The Team of President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger are seen as heroes in the American Jewish community. They are the team who started a military airlift that saved Israel during the Yom Kippur war and went to nuclear alert to intimidate the Soviet Union to stay out of the conflict. Others will point to just released Nixon White House tapes to show that Nixon is an anti-Semite and Kissinger was a self hating Jew. Though each claim has a bit of truth, both sides have over-simplified actual event. The truth is that the Nixon/Kissinger team had a much more complicated relationship with Israel and American Jews than the fairy tales about the Yom Kippur War, or the recently released tapes indicate.
The Secretary of State was driven by an obsession to separate himself from his Jewish heritage, not because of some “self hatred” but to save his job. The mid-east was a key priority of US foreign policy at the time, and because Nixon did not believe Kissinger could handle his obligations in the Middle East, the former president once remarked that “Anybody who is Jewish cannot handle” Middle Eastern policy. But by the time the Yom Kippur War was brewing, the President was worrying about the Watergate scandal and Kissinger was running foreign policy almost by himself.
When it comes to the start of the Yom Kippur war, Kissinger did not, however, prevent a preemptive Israeli strike as some suspect, that decision was made by Golda Meir and transmitted to the US. It was only two hours before the beginning of the war, that before Kissinger warned Israel about a preemptive strike, when it was too late for Meir to change her mind.
The Secretary of State didn’t even tell Nixon about the war until it was almost four hours old and fought against the US airlift resupplying Israel delaying it until second week of the war.
Although he kept promising to resupply Israel, Kissinger delayed it as long as he could.
In reply to the daily agitated appeals by the Israeli Ambassador, the American Secretary of State claimed that it was the Defense Department that was holding up the supplies. In fact, the Defense Department was acting according to the directions of the State Department. What the Secretary of State omitted to explain to the Israeli Ambassador was that (as he had explained to his colleague, the Chief of U.S. Naval Operations, Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr.) it was his intention to see Israel “bleed just enough to soften it up for the post-war diplomacy he was planning.” (New York Times, March 17, 1976)
In another report it was Israeli “threats” that led Nixon to over-rule Kissinger and order the Airlift known as Operation Nickel Grass. Israel began to prepare its nuclear weapons for use, and made sure to let the US know what it was doing.
Later that morning [October 9th] , at the end of a somber briefing before the war cabinet, Mr. Dayan raised the nuclear option with the prime minister. No detailed record has surfaced as to what exactly Mr. Dayan proposed, but we know he gave an overall assessment that Israel was fast approaching the point of ”last resort.” And certainly Mr. Dayan wanted the United States to take notice that things had reached such a point. That he meant using nuclear weapons (albeit in coded language,[the end of the Third Kingdom] as at the time nobody dared call them by name) was confirmed in an interview last week by Naftali Lavie, who was Mr. Dayan’s spokesman during the war.
[Meir] refused to concede to Mr. Dayan’s gloom and doom rhetoric. Her idea, instead, was to fly secretly to Washington and, as Henry Kissinger later wrote, ”for an hour plead with President Nixon.” Kissinger flatly rejected that idea, explaining such a rushed visit ”could reflect only either hysteria or blackmail.” By that time, American intelligence had signs that Israel had put its Jericho missiles, which could be fitted with nuclear warheads, on high alert (the Israelis had done so in an easily detectible way, probably to sway the Americans into preventive action).
It took Nixon to intercede and over-rule Kissinger:
…on 10 October the Soviets began to resupply Egypt and Syria. That move proved to be critical. The possibility of the Soviets achieving a proxy victory over US-allied Israel (emphasized by Mier’s letter and a desperate phone call to Kissinger by Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. at 1:45 a.m. the day before)prompted Nixon to step in on 12 October and order the U.S. Air Force to initiate the resupply immediately. Nixon made it clear that he was aware of the potential consequences of offending Arab nations and was willing to risk them. In his memoirs, Nixon recalls a conversation with Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger, who was the administration official most concerned about the effects of an oil embargo.
