KC Johnson

U.S. & Israel: Presidential Tapes

President Kennedy:  My God, we wouldn’t continue our guarantee of [West] Germany if they started manufacturing nuclear weapons, which is really of vital importance to us compared to our position in Israel. Why should we guarantee Israel if they’re doing it? That’s . . .

Dean Rusk: A nuclear weapon explosion in Israel would drive the Arab world right into the Soviet arms. I can’t see that happening any other [way].

President Kennedy:  It seems to me that if you’ve got this thing in there—a country, after all, who has received a good deal of assistance from us.

Is it fair to say the main source of foreign income is the United States?

Rusk: Without any question.

President Kennedy: Therefore, for them to do it—after all, they’re regarded as a very close associate of [ours], and a country which has been most recently the subject of a guarantee, of a commitment, by the President at a press conference—for there to be any question that this nation may be manufacturing nuclear weapons, and for this country, the United States, not to be concerned of that, places in my opinion, and the opinion of America, as well in the entire West—

Rusk:  [Unclear] Middle East.

President Kennedy: If this should become public—we don’t want to sound threatening, but that’s the fact of the matter—it’s bound to have, I think, most adverse effects.

Rusk: [Unclear] lack of will.

President Kennedy: And I think if he [Ben Gurion] doesn’t do it [agree to U.S. inspections] then, we ought to leak it out to some paper that there’s a suspicion they won’t permit inspections, and all the rest.

Because I think, for them, the damage is just . . .

I mean, not only were they allowed to get the thing [nuclear weapon] themselves; it could encourage and stimulate them [the Arabs] to launch a military action before your [Israeli] program is completed.

So, therefore, it increases the dangers of war, and we’re quite obviously involved.


President Johnson: I like [Levi] Eshkol—I got along with him fine. I got along with [David] Ben Gurion fine. I spent a lot of time with him, back when they were in real problems, and they were getting ready to [impose] sanctions [in 1963, over Dimona]. I just came down here and said, “Hell, no, that can’t be.”

Abe Fenberg: I remember that.

President Johnson: President Johnson: And I stopped it.

But they fight among themselves over there, and I’m not going to get in the middle of one of these clashes—have one of them leak it on me that I want to join up with the Arabs.

Feinberg: I gather that, for proper diplomatic reasons, you think that [Foreign Minister] Golda’s [Meir] visit here would be—

President Johnson: President Johnson: I just think—I think it would inflame the whole world. I think that the Germans would wonder if she’s coming to mess in that thing. I think that the Arabs would say, “Good God, what’s Johnson doing in here?” I think the Jews would all start sending telegrams . . .

President Johnson: President Johnson: I can’t imagine her getting off [the plane] with a suitcase without somebody saying, “Why?”

Feinberg:  Yeah.

President Johnson: President Johnson: And then I don’t want to get another Arab/Ben Gurion/Eshkol/Erhard election in this thing if I can avoid it.

I’m friendly to these people, and I want to help them. But . . .

As our people see it, if they [the Israeli government] really, sincerely, genuinely feel that we oughtn’t to sell these planes to Jordan, and we oughtn’t to sell these tanks (we’re giving them as little as we can get by with; Nasser has got their feet to the fire)—well, we won’t do it. I’ll just say that, and I’m prepared to do it.

And I’m telling [Averell] Harriman to tell the prime minister that. Because I think it’s something that’s got to be settled with him . . .

Feinberg: With the prime minister of Israel?

President Johnson: President Johnson: Yeah. Yeah.

And now he’s [Harriman] going to say, “Now, you all decide this.”

We have indications from our Jewish population in the United States that they think that’s the course we ought to follow.

Now, our judgment is we oughtn’t to do it. Our judgment is we oughtn’t to let this little king [King Hussein] go down the river. He’s got a million-and-a-half people, and he only controls a third of them—two-thirds [are] against him.

But he is the only voice that will stand up there. And if you want to turn him over and have a complete Soviet bloc, why, we’ll just have to—and we’ll get out of the arms business. We just . . .

And we think . . . We’ll have to get out of supplying Jordan with money. And we think when we do that, it will cause pressure to really be—when that story comes out—it will be on the whole $100 million that goes to Jordan, and to Israel, too.

But we’ll fight that when we come to it. We’ll deprive Jordan of their aid. We’ll tell ‘em, “No more aid, no more munitions. No more nothing. We’re not going to get into manufacturing munitions,” and so on and so forth. If that’s what they [the Israelis] think.

We think it would be better to give ‘em [Jordan] as little as possible, and control it. And all of our defense people think it would be.

But I’m not prepared to take on the New York Times and [former White House counsel] Mike Feldman and everybody else. [Feinberg chuckles.] I’m going to let them make the decision.

But it’s got to be in or out. If we go in—[then] of course, we’ve got to be of some help to Israel. If we get out, then we just got to say, “Well, we’re not taking part. We’re not going to supply arms to one side or the other. We’re just not going to be in here to sell a lot of munitions.”

