Henry Kissinger’s Shuttle Diplomacy after the Yom Kippur War


“The conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerrilla wins if he does not lose.” (Henry Kissinger)

“While we should never give up our principles, we must also realize that we cannot maintain our principles unless we survive.” (Henry Kissinger)

“If you don’t know where you are going, every road will get you nowhere.”  (Henry Kissinger))

By Gideon

Dr. Kissinger was born as Heinz Alfred Kissinger in Germany. After the Nazis seized power, state sanctioned anti-Semitism made life for the Kissinger family, which was Jewish, very difficult. In 1938, Kissinger’s family immigrated to the United States and settled in New York, and Kissinger’s name was changed to Henry. He was naturalized a United States citizen in 1943. He served in the Army from 1943 to 1946. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College in 1950 and received M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard University in 1952 and 1954. From 1954 until 1969 he was a member of the faculty of Harvard University, in both the Department of Government and the Center for International Affairs. He was Director of the Harvard International Seminar from 1952 to 1969.

In 1968 president-elect Richard Nixon appointed Kissinger as his national security adviser. Dr, Henry Alfred Kissinger was sworn in on September 22, 1973, as the 56th Secretary of State, a position he held until January 20, 1977. With this appointment, he became the first person ever to serve as both Secretary of State and National Security Adviser.  

In 1973 Kissinger shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Le Duc Tho for secretly negotiating an end to the Vietnam War. The same year, he replaced William Rogers as secretary of state, while remaining as national security adviser. Instrumental in brokering an end to hostilities in the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel, Egypt and Syria, Kissinger then embarked on an intensive “shuttle diplomacy” effort to help mediate the long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict.

He was appointed Secretary of State just two weeks before Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel. The Yom Kippur War of 1973

In October 1973, Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a full-scale military attack against Israel six years after their humiliating defeat in the 1967 War. Caught by surprise on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, Israeli forces were steadily pushed back from their positions. Many Israelis feared the destruction of their state before their armed forces regained ground and defeated both Arab armies. In the east, Israeli troops reached the outskirts of the Syrian capitol, Damascus. In the west, they surrounded Egypt’s entire Third Army, only 101 kilometers from Cairo. By the end of the month, two resolutions passed by the United Nations Security Council resulted in a ceasefire. Egyptian and Israeli generals met at the front to discuss disengagement. For both sides the war was a partial victory at best: partially redeeming their near-total defeat in the 1967 war, the Arab armies had surprised Israel and inflicted heavy losses while the Israeli counterattack eventually prevailed.

The United States had four diplomatic goals in the Yom Kippur War.

  • Negotiate a quick end to the war.
  • Maintain its support of Israel.
  • Preserve relations with Arab states upon whom the U.S. was increasingly reliant for oil.
  • Prevent the Soviet Union from entering the war and turning it into a Cold War battle.

When the Soviet Union began air- and sea-lifting some 75,000 tons of materiel to the Arab armies. The United States responded with an airlift of its own, enabling Israel to turn the tide of the war. The airlift, code named Operation Nickel Grass, took 22,325 tons of arms and equipment to Israel; a sea-lift also took another 33,210 tons of materiel to Israel.

In response to the U.S. airlift of arms and equipment to Israel, the Arab oil producing nations strangled the supply of oil to the U.S. and Western countries, causing gasoline shortages, long lines at filling stations, and higher gasoline prices, in what was known as the “Energy Crisis” of 1973-74. 

The United States tried to get the Soviet Union to join it in negotiating an end to the war, but the Soviets refused as long as it looked like the Arab coalition might win. Only when Israel looked set to roll Egyptian forces back across the Suez Canal did the Soviet Union back U.N. Resolution 338, which called for a cease fire. U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, a former German army officer in World War II, also did not throw his support behind 338 until it looked like Israel was winning.

The surprise war played a major role in shaping Kissinger’s tenure as Secretary. First, he worked to ensure Israel received an airlift of U.S. military supplies. This airlift helped Israel turn the war in Israel’s favor. After the implementation of a United Nation’s sponsored ceasefire, Kissinger began a series of “shuttle diplomacy” missions, in which he traveled between various Middle East capitals to reach disengagement agreements between the enemy combatants. These efforts produced an agreement in January 1974 between Egypt and Israel and in May 1974 between Syria and Israel. Additionally, Kissinger’s efforts contributed to OPEC’s decision to lift the embargo.

In the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the ensuing Arab oil embargo, finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict became a high-priority in the international arena, but the Watergate Scandal prevented President Richard Nixon from playing any major role in guiding U.S. foreign policy. These two factors gave Kissinger the mandate and the freedom of action that he needed to pursue his own vision. Kissinger understood that following its defeat by Israel, Egypt was a weak link in the loose Arab coalition against Israel. Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat hoped to continue to distance himself from the Soviet Union, while simultaneously seeking a rapprochement with Israel which he hoped would prevent a future war.  

