72. Memorandum for the Record1


  • Meeting on the Arab-Israeli Crisis, May 26, 1:30 p.m.


  • The President
  • Clark Clifford
  • The Vice President
  • Justice Fortas
  • Secretary Rusk
  • General Wheeler
  • Secretary McNamara
  • Richard Helms
  • Undersecretary Vance
  • Joseph Sisco
  • Lucius Battle
  • Walt Rostow
  • Eugene Rostow
  • George Christian
  • George Ball
  • Harold Saunders

The President began the meeting by asking General Wheeler to summarize the military picture.

General Wheeler described Israeli and UAR forces as follows:

Israeli forces are 55–65% mobilized with 160,000 now in the ground forces. Israel has not yet called to duty the support forces that would be necessary for a long campaign. The Air Force and Navy are fully mobilized. The UAR has moved some 50,000 troops into Sinai and established them along two defensive lines, one behind the other. They have moved a number of fighter aircraft into the Sinai. In addition, they have established a small Naval force and 12 MIGs at Hurghada, across the Red Sea from Sharm al-Sheikh where there are a 3000-man parachute battalion and 4 coastal defense guns.

He described the military situation as of the moment as basically static. Although there have been two overflight incidents, neither side looks as if it is readying for attack. The UAR’s dispositions are defensive and do not look as if they are preparatory to an invasion of Israel. The UAR has gained some military advantage by moving into Sharm al-Sheikh and by advancing its forces into the Sinai. He concluded, however, that Israel should be able to resist or undertake aggression and that in the long term Israel would prevail.

[Page 128]

In response to the President’s question, he believed that Israel could maintain the present level of mobilization for two months without causing serious economic trouble. Full mobilization, however, would cut into the economy. We believe Israel’s full war stocks are designed to carry three or four weeks. To continue beyond that would require resupply. He thought the UAR could continue for at least a month.

The President asked General Wheeler to confirm whether anything indicates that either side will attack. General Wheeler answered that there were no indications that the Egyptians would attack. If the UAR moved, it would give up its defensive positions in the Sinai for little advantage.

He believed that the Israelis would win air superiority. The UAR would lose a lot of aircraft. Israel’s military philosophy is to gain tactical surprise by striking airfields first but he believes this is not absolutely essential to Israel’s gaining air supremacy.

He concluded by noting that on the Israeli side the greatest danger is the state of mind. The Israelis believed that if the situation jells, it jells in favor of the Arabs.

The President asked whether there was any military reason why we should make any declaration or any military moves now. General Wheeler said he saw none.

In response to the President’s request, Secretary Rusk summarized the situation. Israeli Foreign Minister Eban had come in the previous afternoon with a flash message from Eshkol that the Israeli government expected an Arab attack imminently. Eshkol requested that we put our Mediterranean forces in touch with the Israeli Defense Force to coordinate action in the event of such an attack.

Secretary Rusk had told Eban that our intelligence does not support the view that Israel is threatened with imminent attack. He noted that U Thant said that everything he had heard in Cairo tends to exclude that likelihood also. He explained to Eban the President’s problems with Congress and strong Congressional feeling that the US must not act unilaterally. He cautioned against a preemptive Israeli attack and said that we could not be responsible if Israel goes off on its own.

Secretary Rusk felt that Eban the following morning had pulled away somewhat from the message of Thursday evening. He indicated to the Secretary on the phone that he would not have sent that message had he been in Jerusalem. However, he did cite the “apocalyptic” mood in Israel and the heavy pressure for a strike. Eban expected to return to Jerusalem for a Sunday Cabinet meeting which might be “the most important to be held in the history of Israel.”

Secretary McNamara had reported that he had met with Eban from 10:30 to 11:20 a.m. He said Eban was back on the tack of the night [Page 129] before—that a surprise Arab attack was imminent. Eban said Israel by itself had two alternatives—surrender or a preemptive strike. He had come to explore a third—what the US might do to open the Gulf of Aqaba. He stressed US commitments and expressed concern that so far he had had no indication that the US was ready to use force. During the meeting Eban received a message stating that the prediction of attack was no longer just an appraisal but was solid information. However, he was vague on the source of this information.

Secretary McNamara had said that the Israelis would stand alone if they initiated an attack. He cited the importance of our gaining Congressional support and working through the UN. Eban had questioned the efficacy of the UN. He predicted nothing would happen there and asked why Israel should not act now.

