I have written about John F. Kennedy in several Media Monitor columns over the years, focusing primarily on the media myth of Camelot that attached itself to the man and his administration almost immediately following his assassination (the term “Camelot” was never once used to describe the Kennedy presidency while Kennedy was still alive).
A couple of those columns dealt specifically with Kennedy’s record on Israel and made the argument that he was not nearly as supportive of Israel as later legend or rose-colored memories made him out to be. Those columns, as might have been expected, drew an inordinate number of responses from readers, some of them supportive, others not nearly so.
With this week marking the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s election as president, and with last week’s front-page essay by Uri Kaufman briefly touching on Kennedy’s relationship with Israel and that of his successor, Lyndon Johnson, it seemed appropriate to cull the highlights of those earlier columns and revisit the issue in one longer essay.
In the 1960 presidential election, John Kennedy received better than 80 percent of the Jewish vote. The fact that his opponent that year was Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president certainly didn’t hurt: Not only had Richard Nixon served in an administration that was never very popular among Jews, but Nixon himself had always had problems connecting with Jewish voters.
Kennedy nevertheless was something of an unknown quantity to the American Jewish community, and his background hardly inspired confidence. His father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was one of the country’s most notorious anti-Semites, and it was no secret that he had been a major behind-the-scenes influence on his son’s political career.
Nor could liberal Jews find much solace in John Kennedy’s performance as a congressman and senator, the highlights of which were a relatively conservative voting record and solid support for the various investigations, by Joseph McCarthy and others, into Communist subversion in America.
About a month before election day, with polls showing Nixon and Kennedy running neck to neck, Kennedy told his friend Charlie Bartlett about an experience he claimed to have had at a meeting in New York the night before.
“I went to this party,” Kennedy said. “It was given by a group of people who were big money contributors and also Zionists and they said to me, ‘We know that your campaign is in terrible financial shape.’ The deal they offered me was that they would finance the rest of this campaign if I would agree to let them run the Middle Eastern policy of the United States for the next four years.”
What to make of this bizarre story (reported by, among others, Seymour Hersh in his 1991 book The Samson Option and Richard Reeves in his 1993 book President Kennedy: Profile of Power)? Were there actually Jews foolish enough to think they could buy American foreign policy – and brash enough to suggest it out loud? And if the incident occurred as Kennedy told it, why has no other American presidential candidate during the past 50 years come forward with a similar tale? After all, if certain individuals were willing to approach Kennedy with such an offer, would they not have tried it with someone else?
Or was the whole thing a gross exaggeration or even an outright fabrication – an attempt by a callow politician to impress a friend? And if it was a concoction, what does it say about a mind that would do such concocting? At the very least, the incident raises disturbing questions about how John Kennedy viewed Jews, as the story plays on some of the most familiar – and sinister – Jewish stereotypes: a cabal of rich Jews, operating in clandestine fashion, dishonest and disloyal and out to secretly take control of government policy. (Besides, could the Kennedy campaign, with Papa Joe’s checkbook on standby, really have been in such dire financial straits?)
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The Kennedy administration made no attempt to change America’s longstanding policy of even-handedness in the Middle East. But Kennedy, who knew his razor-thin margin of victory in 1960 owed a great deal to Jewish votes in several key states, tended to speak of American support for Israel in a more public and forthright fashion than had either Eisenhower or, for that matter, Harry Truman. On a personal level, his knowledge of Israel was limited – surprisingly so in light of his visits to the country in 1939, when it was still called Palestine, and again in 1953.
Kennedy’s first encounter with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion took place in a Manhattan hotel room in the spring of 1961. Ben-Gurion was in New York on a fund-raising mission and Kennedy happened to have been in the city on some other business, so an impromptu meeting was set up for the two men and several key aides. At one point during their get-together, the president pulled Ben-Gurion aside and said quietly, “You know, I was elected by the Jews. I have to do something for them.”
Ben-Gurion described himself as “shocked” by Kennedy’s crudely political approach: “I’m a foreigner. I represent a small state. I didn’t come to him as a Jew, as a voter.”
According to Reeves, the prime minister was more than just shocked. “Ben-Gurion was offended. He was the founder and leader of a nation, not a politician from Brooklyn.”
Whether or not Kennedy was sincere in his ham-handed attempt at ingratiating himself with Ben-Gurion, the Middle East was in fact relatively low on his list of priorities.
“I would have to play down the Middle East as a matter of deep concern to [him],’ Kennedy’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, acknowledged years later. Rusk (who had adamantly opposed the creation of Israel when he headed the State Department’s UN desk in the late 1940s) added that he couldn’t “remember that Kennedy had any fresh ideas about the Middle East crisis.”
Former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz agreed with Rusk’s assessment. “[Kennedy] had no original ideas; I am not sure he had any ideas at all,” Podhoretz told Gerald and Deborah Strober in Let Us Begin Anew, their oral history of the Kennedy presidency.
About Kennedy’s secretary of state, Podhoretz observed that “What we now know – what I was not aware of then – is that Dean Rusk was violently anti-Israel. I assume he always had those feelings.”