The Israelis prided themselves on a robust policy of pre-emptive warfare, and were deeply shaken by the effectiveness of the Syrian and Egyptian surprise attack. Sadat had lost vital territory, and needed to grapple with issues that facing the long-term stability of a nation already beset upon by significant economic difficulties. Humbled by the inconclusive outcome, both sides faced longterm unrest within and across their borders, unless they could arrive at a diplomatic easing of relations.

Following the ceasefire, multi-party talks convened in Geneva to hammer out a long-term solution to the Mideast conflict. Egyptian and Israeli negotiators were joined by their Cold War patrons, the Soviet Union and the United States, but Syrian leaders refused to participate and the talks collapsed in early January 1974. Kissinger had correctly anticipated that multi-party talks would fail. Since early November, he had believed that an agreement for long-term stability in the region was possible only if the United States single-handedly brokered small, meaningful, incremental agreements between the Israelis and Egyptians.Prepared to take the precarious role of sole mediator, Kissinger planned to use the process not only to reach agreements among the combatants, but to achieve a major geopolitical objective: to displace the Soviet Union from its Middle Eastern sphere of influence. Until the outbreak of war, the Soviets had used the years-long stalemate between the Arabs and Israelis to cultivate alliances with Arab nations, encouraging a status quo that effectively blocked the United States from gaining influence in the region. The war had suddenly dislodged the Arabs and Israelis from their positions. In its wake, Kissinger sensed an emerging opportunity if he could successfully pursue an agreement that largely met both sides’ interests. 

Kissinger initiated his strategy of ‘shuttle diplomacy’ by meeting directly with Middle Eastern and Israeli leaders, and acting as an intermediary and peace broker between the two sides. His plan was to divorce Egyptian policy from that of Syria (which maintained an aggressively hostile stance with respect to Israel), obtain Egyptian recognition for Israel’s June 1967 borders, and in the process isolate Syria from Egypt and the rest of the international community. 

Fearful of any disruption, Kissinger sometimes even kept the White House at bay. When President Nixon, embattled by the Watergate scandal, got word that an agreement might be close, he requested that Kissinger return to the United States in order to publicly announce the potential impending agreement. Kissinger refused, telling the President that he would not leave until an agreement was signed. 

Kissinger used the shuttle and the weakened ties between the Soviets and Egyptians to dislodge the U.S.S.R. completely from that part of the region. He avoided arousing undue suspicion by sending non-descript updates to the Soviets by way of a senior national security aide, Brent Scowcroft.

His efforts over eight days in January 1974 led to an initial Egyptian-Israeli disengagement accord, followed by a Syrian-Israeli disengagement in May of that year, and a second Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement in September 1975.

Kissinger’s achievements included:

  • Troop disengagements between Israel and Egypt, January 1974.
  • Troop disengagements between Israel and Syria, May 1974.
  • Israeli withdrawal from areas won from Syria in 1973.
  • Israeli withdrawal from areas of the Sinai Peninsula.
  • Prisoners of war exchanges.
  • An end to the Arab oil embargo.

Though Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy did not immediately result in a peace agreement between the Egyptians and the Israelis, his incremental approach to diplomacy did lay much of the groundwork for the settlement between Egypt and Israel embodied in the 1978 Camp David Accords. 

On August 9, 1974, the Watergate scandal compelled President Nixon to resign, but Kissinger stayed on in his dual roles under President Gerald Ford. Kissinger helped Ford acclimate to the international scene and both men worked to continue policies implemented by Nixon and Kissinger previously, including détente with the Soviet Union, establishing relations with the People’s Republic of China, and negotiations in the Middle East.

Dr. Kissinger has received a Bronze Star from the U.S. Army in 1945; the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973; the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the nation’s highest civilian award) in 1977; and the Medal of Liberty (given one time to ten foreign-born American leaders) in 1986.


Henry Kissinger on Foreign Policy and the Art of Diplomacy: Overview of History (1994)


Interview with Kissinger on Israeli TV (English)


Kissinger’s Strategic Thinking During the October 1973 War


Partners in More than Peace: The Evolution of US-Egyptian Strategic Relations


Boaz Vanetik on Kissinger and Yom Kippur War (Hebrew)

More articles on the Yom Kippur War:

The difficult war that brought peace: The Yom Kippur War of October 1973

The Battle on Mount Hermon in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 – The courage of the Golani soldiers under fire

The Story of the Israeli Pilots in the Yom Kippur War – מלחמת יום כיפור: סיפורם של טייסי הקרב

The great tank battles of the Yom Kippur War of 1973

42 Years to the Yom Kippur War – כאילו לא היתה מלחמה

Frozen in time: The Golan Heights – What in its future?

Remembering Menachem Begin

Itzhak Hofi – An IDF General and Head of the Mossad

Moshe Dayan

David “Dado” Elazar

Golda Meir

Ariel “Arik” Sharon