THE SIX DAY WAR - AMERICAN PERSPECTIVE
Vietnam, Jews and the Middle East: Unintended Consequences
7. America Rejects a Second Front
The Soviet Challenge
On April 6, Johnson sent a letter to Hanoi via Moscow. It was opened, returned, but not acknowledged. It was too late. China had taken steps to reopen the arms supply routes to North Vietnam and Hanoi had regained her confidence in military victory. Concluding that the time had come to increase the pressure on Hanoi and her allies, Johnson cancelled the bombing prohibition within ten miles of Hanoi and Haiphong (where Soviet supply ships abounded). Brezhnev, however, was determined not "to sink in the swamps of Vietnam."
On April 25, he told European communists gathered in Karlovy-Vary that peace in Europe could not be separated from the global struggle. Vietnamese patriots "were dealing telling blows" to the US by pinning "down" substantial American forces and undermining "the U.S.A.'s prestige and political positions throughout the world." The time had come to assist Third World "liberation struggles" by inflicting a defeat on imperialism "that would be felt everywhere." He then called "for the demand that the U.S. Sixth Fleet be withdrawn from the Mediterranean to ring out at full strength."
Plans to integrate NATO navies in the Eastern Mediterranean under US command did not find favor in the Soviet military, especially after Brezhnev's man, Andrei Grechko, became Defense Minister in April 1967. Grechko had fought in the Northern Caucasus during World War II and possessed an acute appreciation of the strategic value of the Middle East. At the end of March, Gromyko made a sudden visit to Nasser "to discuss also the problems of UNEF on the UAR-Israeli border." Their joint communiqué expressed the two men's concern with "the aggression against the Vietnamese people" and predicted that their determination to oppose efforts to "check" other national liberation struggles would "have an influence on events in Vietnam." On May 9, Soviet news agencies reported an imminent "Zionist-imperialist-reactionary" threat to the Syrian regime. On May 12-13, Soviet officials began spreading false information concerning Israeli troop concentration on the Syrian border. In short, to take advantage of the American single front strategy, and/or relieve the pressure on Vietnam as Brezhnev told Polish and East German leaders Gomulka and Ulbricht, the Middle East was chosen as the location for a decisive "anti-imperialist blow."
Retreating Atlanticists such as Brzezinski, and Defense experts like McNaughton and Nitze, warned that the intensified bombing of Hanoi "would lead to increased Soviet pressure on Berlin or even some kind of general war with the Soviet Union." On April 13, ambassador Dobrynin was recalled because "his policy towards the United States was too soft." Then, he helped convinced Llewelyn Thompson that Moscow had adopted a "new hard anti-U.S. line." The Hungarian charge d'affaires, Janos Radvanyi, got so agitated by prospects of a superpower collision that he asked for political asylum.
The administration had expected the Soviet countermove to come in Berlin, where the Soviets could control the crisis better and where their conventional forces enjoyed a significant advantage. But this overlooked the damage such a move would do to Soviet-French relations, not to mention its potential in uniting NATO. A move against NATO's southern flank was bound to exacerbate the argument over the organization's relations with Mediterranean states and provide ammunition to Atlanticists who, as the President complained, were "saying that we are over-emphasizing Asia."
When Eugene Rostow joined State, Rusk asked him to study the Korean settlement. He discovered Eisenhower's use of the nuclear card. On May 15, Washington decided to try it by publicizing a June 1965 remark Johnson had made to the effect that "he might go down in history as having started World War III." Moscow retorted that the story was obviously designed "to scare somebody" by implying that Washington was "ready to take any risk," and warned that "attempts to frighten the Vietnamese people" or "other people" would fail. The Washington Post carried the "World War III" story on the same page where it reported the Egyptian two-prong challenge to American Middle Eastern allies: A) Cairo not only bombed Yemeni guerrilla bases within Saudi borders but, for the first time, admitted doing so and B) Egyptian troops marched into the Sinai and Nasser demanded that UNEF withdraw from it.
Not being "naive," the administration identified "the Soviet fingerprints" in Nasser's actions. It also recognized the similarity between Vietnam, the "wars of national liberation" raging on Israeli and Saudi borders, and the increased guerrilla activity in Latin America. Thus, Johnson's May 19 letter to Kosygin suggested that the superpowers undertake "concerted or parallel action" to contain "a series of situations" brought about by Hanoi's support for the NLF, Damascus's backing of FATAH, and Havana's aid to insurgents in Venezuela. For "taken together," they might seriously "impair" Soviet-American relations. Though the superpowers were not in full control of these conflicts, Johnson concluded, their joint influence was "formidable."
To emphasize American steadfastness, Johnson hinted at a possible widening of the war in Vietnam and did not cancel the bombing of the Hanoi power plant. Similar motivations led sixteen "dovish" Senators to declare that Hanoi, Beijing and Moscow should know that they did "not favor unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam." They did favor bombing cessation and, that same day, McNamara joined their ranks. He presented Johnson with a "radical" memorandum which precipitated "an administration-wide" Atlanticist-Pacificist debate on "the fundamental issues" of American Vietnamese policy, a debate conducted in the shadow of the Mideast crisis.
Unhappy with the terms of the debate, and anxious not to "commit American forces in the Middle East too," the administration hoped to separate Nasser from Moscow with promises of generous economic aid. The first offer was carried by UN General Secretary U Thant, a man deeply resentful of "the white man's aggressiveness" in Vietnam whose response to Nasser's request for UNEF withdrawal reflected his sympathy for the Soviet and French positions connecting the two Asian crises. Without a critical word, U Thant had ordered the complete withdrawal of UNEF within hours of receiving the Egyptian request. He refused to invoke article 99 of the UN Charter authorizing him to bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which might "threaten the maintenance of international peace and security," and even agreed to Nasser's request not to bring his American assistant Ralph Bunche to Cairo.
