The surprise attack by Egyptian and Syrian forces on Israel in October 1973 throws the Middle East into turmoil and threatens to bring the United States and the Soviet Union into direct conflict for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Though actual combat did not break out between the two nations, the events surrounding the Yom Kippur War seriously damaged U.S.-Soviet relations and all but destroyed President Richard Nixon’s much publicized policy of détente.
Initially, it appeared that Egypt and Syria would emerge victorious from the conflict. Armed with up-to-date Soviet weaponry, the two nations hoped to avenge their humiliating defeat in the Six-Day War of 1967. Israel, caught off guard, initially reeled under the two-front attack, but Israeli counterattacks turned the tide, aided by massive amounts of U.S. military assistance, as well as disorganization among the Syrian and Egyptian forces. The Syrians were driven back, with Israeli troops seizing the strategically important Golan Heights. Egyptian forces fared even worse: retreating back through the Sinai Desert, thousands of their troops were surrounded and cut off by the Israeli army. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, together with his Soviet counterparts, eventually arranged a shaky cease-fire. When it became clear that Israel would not give up its siege of the Egyptian troops (low on food and medicine by this time), the Soviets threatened to take unilateral action to rescue them. Tempers flared both in Washington and Moscow; U.S. military forces went to a Stage 3 alert (Stage 5 is the launch of nuclear attacks). The Soviets backed down on their threat but the damage to relations between the two nations was serious and long lasting.
Kissinger worked furiously to bring about a peace settlement between Israel and Syria and Egypt. In what came to be known as “shuttle diplomacy,” the secretary of state flew from nation to nation hammering out the details of the peace accord. Eventually, Israeli troops withdrew from some of their positions in both the Sinai and Syrian territory, while Egypt promised to forego the use of force in its dealings with Israel. Syria grudgingly accepted the peace plan, but remained adamantly opposed to the existence of the Israeli state.