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US Policy During 1967 and 1973 Middle East Wars


Beginning with the 1948 War of Independence, four conventional wars were waged between Israel and her neighbors. The two great victors of the Second World War, the U.S., and the Soviet Union had become archenemies in the Cold War and both were anxious to spread their conflicting social visions everywhere that mattered, even if only for propaganda purposes back home. In varying degrees, consequently, both were involved in all four wars by benign neglect, implicit support, abrogation of United Nations resolutions, intervention, or outright arms supply.

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This paper covers the U.S. role in the 1967 and 1973 wars. American strategy and policy were influenced by events leading up to the emergence of the modern Israeli state and continue to manifest themselves in the intractable “low-intensity conflict” around the periphery of Israel up to contemporary times. In brief, these influences were:

  • Muslim invasions and the subsequent reconquest.
  • Filling the power vacuum left by the demise of the British Empire.
  • Counterbalancing Soviet and in general, Communist influence and expansionism, as in Europe and East Asia.
  • Accommodating a strong Jewish-American lobby and compensating for having done nothing during the Holocaust of World War II by supporting the restoration and security of a Jewish homeland.
  • Creating and sustaining a special relationship with the only society in the Middle East that shares the liberal-democratic and Judeo-Christian traditions of American culture.
  • Securing access to supplies of crude oil from the Persian Gulf, primarily for the U.S. but also for the industrialized and developing nations in Europe and Asia.

The special relationship between Israel and the U.S. notwithstanding, American Presidents from Truman till Obama have pursued the chimera of a “two-state solution” despite the indefensibility of externally-drawn borders, the dependence of Palestinians on Israel for jobs and trade, and Arab/Muslim resentment at more than a thousand years of defeats at the hand’s Christian armies.

Prologue: Pre-Independence and the First Two Wars

The Arab-Muslim nations of the Middle East are very stubborn about the legitimacy of their claim to Palestine because, for over a thousand years, the Holy Land was part of one Muslim empire or another. As of 750 A.D., Muslim invasions had reached east to India, north to the Caucasus, and west to the walls of Austria, to southern Italy, and even southern France. From then on, the empires went into inexorable decline. But the Holy Land had never been permanently retaken despite numerous Crusades blessed by the Pope. The last Muslim empire, the Ottomans, were vanquished only in 1917 for the folly of siding with the Kaiser’s Germany. Hence, Muslim memories of the grand empire are bitter for being less than a century old.

All contemporary Muslim-Arab rhetoric conveniently ignores Catholic and Orthodox to the Holy Places and prior ownership by the Jews for all previous recorded history.

America inherited the British propensity for supporting the re-establishment of a Jewish state while attempting to be “even-handed” about the civil rights of the Palestinians. After the Allied victory in World War I, the League of Nations handed the UK the “British Mandate of Palestine”: to establish the political and economic institutions that would lead to the establishment of the Jewish national home but with due safeguards for the civil and religious rights of all those already resident irrespective of race or religion.

This ideal bore within itself the seeds of intractable conflict. As the chief supporter of Israel in contemporary times, the U.S. became embroiled in conflicting claims by Palestinians and the Israeli nation to ownership of (or at least, the right to reside in) the West Bank, historically part of the Holy Land.

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It was to the Zionists that Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour issued what became known as the “Balfour Declaration” of 1917 affirming the commitment of “His Majesty’s government” for a Jewish “national home.”

It is this same “two-state” idea that the U.S. embraced beginning with the UN partition plan and sought to implement in peace talks not only subsequent to the 1967 and 1973 wars but at every sponsored summit between the belligerents since then.

Two important aspects of this externally-decided partition are that: a) Jewish and Palestinian territories virtually intermingled; and, b) the all-important city of Jerusalem, having equal Jewish and Muslim populations, was made a “corpus separatum” (literally, a separate body) under UN administration. There is no historical precedent for such porous and indefensible boundaries between two implacably suspicious and hostile peoples, even if one overlooks the fact that there were almost as many Muslims as Jews in the designated Israeli homeland. The second, the status of Jerusalem, pleased no one, least of all Jews for whom the capital since ancient times had been the lodestar that unified their culture during millennia of the first and second Diasporas. But at least the Zionist leaders were content to get recognition from the UN for their right to an independent homeland.

The U.S. was involved in only a minor way in the War of Independence. For a year before the December 1947 implementation of the partition plan and up to the declaration of independence in May 1948, thousands of civilians were killed or injured. But America did not intervene to stop civilian casualties or forestall intervention by surrounding nations. In the end, however, the civil unrest and the flight of the Palestinian elite abroad impelled America to withdraw support for the partition plan, thence fostering the illusion among both Palestinians and the Arab Liberation Army that they could de facto void the UN-designated boundaries on the battlefield[1].

