How The Gettysburg Battlefield Led to the Camp David Accords

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky | August 10, 2023
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Here’s a story you won’t read in the mainstream media because it doesn’t fit into their moral ideology of Manichean dualism.

Many years ago, during a banquet, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger repeated and modified the parable of the scorpion and the frog:  A scorpion wants to cross the Jordan River but cannot swim, so it asks a frog to carry it across. The frog hesitates, afraid that the scorpion might sting it, but the scorpion promises not to, pointing out that it would drown if it killed the frog in the middle of the river. The frog considers this argument sensible and agrees to transport the scorpion. Midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog and dooms them both. The dying frog asks the scorpion why it stung despite knowing the consequence, to which the scorpion replies: "I'm sorry, but this is the Middle East.” 

The enigma of the Middle East makes the following account even more fascinating.

In 1978 Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt, and Menachem Begin, Prime Minister of Israel, signed the Camp David Accords brokered by U.S. President Jimmy Carter. The three received the Nobel Peace Prize. The history includes a surprising detail rooted in a tour of the Gettysburg Battlefield that helped seal the peace deal.

Anwar Sadat

Anwar Sadat became an unexpected peace-making statesman. Sadat was a soldier. He graduated from the Royal Military Academy in Cairo and served as a second lieutenant during the British occupation. During WWII and after the war, he conspired to expel the British. The British repeatedly imprisoned Sadat for his activities. During his early years, Sadat was active in many political movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the fascist Young Egypt, the pro-palace Iron Guard of Egypt, and the secret military group called the Free Officers. Sadat participated in the military coup that launched the Egyptian Revolution in 1952, which overthrew King Farouk.

 Sadat succeeded the Soviet-friendly Gamal Abdel Nasser as president in 1970 and re-instituted the multi-party system. Sadat personally led the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and regained Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, occupied by Israel since the Six-Day War of 1967. In 1974, President Richard Nixon toasted Sadat in Qubba Palace as “a man who in a very short space of time has earned the respect not only of his friends and his nation’s friends but those who are his adversaries–or were his adversaries-and certainly the respect of all observers in the world.” Many historians credit Sadat for stabilizing Egypt and advancing the cause of peace in the Middle East. The radical Muslim Brotherhood assassinated him in 1981 because of his peace overtures to Israel.

Menachem Begin

Menachem Begin was also an unlikely peacemaker. He was born in Poland. During his university studies in Warsaw, he organized a self-defense group of Jewish students to counter harassment by anti-Semites on campus. After graduation, he became a member of the nationalist Revisionist Zionism movement and rapidly rose through the ranks. Living in Warsaw, Begin encouraged Jewish organizations to bring Polish Jews to Palestine. He unsuccessfully attempted to smuggle 1,500 Jews into Romania in 1939. During the early WWII years, the Soviet NKVD arrested and tortured Begin as an “agent of British Imperialism.” As a Polish national, he was a cadet in the Polish army and was sent to Palestine in 1942.

After the War, he became the leader of the Zionist militant group Irgun during the British occupation. During the insurrection of 1945-46, Begin ordered an attack on the British headquarters at the King David Hotel. The bombing killed 91 people, mostly British, Arabs, and Jews. Later, with Begin as its chief, Irgun fought the Arabs during the 1947–48 Civil War in Mandatory Palestine (the geographic outline mandated by the League of Nations). The British government described Begin as the "leader of the notorious terrorist organization" and declined him an entry visa to the United Kingdom between 1953 and 1955. After the establishment of Israel, Begin rose through the political ranks. He founded the Likud Party and was elected as Israel’s premier in 1977, ending three decades of Labor Party dominance.

The 1978 Camp David Accords

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter brokered negotiations between Sadat and Begin at Camp David in Maryland, with the national battlefield of Gettysburg nearby. As the days passed, prospects for a settlement at Camp David appeared so bleak that Sadat threatened to leave. As the negotiations stalled, Carter took Sadat and Begin to the Gettysburg Battlefield.

The remarkable untold story of the tour reminds us of the importance of remembering and revisiting our past, warts and all.

The Gettysburg National Military Park encloses the landscape of the Battle of Gettysburg, the most famous battle of the American Civil War. The Park receives an estimated 2 million annual visitors. The Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center displays many of the Park's 43,000 American Civil War artifacts. U.S. National Park Service rangers staff the Park and provide highly professional tours.

The Battle of Gettysburg commenced on July 1, 1863. After the initial skirmish, the battle lines hardened, and the Union took the high ground to the east. The Confederates failed to take Culp's Hill on the Union's right flank on the first day. The next day, the Union turned back the Confederate assault on Little Round Top on the left flank. On the final day of the battle, General Robert E. Lee ordered the infamous “Pickett’s Charge” frontal assault. The assault was a disaster for the South. The Confederates suffered 9,000 killed, wounded, and captured. They lost their best chance to save the secession. The Union suffered 1,500 casualties.

Park Ranger Robert Prosperi directed the three statesmen – and their entourage -- on a tour, including the field of General Longstreet’s frontal assault, so-called Pickett’s Charge.  Even today, anyone who sees the expanse of land and imagines the hellish exchange of gunfire experiences a sense of solemn awe. The scene struck an anti-war nerve.

Although undocumented in history books (and Internet reports), Prosperi explains in an email with this correspondent:

“As a Park Ranger I conducted a battlefield tour for Presidents Carter and Sadat and Prime Minister Begin as a respite from their meetings at Camp.  We made several stops on the battlefield and in the Gettysburg National Cemetery.  The incident you mention occurred while we were stopped at The Angle.  We were standing among the guns of Cushing's Battery and I had just finished describing Pickett's Charge and its repulse when President Sadat extended his hand to Prime Minister Begin and said ‘No more war, let's go back and make peace.’  Begin took Sadat's hand but I don't recall if he said anything. That's my recollection of that moment nearly forty-five years ago.” (Robert Prosperi, August 7, 2023.)

In the study of history, with considerable effort, we understand the where, when, and how of events. It is far more difficult for historians to grasp the why. The proceedings of the 1978 Camp David Accords provide an exemplary example of how treasured historical monuments and parks help us rediscover the truths of our heritage and shed light on the paths ahead.

We know God through Bible history. We know His providence as we honestly look back at our history. The (always uneasy) peace between Israel and Egypt since 1978 owes significant gratitude to our nation’s preservation of the most important battlefield of the U.S. Civil War – and the professional diligence, intelligence, and passion of a single park ranger.

A Civil War ranger – and the complexities of American history -- could teach the same lesson to Putin, Zelensky, our leaders -- and newspapermen.


Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Va.