The only reason I’m helping Jordan is on account of Israel. Now, if Israel doesn’t—if Israel considers them their enemy, and not of help, then we just wasted 600 million [dollars, in military aid to Jordan].


President Johnson: I had this feeling—I don’t know if it’s any good, but, God, I hate to transfer all those Jews into Washington, though, because I’m afraid that they’ll all move in at the slightest provocation. I wouldn’t be surprised if Golda’s [Meir] not on her way if we don’t watch.

But maybe not.

Do you think that we could say to Averell to strike out the [word] “sympathetically” [from the proposed agreement] and say, “We pledge to give you x tanks, and give ’em the x tanks, plus a little pull on the tanks—without any planes? It seems that the basis of his [Eshkol’s] objection is that [the U.S. saying] “we view sympathetically” doesn’t commit us.

Dean Rusk: Uh-huh.

President Johnson: And that he wants a commitment.

It seems that we might, without great danger, raise the ante a little bit to what the Germans are giving them, and say if the Germans don’t complete it, we’ll complete it, plus 20 or something.


President Johnson: I didn’t say a word [to Soviet premier Alexsei Kosygin]. I just said, “You try to get Syria to close down.”

But I—like Theodore Roosevelt—I just said it in a soft voice. But I turned them around—

Arthur Goldberg:  That’s—

President Johnson:  —And I moved right up there close to them, and they understood that. [Chuckles.]

Goldberg: That’s damn good. That’s exactly the way to treat them.

You know, the other evening, when we were trying to work out these few observers, you know, to send to the [Suez] canal?

President Johnson: Yeah.

Goldberg: This blustering Soviet [UN] ambassador [Nikolai] Federenko made this big speech privately, you know, trying to bear down on us, that we were the obstructers.

I lost my temper. I told him to stop. He didn’t intimidate me. Come on back to the Council, and we’ll debate it publicly, as to who was making all the peaceful proposals. And they backed down.

President Johnson: This damn [Soviet foreign minister Andrei] Gromyko’s the mean one, though. He is—

Goldberg:  Mm-hmm. Well, he’s a record player.

President Johnson: He’s up here at Glassboro, and he just busts up everything.

Goldberg:  Yeah. He’s still hanging around here?

President Johnson:  Yes, that’s right. As long as he is, he’s going to have trouble.

Goldberg: Yeah. Well—

President Johnson:  He’s just—

Goldberg:  Dean [Rusk] has called me—

President Johnson: Every time this fellow would try to agree to something—every time Kosygin tried to agree—he wouldn’t let him.

Goldberg: He would hold him back?

President Johnson: Yes, sir.

Goldberg:  Mm-hmm.

Dean had talked about coming back here. I said he’s welcome, but I would not dignify his presence. We ought to close this damn business and get him out of here.

President Johnson:  I’d sure get him away as quick as I can.

Goldberg:  Yeah.

President Johnson:  Because he is no damn good. He’s poison.

Goldberg:  He’s warmed up his plane about three or four times.

President Johnson: Why, you let him go. Quit holding him.

Goldberg:  Yeah. But the only way we’ll get him out of here is to wind up [unclear].

President Johnson:  Yeah. Well, I hope you can do it next week.

Goldberg:  Yeah. Well, I’m hopeful—

President Johnson:  What about the Security Council? What will they do on sanctions [against Israel]?

Goldberg:  No, they won’t—well, there we are! We may be left alone again. But I wouldn’t think that would be possible I think we’d get some support against this. Although we’ve had some very weak reeds . . . You saw the British . . .

President Johnson:  Looks like hell that the British quit us on this, and just 18 of us abstained.

Goldberg:  Yeah. And it was—I told Rusk, it was kind of a motley company.

President Johnson:  Who were the 18 with us?

Goldberg:  Well, a couple of Africans, a few Latin Americans. That was about it.

President Johnson: Who were the Latins?

Goldberg:  Uh, the Latins—

President Johnson:  Nicaragua? [Chuckles.]

Goldberg:  It’s published in the Washington Post; I don’t have the list in front of me.

President Johnson: Nicaragua, I guess. [Laughs heartily.]

Goldberg:  Yeah, you can guess. It wasn’t a hell of an impressive showing. I felt a little lonesome over there.

President Johnson: Yeah, I did, too. I felt lonesome when I made it [the decision]. I knew it wouldn’t be anybody. But . . .

Goldberg: But it’s all right. It will go—our position was a pretty good position. We said that the whole kit and caboodle had to be settled. And I think that’s all right.


President Johnson: I’m thinking about what’s best for the country.

Gale McGee: Well, that would be—

President Johnson: And I don’t know of a human that I think is as knowledgeable in this general field, that is not New York-oriented, that is as articulate, that I think makes as good impression on TV. And I’ve watched them all.

