Grace Halsell Washington Report on Middle East Affairs June 1993
Everyone around me, without exception, was pro-Israel.
In the summer of 1967, I was a staff writer for President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House. I was aware of that year's Middle East crisis but, like most Americans, understood little about it other than the fact that it involved Jews and Arabs. In that year I did not know a single Arab, and possibly LBJ did not either. Like most Americans, I was pro-Israel, Israel having been sold to most all of us as the underdog.
Everyone around me, without exception, was pro-Israel. Johnson had a dozen or more close associates and aides who were both Jewish and pro-Israel. There were Walt Rostow at the White House, his brother Eugene at State, and Arthur Goldberg, ambassador to the United Nations. Other pro-Israel advisers included Abe Fortas, associate justice of the Supreme Court; Democratic Party fundraiser Abraham Feinberg; White House counsels Leo White and Jake Jacobsen; White House writers Richard Goodwin and Ben Wattenberg; domestic affairs aide Larry Levinson; and John P. Roche, known as Johnson's intellectual-in-residence and an avid supporter of Israel.
I did not "know," but could sense, that events of great portent were transpiring. I heard rumors of CIA Director Richard Helms sending a warning to LBJ that the Israelis were about to attack, and the president getting word from Moscow that if the Israelis attacked any Arab country, the Soviets would go to that nation's defense.
I could see the comings and goings of Abe Fortas and Arthur Goldberg, and I knew that Walt Rostow, in particular, had close Israeli connections, and met frequently with Israeli Embassy Minister Ephraim (Eppy) Evron.
On occasion I saw a strikingly attractive blonde woman who, I learned, was an ardent supporter of Israel and a woman of whom the president was fond. Her background sounded like material from a spy novel. She was born Mathilde Galland in 1927 in Italy, where she was reared as a Roman Catholic. Then, when her family returned to her father's birthplace in Switzerland, she became a Lutheran.
While a student in Geneva, she fell in love with a young Bulgarian Jew, David Danon, who had been brought up in Palestine and exiled by the British for his association with the Irgun Zvai Leumi, a Jewish terrorist group led by Menachem Begin. Danon was studying to become a medical doctor, but spent most of his time recruiting and carrying out secret Irgun operations throughout Western Europe.
In later interviews with former Time reporter Donald Neff, Mathilde said that as a teenager she saw Danon as a dashing and heroic figure, an activist dedicating his life to the founding of a Jewish state in Palestine. He was a personal friend of the Stern Gang terrorists, led by Yitzhak Shamir, who killed British resident minister Lord Walter Moyne in Cairo during World War II, and the Irgun terrorists who blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, with heavy loss of life. As bloody as these actions were, Mathilde said, she saw them as heroic. They represented the depth of the convictions of Danon and the Irgunistsãand drew her to them.
Mathilde became so enamored of the Jewish struggle and of Danon's daring undercover operations in Europe that she converted to Judaism and married Danon. Then she, too, became an Irgun agent.
Reporter Neff, in his book entitled Warriors for Jerusalem: The Six Days That Changed the Middle East, documents Mathilde's role as a young "gun-runner" for the Jewish terrorist group. "As a seemingly innocent petite and pretty blonde out for a bicycle ride along Switzerland's borders," wrote Neff, "she in reality was taking messages and explosives into neighboring France and Italyãto be passed on to the Irgunists.
Five years after the creation of Israel obviated the need for pretty blonde gunrunners, Mathilde received a Ph.D. in genetics at the University of Geneva in 1953. She and Danon then moved to Israel, where she became a cancer researcher at the Weizmann Institute. After the birth of a daughter, she and Danon separated. While still at Weizmann, however, she met and later married the richãand 20 years her seniorãArthur Krim, a motion picture executive who became finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee.
American Jews such as Krim and Abraham Feinbergãa New York banker and the first Jew to become a prominent moneyraiser in presidential campaignsãwere by then bringing in well over half of the Democratic Party's funds. Thus it was natural that such fund-raisers would become very important to many Democratic candidatesãand particularly to the leader of the Democratic Party, Lyndon B. Johnson.
LBJ often invited the Krims to his Texas ranch. There also were many instances in which Arthur and Mathilde were guests at the White House, and other times when, for many days running, Mathildeãwithout her husbandã was a guest there. The Krims built a house near the LBJ ranch known as Mathilde's house, and Johnson often traveled there by helicopter.
Advice and Counsel
The Krims, as well as other Jewish Americans who were closely associated with Johnson, advised and counseled him on the events leading up to the Six-Day War of June 1967. On the Memorial Day weekend in May 1967, Mathilde and her husband were guests at the LBJ ranch. On arrival at the ranch, Johnson learned that the Soviets had warned the U.S. that if Israel attacked an Arab state, the Soviets would go to the aid of that state. The State Department was preparing a message for LBJ to send to Israel.
