Much has been written in recent weeks of the Obama administration’s possible tilt toward a more evenhanded U.S. Middle East policy. Contrary to popular perception, however, if such a change were indeed implemented, it would constitute not so much a new and revolutionary approach as it would an old and reactionary one.
It would, in fact, be several giant steps backward to the approach pursued by the U.S. for the first decade and a half of Israel’s existence, never more faithfully than during the eight-year tenure of Dwight Eisenhower, who died 40 years ago this week at the age of 78.
Everyone, as the popular slogan went, liked Ike – everyone, that is, but the majority of American Jews, who in the presidential elections of 1952 and 1956 overwhelmingly preferred his Democratic opponent, former Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson.
To all outward appearances, Eisenhower was the personification of the typical American at mid-century: a non-ideological moderate uncomfortable with extreme partisans of any ideology; a genial sort whose greatest concerns centered on improving his golf score and reeling in a really big fish.
That might have been the Eisenhower image, but it belied a shrewd political mind and a stubborn streak that vexed friend and foe alike. As would be true of Ronald Reagan three decades later, Eisenhower was often slighted for being nothing more than a jocular pitchman whose aides saw to the serious side of government. Disdain for Ike was a fact of life in academic and literary circles during his presidency and for years after he left office.
Gradually, historians began to develop a new appreciation for Eisenhower. Nostalgia for a more innocent time in America, even among cynical intellectuals, may have contributed to this changed perception. But what really opened eyes in the mid- and late-1970s was the declassification of Eisenhower-era government documents.
Scholars discovered that Ike had been the master of what the historian Fred Greenstein dubbed the “hidden-hand presidency”; that behind the smiling, grandfatherly exterior there lived a highly-competent chief executive who was indeed his administration’s ultimate decision-maker.
It follows, then, that the Eisenhower administration’s attitude toward Israel – one that can only be described as irritable ambivalence straining for proper cordiality – must have come directly from the man at the top.
* * *
Eisenhower remarked on more than one occasion that, had he been president in the late 1940s, he would not have supported the creation of Israel. He added, however, that since the Jewish state was now a reality, he wished it well. And though it is impossible in all fairness to question the sincerity behind the latter sentiment, the record of the Eisenhower administration toward Israel does at least call it into question.
In the summer of 1952, Senator Richard Nixon, whom presidential candidate Eisenhower had just chosen as his running mate, was only too prescient when he remarked to some friends active in Jewish organizational life that in the event of an Eisenhower victory in November, it would be a mistake to expect Ike’s likely secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, to be friendly toward Israel.
Dulles (who would serve as Eisenhower’s secretary of state from 1953 until his death in 1959) and his brother Allen (who headed the CIA during the same period) were pillars of the American foreign policy establishment, a rarefied club of well-born WASPs who moved in the kind of circles where the mere sighting of a Jew was an unusual occurrence.
Reports through the years about the extent of their anti-Semitism have often been unreliable, with some of the more negative stories coming from anonymous or questionable sources. But one can say with a reasonable amount of certitude that the welfare of the Jewish people was not something to which the Dulles brothers devoted a great deal of thought.
As for Eisenhower, no serious allegation of personal anti-Semitism has ever been leveled against him. Though he was not known to have had any close Jewish friends – growing up in Abilene, Kansas, he certainly had no contact with Jews in his formative years – he was not a man given to trafficking in casual ethnic or religious slurs.
Eisenhower was genuinely horrified by what he saw when Allied troops liberated the Nazi concentration camps. “The visual evidence of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering,” he said about one such camp. “I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give firsthand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’ ”
Long after the war he reminisced about his standard procedure in those days for dealing with officers who made anti-Jewish remarks: The offending individual would be sent on a detailed tour of Dachau or Auschwitz – “and that,” said Eisenhower, “would cure him.”
