27. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) to President Johnson1
Walter Jenkins has passed to me the attached memo from Mike Feldman2 about tanks for Israel and told me that you would like to have a recommendation. It happens that I have been talking in recent days with both State and Defense on this matter so that I am able to give you a prompt answer.
It has been our position, as you know, that we would not make a firm decision on tanks for Israel until later in the year. Mike Feldman feels strongly the other way, in part for reasons stated in his memorandum and in part because he quite naturally would like to be able to carry this decision with him on his visit to Israel later this month. Our current problem is simply that the Arabs are in an excited frame of mind and are likely to get more excited later this spring and summer as Israel begins to use the Jordan waters. Moreover, the Israelis have been very reluctant to deal frankly with us on their apparent desire to buy surface-to-surface missiles from the French, a move which we think full of danger for them and for us. The Israelis have a nuclear reactor [Page 65] which could make plutonium, and if they buy modern missiles from the French we may have a wholly new level of escalation in the Middle East arms race. Nasser’s missiles, by contrast, are both conventional and clumsy and are more for show than for use.
Komer and I feel very strongly that it would be wrong to make a commitment on the tanks now, and that you should reserve decision until Prime Minister Eshkol comes. Harriman, who ought to know his New York vote, agrees with us. The State Department, below Rusk, feels strongly the same way, but Rusk himself is more of the view that the matter is already decided in principle and that you can make your own political choice as to when to tell the Israelis. McNamara is also quite pragmatic about it, as a tank merchant, and I do not think that he has concentrated on the politics of missiles or the politics of Arab reaction. I am not sure that either McNamara or Rusk has seen the very strongly worded cables from all our Ambassadors in the Arab countries warning of the violent reaction to any tank deal.
On balance, I recommend that you continue to push this decision ahead of you, and that we indicate firmly to our Israeli friends the grave impropriety of turning any Republicans loose on this point while the missile matter is unsettled. My own guess is that if the Israeli missile issue were to get into the public domain, there would be a very serious backlash of criticism against the Israelis. I think we should deal with this by quiet diplomacy if possible, and much the best time for a full-scale review of it is your meeting with Eshkol in June.
If you agree that we ought to wait, I suggest that you sign the enclosed NSAM, but before we support it, I would wish to talk with Mike Feldman and try to get him to agree why it is important to wait. Let me add, finally, that if we hastily give in on something as difficult as the tank deal in March, I hate to think what we will be asked for between now and November. The Israelis use all sources of pressure in an election year, and the heat is really quite low so far.
At Tab A is Mike Feldman’s memorandum.
At Tab B is a summary of U.S. Arab problems.3
At Tab C is a detailed statement of the Arab-Israeli missile problem.4[Page 66]
At Tab D is the memorandum that you may wish to sign.5
Speak to me7
Call a meeting of those most concerned
- Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, National Security Action Memorandums, NSAM 290. Secret.↩
- Not printed. The March 4 memorandum from Myer Feldman to the President stated that he had met with several Congressmen who expressed dissatisfaction with stories they had heard of U.S. reluctance to sell tanks to Israel. He stated that if the United States was going to supply tanks, it would be a mistake to wait too long before announcing it.↩
- Tab B, Special Memorandum No. 6–64, February 25, prepared by the CIA Office of National Estimates, entitled “Storm Warnings Up for US Arab Relations,” is not printed.↩
- Tab C, a paper by Komer entitled “The UAR/Israeli Missile Problem,” March 6, is not printed.↩
- The President did not sign the draft National Security Action Memorandum at Tab D, but see Document 32.↩
- Printed from a copy that bears these typed initials.↩
- This option is checked. In a March 9 telephone conversation, Johnson told Bundy to tell Feldman that in the light of the Arab reaction to his Weizmann Institute speech (see footnote 3, Document 13), he wanted to “go a little slow.” He wanted to take action, but not until after Feldman’s trip to Israel. Bundy interjected that Feldman should not tell his Israeli friends this. Johnson agreed. He added, “And tell him we’ve got a lot we’ve got to expect of them between now and November anyway and I want to wait till they—if they’re so goddamned anxious to get me on the line, they’ve got to get on the line.” (Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of a Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Bundy, March 9, 1964, 4:27 p.m., Tape F64.16, Side B, PNO 1)↩