Lacking an ambassador in Cairo, Johnson had few alternatives. In the meantime, he refused Israeli requests to issue "unilateral United States assurances." Even Israeli warnings of the dire consequences of "any interference with Israeli shipping through the Gulf of Aqaba" were transmitted only to Jiddah and Amman. Eugene Rostow did tell the Soviet charge that Washington knew that Moscow was spreading "very dangerous and inflammatory" stories about Israeli troop concentration on the Syrian border. But when asked "Is that a warning?," he answered "its just a friendly exchange."
These moves backfired. They reflected, as Harold Saunders later wrote, an administration resolved to avoid involvement in "another war. . . at all cost" and determined to restrain Israel for fear that it might get "in over its head and ask for help in the middle of the Vietnam war." So, on May 21, Nasser told his aides that he no longer believed that the expulsion of UNEF, or even the closure of the Straits of Tiran, would result in war: Israel knew that the United States was too deeply involved in Vietnam to come to her aid and she would not fight without US support because it feared the Soviet Union.
Moscow agreed. For, on May 22, Pravda ended a week long silence with a front page article summarizing the official decision reached by both the Central Committee and Communist Party. "Events in the Middle East," wrote Victor Mayevski, were closely linked with the intensified US bombing in Vietnam, and with "the preparation by the USA of new provocations against Cuba." Moscow did not expect Israel to act without American support but, if she did, the Soviets would undertake the "necessary measures." To underline the point, the Soviets informed Turkey of their plans to augment their Mediterranean fleet.
While U Thant was on his way to Cairo, Nasser announced the closure of the Straits. But even Goldberg advised him to ignore the snub and continue his mission. Once in Cairo, U Thant advised Nasser to present "the UAR case . . . in the light of the Big-Power play" and agreed to issue an appeal for a cooling off period on terms which, the horrified Bunche complained, placed him "in the position of effectively endorsing the blockade and fully implementing it without any further effort by Nasser." Apparently, U Thant was amongst those who hoped that the crisis would provide both a spur and a cover for a superpower deal which would secure peace in both parts of Asia.
Suddenly, a May 20 JCS Worldwide Posture Paper including "reservations concerning the ability of the United States to meet worldwide military commitments and contingencies beyond" Vietnam acquired a new significance. Since deterrence had failed, there was no escaping a serious exploration of the military option. There was none, insisted the military. There was one, retorted McNamara, but it should not be used.
The debate came to the fore during the May 24 NSC meeting. Johnson asked McNamara to appraise the situation. The secretary insisted that there was "no substance" to the notion that the US could not "manage" both crises at the same time. But when asked for a "detailed rundown" of the military option, JCS chairman General Earle Wheeler, without overtly disagreeing with McNamara, explained that "it would be harder to open the Gulf of Aqaba" than had been assumed:
We have a powerful naval force in the Mediterranean; that out(sic) land forces are few, limited to about 1400 Marines now in Naples, three days away; that our nearest ASW unit is two weeks away, since we cannot send one through the Suez Canal; that the UAR coastal battery and naval and air forces in the Red Sea will be the units employed to blockade the Gulf of Aqaba; that we will have trouble with overflight and staging rights in Turkey, Libya and Spain if we have to introduce our own ground forces.
Nor was this assessment kept secret from either Congress or the public. The NYT reported that military leaders informed Congress repeatedly that the Sixth Fleet was "under strength in planes and pilots. In any protracted major shooting war, it would soon suffer from lack of ground forces, replacement aircraft, pilots, ammunition and in general the sinews of combat." The military blamed the failure to mobilize, and "McNamara's insistence on using up inventories of weapons and supplies and holding down production" for the absence of much of a "cushion." Israel, it insisted, could take care of itself.
The crisis's depressant effect on the war in Vietnam was annoyance enough. Not only were requests for the expansion of the bombing, and the mining of coastal harbors and waters, turned down but the May 22 closing of the Straits brought a 24 hour complete bombing pause followed by the re-imposition of the 10 mile bombing exclusion zone around Hanoi. Complaints that just when the pressure on North Vietnam had been increasing, and weather conditions were "optimum," the military had to "back off" fell on deaf ears. In such a high risk global poker game, an American president lacking a crucial Mideast military high card, had to keep the stakes as low as possible, at least until the Soviets revealed their hand.
Moscow had adroitly avoided clarifying the extent of its support for Egypt; Nasser showed no interest in a Western brokered deal, and Israeli warnings led to expectations of an immediate military action to open the Straits. Lyndon Johnson turned to his Jewish friends to help him buy time. He asked Feinberg and Harman (who was in Washington) to go to Goldberg's New York apartment and await his phone call. Feinberg recalled: "The President talked to us on the phone between ten P.M. until two A.M. There were about half a dozen phone calls. He pleaded with Israel to give him time to organize the allies to break the blockade on the Straits. Harman called Israel. Military action was forestalled for a time, giving Johnson a chance to try." In return, Johnson promised to deliver a policy statement supportive of Israel and to release an aid package he had personally held up four days earlier.
The statement afforded yet another demonstration of Johnson's political skills. John Roche recalled: "Here he (Johnson) called me up in the middle of the night and asked me to come in. . . . The State Department had prepared a draft for him which was the most incredible document. . . . It didn't cut ice at all." Roche revised the draft by eliminating "as much of the conditional-subjunctive" as was possible "short of issuing an ultimatum." Walt Rostow approved the redraft. But Johnson wanted to immunize himself from future criticism.
Throughout the day, callers were treated to a reading of State's draft, followed by "they think this is the kind of thing I ought to say. How does it sound to you?" Not good. Johnson delivered the Roche version. He declared the blockade of Israeli shipping to be illegal and "potentially disastrous to the cause of peace," expressed his opposition to any "overt" or "clandestine aggression," and reiterated his commitment to oppose aggression in Vietnam. Israelis and their friends issued a sigh of relief.
