli tank crews watched in horror as their jets fell from the sky like shooting stars.
In the first 24 hours of the war, Israel had lost ten percent of its air force. It was an unsustainable situation. They could not afford to launch any more missions.
Upon hearing the news of the failed operation, Moshe Dayan sunk into a chair. As Howard Blum describes Moshe’s state of mind at the time:
When he reviewed the events that had brought him to this point he saw another continuum of Jewish history: a woeful march from Masada, to the Holocaust, to October 7, 1973—the destruction of the Jewish state. All his life he had fought seemingly hopeless battles, but never before had he felt so defeated. Or so responsible for the looming loss. The scope of his miscalculations, the scale of the consequences, left him shattered.
He arrived at Prime Minister Golda Meir’s office broken and scared. He told her the situation:
“Golda, I was wrong in everything. We are heading to catastrophe. We shall have to withdraw on the Golan Heights to the edge of the escarpment overlooking the valley. In the Sinai, to the passes. And hold to the last bullet.”
The 75-year-old woman stubbed out her cigarette and put her face in her hands. How had it come to this? How had they been caught so disastrously off-guard? As biographer Francine Klagsbrun writes:
She had felt in her gut that the reserve forces should be mobilized, yet she allowed herself to be persuaded by the military men that they would have time if that became necessary. Why had she, who had always relied on her intuition, not done so in this most crucial time? Why had she not trusted her own judgment? She would never forgive herself for those blunders.”
Moshe continued his confessional to the old grandmother:
“I underestimated the enemy’s strength…and overestimated our forces and their ability to stand fast.”
Years later, Golda Meir would confide in a biographer that she briefly considered suicide at this moment. When all seemed lost and unsalvageable. After Moshe had finished explaining the bad news, he offered his resignation:
“Golda ,in all sincerity and friendship, if you think there is somebody more capable of handling the duties of defense minister, then give it to him.”
Golda looked at Moshe. A man once so confident, so powerful, reduced to an anxious wreck. This was not the Moshe Dayan who had helped build Israel. She didn’t know who this was. But she took pity, and refused: “God forbid.”, she said. The Prime Minister would need this old warrior now more than ever.
Both Golda and Dayan knew that their political careers were over. If they somehow came through this crisis, the Israeli people would never forgive them for allowing this to happen. But that was a problem for a different day. Right now, they had to find a way out of this. They had to save the Third Temple, or risk having their names etched in human memory as the Jews who had lost it all.
But then Moshe suggested something that deeply alarmed Golda. It was something that rattled her more than the war, more than his demeanor, more than anything. Moshe made the suggestion that if the war truly became un-winnable, Israel may have to resort to “unconventional weapons.”. He was alluding to what has become known as “The Samson Option”.
In the Hebrew Book of Judges, there’s a story about a man named Samson. Most Westerners have at least a passing familiarity with it. Well, Samson is supernaturally strong, a biblical Hercules. After a betrayal, he is deprived of his strength, blinded in both eyes, and captured by his enemies, the Philistines. They chain him to two pillars in their temple, so they can mock him and laugh at him. In his final moments, the weak, sightless Samson is sent one last burst of divine strength from God. Samson uses it to pull down the pillars, destroying the temple, killing himself and everyone inside.
The Samson Option was Israel’s nuclear option. A last resort.
And Moshe Dayan himself had been its chief architect. Israel had been developing a nuclear arsenal in secret since at least 1958, at a top-secret facility deep in the Negev desert. By 1967, they had developed two nuclear bombs. By 1973 they had fifteen.
In his 1991 book The Samson Option, legendary investigative journalist Sy Hersh revealed that the CIA had known about Israel’s secret nuclear program going back to the nation’s very inception. Eisenhower knew. Kennedy knew. Johnson knew. And now Nixon knew.
Israel however, had refused to acknowledge they had this capability. They would neither confirm, nor deny. It was a policy of “nuclear ambiguity”. From the Israeli point of view, no one needed this doomsday weapon more than them. As Golda Meir had said:
“This people, small as It is, surrounded as it is by enemies, has decided to live. And if we have to pay the price for living, we have to pay it. This is not a people that can give in.”
Moshe had a more blunt assessment:
“Israel must be like a mad dog. Too dangerous to bother.”
Golda had a nickname for the secret nuclear facility. She called it Varenye. According to Francine Klagsbrun:
“In Eastern Europe, varenye was a jar of fruit preserves Jews kept in reserve so they would have something to eat in times of trouble.“
In other words, this was insurance. Just in case the unthinkable happened. Walter J Boyne summarized the perspective:
“Israel would fight to win a conventional war, but in the awful event that sheer defeat loomed, they would emulate Sampson and bring down the walls of the Arab world with nuclear assaults. With the Third Temple destroyed, what happened elsewhere in the world would be of no concern. The Jews believed that victorious Arabs would engage in another Holocaust, and few national slogans have been so deeply felt as the simple two words “Never Again.”
On October 9th, 1973, when Moshe suggested the possible use of the Samson Option to Golda Meir, he had already put the IAF on high alert. The nuclear warheads had been placed on F-4 jets, which had the capability of reaching every Arab capital in the Middle East. Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad among them. If the Third Temple was destroyed, the Israelis would bring their enemies down with them. As one Israeli nuclear physicist told Moshe:
“If they push us into the sea, they will find out they have nothing to return to. Cairo, Damascus, gone.”
But the destruction would likely not end there. Because a nuclear strike would inevitably trigger a chain reaction. The Soviets would have no choice but to defend their assets, Egypt and Syria. America would be forced to respond in kind. And boom – that’s it. The world-ending nuclear exchange that the Superpowers had been carefully avoiding for decades would finally arrive.
The Israeli perspective on that eventuality is…unique. Here’s what an opinion piece by David Perlmutter, published in the LA Times had to say about it:
The Jews understand what passive and powerless acceptance of doom has meant for them in the past, and they have ensured against it. Masada was not an example to follow—it hurt the Romans not a whit, but Samson in Gaza? What would serve the Jew-hating world better in repayment for thousands of years of massacres but a Nuclear Winter. Or invite all those tut-tutting European statesmen and peace activists to join us in the ovens?
For the first time in history, a people facing extermination while the world either cackles or looks away—unlike the Armenians, Tibetans, World War II European Jews or Rwandans—have the power to destroy the world. Was it the ultimate justice?
