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Summary

The crisis that erupted in the Middle East in May 1967 launched a series of events that have dominated the area's political agenda ever since. President Lyndon B. Johnson attempted to find a peaceful solution to the crisis, but Israel went to war when the Israeli government realized that efforts to develop an international response to Egypt's closure of the strait of Tiran were not going to be effective. Six days of war dramatically altered the map of the Middle East, as Israel swept over the Sinai peninsula, the West Bank and Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. The war reshaped political alignments in the area, as Egypt and several other Arab states broke diplomatic relations with the United States in the wake of Egyptian charges of U.S. military operations in support of Israel. After the war, the Soviet Union provided a massive resupply of arms to Egypt and Syria and supported Arab demands for Israeli withdrawal. Johnson and his advisers hoped initially that Israel's military victory would lead to a comprehensive peace in which Israel would exchange the territory it had captured, with minor exceptions, for recognition and secure boundaries. It soon became apparent, however, that the Arab states were not ready for such a settlement, and as time went on, Israel became increasingly entrenched in the occupied territories. Johnson was reluctant to play a major role in the search for a settlement, and various diplomatic efforts in the months after the war went nowhere. Finally, U.S. and British efforts to craft a UN resolution that could be used as a basis for further negotiations led to the passage on November 22 of Security Council Resolution 242.

The Prewar Crisis

On May 15, 1967, policymakers in Washington learned that United Arab Republic (UAR) President Gamal Abdul Nasser had put Egyptian military forces on alert. Although U.S. officials did not know then that the Soviets had warned the Syrians and the Egyptians 2 days earlier that Israel was preparing an attack on Syria (which according to U.S. information was not true), they knew that tensions were high, following skirmishes on the Israeli-Syrian border in April and strong Israeli rhetoric. The Johnson administration responded by urging restraint on all sides. (5, 8) On May 17 the UAR requested the withdrawal from the Sinai of the United Nations Emergency Force in the Middle East (UNEF), which had provided a buffer between UAR and Israeli forces since 1957. To the dismay of U.S. officials, UN Secretary-General U Thant agreed to the withdrawal. (10, 16, 19, 30, 32)

On May 22 the crisis reached a new level with the news that Nasser had announced the closure of the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli ships. Not only did Israel regard access to the Gulf as a vitally important interest, but it was the U.S. position that the Gulf of Aqaba was an international waterway. Furthermore, in 1957, in order to obtain Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai, the Eisenhower administration had given Tel Aviv assurances of U.S. support for continued Israeli access to the Gulf and its entrance through the Strait of Tiran. On May 23 Johnson reiterated the U.S. position on the Gulf of Aqaba, restated U.S. support of the independence and territorial integrity of all the nations of the area, and called on all concerned to exercise restraint. (35–36, 49) On May 24 U.S. and British officials explored a British proposal for an international approach to the problem through a multilateral declaration supporting free access to the Strait of Tiran, possibly backed by an international naval force. (53, 58)

At a White House meeting the same day, Johnson and his advisers canvassed the possibilities. Johnson declared that he intended to “play every card in the UN” and to pursue an international solution, but he wanted to know what they could do if those courses failed. Much of the discussion focused on Israeli capabilities and Soviet intentions. JCS Chairman General Earle Wheeler noted that a long war would hurt the Israeli economy and force a decision on U.S. intervention. Johnson asked whether, if the United States intervened, the Soviet Union could avoid doing likewise. (54) Johnson's interest in intelligence on Israeli and UAR intentions and capabilities and on Soviet intentions continued throughout the crisis. Although Johnson wanted to avoid involvement in a Middle East war, it is clear that he was not prepared to stand by and accept an Israeli defeat. Intelligence indicating decisive Israeli military superiority and information suggesting that the Soviets did not want war meant that he would not be faced with the decision Wheeler had suggested. (44, 79, 136)

Meanwhile, under pressure from Washington, the Israeli government postponed any decision on its response to Nasser's move and sent Foreign Minister Abba Eban to Europe and the United States to seek international support for Israel. (50) Eban arrived in Washington on May 25 bearing an Israeli assessment that an attack by the UAR and Syria was imminent and an appeal from Prime Minister Levi Eshkol for U.S. support. He met with Rusk that day and with McNamara and Johnson on May 26. All told him that U.S. intelligence did not indicate that an attack was imminent. Johnson assured Eban that the United States was exploring the British proposal for international steps to reopen the Strait of Tiran. Stressing that the United States could take no action without Congressional support, he emphasized that Israel should not make itself responsible for initiating hostilities. Speaking solemnly and with emphasis, he declared twice: “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go it alone.” (61, 64, 69, 77) Two days later, Ambassador Barbour reported from Tel Aviv that the Israeli cabinet had agreed to postpone military action in favor of continuing diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis. Eban told Barbour the cabinet decision was taken largely on the basis of his report of his conversations in Washington. (89, 98)