More importantly, then-President of the U.S.A. Harry Truman became the first chief executive to recognize the state of Israel mere minutes after its declaration of independence on May 14, 1948. This he did out of his own personal belief in the Zionist vision, the widespread sympathy of the American public towards a Jewish homeland, pressure from Zionist lobbyists, and financial support from businessmen of Jewish extraction during the election campaign of 1948. This is the first instance of the multiple influences on American relationships with the fledgling state.

In the process, Truman overrode the 1946 recommendation of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry for a two-state solution, as well as the opposition of his own cabinet members George Marshall (Secretary of State ) and James Forrestal (Secretary of Defense), the last based on fears that Arab resentment would cut off the supply of oil to America[2] [3] [4] [5].

The United States intervened more explicitly than in 1948 in the second of the Arab-Israeli wars, often called the “Suez Crisis” of 1956. This took the form of, first, withdrawing promised funding for the huge Aswan Dam project in a fit of pique over Egypt recognizing the Communist People’s Republic of China. Later on, President Eisenhower demanded that the “Tripartite Alliance” agree to a ceasefire and withdrawal after France, Britain, and Israel had already overrun Egyptian positions in the Sinai. America and Canada together used public pronouncements and, in the former’s case, the threat to dump Sterling Bonds on the market to force the UK to its will.

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To forestall Soviet communism from the Middle East, the U.S. tried to conclude the Baghdad Pact. Britain was one of the parties since America was not a member of the Pact, but the U.S. worked behind the scenes to support the creation of this pact. The pact did not work. On the contrary, some of the targeted states, most importantly Egypt, moved closer to the Soviet Union. With Soviet backing, for example, Egypt concluded an arms deal with Czechoslovakia in 1956. Irked by his former colonial masters, Nasser moved even closer into the Communist orbit by welcoming Russian military advisers for what would become a long stay.

Confronted with such diplomatic and geopolitical setbacks, the U.S. devoted the rest of the decade and the 1960s to courting and supporting more moderate and friendlier states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Another declared aim was to forestall any kind of instability in the region which might precipitate an invasion or political intervention by the Russians.

Lyndon Johnson and the Six-Day War

In the ensuing decades, including the 1960s, all the influences noted in the case of Truman above (see page 4) held except for a personal belief in the Zionist ideal.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, America could count solely on the compliant Shah of Iran to try and stem the tide of Russian expansionism towards vassal states possessed of crude oil and warm-water ports. In Asia, France waged the fight against the Communist stalking horse in Vietnam, the Viet Minh, while Britain put down their Malayan counterparts in their successful conduct of the “Emergency”.

After Eisenhower, it was left up to John F. Kennedy to continue the space race with the Soviets and face down Khrushchev in both Europe and South America, the latter in order to enforce the Monroe doctrine. On taking over at Kennedy’s untimely death, former Vice-President Lyndon pursued the Vietnam War even more vigorously and held on to the policy of containing Soviet influence in the Middle East by striving for stability in the region. This meant having to tread a thin tightrope between supporting Israel and the neutral or more moderate Arab states such as Jordan. For the sake of keeping the Soviets at bay and courting other important oil-exporting sheikdoms and emirates in the region, Johnson could not afford to be openly pro-Israel even when hostilities broke out in 1967. This effectively precluded arms sales to Israel even when Nasser increased his populist bombast and forecast the annihilation of Israel by the combined armies of the “United Arab Republic”. Only two years after the Six-Day War, by way of example, did the U.S. finally deliver the first of nearly 300 Phantom F-4’s, the most advanced long-range, all-weather, air superiority fighter-bomber in the arsenal. For “balance,” Egypt did receive 75 Phantoms eventually, long after Yom Kippur had been waged and lost. In contrast, the Shah of Iran received brand-new units at the same time as the U.S. Air Force.

