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Thursday, 22 October 2020 02:24

Nasser, Kennedy, the Middle East, and Israel

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Jim DiEugenio continues his thorough exposition of John F. Kennedy’s foreign policy in this article by focusing on Egypt’s Abdel Nasser, Israel’s Ben Gurion, and the Middle East, where Kennedy wanted to appeal to forces he considered moderate, in hope of spreading the elements of moderation—republics, socialism, free education—throughout the Middle East.


For decades, the critical community overlooked areas of Kennedy’s foreign policy outside of Vietnam and Cuba. KennedysandKing has attempted to correct that oversight in recent years. We have tried to educate our readers on issues like Kennedy’s policies in Congo, Indonesia, Dominican Republic, and Laos. We have also tried to show how, after his murder, those policies—as well as his policy toward Vietnam and his attempts at detente with Moscow and Havana—were also altered.

But there is still another area of the world about which Kennedy’s reformist foreign policy is overlooked. That area is the Middle East. This is odd since many commentators justifiably perceive that the Middle East is one of the most important areas on the globe. It is a geographic sector which, for decades, has been looked upon as something like a tinder box. A tinder box that has gotten even more potentially explosive, because, after Kennedy’s assassination, both Israel and Pakistan acquired atomic weapons. As we shall see, Kennedy was greatly opposed to any more countries acquiring these devices. This was not the policy of the presidents who followed.

Perhaps the best way to approach this subject is to define the phrase used above: reformist foreign policy. That phrase can only be rendered into practical form by showing what preceded Kennedy and to then demonstrate how he attempted to alter that which preceded him. Under President Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was pretty much allowed to steward foreign policy. (A difference with Kennedy, since JFK largely ran his own foreign policy.) Dulles followed Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson. As strong a cold warrior as Acheson was, John Foster Dulles was probably even worse.

For example, as discussed in my four-part review of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick 18-hour mediocrity, The Vietnam War, it was Acheson who made the initial American commitment to the French in their struggle to retake Vietnam after World War II. (Click here for that critique) From 1948–50, the United States had more or less a neutralist policy towards Indochina. If anything, we were trying to persuade France to grant Vietnam independence under a nationalist leader. The State Department also found that there was no compelling evidence of the Soviets influencing Ho Chi Minh, the man who was then leading the struggle for independence in Vietnam. (Pentagon Papers, Vol. 1, p. A-6)

American policy changed in 1950. It was caused by the fact that France now transferred administrative functions not to a nationalist leader, but to Bao Dai, the veteran French puppet in Indochina. This angered Ho Chi Minh, as he knew what was coming next. And at this point Ho’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam was formally recognized by China and Russia. (Ibid, p. A-7) In reaction to that recognition, Acheson decided to alter America’s neutralist policy. In May of 1950, Acheson agreed to the first French request for American financial aid to Bao Dai. Later that year, America stationed a Military Assistance Advisory Group in Saigon to provide support to the French effort to salvage their colonial empire. (ibid, p. A-8) In other words, knowing what the true facts were, Acheson decided that standing by a European ally during the Cold War was more important than siding with Third World nationalism. Even though, as I noted in my Burns/Novick critique, Franklin Roosevelt wanted former colonies to be able to choose their form of government after World War II. Roosevelt was a Democrat and Acheson was serving a Democratic president, Harry Truman.

John Foster Dulles’ Cold War attitudes were even more extreme, since they were amplified by an almost mystical religiosity. And unlike Acheson, Foster Dulles would not even seriously consider a doctrine of neutrality towards the Third World. (Robert Rakove, Kennedy, Johnson, and the Nonaligned World, pp. 5–8) Under Foster Dulles and Dwight Eisenhower, the aid to France increased exponentially. It is common knowledge that by the last year of the French civil war, that is 1954, America was supplying nearly 80% of France’s military costs. In fact, as John Prados has noted in his book Operation Vulture, Dulles put together a plan to save the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu by way of a huge air armada and the planned use of atomic weapons. When Eisenhower backed out of the operation due to his failure to get British cooperation, Foster Dulles himself offered the atomic bombs to the French foreign minister, who respectfully declined. (David Talbot, The Devil’s Chessboard, p. 245) As the reader knows, after Dien Bien Phu fell, Eisenhower and Foster Dulles decided to split Vietnam in two. This move necessitated Allen Dulles inserting the CIA into Vietnam, in large part at the employ of General Edward Lansdale.

