101. Memorandum From Harold H. Saunders of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow)1


  • Resuming Relations with Nasser—The Issue

Attwood’s interview with Nasser will appear in the Look that comes out tomorrow.2 You’ll recall the President’s instruction at the NSC to try to use this as a handle for resuming relations; he also agreed with Nick Katzenbach that we should leave the final formal initiative in the UAR’s hands. Attached for our clearance is State’s instruction to Don Bergus.3

We are well down this track and everybody in-house instinctively feels it’s the right one. However, in my talks of the past few days, I have seen the issue it raises posed more sharply than ever, and I’d like to review for a moment the two schools of argument and give you my thoughts on what this move will and won’t net us.

We are most familiar with the feeling that we ought to restore relations with Cairo because that’s the key to resuming normal relations with the rest of the Arab world. Along with this argument goes the feeling that we’re just generally better off present than absent. Part of our concern is the belief that a US presence will give Nasser some Westward anchor against mounting Soviet influence. Some followers of this school may even feel that a US presence would give Nasser enough added confidence to get on with peace negotiations. Underlying all this is the estimate that Nasser has improved his position, and will be around for some time as no replacement is in sight.
The other school starts with a different estimate—that Nasser’s days are clearly numbered. Some (like Morroe Berger) even go so far as to say that Nasser had run out of steam before the war, and the defeat was only the latest in a series of blunders. Adherents of this school feel that the sub-political levels of the GUAR want Nasser to fall and would regret any US action which would give him a temporary reprieve. They believe that he’s too weak to make peace and that Egypt’s economy won’t progress any further until he goes. Some (like Evron) believe that [Page 208] only Nasser’s passing will permit the change of Arab heart that is the prime requisite for a lasting peace. This adds up to belief that we won’t gain enough to compensate for putting off the day when Nasser goes—the day that must come before we can hope for reason and progress in the Mid-East.

I must admit that, personally, I’m torn. I guess my position boils down to these:

If resuming relations will improve our official access or our reporting, then it’s worth resuming. I can’t get rid of the instinctive feeling that we should at least be present. Then I stop and think that we’re already as “present” as we’re likely to be. Don Bergus’ official contacts can get him to see Nasser if need be, and his contact with the Foreign Office is as good as it’s likely to be. He could get around more freely, and reporting might improve somewhat. Resumption of relations won’t make non-official contacts and a sense of what Egyptians really feel any freer in that totalitarian society than they were before June. In short, resumption would bring a limited but not dramatic gain.
If resuming relations will help improve our position in the Arab world generally, then it’s worth resuming. One can easily argue that resumption in Cairo will lead to resumption at least in Baghdad, Khartoum and maybe in Algiers and make it a little easier for the Kuwaitis to go on doing business with us. But, of course, the main obstacle to improved US-Arab relations is our failure so far (in Arab eyes) to get Israeli troops off Arab soil, and that will remain so. We have to remember that Nasser, the instinctive revolutionary, will not change his stripes: we’ll still be the imperialist enemy for Nasser and all his followers. In short, we should probably recognize that resumption of relations is of limited symbolic value.
. If resuming relations will help improve chances for a peace settlement, then it’s worth resuming. I must confess, I don’t see much argument for this at all. I’m not so confident as some others that Nasser is too weak to negotiate a settlement. But I’m pretty sure we won’t have much influence on that anyway. I do believe that, since Nasser will always be Nasser, he’s nothing reliable to pin our peace arrangements on. The point here is that we don’t have much choice; we have to work with whoever is in power. The only question is whether resumption of relations strengthens him appreciably. I think its effect would be marginal.

What this adds up to is that we feel instinctively that resuming relations would marginally improve our position, practically and symbolically. It’s hardly likely to net us much more. On the other hand, since we can’t be confident that Nasser will fall soon, it might cost us too much to wait out his fall. Therefore, on balance, we’re probably [Page 209] right in taking this limited step, but no one should expect it to produce a startling change in Arab attitudes, or even in Nasser’s.

Hal Saunders 4

To Hal.5

Clear the attached

Call me

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, United Arab Republic, Vol. VI, Memos, 8/67-7/68. Secret.
  2. The interview was published in March 19 issue of Look, which was released for sale on March 5; see footnote 2, Document 91.
  3. Document 102.
  4. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.
  5. Saunders added these options by hand. Rostow checked the first one and wrote: “but make sure Sect. Rusk (or Nick K) signs off personally.”