Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin Clash Over Mideast, but in 1973 Two Countries Almost Went to War

Prime Minister Golda Meir, right, accompanied by her Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, meets with Israeli soldiers at a base on the Golan Heights after intense fighting during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Reuters

During the second Republican presidential debate, Donald Trump asked a revealing question about the Mideast and the fight against terrorists: "Do you feel safe? I don't."

He's not the only one to say the U.S. is in danger. That same evening, Lindsey Graham assured over 20 million viewers that radical Islamic terrorists would "kill you all if they could" and promised to move 10,000 troops into Iraq if he's elected president. There was a consensus among the Republican candidates who drive the public debate: We are as unsafe now as at any time this century.

Is that true? As tension between Russia and the U.S. escalates in the skies over Syria, it's worth recalling another October. Even if you accept the premise that 2015 is the most dangerous year of this century, it wouldn't make the cut in the previous one.

On October 6, 1973, Israelis were observing Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, when Arab armies from Egypt and Syria attacked the then 25-year-old nation. That started the fourth Arab-Israeli war, and it had implications for the entire globe. The U.S. backed Israel, while the Soviet Union backed Egypt and Syria with significant arms shipments and intelligence. Both Arab countries were considered Soviet client states; Syrian ruler Hafez al-Assad had once been trained in Russia to pilot MIG fighters, while Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had allowed the Soviets to maintain a significant military presence in Egypt up until 1972.

After a warning to the Soviet Union not to reinforce Arab armies and a dramatic midnight meeting in the White House Situation Room, U.S. forces were put on Defcon 3, the highest state of military alert in peacetime. The Russians considered raising their own alert level and, as documents released after the fall of the USSR showed, the Kremlin weighed sending 70,000 troops to secure the disputed Golan Heights bordering Israel and Syria.

With Soviet help, the Arab alliance established an anti-aircraft missile blanket to protect their ground troops from Israeli air strikes. War raged while the superpowers waited on the sidelines.

The fighting was different then, and so was the world.

The Yom Kippur War was a straightforward battle between nation states. Terrorist groups like ISIS (not to mention Al-Qaeda, Al Nusra, Hezbollah, Hamas and other nonstate actors) didn't hold territory or take on regular armies as they do today.

Moscow's current assertion of force in the Mideast may be alarming in the West. But the jets that have been dispatched to prop up Syria's dictatorship are nothing compared to the Soviets' backing in 1973.

Today, Israel is mostly at the edge of the Syrian conflict. At that time, it was at the white hot center of the battle.

To make matters worse, the U.S. was in a political crisis in 1973. Now, voters are waiting for Vice President Joe Biden to decide about a presidential bid, but in 1973 Vice President Spiro Agnew was resigning his office over fraud-related charges. At the same time, scandal was consuming the Nixon presidency as the Senate Watergate Committee's explosive summer of hearings revealed that the White House was a font of illegal wiretaps, perjury, obstruction of justice and other crimes that sent the country hurtling toward impeachment. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger would later say of the period, "The basic difficulty during all of Watergate was how to preserve American credibility when executive authority was under unremitting assault."

Nixon himself seemed increasingly out of touch. At times, the president was incapacitated by alcohol and insomnia, according to biographer Tim Weiner's One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon. With the commander in chief borderline unavailable, Kissinger began wielding increasing power. Nixon couldn't even be reached on the night of October 24, when the Defcon alert was raised by Defense Secretary James Schlesinger.

After the message made it to Moscow, the Kremlin prepared to alert its own nuclear forces. The missiles were pointed. Troops were moved. In his memoirs, Kissinger recalls an administration ready to defy Congress in order to counter Russian military movements:

"If the Soviets sent troops it would be would be unprecedented—and hence a major challenge—if the Soviet Union put organized combat units into an area far from its periphery and against the will of the local government. Despite the War Powers Act passed a few days earlier, Nixon was determined to match any Soviet troop buildup in the area and leave it to the Congress to terminate his move—as the new law made possible."

Brezhnev chose not to respond to the U.S. hike in the nuclear alert despite advice from his defense minister to both raise the Soviet alert level and send the USSR's troops into the Mideast.

So Was It Worse?

The attack launched by the Arab coalition in 1973 came as a surprise to the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and to the U.S. intelligence community, which hitherto had been convinced that Israel's neighbors would never risk provoking their well-trained enemy.

Then as now, Israel was the U.S.'s closest ally in the region; what's unthinkable today, with pledges to increase Israel's security a prerequisite for politicians on both sides of the aisle, is how a crumbling U.S. administration responded.

It wasn't until October 14, after more than a week of fighting, that American planes landed in Israel carrying weapons for the IDF. The decision to send help was not unanimous, and some members of the Nixon administration feared the consequences of antagonizing oil-rich Gulf countries. They also feared becoming involved in another military conflict less than a year after the U.S. had signed a peace treaty with North Vietnam. One high-ranking Egyptian official told Newsweek reporters, "Israel is anxious to suck everyone into this war, especially the U.S. If this happens it would put the U.S. on the firing line against Egypt and another Vietnam would ensue."

U.S. supply efforts would eventually help Israel beat back the coalition, but the threat to the U.S.'s ally had already been more than legitimized. If military intelligence in 2015 failed to predict the attack on Israel, as it did in 1973, it would be hard to imagine the scale of the media coverage and the barrage of criticisms. Today, the branches of government debate whether we should start wars. In 1973, we were late to one.

The doctrine of détente had assumed that client states would not jump into their own wars, but now that they had done just that, the prospect of a joint U.S.–Soviet peacekeeping arrangement was dead in the water.

As they had in October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, cooler heads eventually prevailed. Kissinger went on to meet with Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow. He would later claim in his memoirs that Defcon 3 had sent the right signal by limiting the escalation. Though he blamed the media and the Watergate scandal for undermining the administration's military responsiveness, he acknowledged that the policy of détente had not prevented the crisis.

The U.N. Security Council helped establish a cease-fire that returned the two sides to their previous holdings, which meant that Israel prevailed. But U.S. power in the Middle East was damaged as the result of Arab states embargoing oil exports to the U.S. A line had been drawn in terms of U.S.–Israel relations. Sadat and al-Assad had succeeded in reinvigorating the Arab cause. It took four years for Sadat to break with the Soviets and seek a resolution through the Camp David accords, a reminder that war can lead to opportunities for peace.

Today's civil war has a higher casualty toll, both in combat deaths and injuries, and especially in terms of refugees. The refugee crisis could end up destabilizing Jordan and Turkey and has already sent a cascade of displaced Syrians toward Greece, Italy and the rest of Europe.

The current conflict is an unprecedented humanitarian disaster. For the millions driven from their homes, fear is not just a feeling, it's a daily reality. But for Washington, D.C., the history of 1973—even if it doesn't hold the blueprint for success—at least reminds us what a crisis with Russia used to be.