I think you have a little of the mold of a Wilson and a Lincoln combination. I think you have a little of the George Marshall and Sam Houston. I think you look a little bit frontier, and pioneer, and a fellow that’s pulled himself up by his bootstraps. But I think you have enough sophistication and articulation that you’re effective as hell.

Now, that’s my type of man. I don’t want one of these Adlai Stevensons. I liked him, but he’s not—to me, I always kind of felt like he had to squat to pee.

[Arthur] Goldberg, on the other hand, is the best negotiator I have ever known.

McGee:  Yes.

President Johnson: He does just absolutely have hydrophobia [excessive leaking].

McGee: Yes

President Johnson: And he talks a good deal when he ought to be listening.

McGee: Mm-hmm.

President Johnson:  Now, you’ve got the great problems of the Middle East—and that’s the most dangerous thing. Vietnam is just chickenfeed compared to what the Russians are doing over there, and what may happen there. You’ve got this Cyprus thing that’s rough and tough.


President Johnson: Now, I wouldn’t agree, and I wouldn’t imply, and I’d think of several people if something happened to Rusk as secretary of state.

McGee: Yes.

President Johnson: But I would say right in the beginning that one of the three names I would think of would be yours.

McGee:  Oh, my.

President Johnson: And I know you never have thought in those terms—

McGee:  No.

President Johnson:  But that’s the way we think.

McGee:  Yes.

President Johnson: I don’t want that to enter into it, and I don’t want it to be an implication, because I just very likely would appoint somebody else.

McGee: Yes.

President Johnson: But that’s what we think.



President Nixon: Let’s talk about the Russians, quite candidly. The Russians are panting to get some sort of a settlement. The reason they’re panting for it is they want to get the Egyptian monkey off their back.

There may be other reasons, but we won’t try to judge Russian motives. Except that they want something done there for some time.

Now, you don’t want the Russians in your game—you’d rather have us in your game. You’d like to have the Russians, however—you know they’ve got to play a role. Because they’ve got to keep their clients from, you know, from breaking loose.


Now, however, what we’re really talking about here is a game, in which you would have to—in which I will tell you, give you the assurance, that Henry [Kissinger] will conduct this, under my direction, on an absolutely off-the-record basis.

Some of it will leak. And in any event, it doesn’t have to leak—you know what the Egyptians are doing all the time.

So, be that as it may, what we would like to do—what I would suggest—is that if he could discuss that, let us see whether there is something.

Now, what is the goal? Well, that’s good—you know that. You know there’s an impossible—the Egyptians on the one hand say they’d like an overall settlement before they talk about an interim settlement. And that’s the thing. . . And the other thing is the question you want security, they want sovereignty [in the Sinai]. And so those are insoluble [goals], right?

On the other hand, if we could get an interim settlement—I mean, let us face it: that’s in your interest—if it’s interim. And then we . . . the other one—now, we’re talking in the greatest of confidence—and the most, shall we say, fuzzy atmosphere. Because it has to be fuzzy for both sides. The more concrete it is, the less chance there is ever to get an agreement.

But Henry is the master at writing fuzzy language. Really. [All laugh heartily.]


President Nixon: But it’s important to get across to them, Henry, and I hope you’ll talk to [New York senator Jacob] Javits and the rest of ‘em on this, even [Washington senator Henry] Jackson: by God, if the Jewish community in this country makes Israel exit permits the condition for the Russian initiative, listen, they’re going to be hurting. That will not work.

Henry Kissinger: [forcefully] Let’s face it: The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. It may be a humanitarian concern.

President NixonI know.

Kissinger:  And . . .

President NixonWell, we can’t blow up the world because of it.

Kissinger:  It’d be an outrage, but we cannot make out where gas chambers would go as far as I’m concerned.

President Nixon I know.

Kissinger:  There is no unrestricted right to emigration. If the Indians don’t let Farsis out, it would never occur to us to attach a rider to a foreign policy decision. And I think that the Jewish community in this country, on that issue, is behaving unconscionably. It’s behaving traitorously. I find—

President Nixon:  Why can’t we get Jackson to get off the damn thing? He feels it, though. He is. He’s close to the Jewish community; he’s close to the Israelis.

Kissinger:  Although, I suppose—

President Nixon Well, of course, he’s taken a lot of money from them, too.

Kissinger:  Exactly. They’re financing his [presidential] campaign in ’76. But Javits . . . I’m going to have a talk with Javits, and I’m going to tell him that it is unconscionable for the Jewish community to . . .

President NixonYou see, what they [the pro-Jewish emigration forces in Congress] will do is to work that way with the radical, the nuthead, basically the anti-semitic nutheads, say. Anti-communists in the Senate, the House—a lot of them are anti-semitic—who want to screw the Russians for other reasons. And between them . . . You know, we’ve got to get most-favored-nation [status for Russia, in trade relations], don’t we?

Kissinger:  [forcefully] Mr. President, let’s face it: we have screwed [Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev.

I mean, you have outmaneuvered Brezhnev in a way that is almost pathetic.

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