130. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Middle East


  • Americans present
  • Secretary of State
  • Secretary of the Treasury (part time)
  • Secretary of Defense
  • Ambassador Bruce
  • Mr. Walt Rostow (part time)
  • EUR—Mr. John M. Leddy
  • Mr. Francis Bator (part time)
  • S/CPR—Mr. James W. Symington
  • British present:
  • Sir Burke Trend, Secretary of the Cabinet
  • Sir Patrick Dean, Ambassador
  • Admiral Sir Nigel Henderson, Head, British Defense Staff
  • Sir Solly Zuckerman, Chief Scientific Advisor
  • T. T. Brenchley, Assistant Secretary Foreign Office
  • Donald Murray, Head, South East Asian Department, Foreign Office
  • A. N. Halls, Principal Private Secretary to Prime Minister
  • A. M. Palliser, Private Secretary to Prime Minister
  • T. D. Floyd-Huges, Press Secretary to Prime Minister

This conversation ranged over various aspects of the Arab-Israeli confrontation in the Middle East and lasted about an hour and a half. The following brings together the main substantive points brought out in the discussion.

Security Council Action

There are now two resolutions on this subject in the Security Council: the American resolution and the Egyptian resolution. Possibly two more resolutions will be submitted, including one from India. The Secretary felt that there was virtually no chance for any resolution to be agreed upon and that the inability of the Council to act would probably become clear next Tuesday2 or Wednesday. However, even if the Council was unable to adopt a resolution, it was important to have the Council remain seized of the problem. It was just possible that as events develop certain prestige elements can be thrown into the Council machinery as happened in the case of the Cuban missile crisis.

Limits on Israeli Restraint

The Secretary observed that we have a breathing spell for the moment, but unless there is some change in Nasser’s intentions regarding the Straits of Tiran this will not last long and it will be impossible to hold the Israelis. We had a great deal of difficulty with them last Sunday3 when the decision in the Israeli Cabinet to hold back for the time being was very close (9 to 9). The new Cabinet was meeting again this coming Sunday or Monday and we may face a crisis. The appointment of Moshe Dayan as Defense Minister was hardly favorable to [Page 239] restraint. Secretary McNamara thought that the one thing which might deter the Israelis would be their fear that the Soviets might enter a war on the side of the Arabs.

Israeli/Arab Military Capabilities

Secretary McNamara said that the Israelis feel that they could start hostilities now or a week from now and prevail. They believe their capabilities are perishable as time goes on, but Secretary McNamara thought they could delay from 2–4 weeks and still accomplish their military objective. They would try to destroy the Egyptian airforce first and thus gain ability for a tank strike to take Sinai and the Straits.

Secretary McNamara said the Israelis think they can win in 3–4 days; but he thinks it would be longer—7 to 10 days.

Secretary McNamara said that the Israelis felt that they could not keep up their mobilization for more than a week or two. He believed that they could sustain it for a longer time economically (it is costing them about $1 million a day); but the real problem is political and because of this they probably would have to act within two weeks. The economic strain of mobilization was much greater on the Israelis in their tight manpower situation than on the Arabs with their large unemployment.

Sir Burke Trend, in response to a question from Secretary McNamara, said that the UK military analysis of the Israeli capabilities was close to that of the US but perhaps a bit more conservative and rested on the assumption that the Israelis would not let things go too long. Both sides agreed that an Israeli military success would take more than a few days and possibly a week plus. Certainly it would take longer than it took in 1956 and it would be bloodier.

Sir Burke Trend inquired what effect an Arab-Israeli war would have on Egypt’s ability to maintain its forces in Yemen. Secretary McNamara said he did not have a firm opinion. His best guess is that they could contain the military—it was a very small force—but that it would be politically difficult for Nasser to do so at the moment when he is faced with an all-out Israeli attack.

The Secretary thought that the worst problem that would face the US would be if the Israelis were defeated and were about to be driven into the sea. Secretary McNamara doubted that the Israelis would lose; and that we would have a real problem if the Soviets came in to save Egypt.

Sir Burke Trend thought that Nasser may have his eye on the next step—beyond the Straits problem. The Secretary thought that Nasser was riding a tiger. He had been preaching Jihad or Holy War. If it doesn’t occur, or if the Straits don’t remain closed, he may find it impossible to restrain popular passions.

