80. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in the United Kingdom1

203800. Memcon Between Ambassador Dean and Under Secretary Rostow.

At his request Ambassador Dean called on Under Secretary Rostow, 10:30 p.m., May 26, to inquire about the results of the Eban visit.

Mr. Rostow opened the conversation by saying that USG was still not sure whether the basic strategy was going to work but we would know very soon. Our evaluation, which was confirmed by Eban, was that we had held the Israelis from making a strike by raising the possibility of a third solution between surrender or war. When we floated the British suggestion of a maritime force Eban had come over to determine whether this third option was in fact assured.
The Government’s policy was explained to him along these lines: a) Exhaustion of UN proceedings; b) A public declaration by the maritime powers as soon as possible; c) Determination to pursue vigorously and urgently the question of a maritime presence to insure passage through the Gulf of Aqaba for all nations specifically including Israel.
We had two days of intensive discussions with Eban to make this third alternative as specific as possible under the circumstances, taking into account our Constitutional procedures and the necessity for making any maritime force an international effort.
We do not know if this will hold the Israelis but we emphasized to Eban over and over again the grave imprudence of Israel striking the first blow. We did not thoroughly examine the question whether the announcement of intention to close the Gulf as distinguished from an actual closing would justify retaliatory action by the Israelis under Article 51.
The purport of our statements was explicit, that Israel should not act alone and not take on the onus of acting alone.
Our intelligence has been reviewed by three different groups and we are convinced that the UAR is in a defensive rather than an offensive posture. Nasser has Sharm-el-Shaikh and seems to be holding on all other fronts. The Israelis have come back over and over again checking and rechecking their own military estimates. We expected that they would tell us they were going to strike but instead they merely requested clarification regarding the proposed maritime plan.
Everett, UK, said that UK assessment was that there was a continuing steady military buildup in the UAR and that the UAR could now assume an offensive posture. Rostow reported that USG had some disquieting intelligence which indicated that the Soviets had been egging the UAR on. This was not solid but it was worth taking a look at.
Dean asked how Rostow had found Eban. Rostow replied that Eban was not agitated and appeared serious and moderate. He gave a sober rather than a passionate presentation. Eban had indicated that he thought the maritime plan was a starter if he got solid assurances from the President. We have no direct evidence as yet of Eban’s conclusions, and what he will recommend. Rostow thought in the light of his talk last night and his impressions today that Eban’s recommendation would be positive.
Dean said UK reports indicated that Israeli Cabinet was in joint consultation and that Ben Gurion was back. UK felt that there would be a crucial Cabinet meeting either Sunday morning or Saturday evening. Their word is that it will be a “peace or war Cabinet.”
On the question of using a neutral tanker to test the Straits, Rostow indicated that while we were inclined yesterday to let a test come, USG would consider the Prime Minister’s advice very carefully and would take no steps on the matter without further consultation.
Rostow indicated that Israel had not discussed the modalities of the proposed maritime force but that Eban did ask that Israel be allowed to participate in it. USG had urged them to mount a diplomatic effort in making the enterprise a success.
Rostow asked Ambassador Dean what news he had about Cabinet meeting. Dean indicated that the Hermes had been turned around and was now sailing west toward Aden and that the Cabinet did not like the idea of a test probe in the Gulf. The Cabinet was, however, most anxious to learn about the results of the Eban visit.
Dean said that his own view was that any UN action would be exceedingly slow and that we would be lucky if we got an SC meeting by next Wednesday.
Rostow noted that the Russians had been reticent on the status of the Gulf as an international waterway and cited article in the Soviet press which was guarded. He also indicated that USG was considering what tactics we propose to take in the UN and that we would want to remain in close touch with the UK on this in New York. In any event USG felt that maritime planning should move ahead.
Rostow suggested that US and UK should move on the maritime declaration at the same time we move on the SC. The question with the maritime declaration was how clear you could make the implied commitment to use force if necessary to protect freedom of the sea and still induce governments to sign on.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL ARAB–ISR. Secret; Priority; Nodis. Drafted by Eugene Rostow and his staff assistant Robert T. Grey, Jr., and approved by Rostow. Repeated Priority to Cairo, Tel Aviv, Paris, and USUN.