* * *
Relations between the Eisenhower administration and Israel got off on the wrong foot soon after Ike assumed the presidency in January 1953. That summer, Israel undertook an ambitious effort to divert water from the Jordan River to irrigate the arid Negev. The project was loudly denounced by Jordan and Syria as an act of thievery that would cost them their share of the river’s water.
The United Nations, with the U.S. in full agreement, demanded an immediate halt to the project. The Israeli government refused, and the tone in U.S.-Israel relations was set for the next eight years. The Eisenhower administration, from that early skirmish on, viewed Israel as an unpredictable nuisance at best, a threat to the region’s stability at worst.
It was a negative assessment that would be reinforced in the midst of the Jordan River controversy as Israel stumbled into a public relations disaster entirely of its own making.
Incursions into Israel by Arab saboteurs had been going on for several years, and retaliation by the Israeli army was a given. Because these attacks and counterattacks were relatively small-scale operations, carried out not in Israel’s cities but in and around the country’s borders, they hardly drew the attention of the outside world. That would all change with what happened in an Arab village called Qibya.
In October 1953, a unit of Israeli commandos, under the leadership of a young colonel named Ariel Sharon, crossed over the border into Jordan after Arab terrorists killed an Israeli mother and her two young children. In Qibya, which had been a base for terrorists preparing attacks against Israel, Sharon’s men blew up a number of buildings thought to be empty. When it was over and dozens of civilians were found dead in their demolished homes (hundreds of other residents had been allowed to leave the area), international condemnation quickly rained down on Israel. Even the country’s staunchest defenders found it difficult to explain away the tragedy.
Rather than leave bad enough alone, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, according to Israeli journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman, “instructed Ambassador [Abba] Eban to tell Washington and the UN that the raiders had not been Israeli soldiers but enraged farmers and settlers.”
The story was too obvious a concoction. “No one,” write Raviv and Melman, “believed that tale, and it only fueled the Eisenhower administration’s anger.”
The deadly violence in Qibya and the clumsy attempt at deflecting blame, following so closely on the heels of the water diversion dispute, led to the first-ever suspension of U.S. financial aid to Israel. Feeling the pinch, Ben-Gurion finally agreed to put a stop to the water project, and the aid was restored.
Relations between the two countries would be distant though not particularly unfriendly for the next few years, with Washington’s attention focused on winning the support of the Arab world in the global fight against Communism.
The Eisenhower administration’s main foreign-policy objective was the containment of Soviet expansionism, which in the Middle East meant keeping the Russians away from the oil resources so critical to the West.
For much of Ike’s first term the U.S. attempted, with mixed results, to create coalitions of like-minded nations in regions deemed geographically and politically strategic. The linchpin of any such regional alliance in the Middle East was Egypt, and the Americans went out of their way to solicit the affections of the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
But Nasser played hard to get, tacking pro-U.S. one day and pro-Soviet the next. Eisenhower, tiring of Nasser’s penchant for playing off East against West, decided in early 1955 to back the formation of the Baghdad Pact – a defensive alliance comprised of Britain, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. Nasser countered by entering into a large arms deal with Czechoslovakia, and the Communists had their first real link with the Arab world.
By flirting with Nasser while naively underestimating his determination to restore Egyptian pride and Arab unity, the U.S. had made a terrible miscalculation.
* * *
On the home front, the Middle East receded from the headlines in the mid-1950s. Americans, when not distracted by the new plaything called television, were focused on the ongoing dramatics of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican who since 1950 had been mesmerizing the country with charges of Communist subversion in high places.
McCarthy wasn’t entirely wrong, but he was a blustery, boozy opportunist prone to exaggeration, and as such was an unfortunate spokesman for the anti-Communist cause.
One thing McCarthy apparently was not, though some of his enemies tried to portray him as one, was an anti-Semite. As historian David Oshinsky notes in A Conspiracy So Immense, “[McCarthy] never engaged in anti-Semitic diatribes or made the loaded connection between Jews and left-wing radicalism. Despite the unrelenting hostility of organized Jewry to his crusade, McCarthy still praised the state of Israel [and] condemned the Soviet persecution of Jews. ”
“[T]he McCarthyites,” concurs Benjamin Ginsberg in The Fatal Embrace, his study of the historical relationship between Jews and government, “had no use for anti-Semitism as a political weapon. Indeed, several of McCarthy’s most important aides … were themselves Jews.”