While awaiting the draft message, Johnson got behind the wheel of his Lincoln Continental and took Mathilde and Arthur Krim for a drive over the hill country. They were at a neighbor's house when an aide brought Johnson a message drafted by the State Department for Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. It relayed to Israel Moscow's warning that "if Israel starts military action, the Soviet Union will extend help to the attacked party."
After reassuring Eshkol of America's interest in Israel's safety, the draft message cautioned: "It is essential that Israel not take any preemptive military action and thereby make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities." The president strengthened the warning by adding two words so that the sentence read, "It is essential that Israel JUST MUST NOT take any preemptive military action. . ."
On June 3, Johnson traveled to New York to deliver a speech at a Democratic Party fund-raising dinner. He moved on to a $1,000-a-plate dinner dance, sponsored by the President's Club of New York, whose chairman was Arthur Krim. While at the table, fund-raiser Abe Feinberg leaned over the shoulder of Mathilde Krim, seated next to Johnson, and whispered: "Mr. President, it [Israel's attack] can't be held any longer. It's going to be within the next 24 hours."
On June 4, Johnson went to the home of his close adviser and friend, Justice Abe Fortas. The following day, June 5, Rostow woke Johnson with a phone call at 4:30 a.m. "War has broken out," Rostow said. The Israelis had attacked Egypt and Syria.
Mathilde Krim was a guest at the White House and, before going to the Oval Office, and apparently before waking Lady Bird or notifying anyone else, Johnson dropped by the bedroom where Mathilde was sleeping and gave her the news: "The war has started."
At 7:45 a.m., Johnson talkedãfor the first timeãon the hot line with Moscow. Soviet Premier Aleksi Kosygin expressed the hope that the United States would restrain Israel. Both leaders vowed to work for a cease-fire.
On that dayãJune 5, 1967ãI walked the White House corridors as the telephone lines and news tickers recorded developments of the first morning of the war that would change the Middle East. I learned that in the war's first hours, Israeli planes had destroyed the air forces of both Egypt and Syria on the ground.
Several U.S. officials in a State Department Operations Room briefing could not conceal their glee over Israel's successes. With a wide smile, Eugene Rostow said, "Gentlemen, gentlemen, do not forget that we are neutral in word, thought and deed."
At the State Department's noon briefing on June 5, press spokesman Robert J. McCloskey repeated those words for reporters. (Since the U.S. was not neutral but totally supportive of Israel, however, this statement would needã over the next several weeksãendless clarification.
Also on June 5, Arthur Krim wrote a memo to the president saying: "Many arms shipments are packed and ready to go to Israel, but are being held up. It would be helpful if these could be released." Johnson got the shipments on their way.
Walt Rostow, in a memo to the president, referred to the results of Israel's surprise attack on Egypt and Syria as "the first day's turkey shoot." On June 6, in another memo to the president, Walt Rostow recommended that the Israelis not be forced to withdraw from the territories they had seizedã short of peace treaties with the Arab states.
"If the Israelis go fast enough and the Soviets get worried enough," he wrote, "a simple cease-fire might be the best answer. This would mean that we could use the de facto situation on the ground to try to negotiate not a return to armistice lines but a definitive peace in the Middle East."
Mathilde Krim, still a guest in the White House, left for meetings in New York. Before departing, however, she wrote out a statement supportive of Israel which she asked the president to deliver "verbatim to the American people." Johnson was sufficiently impressed with her comments to, later in the day, read some of them to Secretary of State Dean Rusk. But the president did not, as she had asked, read them to the American people.
Jordan, treaty-bound to come to the aid of Egypt and Syria if either were attacked, had done so and, on June 7, Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem. Also on June 7, Wattenberg and Levinson wrote in a memo to Johnson that the U.N. might attempt "to sell Israel down the river."
They urged LBJ to support Israel's claim to the territories seized militarily. They referred to McCloskey's statement that the U.S. was neutral, suggesting LBJ issue a statement affirming total support for Israel which, they said, might stop American Jews from meeting in Lafayette Square to protest the "neutrality" statement.
While Johnson never minded getting pro-Israel advice from such close friends as Mathilde Krim or Abe Fortas, he apparently resented advice from relatively minor White House staffers such as Wattenberg and Levinson. Seeing Levinson he stormed:
"You Zionist dupe! You and Wattenberg are Zionist dupes in the White House! Why can't you see I'm doing all I can for Israel! That's what you should be telling people when they ask for a message from the president for their rally." As LBJ abruptly stormed off, Levinson reports, he stood there, "shaken to the marrow of my bones."
Meanwhile, on the night of June 7, the USS Liberty, a Navy "ferret" ship equipped to monitor electronic communications, had approached within sight of the Gaza Strip so the National Security Agency personnel aboard could intercept the military communications jamming the airwaves. The president retired at 11:30 p.m., but White House logs reported that at one minute to midnight he got a call from Mathilde Krim, still in New York.
