Lyndon Baines Johnson, born 100 years ago this week, came from a part of the country where Jews were about as common as a herd of cattle in Manhattan.
But in 1939, while still a young and relatively powerless congressman, Johnson was moved enough by reports of Jewish suffering in Europe to begin raising money and pulling whatever strings were necessary – not all of them legal – to save as many Jews as he could from the Nazis. Over the next few years, hundreds of Jews were issued counterfeit passports and visas and brought to Johnson’s home state of Texas, where they began new lives in the safety and security of America.
Two decades later, in December 1963, shortly after he became president, Johnson was in Austin to dedicate a new synagogue. Many of the Jews he saved during the war were on hand, and time had not dimmed their gratitude. Dry eyes were scarce that day, and Mrs. Johnson proudly recorded in her diary that “Person after person plucked at my sleeve and said, ‘I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for him. He helped me get out.’”
Johnson’s affinity for Jews stemmed from early familial influences – his paternal grandfather and a number of other relatives were members of the Christadelphian movement, a group of fundamentalist Christians who believed the Jews would one day return to Palestine and create a new Jewish state. His grandfather would admonish young Lyndon to “Take care of the Jews. Consider them your friends and help them any way you can.”
To a Jewish group in 1968, Johnson said: “Most if not all of you have very deep ties with the land and the people of Israel, as I do. The Bible stories are woven into my childhood memories as the gallant struggle of modern Jews to be free of persecution is also woven into our souls.”
Johnson’s rise to prominence in Washington – he went on from the House to the Senate where in 1955 he became the youngest majority leader in history – coincided with Israel’s birth and early years. Johnson was one of Israel’s strongest backers in Congress, never more so than during the Suez crisis and its aftermath in late 1956 and early 1957, when President Eisenhower distanced himself from Israel and demanded that it immediately return the just-captured Sinai to Egypt.
Though the prevailing mood in Washington favored a bipartisan foreign policy – as a popular adage had it, “politics stops at the water’s edge” – Johnson fought the administration from day one of the crisis, and soon others in Congress, Republicans as well as Democrats, followed his lead. Ultimately, Eisenhower prevailed and Israel withdrew from the Sinai. There soon followed, however, a distinct softening in the administration’s public demeanor toward Israel – a change many believe attributable, at least in part, to Eisenhower’s desire to avoid another bruising battle with Johnson over Middle East policy.
Jews active on behalf of Israel in those years, particularly the Washington-based lobbyists, valued Johnson’s outspokenness and consistency. Si Kennen, director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) during that period, echoed the sentiments of his colleagues when he offered this succinct evaluation of Johnson: “Front-rank, pro-Israel.”
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The Kennedy-Johnson Democratic presidential ticket of 1960 was purely a marriage of convenience. Merely disliked by President Kennedy, Johnson was despised by the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Convinced of their cultural superiority, the Ivy League types in the Kennedy inner circle laughed at everything from Johnson’s Texas accent to the schools he’d attended to his wheeler-dealer persona – and thought it just terribly gauche and lowbrow that his wife, born Claudia Alta Taylor, was known to one and all as Lady Bird.
Behind the condescension, however, was a very real sense of insecurity. The Kennedy brothers feared Johnson for his political acumen and his intimate relationship with Washington’s movers and shakers, particularly FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who knew all the secrets and scandals that lurked beneath the capital’s pristine fa?ade, including the very dark side of John Kennedy that would remain hidden from the public for years after Kennedy’s death.
In its Middle East policy the Kennedy administration made little effort to change the evenhanded approach pursued by its predecessors. As part of an all-out effort to win the affections of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kennedy pushed hard for large increases in aid to Egypt and, in early 1962, following an Israeli retaliatory strike in Syria, instructed his UN ambassador to vote to condemn Israel in the Security Council.
Kennedy also constantly prodded Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on the issue of Arab refugees – Secretary of State Dean Rusk wanted Israel to agree to take back at least 10 percent of the total number of Arabs who had left Israel since 1948 – and even more so on Israel’s nuclear ambitions.