Now if that strikes you as a deeply nihilistic and monstrously selfish worldview, then you and I are on the same page. As much as the Jewish people had suffered over the centuries, could it really justify the reckless, wanton use of a weapon that could end life on Earth as we know it? Was Israeli pride worth the cost of the entire human race?
According to an Israeli military historian named Martin Van Creveld in a 2003 interview…yes:
“We have the capability to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that that will happen before Israel goes under.”
Thankfully, for all of us, Golda Meir did not share that view in the Fall of 1973.
Even with Moshe Dayan falling apart in front of her eyes, she stayed calm. She unequivocally vetoed any talk of using their nuclear arsenal…for the time being. But if the situation became truly apocalyptic for Israel, she would not be able to hold back Moshe and the other generals from doing what they felt was necessary. Not only was the Third Temple on the line, but the peace and security of the world as well.
There had to be another way. There was still time to turn this war around.
On Tuesday October 9th, Golda made a call to Washington D.C. It was 3 o’clock in the morning on the eastern seaboard. Despite the inconvenient hour, Golda insisted: “I don’t care what time it is. Get Kissinger on the phone. Now. Tomorrow may be too late.”
Later that morning, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was briefed by the Israeli ambassador on the situation. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
The IDF’s losses were far, far beyond anything he had expected – and they were mounting with each passing hour. 60 jets down. 500 tanks destroyed. Thousands of precious, experienced soldiers blown apart and mangled.
The two-front surprise attack was sucking the life out of the over-extended Israeli army. The two biggest advantages they possessed - an impeccable air force and powerful tank brigades - had been completely nullified by meticulous Arab planning and immaculate Soviet weaponry. It was more crash-and-burn, than shock-and-awe.
But worst of all, the Israeli ammunition stores were already beginning to run dry. They had been using up an extraordinary about of bullets, bombs, and shells to keep the Arabs at bay. In just a few days’ time, those stores would be empty, and they would be literally incapable of continuing the fight.
Kissinger listened to this shocking assessment with growing irritation and unease. This was not part of the plan. Kissinger had been playing a game of chicken with the Russians for the past 72 hours, and he had miscalculated.
See, Kissinger, just like everyone else, had assumed that the Israelis would effortlessly blunt any Arab attack – surprise or not - and turn the tide relatively quickly. As he told his Soviet counterpart with an air of smug inevitability: “We are certain it will turn out to be a military victory for the Israelis,”
When victory eventually happened, he could propose a ceasefire on the floor of the United Nations. America’s client state, Israel, would be in a more powerful position. Anwar Sadat, defeated and looking to make a deal, would be forced to turn to America for help. And away from the Soviets.
Kissinger’s plan was to bring the Arabs into America’s sphere of influence, effectively ending Soviet ambitions in the region. If all went according to plan, he would go down in the history books as the man who brought peace to the Middle East. He might even get a second Nobel Peace Prize for his shelf.
But that was *not* what was happening. The Israeli soldiers were dying in droves. Counteroffensive after counteroffensive had failed. Israel was on the verge of collapse.
And Kissinger knew what that would bring. He had seen the reports on what the Israelis had been building in the desert. The Samson Option. The arsenal of nuclear weapons that they would unleash without hesitation if they truly believed that it was the only alternative to a second Holocaust.
Now - for the record, Dr. Henry Kissinger has always categorically denied that he had seen any intel on Israel’s nuclear capabilities during the Yom Kippur War. But multiple sources in journalist Sy Hersh’s 1991 book corroborate that it was absolutely a factor in his decision-making process..
The Israelis were begging the Americans for help. And there was an implicit threat within that plea. On that has been occasionally described as “nuclear blackmail”. Basically, Golda Meir was telling the Americans, “Look, you either step in and help us, or we may have no choice but to go nuclear in order to save ourselves.”
Under normal circumstances, Kissinger would have collaborated intensively with President Richard Nixon’s during a crisis like this. But Nixon was, how shall we put it….distracted.
1973, as many of you know, was a big year for Nixon. Some would say it was THE year for Nixon. It was the year the Watergate scandal broke. And by Fall it had reached a fever pitch. Nixon was facing calls for impeachment and the end of his Presidency. Nevertheless, he threw himself into the Middle East quagmire just to take his mind off the Watergate mess, if nothing else.
In a meeting at 4:45 PM on October 9th, Nixon and Kissinger came to the conclusion that Israel absolutely could not be allowed to lose this war. For the sake of the world, and perhaps more importantly – The United States.
A victory for Egypt and Syria would only embolden the Soviets. The United States would have failed to protect a key asset. It would be, as Abraham Rabinovich put it, a “geopolitical disaster for America”. For Nixon and Kissinger, that was unacceptable. As the President said: “The Israelis must not be allowed to lose.”
Unfortunately, the Americans were already behind the curve.
As the President and the Secretary of State conferred in the White House, Soviet transports were touching down in Egypt and Syria, resupplying the Arab armies with fresh tanks, fresh ammunition, and even Soviet pilots to fly the more advanced jet aircraft. Every 30 minutes, a new Soviet transport was landing with a new delivery.
The race was on, and Kissinger was losing.
The United States needed to get weapons and ammo to the Israelis in less than a week, somehow. A resupply effort by sea was too time-consuming. Going overland was impossible; since Israel was landlocked by enemies. There was only one option. They’d have to fly the supplies in directly.
On October 10th, Nixon and Kissinger make the decision to execute a massive airlift of supplies directly to Israel. It would require hundreds of aircraft, thousands of specially trained personnel, and no small amount of luck. There was, of course, a danger in sending so many supplies to the Israelis; it might provoke the Soviets to a perilous degree. Nixon shrugged off the concern:
“We are going to get blamed just as much for three planes as for 300… [I’m] not going to let the Russians come in there with a free hand…. This is a deadly course, I know, but what I meant is, Henry, I have no patience with [the] view that we send in a couple of planes.”
“Goddamn it, use every one / plane [i.e., C-5] we have. Tell them to send everything that can fly.”
