1967 Israeli-Arab 6 Day war, June 3, 1967:
President Lyndon Johnson's Letter to Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol

June 3, 1967

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1967 Israeli-Arab 6 Day war, June 3, 1967:
President Lyndon Johnson's Letter to Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol

June 3, 1967


Gamal Abdul Nasser and his fellow officers had taken power in Egypt in order they claimed, to modernize the country and undo the shame of the lost 1948 war. However, in 1956, after Nasser closed the straits of Tiran and Suez canal to Israeli shipping and moved terror squads into the Sinai peninsula, Israel, Egypt and France attacked Egypt. Israel captured the entire Sinai peninsula in 100 hours. Before agreeing to withdraw, Israel got a commitment from the US in the form of an Aide de Memoire, stating that it would support Israel's right to unrestricted access to the straits of Tiran, in accordance with international law, and the UN agreed to station an emergency force in Sinai (UNEF).

Subsequent clarifications by the US apparently confirmed that the US supported the right of Israel to use force to enforce freedom of navigation. Israeli passage in Aqaba became a sore point for Nasser, and he was taunted by other Arab states for permitting it. The Aide de Memoire and U.S. position became an issue in 1967 when prior to the Six day war Israel insisted that closure of the straits was an act of war. The U.S. agreed but asked Israel to allow the US to open the canal. Between 50,000 (US estimate) and 100,000 (Israeli estimate) Egyptian troops had been moved into Sinai by May 25.

Israeli foreign Minister Eban had implored the United States for some guarantee against an Egyptian attack and some firm action to break the blockade of the straits of Tiran. He was turned down by Secretary of State Dean Rusk  He was turned down by SSecretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and he was turned down, essentially by President Johnson. The US could not commit itself to the defense of Israel for constitutional reasons, according to the administration. The US could not establish any intelligence or military liaison with Israel. The US could not open the straits of Tiran alone without first attempting to do so through a multilateral force or the UN. Israel must not attack the Arabs. These same messages were contained in a written statement that President Johnson handed Eban at their meeting on May 26, and reiterated in this letter.

Eban returned to Israel virtually empty handed. The government of Levi Eshkol, under severe pressure, had been expanded June 1 to include Moshe Dayan as Defense Minister and the right wing Herut party of Mr. Begin. Intelligence chief Meir Amit had been dispatched to Washington and returned, with an assessment that the US would not stand in the way. Johnson had taken four or five days to reply to P.M. Eshkol's earlier urgent plea for help sent May 30; the reply was not a cause for optimism.  

The letter reiterated the earlier empty promises to Eban. In fact, in that period the situation had become materially worse. The UN debate had been inconclusive, and the chances of forming an international Regatta as Mr. Johnson promised were very slim. US Ambassador to the UN had informed Gideon Rafael that Israel stands alone.

More than believing that the US had sanctioned the Israeli attack, Meir Amit came back apparently with the understanding that the Regatta plan was dead, and that in any case, Israel could only lost militarily by waiting. Johnson's letter, which arrived in time for the cabinet meeting of Sunday June 4, 1967, contained no good news. No hint that any progress would be made, or that the US would stand by Israel in the event of Arab attack. There was nothing to be gained from waiting. The Israel government decided to give the army the final green light. 


The introduction above is copyright 2007 by Ami Isseroff. The document below is in the public domain. It was declassified by the United States government under the Freedom of Information act and is posted at: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/johnsonlb/xix/28057.htm Please cite the sources.

139. Letter From President Johnson to Prime Minister Eshkol/1/

Washington, June 3, 1967.

/1/Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Middle East Crisis, Vol. III. Secret. Rostow sent a draft letter, drafted by Battle and Sisco, with his handwritten revisions to the President at 7:25 p.m. on June 2. Johnson marked his approval on Rostow's covering memorandum. (Ibid.) Rostow sent him the letter for signature with a covering memorandum on June 3 at 2:50 p.m., noting that he understood Johnson wanted to read it again before it was sent and adding, "It may be urgent that we put this letter on record soon." (Ibid.) The final letter includes additional revisions, which, according to a handwritten note by Harold H. Saunders, were given to him by the President on the telephone on the afternoon of June 3. (Ibid., NSC Histories, Middle East Crisis) A copy of the draft with Saunders' handwritten revisions is filed ibid., Memos to the President, Walt Rostow, Vol. 30. A handwritten note on the letter states that it was sent to the Department of State at 4:30 p.m.

