LBJ's Conversation with Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban: Memo to President Johnson from Secretary of State Rusk, 05/26/1967

Abba Eban and LBJ

Memo Review by Alex Dubin, HKS MPP

In this 1967 policy memo, Secretary of State Dean Rusk writes a concise and compelling memo to President Lyndon Johnson, which includes talking points for an upcoming meeting during a tense period just before the Six Day War. Although Rusk’s solution ultimately did not prevent the outbreak of the war, his writing is an excellent example of understanding and supporting an audience composed solely of a critical decisionmaker.

The Situation

55 years ago, the Israeli victory in the Six Day War in 1967 forever reshaped the modern Middle East. Israel defeated several Arab armies in less than a week, capturing the West Bank from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. The war was launched by Israel on intelligence that a multinational Arab attack was imminent, and after Egypt once again closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships and kicked the UN forces, stationed there in the aftermath of the 1956 Suez Crisis, out of the Sinai.

Ten days before the conflict began, Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban traveled to Washington to meet with President Lyndon Johnson. The President and Eban were joined by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and other senior advisers.

Johnson already had his hands full at home and abroad. The U.S. was bogged down in Vietnam with casualties mounting and an anti-war movement growing for a conflict he had escalated. Simmering racial tensions were exploding into violent riots in many American cities. His approval ratings were at 40% and sinking, despite other accomplishments during his presidency like the Great Society, civil rights legislation, and the space program. The last thing Johnson needed was another Middle East conflagration.

The Memo

Secretary Rusk wrote a memo, dated May 26, 1967, in advance of Johnson’s meeting with Eban later that evening. Rusk appraises the situation, outlines two options and recommends one, lays out an implementation plan, and gives the President talking points for the meeting.

Rusk opens the memo with the state of play and why this meeting is occurring: Israeli intelligence believes an attack by Egypt and Syria is “imminent”, and Israel wants strong, public U.S. support (in fact, Rusk understated Eban’s instructions, which were to ask LBJ to state that “an attack on Israel would be viewed as an attack on the United States.”[1]) Rusk frames the dire situation to the President, ensuring he understands the high stakes of the meeting. He then immediately undercuts the Israeli claim by curtly stating that U.S. does not agree.

Rusk tells the President that Eban will not actually ask him for such support in their meeting. It’s true that Eban was reluctant to ask for such a statement[2].

Rusk writes that the British initiative of an international effort to “protect maritime rights in the Gulf of Aqaba” had staved off an Israeli attack just days earlier and had created the idea that there could be a third path for the Israelis “apart from surrender or war”. That’s why Eban is here, Rusk writes, “to find out whether this alternative is feasible”.

Rusk then gives the President two options: let the Israelis act on their own, or to accept the British maritime initiative. He pre-emptively recommends against the first option and endorses the second “as our best hope of preventing a war which could gravely damage many American national interests,” again highlighting the severity of the situation.

He lays out a fairly detailed implementation plan (which assumes UN action has failed) carefully constructed to buy time against an Israeli attack. Rusk involves other stakeholders – “informal consultations” with Congress reveal that they’ll support the maritime approach, even promising a draft resolution.

Rusk then gives the President talking points, divided into six segments. LBJ should tell the Israelis that they agree the UN won’t do anything, and that’s why the parties should pursue this great British maritime proposal. Rusk then writes points that acknowledge Israeli concerns and an understanding of Egypt’s actions. The President should, of course, “consult with the Israeli Government at every step of the way, and we expect the Israelis to reciprocate.” But, in very stern language, Rusk writes that “preemptive action by Israel would cause extreme difficulty for the United States,” and “the question of responsibility for the initiation of hostilities is a major problem for us.”

Rusk concludes the talking points by listing U.S. national interests (international peace, security, territorial integrity of Middle East states, against aggression), and acknowledging “the stresses and the economic cost” to Israel.

Memo Review

The overarching theme of the memo lays out how Rusk (and thus the State Department) sees the policy problem: how do we hold off an Israeli attack? Rusk structures the memo in ways to ensure that his audience, the President of the United States, will agree (if he didn’t already). To LBJ, he writes that our intelligence disagrees with the Israeli assessment of imminent Egyptian/Syrian attack, our ally Britain has a promising proposal—and early conversations imply that Congress is onboard with it. And in fact, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Wally Barbour had mentioned the British proposal to Eban a few days before, which Eban says prevented a strike then. Rusk uses the actions and interests of stakeholders to guide LBJ to his recommended option.

In terms of concision, in the first half of the memo, Rusk is concise, but the talking points are a bit too bulky. He could have kept them in sections but divided each section into bullet points, which would have been easier for the President to quickly scan multiple times if necessary.

The memo’s front-loading of the high stakes, the Israeli position, rejection of that position, and quick recommendation of a plan already preliminarily underway make it compelling reading.

Though the U.S. had recognized Israel within minutes of its Declaration of Independence, relations between the states were not nearly as warm as they are today. But Johnson felt a connection to the Jewish state. Tapes of LBJ’s conversations in the Oval Office that were released in 2008 reveal a “personal and often emotional connection to Israel.”[3] It is likely that Rusk understood this, which is why he so heavily front-loaded the memo about why everyone, it seems, is against an Israeli pre-emptive strike, and that the U.S. must prevent one, despite Egyptian threats and Israeli intelligence analysis.

Aftermath

The meeting took place that evening, and the President warned Eban against preemptive action and told him he did not have the authority to say an attack on Israel was an attack on the U.S.[4] LBJ repeated three times a line curiously omitted from Rusk’s memo but mentioned in a principals’ meeting that day: “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go it alone”.[5]

The meeting, it turns out, did lead to a delay, but only after a series of subsequent actions. Eban “was staggered by his Oval Office meeting, which he thought underscored LBJ’s impotence, paralysis, and defeatism.”[6] He and his staff were at a loss to understand what the thrice-repeated phrase meant, eventually believing “if Israel struck first it would be on its own, but that did not mean the United States would oppose it.”[7] Meanwhile, Johnson told his advisers after the meeting, “I’ve failed. They’ll go.”[8] LBJ sent a letter to Eban that restated his warning, and then asked Prime Minister Levi Eshkol directly to hold off.[9]

As for the maritime force -- the centerpiece of the Rusk memo and recommendation (and known as the “Red Sea Regatta”) – it went nowhere. The White House could not gather support for it.[10]

Israel ended up holding off for another week and a half. Ten days later, the IDF destroyed nearly the entire Egyptian Air Force on the ground, launching the Six Day War and transforming the region forever.

 

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[1] https://www.jstor.org/stable/4328430