No one dared point out its failure to balance the Soviet statement issued earlier that day. The latter blamed "imperialists" for "activating" Israel, expressed support for "the Arab countries in their just struggle for national liberation," and cautioned that whoever unleashed "aggression" in the Near East would "encounter not only the united strength of the Arab countries" but that of the USSR and its allies.
Concern about the American "physical capacity to take on another major commitment in addition to Vietnam" dominated the May 23 executive session meeting between Dean Rusk and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Noting that "a two continent war" was even worse than "a two-front war," the Senators insisted that the administration chose between them. Pacificist Rusk tried to avoid assigning "a priority," but Fulbright urged Rusk to "try a unilateral and possibly unannounced cessation of bombing as a step towards gradual disengagement." Symington preferred to "prosecute the Vietnamese war to the fullest" in order "to bring it to an early conclusion." Escalate or de-escalate, but get the war over quickly so that you can take care of the more important Middle East was the Senatorial consensus. Upon leaving the session, Rusk was already "pressed for comment on Symington's statement that the United States might have to 'make a choice' between the Middle East and the Far East." He insisted that the question had not "arisen." Furious Johnson wanted the Senators to know that "this kind of music in the Senate was just what Kosygin" wanted to hear.
Johnson asked "whether or not the Soviets had staged this Middle Eastern Crisis, the trouble in Hong Kong, and other diversions simultaneously to force" the US to turn its "attention from Vietnam?" CIA director Richard Helms joined Wheeler in denying "Soviet calculation," though the Soviets were sure to regard the new regional crisis "as godsend." But NEA director and former ambassador to Egypt Luke Battle doubted that Nasser would have acted that provocatively without substantial Soviet support.
Of course, an admission of Soviet culpability would prove the Atlanticist point that American concentration on the Pacific endangered its European i.e. Middle Eastern interests. Insistence that Israel could take care of herself eliminated the need to reorient American Pacificist policy.
But Goldberg and McNamara doubted Israeli ability to take care of herself. McNamara feared that she might need to be resupplied during the war, and that Egypt would be supplied with Soviet-piloted aircraft. On May 24, the organization of an international flotilla to open the Straits was the only operative idea, but no one had much faith in it. Rusk tried to maintain calm by maintaining that the situation was "serious but not . . . desperate."
Perhaps not, but there was no way to separate the two crises. When the Security Council met the following day, Fedorenko accused the West of trying to create a crisis where none existed so that it could become an "international policeman" and pursue policies in "many areas of the world fittingly described as an expression of `arrogance of power.'" He refused to participate in private UN consultations, though Moscow had yet to turn down French proposals for a four power conference on the Middle East.
Pacificists accused the Soviets of stirring up "trouble not only in Vietnam, but elsewhere close to the Communist frontiers, but far from the U.S." Atlanticists expressed the "grim hope" that the new emergency would deescalate the bombing of North Vietnam. After all, "a debate" on the Middle East" was preferable to "a showdown" in Vietnam. When Johnson flew to Canada, Prime Minister Lester Pearson insisted on "peace talks with Hanoi as well as on ways to settle the current Middle East problem." Reports were also reaching Rusk that Soviet officials had told British Foreign Secretary George Brown that Moscow would participate in four-power talks on the Middle East only if the Vietnam war was "tackled with similar urgency." Rusk hurriedly cabled his willingness to join talks on how tensions could "be lessened in both the Middle East and Vietnam" but "on a bilateral repeat bilateral basis."
Bilateral was the key word because, as Johnson lamented, Canadians and Europeans would "not accept responsibility . . . they say it's not their trouble, and why should they get in the middle east now, too." Washington had acted alone in Vietnam and might be forced to do so again in the Middle East; or would it? Johnson asked Walt Rostow to "compile a collection of every statement" he had ever made on Israel. The US, Rostow concluded, was committed: "a) to prevent Israel from being destroyed and (b) to stop aggression--either through the UN or on our own." The June 3, 1964 presidential promise that "just as the U.S. was in Southeast Asia, they would be wherever they were needed . . . it was important that there should be a feeling of security on Israel's part" was included amongst the "private face-to-face assurances."
When Rusk told the Senators that the US "had no treaty obligation" towards Israel, although it might have a "moral or national interest obligations," he got an earful. Joseph Clark stated that "the blunt fact" was that the American people would "not stand for the destruction of Israel." Albert Gore added that such destruction was not in the American interest. Mike Mansfield and Frank Lausche pointedly asked "about the relevance of the Senate's 1957 Middle East Resolution."
The 1957 Middle East Senate Resolution, better known as the Eisenhower Doctrine, authorized the president "to use force to assist any nation" in the Middle East "against aggression from any country controlled by international communism." During the 1964 debate over the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, George McGovern expressed concern over the broad and open ended authority the resolution gave the president. Richard Russell noted that the resolution had "precedents in those adopted at the time of the crisis in Formosa, at the time of Crisis in the Middle East, and also in connection with Cuba." The "power" of those resolutions, he added, remained "in existence" since Congress had never "annulled" them. Humphrey agreed, and the three resolutions were printed in parallel column form in the Congressional Record. In 1964, Wayne Morse opposed both resolutions as unconstitutional "undated declarations of war." However, on May 23, 1967, Morse demanded that the US act according to the spirit of the Middle Eastern one because "a reading of the entire resolution" would make "perfectly clear" that it meant "opposition to all aggression." Therefore, the president had "an obligation to announce our support for Israel by our air power, Marines and Navy if called on." Morse was a prime example of the "interesting reversal of roles." Rusk observed: "Doves have become hawks and vice versa." That did not make him wrong. Indeed, Luke Battle thought it "odd" that the Eisenhower Doctrine was "almost never mentioned during the Arab-Israeli War."
