147. Memorandum From the Contingency Work Group on Military Planning to the Middle East Control Group1


  • Measures to Test or Force the Tiran Blockade

This paper explores the prospects for unescorted and escorted tests of the UAR blockade of the Strait of Tiran. We face a choice between two basic strategies: (1) a series of tests backed by a naval escort force representing the maritime nations, with the intent to assert free passage by force if necessary; or (2) a test or series of tests sponsored by Israel, with the understanding that if passage is refused Israeli military action (limited or broad-scale) would follow.

During the past week we have also discussed the utility of unescorted tests designed merely to define the limits of the blockade and to build a case for international political or juridical action to relieve it. Under that concept, there is no necessary relationship between the tests and the ultimate decision to organize and use an escort force. This approach seems less relevant now, in view of our greater knowledge concerning the UAR blockade and of the pressures of time.

The Feasibility of Arranging Tests

Under the first choice above, the requirement is two-fold: to assemble test ships of appropriate registries and in sufficient numbers, and to assemble an international naval escort force representing the maritime nations. The neuralgic points of the blockade are (a) oil, (b) Israeli flag vessels, and (c) possibly Israeli-owned vessels.

[Omitted here is discussion of the problems of assembling test ships and an international escort force, possibilities of unescorted passage by U.S. flag or non-U.S. flag tankers and possible consequences, consequences of a test by an unescorted Israeli vessel, the possibility of an escorted probe by a non-Israeli vessel and its possible consequences, and the possibility of an Israeli-sponsored test of the blockade.]

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It is important to understand that we face a clear choice between basic, mutually exclusive strategies for testing the blockade. The deliberate attempt to combine them would almost surely produce the worst possible consequences for US interests, as would their intermingling by inadvertence or calculated Israeli action.
A US decision to assume responsibility for testing the blockade leads inevitably to the requirement for a naval escort force; and given the probability that the UAR will turn back unescorted tankers (including those of US registry), the organization of a naval escort force will lead almost certainly to its use.
The mere organization of such an escort force would be construed as a hostile act by the UAR, and would produce serious political and economic retaliation against US interests throughout the Arab world. On balance, however, these may be manageable if the force is not actually used.
The actual use [of] the escort force would produce graver political and economic consequences for US interests (even if the UAR did not resist militarily and the USSR exercised great caution). These would likely include seizure or nationalization of oil companies, closure of the Suez Canal to nations participating in the force, cut-off of oil pipelines to the Mediterranean, and UN action that might either charge the US with “aggression” or place further US actions to run the blockade in violation of the UN. In addition, mob violence against US life and property in the Middle East would be probable.
A brief, inconclusive military engagement between the UAR and the escort force would intensify, but not materially alter, the consequences set out in paragraph 4.
A serious UAR military effort to prevent escorted passage would project the US into a state of war with the UAR, with no logical or mutually acceptable break-off point. The fact of US belligerency would gravely diminish the possibilities of Soviet restraint in its support of the Arabs, or of joint US-Soviet efforts to limit and terminate hostilities. Such a situation could be quickly escalated and complicated by a major Israeli attack on the Arabs, or a major Arab attack on Israel. Either contingency would be probable if serious fighting between the escort force and the UAR developed in the Strait of Tiran.
Under the best possible circumstances (i.e., broad and vigorous adherence to the maritime declaration and a truly international escort force), it might be possible to separate the issue of free passage from the basic Arab-Israeli conflict. But given the present facts (i.e., a fairly narrow, lukewarm support for the declaration and a marked lack of enthusiasm [Page 282] for the escort force) such a separation is illusory. Thus if the escort force were used, UAR and Soviet propaganda would succeed in linking the two issues, and in branding the US as the enemy of the Arabs.
The strategy involving US-sponsored tests plus an escort force cannot therefore serve US interests in existing circumstances. At best, its pursuit would further polarize Middle East politics, pitting the US and Israel against the USSR and all the Arab states, with the gravest political and economic damage to US and West European interests; at worst, it would embroil the US in a direct war with Nasser and the Arabs, with the serious danger of rapid escalation to military confrontation with the USSR.
The alternative basic strategy of an Israeli-sponsored probe would almost surely lead to Arab-Israeli hostilities. An unescorted vessel (either Israeli flag or Israeli owned) would almost certainly be turned back. If it resisted, it would be fired on; Israel would then retaliate, leading to widespread hostilities.
A probe sponsored by Israel would have one cardinal advantage. It is that, in the event of hostilities, the US and the USSR would not be directly engaged and would share a mutual interest in limiting the conflict at some point. When this point became manifest, it is reasonable to hope that they would find it possible to cooperate in bringing an end to hostilities and in providing support, both in and outside the UN, for a peaceful settlement. Thus, on the judgment that some bloodletting is an unavoidable precondition to any new political settlement, the alternative basic strategy has the greater merit, in terms of protecting US vital interests and preserving the fabric of world peace.
If the US were a belligerent, the chances for limiting and ending hostilities would be infinitely worsened, in part because the UN would be rendered impotent (as in the case of Vietnam) by a fundamental split between the two superpowers.
The choice between these two basic strategies for testing the blockade is a cruel one. Pursuit of the first strategy will lead almost inevitably to a total polarization of Middle East politics with the gravest damage to US political and economic interests in that area; and the risks are substantial that it would also lead to war in which the US would be embroiled. Pursuit of the alternative basic strategy will lead almost inevitably to widespread Arab-Israeli hostilities, in which, however, the US could probably avoid direct involvement.
The cruelty of the choice impels one to turn to more intensive work on the elements of a third possibility—a compromise political settlement, a course which is beyond the scope of this paper. It is vitally important to recognize that the chances of reaching a political settlement based on less than the maximum demands of Israel and the UAR on the blockade issue (e.g., a settlement based on tacit acceptance by the [Page 283] UAR of the passage of non-Israeli tankers, and tacit agreement by Israel not to demand more) would be sharply reduced, if not eliminated, by a prior resort to either testing strategy. This conclusion points to the critical importance of (a) avoiding actions which would now commit us to the first basic strategy, and of (b) persuading Israel to forego action in the Gulf until all reasonable efforts toward a peaceful effort have failed.

Townsend Hoopes2
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330 72 A 2468, Middle East 381.3. Secret. Sent to Secretary of Defense McNamara with a covering memorandum of June 4 from Hoopes that states the Control Group was to consider it “preliminary” that evening. A stamped notation on the memorandum indicates that McNamara saw it on June 5. A copy of a JCS memorandum for McNamara on “Military Actions—Straits of Tiran,” JCSM–310–67, June 2, is attached. It discussed possible military forces that might be used and steps that might be taken in case a decision were made to test the UAR blockade, with the assumption that more time was available than had been assumed in JCSM–301–67, May 27, which had considered only actions that could be taken within approximately 1 week. (See footnote 2, Document 91.)
  2. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.