This airlift, which came to be called Operation Nickel Grass, would be one of the largest, most complicated, and most expensive aerial operations in the history of the US military. As Walter J Boyne writes in his book, The Two O’clock War:
“An airlift is not simply a bunch of aircraft carrying freight. It is instead a massive operation involving intense logistical coordination to create what Major General William Tunner, […] called an airborne conveyor belt.”
And once that conveyor belt got moving, it was an awe-inspiring achievement of logistics and speed. Huge, state-of-the-art cargo jets, Lockheed C-5s and C-141s, were loaded with replacement tanks, ammunition, Sidewinder missiles. The Israelis were getting the complete tool box. No expense would be spared.
As one General in MAC or Military Air Command said:
“We are going to have three C-141s every two hours and one C-5 every four hours on the way.”
An average of 1,380 tons of supplies per day was speeding across the Atlantic towards Tel-Aviv. Kissinger had weighed the stakes and rolled the dice. Only time would tell if the Israelis could save themselves now.
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As American planes raced across the Atlantic, someone else was hurrying home to Israel.
At the beginning of this episode, we opened with the young Israeli newlyweds in Nepal: Yossi and Nati Ben-Hanan. Let’s return to them for a second.
After Nati had heard that Israel was under attack, she immediately ran back upstairs to their hotel room and told her husband. The next two days were easily some of the most stressful and helpless hours of their young lives.
Yossi Ben-Hanan felt nothing but shame. Here he was, in a warm bed, in an exotic locale, with a young beautiful wife…while his brothers in the IDF were being slaughtered back home.
Yossi and Nati spent the next 48 hours hopping from one airport to another. Katmandu to Dehli. Delhi to Bombay. Bombay to Athens. There was no chance of sleep, only a restless desire to get back to Israel.
Nati saw the desperation in her new husband’s demeanor. And it scared her. The second they landed back in Israel, Yossi would go straight to the front. 24 hours after touching down at the airport, he would be in a tank, under enemy fire, in harm’s way. Nati had already been denied the peace and tranquility of her honeymoon. Now she was afraid she was going to loser her new husband before the ink on their marriage certificate was even dry.
Yossi, however, was more concerned that he would *miss* the war. Like everyone else, he expected a repeat of Israel’s victory 1967. The IDF would crush the Arab armies just like they always did. While his wife worried for his safety, Yossi worried that he would miss out on his share of the glory.
Those assumptions evaporated when their plane touched down in Israel. Yossi’s father met the couple at the airport. “Are we still fighting?” Yossi asked. His father answered:
“What are you talking about? Do you know what’s going on at the front? It’s horrendous.”
A handful of hours later, Yossi Ben-Hanan was leading a column of 11 Israeli tanks, rumbling towards the Golan Heights and into the jaws of the Syrian army. After the disastrous first few days, the initial shock of the surprise attack was beginning to fade, replaced by a firm sense of anger and resolve.
All over Israel, the reserves were being called up. Young men and women were leaving their homes and their synagogues, pulling on their clean IDF uniforms and reporting for duty. The situation in the Golan Heights was bad, but the IDF was waging a fierce counter-attack, slowly pushing the Syrians back.
For days, the Israeli tank brigades had been holding onto the Golan by their fingernails. The nights were the worst. The Syrian tanks were equipped with infrared targeting equipment, allowing them to pick off Israeli tanks in the pitch-blackness of the desert. T
he only thing Israeli tank crews could see in the darkness were thousands upon thousands of tiny infrared sensors on the Syrian tanks. Little pin-pricks of light they called “cat’s eyes”. Every pair of cat’s eyes was a Syrian tank – and they were everywhere.
The IDF had no infrared equipment. And if they turned on their spotlights to try and locate enemy tanks, it made them a clear target. As one soldier remembered: “When you turn on your lights, immediately, they kill you.”
So one resourceful Israeli tank commander has the idea to turn off all the engines of the Israeli armored vehicles. And just…listen. Any engine that was still running was a Syrian tank. They could turn in the direction of the noise, flick on their spotlights, blow up the enemy tank, then change position. Listen, fire, relocate, repeat.
These kinds of clever, inventive tactics allowed the IDF to hold on in the North until the reservists made it to the Front. And once they did, the tide began to turn.
With the Israeli lines stiffened by incoming reservists like the newlywed Yossi-Ben Hanan, the Syrian offensive buckles and breaks. Their quantity-over-quality approach had finally reached its limit. Over 900 Syrian tanks had been destroyed. One Israeli soldier remembered the desert was so full of twisted metal that: “The valley was dark from tanks”.
The Syrians were on the run, and the Israelis hounded them back across the border. As one general happily re-assured the Prime Minister:
“Golda, it will be all right. We are back to ourselves and the Arabs are back to themselves.”
But it had come at great cost. The IDF had been badly mauled in the North. Dozens of tanks lost and many more irreplaceable soldiers killed. Because of its small population, Israel was loathe to throw its precious youth into the meatgrinder, but they had no choice. An entire generation would bear the scars of those desperate battles. The newlyweds, Nati and Yossi, were among them.
On October 10th, Nati was anxiously waiting at an Israeli field hospital. Her husband Yossi had been wounded in the counter-attack. Just days earlier they had been laying in bed together in Nepal. And now she didn’t know what to expect as they wheeled him into surgery. Would he be paralyzed? Disabled? Brain-dead?
When she saw him on the stretcher, she gasped. His left leg was gone. His tank had been hit by a Syrian shell, tearing apart the muscle and bones in his thigh. But through the daze of morphine, blood loss, and pain, Yossi just smiled at her and said: “It’s nothing, no need to worry - all I’ve lost is a leg!”. As honeymoons go, Yossi and Nati’s was one for the books.
With the successful counter-attacks on the Golan Heights, Israel’s most desperate hour had passed. The Samson Option was, for the time being, no longer on the table. As historian Avner Cohen writes:
“Like John F. Kennedy a decade earlier, Golda Meir had stared into the nuclear abyss and found a path back to sanity. It demonstrated to the world that Israel was a responsible and trusted nuclear custodian.”
But it would not be the last time in October 1973 that the specter of nuclear war would haunt world leaders. But for now, let’s put a pin in that.
We’ve spent so much time with the Americans, the Israelis, and the Syrians…you might be asking yourself: “That’s all great, Zach, but what the hell is going on at the Suez Canal? What about the massive crossing and bridging operation that had shattered the Bar-Lev line and kickstarted all of this in the first damn place?