I called Schlesinger and told him that I understood his concern and appreciated his caution. I assured him that I was fully aware of the gravity of my decision and that I would accept complete personal responsibility if, as a result, we alienated the Arabs and had our oil supplies cut off. I said if we could not get the private planes, we should use our own military transports. “Whichever way we have to do it, get them in the air, now.”
Nixon move was not surprising, although held some anti-Semitic beliefs he still supported Israel. It was likely his support had more to do with his disdain for the Soviets (where were bankrolling the Arabs) than any connection with the Jewish State.
“The Jews are irreligious, atheistic, immoral bunch of bastards,” he once said. Washington “is full of Jews” and “most Jews are disloyal,” he told Haldeman. “But, Bob, generally speaking you can’t trust the bastards. They turn on you.”
A disproportionate number of Jews appeared on his lists of enemies. He ordered an aide to count all the Jews in the Bureau of Labor Statistics because he didn’t like their reports.
Nixon wasn’t fond of blacks either and wondered why “so few of those who engage in espionage are Negroes.” Haldeman replied they’re “not smart enough to be spies.” To which Nixon responded, “The Jews — the Jews are, are born spies.”
But in the end, no matter what the reason Nixon ordered the air lift that resupplied Israel and possibly save the world from a nuclear war.
Today the NY Times reported about a new release of some of Nixon’s “secret White House Tapes.”
In a conversation Feb. 13, 1973, with Charles W. Colson, a senior adviser who had just told Nixon that he had always had “a little prejudice,” Nixon said he was not prejudiced but continued: “I’ve just recognized that, you know, all people have certain traits.
“The Jews have certain traits,” he said. “The Irish have certain — for example, the Irish can’t drink. What you always have to remember with the Irish is they get mean. Virtually every Irish I’ve known gets mean when he drinks. Particularly the real Irish.” …..A moment later, Nixon returned to Jews: “The Jews are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality.”
Then the Times goes on to describe a taped meeting that happened seven months before the Yom Kippur war:
Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister, came to visit on March 1, 1973. The tapes capture Meir offering warm and effusive thanks to Nixon for the way he had treated her and Israel.
But moments after she left, Nixon and Mr. Kissinger were brutally dismissive in response to requests that the United States press the Soviet Union to permit Jews to emigrate and escape persecution there.
“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Mr. Kissinger said. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”
“I know,” Nixon responded. “We can’t blow up the world because of it.”
In his discussion with Ms. Woods, Nixon laid down clear rules about who would be permitted to attend the state dinner for Meir — he called it “the Jewish dinner” — after learning that the White House was being besieged with requests to attend.
“I don’t want any Jew at that dinner who didn’t support us in that campaign,” he said. “Is that clear? No Jew who did not support us.”
Nixon listed many of his top Jewish advisers — among them, Mr. Kissinger and William Safire, who went on to become a columnist at The New York Times — and argued that they shared a common trait, of needing to compensate for an inferiority complex.
“What it is, is it’s the insecurity,” he said. “It’s the latent insecurity. Most Jewish people are insecure. And that’s why they have to prove things.”
Were the comments of Nixon proof that he was an Anti-Semite, did Kissinger speak the words of a self-hating Jew? Would he really ignore the USSR’s actions if they had, God forbid, put Jews into gas chambers, or was it the bravado of man trying to show that he isn’t too Jewish to execute his position? On the other hand do the actions of Nixon and Kissinger, sending the airlift, raising the US nuclear alert to Defcon three as a threat to the Soviets, letting Israel fudge on the final cease fire time by a few hours to give it a better negotiating position make them, as some American Jews believe, the best US friends Israel has ever had? Neither history nor human motivation is that easy to read.
In the end we know the result of the Yom Kippur war. We know that the emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union did not really pick up major steam until the Reagan administration when the President and his Secretary of State George Schultz made the human rights of Soviet Citizens a priority.
What we don’t know is what was really in the heart of Nixon and Kissinger, we can only suppose. The lesson of all of this is nothing is ever definitive or as it seems, either four decades ago or today. We must keep that in mind when we interpret what we read in the news.