53. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • The Near East Crisis


  • United States
  • Secretary of State
  • Eugene Rostow, Under Secretary for Political Affairs
  • Foy D. Kohler, Deputy Under Secretary for Political Affairs
  • William J. Handley, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs
  • John P. Walsh, Deputy Executive Secretary
  • United Kingdom
  • George Thomson, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs
  • Sir Patrick Dean, UK Ambassador to the US
  • Rear Admiral Bartosik
  • Christopher H. D. Everett, First Secretary of Embassy

Following welcoming remarks by the Secretary, Minister Thomson said he would like to describe to the Secretary the decisions of last night’s Cabinet meeting. He said the meeting was called in a crisis atmosphere. Intelligence information indicated that there was an immediate threat by the UAR to close the Strait of Aqaba and that, unless action were taken, the Israelis might well be involved in a preemptive strike. The Cabinet recognized that there were obvious risks in any action that was undertaken by HMG; however, a failure to act might well contribute to an outbreak of fighting between the Israelis and the Arabs which could escalate into an East-West confrontation. Under these circumstances, the Cabinet had decided to authorize steps to assure the right of innocent passage through the Straits with a thought in mind that this could be a deterrent to Israeli action. It was agreed that Prime Minister Wilson would issue a statement tonight reaffirming the UK statements on this subject in 1957. In addition, George Brown was sent East to Moscow to discuss this subject with the Soviets and he had been sent West to Washington to do likewise. [Page 86] He had been instructed to discuss this matter in depth with the USG and to bring back a practical scheme of action which would include the nuts and bolts of a maritime agreement. An instruction had been sent by HMG to the British Embassies in main maritime countries advocating a declaration of principle on the right of peaceful passage and indicating a willingness to explore the possibilities of international action. With crossed fingers HMG felt that procedures of this nature might deter the Israelis and the UAR and take some of the heat out of the crisis. He wanted to share the thinking of his government on this subject with us and to try to work out a practical, reasonable and workable scheme of action. It was hoped that we could, in cooperation with as many other countries as possible, mount an operation to deter the UAR. This would have two legs in naval terms: (1) a probing escort operation in the region of the Strait of Tiran; and (2) this operation would be momentarily exposed and therefore must be backed up by a credible military operation in the Eastern Mediterranean which would show adequate forces to the UAR. The essential attributes of the proposal would be (a) based firmly on US/UK cooperation and (b) should be international in nature including countries other than UK and US. The British Government also felt that some type of political proposal should be developed to provide a face-saving device for Israel and the Arabs.

The Secretary responded by stating that we welcome the visit of the Minister and the British activities in this matter. The current situation confronts us with certain problems which he would wish to call to the attention of the Minister. We need, he said, before any shooting starts to make sure that Congress was with us. This would involve some delay. We will have to explore carefully the British proposal and discuss it with Congress. The Secretary said that he had had a long session with the SFRC yesterday. There had been a general recognition that we can not stay out of the problems of the NE and that the Arabs cannot be permitted to drive the Israelis into the sea. On the other hand, it was the consensus that any decisions taken must involve multilateral action and the UN must be utilized to the maximum degree in this situation. Any declaration that might be developed should be supported by as many countries as possible. In this situation, he said the “more” truly the “merrier”.

The Secretary urged that on an ad referendum basis our two staffs should try to work out a feasible plan which would involve as many countries as possible. We should carefully box the compass in respect to these proposals and should endeavor to persuade the French, Italians, Scandinavians and as many others as possible to join.

[Page 87]

The general problem of UN involvement in this issue was then explored. It was noted that paragraph 4 of Article 16 of the Geneva Law of the Sea Convention of 19582 might provide a valuable formulation. The Secretary requested that the legislative history of this paragraph be reviewed to see whether it directly involved the Strait of Aqaba [Tiran]. It was also agreed to review the implications and applications of the Armistice Agreements of 19493 and 1956.4

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Office of the Executive Secretariat, Middle East Crisis Files, 1967, Entry 5190, Box 3, Other. Secret; Nodis. No drafting information appears on the memorandum. Filed with a memorandum of a conversation between Eugene Rostow and Thomson that began prior to the conversation with Rusk and resumed following it, and a memorandum of a U.S.-British plenary session held that afternoon. The time of the meeting is from Rusk’s Appointment Book. (Johnson Library)
  2. Reference is to the Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone signed at Geneva, April 29, 1958; for text, see UST 15 1606.
  3. Egypt-Israel General Armistice Agreement, signed at Rhodes on February 24, 1949; for text, see UN doc. S/1264/Corr. 1 and Add. 1. A copy is in the National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Office of the Executive Secretariat, Middle East Crisis Files, 1967, Entry 5190, Box 16, Israel and Egypt Armistice Agreement.
  4. Documentation pertaining to the cease-fire arranged under United Nations auspices on November 6, 1956, is in Foreign Relations, 1955–1957, volume XVI.