The fact, however, that Jews were over-represented in radical and Communist circles was an uncomfortable reality in 1950s America. Though no anti-Semitic backlash materialized in reaction to the trial and execution of the convicted Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, or to the preponderance of Jews called to testify at hearings conducted in Washington by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), many Jews still worried that they were considered less than loyal by non-Jewish Americans – a fear that couldn’t help but contribute to a reticence among Jewish groups in confronting the Eisenhower administration over its Mideast policies.
* * *
Eisenhower vowed that his approach to the Middle East would never be dictated by political pressure, which was a polite way of saying he wasn’t about to be influenced by the Jews (or, as he so euphemistically put it in his diary, “our citizens of the Eastern seaboard emotionally involved in the Zionist cause”).
Unlike Truman in 1948, Ike in 1952 had not needed Jewish votes and knew he would not need them in 1956. He was not shy about pointing to that domestic political reality when Republicans would voice concern about his handling of Israel.
Eisenhower’s disregard for domestic politics was more than evident in October 1956, just a month before the presidential election. Egypt’s Nasser, in response to the retraction by the United State of an offer to refinance work on the Aswan Dam, had nationalized the Suez Canal Company, which was under British and French ownership. The prime ministers of Britain and France hatched a complicated plan to retake control of the canal by force and somehow convinced Ben-Gurion to have Israel join in.
The operation was doomed from the start. Each of the countries involved had its own motives; the coordination of the actual attack was bungled every which way; and the Soviets threatened to take military action in defense of Egypt while the Americans, furious at Britain, France and Israel, remained silent in the face of Russia’s threats.
The Israelis, for their part, had managed to capture the entire Sinai, and enormous pressure was now brought to bear on them to withdraw. Ben-Gurion refused at first, but Eisenhower, who felt Israel had launched an unprovoked attack on Egypt simply because Britain and France were providing a convenient cover, wouldn’t stand for it.
The U.S. suspended all financial and technical aid to Israel, and when Ben-Gurion still balked at withdrawing, the administration let it be known it was ready to support a United Nations plan for sweeping sanctions that would cripple Israel’s economy in a matter of weeks. There was also talk of ending the tax-deductible status of charitable contributions to Israel by American Jews.
Ben-Gurion finally buckled, and on March 1, 1957, four months after the ill-conceived and short-lived Franco-British-Israeli alliance, the official announcement was made that Israeli troops would leave the Sinai.
(In 1965 Eisenhower would admit to Jewish organizational leader and Republican fundraiser Max Fisher that he had come to “regret what I did. I should never have pressured Israel to vacate the Sinai.”)
Secretary of State Dulles boasted that most Americans supported the Eisenhower policy, adding: “I am aware how almost impossible it is in this country to have a foreign policy not approved by the Jews. I am going to try to have one.”
It should be noted that those remarks were made at a time when Israel was receiving from Washington a relatively small amount of financial assistance and no military aid at all; a time when Israel existed behind the precarious 1949 armistice lines and Jordan and Egypt controlled, respectively, the West Bank and Gaza; a time when Jewish organizations were keeping a considerably lower profile than would be the case years later (AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations were formed in the mid-1950s, AIPAC to better present Israel’s case to U.S. lawmakers, the Presidents Conference to give the Jewish community a more unified voice).
* * *
The final years of Eisenhower’s second term were relatively quiet with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Relations between the U.S. and Israel, which had come close to unraveling in late 1956 and early 1957, gradually returned to where they were pre-Suez, which is to say not particularly close but relatively free of tension and mutual mistrust.
There would be better times ahead in the U.S.-Israel relationship, but it would be years before the two countries could, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as actual friends rather than, at best, friendly acquaintances.