149. Memorandum for the Record1

SUBJECT

  • Walt Rostow's Recollections of June 5, 1967

The following is a transcript of a tape recorded talk with Walt Rostow on November 17, 1968:

This is Walt Rostow. I have in front of me Hal Saunders' reconstruction of the log for Monday, June 5, 1967.2 I shall make some observations on what I remember of that morning. I should preface everything that I am about to say with an acute awareness of the inadequacy of memory, as one looks back on fast-moving events in a single day.

I recall, as the log verifies, that I received about 2:50 a.m. from the Sit Room a report that there were press accounts coming in over the ticker of the opening of hostilities in the Middle East. I told our people to check NMCC and others for official confirmation and then call me back. At 2:55 a.m., I received confirmation and told them I would come in. I dressed and arrived in, I should think, about 3:20 a.m.

I immediately called Secretary Rusk who I believe had already been informed. I do not believe he was yet in his office. One of the questions raised with Secretary Rusk was whether I should inform the President immediately. He suggested that we wait perhaps an hour before informing the President so that we could have a clearer picture of what it was all about and would be in a position to give the President some facts on the situation. Hal Saunders came in very shortly after I did, and he went to work—I believe Art McCafferty also came in early—putting into some kind of order the flow of facts from ticker and intelligence sources of all kinds.

When I called the President at 4:35 a.m.3 I remember I simply gave him a straight factual report which he took in with very few questions and no comment. If I am not mistaken, he ended up as he often does [Page 288]any factual report by simply saying, “Thank you.” I have in front of me a piece of paper from which I first called the President on Monday, June 5.4 There are some notes at the top, which would suggest that perhaps I called Evron in the morning to see if he knew anything. I don't think there is any record of that call. I have a note saying that we expect the matter to go quickly to the Security Council. I have a UAR statement which probably reflects some Tel Aviv or Jerusalem ticker, saying that the UAR opened an offensive and Israel was containing that offensive. That was the earlier Israel report. But what I have then is reports by Middle East time: 8:00 a.m.—Cairo—Sirens heard. 8:05 a.m.—Israeli army report—tanks were engaged. 8:22 a.m.—Israeli Defense spokesman statement, I can't now make sense out of. At 9:00, Cairo claims it is attacked. I remember having some trouble about what time it was in Cairo. Daylight saving time threw us off and I don't know whether we ever did get it straight as to whether it was 9:00 or 8:00. There was an hour's difference, as I recall.

Then I go down—I have noted a little more fully there were Tass announcements I guess on the Cairo attack. 8:00, and then there is a more full Israeli account at 9:01, indicating that Cairo has been attacked. Then we got something very important and solid. We got indications from intelligence of a whole series of airfields described by the Egyptians as unserviceable. [Editor's note: NSA chronology suggests this was not available until Rostow's second call to the President.]5 That was the first hard military evidence of what the Israelis were up to. It obviously represented a most purposeful and apparently efficient attempt to move against the UAR airbases. At 9:38 Eastern time we get the Jordanians indicating that the airfields and targets there had also been attacked. Well, in any case, what I just ran through is a picture of what the reports were with the President ending up with the hard information of intelligence that the Israeli airforce was all over the place, taking out UAR and Jordanian airfields. That's the nature of the piece of paper I talked to and what we then had by about 4:35 our time, of which as I say you had essentially some press reports out of Cairo and Israel but hard intelligence indicating a systematic and purposeful and effective attack on Arab airfields.

The log says that I reported to the President again at 6:156—with more facts I would assume. According to the log I spoke with the President three more times—at 6:42, 6:49, and 6:55. I am confident that in the course of these calls the President instructed me to bring in the [Page 289]following men in the morning to discuss the Middle East crisis: Mr. Dean Acheson, Mac Bundy, Clark Clifford, George Ball. I telephoned all of them, but Ball was in Chicago and we did not ask him to return since the President wanted a meeting that morning.

I decided it was important to have an immediate objective assessment of how the war had begun and who had initiated it on the basis of the intelligence and asked Clark Clifford to come in early and make that assessment as Chairman of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board. Clifford came in, I think about 8:30, although I don't see that in the log. I immediately asked him to work with Saunders on the evidence to form a judgment for the President on who had initiated the war (see attachment).7

Aside from just assembling the intelligence, my memory focuses on (1) the President's instructions to assemble these men from outside the Government, (2) initiating on my own the request to Clifford to make the assessment as to the initiation of the war, and (3) the word that the “hot line” was up. That came from McCafferty to me and I believe we informed the President. I suspect at either 7:58 or 8:07. Actually, the word we used for the hot line was MOLINK. And so the first word I had from McCafferty was not that the hot line was “up”, but that “MOLINK was up.”