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis continued. The United States sought support for a Security Council resolution calling for a moratorium and calling on all parties to refrain from hostilities. Johnson urged Soviet Premier Kosygin to counsel restraint to the Arab states, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk tried to enlist Soviet support for a UN resolution. (88, 90) U.S. and British officials continued planning for a maritime declaration that they hoped could win wide support. Progress was slow, however, and the question of an international naval force raised many difficulties. A draft declaration that the Gulf of Aqaba was an international waterway through which the ships of all nations had the right of passage was cabled to U.S. Embassies on May 31 with instructions for coordinated U.S.-British efforts to try to gain adherents. (86, 91, 93, 96, 103, 111–112, 123)

U.S. relations with Nasser's United Arab Republic were at a low ebb when the crisis broke out, and newly-appointed Ambassador Richard H. Nolte, who arrived in Cairo on May 21, had not had an opportunity to present his credentials to Nasser. Johnson wrote to Nasser urging restraint, but veteran diplomat Charles Yost, sent to Cairo to assess UAR intentions, concluded that Nasser would not back down. (34, 119, 128) When former Secretary of the Treasury Robert Anderson, a businessman who had known Nasser for many years, indicated that he might visit Cairo, Johnson and Rusk encouraged him to go and listen to what Nasser had to say. After meeting with Nasser on May 31, Anderson reported that Nasser wanted to send UAR Vice President Mohieddin to Washington. Johnson sent word that Mohieddin would be welcome, but war broke out before his trip took place. (42, 94, 123, 129, 134, 145)

Historians of U.S. policy during the crisis prior to June 5 have asked whether or not Johnson gave the Israelis a “green light” to launch a preemptive strike. The editor of this volume found no records showing that such permission was given, but during the days after Eban's visit, the Israelis must have concluded that prospects for international action to reopen the Strait of Tiran were dim. They also may well have concluded that the Johnson administration would not be unduly disturbed if they took action.

Six Days of War

The news that war had broken out between Israel and the UAR reached Washington in the early hours of June 5. Johnson's Special Assistant Walt W. Rostow called him at 4:35 a.m., and Secretary Rusk called a little later. Johnson asked Rusk about Israeli reports that the Egyptians had “kicked it off.” Rusk told him they had conflicting reports and it was “a little hard to sort out”, but that his own guess was that the Israelis had started it. (149–150) Johnson issued a press statement calling on all parties to support the UN Security Council in bringing about a cease-fire, and Rusk sent a message to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko declaring U.S. readiness to cooperate with the Security Council. (152, 157) At about 8 a.m., McNamara called the President with the news that a message from Soviet Premier Alexei N. Kosygin was coming in on the Moscow hot line. Kosygin's message, the first substantive message sent on the hot line since its creation in 1963, assured Johnson that the Soviets wanted to bring an end to the Middle East hostilities and urged U.S. action for that purpose. Johnson replied along the same lines. (155–156, 159) During the six days of war in the Middle East, he and Kosygin exchanged 20 hot line messages.

By the end of the day on June 5, it was evident that Israel had scored a stunning victory over the UAR air force and, after Jordan and Syria entered the war, over the Jordanian and Syrian air forces as well. Israeli forces were beginning to sweep over the Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank. (149, 163, 169) On June 6 Radio Cairo began broadcasting charges that U.S. and British forces had assisted the Israeli attack. The charges were not true, as UAR Foreign Minister Mahmoud Riad acknowledged many months later, but the UAR broke relations with the United States, the radical Arab states quickly followed, and Iraq, Kuwait, and Algeria announced the suspension of oil deliveries to the United States and United Kingdom. (171–172, 178, 180, 192, 466) The flow of oil soon resumed, but the break in diplomatic relations with Egypt and some of the other Arab countries would last several years.

