1967 Israeli-Arab 6 Day war:
Harold Saunders Estimate

May 31, 1967

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1967 Israeli-Arab Six Day war:

Harold Saunders Estimate

May 31, 1967  

Introduction

The document before us is relatively rare written evidence that at least some people in the United States government were thinking about letting Israel attack Egypt by May 31, 1967.

The crisis had developed because Egyptian President Nasser had closed the straights of Tiran, and the US was committed to keeping them open to Israeli shipping. 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 Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and he was turned down,  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 other than sharing of intelligence information at a meeting. 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 a letter sent June 3 to Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol.

Johnson insisted to Eban that Israel had lost nothing by waiting, and that the U.S. was working on a solution through the international Regatta, and that there was no information that the Arabs would attack first. The truth was that the administration knew that they had nothing to offer Israel, and that the longer Israel waited the more Israel would lose. This was stated by Harold Saunders on May 31 and reiterated by others:

It seems that the UAR has won all the chips to date... He {Eshkol]'s correct that we don't have any right to hold him back longer while his enemy gets stronger unless we're willing to take on the Arabs ourselves.

Saunders' explanation of US strategy, if it is true, is appallingly naive:

When we committed ourselves last week to open the Straits for Israel, we did so believing that Nasser might back down or, at least, would not tangle with militarily escorted vessels

In other words, Saunders is admitting that the US was ready to use force only if force wasn't needed, and was apparently surprised when Nasser called their bluff. Of course, there was no chance whatever that Nasser would back down as long as he was convinced that the US would not use force, and that the US and USSR could restrain Israel.

In Saunders' view, continued US adherence to the Regatta fantasy and to restraint of Israel had committed the US to backing Israel, which was dangerous and counter productive:

 Now we are committed to side with Israel and, in opening the Straits of Tiran, even to wage war on the Arabs. In short, we have chosen sides-not with the constructive Arabs and Israel but with Israel alone against all the Arabs.

...

 If we follow our present course, it is hard to see how we can make good our commitment without paying a tremendous price in the Arab world-unless Nasser backs off, and he shows no sign of doing that.

Therefore, Saunders argued that the best course was to back off and leave Israel to fight it out alone:

The other choice is still to let the Israelis do this job themselves. Eshkol himself says he'll have to go this route within a week or two if we can't produce. He's correct that we don't have any right to hold him back longer while his enemy gets stronger unless we're willing to take on the Arabs ourselves. Pretty soon we'll have Soviet warships in the Red Sea. We ought to consider admitting that we have failed and allow fighting to ensue.

But Johnson was not willing to admit that he had failed, and still sent a letter urging restraint to Eshkol.

Ami Isseroff.

Copyright

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/28055.htm Please cite the sources.


 

114. Memorandum by Harold Saunders of the National Security Council Staff to the President's Special Assistant (Rostow)/1/

Washington, May 31, 1967.

/1/Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Middle East Crisis, Vol. II. Secret. Saunders sent the memorandum and its attachment to Walt Rostow with another memorandum, which states that Saunders wanted to ensure that "we consider a quite different alternative than you were discussing this morning." It also notes that "we may face a situation where no one will come in with us on the regatta" and in that case, Saunders hoped they would "at least stop and reconsider."

WWR:

Just to keep thoughts flowing to you, attached are two papers which add up to a debate:

First are some hasty reflections on where we are and the proposition that circumstances may create a situation where we would want to modify our course. These are irresponsible thoughts, but they badly need stating, especially when you read the parade of horribles in the Task Force's economic paper./2/

/2/Reference is apparently to Document 115.

Second is a memo on my luncheon conversation today with one of King Faisal's sons./3/ In effect, he suggests an umbrella under which we might preserve a chance to split the moderates-along the lines we were discussing this morning.

The first is an argument for letting Israel go. The second is an argument for avoiding Israeli involvement at all costs.

Hal

/3/This memorandum recorded a conversation with Saudi Prince Mohammed and another Saudi visitor, both of whom urged that any U.S. action to open the Strait of Tiran must be based on international law rather than on the basis of helping Israel, or no Arab moderate could support it.