If so, it was because Johnson planned to use the Congress as an excuse to back out of American commitments to Israel. The US had insisted that Israel consult with her before acting and Eban was coming to consult. Unknown to Johnson, Eban had a 1957 draft of a statement Golda Meir had made in the UN prior to the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai. It stated that "interference, by armed force, with ships of Israel flag . . . through the Straits of Tiran" would "be regarded by Israel as an attack entitling it to exercise its inherent right of self defense . . . by armed force." The last three words were in John Foster Dulles's handwriting, and the document indicated that "if there was a violation (of the freedom of passage in the Straits) the United States could be counted upon to help out."
Johnson sent a messenger to Gettysburg to see if Eisenhower would sanction some backtracking. Eisenhower not only refused but held a press conference affirming "that the Israelis' right of access to the Gulf of Aqaba was definitely part of the `commitment' we had made to them." This meant that if Israel used force to open the Straits, the US not only could not regard her as an aggressor but was under a strong moral obligation to assist her.
Since Johnson had asked Israel to stay her hand, He would have to tell Eban: 1. What he could offer that would be "better than a preemptive strike?" 2. How would the U.S. "guarantee Israeli security" in case Israel agreed to "exhaust diplomatic possibilities?" Already Israel had information that the UAR was about to initiate hostilities. The US sent urgent cables to Moscow, Cairo and Damascus but their effectiveness was uncertain. On May 26, Rusk revised the American commitment: "Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone," to which Johnson added that he could not imagine that she would so decide. International action under the auspices of the UN or the maritime nations would provide the answer to the first question. The second, Johnson would argue, did not depend on him alone but also on Congress.
At his meeting with Eban, Johnson declared the Dulles check, along with all others written by US Presidents, "not worth five cents" without public and Congressional support. Without the Congress, Johnson said, he was "just a six-foot-four Texan." He was "not a feeble mouse or a coward:" he would do what was "right" and secure Congressional support despite "the Vietnam trauma." There was no hurry because Israel would "whip the hell out of them." Ignoring Dulles' commitment, he emphasized "the necessity for Israel not to make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities."
He did not expect Eban to buy into the performance. "Israel is going to hit," Johnson told his advisors. But that did not displease them. At dinner that night, Johnson boasted:
They came loaded for bear, but so was I. I let them talk for the first hour, and I just listened, and then I finished it up the last 15 minutes. Scy McNamara said he just wanted to throw his cap up in the air, and George Christian said it was the best meeting of the kind he had ever sat on.
They were right. Just hours prior to that meeting, Soviet spokesman Leonid M. Zamyatin held a rare press conference at which he complained that the West sought UN guarantees for Israel just as Washington demanded guarantees from Hanoi before agreeing to stop the bombing. This Soviet bravado was based in part on the expectation that "Eban's mission to Washington would succeed." News of its failure alarmed Moscow. Ambassador Chuvakhin received immediate instructions to present Eshkol with a letter from Kosygin urging Israel "not to create a new area of war that could bring indescribable suffering to all nations." He woke Eshkol up at 2:30 in the morning demanding to know if Israel would fire the first shot. Eshkol answered that the first shots had already been fired by Nasser.
It was the Soviet charge's turn to ask for an "extremely urgent" meeting with Rusk. Rusk delayed him until the afternoon. The charge then handed him a letter from Kosygin. Kosygin claimed "to know" that the Arabs did not "wish a military conflict," indicated that a solution to the Straits problem could be found and threatened "to give aid to the countries attacked." The meeting, Rusk wrote, led the superpowers to exchange assurances to restrain their clients.
Johnson, immediately, informed Eshkol of the content of the Soviet message and threatened to label Israel "the aggressor" if it "went alone." Barbour was authorized to add that preparations for "the military aspect of the international naval escort plan" were "proceeding urgently repeat urgently," and that other nations were "responding vigorously to the idea." Therefore, "unilateral action on the part of Israel would be irresponsible and catastrophic." To convince Israel, the USSR and the Arabs of American sincerity, the Sixth Fleet was ordered to sail westward.
Johnson wrote Kosygin of his restraining efforts, hinted that some moderation in Arab rhetoric might be useful, and added that it was "of vital importance" to the US "that a prompt solution be found to the issue of Strait of Tiran."
The Soviet-American exchange reduced American interest in direct action to open the Straits. Thereafter, in his meetings with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rusk emphasized not only the importance of action through the UN but also of contacts with the USSR. Eugene Rostow was no longer permitted to use the president's name in soliciting support for the Red Sea regatta. The British understood as much, and withdrew their backing from the project.
Amazingly, Rusk and McNamara spent Memorial Day supervising an elaborate "Middle East Scenario" which called for a declaration by the maritime nations, and "contingency planning for testing UAR interference" and "contingency planning for the use of force, as necessary." "Implementing action" would await the exhaustion of "measures" in the UN and Congressional passage of a special resolution which they deemed necessary on political grounds. In their "judgment," the two secretaries concluded, this scenario represented "the only alternative to an almost certain war."
If, as McNamara insists, he knew that an Arab attack was imminent, then the plan was designed to avert an Israeli preemption. It ignored the British withdrawal, the Israeli timetable, and even the American mood. There was no political need for special legislation, nor any difficulty in obtaining it. After all, Congress had never demanded legislation. On May 23, ninety-six House members issued a statement pledging support for "whatever action" was needed "to resist aggression against Israel and preserve peace." The following day, their number reached one hundred and eight. Two days later, Seymour Halpern demanded on the House floor that Johnson request "a Gulf of Aqaba resolution," just as he had requested "a Gulf of Tonkin resolution." Congressman Emmanuel Celler went to Walt Rostow to inquire whether Johnson would welcome "a strong statement of support for his position on Aqaba" since he was sure that a "clear majority" would support one. Evron reported that sentiment for a strong US stand was no longer "confined to former doves." Johnson turned them down. A Jewish lobbyist observed: "The President, who would not act without the support of Congress, was pushing Congress not to push him."
