1973 documents released

How Leonid Brezhnev almost escalated the Yom Kippur War into a nuclear nightmare

With Nixon in a drunken stupor on the verge of impeachment, and Israel locked in deadly war, an unstable Soviet leader was moving nuclear cargo into an Egyptian port

President Richard M. Nixon, right, and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev drink a toast at the White House in Washington, DC, June 21, 1973. The toast comes after the two leaders signed a pact to limit offensive nuclear arsenals. (AP Photo)
President Richard M. Nixon, right, and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev drink a toast at the White House in Washington, DC, June 21, 1973. The toast comes after the two leaders signed a pact to limit offensive nuclear arsenals. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON — New documents released last week reveal that American and Soviet leaders were knee-deep in a nuclear standoff in the final days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

According to letters and notes collected and translated by the Wilson Center, the former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sent a letter to then-US president Richard Nixon warning him that he would send troops to the Middle East if both countries did not act together to curb the Israelis.

The alarming letter came on October 24, 1973, one day before the war eventually concluded. From October 6 to October 25, a coalition of Arab states, led by Egypt and Syria, attacked Israel to regain territory lost in the 1967 Six Day War. They initiated the offensive on Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday, to catch the Israelis off-guard. Despite the UN call for a ceasefire, the Israelis mounted a defense and won the war.

But the Soviets had a vested interest in Egypt, one of its major client states.

The new documents show that Brezhnev sought to take advantage of Nixon’s political strife back in America — this was during the apex of the Watergate scandal — to secure an Arab victory.

Soldiers pose on the top of a tank during the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War on October 6, 1973. (Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)

And the circumstances in which all the actors found themselves seem more fitted for a Hollywood thriller than real life.

During the war, Nixon committed what is famously known as his Saturday Night Massacre, when he fired his attorney general and deputy attorney general, and the special prosecutor looking into Watergate, Archibald Cox. Caught in the imbroglio that would eventually end his presidency, Nixon was infamously a mess, wandering through the White House talking to paintings in a drunken stupor. (He would eventually resign from office, as his impeachment became inevitable.)

Brezhnev was not doing much better himself. While his grip on power was not imperiled, he was addicted to sleeping pills and alcohol, and was acting uncharacteristically erratic. That was unbeknownst to then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who first received Brezhnev’s threatening letter to Nixon.

Presidential adviser Henry Kissinger briefs newsman on the upcoming state visit of Soviet Communist Party Chief Leonid Brezhnev in Washington, DC, June 14, 1973. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty)

Given the US president’s precarious position — and the fact that he was indisposed when the letter came in — Kissinger consulted with then-White House chief of staff Alexander Haig and other national security officials, who jointly decided to move America’s nuclear alert level to Defcon 3.

The new documents show that this was not just a reaction to the Soviets’ sending a naval brigade into the Mediterranean, which was believed to be the reason at the time. It was, in fact, because intelligence reports found that a Soviet ship believed to be carrying nuclear cargo was en route for the Egyptian port of Alexandria.

Among the letters disclosed in the Wilson Center’s publication is a letter from Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB, to Brezhnev warning him that the Americans and Egyptians were working in tandem to distract him from pressing domestic matters and keep him preoccupied with the Middle East.

“I personally see this as a kind of sabotage, intended to artificially hold us attached to the Arab-Israeli conflict, creating over-exhaustion for all, especially for you personally,” Andropov wrote to Brezhnev. 

“After all, in such a situation you are forced to postpone many other questions of no lesser importance than the Middle Eastern one, for instance, the preparation of your visit to India, the review of the economic plan for the coming year, etc. All of these are questions, which cannot be decided in haste, on-the-fly; they demand from you a great commitment of strength and energy, which are currently completely eaten up by the Middle Eastern affairs.”

It was unclear when and how the Soviets reversed course. According to Sergey Radchenko, a professor of international relations at Cardiff University, it was likely that one of Brezhnev’s top advisers eventually talked him off a cliff, while he regained control of himself.

Radchenko wrote in The New York Times that he believes Andropov likely stopped Brezhnev from escalating the situation. Moreover, the Americans declaring a Defcon 3 alert may have led him to believe the crisis was spiraling out of control.

The Six Day War in 1967 forever changed the Middle East. But the Yom Kippur War was the deciding military conflict afterword that sustained Israel’s modern position in the region. Forty-five years later, it seems that consequential moment came very close to being a world-changing catastrophe.

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