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143. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • President Richard Nixon
  • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Secretary of State and Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Lt. General Brent Scowcroft, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Congressional Leadership

The President: There is a serious situation in the Middle East. It has developed into something tougher than the Israelis anticipated.

An early decision on the battlefield appears unlikely. Henry will talk very freely, so let’s decide what we will say at the end of the meeting, so we don’t spook anyone.

The Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence are not here so as not to give a U.S. Government complexion to it. So Henry is talking as Assistant to the President, not Secretary of State.

Kissinger: I will begin with a chronology.

For ten days before the war, we received reports of increased military activity on the Syrian and Egyptian fronts. They were evaluated by everyone as Egyptian maneuvers and Syrian defensive moves after the shoot-down of the 13 aircraft.2 We get these all the time. In May we had specific dates for an offensive, which never occurred.3

On the Sunday prior to the war, I asked the Israelis for their appraisal, and they said they thought it was purely defensive.4 Our intelligence continuously told us that it was purely defensive and there was no chance for an offensive.

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I spoke to Eban on Thursday5 and he said the Arabs had neither the capability nor the intention.

There was no scrap of evidence that there was more than ten percent chance of war.

On Friday, the Israelis said we could tell the Soviet Union and the Arabs they had no intention of attack.6

On Saturday, the Israelis called and asked us for help. So I called Dobrynin. I called the Egyptian Foreign Minister. I called the Syrian Foreign Minister. I called the Secretary-General, and I urged them all to stand down. At the Israeli suggestion, I informed the Soviet Union and Egypt that Israel did not attack.7

The Israelis were caught with their pants down—unmobilized.

The military estimate of the state of the attack is that the Golan Heights are back to the ceasefire line, except for two points. The Syrians have lost 700 tanks, but have re-formed along the ceasefire line. So Israel cannot move its forces to the Sinai. On the Egyptian front . . .

The President: The Israeli tank losses have been extremely heavy. We won’t violate the confidence by giving you figures, but they are far heavier than anticipated.

Kissinger: So, the situation is different from the previous wars, where the decision was how to end the war in two or three days. Jordan is under heavy pressure to attack. If the Arabs start to win, all the Arabs will jump in. Israel has suffered the equivalent of 100,000 killed.

Let me say a word about the diplomacy: We wanted to command the largest possible international support. The war has produced an explosion in the Middle East, and we want to keep the Soviet Union and Europeans out. If there is an oil cutoff to Europe, they would press for us to do something.

We also wanted to avoid a situation where we could be made a scapegoat. Every day we are talking to the permanent members of the [Page 421]Security Council, and the Soviet Union and Egypt. So far there is no one who thinks we have turned against them. On Saturday we explored the idea of joint action with the Soviet Union and the British. There was no interest in a resolution, and putting one in would have been pure grandstanding. We are the only country to have taken diplomatic initiatives.

McIntyre also took soundings with the Security Council members. Nothing.

Now, as to our relations with the Soviets. Did the Soviet Union take us in? Was there anything we would have done had we not had our present relations with the Soviet Union? No. The difference with the war in ’67 is the Soviet Union is not massively involved and Israel is not getting a quick victory.

If we conduct ourselves so as to lose Israeli confidence, we will lose our ability to get them to accept a peace. We must also conduct relations with the Arabs so that they don’t see me as congenitally opposed to them.

In our relations with Europe, China, and the Soviet Union, we must indicate we understand their concerns. With the Europeans, they must know that we know their concern for oil. With the Soviet Union—that we are not seeking a confrontation. With China—that the Soviet Union will not emerge as the victor in the Middle East.

So we don’t want to move until we have a consensus. The situation will change when one or both parties realize they have reached the end of their military capability or when some of the Security Council members join with us in action. But we must not act in a way so as to jeopardize the prospects for a peace settlement.

The President: As the war ends our role must be such that we can play a constructive role in diplomatic initiatives to get a real settlement.

Kissinger: If we can keep our posture, we will be in the best position that we have ever been to contribute to a settlement.

The President: Our goal is not domination of anyone, but to be a peacemaker. So the United States must retain the strength to play a peacemaker role. We must, when the war ends, be in a position to talk to both sides—unlike 1967.

Kissinger: We are attempting to turn this crisis not just back to where we were but to improve the situation to the general advantage.

As for the Soviet Union, they have complex problems. They have urged the other Arabs to join the war. We remonstrated, but they may be just posturing. But they have not actively intervened as they did in 1967.

The President: In 1972, the Soviet Union stood back in Vietnam because they knew they stood to lose other things they wanted more. It’s [Page 422]the same situation now—they may decide to jump in, but they must weigh it against the cost to them in U.S.–Soviet relations.

