241. Editorial Note
On May 14, 1971, less than two weeks after his dismissal of Vice President Ali Sabri, Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat announced that he had arrested several pro-Soviet members of his cabinet, including the Minister of Interior and the Minister of War. Although the crisis was sparked by domestic politics, the men had opposed Sadat’s attempts to secure American rather than Soviet support for his foreign policy, including negotiations for an interim settlement on the Suez Canal. Secretary of State William Rogers, who had recently returned from an eight-day trip to the region, assessed the situation in a May 16 memorandum for President Richard Nixon. While he found no evidence of intervention from Moscow, Rogers observed that the Soviets were clearly unhappy at the elimination of their supporters in Cairo. “[T]hey wield significant continuing influence on Sadat through his dependence upon them for arms and advisors,” Rogers warned, “and they would undoubtedly use this leverage to prevent Sadat from going too far on an anti-Soviet course. Conceivably, the Soviets might also resort to military movements—such as by their Mediterranean fleet—to try to intimidate Sadat, but we have no evidence of this so far.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 637, Country Files, Middle East, UAR, Vol. VI [1 of 2])
During a meeting in the Oval Office at 9:05 a.m. on May 19, Nixon and Rogers discussed Egypt’s efforts to steer a course between the two superpowers. Although he had already reported the results of his visit to Cairo by telegram (telegram 2660 from Tel Aviv, May 7; ibid., Box 657, Country Files, Middle East, Nodis/Cedar/Plus, Vol. II [2 of 3]), Rogers now briefed Nixon in more detail on his May 6 meeting with Sadat:
Rogers: “Now, Sadat is a very forceful man. He has a lot of strength. He is nationalistic as the devil. He probably is untrustworthy, so I don’t want you to think that I’m trusting him.”[Page 709]
Rogers: “But he has decided to—I am convinced—to change his position. He is determined to become closer to the West for economic and political reasons. He’s got a hell of a situation there. He’s spending his money on his arms; he knows his people can’t operate them, can’t fly the damn airplanes. He’s surrounded with Russians; he doesn’t like that very much. Now, what I wanted to say to you, and he told me this in private and then he told Joe [Sisco] the same thing—and he didn’t say it unequivocally; he said it as categorically as you possibly can. And I haven’t briefed, I haven’t told anybody at the State Department or anywhere else because it would be a disaster if we did—”
Nixon: “[If it] got out.”
Rogers: “He said, ‘I have to have the Soviet agreement.’”
Rogers: “It’s important for me to have the new agreement. You’re the only one who can help us get it—you, the United States.”
Rogers: “I don’t like the presence of the Russians. I am a nationalist but I have no way of defending our country—we had no way of defending our country—except to get Russian help. You wouldn’t give it to us; nobody else would. It’s costing me a lot of money. I’m paying the salaries of the Russians. I’m paying cash for the equipment I get.’ And he said, ‘I want to give you this promise: that if we can work out an interim settlement—and it will take me six months to open the Canal—I promise you, I give you my personal assurance, that all the Russian ground troops will be out of my country at the end of six months. I will keep Russian pilots to train my pilots because that’s the only way my pilots can learn to fly. But insofar as the bulk of the Russians are concerned, the ten or twelve thousand, they will all be out of Egypt in six months, if we can make a deal.’”
Nixon: “On Suez?”
Rogers: “On the interim—Suez.”
Nixon: “‘Interim,’ means Suez in other words.”
Nixon: “I see.”
Rogers: “The final peace agreement is—”
Rogers: “—[unclear] The interim is—we’re talking about the Suez Canal. Now—and I said, ‘Well, Mr. President, you know, based on that, we may be able to work it out.’ I said, ‘The complicating factor is the Russian—the presence of the Russians troops. If you can assure us that they’ll be out in six months, that makes our problem a lot easier.’ I said, ‘You tell us that we shouldn’t be so pro-Israeli. We have to be supportive [Page 710] of Israel’s position because you got the Russians here in large numbers.’ I said, ‘For as much as we would like to be friendly as hell with you, we can’t as long as you have this number of Russians here. You might as well realize that.’ I said, ‘We have to supply Israel with arms as long as you’ve got a large number of Russian troops in your country. On the other hand, once that is not the case, once they’ve left, or most of them, it’s a different ballgame.’”
According to Rogers, Sadat had also decided to communicate with Washington outside normal channels, using Mohammed Heikal, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Al Ahram, as an intermediary. Rogers was optimistic about the outcome of his meeting with Sadat, telling Nixon: “I think it is possible, if he stays in power, that we can make a breakthrough here that will have tremendous importance.” He added: “If we could pull it off, it will be a step toward peace that no one thought was possible.” (Ibid., White House Tapes, Conversation 501–4) The editors transcribed the portions of the tape recording printed here specifically for this volume.
The President followed up on this conversation in an “eyes only” memorandum to the Secretary on May 26. After placing his views in historical perspective, Nixon declared that politics would not determine his decisions on the Middle East. The United States would maintain “a totally even-handed policy” in the region, tilting toward Israel only when Soviet influence in Egypt was “particularly strong.” Nixon summarized his position as follows:
“I am convinced that unless we get some kind of a settlement now with the Israelis on the Suez or some other issue, we aren’t going to get any kind of settlement until after the ’72 elections. By that time, even though the Israelis don’t think this can happen, the Soviet will have had no other choice but to build up the armed strength of Israel’s neighbors to the point that another Mideast war will be inevitable. As far as Sadat is concerned, he obviously does not want to have a Soviet presence in Egypt. On the other hand, if his policy of conciliation fails, he will either have to go along with a new program of accepting Soviet aid or lose his head, either politically or physically.”