By June 8, despite U.S. and Soviet demands for a cease-fire, the Israelis were planning one more attack to take Syria's Golan Heights. Perhaps to prevent U. S. intelligence from learning of their plan, despite Syria's acceptance of the cease-fire, the Israelis dispatched planes to the USS Liberty. One roared over the Liberty so closely that the portholes of the aircraft's reconnaissance cameras were clearly visible. Lieutenant James M. Ennes, deck officer, saw on its wings Israel's insignia, the Star of David.
The Liberty Assault
Ennes glanced at the U.S. flag atop his ship's tall mast. If he could see the Israeli pilots in their cockpits, he reasoned, the pilots could certainly see the large U.S. flag. It was not long after the last of several such Israeli reconnaissance flights, however, that an Israeli aircraft swooped down and fired rockets directly at The Liberty. Rocket fragments and 30mm bullets punched through the heavy deck platingãand through the flesh of the stunned crewmen. Then more planesãwith cannon and napalmãturned the Liberty into a floating hell of flames and screaming men.
The Israeli attacks killed 34 Americans and wounded 171. The ship was partly flooded when an Israeli torpedo boat hit the U.S. ship with a torpedo below the water line. Another machine-gunned the ship's life rafts when the crew tried to launch them.
Only by a miracle did The Liberty remain afloat. But its threat to Israel's plans was finished. The next day, June 9, Israeli forces attacked and captured the Golan Heights. On Saturday, June 10, the war's sixth day, Israel agreed to a cease-fire.
It was Rostow who first notified Johnson of the assault on the Liberty. Asked who did it, Rostow said he did not know. Later the Israelis said they had done it, by mistake.
Johnson sent an immediate report to Kosygin that the Israelis had torpedoed a U.S. ship. Thus the Kremlin now knew about the Israeli attack, but the American people did not. From the beginning, the Johnson administration covered it up. Surviving crew members were separated from each other and the Navy was ordered to make certain that no survivor talked with any reporterãor to anyone elseãabout the assault on the USS Liberty.
It went virtually unnoticed. Not only the crew of the USS Liberty, but all Americans were victims. Johnson and most of those who entered and left the Oval Office were oriented toward Israel. For that matter, I too, was ready and eager to believe in 1967 that the Arabs, not the Israelis, had started the war and that the bombing raid on the USS Liberty was not intentional, but a mistake.
While there can be no moral justification for the White House cover-up orders to the Navy after the assault on the Liberty, from hindsight Johnson's political motivation is obvious. It was the same motivation that led him subsequently to listen to the Jewish friends and advisers who urged him not to put any pressure on the Israelis to relinquish territories they had seized in the Six-Day War.
In 1967, President Johnson felt he needed all the support he could get to 'win" in Vietnam. Many American Jews were liberals outspokenly opposed to the war there. Johnson was told if he gave all out support to Israelãwhich would include ignoring the Israeli attack on the Liberty influential Jewish Americans would stop opposing his Vietnam policies.
In a memo to the president, Wattenberg, whose parents had moved to the U. S. from Palestine and who was known as a strong supporter of the Jewish state, said flatly that if the president came out with strong support for Israel, he would win American Jewish support for the war in Vietnam. Many American Jewish leaders are "doves" on Vietnam, Wattenberg wrote, but "hawks" on a war with Arab states.
A "Bonus" for Johnson
"You stand to be cheered now by those (American Jewish leaders) who were jeering last week," Wattenberg wrote the president. He added that the Mideast crisis could be "a bonus" for Johnson. All-out support of Israel, he predicted, would "help turn around 'the other war'ãthe domestic dissatisfaction about Vietnam."
The support given by the American Jewish leaders "was welcome to the president," as reporter Donald Neff observed, when at every turn he was being attacked by critics, particularly in the media, of his Vietnam policy.
I was, at the time, a typical American. I was convinced back then that the Arabs had started the war and deserved what they got. I didn't try to reason how, if the Arabs had started the war, they were surprised with their air forces on the ground and how it was that Israel so easily seized all of Palestine, including the rest of Jerusalem. Instead, like millions of Americans,
I was thrilled by the might of "little Israel."
Yet, despite the euphoria around me, what I saw in the White House planted questions in my mind. As Americans we had just passed through a dangerous Middle East conflict that threatened to explode into World War III. There were two parties to the conflict, Arabs and Jews. But for weeks on end I had seen only one set of advisers who could call or see Johnson whenever they pleased. The Arabs had no voice, no representation, no access, whatsoever.
It was only later that I came to reflect on how America, which devoted so much of the efforts of its "best and brightest" to the problem of Vietnam, had in 1967 quite unwittingly stumbled into a Middle East quagmire that, long after the fall of Saigon, would continue to enmesh U.S. soldiers and diplomats, and project an image of double standards and insincerity onto U. S. diplomacy all over the world.
Far more than his failed policies in Vietnam, the Middle East policies that LBJ allowed to fall into place in the June 1967 war would remain to haunt the U. S. for decades to come.
Grace Halsell, a Washington-based writer, is the author of Journey to Jerusalem and Prophecy and Politics, as well as several other works of nonfiction.