TWENTY years ago the world was on the verge of a nuclear confrontation. Late at night on Oct. 24, 1973, American troops all over the world were put on alert. Defcon (or Defense Condition) III, the highest state of armed forces readiness for peacetime conditions, was declared in the name of President Nixon. The US decision to move to Defcon III during the Yom Kippur War is well known.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger received a message from Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev stating that Moscow was contemplating unilateral military steps in the Middle East. Mr. Kissinger hastened to inform the president of this message. According to Kissinger, he tried to reach Mr. Nixon at 9:50 p.m., but Alexander Haig told him that the president had retired for the night and refused to wake him.
As a result, a National Security Council meeting without the president and vice president commenced at 10:40 p.m. At about 11:30 p.m., a decision on Defcon III was adopted. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger instructed Adm. Ernest Mourer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to go ahead with enhanced readiness. In the course of the meeting, a message to Mr. Brezhnev in Nixon's name was drafted. The meeting lasted 3 1/2 hours.
``We decided that going to Defcon III could not be noted quickly enough by Soviet decisionmakers,'' wrote Kissinger in his memoirs. This turned out to be a huge miscalculation. Very soon after Admiral Mourer announced the readiness condition, Soviet intelligence reported Defcon III. At 11:30 a.m., Moscow time, an extraordinary meeting of the Politburo was held in the Kremlin. As a head of the Foreign Ministry department, I attended the meeting. It was one of the most important of all Politburo meetings held in connection with the Yom Kippur War. Almost all of the Soviet leaders took part in the discussion.
Marshal Andrei Grechko, the Minister of Defense, and Yuri Andropov, the head of the KGB, informed the participants of Defcon III. Brezhnev expressed his indignation at the fact that the Americans had prepared their troops for military action. He and his colleagues characterized Nixon's decision as irresponsible.
``The Americans say we threatened them, but how did they get that into their heads? What has that to do with the letter which I sent to Nixon?'' asked Brezhnev. His opinion was that the emphasis in the letter was on joint Soviet-American action in accordance with the understanding reached during Kissinger's visit to Moscow several days earlier.
As for the measures the Soviet Union should take in response to Defcon III, opinions differed. Some recommended reciprocating with a Soviet military alert. Mr. Andropov said, ``We should have responded to mobilization with mobilization.''
Mr. Grechko's position was the toughest. He insisted that measures should be taken mainly in the military sphere, and he recommended in particular that an order be given to recruit 50,000-70,000 men in the Ukraine and in the northern Caucasus. His view was that, in order to save Syria, Soviet troops should occupy the Golan Heights.
The participants realized that the central issue was whether the Soviet Union was prepared to confront the US and engage in a large-scale war. Most answered this question with a definite ``No.'' Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko said, ``We should not take the road of sending our troops; that would mean confrontation with the United States.'' Others added, ``We shall not unleash the Third World War.'' Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin rejected absolutely the idea of sending Soviet troops to the Middle East. He said, ``The United States will not start a war, and we have no reason to start it.'' Even Grechko agreed that the Soviet army was not ready for immediate military action. He said that no necessary preparatory work had been done.
When the discussion was at its height, Brezhnev suddenly asked, ``What about not giving any response to the American nuclear alert?,'' and noted, ``Nixon became too nervous; let us cool him down.'' Such an alternative was welcomed by most of the Politburo members. How could they have known that the president had been asleep?
The main reason for the Kremlin's calm response to the American nuclear alert was Soviet unpreparedness for military action. The general staff did not plan such action, and the Politburo never approved military intervention in the Middle East war.
In addition, a Soviet propaganda show was to begin on Oct. 25: ``The World Congress of Peaceloving Forces.'' Over 3,000 delegates from over 70 countries were arriving in the Soviet capital. As the ``greatest peace lover,'' Brezhnev had to make a lengthy statement. A hawkish decision, accompanied by a military demonstration, could have ruined the whole performance.
Kissinger later wrote that he and his colleagues had to respond to the Soviet proposal in a manner that would shock them into abandoning their threatened or planned unilateral move. Actually, the principal result of the US decision was that the Soviet postponed Brezhnev's statement at the Congress for one day. He made the statement on Oct. 26.
Following the decision not to respond to Defcon III, Brezhnev sent a calm reply to Nixon, and on Oct. 25, about 8 a.m. in Washington, the Politburo meeting adjourned.
What would have happened had the Soviets responded to Defcon III with a nuclear alert and initiated military action in the Middle East or elsewhere? In this case, Kissinger would have been forced to inform the president of a nuclear alert all over the globe. Thankfully, that did not happen. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.