Dear Mr. Prime Minister:

I am grateful for your letter of May 30./2/ I appreciate particularly the steadfastness with which the Government and people of Israel have maintained a posture of resolution and calm in a situation of grave tension. All of us understand how fateful the steps we take may be. I hope we can continue to move firmly and calmly toward a satisfactory solution.

/2/See Document 102.

Our position in this crisis rests on two principles which are vital national interests of the United States. The first is that we support the territorial integrity and political independence of all of the countries of the Middle East. This principle has now been affirmed by four American Presidents. The second is our defense of the basic interest of the entire world community in the freedom of the seas. As a leading maritime nation, we have a vital interest in upholding freedom of the seas, and the right of passage through straits of an international character.

As you know, the United States considers the Gulf of Aqaba to be an international waterway and believes that the entire international maritime community has a substantial interest in assuring that the right of passage through the Strait of Tiran and Gulf is maintained.

I am sure Foreign Minister Eban has reported to you the written statement which I had prepared and from which Ambassador Harman made notes during our meeting of May 26./3/ The full text of that statement is as follows:

/3/See Document 77.

"The United States has its own constitutional processes which are basic to its action on matters involving war and peace. The Secretary General has not yet reported to the UN Security Council and the Council has not yet demonstrated what it may or may not be able or willing to do although the United States will press for prompt action in the UN.

"I have already publicly stated this week our views on the safety of Israel and on the Strait of Tiran. Regarding the Strait, we plan to pursue vigorously the measures which can be taken by maritime nations to assure that the Strait and Gulf remain open to free and innocent passage of the vessels of all nations.

"I must emphasize the necessity for Israel not to make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities. Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone. We cannot imagine that it will make this decision."

I explained to Mr. Eban, I want to protect the territorial integrity of Israel and other nations in that area of the world and will provide as effective American support as possible to preserve the peace and freedom of your nation and of the area./4/ I stressed too the need to act in concert with other nations, particularly those with strong maritime interests. As you will understand and as I explained to Mr. Eban, it would be unwise as well as most unproductive for me to act without the full consultation and backing of Congress. We are now in the process of urgently consulting the leaders of our Congress and counseling with its membership./5/

/4/Before Saunders added Johnson's revisions, the first two sentences of this paragraph read: I told Mr. Eban I could not foresee then, and I cannot now foresee, the specific steps which may prove desirable and necessary. I explained that I want to do everything I can to provide Israel with effective American support."

/5/Before Saunders added Johnson's revisions, the last two sentences of this paragraph read: "And, as you will understand, I cannot act at all without full backing of Congress. I am now in the process of urgently consulting the leaders of our Congress."

We are now engaged in doing everything we can through the United Nations. We recognize the difficulties of securing constructive action in the Security Council, but we are convinced that the world organization, which for the past decade has played a major role in the Middle East, must make a real effort to discharge its responsibilities for the maintenance of peace.

We are moving ahead in our diplomatic efforts, in concert with the United Kingdom and with your diplomatic representatives, to secure a declaration by the principal maritime powers asserting the right of passage through the Strait and Gulf. A copy of this declaration has been given to your Ambassador. Such a declaration could be an important step both in relation to the proceedings in the Security Council and also in the event those proceedings do not lead to a successful outcome.

We are also exploring on an urgent basis the British suggestion for the establishment of an international naval presence in the area of the Strait of Tiran. As I said to Mr. Eban, there is doubt that a number of other maritime powers would be willing to take steps of this nature unless and until United Nations processes have been exhausted. We must continue our efforts to mobilize international support for this effort. Our leadership is unanimous that the United States should not move in isolation./6/

/6/Before Saunders added Johnson's revisions, the last sentence of this paragraph read: "I would not wish the United States to move in isolation."

On the matter of liaison and communication, I believe our relations can be improved. We have completely and fully exchanged views with General Amit.

We will remain in continuing communication with Ambassador Harman and Minister Evron here in Washington and value greatly the exchanges we are able to have through them with the Government of Israel, as well as through Ambassador Barbour in Tel Aviv.


Lyndon B. Johnson


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