A public opinion poll found growing support for escalation in Vietnam, in order to take care of the Middle East. It led to a NYT editorial entitled "What Price Vietnam?" which bemoaned its "baneful effects" on "conflicts from Suez to Hong Kong" and pointed out that a demand for "`total victory' . . . could lead to 'total' world war."
The editors preferred the implications of a question they posed a week later: "Middle East and/or Vietnam?" They argued that American commitments to Israel were stronger than to South Vietnam, that Israel did not ask the US to do its fighting, that American strategic and economic interests in the Middle East far exceeded those in Southeast Asia. and that the US had taken the place of the French and British in the region. Moreover, the crisis "reached the ironical stage where virtually every argument advanced for the Vietnam war - commitments, honor, security, interests, consistency, the self-determination of small nations - could be used in favor of helping Israel." If Washington could not fight two wars simultaneously, it should leave Vietnam. The editorial was widely quoted as an Atlanticist answer to Pacificist suggestions that "the silver lining hanging over Vietnam would be the conversion of the doves into hawks." But, if there was a conversion, it was not in the attitudes of doves towards Vietnam but towards the USSR and detente.
Even isolationists like Joseph Kraft, who insisted that America would "get on nicely no matter what happened in the Middle East or Southeast Asia," believed that the Soviets used the Middle East as "a second front" and warned the administration that it was "fatal to hand the opposition the charge of a `sell out.'" A Houston broadcaster retorted that the US could not "live completely confined" to its shores; the two conflicts were interrelated and posed a threat to the country's "very own freedom." He urged his listeners to tell their Congressmen, Senators and President to resist "aggression." Such resistance, warned The Charleston West Virginia Gazette would turn the superpowers into "two armed camps, moving progressively close from cold to hot war."
Not necessarily, argued William Randolph Hearst, Jr.. Washington did not have to fall into the Soviet trap and choose between war and peace, or between the Middle East and Vietnam because "left alone, the Israelis would win." Moreover, to choose would mean to betray the dead:
If the two fires had ignited at the same time, the U.S. would, I am sure, at first have gone all-out to aid Israel. But history has not permitted us this choice. . . . We have a present commitment which far surpasses all others. That is our obligation not to retreat and thus betray the more than 10,000 Americans killed thus far in the conflict with the communists in Vietnam.
Evans and Novak blamed the American predicament on a "State Department, preoccupied with Vietnam . . . frozen in the posture of an ostrich" and ignoring friendly warnings of an imminent disaster in the Middle East. James Reston reported that the conversion of doves into hawks was also a European phenomenon:
The vicious Middle East controversy has startled our old friends and allies in Western Europe. They have been saying the cold war was over in this part of the world . . . but now they are not so sure. The Arab Israeli conflict is a little nearer Europe than Vietnam. . . and the paradox of it is that many of the Europeans who have been most critical of his use of force in Southeast Asia are now afraid he might not follow this line in the Middle East.
The Economist wrote that Russian success at vaulting "into the Middle East over the ring of alliances by which they were contained in the 1950s" gave them "bargaining power of a sort" they never had before. It had already led Johnson to "call his bombers off Hanoi" and it might tempt him to reach "a crude Israel for Vietnam bargain." Johnson should realize that such a bargain would undermine "the more cautious men in Moscow" and provide only a temporary respite. For "the Israelis, rather than submit to being permanent hostages, would one day almost certainly decide to have it out with the Egyptians in a test of arms that the great powers might easily get drawn into." Clearly, Europe was watching.
A Change of Signals
American hopes for greater Arab or Soviet restraint were quickly dashed. On May 28, the Soviet defense minister told his Egyptian counterpart: "We received today information that the Sixth fleet in the Mediterranean returned to Crete the marines it had been carrying on landing vessels. Our fleet is in the Mediterranean near your shores. . . . I want to confirm to you that if something happens and you need us, just send us a signal." Nasser promptly ruled out any compromise on the Straits, stated that the problem was the aggression involved in Israel's very existence, and pledged to act without considering the possibility of an American intervention.
Soviet rhetoric was just as uncompromising. Fedorenko contrasted Arab moderation with Israeli aggressiveness, emphasized that whether "Tel Aviv will risk overstepping the danger line will depend largely on those who stand behind Israel," and charged the US with barbarism and racism in Vietnam. Reports of Soviet-American talks led China, which had created another crisis center in Hong Kong, to accuse Moscow of acting as the "chief accomplice in U.S. activities to intimidate the Arab countries by force and exert political pressure on them." It urged the Arabs on:
The great victories of the Vietnamese people's war to resist U.S. aggression and save their country serves as a powerful support for the Arab people's struggle against U.S. imperialism and, in its turn, the anti-U.S. imperialist struggle of the Arab people constitutes a powerful support for the revolutionary cause of the peoples of the world against imperialism.
Thompson suggested constricting further the bombing of North Vietnam as a "signal for de-escalation," and "for effect it might have on our efforts to obtain Soviet cooperation in Middle East crisis." Rusk added a stick to the carrot. In a speech to the lawyers' association, he expressed willingness to enter negotiations on Vietnam "literally without any conditions," but he also held out the possibility of mining Haiphong harbor. Privately, the Soviets warned that it "would have to send soldiers to help North Vietnam" if the US continued its escalation there. Publicly, they remarked that Rusk should not have taken time out from his Middle Eastern preoccupation just "to reaffirm " his intent to continue his "dangerous playing with fire."
This Soviet/Egyptian bravado exerted enormous pressure on pro-Western regimes. On May 26, the Iranian ambassador told Johnson that "Iran felt that it was necessary to resist aggressive forces." The President answered that "the United States was trying very hard to find a 'middle way' to solve the present crisis." But, Nasser's propaganda was telling the Arab world that Riyadh and Amman were "false friends" and their monarchs could no longer wait for the promised "middle way" especially after the US diverted to Ethiopia a freighter en route to the Jordanian port of Aqaba. So, The kings proclaimed their support for the "liberation of Palestine," mobilized their forces, and planned a foreign ministers' conference to organize an oil embargo of Western countries supportive of Israel. On May 30, King Hussein flew to Cairo, placed his army under Egyptian command, and agreed to let Saudi and Iraqi forces enter Jordan.