[Page 240]

Situation in the Straits

The Secretary said that although there had earlier been some confusion on the point it was now clear that the Egyptian blockade covered oil—in other words it is the Battle Act list plus oil. It was not yet clear however what the Egyptians would do if a non-Israeli flagship carrying oil for Eilat should attempt passage.

The Secretary observed that there were two passages into the Gulf of Aqaba other than the Straits of Tiran; one of these—the Enterprise Passage—appeared to be navigable and was some four miles from the Egyptian coast. The navigability of the third passage was in some doubt. Both of these possibilities should be looked into. Secretary McNamara said it was highly unlikely that these have been mined.

It was brought out in the discussion that no ship so far had transited to Eilat; all have gone into Aqaba in Jordan.

The Secretary observed that Israeli access to Eilat is not really vital in an economic sense. The question is rather political. The Israelis consider that they have had a firm international commitment for guaranteed access since 1957 and the legitimacy of their territorial position in Eilat is not really in doubt.

The Soviet Attitude

Both sides felt that the Soviets probably had not been informed by Nasser of his intended action regarding the Straits of Tiran. In their public statements the Soviets have carefully skirted the question of the Straits, simply supporting the Egyptian claim to territorial waters which is beside the point. We have nothing back ourselves from the Soviets on the Straits question.

The Secretary thought that if the Israelis attack and are winning that the Soviets would do “something;” they would “help;” but we do not really know what kind of help this would be. He observed that apparently both the Arabs and the Soviets think the US is capable of commanding Israel.

Anderson Report

The Secretary paraphrased a cable which had just been received reporting on Robert Anderson’s conversation with Nasser.4 (The Secretary made it clear that Anderson was in Egypt in an entirely private capacity.) The Secretary wondered about the reference in Anderson’s report to Nasser’s apparent willingness to envisage World [Page 241] Court consideration provided that the Court would act in a hurry. This made no sense unless Nasser anticipated maintaining freedom of passage pending the Court’s decision.

Economic and Financial Aspects

Sir Burke Trend wondered what economic pressures might be brought to bear against the Arabs. Secretary Fowler pointed out that more economic and financial pressure could be exercised from the other side than from ours—cutting off of oil exports, expropriation, monetary measures damaging to sterling, etc. The Egyptians can depend on the Soviets for wheat and on the Kuwaitis for money. He observed that the recent failure of the IMF to extend a $30 million loan to the UAR was not really so disadvantageous to the Egyptians since the main purpose of the credit was to enable them to make good on their default to private banks and reestablish their credit position.

The Secretary thought that with respect to the Israelis other countries could help. He would not be surprised if the Israelis didn’t get as much as $100 million from the American Jewish community.

Commenting on the British financial situation, Secretary Fowler felt that outstanding swaps, including those with the Continent, provided a healthy cushion. It would be undesirable to try to improve the situation in advance of hostilities since it would cause speculation. It was agreed on both sides that for the time being at least the market was in fairly good shape.

The Secretary pointed out that if the Arabs should do anything to cut off the flow of oil Europe would face a serious shortfall even with maximum supplies from the Western Hemisphere.

Proposed Maritime Declaration

Responding to Sir Burke Trend, Secretary McNamara said that the circular instruction on the Maritime Declaration5 had just gone out last night and it was too early to have had a response. Mr. Leddy expressed the opinion that it would not be too bad a result if we could get as many as twelve countries lined up behind us. No doubt there would be questions as to whether this Declaration implied the use of force. When it was made clear that it did not it would make things somewhat easier. Later in the day the Secretary said perhaps we could get as many as 20 or 30.

Sir Burke Trend suggested that perhaps after the Maritime Declaration had been issued the powers supporting the Declaration might propose a specific convention dealing with the Strait of Tiran and [Page 242] the Gulf of Aqaba. The Secretary thought that perhaps the Arabs might come to a conference on this subject if called by the Secretary General of the UN. However, he recalled that the Aqaba clause in the Convention in 1958 had been adopted 31–30 with 10 abstentions. The Arabs would no doubt use the “belligerent” argument and assert that the 1956 resolution had been imposed by aggression. He observed that the Montreux Convention on the Bosporus6 provided a precedent for the Trend proposal.