Then there was the gathering in the Sit Room to deal with the hot line message which had come in from Kosygin.8 I note, although I wouldn't have remembered it, that the message was in about 8:15 and reply out by about 8:47. None of the outside men had arrived by that time according to the records.

Just as an illustration of how inadequate memory is, when you called it to my attention this morning, I had forgotten that we issued an early press statement9 and I may have been involved or not. I simply don't remember. Secretary Rusk may have done it with Christian. It does have in it this thought which had been running through our minds even before the war actually broke out that it was time to shoot not simply [Page 290]for a cease-fire, an attempt to stop the war, but for a solid peace in the Middle East. That had been the thought in our minds as we watched this dreadful crisis, as we watched the tenuous chewing-gum-and-string arrangements of 1967 collapse. We found ourselves nevertheless with the Straits of Tiran closed and with a quite unambiguous Presidential commitment from President Eisenhower on Tiran backed up however by a most uncertain UN arrangement which Secretary General could evade. I think that whole experience forced on us a realization of how precarious were the 1957 arrangements. It was before the war itself that we had come to the conclusion that somehow we had to have something more solid in the Middle East if we were ever to have a secure Middle East, so the thought had been in our minds for some weeks.

My next recollection is of the meeting in the Cabinet Room at 11:36 to 12:45, according to the log.10 We had Secretaries of State and Defense, Mr. Acheson, Mr. Bundy, Mr. Clifford, Tommy Thompson, George Christian, Luke Battle and myself. I frankly do not recall a great deal about that conversation but I believe it was at that time that Mr. Clifford rendered his initial evaluation of how the war started and—to put no fine point on it—his view was that the Israelis had jumped off on minimum provocation in a very purposeful effort to deal with air power and then go after the UAR armies which of course had assembled in the Sinai. It was his judgment at the time as I recall that it was a straight Israeli decision to deal with the crisis by initiating war, although we were all conscious of the provocations at the Straits of Tiran and mobilization in the Sinai.

I might just say parenthetically that President Johnson has never believed that this war was ever anything else than a mistake by the Israelis. A brilliant quick victory he never regarded as an occasion for elation or satisfaction. He so told the Israeli representatives on a number of occasions. However, at the time, I should say that, war having been initiated against our advice, there was a certain relief that things were going well for the Israelis. In part, because it was an intelligence judgment very carefully canvassed in the previous weeks that the Israelis would win briskly. The sense was that they would win pretty briskly even if the Egyptians had started the war. Also behind that satisfaction was not merely a question of our intelligence being right, but it did look as though we would not be put in a position of having to make a choice of engaging ourselves or seeing Israel thrown into the sea or defeated. That would have been a most painful moment and, of course, with the Soviet presence in the Middle East, a moment of great [Page 291]general danger. So we did indeed know from these airfield accounts right from the beginning that the most essential military act—the neutralization of the Arab air—had probably gone well for the Israelis.

There was an interesting moment, as I remember it. Mr. Acheson looked back on the whole history of Israeli independence and, in effect, said that it was a mistake to ever create the State of Israel. Mr. Clifford, of course, had been deeply involved in the early US recognition of Israel.

I am reasonably sure that there was discussion of the position we should take at the United Nations Security Council at that meeting. I don't remember a great deal about the rest of the day, although the log says that I was very active and I dare say I was. I don't remember anything about the Cabinet Room meeting later in the day.11

Sometime during the day we began an organization of Mac Bundy's role—I think it was the first day but I couldn't be confident. As to the reason why the Bundy Committee12 was set up, I think that the President wanted to make sure that his staff was fully capable of handling two wars at one time. I think that was the basic problem. He wanted a senior and respected man who knew how the White House, State and Defense worked to operate full time on the Middle East affair. He knew that with all the rest of the things going on in the world, including the war in Vietnam, that I probably could not [handle both]. I fully agreed, for what happens in a situation of war, even so minor a war as the short India-Pak engagement, is that the whole network of international ties which operate in this highly interconnected world get reshaped. In this case we had the Arab states breaking relations with us; we had AID relations falling in; we had Americans in danger in different places; we had the whole UN exercise going on; we had oil and Suez and dealings with the British and other interested parties; and it was just a hell-of-a-lot of business of the most particular kind that had to be monitored.