Eban cited a 27 February 1957 agreed Minute between Secretary Dulles and himself,2 then Israel’s Ambassador in Washington. The substance of that understanding was that Israel would withdraw from Sharm al-Sheikh if passage through the Straits of Tiran was assured. Eban interpreted our statement at that time (we believe the Straits comprehend international waters)3 as a US commitment to use force to keep the Straits open.

Secretary McNamara said that, after reviewing the documents of that 1957 exchange, he had learned that Eban was ignoring a 19 February 1957 statement by Secretary Dulles at a news conference. In effect, Secretary Dulles said he would not think the US had the right to use force to protect vessels of other flags. That would require Congressional action.4

Secretary Rusk stated that Eban and Secretary Dulles had jointly drafted the paragraphs that Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir had agreed [included?] in her statement to the UN on 1 March 1957.5 This in effect said that interference of shipping by armed force would constitute [Page 130] an imposition on Israeli rights that would justify exercise of the right of self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter.

Mr. Eugene Rostow interjected that it was important to settle in our own minds the doctrine of “first strike.” It was important to decide whether the UAR by proclaiming a blockade of the Straits, had already made a first strike.

The President then asked Mr. Battle to describe the Arab situation and Mr. Sisco to describe the Israeli position.

Mr. Battle noted a vigorous Soviet effort to turn this crisis into a US-Arab confrontation. He suggested that Syria had been ahead of Nasser for a while but would now follow his lead. He suggested that Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon will probably be weakened in the current crisis. The closer we get to Israel, the more difficult it will be for the moderate Arabs to stay at arms length from Nasser. He was sure Hussein and Faisal must be having nightmares over being drawn into this conflict, but they could not stay out of a holy war against Israel. The rest of the Arab world would not be important, except that Kuwait will probably be pressed to bail the UAR out financially and Libya may be under pressure to abrogate our base rights at Wheelus.

Mr. Battle summarized by saying: (1) whatever we do we are in trouble. If we fail to stand by Israel, the radical Arabs will paint us as a paper tiger. If we stand by Israel, we will damage ourselves seriously with all the Arabs. (2) We must remember that the Arabs never stick together for long. We know that eventually strains will reappear.

Mr. Sisco described access to the Gulf of Aqaba as the “gut issue” for Israel. Backing down would amount to surrender and maybe even the beginnings of dissolution of the State of Israel. On the economic side, Israel depends on this route for most of its oil imports and for many exports to the markets of Africa and Asia it is trying to develop. Legally, Israel has the same interest as we do in keeping the Straits open as a matter of principle. Israel has made it clear that if the choice is surrender or action on any of these fronts, it will choose action. Mr. Sisco pointed out that Israel has no faith in the UN. The UN Security Council proved itself unable to deal with the problem of cross border terrorism after the Syrian incidents last October. Nor does Israel have faith in the ability of UN Truce Supervisory Organization to in any way limit these incidents. It has no faith in the General Assembly as now constituted. The composition of the General Assembly of today is quite different from the Assembly which after Suez established the UNEF. Mr. Sisco predicted that any General Assembly action today would be anti-Israeli. To top off their lack of faith in the UN, they feel U Thant is biased against them. He rushed to pull out the UNEF, and his slowness in getting out his report played into the UAR’s hands. Then he went to Cairo [Page 131] and not to Tel Aviv. They feel he will not come up with anything more than some “gimmick proposals” to rationalize the status quo.

In summary, the Israelis are deeply concerned that with the passage of time and with the double standard in New York, they can hope for little more than gradual quiet acquiescence in the status quo. The Israelis believe that they have a special relationship with us. They are willing to exhaust the UN avenue if it does not take too much time, but they want assurance that at the end of that road the Straits will remain open. Mr. Sisco thought that cooperation among the maritime states perhaps with the support of a Naval escort to keep the Straits open would be the kind of concrete proposal the Israelis might be willing to accept.

The President asked what kind of force might be available. Mr. Sisco believed it would be impossible for the UN to approve any such UN force. However, we are working on a force involving at first the US–UK and maybe Canada—and then the Dutch, other Commonwealth nations, the Japanese and maybe the Argentines.

The President interjected that the Canadians had not promised anything but he felt from his conversation with Prime Minister Pearson that they would probably go along.

Secretary McNamara questioned whether the UK proposal brought here by Minister of State George Thomson had full UK military approval. This is something we will have to work out. In any case, we would not want to launch any Naval probe of the Straits until the UN has played itself out and until Congress has endorsed our proposal.