Well, you’re absolutely right. We need to check in with our Egyptian friends. So let’s hop in our hypothetical teleporters and zap ourselves 400 miles to the west, back to the Egyptian front. Disaster may have been averted in the Golan Heights, but the fighting along the Suez was still going very, very badly for the Israelis.
Which means things were going very, very well for Egyptian Chief of Staff Saad El-Shaazly. If you recall, he was the architect of the crossing. The man who had planned, organized, and pulled off the impossible feat of getting the Egyptian army across the Suez Canal.
However…Shaazly was about to experience a rude awakening. Not from the Israelis – but from his own boss: Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
For those of you who work office jobs, or really any kind of job, you’ve probably experienced a boss or a supervisor that tends to swoop in at the last second – when everything is going great – and throw a wrench in the gears. Just when everything is going so well, they insert themselves into the process and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Well, that’s what Saad El-Shaazly was about to experience from his boss, President Sadat.
On October 12th, 1973, the Egyptian army was feeling really, really good. They had crossed the Suez, fortified the east bank, and dug in. As far as they were concerned, the war had already been won; their objectives had been achieved. They just had to sit back, hold onto the territory, and wait for the UN to impose a ceasefire, at which point Henry Kissinger and Soviets would hammer out a deal.
As long as the Egyptian army remained under the protective umbrella of the surface-to-air missile wall, they were untouchable. The Israelis couldn’t touch dislodge them from their position without sustaining debilitating losses. But then, politics, entered the equation.
The Syrians were calling day and night, begging President Sadat to push East into Israeli territory in the hopes that it would distract the IDF from the Syrian army. Basically: “Please – put some pressure on them, so they stop kicking our asses”.
Sadat felt compelled to answer this call. So word goes down the chain, the Egyptian army was going to leave the protection of the SAMS umbrella and renew its offensive against the IDF in the Sinai.
Chief of Staff Saad El-Shaazly raised hell over this. This is a bad idea, he says:
“No. The enemy air force is still too strong to be challenged by our own. And we do not have sufficient mobile SAM units to provide air cover.”
He calmed down, and tried to speak in language a politician would understand:
“Look, despite their loses the enemy still has eight armored brigades out there in front of us. The enemy air forces can still cripple our ground forces as soon as they poke their noses beyond our SAM umbrella. Advance and we destroy our troops without offering any significant relief to our brothers, the Syrians.”
His words went unheeded. The response to his logical, well-reasoned argument was:
“ It’s a political decision. We must renew our attack”
Saad El-Shaazly was overruled. There was nothing he could do but send his men to certain death under the guns of the IDF tankers. It was either carry out this flawed plan to the best of his ability, or resign and let it be handled by someone less competent. Shaazly decided to see it through. Even though he could hardly look his own men in the eye as he gave the order.
The Egyptian army would advance on October 14th. One week had passed since the war had begun. So much had already happened. But there was more to come. The greatest tank battle since World War 2 was about to unfold in the lonely stretches of the Sinai Desert.
NICKEL GRASS ARRIVES
Back in Tel Aviv, the skies were filled with a very welcome sight. The American planes had arrived.
Operation Nickel Grass, ordered by Nixon, facilitated by Kissinger, and executed by Military Air Command or MAC, was in full swing. The runways of Lod airport outside of Tel Aviv were packed with colossal American cargo planes. They were landing every 15 minutes.
As one American General had promised Kissinger:
“Once this flow starts, it’s going to come like a bushel basket of oranges just being dumped.”
The operation was running like clockwork, delivering 22 thousand tons of equipment, replacements parts, medical supplies, weapons, tanks, planes, and ammunition to the IDF. As historian Walter J Boyne describes:
“Almost as amazing as the abundance of matériel was the manner in which it was absorbed instantly into the very fabric of the Israeli armed forces. Cannon shells still cold from the long flight over were slammed into the hot breeches of 105mm guns. Douglas A-4s stood with their aft ends already removed, ready to have completely new tail sections bolted into place. The paint was sometimes mismatched but not the parts. TOW missiles completed their journey from stateside depots to the breeched hull of an Arab tank within a thirtyhour period.
It was a cornucopia of military wealth that freed Israeli planners from any concerns about exhausting their supplies.”
Through all of this logistical chaos, walked a little old Jewish grandmother. A tiny figure against the massive mechanical display of the airlift. Golda Meir had come to see the fruits of Israel’s relationship with the Americans. And she was very impressed.
An American colonel named Don Strobaugh took Golda on a tour of the operation. He showed her the jaw-dropping, cavernous interiors of the Lockheed C-5 aircraft. The massive pallets of ammunition and supplies being offloaded every hour on the hour. The colonel remembered Golda looking up at him with literal tears in her eyes and saying:
“For generations to come, all will be told of the miracle of the immense planes from the United States.”
Back in Washington DC, Henry Kissinger was informed of Golda’s gratitude:
“She said people are crying in Israel. She went to the airport and saw American guys coming with the planes and said it was one of the most exciting sights of her life.”
Kissinger effectively just rolled his eyes.
As he told his staff: “Without us, Israel would be dead now.” The Israelis had been stubborn, difficult and demanding. Going so far as to hint that they might need to use nuclear weapons. The nerve of these people, he thought. Kissinger sneered that the Israelis were: “As obnoxious as the Vietnamese”. President Nixon agreed saying: “Well, the Israelis *ought* to be awfully grateful after this.”
The Israelis were grateful. And vengeful.
Now that the existential danger had passed, they wanted payback. In beating back the Syrians from the Golan Heights in the North, Golda, Moshe and the rest of the general staff had tasted blood. Now their eyes turned west, across the desolate Sinai Desert, over the Suez Canal, and to Egypt. With a blank check from the Americans, an endless supply of weaponry and supplies, they would take the fight to Anwar Sadat directly.
The IDF was back to its old self. The Third Temple was stronger than ever. And neither the Americans nor the Soviets could hold the Israelis back from exacting a devastating price on the Egyptian army.
Far away in Washington, Kissinger was daydreaming about winning a second Nobel Peace prize. But he would live to regret the terrible, biblical retribution that he had just enabled and unleashed.
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In the third week of October, the San Francisco Chronicle published a political cartoon.
