170. Memorandum From Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the National Security Council Staff to Secretary of State Kissinger1


  • Aspects of the Middle East War

In several important ways the Soviets have been more irresponsible in this war than in 1967: their behavior this time must be measured against the standards established at our summits in 1972/73 which did not exist in 1967. The only two elements that are not evident in their conduct this time are (1) that they did not actually trigger the crisis as their false alarm did in 1967, and (2) that they are not openly anti-American in their public position, because they want to preserve the fruits of détente. But their failure to act on clear fore-knowledge (at least by October 3, but probably in late September), their subsequent incitement of other Arab states to join the fighting and broaden the war, their initiation of resupply while the Arabs were still on the offensive against the background of six years of massive infusions of materiel and technology, their assurances to the Arabs that the U.S. would not intervene and that U.S. actions could be discounted—all these are steps that go beyond the mere protection of their interests.2

Sometime around October 10/11, as I noted in my memo to you of October 12,3 the Soviets evidently decided it was time to maneuver toward a cease-fire that maximized Egyptian gains and minimized Syrian losses.

Within certain limits that ought to be the basis on which we should also proceed, largely because any prolongation of the war carries [Page 477] serious risks to our interests. Without going into detail, we suffer from vulnerabilities this time that did not exist in 1967, at least not to the same extent. These result, whether objectively justified or not, from the oil situation and the far-reaching changes in European attitudes which could easily lead to major turbulence in US–European relations.4 Moreover, we do not have the diplomatic asset of rapid Israeli military success. On the contrary, we face this time real Israeli weaknesses and urgent requirements which only we can meet and then only in an environment notably more adverse than six years ago.

Our task is to increase the Soviet stake in a cease-fire and to build on whatever tendencies toward a cease-fire that have already been discernible in Soviet policy. As usual, this requires both incentives and sanctions.

Leaving aside the drastic sanction of possible direct US–Soviet confrontations (for which we are not particularly well prepared), our basic area for maneuver is in the various aspects of détente in which the Soviets have stood to gain more than we in the short run. Brezhnev’s own stake in his relations with us presents us with a certain leverage inside the Kremlin but it must be used with the greatest care since Brezhnev will go only so far to protect his U.S. policy. We should also bear in mind that extravagant Israeli gains in Syria will make a cease-fire in place politically unacceptable for the Soviets even though the Egyptians hold territory in the Sinai. On this score, therefore, the Israelis must be firmly restrained, especially once our replenishment operations are underway, from going a reasonable distance beyond the Golan Heights. Hard as it may be, Israel must also accept the Egyptian bridgeheads in Sinai.

Before we actively use pressures against the Soviets, we must continue our diplomatic efforts to enlist their cooperation in seeking a cease-fire. We should not assume that the Security Council is the only forum for this purpose. Indeed, the probability of a Chinese veto makes it almost essential that the Arabs and Israelis are brought to signal their readiness to stop shooting before any formal arrangement is attempted in the Security Council. Moreover, it is probably illusory to tie the terms of a cease-fire explicitly to the terms of an eventual settlement since any effort to do so will merely land us in the same deadlock that has prevented progress toward a settlement in the first place. No matter how [Page 478] much in pain, the Israelis will probably use an atomic bomb before they concede the 1967 borders—not to mention what Senator Jackson will use here at home if we attempt to extract such a concession at this time. On the other hand, the Arabs will never yield on the 1967 borders, or the Palestinians.

So, to repeat, we must seek a simple cease-fire in place, without ifs and buts and regardless of what we may have in our minds as to where it might later lead. (We might consider a Joint Resolution in Congress to buttress the President’s position).

If we have not done so, we must seek explicit Israeli agreement to a cease-fire and, if necessary, tie our supply operations to it. By the same token, we must explicitly get the Soviets to work toward the same end with the Arabs. They must understand that an end to the shooting is the pre-condition for any possible negotiation later. (Incidentally, I think the search for a “settlement” is illusory and we must think in terms of a demilitarized Sinai with an international force including the U.S.)

