103. Memorandum From Secretary of State Rusk and Secretary of Defense McNamara to President Johnson1


  • Arab-Israel Crisis

1. Middle East Scenario

As you know, our scenario on the Middle East situation envisages three steps:

Action in and outside the United Nations to head off the imminent threat of Arab-Israeli hostilities and to seek a political settlement of the Gulf of Aqaba question;
Formal and public affirmation by the largest possible number of maritime nations of their support for the principle that the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba are international waterways; and
Contingency planning for testing UAR interference with the right of free passage for ships of all nations through the Strait and the Gulf, and contingency planning for the use of force, as necessary, to support that right. Implementing action would be undertaken only after measures in the United Nations had been exhausted and after Congressional approval had been obtained.

2. Handling of Declaration

The debate in the Security Council will probably be long and drawn out; the May 29 session indicated little disposition to agree on any specific resolution at this stage. During Council discussion, there will be substantial opportunity to launch various private negotiations, involving the President of the Council (Denmark, in June); the Secretary General; the British, French and Russians; and the protagonists themselves. These are a part of the UN process which may be of greatest importance in the end. At the proper time, the text of the Joint Declaration should be circulated in the Security Council for the information of UN Members.

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a. Preliminary Soundings

The British have already made soundings on the proposed Declaration (without providing a text) with the Italians, Norwegians, Danes, Dutch, Belgians, Greeks, Panamanians, Liberians, and Japanese. We believe they have also discussed the idea of an international naval task force in the Red Sea with these nations.

We have made informal soundings on the Declaration (also without providing a text) and on the possible use of force, with the French, Belgians, Canadians, Dutch, Indians, Italians, and Norwegians.

b. Reactions to Soundings

The reactions to the soundings have varied. Most nations are prepared to support the principle regarding international waterways, but shy away from considering the use of force to secure adherence to that principle. Apart from the British and the Dutch, only the Canadians have so far indicated a possible willingness to participate in a naval task force; the extent to which the Dutch and particularly the Canadians would be prepared to join with us in the use of force is not yet clear.

c. Need to Move on the Declaration

Subject to Congressional consultations, we believe we should move promptly to present the proposed Declaration to the maritime nations, in order that our over-all scenario may move forward. Instructions to our posts on the Declaration (Enclosure 1)2 indicate the division of responsibility between the British and ourselves for making approaches in selected capitals. The text of the Declaration is at Enclosure 2.

The purpose of these approaches would be to obtain signatures to a Declaration, which reaffirms the principles you set forth in your statement of May 23, but which does not commit the signatories to participate in the use of force. The British and we would inform the Israelis when these approaches are made, and suggest that they back them strongly in certain capitals. We would also at the same time determine whether certain nations would join with us in the use of force, if necessary. These nations should include: Italy, France, Argentina, Brazil, and Japan in the first instance. We have suggested that the British and Dutch approach the Nordic countries.

3. Possible Early Movement of Ships Through the Strait to Eilat

Decisions are desirable on the movement of merchant vessels through the Strait to the Israeli port of Eilat. We have discouraged such tests of UAR intentions thus far, although some ships have gone through to Aqaba, the Jordanian port. All such ships have acknowledged [Page 192] the UAR controls, although none has been stopped, so far as we know. Armed force has not been used.

As part of our contingency planning, we are considering the possibility of tailoring the traffic pattern of ships entering the Strait during the next 10 days, in order to clarify the limits of the UAR policy of blockade—e.g., whether they intend to bar Israeli-owned as well as Israeli flag ships, and how they propose to define “strategic goods.” We might for example encourage the attempted passage of an Israeli-owned (but non-Israeli-flag) ship carrying clearly nonstrategic cargo to Eilat; and if that passed without interference, we might attempt passage with a more “strategic” cargo (e.g., oil). Within this period, such tests would involve no armed escort and no counteraction in the event passage was refused. The purpose would be to clarify the limits of UAR policy and to build a public case for support of free passage.

A serious program of this kind would require consultation with Congressional leaders and an Israeli promise to accept the possibility of rebuff without retaliation. Tel Aviv may not be able to give such a promise, and the scheme may prove infeasible for other reasons—e.g., our inability to stage-manage the ownership, flag, and cargo of the shipping headed for Eilat. On the other hand, limited tests appear feasible within the next few days, and we propose to go forward with these where the risks appear acceptable. A Panamanian ship (Israeli-owned) loaded with hides is now heading for the Strait, bound for Eilat. We plan to do nothing to discourage its passage through the Strait.

4. A Military Plan to Deal With the Straits of Tiran Question

A military task force may be required to support, with force, the right of innocent passage, on behalf of the international community, through the Gulf of Aqaba in view of the UAR’s announced blockade. The essence of this concept is that an international force could keep the Strait open for all flags, thereby obviating an Arab-Israeli war. Such a task force should be composed of as many maritime nations as are prepared to join it in a reasonable time. In practice, only the US, the UK and possibly the Dutch and Canadians are likely to participate.