The true scope of Israel’s nuclear program was far greater than Ben-Gurion was prepared to let on, and the Israeli government had its hands full as it tried to allay the Kennedy administration’s growing unease. When, after much wrangling and delay, the White House finally agreed to sell anti-aircraft missiles to Israel – the first arms deal between the two countries – one of the conditions the U.S. insisted on was that it be allowed to conduct a close inspection of Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona.
The Israeli government finally acquiesced, but inspection of the actual plant was avoided by an elaborate – and costly – sleight of hand. As Israeli journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman describe it, “False walls were erected, doorways and elevators hidden, and dummy installations were built to show the Americans, who found no evidence of the weapons program secreted underground.”
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Once the trauma of Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 began to wear off and Johnson settled in as president, the relationship between the U.S. and Israel quickly soared to new heights. In The Bomb in the Basement, his history of Israel’s procurement of nuclear weapons, Israeli author Michael Karpin writes that “as soon as [Johnson] entered the White House the pressure on Israel on the Dimona issue ceased.”
And while Kennedy’s final budget, for fiscal year 1964, allocated $40 million in aid to Israel, Johnson’s first budget, for fiscal year 1965, set aside $71 million – an extraordinary increase of 75 percent. The amount nearly doubled in 1966, to $130 million.
Beyond the numbers, the precise nature and terms of the aid signaled a dramatic break with past American policy. Development loans and surplus food had constituted the extent of U.S. aid under Eisenhower and Kennedy, and the anti-aircraft missiles sold to Israel by the Kennedy administration required a cash payment. Johnson changed all that: Not only did he become the first American president to sell offensive weapons to Israel (the missiles from Kennedy were defensive), but from now on the Israelis would be permitted to buy American arms with American aid money, which meant no funds would have to leave Israel’s hard-pressed government coffers.
As a result of the new arrangement, the percentage of American aid to Israel earmarked for military expenditures rose dramatically, more than tripling between 1965 and 1967. By the middle of 1966, the Israelis were purchasing military hardware the type of which would have been unthinkable under prior administrations, including four-dozen Skyhawk bomber attack planes and more than 200 M-48 tanks (despite the objection of Pentagon officials, who told Johnson they’d prefer Israel buy its tanks from the British or the Germans).
Meanwhile, responding to a large increase of Russian military aid to the radical regimes in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, the Johnson administration armed what at the time were regarded as the more conservative, anti-Soviet Arab states in the region: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Lebanon, Morocco and Libya. Ironically, supplying arms to some Arab nations made it that much easier for Johnson to deal with those in the foreign policy and defense bureaucracies who objected to selling sophisticated weaponry to Israel. He would point out to them that he was simply maintaining the Arab-Israeli balance of power.
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In mid-May 1967, as Israel marked its 19th anniversary, Nasser in quick succession massed the Egyptian army in the Sinai Peninsula; demanded removal of the United Nations Emergency Force that since 1957 had kept the peace on the Egyptian-Israeli border; and blockaded the Straits of Tiran to ships bound to and from the Israeli port of Eilat.
The latter constituted a technical act of war and capped a period of increasing tension in the region as Johnson ordered the Sixth Fleet to the eastern Mediterranean. There followed two weeks of frenzied diplomatic maneuvering, with Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban hopscotching across Europe and the United States in an effort to diffuse the situation by diplomatic means.
Elected president in his own right by a historic margin in 1964, Johnson had seen his popularity and stature steadily diminish in the wake of his overreaching Great Society domestic programs and the widespread sense that America was mired in a no-win war in Vietnam. Now Johnson had to turn his attention from Southeast Asia to the Middle East and try to prevent a crisis from becoming a war.