Although Johnson and his advisers shared the sympathy toward Israel felt by most Americans during the war, the United States gave Israel no military assistance during the fighting and cut off military shipments to both sides. (165, 225) U.S. diplomatic efforts during the war were aimed at bringing an end to the hostilities. The United States supported UN Security Council resolutions calling for a cease-fire and urged Israeli compliance with the resolutions. (167–168, 179, 181, 201, 203) At a White House meeting on June 7, Rusk reported that Nasser had suffered a “stunning loss,” and Helms said the Russians had “badly miscalculated.” Johnson did not share the generally upbeat mood, however. He commented that he was “not sure we were out of our troubles” and added that “by the time we get through with all the festering problems, we are going to wish the war had not happened.” He created a Special Committee of the National Security Council to deal with the crisis and brought former Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs McGeorge Bundy back to the White House to chair it. (194)

At the end of the day on June 8, there was a cease-fire on the Egyptian and Jordanian fronts, but the Israelis were bombarding Syrian positions on the Golan Heights, from which Syria had been pounding the Israelis since June 5. (223) The next day, the Security Council adopted a new resolution calling for a cease-fire on the Syrian border, but fighting continued, with both sides blaming the other. On June 10, with continuing fighting on the Syrian front, Kosygin sent Johnson a hot line message warning that if Israel did not end the fighting, the Soviets might take military action in support of their Syrian ally. (244) This message produced some tense moments at the White House. Rusk had already sent a personal message to Eban urging a cease-fire and had received a reassuring reply, and Johnson sent a polite reply to Kosygin informing him of this. At the same time, however, he authorized orders to the Sixth Fleet to sail toward the eastern Mediterranean. Johnson and his advisers assumed that Soviet naval forces in the Mediterranean would see this and understand the message. (239, 242, 245–246) The tension in the White House Situation Room lifted soon, however, when it became clear that the fighting on the Syrian front was ending.

The Attack on the U.S.S. Liberty

On June 8, at 8:03 a.m. Washington time, Israeli planes and patrol boats attacked the U.S.S. Liberty, an electronics intelligence ship, in international waters, causing severe damage to the ship and numerous casualties. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had dispatched the Liberty to the eastern Mediterranean on May 23, when Nasser's closure of the Gulf of Aqaba greatly increased the likelihood of hostilities in the area. The Liberty reached its location off the Sinai coast early on June 8. Meanwhile, the UAR charges of U.S. participation in Israel's air operations had prompted the JCS to send new orders instructing the Liberty to remain at least 100 miles from Egypt and Israel. Due to a series of errors, the message never reached the ship. (192, 199, 217)

At 9:50 a.m. on June 8, Walt Rostow informed the President that the Liberty, had been attacked and that the attacker was unknown, and that reconnaissance aircraft from the Sixth Fleet had been sent to the scene. (In fact, the planes had been sent with orders to defend the Liberty and destroy its attackers.) (205–207) About an hour later, word reached Washington that the Israelis had informed the U.S. Naval Attaché in Tel Aviv that Israeli planes and torpedo boats had attacked a U.S. ship in error. (211) The Sixth Fleet aircraft were promptly recalled. Johnson sent a hot line message to Kosygin telling him that the Israelis had attacked the ship in error and that U.S. aircraft had been sent to the scene for the sole purpose of investigating. He expressed the hope that Kosygin would take steps to see that the “proper parties” were informed. (206, 210) Kosygin replied that Johnson's message had been received and had been sent immediately to Nasser. (216, 220) Rusk called in Israeli Ambassador Harman at noon and told him the President had instructed him to express U.S. dismay at the attack in “very strong terms”. (215)

Anger in Washington grew as more information about the attack became available. Rusk told a White House meeting the next day that Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee were outraged. Clark Clifford, a veteran presidential adviser and chairman of the PFIAB, declared that they should handle the episode as if the Arabs or Soviets had done it. He thought it was “inconceivable” that the attack was an accident. (236) On June 10, Rusk gave a stern note to Harman, charging that there was every reason to believe that Israeli planes had determined the Liberty's nationality an hour before the attack and calling the attack “literally incomprehensible” and “an act of military recklessness reflecting wanton disregard for human life.” (256) The Israeli reply on June 12 took issue with the U.S.. charges and reiterated Israeli regret at the “tragic error.” (267) The reaction to the note at a White House meeting that evening was sour. Johnson ordered a thorough investigation of the facts surrounding the attack. (269–270, 284) After extensive investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency concluded that there was “little doubt” that the attacking Israeli units “failed to identify the Liberty as a US ship before or during the attack” and that they had mistakenly identified the ship as Egyptian. Subsequently the Central Intelligence Agency repeated the conclusion that the Israeli attack was a mistake although it was “both incongruous and indicative of gross negligence.” Clark Clifford also examined the evidence at Walt Rostow's request and concluded that there was no evidence that the attack was intentional. (284–285, 317, 373)

Postwar Diplomacy

In the aftermath of the war, Johnson and his advisers wrestled with the problem of shaping a policy to deal with the new situation in the Middle East. The Israelis were occupying the Sinai peninsula as far as the Suez Canal, the West Bank and Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. The Arabs called for Israeli withdrawal as a prerequisite to negotiation of a peace settlement. The Israelis insisted that withdrawal must be part of a broad peace settlement, including agreed boundaries, security from terrorist attacks, and an end to Arab claims of belligerence that blocked Israel's access to the Gulf of Aqaba and the Suez Canal. The Soviet Union had already begun a massive resupply of arms to the UAR and Syria and was supporting Arab calls for Israeli withdrawal to the prewar boundaries. On June 13 the Soviet Union called for an emergency special session of the United Nations to discuss the Middle East situation.