Conceptually, the task force would consist of two parts. First, a protective force in the northern Red Sea which would provide a protective presence for merchantmen testing the Straits, and an escort if the UAR, should turn back or fire on unescorted ships; second, a reinforcing force in the Eastern Mediterranean which would be available for reinforcing support if the UAR fired on merchantmen and their escort.

A limited protective force of four destroyers (two US and two UK), a tactical command ship (US), and a light aircraft carrier (UK) could be assembled in the northern Red Sea in about a week. If the carrier Intrepid, [Page 193] now in the Mediterranean, transits the Suez Canal in the next few days, together with her appropriate escorts, these could be added to the force. Application for transit of the Canal has been filed. Even with these additions, however, such a force would be devoid of adequate self-contained air cover and ASW protection and thus subject to attack and damage by UAR sea and air forces in the area (the reinforcing force could provide some air cover over the Tiran area, but the distances from the Eastern Mediterranean would limit operational effectiveness). A stronger, better balanced protective force—augmented primarily by US naval units from CONUS—could be assembled in 25–30 days.

US and UK forces already in the Mediterranean provide a powerful reinforcing force (consisting of 3 US carriers, 1 UK carrier, and numerous other vessels). British air forces in Cyprus may also be available. If the UAR fired on merchantmen and their escorts, aircraft from these Mediterranean forces could, and might have to, intervene in the Tiran area or strike at major air bases and installations in the UAR.

The risks involved in testing the blockade with a limited or even an augmented protective force are not negligible. If Nasser is not deterred, the possibility would exist of wider conflict. This possibility is being urgently studied, both politically and militarily.

5. Congressional Consultation

Much of the Congress is away until Wednesday and some, including Senator Fulbright, will be away longer. We recommend immediate Congressional consultations on the Hill on the Declaration with the leadership, the key Committees (Foreign Relations, Foreign Affairs and Commerce), and with senior members of the Armed Services and Appropriations Committees. This meeting would be for the purpose of: (1) providing an up-to-date briefing on the current situation, and (2) reviewing our general strategy, with specific reference to the proposed Maritime Declaration. We recommend that the formal approaches to other nations regarding the text of the Declaration not be undertaken until after your discussions with the Congressional leaders.

Additionally, we plan to continue our daily efforts to brief other members of the Congress. As in the past few days, however, these briefings will continue to concentrate on current developments, and to avoid speculation about future developments.

In this situation, we believe that a Joint Congressional resolution would be politically necessary before US military forces are used in any way. The timing of a formal request to the Congress for such a resolution should, however, be carefully considered. While it is true that many Congressional doves may be in the process of conversion to hawks, the problem of “Tonkin Gulfitis” remains serious. Thus an effort to get a meaningful resolution from the Congress runs the risk of becoming [Page 194] bogged down in acrimonious debate. We recommend therefore that a formal request for such a resolution be delayed until (1) it has become clear to the Congress that we have exhausted other diplomatic remedies in and outside of the United Nations, and (2) our soundings indicate that such a request will receive prompt and strong support. The text of an appropriate resolution is Enclosure 3.

6. Timing

We hope to complete actions on the Declaration toward the end of this week. We would seek to have the military contingency planning, with the UK at least, well under way by the end of the week of June 5.

7. Recommendations3

That you approve the draft Declaration of the Maritime nations, at Enclosure 2.
That following Congressional consultations on Wednesday you authorize us to send a telegram substantially in the form of the text at Enclosure 1, instructing our Ambassadors in selected countries to seek commitments from the Governments to which they are accredited to adhere to the Declaration.
That following Congressional consultations, you authorize us to proceed at once to sound out France, Italy, Argentina, Brazil and Japan on an informal basis about the possibility of their participating with us in the use of force if necessary to secure effective observance of the right of free passage for all nations.
That you authorize us to add the Dutch, the Canadians, and other prospective members of the action party at a later point to form an international planning group which would be built around the British-American naval consultations.
That you approve the enclosed draft Joint Resolution for preliminary discussion late this week, or early next week, with Congressional leaders.

Dean Rusk4
Robert S. McNamara
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Middle East Crisis, Vol. II. Secret; Exclusive Distribution. No drafting information appears on the memorandum. It was sent to the President with a covering note from Walt Rostow, dated May 30, 6:30 p.m., stating that it was the basic background paper on the Middle East, for discussion and decision at lunch on May 31. A May 30 memorandum from Read to Rostow, which accompanied the memorandum when it was sent to the White House, states that it had been approved by Rusk and McNamara. (Ibid., Vol. III)
  2. The enclosures are not printed, but see Documents 111 and 112.
  3. No indication of the President’s decisions on the recommendations appears on the memorandum. Walt Rostow told Rusk in a telephone conversation the next morning that the President wanted “some inventive thinking done on plans for dealing with this thing” and “did not want us to get too locked in to the maritime idea if in fact it turns into bilateral action.” In addition, Rostow said, the President wanted the Israelis and the British “out in front in organizing the party.” (Notes of telephone conversation prepared by Carolyn J. Proctor, May 31, 11:32 a.m.; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Rusk Files: Lot 72 D 192, Telephone Calls)
  4. Printed from a copy that bears these typed signatures.