 

Attachment 1

ARAB-ISRAEL: WHERE WE ARE AND WHERE WE'RE GOING

What has happened. In the two weeks since Nasser mobilized we have reversed the policy of 20 years. Instead of staking our bets on an evenhanded relationship with the Arabs-moderate and radical alike-and the Israelis, we are now committed to a course that will more likely than not lead us into a head-on clash with a temporarily united Arab world. Whereas we relied on Israel to hold its own militarily and built our influence with Arab moderates to Israel's benefit, today we are acting as if we can only protect Israel by confronting the Arab world and surrendering our influence with the moderates to Nasser.

What else we could have done. By not stopping an Israeli strike as early as 21 May when Egyptian positions were still fluid, we would probably have witnessed a limited Arab defeat and then had to move the international machinery in to restore peace. Israel's reputation would have suffered and long-range prospects for reconciliation would have been set back. But assuming she held her own, we would not have been linked with Israel and she would have brought to bear the only counter that the US or anyone else has yet found to the war of national liberation-force. Nasser as a dominating force would have been physically weakened, and the moderate governments might have been freed to ignore him and concentrate on their own development in association with us.

Why we held Israel back. As a humane government, we are naturally inclined to choose peace over the unknowns of war. Though we have ourselves chosen force to stop aggression in Vietnam, we argued strongly against pre-emptive war on the basis of our own decision not to use this device against the USSR and because world opinion would not permit us to come to the aid of an aggressor.

The price we have paid. It seems that the UAR has won all the chips to date, but Israel may really be the big winner. For twenty years Israel has sought a special relationship-even a private security guarantee-with us. We have steadfastly refused in order to preserve our other interests in the Middle East. We argued that our policy worked to Israel's best interest too. Now we are committed to side with Israel and, in opening the Straits of Tiran, even to wage war on the Arabs. In short, we have chosen sides-not with the constructive Arabs and Israel but with Israel alone against all the Arabs.

Whoever is the bigger winner, we are the sure loser. If we follow our present course, we stand to lose economically (see the Task Force's rundown of the "economic vulnerabilities") and to suffer substantial Soviet gains. If we back away from Israel, we're a paper tiger. In building a new Middle East along the regional lines in your vision, the closer we get to Israel, the longer we delay our constructive contribution to make that vision a reality.

Need we pay that price. When we committed ourselves last week to open the Straits for Israel, we did so believing that Nasser might back down or, at least, would not tangle with militarily escorted vessels. Instead, in his Sunday press conference and other conversations, he has made it clear he is not trying to open any doors behind him. To the contrary, he made clearer than ever his determination to close the Straits to Israeli flag vessels and oil tankers headed for Eilat. Ambassador Yost warns vividly that we can no longer count on Nasser to back down.

While Nasser may not shoot at a destroyer escort, he is lining up the other Arab countries to retaliate against all blockade runners by closing off oil supply, nationalizing property, closing bases, boycotting commerce, closing ports to shipping, etc. If we follow our present course, it is hard to see how we can make good our commitment without paying a tremendous price in the Arab world-unless Nasser backs off, and he shows no sign of doing that.

The other choice. Events may show that other maritime powers are not willing to join the regatta. Congress at that point may not support our opening the Straits alone. Or a major terrorist incident may open the whole situation up again by shifting attention from the Straits to a new front. If any of these happen, I would enter the strongest plea to stop and think about whether we shouldn't put the brakes on a little.

The other choice is still to let the Israelis do this job themselves. Eshkol himself says he'll have to go this route within a week or two if we can't produce. He's correct that we don't have any right to hold him back longer while his enemy gets stronger unless we're willing to take on the Arabs ourselves. Pretty soon we'll have Soviet warships in the Red Sea. We ought to consider admitting that we have failed and allow fighting to ensue.

I know this may fly in the face of the President's own feelings about Israel. But the question is whether we can help Israel more in the long run by alienating ourselves from the Arab world or by backing off just enough to keep our hand in there.

Hal

 

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