The administration took pains to appear neutral. Johnson repeatedly warned the Israelis against striking first, but was unable to come up with a successful alternative strategy. Meanwhile, Israel had mobilized its reserves and each passing day took another devastating bite out of the country’s already precarious economy. The Arab world, for its part, was caught up in war fever as Jordan’s King Hussein, following the example set by Syria six months earlier, signed a mutual defense pact with Nasser
“Johnson,” said Ephraim Evron, the influential minister at the Israeli embassy in Washington, “tried to organize an international naval force [to break the blockade], but it didn’t work. He also sent letters and envoys to Cairo to persuade President Nasser to reduce the tension by returning to the status quo ante, but in vain. We knew that, in the end, we would have to shatter the blockade ourselves.”
What Johnson knew, thanks to highly classified CIA and armed-forces intelligence reports, was that U.S. defense experts were predicting a swift Israeli victory in the event of war. General Earle Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would later recall: “I told [Johnson] that our best estimate was that if there was a war, that the Israelis would win it in five to seven days. He asked me to go back and check this out and talk to him again. I did, and I came back and told him exactly the same thing – that there’s just no question; that the way the two sides lined up in the air and on the ground, the Israelis would win.”
This was an assessment shared by Israel’s own military leaders, who pushed hard for Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, a cautious man by nature, to give the word for a pre-emptive strike. That word finally came on Sunday, June 4, and the Israeli air force went on the attack early the next morning, destroying nearly all of Egypt’s serviceable military aircraft as they sat on their runways. Subsequent bombing runs against Jordanian and Syrian air bases sealed Israel’s victory even as fierce ground combat commenced on three fronts.
One incident that marred Israel’s victory and threatened the country’s relationship with the U.S. was the deadly attack by Israeli forces on the USS Liberty, an American electronic surveillance ship operating off the Sinai coast. During the assault, which Israel afterward called a terrible mistake, the Liberty was torpedoed and strafed for more than an hour. The final casualty count totaled 34 Americans dead and 171 wounded.
Just how livid the Americans were can be gauged by the reaction of Johnson adviser Clark Clifford, for decades as staunch an advocate of Israel as they came in Washington (and the man chiefly responsible for keeping Harry Truman on a pro-Zionist course in 1947 and ’48). Clifford thought “it was inconceivable that [the attack] was an accident” and urged the president to respond to the incident “as if the Arabs or the Russians had done it.”
Despite his own doubts about the Israeli version of events, Johnson downplayed the tragedy even as Clifford and several other top aides urged him to at least insist the Israeli government punish those responsible. Israel made a formal apology and paid several million dollars in compensation to the families of the dead Americans, but the U.S.-Israel relationship suffered no significant damage.
After the war, Johnson resisted international calls to pressure Israel into relinquishing the vast swaths of territory it had just captured.
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If there was one thing that threatened Johnson’s amicable relationship with American Jews – and, by extension, Israel – it was the vocal opposition of Jewish liberals to the war in Vietnam. Johnson felt Jews, of all people, should have understood that South Vietnam, like Israel, was a small nation in constant peril. He complained that Jews “want me to protect Israel, but they don’t want me to do anything in Vietnam.”
At one point during an otherwise friendly discussion with Abba Eban toward the end of his presidency, Johnson remarked, with considerable bitterness, “A bunch of rabbis came here one day in 1967 to tell me that I ought not to send a single screwdriver to Vietnam – but on the other hand should push all our aircraft carriers through the Straits of Tiran to help Israel.”
It was, of course, Vietnam and its poisonous effects on American society that would lead Johnson to forgo seeking a second full term of office. He left the White House in January 1969 a broken man, vilified as perhaps no president in American history up to that time. He died four years later, not yet 65 but looking like a man two decades older.
Whatever else can be said of Lyndon Johnson, he proved to be a true friend of the Jews and Israel. He proved it as a young lawmaker when, with limited clout and resources, he did everything he could to get as many Jews as possible out of Europe; he proved it as one of Israel’s strongest and most important backers in Congress during the Jewish state’s early years; and he proved it as president by granting Israel then-unprecedented levels of financial and military aid and by refusing, in marked contrast to Eisenhower’s actions after the Suez crisis of 1956, to force unilateral concessions on Israel following the Six-Day War.