Suddenly, everything changed. Washington believed that such Nasserfication of the region presented it "with security crisis of major, and potentially catastrophic, proportions: NATO military positions were being outflanked. Communications between Europe, Africa and Asia were threatened. . . .Oil essential to the European (and Japanese) economies could be used as lever of political coercion." Even oil company executives demanded that the administration not "let them start eating" the US up because it was "tied down in Vietnam."
Johnson decided once again to gamble on an Israeli victory. He used a letter from Eshkol which stated that Israel had postponed military action because of Johnson's personal commitment to pursue "all means" to open the Straits. To cover his political tracks, Johnson asked Goldberg: Did you understand that "I made a commitment to go to war with Egypt with the Israelis if Nasser" did not "get out of the Sinai?" Goldberg retorted that since Johnson had used the words "subject to our constitutional provisions," he had made no such commitment. Later, Goldberg explained: "I wanted to protect the President and our country and also be accurate. So the Israelis could determine what was required for their own security. I didn't want them fooled." He thought it best to provide Johnson with an alibi.
Johnson instructed Walt Rostow to inform Evron that the US was no longer committed to opening the Straits. If Israel wanted them open, she would have to open them herself.
The meaning of this information was clear to friend and foe alike. As presidential envoy Robert Anderson told Nasser: "If Israel felt she was virtually alone she might be motivated to strike first to secure strategic advantage." Nasser replied that it "was a risk" he was willing to accept since "he was confident of the outcome of a conflict between Arabs and Israelis." Amer issued his War Command No. 2 predicting that war would commence within days, in part because it was clear that the US would "under no circumstances embark on the adventure of direct action on Israel's side because of the Soviet Union's firm stand and its willingness to intervene in the event of aggression on the part of a Great Power against the United Arab Republic."
Did the President give Israel the green light to strike first? Not exactly. He had given the Soviets his word and did not wish to seem incapable of controlling his client. An Arab attack was imminent, and it was important, Rusk later argued, that Israel "would take the American advice on such an important matter" and agree to absorb the first strike. Could Israel count on US help if things went wrong? With the possible exception of Lyndon Johnson, no one knew the answer or was aware of any contingency plans.
On May 29, U.S. carrier Intrepid transited the Suez Canal because, as Rostow wrote Johnson, "Bob McNamara would feel more comfortable if it were on the other side of the canal if needed in connection with a crisis at the Gulf of Aqaba." But at a meeting in Wheeler's office, General Harold Johnson asked the fleet commander whether he could promise that planes taking off from the Intrepid could reach within ten minutes any possible point of conflagration. The commander said they could. Johnson then asked whether the planes could discover and destroy all the Egyptian artillery positions along the Straits. The commander answered in the affirmative, though he would not guarantee the destruction of each and every position. Johnson argued that without such a guarantee, the carrier would be useless. The Intrepid continued to Vietnam.
On June 2, the JCS confirmed again that "under present force ceiling" the US army lacked forces for contingencies beyond Vietnam nor could they get them into the area within the relevant time frame. There were limited forces east of Suez, but "the capability of these forces to prevail, if attacked by major UAR forces, is doubtful." Post war bravado aside, Rusk fretted about the problem Washington would have "if the Israelis were defeated and were about to be driven into the sea" or if, as he expected, the Soviets did "something" to save the Arabs. After all, as McNamara noted, the US "would have a real problem if the Soviets came in to save Egypt." To improve the odds, Army Secretary Cyrus Vance organized an emergency supply pipeline to Israel and Helms shared intelligence with his Israeli counterparts.
On June 2, US aircraft bombed a Soviet vessel anchored fifty miles north of Haiphong. Moscow thought it was an attempt to demonstrate that despite the Mideast crisis, the US would continue to escalate in Vietnam. With this attack, Fedorenko declared, Washington lost her "moral authority to assume . . . the role of guardian of free international navigation." He described how American "ravaging hordes" made "desperate attempts to crush" and "to drown the nation (of Vietnam) in blood." Then he asked: "Does the United States not know that it is the criminal aggression of the United States in Vietnam that is posing a direct threat to peace, and not only in South-East Asia?" Goldberg chided him for engaging in "a cold-war exercise."
War was imminent, and everybody knew it. Nor could the US force Israel to forgo preemption. Eisenhower explained: "Supposing I had been president and some combination of enemies, much bigger than us, had been gathered on the seas and in Canada and Mexico promising our extinction. If I hadn't attacked first while I had the chance I would have been tried for treason." Johnson was notified, as were Soviet officers stationed in Alexandria. To cover his historic tracks, Johnson hurried to answer Eshkol's letter. He included the talking paper given Eban, but this time he expressed doubts about the international effort and made clear American refusal to "move in isolation."
American diplomats even informed the Arabs. Thompson used an invitation to a future Egyptian embassy function in Moscow to tell his potential host that "things might happen in the next few days which could make my presence embarrassing." Nasser got the message. Thompson should not have worried, he spent that day in Washington interpreting Soviet hot line messages. The job of preventing an Israeli surprise attack fell on the CIA station chief in Amman who, on the evening of June 4, personally told Hussein that Israel would attack the following morning. Hussein called Nasser who had already informed his commanders two days earlier that "the Israeli attack would be launched on 5 June" and would be directed against the air force.
