87. Telegram From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson in Texas1
Herewith Prime Minster Wilson weighed in on the Middle East with an acceptable proposal and a phrase nice to read: Countries, “with the guts to stand-up and be counted.” Let’s hold him to it.
Many thanks for your message. I’m grateful too for the very full account we have had of Eban’s talks with yourself and others in Washington. I warmly welcome the insistence with which you urged caution on the Israelis. But I am addressing you now because I fear that, despite all your efforts and ours, there must be a serious likelihood that, after the Israeli Cabinet has met tomorrow (correction—today) to consider Eban’s report, you and we will find ourselves confronted with what could amount to an Israeli ultimatum—that, if we do not give them even more categorical assurances than both of us have given so far about the right of passage through the Straits of Tiran, they will feel obliged to assert those rights by force, in whatever manner and at whatever time seem most appropriate to them. This is the vital issue. Closure of the Straits is what Nasser has gained. It affects a vital Israeli interest.
George Thomson and your people made good progress this week and now the military are following this up urgently. It is clear that we [Page 165] shall soon have a workable schema, though I know you agree with me that it is vitally important that we should plan to develop this through the United Nations, if possible, and in any case on the widest possible basis of international co-operation (even if you and we are going to have to do most of the donkey work). But I am gravely concerned at the time factor. An Israeli ultimatum (or something like it) on the lines I have suggested would open up a dramatic prospect of great power confrontation in an area where, as I said to you the other day, none of us can hope to control the local combatants, except perhaps by such direct military involvements on one side or the other as to constitute an unavoidable challenge to the other side. The potential dangers of that happening are such as to make it essential that everything is done to avoid it. I have in mind particularly the need to avoid a situation in which it could seem to the world—and, even more important, the Soviet Union would be enabled to claim—that the United States and Britain were taking sides militarily in the Arab-Israel conflict. In fact we have made it clear that our commitment is addressed to the principle of freedom of passage through the Straits as an international waterway: and, given a workable scheme, this is what we should do with you and any others we can persuade to join us. But, as I said in my earlier message, we can be under no illusion that we shall easily get them to do so unless we have demonstrably exhausted the United Nations possibilities. And part of this effort at the United Nations must, I am convinced, turn around an attempt to get the Russians involved on a four-power basis. We are going into this with our eyes open, knowing full well that French and Soviet estimates of the possibilities are likely to be different from our own. But we believe that we must exploit the intrinsic merits in the four-power approach, which is to get the Russians to face up to their responsibilities to prevent a really dangerous confrontation. We may not succeed: Probably we shall not. But our public opinion will not, I believe, understand or support what we may have to do hereafter if we cannot show convincingly that we have tried.
Accordingly, I want you to know that I have tonight sent a personal message to Kosygin urging on him the dangers of this situation and inviting him to get Fedorenko to join with Goldberg, Seydoux and Caradon, in the context of the present meeting of the Security Council, to see whether it really is impossible for them to hammer out something which could make sense in this crazy Middle Eastern situation. One of the main reasons I have done this was because George Brown had come back from Moscow convinced that the Russians are beginning to realize the gravity of the situation for which they themselves are so largely responsible and are really concerned to avoid an escalation into a major confrontation. I am not so naive as to believe that this means that they will cooperate with us at New York. But I believe it is our duty to try. If [Page 166] we fail and if the Security Council likewise fails then I believe that there are enough countries in the world with the sense to realize that world peace is more important even than trying to go on working through an impotent United Nations, and with the guts to stand up and be counted. In those circumstances, we should I believe get the broad basis of support that we want for our declaration and for any eventual enforcement action—who knows, perhaps even France might agree?
I need not say that in addressing Kosygin I have had much in mind your own reservations about four-power action outside the United Nations framework: and I have said nothing to him about any four-power activity anywhere else or at any level. I am of course informing De Gaulle as well. We have heard today from the French that they still have no reply from the Russians. And they seem content simply to sit tight and wait for it to turn up, as if delay were what they really wanted. But the French clearly can have no objection to my urging Kosygin to support a French initiative. Since I wrote this, we have heard from Pat Dean of the Russian approach to you. I note that you will be sending a message to Eshkol. I do not think I need send him any further message since our Ambassador in Israel was instructed this afternoon (in the light of a somewhat ominous remark to George Thomson by the Israeli Ambassador here) to make a further urgent approach to the Israeli Government urging them to maintain their present policy of restraint while international efforts to find a solution continue.
I think this latest news adds force to the approach I have made to Kosygin as described in this message.
- Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Middle East Crisis, Vol. II. Secret. Received at the LBJ Ranch at 9:53 p.m. An attached typed note, dated May 27, 11 p.m., quotes Johnson’s comment to Jim Jones: “I don’t see where he says, ‘let’s stand up and be counted.’”↩