Did the US threaten a nuclear strike to defend Israel?

In 1973, America and Russia Almost Fought a Nuclear War over Syria

Soviet leaders were shocked by the American response. "Who could have imagined the Americans would be so easily frightened?” asked Soviet premier Nikolai Podgorny, according to Rabinovich in his book The Yom Kippur War. Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin said "it is not reasonable to become engaged in a war with the United States because of Egypt and Syria,” while KGB chief Yuri Andropov vowed "we shall not unleash the Third World War.”

Whatever the reason, the Soviet kept their forces on alert, but agreed not to dispatch troops to the Middle East. By the end of October, a tenuous ceasefire put an end to that chapter of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

  • 1
    No, there were no nuclear threats issued, by any of the parties, during the Yom Kippur War. The US did provide resupply for the Israelis. Since Egypt and Syria were receiving military support from the Soviets, this did build up some tension. Jun 8, 2018 at 0:55
  • 1
    No. The background to those quotes is actually set out in the Wikipedia article on the Yom Kippur War. Jun 8, 2018 at 1:16
  • Why do you question the existing narrative>? (I'm not being argumentative, I'm just wondering why you are questioning Rabinovich's research.)
    – MCW
    Jun 8, 2018 at 21:35

1 Answer 1


Not directly. But of course it was the Cold War, so the ultimate option of a nuclear exchange was an implicit subtext to any confrontation between the two sides.

The spur here was a threat from the Soviets to intervene directly (which in turn was not without provocation).

In that letter, Brezhnev began by noting that Israel was continuing to violate the ceasefire and it posed a challenge to both the U.S. and USSR. He stressed the need to "implement" the ceasefire resolution and "invited" the U.S. to join the Soviets "to compel observance of the cease-fire without delay". He then threatened "I will say it straight that if you find it impossible to act jointly with us in this matter, we should be faced with the necessity urgently to consider taking appropriate steps unilaterally. We cannot allow arbitrariness on the part of Israel."

The US, as Israel's ally, would feel compelled to intervene directly as well in that case, so this indirectly was a war threat.

What they did was raise the ongoing nuclear readiness posture to DEFCON 3, which is a level at which response forces (not the response itself, just the forces required to carry one out), could be mobilized with only 15 minutes notice. Given the logic of MAD, the biggest danger is being in a position where the other side believes they can catch you flat-footed and destroy you before you can even get a retaliatory strike up. So the higher (lower actually) levels generally are meant to match how imminent an attack from the Soviets might possibly be. They had just threatened to do so, which means a raising of the alert level seemed to be in order.

The extra military activity required for that readiness level was immediately noticeable to the Soviets, which is where that quote came from.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.