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Fortunately for Kennedy, the Middle East at the time was going through a rare period of calm; even the Israeli front was quiet as Egypt and Syria were distracted by internal matters and inter-Arab politics. Unaffected by the placid state of affairs, however, was the American fascination with Gamal Abdel Nasser: Like their predecessors in the Eisenhower administration, Kennedy’s chief foreign policy aides were obsessed with befriending the Egyptian president.
Where Kennedy differed from Eisenhower in courting Nasser was in the assumption that Arab nationalism, far from being a breeding ground for Soviet influence and infiltration, might actually constitute a bulwark against Russian advances in the region.
“Only a few years ago,” said Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles in 1961, “all thoughtful observers were clearly concerned about Soviet penetration into the Middle East. Many thought that Egypt…was on the road to Soviet control. Yet today Nasser’s nationalism fiercely combats internal Communism and his relations with the U.S.S.R. grow increasingly cool.”
As part of his all-out effort to win Nasser’s affection, 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.
Nasser rewarded Kennedy a few months later by publicizing the contents of an extraordinarily craven letter he had received from the American president. The letter’s disclosure was a humiliation for Kennedy, not only for its tone of abject supplication, but also for its suggestion that Kennedy supported the tough measures Eisenhower had employed against Israel during the Suez crisis six years earlier.
“I am…proud of the real encouragement which my government and the American people have in the past given to your aspirations and those of your countrymen, especially in the critical days of 1956,” Kennedy wrote Nasser, directly contradicting his previous public statements on the matter, particularly those made during his campaign for the White House.
Nasser’s decision to go public with Kennedy’s letter was the beginning of the end for any hope of improved relations between the U.S. and Egypt. In October 1962 Nasser injected his army into a bloody civil war in Yemen, and in the spring of 1963 forces sympathetic to Nasser were attempting to undermine the pro-American government in Jordan. Kennedy, like Eisenhower before him, had come to the realization that the Egyptian leader was not someone to be depended on, and that any attempt at friendship was bound to end in frustration.
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From his earliest days in the White House, Kennedy prodded Israel on the issue of Arab refugees (they weren’t called “Palestinians” yet). Secretary of State Rusk wanted Israel to agree to take back at least ten percent of the total number of Arabs who had left Israel since the creation of the state.
The issue would come up time and again in talks between American and Israeli officials all through the Kennedy presidency, and a special representative appointed by the White House to deal with the problem proved to be a constant irritant to the Israeli government. American proposals were seen as one-sided by Ben-Gurion and Foreign Minister Golda Meir, and the Kennedy administration in turn viewed the Israelis as unreasonable.
Another point of dispute between the U.S. and Israel involved the development of nuclear weapons. In the waning days of the Eisenhower presidency, the Americans had learned that a facility on the outskirts of the Negev town of Dimona was not, as the Israelis were claiming, a textile plant, but rather, in the words of CIA director Allen Dulles, “a nuclear complex [which] probably included a reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.”
Aware that the secret was out and that further prevarication would alienate the U.S., Ben Gurion publicly announced, on December 21, 1960, that Israel had indeed received a nuclear reactor from France, and vowed that it would not be used for military ends.
But the true scope of Israel’s nuclear program was far greater than Ben-Gurion was prepared to divulge, 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 Hawk 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 inspect the Dimona facility. Ben-Gurion agreed, but an inspection of the actual plant was the last thing he had in mind.
As Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman wrote in Friends in Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance, “Abba Eban recall[ed] that when a team of American inspectors arrived at Dimona, ‘it cost us…a lot of money to arrange it so their inspectors wouldn’t find out what was going on.’ 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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Kennedy’s presidency was cut short in November 1963 after just 34 months. While it would be stretching it to describe him as a great friend of Israel, there is no denying that American-Israeli relations during his time in office were better than they’d been under Eisenhower. Kennedy’s administration was the first to sell arms – albeit defensive arms only – to Israel, but it also maintained the policy of neutrality that had characterized the U.S. approach to the Middle East under both Truman and Eisenhower.
The U.S.-Israel relationship would really begin to bloom during the administration of Lyndon Baines Johnson – a man Kennedy despised and whom he chose as his vice-presidential running mate reluctantly and grudgingly. Johnson had been one of Israel’s staunchest supporters on Capitol Hill throughout the 1950s, and once the trauma of Kennedy’s assassination began to wear off and LBJ settled in as president, the relationship between the U.S. and Israel soared to new heights.
First off the table was the nuclear issue. In The Bomb in the Basement, his history of Israel’s procurement of nuclear weapons, Israeli author Michael Karpin wrote 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 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, 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.
And while Johnson told Israel in June 1967 that the U.S. could not support a preemptive strike against Egypt and Syria, he would, in the aftermath of what came to be called the Six-Day War, refrain from pressing Israel to relinquish any of the territory it conquered.
Shortly after the war, during a summit meeting in Glassboro, New Jersey, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin asked Johnson why he insisted on supporting a tiny, relatively poor country like Israel over the numerous oil-rich Arab states. “Because it’s right,” Johnson replied.
In the end, the best thing John Kennedy ever did for Israel – inadvertently, of course, and holding his nose all the way – was choosing Lyndon Johnson as his running mate.