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Harold Saunders, American Diplomat

National Security Council, 1961-1974

In 1961, Saunders joined the National Security Council staff under McGeorge Bundy, National Security Advisor at the time.  In this capacity, Saunders went to meetings, briefed the National Security Advsier on vital information, and drafted letters for the President’s signature. Over time, he became more involved with work in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa.  Because of the informal and small structure of the NSC at the time, his duties became increasingly more influential. 

His early years there were spent as a staffer working toward President John F. Kennedy’s interests in establishing a diplomatic relationship with Egypt.  Upon Kennedy’s assassination and President Lyndon Johnson’s ascension to the Oval Office, the NSC structure changed and Saunders had more direct interactions with the White House.  He became a senior NSC official in 1967.  This gave him his first opportunity to travel overseas—to Algeria—to draft a policy paper for that country.  Following that trip, he travelled more, including regular trips to the Middle East, which helped once the wars began to break out in that region.  He became the NSC authority on Near East Asia. 

Agreement signed on disengagement of forces photograph

The agreement between Israel and Egypt on disengagement of forces in pursuance of the Geneva Peace Conference being signed. Featured here are General Ensio Siilasvuo, Remy Gorge, Political Adviser to the UNEF Commander, and Harold H. Saunders, of the United States National Security Council staff. 

Agreement signed on disengagement of forces photograph

Israeli map showing a detailed plan of troop disengagement being examined by Maj. Gen. El-Gamasy.  To his left are General Taha El-Magdoub, and Col. A.F. Howaidy.  Pointing at the map is Col. D. Sion (Israel). Seated at the table at left is Harold H. Saunders (United States), of the National Security Council staff. 

Saunders served on the NSC staff during several international political crises, including the Six-Day War, a conflict among several Arab nations and Israel which occurred in 1967.  A second Arab-Israeli conflict—often called the Yom Kippur War—took place in October of 1973.  This event launched several diplomatic efforts, including the 1973 Geneva Conference and the first Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement of January 1974.  The latter negotiation was so involved and the trips back and forth were so frequent, it became known as the “Kissinger Shuttle,” which began the idea of “shuttle diplomacy.” His role in the shuttle was primarily to prepare analytical material for the team, prior to their departure.  Once they arrived abroad, they implemented a system to undertake negotiations, based upon that material.  This often consisted of a “check list” of people to meet with and what requirements or concessions needed to be made within that meeting.  These lists would be updated multiple times a day to reflect the progress toward their diplomatic goals. 

Photograph of Kissinger team

A photograph of a group of people as part of Henry Kissinger's team of diplomats between Egypt and Israel.  The photograph includes Harold Saunders, second from left. 

Photograph of Kissinger team

A photograph of a group of people as part of Henry Kissinger's team of diplomats between Egypt and Israel.  The photograph includes Harold Saunders in the middle. 

Harold Saunders in the Washington Post

A photograph of a group of men gathered around a map of Israel prior to signing a disengagement accord between Egypt and Israel.  The photograph features Harold Saunders on the far left. 

Harold Saunders letter to his parents

A letter Harold Saunders wrote to his parents after the first Egypt-Israeli disengagement agreement had been signed.  

Further negotiations took place in 1974 between a Syrian-Israeli disengagement in the Golan Heights.  Saunders made approximately twenty-six trips between Israel and Syria within about a month’s time, which led up to a visit from President Richard Nixon. After Nixon’s resignation from the Oval Office in 1974 and President Gerald Ford’s time in office commenced, efforts toward an overall peace conference were adjusted to smaller terms which became known as the Second Sinai Agreement.

Second Sinai Agreement photograph

A photograph of Henry Kissinger and Anwar Sadat seated at a table.  An arrow is drawn pointing to Harold Saunders in the photograph.

Unfortunately, Harold Saunders’ first wife, Barbara, passed away suddenly around the same time of the Yom Kippur War, which temporarily affected Saunders’ involvement in the diplomatic effort to resolve the conflict.