In response to the President’s further question, General Wheeler described briefly the Naval forces now in the vicinity of the Red Sea—two U.S. destroyers (the Fisk and the Kennedy) and the flagship of COMIDEASTFOR (the Valcour). The UK has several frigates and minesweepers in the immediate area and the Hermes, a commando carrier, is somewhere not far from Aden. In the Mediterranean there is a substantial US force, and we hope we might persuade the Italians and even the Greeks to join. However, what is in the Mediterranean may not be useful in the Red Sea.

Mr. Eugene Rostow briefly described Eban’s purpose in coming to Washington. He stated his belief that on Tuesday, May 23, we had held the Israelis off from striking. At that time he had authorized Ambassador Barbour to describe to the Israelis the proposal that George Thomson had brought to Washington. Eban now described that as Israel’s first ray of hope and said that he had come to Washington to find out how serious that proposal was. Israel would regard the closing of the Straits as justifying self-defense under Article 51, but Eban is disposed to recommend that his government go along with us in an effort [Page 132] to unite the maritime nations behind a plan to keep the Straits open by collective action. He felt that if there were some hope that an international group would keep the Straits open, this would be sufficient to stay Israel’s hand. Eban had said he also was disposed to go along with this plan if the President were behind it. Mr. Rostow said that this was the specific question the President could expect Eban to put to him when they met.

Secretary Rusk added that Eban needs to take home something that he and his government can use to contain the “apocalyptic pressures” they face. He said he recognized that that was the Israeli government’s problem. He assured the President that Eban understands the nature of our public relations problems.

The President then asked what he should tell Eban.

Secretary Rusk noted that U Thant had categorical assurances from Nasser that the UAR would not make a preemptive attack.6 The UAR wants to reestablish the General Armistice Agreements. He recommended that we try to concentrate on the problem of the Straits and get Israeli minds off the fear of an imminent Arab attack. He noted that the UAR Embassy had held a press conference that morning trying to calm the atmosphere. He pointed out that it is still unclear what ground rules the UAR plans to apply in controlling shipping through the Straits. The UAR keeps referring to the Battle Act7 as a possible criterion, and the Battle Act does not include oil.

Secretary Rusk pointed out that the sensitive issue is whether Israel will insist on the right of passage for Israeli flag vessels. As a practical matter, the UAR might allow the continued passage of non-Israeli ships, but Israel may not be willing to settle for that. In any case though we should concentrate on the Straits, we won’t get too far until U Thant reports.

Secretary McNamara said he saw no “perishability” in the situation as it stands except for the fact that Israel probably can not sustain its mobilization for too long without economic cost. He asked the President whether getting support for a probe would be politically harder two to three weeks from now. The President asked whether a probe could actually be made.

Secretary Rusk said he had told Eban what he had said to Gromyko in the Berlin crisis of 1961–62. He had said then that the USSR could [Page 133] have war in five minutes but a peaceful answer would take more time to work out. The Secretary said he had told Eban that Israel has a tremendous stake in the world’s view of its actions, particularly who is responsible for a shooting war if one starts. He had told Eban that Israel would not be alone unless it chose to go alone. He had emphasized that the US can not be drawn into war by the unilateral action of others. Because of US public opinion and the views of Congress we must exhaust all other avenues first. The Israelis must give our efforts a chance.

The President asked General Wheeler to comment on the efficacy of an effort by the maritime powers to keep the Straits open. He suggested that he could tell Eban that we would work through the UN even though we have our doubts what that course will produce. Then we could put our eggs in a multilateral basket by the maritime powers provided the military situation does not deteriorate in the meantime.

General Wheeler said that if the President decides to force the Straits the best way is by a series of steps. First, we might send a non-Israeli flag cargo vessel into the Straits. Then a cargo vessel with military escort (he noted apparent UAR instructions not to accost any vessel with a military escort). If these vessels were attacked, the least we could do would be to strike the air and naval bases from which the attack was launched. This would be a more limited operation than what the Israelis would have to mount. They would probably have to destroy all the Sinai airfields as part of any air attack on Sharm al-Sheikh or Hurghada.

In summary, General Wheeler expressed the view that the UAR would back down if the maritime powers were able to muster an impressive enough force. He felt that this would be the most precise military response we could mount; a show of force by the Sixth Fleet near the UAR’s coast line might encourage the Israelis to attack or trigger an attack by Nasser as a last desperate act.

