WASHINGTON (JTA) — James Schlesinger, the Jewish-born U.S. defense secretary who played a role in the emergency shipment of arms to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, has died.
Schlesinger, 85, of Arlington, Va., died Thursday of complications from pneumonia at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, his family said. He was born and raised in a Jewish home in New York but converted to Lutheranism after a visit to Germany in 1950.
Schlesinger rose through the Nixon administration to become CIA director and then defense secretary, a role he had just assumed when the Yom Kippur War erupted. Egypt and Syria launched the war on Oct. 6, 1973, Yom Kippur, with surprise attacks. The United States airlifted arms a week later.
Some media reports at the time blamed Schlesinger for the delay, suggesting he was bowing to the oil lobby, but he vehemently denied it in an interview with JTA, saying he relayed the order as soon as he got the go-ahead from the White House.
Years later, government papers would show that Henry Kissinger, then the secretary of state, favored a delay in part to hand the Arab states a victory that would restore pride crushed in the 1967 Six-Day War and enable their leaders to make peace. President Richard Nixon, alarmed at the Egyptian and Syrian successes, eventually overrode Kissinger.
Schlesinger did not get along with President Gerald Ford, who succeeded Nixon after his 1974 resignation. Schlesinger quit in 1975 and became a critic of Ford’s policies on a number of issues, among them Israel, telling the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 1976 that Ford and Kissinger were wrong to blame Israel for not advancing toward a peace agreement.
Although he was a Republican, Schlesinger backed Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, against Ford in the 1976 elections. Upon his election, Carter named Schlesinger to the new post of energy secretary. Carrying over a member of the opposite party to the Cabinet was rare then, although it has become more commonplace in recent years. Schlesinger lasted in the position until 1979, when he left in part over differences with Carter on nuclear energy, which Schlesinger favored.