If you look at the cartoon - and I’ll post this on the show’s Twitter - you can see Golda Meir standing in the desert. Her face is actually drawn to be incredibly detailed and realistic; you can see her expression creased with worry and fatigue.
And behind her, the cartoon shows four Israeli generals in a Looney Tunes style scuffle. They’re wearing ridiculous Napoleonic hat and there’s dust being kicked up around them. One of the generals is holding a sign that says “politics”.
This cartoon was a commentary on the disunity that Israeli High Command had shown in the Sinai Desert in the first week of the war. In their panic and shock at being attacked, no one could agree on anything. Everyone was worried about saving their own skins from political evisceration. But now that Operation Nickel grass was pumping fresh supplies into the IDF like a saline drip, a very different picture was taking shape.
The Israelis were unified. And very, very pissed off. Their shock and discord had melted away, hardening into coordination and resolve.
There’s a photo taken during this period of the war that shows 6 or 7 Israeli generals in the underground bunker that all military operations were directed from – also known as The Pit. They all look exhausted, most of them had been surviving on cigarettes and black coffee for days. And in this photo, they’re all pressed really close together, inches from each other, hovering over this tiny little map. Plans were coming together.
It was time to strike back against Egypt. And hard.
This military bunker, the Pit, has been described by Moshe Dayan as a “beehive without the honey.” There was constant activity and noise. Maps being drawn, commands being shouted into telephones. Controlled chaos in every sense of the phrase.
Well into this controlled chaos steps Zvi Zamir, the head of Mossad, or Israel’s intelligence agency. And Zamir has some big news for these Generals: The Egyptians were about to make a major mistake. According to a source planted in the Egyptian army, on October 14th, Sadat’s forces would launch an offensive that….wait for it….stepped outside their protective umbrella of the surface-to-air missiles.
The Israelis are psyched. This is exactly what they want. A head-on tank battle in the middle of the open desert. This is what the IDF excelled at. The Egyptians were essentially challenging Lebron James to a game of HORSE.
As Israeli Chief-of-Staff Dado Elazar said: “It’s about time! We need a big, beautiful offensive with lots of tanks. Wipe them out east of the canal and then cross; That’s the program.”
He also expressed confidence in the fighting men of the IDF:
“Anyone who feels depressed in these dark corridors should go into the field and see the boys. You’ll come back in a grand mood. We’re eight days into the war but when you meet the tankers they talk as if this is the third year of World War II. They know what the Egyptians are up to and have an answer for everything. The repair shops are working, the tanks are fine, there’s ammunition. The best of our people are down there.”
All of this bravado encouraged Golda Meir. But they weren’t out of the woods yet. During the first week of the Yom Kippur War, she had gone from smoking two packs of cigarettes a day to three.
At 6 o’clock in the morning on October 14th, 500 Egyptian tanks rumbled deep into the Sinai desert, organized into six thrusts. They were supported by air cover and infantry, but none of it would matter.
The IDF waiting for them. Arrayed on the high dunes and ridges of the Sinai, hundreds of Israeli tanks open fire on these six Egyptian columns. The Egyptian tank brigades just fall apart. From a numbers perspective, it was the largest tank clashes since the Eastern Front in World War 2. An Israeli commander summarized:
“If I may use a crude expression, they’re the same old turds. They came, they were hit, and they ran.“
When Egyptian Chief-of-Staff Saad el-Shaazly heard the news, he said it was “our most calamitous day.”
But the Egyptians weren’t going to just scamper back across the Canal without a fight. The pursuing IDF armor runs headfirst into Egyptian tank-hunting teams equipped with a new weapon, given to them by the Soviets: Sagger anti-tank missiles.
As I’ve said before, I’m not a huge military hardware buff, but I want to pause an explain these weapons because they’re actually pretty cool.
The Sagger weapon system came in what looks like, essentially, a suitcase. And what you do is you open the suitcase, and pull up the launch pad. Then you load a missile onto the launch pad and fire it with a remote control. But here’s the cool part, the remote control has a video pad and a joystick, and the operator guides the missile directly where he wants it to go. And these missiles are attached to two electrical green wires, or filaments, that detach once the they’ve detonated.
So the effect of facing these things, is seeing these slow-moving missiles bobbing and weaving towards you in real time, attached to two threads of spider silk. Now - as futuristic as that sounds, the Saggers missed a lot of the time. So the visual you would’ve seen is dozens of dozens of Israeli tanks draped with these spider-silk like filaments. From where missed had sailed over and missed.
In the first few days of the war, these were devastating to Israeli tank crews in the Sinai, but by October 14th, they were just one more hazard on a battlefield full of hazards.
The IDF had momentum, and it keeps pushing the Egyptian army back towards the Suez Canal. It was a remarkable turnaround. As Abraham Rabinovich writes:
“Rarely—in modern times, at least—had a nation at war recovered from so massive a blow so swiftly and attempt to seize the initiative. The United States after Pearl Harbor and the Soviet Union after Barbarossa had had the territorial depth and the time to fall back on their resources and prepare a counterblow. Israel had neither resources to fall back on nor time, and it was pushing the conflict to a swift and decisive conclusion.”
As the IDF squeezes the Egyptians against the Canal tighter and tighter, the fighting gets really ugly. It’s intimate - hand-to-hand in some of the trenches and fortifications. Rabinovich describes the aftermath of one of these engagements:
“The air was heavy with the smell of cordite and acrid smoke. Orange pulses in the mist hinted at fires all about. Were it not for the morning cold that set teeth chattering, the curtain seemed about to go up on a scene from hell. As the fog dissipated, hell revealed itself. Hundreds of gutted vehicles were strewn over the desert floor, many still burning. Shattered jeeps and trucks were scattered like chaff. But it was the remains of the heavy tanks that bespoke the violence of the night. Some had their turrets blown off. Some were upended like toys, their gun barrels embedded in the sand. Charred Israeli and Egyptian tanks lay alongside each other. Corpses were strewn on the sand. Many more were inside the gutted vehicles and in the ditches. There was no hint of the orderly lines of a divisional encampment which this had been a few hours before or the orientation of enemy formations facing one another on a battlefield. This was the all-around chaos of a murderous street brawl that left only an exhausted few still standing.”