The President asked whether the UK has enough interest to “stand up with us like men.” General Wheeler cited the UK’s substantial oil interests and opined that the UK could not tolerate Nasser as the dominant force in the Middle East. The President asked, “If you were in Eban’s place and we told you we were relying on the UN and a group of maritime powers, would that be enough to satisfy you?” General Wheeler answered that he would drive a harder bargain. He would agree to go along provided that the US guarantee to back Israel if these efforts failed. He said he might gamble that the US would have to back Israel anyway but would try to get some more formal assurance. The President turned to the rest of the group around the table and asked two questions: (1) Are there other elements of the situation we have overlooked? (2) What do you recommend? “Dean has to fly [Page 134] off to Iowa for a speech; the Vice President has a birthday party; and along about sundown I have to bell this cat. I need to know what I am going to say.”

The Vice President summarized his view by focusing on the Gulf of Aqaba as the central issue and expressed his doubt that the UAR would attack. He felt the UAR would understand that we have a great stake in the freedom of the seas. He noted that this is a matter of life or death for Israel and we could not expect Israel to trust Nasser’s word.

The Vice President then asked what about the UAR’s capability to endure a high degree of mobilization over any period given its economic weakness. He wondered whether Nasser wasn’t trying to blackmail us. He felt the UN would not do much. At the end of the road, we have a large stake in keeping the Straits open. Unless Israel thinks we are going to back them, it will attack.

The Vice President suggested that the President tell Eban that we have a stake in the freedom of the seas but that we also have a stake in peace in the Middle East. The Israelis have to have faith and we will use everything we can to achieve our ends.

The President asked whether he could go that far, and Secretary McNamara said he didn’t think so.

Mr. Clifford pointed out that all we are acting from at the moment is a UAR announcement that it would close the Straits. As far as we know—since the UAR had been talking about our Battle Act—the UAR might allow even oil tankers to go through the Straits.

The President asked whether we expected a test soon and Mr. Vance and Mr. Eugene Rostow noted that there are conflicting reports. The Israelis say that one tanker has already been stopped in the Red Sea but we have no confirmation.

Mr. Walt Rostow pointed out that in the language which Secretary Dulles and Foreign Minister Meir had worked out in 1957,8 theSecretary’s addition of the words “by armed force” acted as a limitation on the circumstances which would permit the Israelis to exercise their right of self defense—not as an expansion of our obligation.

Mr. Clifford went on to say that regardless of the legal points involved, in world opinion the UAR has not yet moved. So far we have had only an oral threat. He felt it exceedingly important that Israel not take the first overt step. If it does, we will bear the brunt of the world’s reaction.

[Page 135]

Nevertheless, Mr. Clifford felt that Israel’s life was indeed at stake and that we must assure access to the Gulf. If Nasser succeeds in closing the Gulf, he will have won a major victory.

He felt that we have an excellent issue in the freedom of the seas and that we must call Nasser’s bluff. We must put him in a position where he either takes an overt act against free shipping or backs down. Mr. Clifford made a major point of the fact that our ultimate objective is to put an Israeli ship through the Straits and on into its port.

He concluded that there is no obligation to say all of this to Eban later in the day. He felt it would be enough to say that we sympathize, that we are studying this but have no commitment to make yet. The President asked whether Eban would not misjudge this as a cold shoulder and go home to advise his Cabinet that it could not count on the US. Mr. Clifford felt that our expression of sympathy would be enough. Secretary Rusk asked whether this would not sound as if we are diluting our commitment. Mr. Clifford said we need not volunteer any statement on what we would do in the Straits, but the President laughingly said he was sure he would have a chance to discuss that subject.

The President asked whether this would be enough for Eban to take home to keep the Israeli Cabinet from deciding to strike. Secretary McNamara said he thought a little more was necessary. He said that in his conversation with Eban that morning Eban had in a sense asked whether we were not walking away from the commitments of our predecessors. Secretary McNamara would stop short of endorsing all previously made commitments because “there is some pretty bad language in them.” He suggested writing a new statement of our position.

Mr. Ball suggested that two problems should be separated: (1) the principle of free passage in international waterways has been covered in the 1958 Convention of the Seas; (2) the question of belligerent rights is a separate one.

