146. Letter From Jerome Wiesner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to President Johnson 1

Dear Mr. President:

I believe that your project to develop a nuclear desalting plant jointly with Israel might be exploited to bring nuclear disarmament and possibly even some reductions of conventional armaments to the Middle East.2 Apparently both Egypt and Israel would welcome an opportunity to reduce their arms spending, if they could do so without [Page 263] increasing the threat to their security from each other. In addition, Egypt can only do so if it did not appear that she was making a deal with Israel. Egypt has a serious water shortage in spite of the Aswan Dam, particularly in the desert region close to Israel and is, I believe, anxious to participate in a project similar to the one being planned with Israel. I have been told this by a visiting Egyptian, and Arthur Goldberg has confirmed it in a discussion with the Egyptian Ambassador to the U.N. Furthermore, the Egyptians are very worried by the prospect of the Israelis making a nuclear bomb and would like to head this off, as would we.

Israel is anxious to cut its arms costs and would, I am told, be willing to experiment with a substantial cut in its defense expenditures next year if they could be assured that the Egyptians would not increase theirs.3

In all of this there appears to be the hope of halting the Middle East arms race if we are bold enough in our approach.

The ingredients would be these: a nuclear desalting project with Egypt as well as Israel, declarations by both countries—possibly registered with the U.N.—that they will not undertake the development of nuclear weapons. Agreement to permit inspection of all nuclear facilities by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency,4 and U.S. reprocessing of all of the expended fuel elements from the desalting plants to prevent either country from acquiring plutonium. Finally, and probably most difficult, would be agreements to limit the buildup of conventional arms. This could be done in many ways. An agreement to limit budgets at present or somewhat lower levels would be one course. A freeze on the acquisition of any new weapons is another. Without further exploration it is not possible to say just how much is possible in this direction, but it is clear that you have a powerful lever for use in pushing for some conventional disarmament in the desire that exists for nuclear water plants.

Not only is the need for water desperate in both countries, but also it is certain to get worse. The prospect for providing unlimited amounts of fresh water from the sea has the aura of a scientific miracle [Page 264] and in your hands, could bring about a political miracle. In fact, I think that it already has; I believe that your original announcement of the U.S.-Israel project had much to do with halting the Jordan River crisis. When you pointed out that there was a way to provide Israel with water from the sea, the Arabs lost whatever real interest they previously had in the difficult project of diverting the Jordan. The Israelis, in turn, were not quite so fearful of the diversion.

This morning’s New York Times carried a story from Cairo which indicates that a plan similar to this may already be being considered. If I can be of any help with it, please call on me.5

Sincerely yours,

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Charles E. Johnson Files, Nuclear Desalting of Water (Nuclear Power), 1 of 3. No classification marking. Wiesner was Kennedy’s Science Adviser.
  2. On March 7 the Department of State, the Atomic Energy Commission, the Department of the Interior, and the Government of Israel announced completion of the joint study for a proposed desalting plant in Israel. For text of the announcement, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1966, pp. 539–54. In a memorandum transmitting Wiesner’s letter to the President on March 11, Komer wrote: “Jerry Wiesner is in with attached glorious scheme for using US-supplied nuclear power or desalting reactors as sweeteners to get the UAR and Israel to agree to (a) cut their military budgets; and (b) not go nuclear. We’ll send his proposal to State and ACDA for careful study, but as an old veteran of arms control probes, I frankly see this as only a long shot.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Charles E. Johnson Files, Nuclear Desalting of Water (Nuclear Power), 1 of 3)
  3. In his March 11 memorandum, Komer remarked: “Israel might conceivably agree to Jerry’s scheme if Nasser would agree to a freeze on any new conventional weapons. But none of us old Arab hands see a prayer of this happening. As for Nasser denying himself the nuclear option if we gave him a big reactor too, why should we pay this price? Nasser has no nuclear potential, so we’d be paying something for nothing.”
  4. In his March 11 memorandum, Komer wrote: “We have already made clear to Israel that we would insist on IAEA controls over any new desalting reactor we helped them build. But Jerry’s idea that we go further and insist they also put their French-supplied Dimona reactor under IAEA would generate a violent Israeli reaction (as already occurred in response to a false leak that we were considering just this). The Israelis already allow us to secretly police Dimona, anyway.”
  5. The Department of State’s response to Wiesner’s suggestions is in a March 29 memorandum from Read to Smith. (Department of State, SCI Files: Lot 68 D 383)