Nixon instructed Rogers to act accordingly, expanding his leading role in the implementation of U.S. policy in the Middle East:
“I do not want you to report to me on the day-to-day negotiations you undertake. Just keep me posted when a major decision has been made. You can also have in mind that by my being somewhat detached from the negotiating procedure you will have me in a position where when the time is ripe I may be able to be the ‘persuader’ in getting Israel to accept what is a reasonable settlement and one which is in the interest of the United States.” (Ibid., RG 59, Entry 5439, Rogers’ Office Files: Lot 73 D 443, Box 25, WPR–President Nixon)[Page 711]
Few analysts in Washington expected a major decision in Cairo the next day. On May 27—after 3 days of secret negotiations—Egypt and the Soviet Union signed a 15–year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. Under the terms of the treaty, the two sides agreed to hold regular consultations or in the event of an imminent threat to peace to “immediately contact one another in the interests of removing the threat that has developed or restoring the peace.” (Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Volume XXIII, No. 21 (June 22, 1971), pages 2–4) Before Rogers could report to Nixon, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Joseph Sisco called Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger at 11:10 a.m. on May 28 to provide his preliminary analysis of the treaty:
“S: The first part’s obviously legal [omission in transcript] around arrangements which are very political and psychologically true in the area. It assures long-range support—political, economic and military over next 15 years. Undoubtedly Soviet initiated due to the internal events in Egypt and to keep them from making overtures to the U.S. I think it will cause waves in other countries in which they hope the influence without treaty will be increased.
“K: What do you mean?
“S: In countries like Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, etc. they may make overtures to the United States if they do not have a treaty with the Soviet Union.
“K: Loosen their ties.
“S: Yes. These are countries which are on our side of the fence anyway. Now where this leaves Sadat. Gives pledge that they will not be involved in the internal affairs and an ex post facto changes made by Sadat are OK with the Russians. There is a firm commitment to consultation with the Egyptian Government. There is an overall packet on consultation. From Sadat’s point of view it eases his pressure on the military. The military is dependent on the Soviets and if he has an agreement with the Soviets that solves the army question. This will leave Sadat with as much or as little influence as he had before.”
After assessing the impact on Israel, Sisco commented on the implications of the treaty for Moscow: “We will see not so much change on substance—just manifest procedurally because Russians want to be in if there is any settlement. The Russians are saying to us that nothing will happen unless we get in.” The two men then briefly discussed the element of surprise in Soviet diplomacy:
“S: This thing looks like it is a Soviet draft. It has been concocted in a hurry.
“K: It seems to have been happening often lately.
“S: We had no advance warning that this was coming. It could be we have lousy intelligence or—[Page 712]
“K: It couldn’t be true!!
“S: Or the Russians drafted it and we knew nothing about it. There is no such treaty in existence in other places. In quick capsule form this is a political move to protect their major commitment in that area and they are putting the rest of the world on notice that they plan to be there for a good long time to come.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Henry Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts, Box 10, Chronological File)
Rogers forwarded this preliminary analysis in a memorandum for the President drafted by Sisco that afternoon. On May 31, Kissinger summarized for Nixon the main points not only of Rogers’ memorandum but also of the treaty itself. Kissinger, however, offered an alternative analysis in his memorandum:
“The Egyptian army is dependent on Soviet support. In turn, Sadat is at the moment dependent on his military for his base of power, having purged the party and the bureaucracy. Rather than strengthening Sadat’s flexibility with respect to negotiating the Canal settlement, the treaty could give the Soviet Union a veto over the future negotiations. Thus, whatever the outcome of the negotiations—and after all the Soviets are the chief beneficiaries of a Suez settlement—recent events may have enhanced Soviet long-term influence. Certainly the Soviets are committed to engage themselves as never before in case of resumption of hostilities.”
The President noted this passage and wrote the following instructions in the margin: “K—We must not allow this to be a pretext for escalation of arms to Israel. We should act only in response to incontrovertible evidence of a Soviet military aid which we evaluate as significantly changing the balance of power.” (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 657, Country Files, Middle East, Nodis/Cedar/Plus, Vol. II [2 of 3])
The Egyptian President, meanwhile, sought to reassure the United States about the Soviet role in his country’s affairs. On May 30, Sadat summoned Donald C. Bergus, head of the U.S. Interests Section in Cairo, to convey a personal message to Nixon and Rogers. In a June 3 memorandum, Kissinger briefed Nixon on the main points of Sadat’s message. According to Kissinger, Sadat told Bergus that the Soviet-Egyptian treaty was “nothing new; it merely set forth the shape of the existing relationship.” Kissinger also reported that Sadat promised that Soviet military personnel would leave Egypt “as soon as the first phase agreement (presumably Canal settlement) was reached.” After reading the memorandum, Nixon approved the Department’s instructions for Bergus to deliver Sadat’s message to Rogers in Lisbon (where he was attending a NATO Ministerial meeting) but to warn the Egyptians beforehand that any publicity “would be interpreted by the American public as a Soviet effort” to pressure the United States. (Ibid.)