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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Nuclear Crisis - The October War - 1973

By 1973, both the USSR and the United States had robust strategic nuclear forces, which, in theory, could survive a first strike and retaliate with devastating force. This fearsome capability would, it was thought, ensure global stability and discourage either power from any act which might lead to war. This was not the always the case: In the Middle East in 1973 both powers made military moves of some significance.

The confrontation, which began early in the morning of October 24th, lasted less than forty eight hours. There was little time for sophisticated planning on either side and responses were ad hoc reactions to circumstance. By October 24th, Israeli forces had repulsed a combined Egyptian and Syrian onslaught and were on the offensive. UN cease-fire agreements had failed to hold in Egypt, where Israeli had surrounded the Egyptian Third Army on the western bank of the Suez Canal. American efforts to persuade Israel to adhere to the UN agreements were insufficient and the beleaguered Egyptian commander, against Cairo’s orders, persisted in trying to spring the trap, giving the Israelis ample excuse for continued aggression.

Henry Kissinger had flown to Israel on the 20th, in an effort to convince Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to forgo destruction of the Third Army in return of a promise of peace talks with Egypt. The Israelis were unimpressed with his scheme, which suggested they abandon their bird in hand in for unspecified future gain. Yet while the exact nature of the discussions is unclear, Kissinger left Israel on the 22nd in the belief that the crisis was over and the situation could be diffused.

He returned to Washington on the following day to find that the crisis was still very much in full swing. It appeared that the Israelis were ignoring the cease-fire: “My God, the Russians will think I’ve double crossed them. And in their shoes, who wouldn’t?” he said. He was right. By the 24th all seven Soviet airborne divisions were on alert. An air command post had been established in Southern Russia and the heightened state of readiness that had pertained throughout the conflict was now increased. There were an “unprecedented” amount of Soviet warships were in the Mediterranean.

US Intelligence was tracking a ship which passed through the Bosporus on the 22nd and reached Port Said on the 25th. Intelligence believed it to be carrying radioactive material, possibly warheads for a brigade of SCUD missiles previously deployed by the Soviets near Cairo. Although the rumours were never confirmed, the spectre of atomic escalation now became part of American threat assessment.

An apparent standing down of the Soviet airlift to Egypt and Syria on the morning of the 24th proved a false dawn for de-escalation. By noon a large portion of the Soviet air fleet could not be located and intelligence intercepts indicated that plans had changed from the previous day’s. Activity on certain Soviet networks surged, a good indication that an operation was beginning.

By the afternoon, events had begun to accelerate dangerously. Amid signs of increasing panic in Cairo, President Sadat appealed to the United States and the Soviet Union to impose a joint peace-keeping force between Egyptian and Israeli units. The Soviets, by now convinced of Kissinger’s betrayal, supported the proposal, one which the United States was unable to accept: Kissinger would not countenance the risk of combining the forces of two nuclear powers in such a volatile region. Brezhnev, in a telegram received late in the evening in Washington had reinforced the Soviet position and American policy makers were certain that failure on their part to act would result in Soviet intervention.

Kissinger chose to ignore all Soviet messages and made no personal contact with the Soviets. Instead, American communication was to be made through action. At around midnight, the alert status of US forces was raised to DEFCON III. Fifty to sixty B-52 strategic bombers were moved to the United States and air refuelling tankers began non-routine operations. The aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy was dispatched toward the Mediterranean from just outside the Straits of Gibraltar and the 82nd airborne division was told to be ready to move by 6:00am. Only at 5:00am was a message delivered to the Soviet Ambassador, stressing the impossibility of joint action. While Kissinger’s note made no overt reference to nuclear weapons the implicit warning of escalation was clear. “In these circumstances, we must view your suggestion of unilateral action as a matter of gravest concern, involving incalculable consequences,” While warning them in no uncertain terms against intervention, the note left a way out for the Soviets, suggesting the introduction of a small number of Soviet observers. This was the route eventually taken.

Among the reasons Washington selected the alert as the most appropriate response to the crisis was the belief that this was the best way of sending a clear signal to the Soviets without creating a large public debate in the United States. In this respect, there was a serious miscalculation. By the early morning of the 25th, the alert was the main item of television news. The public, already conditioned by the events of Vietnam to treat military action with scepticism, was unconvinced that the crisis had not been engineered by the President as a distraction from the other big story of the moment, Watergate. It is perhaps for this reason that Kissinger’s public speech that afternoon dwelt on the gravity of superpower confrontation.

The crisis was soon ended by an adjustment of Soviet demands for joint deployment. The decision by the United States to threaten nuclear action was facilitated by the unambiguous nature of the crisis. Washington was in little doubt of the Soviet intention to intervene and of the detrimental consequences of any such action for the American position in the Middle East.

Whether it was the (implicit) threat of nuclear action itself that discouraged the Soviets is a question which falls within the wider debate of the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence: Popular belief has exaggerated the magnitude of most commonly acknowledged nuclear ‘crises.’ Only a few presented a real danger of nuclear conflagration. It is difficult to assess how much the direct threat of nuclear bombing influenced strategically the prospective target. The greatest danger faced by either side in the Cold War was not a nuclear strike as a strategic first response to a crisis. The factor that most inhibited the use of force was the knowledge that small conventional clashes in the Third World could rapidly become inflamed, with incalculable consequence.

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Page last modified: 23-07-2019 17:50:35 ZULU