Kissinger: It’s a tough situation. Someone could go crazy—the Soviets, etc. Or it could move quickly to peace.

And so, in conclusion, I have explained why we have not jumped in and what we are after.

Senator :8 Do I understand you are not in contact with the Syrians?

Kissinger: They are talking to no one.

Byrd: Three questions: Are we being asked to replace their arms? Where are the Israelis getting oil? And are we in danger of a cutoff?

Kissinger: We are in touch with the Israelis on that.

The President: We can’t comment on that; every state in the area has a right to its independence. The Israelis are not dissatisfied with what we are doing.

Kissinger: We are on a tightrope and can’t jeopardize our position by statements.

The President: For the press, you can say this is under discussion and it is not appropriate to comment. If we say yes, we break it off with the Arabs and give the Soviet Union an incentive.

Kissinger: This is relevant to your other question. So far there is no threat to the oil.

The President: We can’t afford now to tilt either way.

If something develops on a resolution before the battlefield result, we will consult with the leadership because this is an important decision.

Fulbright: What is our UN position?

Kissinger: [Described the Scali speech and explained why the part about the status quo.]9

Fulbright: Is this the Rogers plan?

Kissinger: No. The Rogers plan is related to the 1967 lines.10 We are just talking about the military arrangements and activation of UN Resolution 242, the refugee resolution, etc. In this sense we have gone a little further than we have before.

Before the fighting we had started feelers to start negotiations after the Israeli elections. But we think that to give a concrete plan would have each side sniping at it. We prefer constructive ambiguity.

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The President: This unfortunate war is one which might bear fruits toward negotiations.

Kissinger: The objective conditions for a settlement are better than last Friday, but the present situation is very dangerous. We must not tilt, but we must retain the confidence of the Israelis. Whatever the outcome, it will not be an overwhelming victory.

The President: Without being specific, let me say that the Israelis have confidence in us.

Byrd: How about Iran?

Kissinger: If you are worried about oil, there is no chance of the Shah cutting off oil. He is being a useful intermediary.

Fulbright: Why did they bomb the Soviet embassy?

Kissinger: It was a screwup, and was not helpful.

The President: Now, as to what we say. Henry?

Kissinger: Say we explained the military and diplomatic situation. You can say you are confident we are working toward an end of conflict and a just peace in the Middle East. We are in contact with all the parties.

The less said about details, the better.

The President: We will not let Israel go down the tube.

McClellan: Can’t we say the situation has not reached the stage where replacements are needed?

Stennis: This is a highly important meeting. Let’s just rest with a simple statement.

Mahon: I agree.

Albert: I will say just what Dr. Kissinger asks.

Kissinger: It would be helpful if you say you support those efforts.

Albert: I will.11

Fulbright: I do. How about the Mansfield Resolution?12

The President: I would ask the House to do nothing provocative.

  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Memoranda of Conversation, Box 2. Confidential. The meeting was held in the Cabinet Room at the White House. Brackets are in the original. A list of attendees at the meeting is in the President’s Daily Diary. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files) Attending were, among others, Senators Robert C. Byrd (D–West Virginia), J. William Fulbright, and John L. McClellan (D–Arkansas); and Speaker of the House Carl Albert and Congressman George H. Mahon (D–Texas).
  2. See footnote 2, Document 93.
  3. See Document 59.
  4. September 30. See footnote 2, Document 94.
  5. October 4. In his memoirs, Eban recounted that during his October 4 conversation with Kissinger at the Waldorf Towers in New York, he told the Secretary of State that “our experts confirmed that the concentrations in the north and south were very heavy, but they gave no drastic interpretation of their purpose. They spoke of ‘annual maneuvers’ on the Egyptian front, and of a hypochondriac Syrian mood, which might have made Damascus apprehensive of an Israeli raid . . . Our military advisers believed that without the prospect of aerial advantage, Egypt would not risk storming the Suez Canal and Barlev fortifications. It seemed that American intelligence experts confirmed the Israeli view, and Kissinger was tranquill.” (Eban, Personal Witness, pp. 522–523)
  6. October 5. See Document 97.
  7. October 6. See Documents 99, 100, and 101. Kissinger spoke to Waldheim several times during the day; transcripts are in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Kissinger Telephone Conversations, Transcripts (Telcons), Chronological File, Box 22. The meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Khaddam has not been identified.
  8. Omission in the original.
  9. See footnote 11, Document 131.
  10. See footnote 4, Document 7.
  11. Members of the bipartisan group spoke to the press after the meeting ended. See The New York Times, October 11, 1973.
  12. See footnote 4, Document 127.