Once our clear support for a cease-fire in place has been signaled, it should be made clear to Brezhnev that the President has already spent enormous capital here at home to obtain the implementation of last year’s economic agreements. This plainly cannot continue if the U.S. and the Soviet Union are waging proxy war in the Middle East. And this applies even more to the area of EXIM and CCC credits. Not until we can demonstrate that the 1972 Principles and the 1973 nuclear war agreement5 have real practical meaning in a real-life international crisis can we hope to fend off those who want to condition economic relations on changes in the Soviet domestic system. Our economic relations were always predicated on crisis-free political relations. If we do not want to convey this message directly, there should be little difficulty in getting Administration supporters in Congress to make these points.

We should also find a way to convey to the Soviets the point that if we are to suffer Arab economic sanctions, we will have to pass the costs on to the Soviets as long as they sustain Arab warmaking.

Similar connections to economic relations should be established with the Yugoslavs and Hungarians who have been instrumental in facilitating the Soviet airlift.

Although I assume we have had our own contacts with Arabs, at least with the Egyptians, we should do what we can not to let the Soviets have a monopoly of such contacts in the future. Our problems in this regard will undoubtedly become tougher as our supply operations [Page 479] to Israel pick up, but we should never let the Arabs forget that in the end only we, not the Russians, can influence the Israelis. The British and French should be enlisted for this also.

In sum, in the present phase we should:

—tie our resupply of the Israelis to restraints on their Syrian campaign; and their acceptance of a cease-fire in place;

—work on the Russians to get them to support a cease-fire in place;

—begin to make more explicit connections between the economic aspects of détente and Soviet support for a cease-fire and general restraint;

—put pressure on Hungary and Yugoslavia;

—maintain our own contacts with the Egyptians and get the British and French to work on them in regard to a cease-fire;

—take the position that a cease-fire should stand on its own rather than be tied to eventual terms of a settlement;

—make clear to the Russians that Arab oil sanctions against us will have adverse consequences for US–Soviet relations.

You have a separate set of papers on the urgent need to get together with the Europeans in regard to possible oil supply problems.6 This is a matter of the utmost political urgency, since U.S.–European relations could come under the most severe strain quite rapidly, thereby giving the Soviets added incentives to support a protracted war.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 69, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Dobrynin/Kissinger, Vol. 20 [October 12–November 21, 1973]. Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only.
  2. In an October 13 memorandum to Kissinger, INR Director Ray Cline stated that 4 days after the war began, the Soviet Union had mounted a substantial airlift to the beleaguered Syrians. This, Cline argued, was an indication of the pressures the Soviet Union was under to protect its investment when an Arab client was threatened with defeat. INR’s assumption was that the Soviets had decided to help the Arabs in every way, short of the commitment of ground troops. Cline thought the Soviets had not yet made any fundamental decision about how to avoid a collision with the United States, but that they were likely to become increasingly anxious to see an end to the fighting. Because it was not in the Soviets’ interest to have either a massive Arab defeat or the destruction of Israel, the preferred end would probably be some sort of stalemate, if possible with Arab gains. (Ibid., NSC Institutional Files (H–Files), Box H–93, Meeting Files, WSAG Meetings, WSAG Meeting, Middle East, 10/19/73 to WSAG Meeting, Middle East, 10/14/73)
  3. Not found.
  4. Telegram 12022 from London, October 16, reported that the Prime Minister’s general view on the Middle East situation was that it was “essential that the United Kingdom not be involved or appear to be involved in any way with Israel nor with any actions in support of Israel or the Arabs might think were in support of Israel.” (Ibid., RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files)
  5. See footnote 12, Document 70, and footnote 3, Document 58.
  6. An October 13 memorandum to Kissinger from NSC staff member Charles Cooper recommended that the United States try to negotiate on an urgent basis a joint public statement with major European countries, Japan, and Canada that there was mutual agreement that no country or countries should suffer a disproportionate hardship as a result of a disruption of supplies of Middle Eastern oil associated with the fighting in the Middle East. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Institutional Files (H–Files), Box H–92, Meeting Files, WSAG Meetings, Middle East, 10/16/73) For text of the memorandum, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXXVI, Energy Crisis, 1969–1974, Document 213.