There’s a story about an Israeli soldier who looking for survivors after an engagement like this:
“A gunner, Bertie Ochayon, went from one foxhole to another, asking in a low voice, “Are you Jewish?” He got no reply until he came on a foxhole with a single figure lying partly in and partly out. His right arm was visible and Ochayon could see that it was badly injured. “Are you Jewish,” he asked. “Yeah, I’m Jewish,” came the reply, “and it’s hard to be a Jew.”
The Egyptians fought bravely. But by October 15th, Israeli forces were looking across the waters of the Suez Canal. The East bank was an arid expanse of endless sand, but the Egyptian side was green, spotted with orchards and palm trees, and irrigated by the Nile river. A week ago, the Third Temple had been in dire jeopardy.
Now the IDF was on its way to Cairo.
KISSINGER’S GREEN LIGHT
Henry Kissinger, on the other hand, was on the way to Moscow.
Both the Americans and the Soviets had grown tired of playing diplomatic phone tag, and it was up to Kissinger to hammer out a ceasefire deal that would bring the Yom Kippur War to a close. The pressure had to mind-numbing. President Nixon had given him full authority to do whatever needed to be done, saying:
“Dr. Kissinger speaks with my full authority and that the commitments that he may make in the course of your discussions have my complete support.”
The jet lag after the 15-hour flight from DC to Moscow was brutal; Kissinger was exhausted. But he sat eye-to-eye with Russia’s leader, Leonid Brezhnev, through a four-hour meeting and a very long dinner. By the end of the day, they had a deal. One that, hopefully, all parties would abide by. A three-point resolution that would have to be adopted by the United Nations.
Before he went to bed that night, Kissinger called home to Washington to report his progress to Alexander Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff. Haig was distracted and distant, though. Kissinger pressed him about it, and Haig responded: “Will you get off my back? I have problems of my own.
Kissinger scoffed: “What problems could you possibly have in Washington on a Saturday night?. Haig replied, “The president has just fired Cox; Richardson and Ruckelshaus have resigned and all hell has broken loose.” Haig was referring to the infamous Saturday Night Massacre, which if you know anything about the Watergate scandal, was one of the key screwups by Nixon that precipitated his downfall.
With Nixon fully embroiled by Watergate, Kissinger was the sole custodian of US foreign policy. And he could shape it into whatever he wanted. Kissinger did not want to be buddy-buddy with the Soviets. He wanted them out of the Middle East for good.
So, with Nixon distracted, Kissinger completely defied his boss’s wishes. He decided to stall the ceasefire process. So that the Israelis, who were now winning, could force the Egyptians into a position that only America could get them out of. These were treacherous waters, but Kissinger believed he was one of the few people smart enough to navigate them.
12 hours after his pow-wow with the Soviets, Kissinger was on a flight to Tel Aviv to meet with Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and the rest of the Israeli cabinet. While he was in the air, the UN security council ceasefire resolution passed unanimously.
At 1:35 on October 22nd , he was sitting across a table from Golda Meir.
Kissinger was a formidable operator, but so was Golda. As Israeli Foreign minister Abba Eban remembered:
“Kissinger seemed apprehensive when I told him that Golda was waiting for him. It sounded like a summons to see a stern headmistress.”
Golda had always been mildly suspicious of Henry Kissinger. As biographer Elinor Burkett said of Golda:
She never had much patience with intellectuals and she worried, too that that the American secretary of state was a bit of a self-hating Jew.
Kissinger tried to stress to Golda that his opinions on Israel were impartial and fair-minded:
“I am an American first, the Secretary of State second, and a Jew third.”
Golda smiled at him and said:
“That’s alright, sonny.in Hebrew, We read from right to left.”
Political barbs aside, Golda stressed how thankful Israel was for the American airlift:
“Without you. I don’t know where we would have been. I went to the airfield the other day and I watched the planes come in. It was more than I could ever have dreamed.”
She added that she would have preferred the ceasefire hadn’t been hammered out so quickly. They had the Egyptians on the run. With each passing hour, Sadat’s position was becoming more desperate and the Egyptian army was getting weaker. Kissinger told Golda, in what would become one of the greatest diplomatic blunders of his entire career:
“You won’t get violent protests from Washington if something happens during the night, while I’m flying. Nothing can happen in Washington until noon tomorrow.“
Golda’s eyes flashed:
“If they don’t stop. We won’t.”
That evening, Henry Kissinger got on a plane back to Washington D.C. But he had made a critical error. Golda Meir had interpreted his remarks to mean that America would not care if Israel kept advancing after the Ceasefire had been adopted. Without realizing it, he had given the Israelis a green light to keep fighting in defiance of a United Nations resolution.
Kissinger got back home to Washington DC at 3AM on October 23rd. After two days of intense negotiations in Russia and Israel, flying across 7 time zones, he was exhausted. When he woke up the next morning, he was blindsided with news from the Middle East.
The Israelis had indeed broken the ceasefire. They had surrounded the Egyptian Third Army, completely cutting it off from supplies. In 3-5 days, thousands of trapped Egyptian soldiers would be dead from thirst, exposure, or Israeli fire
Kissinger realized his mistake. He remembered years later:
“I had indicated that I would understand if there was a few hours’ “slippage” in the ceasefire deadline while I was flying home, to compensate for the four hours lost through the communications breakdown in Moscow. But this new fighting was continuing far beyond the brief additional margin I had implied.
A wave of horror slowly soaked into Kissinger’s brain. This would look like calculated deceit on the part of the Americans and Israelis. Kissinger turned to an aide and said:
“(oh) My God, the Russians will think I double-crossed them.”
--- ---MUSIC BREAK -- ----
While Kissinger had been wheeling and dealing with the Soviets, the Israelis had been busy. After thrashing the Egyptian army in the Sinai and crushing their bridgeheads on the East bank of the Suez, the IDF was crossing into Africa. To do it, they hauled a two-hundred-yard roller bridge across the desert.
This bridge was so immense and so heavy that it required the strength of ten tanks to haul it over the sand dunes. Once it was assembled on the banks of the canal, the bridge would unfurl, like a massive centipede or a caterpillar. With that in place, the IDF troops could cross into Egyptian territory.