After his failure to dissuade Israel from going to war and the sweeping Israeli victory, Johnson did not want to try to pressure the Israelis into withdrawing from the captured territories, as President Eisenhower had pressed them to withdraw after the Suez crisis. He was troubled, however, by his May 23 pledge of support for the territorial integrity of all nations of the area. How could they get out of this predicament, Johnson asked the NSC Special Committee on June 12. McNamara responded, “We're in a heck of a jam on territorial integrity.” (272) The objective, they concluded, was a comprehensive peace settlement in which Israel would exchange the captured territories for peace and security. The central issue, Walt Rostow told the President, was whether the Arabs would remain in a posture of hostility toward Israel, giving the Soviets leverage in the Arab world, or whether a settlement would emerge in which Israel was accepted as a Middle Eastern state. The latter was clearly in the U.S. interest, he argued, since the U.S. goal was to move toward a stable and definitive peace. (189)

In a June 19 address Johnson set forth five principles of U.S. policy in the Middle East, including the right of every nation in the area to live and to have this right respected by its neighbors, the need for justice for the refugees, the need to respect maritime rights, and the need to deal with the arms race in the Middle East. He reaffirmed the importance of respect for the political independence and territorial integrity of all the states of the area, but he declared that this could be effective only on the basis of peace between the parties, with recognized boundaries and other arrangements to provide security. He declared that the U.S. Government would “do its part for peace” but that the main responsibility rested on the peoples and leaders of the region. (308)

U.S. policymakers were prepared to support Israel's insistence that withdrawal should take place only in the context of a broad peace settlement, but they were concerned that Israeli occupation of the captured territories should not become permanent. As early as June 8, U.S. Representative at the United Nations Arthur Goldberg told Eban it was essential that Israel not appear to have designs on other countries' territory. Eban assured him that Israel was not seeking territorial aggrandizement. (227) U.S. officials continued to urge the Israelis to avoid taking actions that would tend to transform temporary occupation into permanent possession. (238, 265, 277, 303) When Israeli law and administration was extended over East Jerusalem on June 28, Washington protested publicly and declared that no unilateral action could determine the city's international status. The next day, the Israelis tore down the barriers dividing the city. Eban declared, however, that Israel's actions were administrative and did not constitute annexation. The United States abstained on two UN resolutions declaring Israel's actions invalid, but continued to insist that the question of Jerusalem should be kept open for further discussion and negotiations. (333, 338, 340–341, 344, 357, 360, 366–367, 369) As time went on and Israel became increasingly entrenched in the occupied territories, U.S. concern grew. When the first Israeli settlements on the West Bank were announced in September, a Department of State spokesman declared that the establishment of permanent settlements would be inconsistent with the U.S. understanding that Israel regarded the occupied territories and all other issues arising out of the June war as matters for negotiation. (451) In a meeting with Eban in October, President Johnson told him the Israelis should remember the U.S. position on territorial integrity and boundaries; the United States could not countenance aggression. (488)

Although the Johnson administration had little hope that talks with the Soviets on the Middle East would be fruitful, it was unwilling to reject any approach that might lead to a settlement. Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin met at Glassboro, New Jersey, in late June, when Kosygin came to New York for the special session of the General Assembly, but their discussion of the Middle East was unproductive. Kosygin urged immediate Israeli withdrawal, while Johnson argued that withdrawal had to come in the context of a broader peace settlement. (320, 323) In July Goldberg met at the UN emergency special session with Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin and with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko to try to find language for a compromise resolution. Goldberg reported on July 20 that they had reached tentative agreement on two possible formulas for land for peace. Both texts linked withdrawal to acknowledgement that all states in the area enjoyed the right to independence, peace, and security, and renunciation of all claims and acts inconsistent with this. This effort collapsed, however, when Goldberg discovered that the Soviets had made changes in one of the texts before showing them to Arab representatives at the United Nations. (347, 372, 377, 380, 384) The emergency special session adjourned with no agreement on a resolution.