Having no control over the Arab belligerents, the Johnson administration could not very well prevent the impending war ostensibly precipitated by Egypt’s closing the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping. In May 1967, even as UN Secretary U Thant went to Cairo to mediate the crisis and prevent full-scale war, the Johnson administration dispatched Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Eugene Rostow to negotiate for a hiatus so that fighting could be avoided; asked Egypt to send a senior government official to Washington to try and work out a settlement; and received Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban. In the latter case, American military and intelligence analysts could not themselves find proof for the new official line of Israel that a general Egyptian-Syrian-Jordanian attack was imminent within 24 hours. Against the skepticism of his Cabinet (Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, particularly), Johnson opted to support the Israeli contention. He went on the Hot Line to Russian Secretary-General Alexey Kosygin on May 27, urging the latter to rein in the Egyptians. At dawn Egyptian time, the Russian Ambassador asked to meet Nasser to read him the letter from Kosygin that the Soviet Union would not support any operation that would be perceived as launching the war with Israel. Three days later, Nasser agreed to schedule a negotiation trip by his Vice-President to the States and scheduled this for June 7. Events overtook that particular act of diplomacy[6] [7].

As soon as the war started, the U.S. pushed for simple cease-fire agreements through the UN Security Council. This happened to be timed after Israel had already demolished the opposing air forces, taken the West Bank and the Sinai peninsula, won the Golan Heights and seemed poised to march on Damascus. Whereupon, Syria pleaded for a ceasefire under UN auspices.

At the end of the blitzkrieg, Israel had not only sole control of Jerusalem but, for the first time in modern history, contiguous borders that were eminently defensible and secure, in marked contrast to the partition plan of 1947 which Palestinians (including those who had already fled abroad) wanted to revert to. On the other hand, an estimated 600,000 Palestinians remained in East Jerusalem and the Golan after a third of the population had fled the fighting by going abroad. Offered Israeli citizenship twice, virtually all refused and would prove troublesome in “peacetime”.

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America has been credited with backroom negotiations to fudge the issue of returning land conquered during the war.

It was in Israel’s interest that the U. S. did not want to include statements such as “Israel must evacuate the territories it just won.” The Soviet Union, patron of Egypt and Syria, did not agree with the ceasefires the U.S. pressed Israel to effect (with Jordan on June 7, Egypt on June 8, and Syria on June 9) but when Russia saw how its allies were losing, it had to accept the agreements. Eventually, the ceasefire took hold and the negotiations for a peace settlement started. The two superpowers agreed that they both want the region to be stable in the future but disagreed on the terms of the settlement. The settlement was to be “peace for land”. Thus, the U.S. promised that Israel would give the lands back (but not necessarily all lands) if Arab states recognize Israel as a sovereign nation. The Soviets pushed for Israel to give all lands back first.

Perhaps, the reason the U.S. did not push Israel to return all conquered lands immediately was that the Johnson administration realized allying with Israel remained the only other option (aside from the Shah who then sat on the Persian throne) for achieving its national interest—preventing the Middle East from totally becoming a Soviet sphere of influence. Unhappily, the frontline states were anti-American before and after the war: viz., Syria and Nasser in Egypt. Israel’s enemies were perhaps dismayed that the U.S.S.R. had not done more to help them win the war but since the U.S. was clearly on Israel’s side, Egypt and Syria essentially had no choice but to appeal for continued Soviet support, especially in matters of replacing aircraft and other equipment lost during the Six-Day War. The U.S. attempts to achieve lasting peace in the region – via the Rogers and Jarring plans – tried to be evenhanded but these failed.

Nixon, Kissinger, and the Yom Kippur War

The surprise attack on Yom Kippur of 1973 tested American resolve to support Israel against a Soviet sponsor that had trained and supplied the Arabs with the very latest Russian missiles designed to knock out all advanced American warplanes and tank models. This resolve was all the more necessary because Arab rhetoric expressly wanted to wipe out the Jewish presence in the Middle East.

In the Yom Kippur War, American apprehensions about oil supply finally came true when the OPEC members embargoed oil shipments to the U.S. and its European allies. This caused hyperinflation and distinct hardship for the population. Despite also having to endure a quadrupling of crude oil prices initially and multiple jumps up to the peak of $155 per barrel in early 2008, the U.S. not only re-supplied Israel but raised levels of aid to billions of dollars per annum every year since 1974.

American support for the integrity of Israel manifested itself in two forms: substantial annual “foreign aid” voted by a sympathetic Congress and access to advanced weaponry. Beginning the year after Independence and up to 1974 when the bills for aircraft and other equipment losses in the Yom Kippur fighting came due, annual U.S. aid to Israel ranged from $35.1 million to as much as $2.6 billion[8]. Over that quarter of a century, the cumulative influx came to $5.76 billion.

(Note that half of that twenty-year total was granted in just one year, to replace the losses of 1973.) And the pace of both military assistance and economic aid continued to accelerate: mostly in excess of $2 billion from 1978 and, starting 1985, over $3 billion annually. Quite clearly, the U.S. Congress and military were not averse to showing support for Israel, regardless of what other nations might think.