The Declaration speaks of “asserting rights” to innocent passage in the Straits. Sir Burke Trend inquired what was meant by asserting rights other than through the use of force. The Secretary replied that this could cover various actions such as public statements, appeals to the World Court, proposed UN resolutions, economic reprisals, etc. He suggested that at some point it might be useful to introduce the Declaration into the UN machinery in order to keep the talk going. For example, the Danish Chairman of the Security Council might possibly use this in talking with the Arabs.

Possible Naval Task Force

Secretaries Rusk and McNamara made it very clear that any participation by the US in the use of force would have to be supported by Congressional action. We have consulted intensively with the Congressional leaders in the last ten days. It is clear that there is a passionate aversion on the Hill to any unilateral action by the US. We would have to have UN action or at least broad multilateral participation. If we were to ask for Congressional support at this moment we could not get it. We will first have to continue our efforts in the UN and achieve multilateral support for the Maritime Declaration. Secretary McNamara recalled that Secretary Dulles in 1956–57 had made it very clear that Congressional action would be required for the use of force in the Middle East.

In a further discussion of this point it was agreed on both sides that there would be no US–UK joint planning in the military field at this stage. The danger of leaks was too great. The British side indicated that it, too, was hesitant to move too fast in the military area.

Possible Appointment of Mediator

There was some discussion of the possible naming of a mediator. Perhaps someone like Gus Lindt, Swiss Ambassador to Moscow.

[Page 243]

Sir Burke Trend inquired what a mediator might conceivably do in terms of speculation. The Secretary replied that one thing he might do would be to try to persuade each side of the consequence of a war and from a realization of this perhaps build toward a way out. He observed that this was the way the Berlin crisis had been handled.

Position of Prime Minister Pearson

Secretary McNamara asked about Pearson’s position on the use of force. Sir Burke Trend said that Pearson was not yet ready to answer.

The Secretary inquired whether Pearson might not play a mediating role as he had in the past. The British side said he felt that he would be regarded by the Arabs as being too biased.

U Thant

Both sides agreed that SYG U Thant had acted precipitately in removing the UNEF. The Secretary pointed out that he had gone beyond what Nasser requested and had moved faster than Nasser expected. Moreover, the Secretary understood that during U Thant’s trip to Cairo he had proposed to the Egyptians a strategic embargo including oil but that the Israelis had turned this down. The question was why did U Thant feel that he had the right to make an offer of this kind?

Egypt’s Use of Gas in Yemen

The British asked why the US has not made public the Egyptian use of gas in Yemen. The Secretary replied that this information would have greater impact internationally if it came from the Red Cross rather than from the US. Mr. Rostow said that we had just released a report to the four governments concerned and planned to publish text he thought about June 5 or 6. (Reference to the report appeared in The New York Times on June 3.)

Future Joint Planning

Ambassador Dean raised the question of further planning. He said that there were four separate areas: political; military; oil; and finance. He thought that we should keep these four areas under some kind of overall control and also to give consideration to making them multilateral at some stage.

It was again pointed out by Secretaries Rusk and McNamara that it was too early for military planning (for example, it would have been disastrous if we had been caught in military planning last week) and that we will just have to see how things develop. Secretary Fowler emphasized the importance of immediate planning in both the financial and oil fields. We would be derelict if we did not plan for these.

[Page 244]

The following appeared to be generally agreed:

There would be a small group on overall matters on the US side to keep in touch with a similar group on the UK side.
Military planning was out for the time being.
The British are ready to come to Washington to talk about oil next week.
Monetary and financial discussions should be developed between the US and the UK through established official channels including the two Treasuries, the Bank of England and the New York Fed. There should be no approaches to the private sector at this stage because of the dangers of speculation.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 ARAB–ISR. Secret. Drafted by Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Leddy and approved by the White House and S on June 14. The memorandum is part I of IV. The meeting took place in the Cabinet Room of the White House. At the same time (11:35 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.), President Johnson and Prime Minister Wilson met privately in the Oval Office. (Johnson Library, President’s Daily Diary) No record of their meeting has been found.
  2. June 6.
  3. May 28.
  4. See Document 129.
  5. Document 111.
  6. The Montreux Convention, signed June 20, 1936, by Britain, Bulgaria, France, Japan, Rumania, the Soviet Union, and Turkey; for text, see League of Nations Treaty Series, Vol. CLXXIII, p. 213.