The Credibility Gap
On June 5, at 4:30 A.M. Walt Rostow woke up Lyndon Johnson and told him that the turkey shoot had begun; he was stating facts. The Arab air fields had been destroyed. There were celebrations in the White House and Foggy Bottom. Eugene Rostow mischievously quipped: "Remember we are neutral in word, thought and deed." So, when State Department spokesman Robert McClosky was asked whether he would reaffirm American neutrality in light of news of Arab anti-American rioting, he confirmed that the US was "neutral in thought, word and deed." Since the only news items available to the public were pre-prepared Arab victory boasts, his answer seemed more than callous. When Roche saw the exchange on television, he called Johnson and told him to turn on his set. Furious, Johnson called Rusk and ordered him and McClosky to explain.
But explain what? Rusk had spent the day telling the Soviets that the fighting had taken Washington by surprise. Pleased with the Soviet hot line suggestion that the superpowers stay out of the conflict, he had no wish to make provocative statements. So he explained that "neutrality" did not mean indifference, only "non belligerence." The US was committed to "the integrity and independence of the nations in the Middle East," though "obtaining a cease fire" was her first priority.
This verbal hairsplitting only confirmed the widely held notion that McClosky's statement was an accurate reflection of a policy that "slipped out." The Media reported that when the war began, the Sixth Fleet vessels were off Crete three days away from the Israeli and Egyptian coasts and their 2000 marines were enjoying a shore leave in Malta. At the same time, four additional Soviet destroyers and a frigate had sailed through the Dardanelles. The message was clear: There were no plans to save Israel had she gotten into trouble. John Stennis and Mike Mansfield explained that Vietnam had undermined American military capabilities.
The fiasco led Johnson to summon McGeorge Bundy to coordinate the American response to the War. But the facts on the ground were the real agents of change. On the morning of June 5, Goldberg wanted an immediate ceasefire and "informally suggested" that it be coupled with "a return of Israeli and Arab forces to their positions on May 18, before Egypt moved troops into Sinai and Aqaba." The Arabs refused and Moscow, unsure of the effect the air war would have on the ground war, made Soviet officials difficult to find.
By the following morning, the magnitude of the Arab defeat was clear and the desperate Nasser and Hussein had accused the US of fighting alongside Israel in hope of spurring a superpower confrontation. The accusation infuriated Washington and convinced Moscow to opt for an immediate ceasefire. A Soviet diplomat recalls:
Around midmorning on June 6, we received a telephone call on an open line from Moscow - an extraordinary occurrence - from the Deputy Foreign Minister, Vladimir Semyonov. He said that there would soon be new instructions and that we should arrange a meeting with Goldberg immediately upon receiving them. Our new orders were to accept Goldberg's idea, but if it proved impossible to get a decision on that basis, we were to agree to the Security Council's proposed resolution on a cease-fire as the first step. The instructions, signed by Gromyko, stressed: "You must do that, even if the Arab countries do not agree - repeat, do not agree."
But Washington was no longer in a hurry. Goldberg disappeared, and the White House suggested an unconditional ceasefire. To Washington's surprise, Kosygin agreed. Washington informed Goldberg who told the unhappy Fedorenko that his former "unofficial" proposal was no longer on the table. Fedorenko had no choice but to agree. The ceasefire in place left Israel with useful Arab territories. During the June 7 NSC Meeting, Dean Rusk articulated the new American Middle Eastern role: "If we do not make ourselves 'attorneys for Israel,' we cannot recoup our losses in the Arab world." The US had to turn the Israeli-held Arab territories into bargaining chips. Arab countries wishing to regain territory had to pay a price to Washington as well as to Jerusalem.
The American price could be extracted from both the Arabs and the Soviet Union. The Israeli price was simple: "NO DRAW-BACK WITHOUT DEFINITIVE PEACE." Washington assumed that this meant making the "general acceptance of the state of Israel" a "major" American "policy point." Hence, the issue of the permanence of the Jewish state would no longer be negotiable. There might also be a difference between the armistice and peace borders. Unwilling to pay the Israeli price, and doubting the willingness of others to do so, Washington had to persuade Israel to lower it. Rusk argued that he had "something to bargain with in that Israel must be grateful to the US" and it required "continuing US support." Others were not so sure. Rusk "reviewed the question of 'who did what.'" He insisted that the US "had a primary obligation" to itself to maintain peace, and what the US would have done if it were in Eshkol's shoes was "another question." In any case, the situation appeared "more manageable than five days or three days" earlier.
Rusk's comments included a grudging admission that the US had failed Israel, that the war improved the US strategic position and that a new American Mideast policy was in order. Lyndon Johnson would admit nothing of the sort. Watching a CBS special, he commented that "it was easy to tell there was some Jewish background in the commentator by the slanted method in which he was reporting." His behavior at the NSC meeting reflected his foul mood. "The President was pretty worked up," recalls Eugene Rostow. "He went around the table asking us: 'Do you agree that the message from Eshkol gave us two weeks?' Everyone agreed." He then said that he could not visualize the USSR saying it had miscalculated, and "walking away," that Washington's objective should be to "develop as few heroes and as few heels" as possible. The US might be "in as good a position" as it "could be given the complexities of the situation," but, before long, they all would "wish the war had not happened."
Clearly he tried to vindicate himself by insisting that had Israel not lost its patience, he would have honored Eisenhower's pledge. For as columnist Tom Wicker remarked, it was going to be difficult for Washington to present the "war in Vietnam as necessary to honor its commitment and as one for the protection of small nations" after "finding itself unable or unwilling to assist the Israelis." It was also going to be difficult to convince the American people that the Cold War with the USSR was over or that gradual force application was the right way to fight a war. Then there was jealousy.
The June 8th Israeli attack on the American spy ship the Liberty handed Johnson a weapon with which to tarnish the Israeli halo. Israel immediately acknowledged the mistake, apologized and offered to pay compensation to the families. But Eshkol limited the American ability to take advantage of the incident by reminding the world that "President Johnson promised great things," but was unable to deliver them. Johnson was livid. Bundy, who "had a feeling Monday (June 5) that we would not in the end have put troops in," tried to help. The strongest American card, he thought, was the attack on the Liberty, though it was of "more use in the Middle East than in the United States." The appropriate argument in the US was that Israel did not need help to fight Arabs; it needed and got help in keeping the Soviets out:.