[Page 292]

Now the truth was, of course, that we had, I think, two interdepartmental committees centered at State, one at the Under Secretary level and one at the Assistant Secretary level. They were working quite well. When Mac undertook his responsibility, he recognized that we were pretty well staffed up and organized, as indeed we had a duty to be since we had been wrestling with the Middle East crisis short of war for some weeks. Nevertheless, I am sure the President's instinctive judgment was correct that one full-time senior staff man over here to manage this was the course of wisdom. In any case, it worked awfully well. Hal Saunders was assigned to Mac. I was kept fully informed. Mac operated with a great economy of effort, working well and collegially with the interdepartmental committees at State which did the basic staff work and he then handled its presentation to the President. For an improvised effort providing for the bringing in of a new Senior man, I can't imagine anything working more smoothly. I really didn't have any problems with it. It was a great pleasure and it was good to have Mac with us again.

I regret that in that fast-moving day that I don't remember more. It was a day of action and I note that I sent the President at the end of the day a summary based on an Israel Defense Ministry assessment of Arab losses in Mid-East air battles—that was at 9:05.13 I seem to remember (I would have to check it in my own telephone log) that sometime during the end of the day I called Eppie Evron [Israeli Minister] with whom I had been in close touch on the various matters—a man of diplomatic integrity with whom I had been able to talk most frankly about Middle East problems. I spoke to him and in line with previous conversations told him that, if I were an Israeli official, I would begin to think about peace in the Middle East and about the settlement of the refugee problem and other fundamental problems. To this day, Eppie has always resented it a little in an amiable way that I did not tell him that we had solid information that the Israeli air operations had been successful. He had had a hard lonely weary day about how the war was going and he's always teased me a little that I could have saved him some hours of anxiety if I had shared our intelligence with him.

I don't know when I knocked off in the evening, but it was a tolerably long and memorable day of which I now realize how little one actually remembers.

Harold H. Saunders
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, NSC Histories, Middle East Crisis, Vol. 3. Top Secret; [codeword not declassified].
  2. Reference is to a “Chronology: To 5 June 1200 GMT” that Saunders put together summarizing the reports that were received that morning. A version with Saunders' handwritten insertions is ibid. The final typed version is ibid., Country File, Middle East Crisis, Vol. III.
  3. No other record of this conversation has been found.
  4. Not found.
  5. All brackets in the source text.
  6. See Document 152
  7. No written report by Clifford on this subject has been found. Saunders wrote in a December 19, 1968, Memorandum for the Record “it soon became very clear that the Israelis had launched a pre-emptive strike, pure and simple. However, it must be remembered that, in those early hours, the first thing the Foreign Liaison Officer of the Israeli Defense Ministry told us (0710 GMT) was that Egyptian armored forces had advanced at dawn and that there was a large number of radar tracks of Egyptian jets moving toward the Israeli shoreline and Negev. We had to deal with this Israeli assertion.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, NSC Histories, Middle East Crisis, Vol. 3) Saunders' memorandum states that he asked CIA to produce a paper on the question of who had initiated the war; see Document 169.
  8. Document 156.
  9. See Document 152.
  10. See Document 163.
  11. The President met in the Cabinet Room from 6:12 to 6:58 p.m. with Vice President Humphrey, Dean Acheson, McGeorge Bundy, Clark Clifford, Secretaries McNamara and Rusk, Richard Helms, Walt Rostow, and George Christian. Battle, who had been meeting with members of Congress on Capitol Hill, joined them at 6:45 p.m. (Johnson Library, President's Daily Diary) No other record of the meeting has been found.
  12. The Special Committee of the National Security Council, with McGeorge Bundy as Executive Secretary, was established on June 7. Saunders, who served as Bundy's principal staff assistant, wrote in a memorandum of July 16, 1968, that the first main job of the Committee was to provide high-level crisis management during the war and immediately afterward and that the Committee's second achievement, although not envisioned at the time of its creation, was to play a leadership role in establishing the postwar U.S. position. (Ibid., National Security File, Special Committee of the National Security Council, Introduction to the Files of the Special Committee of the National Security Council)
  13. Rostow forwarded press reports and a map with a covering memorandum that reads: “Mr. President: Herewith the account, with a map, of the first day's turkey shoot.” (Ibid., National Security File, NSC Histories, Middle East Crisis, Vol. 3)