In the years leading up to Yom Kippur, the Israeli Air Force became the largest non-U.S. user of the Phantom, arguably the dominant fighter-bomber of its time. The F-4’s were first deployed during the Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition of 1969 and 1970 and helped make up for the aging fleet of French Dassault Mirages which France refused to continue supplying by then. But the Soviets, Egyptians, and Syrians had also absorbed their tactical lessons from the Six-Day War. On launching the surprise attack in 1973 aiming to recover all the territory lost in 1967, Egypt’s Sadat cannily installed interlocking batteries of Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missiles (the most modern in the Soviet inventory: SA-6 Gainful, SA-3 Goa, SA-2 Guideline, ZSU-23-4, Strela 2) to neutralize the expected IAF sorties and packed the frontline troops with man-portable anti-tank missiles to devastate the three Israeli armored divisions expected to counterattack.

On the Golan Heights, Syria’s Assad relied on an armored fist of five tank divisions supported by no less than 188 batteries of artillery. That the two Israeli brigades managed to hold on until reinforcements could arrive was nothing short of miraculous. All this Russian armament shows how high the stakes were that America needed to counter with nothing less than an emergency airlift.

By the third day of the war, on October 9, Russia began air- and sealift of replacement tanks for losses taken principally by Syria. America had till then supplied just antiaircraft and anti-tank ammunition out of the complacency that the superior equipment of the IDF would eventually prevail on the battlefield. But that same day, the Israeli cabinet realized that the losses of aircraft and pilots had been devastating. Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, therefore, ordered the preparation of 13 Jericho missiles and Phantoms with nuclear warheads. Since the Israelis were careful to let American observers catch on to what they were doing, Foreign Secretary Henry Kissinger alerted President Nixon who immediately approved Operation “Nickel Grass”, the airlift to replace all Israeli equipment losses. It is also reported that Kissinger deliberately warned Sadat that his foes were about to go “nuclear”.

On October 15, Israel did the unexpected: drive between two Egyptian armies, cross the Suez Canal and begin an encircling movement of the Egyptian Third Army. At one point, the Israelis were just 110 miles from Cairo. Now, Russia had an incentive to join the U.S. in asking the UN Security Council to call for a ceasefire. This was duly approved by a vote of 14-0 on October 22 and called for all units to stay in place by 6:52 PM Israel time that day. Knowing what it might do to the Egyptians and their Soviet masters, Kissinger let slip to Golda Meir that no satellites could monitor troop movements in the dark and that sporadic shooting was always to be expected on either side after a ceasefire.

Thus encouraged, the Israeli crossing force continued to move and by the next day, had completed encircling the Third Army. In the aftermath, Chief of Staff Alexander Haig and Kissinger found themselves in the odd position (because shared with the Soviets) of prohibiting the encircling Israeli force from decimating the Third Army but only because the two hoped to increase leverage with Egypt and thus lessen Soviet influence. Later events, including a flurry of peace pacts and unilateral return of the Sinai to Egypt, proved these men of President Nixon absolutely right.


Despite the best of intentions and continuous infusions of military and economic aid, the U.S. has not been able to leverage its relationship with Israel to bring about ironclad national security for that country and lasting peace with the peoples that reside in and around the Holy Land. Territorial concessions by Israel in treaty after treaty and the fading of the Soviet competition for hegemony in the Middle East notwithstanding, America finds itself in the situation of pursuing equity for Palestinians that undermines the national security of Israel. Ultimately, American influence on Israel has therefore historically and inherently carried the seeds of conflict with the national security of Israel.


Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. 2008. U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel.

Laurens, Henry. 2005. Paix et Guerre au Moyen-Orient. Armand Colin.

Lenczowski, George. 1990. American Presidents and the Middle East, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Lowe, Vaughan, Adam Roberts, Jennifer Welsh, and Dominik Zaum. The United Nations Security Council and War: The Evolution of Thought and Practice Since 1945. London: Oxford University Press. 2008.

McCullough, David. 1992. Truman. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Oren, Michael. 2002. 1967: The Unwanted War That Made the Middle East. The Commonwealth Club of California.

Quandt, William B. 2005. Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli conflict Since 1967. Los Angeles: University of California.

Truman, Harry (1948). “Memo recognizing the state of Israel”. Truman Presidential Museum & Library. Web.

Truman, Margaret. 1973. Harry S. Truman. New York: William Morrow and Co.

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