The real danger to Israel was that some other power might give active support to the Arabs. Without any threat or warning, or(sic) any kind, but simply because of here(sic) presence as a world power and here(sic) whole policy towards Israel, the US stood between Israel and such action by any other power.
Perhaps Israel did not need American help, but that did not change the fact that help would not have been there had it been needed, retorted columnist Drew Pearson. Cy Sulzberger added that while the US role had been "confined to waffling," American "prestige" had risen. But the unkindest cut of all was administered by James Reston: "The Israelis are now very popular in Washington. They had the courage of our conviction, and they won a war we opposed." Bundy's special committee discussed the Reston column. An angry Johnson instructed his aides to "summarize as black a picture as we can of Soviet (weapon) shipments" and tell the Israelis that "It wasn't Dayan that kept Kosygin out."
Three days later, Reston imparted a very different message in a column entitled, "Washington: 'And God Spake Unto Israel.'" It informed his readers that Israel "had an ally after all" because "the best inside story on the Middle East so far is in the 46th chapter of the Book of Genesis . . . Fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make thee a great nation: I will go down with thee into Egypt; and I will surely bring thee up again." Reston added that the US would seek "a genuine peace settlement" in the Middle East. What happened? The shooting war was over and with it the possibility of a superpower confrontation. There was no longer a need to appease the Soviets, or even present them as moderates. The evidence to the contrary was too strong, and the political price too high. At first, administration analysts differed in their interpretations of Soviet intentions. On June 6, one analyst dismissed Soviet assertions of connections between the Middle East and Vietnam as mere propaganda and expressed skepticism about "the notion that the Soviet Union wanted a major crisis in the Middle East in order to throw the US off balance in Vietnam." Another argued that "Gromyko's visit to Cairo and Vinogradov's assignment as ambassador to the UAR should be regarded as early developments in a new and more active plan of a Soviet Middle East operation increasingly related to Moscow's European policy and a point of pressure to offset the U.S. position in S.E. Asia."
Additional evidence soon poured in: A Soviet CIA source confirmed that Moscow wanted "to create another trouble spot" for the US in addition to Vietnam. Its "grand design" envisaged a long war in which the US would become seriously involved, economically, politically, and possibly even militarily. The plan "misfired because the Arabs failed completely and Israeli blitzkrieg was so decisive." An oil company official reported being asked by a Soviet diplomat whether the crisis had not "increased domestic pressure on the U.S. administration to de-escalate its activity in Vietnam," whether an American military involvement in the Middle East would not diminish its willingness and ability "to continue its scale of activity in Vietnam?," and "Whether the possibility of additional crises arising besides those in the Middle East and Vietnam might not persuade the U.S. that it is overextended?"
Anther oil executive reported that a Soviet official came to him "fishing for information about the impact of the crisis on U.S. fuel supplies," and on American operations in Vietnam. The Arab states had reduced oil production. Izvestia happily reported West European fears of oil shortages and that "half of the total petroleum used by American troops in Vietnam" came from "the Persian Gulf, mainly from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia." The Defense Department quickly announced that US forces in Southeast Asia had "adequate reserve stocks on hand."
In any case, though Reston was wrong to ascribe to Washington the role of God in Egypt, he would have been accurate to ascribe it such a role in Syria. For the first ceasefire left Egypt without the Sinai, Jordan without the West Bank and Syria intact. McGeorge Bundy told Eban "it would seem strange that - Syria - which had originated the war - might be the only one that seemed to be getting off without injury." An Israeli attack on Syria would demonstrate that Moscow was no better at protecting its client than Washington. It would further undermine Israeli relations with France and the USSR, and increase Israeli dependence on the US. When Israel obliged, Washington responded to Soviet threats of military intervention not only by ordering the Sixth Fleet eastward but also by bombing Hanoi.
The vast improvement in the American bargaining power reawakened interest in a package deal to settle both Asian conflicts. Brzezinski wrote Johnson that while the USSR might not "wish to link one crisis, in which it suffered a major political setback, with another crisis, which continues to be a source of embarrassment to the United States," such a public initiative would serve Johnson well:
If the offer is rebuffed either by Hanoi or by Moscow, Johnson will not have lost any prestige; on the contrary, the position of the US will have been strengthened. At the same time, the so-called "peace movement" within the United States will have been badly hurt, both because great many of its supporters hold an entirely different attitude towards the Middle Eastern crisis and, secondly, because Johnson's peace offer would exploit their present mood of psychological ambivalence.
There were similar calls in Congress and the media. Reston reported an administration inclination to reach "a general settlement of all the problems of the last war and the postwar period." However, such daring was not in the cards, procrastination was. Israel's supporters were split between those who feared that she would have to pay the price for such a deal and those who believed that only the prospect of a Vietnamese settlement would entice Washington to pursue peace in the Middle East.
Rusk "did not see how either side could make concessions in one place to obtain concessions in the other." On June 19, 1967 Johnson issued a policy statement officially linking withdrawal to peace. His advisers, who as early as June 7 had rebuffed a joint Moroccan-Iranian peace initiative, decided to postpone action on the Middle East for at least two to four months in the hope of bringing a post-Nasser Egypt back to the fold. The announcement that Kosygin was coming to New York reshuffled the cards once more.
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Jeffrey Campbell - 6/4/2007
Comparing this with Schmuel Rosner's current writing on American Jews opposition to the Iraq war gives me the feeling of deja vu all over again.
- History Relevance Campaign meets at the Smithsonian
- Bernard Lewis Turns 100
- Jean Edward Smith, biographer of FDR and Ike, has a new biography coming out … of George W. Bush
- Flora Fraser, biographer of George and Martha Washington, wins $50,000 George Washington Prize