In the weeks following the war, U.S. policymakers wondered whether Nasser would remain in power after his defeat. (274, 280–281, 299) Unofficial approaches from Cairo indicated interest in renewed relations with the United States, but U.S. officials were uncertain of their authenticity and unwilling to pursue them. (311, 313, 339, 371, 378, 394) Johnson and his advisers agreed that UAR retraction of the charge of U.S. military support to Israel during the war was a requirement for renewal of diplomatic relations. Nasser was unwilling to make such a retraction, although Riad acknowledged to Assistant Secretary of State Lucius Battle that the charge was untrue, saying that the UAR military had alleged U.S. involvement to cover their own failure. (466) Neither Washington nor Cairo wanted to cut off all contacts, however. The United States kept a handful of diplomats at a U.S. interests section in the Spanish Embassy in Cairo. Rusk met in June with Nasser's Counselor for Foreign Affairs Mahmoud Fawzi and later with Foreign Minister Mahmoud Riad at the United Nations. Goldberg also met with Riad, and Donald Bergus, chief of the U.S. interests section in Cairo met frequently with Foreign Ministry Counselor Mohamed Riad. Their discussions brought no meeting of the minds, however. Cairo continued to demand Israeli withdrawal to the June 4 lines as the first step and rejected any negotiations with Israel, while Washington insisted that withdrawal must be a part of a broader peace settlement. (320–321, 327, 379, 408, 450, 454, 474, 497, 527)

The Johnson administration saw King Hussein as a key figure in the effort for a peace settlement. In a visit to Washington in late June, King Hussein told President Johnson he intended to try to persuade other Arab leaders to work for a peace settlement with Israel. Johnson and his advisers told the King that the United States would use its influence and efforts on behalf of a settlement that was fair to both sides, but they warned him that U.S. influence with Israel had never been as great as the Arabs thought it was, and it was less than ever after Israel's victory. (329, 331) In mid July, Hussein informed U.S. officials that he was prepared to reach a settlement directly with Israel. Washington passed this information to the Israelis but responded cautiously to Hussein. The U.S. estimate, Rusk told Johnson, was that there was possibility of agreement on a viable settlement except with respect to Jerusalem, where the two sides were very far apart on an issue that both regarded as crucial. U.S. officials did not discourage Hussein from undertaking negotiations but made it clear that the U.S. role would be limited. Disappointed that Washington was not prepared to offer more support, Hussein decided to postpone taking action. (360, 368, 370, 374, 382, 386, 393)

Security Council Resolution 242

In October the administration undertook renewed efforts to develop a compromise Security Council resolution. Goldberg and British Representative at the United Nations Lord Caradon agreed on October 6 to try to pursue agreement along the lines of one of the texts Goldberg and Gromyko had discussed in July, with the addition of a request that the Secretary-General name a special representative to assist in development of a peace settlement. (460) Extensive discussions in New York followed. Meanwhile, India circulated a draft resolution linking withdrawal with a wider peace but calling for the withdrawal of Israel's forces from all territories occupied as a result of the June war. Israel opposed such an explicit demand, which it argued would predetermine the outcome of the settlement, and made it clear that it would not cooperate with a peace effort linked to a resolution with this language. Washington also opposed it, arguing that a resolution could not be effective if one of the parties to the conflict rejected it from the outset. (498–503) On November 7, the UAR requested an urgent meeting of the Security Council to discuss the Middle East. India, Mali, and Nigeria introduced the Indian draft. Goldberg introduced a U.S. draft resolution linking “withdrawal of armed forces from occupied territories” with mutual recognition and an end to claims of belligerence and requesting the designation of a special representative. (504, 511–512)

Washington made vigorous efforts to win Arab support for the U.S. draft. When King Hussein came to New York in early November, Goldberg assured him that the United States supported the return of the West Bank to Jordan with minor boundary adjustments. Rusk confirmed Goldberg's statements and urged Hussein to use his influence with Nasser. (501, 506, 513–514) When it appeared that the U.S. draft resolution could not win sufficient support for adoption by the Security Council, Lord Caradon put forward a British draft resolution, similar to the U.S. draft, but calling for “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” (517) The Israelis did not like the British draft but faced with the prospect of one that would be even less palatable, they acquiesced. The Arabs were equally unenthusiastic. Believing that the British draft offered a basis for the successful negotiation of a peace settlement, Washington promised that if the resolution passed, there would be U.S. support for the proposed British peace effort. (526–529, 533) At the last minute, the Soviet Union tried to substitute a draft with a stronger withdrawal clause, and Kosygin wrote to Johnson urging immediate Israeli withdrawal. Johnson replied that the United States would vote for the British draft resolution and hoped the Soviet Union would do the same. On November 22, the Security Council unanimously adopted the British draft as Resolution 242. (539–542)