The Egyptians had planned their Yom Kippur surprise attack for years. But now that the tables had turned, they were rudderless. They had not planned for a complete reversal of fortunes. According to the IDF intelligence chief:
“What’s happening now is not in accordance with the plan they’ve been practicing for years. They don’t understand our moves. They don’t know what to do.”
Things were accelerating fast. And the situation was looking worse and worse for the Egyptians. IDF soldiers were painting the words “Cairo Express” onto the dented metal of their tanks.
The Israeli jets, equipped with brand-new Sidewinder missiles and radar-jamming equipment from the Americans, was devastating the Egyptian MiG’s. Working in tandem on the ground, the IDF tanks were blowing up one surface-to-air missile launch site after the other. It was clear that Soviet weaponry was, yet again, no match for Israeli tenacity and American technology.
On October 23rd, word comes down that the ceasefire imposed by the United Nations had taken affect. But after Kissinger’s conversation with Golda Meir, the IDF felt they had been given a wink and a nudge to keep going. To flagrantly push deeper into Egyptian territory in violation of an international agreement.
Golda’s defense was “look when the Egyptians stop firing, we’ll stop firing.”
But the Egyptians were fighting for their lives. The situation had gotten so bad Egypt’s Third Army, consisting of tens of thousands of men was completely surrounded by the IDF on the West Bank of the Canal. Three or four more days, and they would all die.
Back in DC, Kissinger could see his carefully laid plans falling apart in front of his eyes. The Israelis were in the grips of a bloodlust, enraged by the surprise attack and wanting to inflict the maxmimum amount of punishment on the Egyptians.
But if Egypt’s Third Army was allowed to be completely wipes out by the IDF, their would never ever be hope of peace in the Middle East in ten lifetimes. The Egyptians would never be able to forgive Israel for the death of that many sons, fathers, and brothers. New wars would continue to erupt every four or five years until the end of time. As one UN diplomat pleaded to Kissinger:
“If things reach that point, I’m not sure what kind of a ceasefire would be left to build upon.”
It also jeopardized America’s relationship with the Arab world. As Kissinger wrote in his memoirs:
If the United States held still while the Egyptian army was being destroyed after an American-sponsored ceasefire and a Secretary of State’s visit to Israel, not even the most moderate Arab could cooperate with us any longer.”
Things went from bad to worse. Kissinger received a message from the leader of Russia, Brezhnev:
“This is absolutely unacceptable.
“We in Moscow are shocked that the understanding which was reached only two days ago has in fact been ruptured by this action by the Israeli leaders. You must
force Israel to immediately obey the Security Council decision. Too much is at stake, not only as concerns the situation in the Middle East, but in our relations as well.”
Moshe Dayan had always said that Israel needed to be a mad dog in a dangerous world. The United States had tried to put a leash on it. And now Kissinger had lost control. Golda Meir tried to assure Kissinger that the Egyptians had broken the ceasefire, not them. Kissinger angrily responded:
“If you wind up tonight having captured 20,000 Egyptians you won’t be able to tell us that they started the fighting.”
Golda resented the insinuation that she was somehow lying to the world, saying:
‘You can say anything you want about us and do anything you want, but we are not liars. The allegations are not true.’
Then the Soviets drop the boot. They threaten to send troops into the Middle East to enforce the ceasefire. Kissinger knew what that meant. If Soviet ground troops went int, American ground troops would have to go in. In the span of 72 hours, a successful ceasefire had degenerated into a possible clash between the superpowers.
And if all of this wasn’t enough on Henry Kissinger’s plate, President Nixon calls. And he is without exaggeration, on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Not because of the situation in the Middle East, but because of the Watergate scandal. Impeachment proceedings had begun, and the stress of it had transformed Nixon in a raving, paranoid conspiracy theorist. According to Kissinger, when Nixon called that night he was: “as agitated and emotional as I had ever heard him.”
Nixon raved to Kissinger on the phone:
“They are doing it because of their desire to kill the president. And they may succeed. I may physically die. What they care about is destruction. It brings me sometimes to feel like saying the hell with it. I would like to see them run this country and see what they do…. The real tragedy is, if I move out, everything we have done will crumble. The Russians will look for other customers, the Chinese will lose confidence, the Europeans will—They just don’t realize they are throwing everything out the window. I don’t know what in the name of God…
This was bad. As Kissinger wrote in his memoirs:
“We were heading into what could have become the gravest foreign policy crisis of the Nixon presidency—because it involved a direct confrontation of the superpowers—with a president overwhelmed by his persecution.”
The President of the United States was utterly incapacitated by his own mental state. The Vice President, Spiro Agnew, had resigned weeks earlier. This was Kissinger’s ballgame now. Weeks ago he had received a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in Vietnam, and now the US was on its way to the closest brush with nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
At 7:35 PM on October 24th, Kissinger turned to an aide and said of the Soviets, “I think we have to go to the mat on this one.”
Kissinger judged the situation and came to the conclusion that Soviets were bluffing, They would not put boots on the ground in Egypt. They were taking advantage of the Watergate crisis. He said:
“Friday, the president was in good shape domestically. Now the Soviets see that he is, in their mind, non-functional. The Soviet strategy was one of throwing détente on the table during a moment of maximum U.S. weakness. We must prevent them from getting away with this…. When you decide to use force, you must use plenty of it.”
Kissinger decides to issue a military alert – Defense Condition III – also known as DEFCON III. It was a nuclear alert and it carried an implicit threat. David R Morse describes in his book, Kissinger and the Yom Kippur War:
DEFCON III places on readiness the Strategic Air Command (SAC) and the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), thereby involving strategic nuclear forces. Other measures were also taken. The 82nd Airborne Division was placed on high alert, B-52s positioned in Guam were returned to the United States, the aircraft carrier Franklin Delano Roosevelt was moved to join the carrier Independence south of Crete, and the carrier John F. Kennedy was moved into the Mediterranean.
Kissinger believed the Soviets were bluffing. So he bluffed back – hard. The Soviets were pissed. Defense Minister Andrei Grechco said:
“The Americans have no right to put their troops on alert all over the world, including their nuclear forces. It is a gross violation of the Soviet-American treaty on the prevention of nuclear war signed in 1972,”
They kicked and screamed, but at the end of the day the Soviets back down. They do no escalate. On October 26th, DEFON III is reduced in urgency to DEFCON IV.