Mr. Ball indicated on the basis of his conversation with Mr. Shoaib of the World Bank that Muslim world opinion is coalescing against Israel. Shoaib felt that even the Iranians would have to line up against Israel eventually. Therefore, the Israelis would be “out of their minds” to attack. Their rights will be as clear two weeks from now as now. We should live up to past commitments but we should not underestimate the possibility of a grave oil crisis if we end up on the Israeli side of a fight. US companies would be under serious attack and would probably be nationalized.

Mr. Fortas described the problem as how to keep the Israelis from striking. We will open the Straits over the long run but the critical time is Israel’s Cabinet Meeting Sunday. Mr. Fortas did not feel that Mr. Clifford’s [Page 136] suggestion went far enough. He felt we would have to assure Eban that one of these days we will assure that an Israeli flagship will get into the Gulf. Mr. Fortas felt that Eban understands our problems but needs a package he can sell to the Cabinet in Jerusalem.

The President asked whether Mr. Fortas meant we would enforce the passage of an Israeli vessel with our men and ships. Mr. Fortas answered that we would use whatever force necessary. The President said he did not believe he was in a position now to say that.

The President indicated that Eban would not get all he wants. The big question was whether we will regret on Monday not having given him more. Nevertheless, we have the unanimous pressure of the Congress to try the UN and multilateral machinery.

The Vice President reiterated his point that we should tell Eban we have as big a stake in freedom of the seas as Israel does and that Israel should have faith that we will do what we can to protect that principle.

The President left the meeting at this point and suggested that the other participants might want to stay on and draft a statement for him to use with Eban later.

In the subsequent conversation, Secretary McNamara suggested four elements as part of what the President might tell Eban: If Israel initiates an attack, it will stand alone. If the UN fails and subject to Congressional approval, the President would work with other nations to insure keeping the Gulf open.

Mr. Fortas warned that we would not have a realistic choice between participating and not participating even if Israel provokes hostilities. He did not feel we could say that Israel will be alone.

Secretary Rusk stated that if Israel strikes first, it would have to forget the U.S. The Vice President countered that hostilities would face the President with the most serious politics imaginable. We will not be able to play with legalisms.

Secretary Rusk then tabled for the group’s consideration a possible statement for the President to use in talking with Eban. That draft and a copy of the statement as the President amended it and finally used it are attached.9 The President rejoined the meeting long enough to make those changes.

Meeting adjourned.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Middle East Crisis, Miscellaneous Material. Top Secret. Drafted on May 27. Filed with a covering memorandum from Saunders to George Christian stating that he had dictated this draft from his notes and Christian could make additions or revisions before putting it in the President’s records. A few handwritten corrections by Saunders appear on the source text and on a copy that Saunders sent to Walt Rostow. (Ibid., Vol. II) No copy with further revisions has been found. The agenda for the meeting, prepared by Rostow, is ibid. The meeting, held in the Cabinet Room, began at 1:33 p.m. The President left the meeting at 3:10 p.m. and returned at 3:51 p.m.; the meeting ended at 4:05 p.m. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary)
  2. See Document 69 and footnote 2 thereto.
  3. The aide-mémoire of February 11, 1957, as made public on February 17, 1957, and Lodge’s statement before the General Assembly on March 1, 1957, stated that the United States believed that the Gulf of Aqaba comprehended international waters. See footnote 6, Document 36, and footnote 6, Document 32. President Eisenhower reiterated this position in an address of February 20, 1957. (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1957, pp. 147–156)
  4. At his news conference on February 19, 1957, Dulles said, “The President has inherent power to use the forces of the United States to protect American ships and their rights all over the world. But he has no power, in my opinion, to use the forces of the United States on behalf of the vessels of another flag unless he is given that authority by some congressional resolution or by a treaty.” (Department of State Bulletin, March 11, 1957, 115 p. 404) The complete record of the news conference is ibid., pp. 400–406.
  5. See footnote 3, Document 69.
  6. The Secretary-General so stated in his report to the Security Council on May 26. For the text, see Public Papers of the Secretaries-General of the United Nations, Vol. VII, U Thant, 1965–1967, pp. 438–443.
  7. The Mutual Defense Assistance Control Act of 1951 (P.L. 213), approved October 26, 1951, provided for the suspension of economic aid to nations supplying strategic commodities to Communist countries. (65 Stat. 644)
  8. Reference is to the language agreed upon by Secretary Dulles and Ambassador Eban on February 28, 1957; for Foreign Minister Meir’s statement the next day, see footnote 3, Document 69.
  9. Not attached but see Document 74.