This is the moment in the movie where the room full of people in a command center somewhere erupt in cheers, jump up, start hugging each other. Crisis had been averted. Kissinger’s gamble had worked out – but only barely. It had been an incredibly dangerous move. As David R. Morse writes in his book, paraphrasing another writer:
“Nuclear deterrence should be viewed as powerful but very dangerous medicine, analogous to the former use of arsenic to treat syphilis or chemotherapy to treat cancer.”
Relaxation between the two great powers opened the door to a true ceasefire between Egypt and Israel. The IDF forces encircling Egypt’s Third Army backed off, and allowed outside deliveries of medicine and food to be given to the soldiers. The Yom Kippur War had technically been a defeat for President Anwar Sadat and Egypt, but the fact that the surprise attack had even been successfully pulled off was a symbolic victory.
During their meeting in Tel Aviv, Henry Kissinger had asked Golda Meir if she thought Anwar Sadat’s presidency would survive an Egyptian defeat. She lit a cigarette and said: “I do. Because he is the hero. He dared.” As David R Morse explains:
For the Arabs, the war had restored dignity and self-esteem, six years after its humiliating defeat in the Six-Day War. Sadat had managed to effect Arab unity to a degree never before achieved. He had successfully engineered and executed a surprise attack that accomplished its specific and limited objective, namely to force the beginning of the end to the status quo of an Israeli-occupied Sinai and make Middle East peace talks a primary focus of the United States. Significantly, he did so by employing the help of the Soviet Union, while at the same time, extricating Egypt from its over-handed influence. Under his leadership, the Sinai would be restored to Egyptian hands just five years after the war.
Golda Meir was not so lucky. Morse continues:
In Israel, the war proved to be a difficult and painful victory. The nation had suffered cataclysmic loss of lives, and the myth of its imperviousness to Arab attack was shattered, both internally, and throughout the world. It emerged from the war humbled, scarred and sobered. Politically, the war was a devastating blow to Golda Meir, who resigned as prime minister in June 1974;
And although Israel’s losses – about 3,000 dead and 7,000 wounded – were small compared to a conflict like World War 2, it was a heavy toll when weighed proportionally against its small population. According to Abraham Rabinovich:
“Israel had lost almost three times as many men per capita in nineteen days as the U.S. lost in Vietnam in close to a decade.
But despite the all the graves in the Golan and the Sinai, the Yom Kippur War ultimately culminated in the Camp David Accords of 1978, a lasting peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. As an Israeli ambassador said:
“The Yom Kippur War, with all its agony and all its pain…. I think will enter into the annals of history as the war that brought the peace.”
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat would not survive long to enjoy the fruits of his labor. On October 6th, 1981, the 8th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, he was shot to death by Egyptian extremists, revenge for making peace with the Zionists.
The Yom Kippur War was also a conflict that hit very, very close to home for the West. Ya know, most of the time, we read about these far-flung struggles, and it’s all very abstract. We don’t see or feel any consequences in our own backyards.
Well, the Yom Kippur War had dire economic consequences for Europe and the United States. As it turned out, the Arab countries of the Middle East had more in common than a burning contempt of Israel. They all had huge deposits of…you guessed it: Oil.
In response to Operation Nickel Grass, the airlift that had resupplied Israel, the oil-producing Arab countries put the squeeze on the US as well as its European allies. OAPEC, or the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries put an oil embargo on the US, Canada, the UK, Japan, and the Netherlands.
Oil went from $3 a barrel to $12 a barrel almost overnight. It caused a massive economic shockwave that was felt by ordinary people all over the world. Some of our older listeners may remember the long lines for gas, the rationing and price hikes that were a common feature of what became known as the 1973 Oil Crisis.
At the risk of sounding like a sophomore philosophy major….it’s all connected, guys. This is one of those flashpoints in history where you can step back and see history for the chaotic, bloody Rube Goldberg machine that it is. Things click and bang and slide into place, carrying us down a path that’s hard to analyze and even harder to predict.
I want to close out today’s episode with the two people that have dominated my telling of this story. Golda Meir and Henry Kissinger.
In the Winter 1974, just four months after the Yom Kippur War, Golda Meir sat smoking in her office in Jerusalem. She was approaching her 76th birthday. She looked out the window, she could see protesters across the street from the building. One of them, a young IDF veteran wearing glasses and a windbreaker held up a sign that said:
“Grandma, 3,000 of your grandchildren are dead.”
In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, the Israeli government launched a full inquiry to ascertain who was responsible for the intelligence failure. It found that neither Moshe Dayan nor Golda Meir could be help responsible. The public was outraged. They believed that their leaders, particularly Moshe and Golda, had failed them.
Parents of dead Israeli soldiers spat at Moshe on the street. They called him “murderer” to his face.
Golda eventually bowed to public pressure, and resigned. Her career of 50 years had ended on a sour note. Golda had seen Israel grow up before her eyes. She’d seen it in its wide-eyed optimistic infancy. She’s guided it threw troubled youth. But now it had outgrown her. As Golda herself told an interviewer: “my only fear is to live too long.”
A journalist described the day she left office:
“She stood up, placed her handbag on her arm, and walked slowly, slowly toward the rear. I could see her back, slightly hunched, her swollen legs, and that bag hanging from her arm. Nobody shook her hand or said anything. Everybody knew it was the end of an era.”
A few days later Henry Kissinger called Golda.
“How do you feel? He asked.
She took a breath and answered:
“Wonderful,” she answered. “I feel so light-hearted and light headed. It’s a good feeling.”
After all the pain and stress and anger, Golda was relieved. Sad, but relieved. Her part in the drama was over. She was passing the torch. Contentious a passing as it might be. When asked about how she had risen to such high places in global politics, Golda said dismissively:
“I don’t know anything about leadership. I can only tell you that I was going to the theater one evening and got on an elevator. Nobody in the elevator bothered to move. So I pressed the button. That’s all I can say about leadership.”
Kissinger had his own legacy to reflect on. As he wrote years after his time on the world stage had come to a close:
“Policymakers cannot hide behind their analysts if they miss the essence of an issue. They can never know all the facts, but they have a duty to ask the right questions. That was the real failure on the eve of the Mideast war. We had become too complacent about our own assumptions.
We knew everything but understood too little”
This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.
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