America now assumed the role the French had played previously. And the American-educated Catholic, Ngo DInh Diem, became America’s version of Bao Dai: our puppet run by the CIA and Lansdale. To show what a dyed-in-the-wool Cold Warrior Foster Dulles was, around this point, in 1957, he made this startling statement: “We have a clean base there now, without a taint of colonialism. Dien Bien Phu was a blessing in disguise.” (Emmett John Hughes, The Ordeal of Power, p. 208)

II

As Acheson and Dulles were paving the way for an epic tragedy through their Cold War maneuvering in Indochina, Senator John Kennedy was doing something different. He was trying to find an alternative way to navigate the troubled Cold War straits, one that resisted the spread of communism, but encouraged the flow of nationalist decolonization movements. In 1951, on a visit to Saigon, he began questioning America’s growing involvement in Indochina as an exemplar of the mushrooming Cold War. At that point, while still a congressman, he began to doubt whether France was going to win the war. Also, if France lost, was the United States going to replace her as the imperial power on the scene. (Click here for an excellent precis of Kennedy’s attitudes on the subject)

After much thought and analysis, Kennedy concluded that what Acheson and Dulles had designed in Indochina—and what Foster Dulles had extended throughout the globe with his string of foreign treaties such as SEATO, CENTO etc.—was flawed and short-sighted. This is why, when the book The Ugly American became a best seller, Kennedy purchased a hundred copies and sent one to each of his colleagues in the senate. That 1958 novel was a thinly disguised portrayal of America’s growing crisis in Vietnam. It depicted the main cause of the crisis as the incompetence and insensitivity of the State Department to the desires and aspirations of the native population. In fact, the publishing company used the advertising line that the book was an expose of how America was losing the Cold War. (Rakove, p. 23) Kennedy thought the book was aimed at the misguided, overweening anti-communism of Foster Dulles and Eisenhower. As the book’s authors tried to show, there was a way to fight the Cold War without resorting to atomic threats or backing brutal dictators. And if that was all the United States had to offer, she might as well just stay home. (ibid)

Many of the leaders of these Third World countries were upset and apprehensive at what the Eisenhower administration had done in the name of anti-communism in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. To put it mildly, the citizens of those two countries were not better off after Foster Dulles and Eisenhower decided to have CIA Director Allen Dulles covertly overthrow their popularly elected leaders. In fact, in direct response to those two actions, some of the leaders of these independent nations decided to call a conference and start a movement. This took place in April of 1955 at the city of Bandung in Indonesia. The two key organizers were Sukarno of Indonesia and Nehru of India. The general idea for the conference was that human rights should be honored throughout the world and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations should be obeyed. Thirdly, that new nations had the right to trade with and have dealings with any other country they chose. Finally, if international disputes arise they should be dealt with peacefully and in conformity with the charter of the United Nations. This was the beginning of what was called the Nonaligned Movement.

As author Robert Rakove has noted, neither John Foster Dulles, nor Dean Rusk looked upon the conference with affection or sympathy. In fact, Foster Dulles thought of staging his own conference to counter Bandung. Rusk, then at the Ford Foundation, looked at this idea with favor. Rusk said of the leaders at Bandung, “Some of these fellows were just plain rascals.” (Rakove, p. 52) Kennedy disagreed. He looked at these leaders as the wave of the future. (Philip Muehlenbeck, Betting on the Africans, p. xviii) Once he got to the White House, he wanted to deal with them and he did. One of the leaders at that conference was Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. In fact, Egypt hosted what many historians see as the follow-up to Bandung: the Cairo Conference of 1957.

Nasser did this after telling John Foster Dulles he would not join the Baghdad Pact (which eventually became CENTO). He told Dulles he could not join any organization that included the United Kingdom as a silent partner, since they were the largest colonial empire in the world. If he did such a thing, he would lose his stature in both Egypt and the Arab world. Philip Muehlenbeck wrote, “Clearly Nasser feared losing domestic popular support and being labeled as a ‘sellout’ or ‘western stooge’ unless he took a strong anti-British line.” (Muehlenbeck, p. 11)

III

Kennedy consciously rejected the similar paths taken by Acheson and Foster Dulles. For example, he told Harris Wofford prior to his nomination for the presidency that they had to win in Los Angeles, because if either Stuart Symington or Lyndon Johnson took the nomination it would just be more of Dulles/Acheson. He went on as follows:

The key thing for the country is a new foreign policy that will break out of the confines of the Cold War. Then we can build a decent relationship with developing nations and begin to respond to their needs. We can stop the vicious circle of the arms race and promote diversity and peaceful change within the Soviet Bloc. (Muehlenbeck, p. 37)

As the reader can see from above, Kennedy did not limit his approach to the African/Asian countries emerging from colonialism. He also wanted to promote American aid to those nations in the Eastern Bloc. (The Strategy of Peace, by John F. Kennedy, pp. 82–98) As George Ball, a Kennedy advisor in the State Department said, JFK wanted to alter the dynamic of American foreign policy. He thought that what Foster Dulles had done was to cede the decolonization issue to the Soviets. And by doing that, America had given an advantage to Moscow because they were now perceived as being for independence and nationalism. (Muehlenbeck, p. xiv)

Nasser fit into Kennedy’s new calculus in a basic, but visionary, manner. In 1957, Kennedy gave his milestone speech on Algeria in front of a (virtually) empty senate. It did not matter that almost no one was there. That speech was so compelling, far-sighted, and harshly critical of the White House that it still created a mini-sensation in Washington and throughout the country. It essentially said that the administration was dead wrong in standing by France in its attempt to stop the secession of Algeria from the French commonwealth. We were on the wrong side of history. And what was going to happen in Algeria was the same thing that had just occurred three years prior in Vietnam.

But there is a small section of that speech that has been overlooked. In fact, I myself had missed it until I read the speech for the third time back in 2013. Kennedy stated that the USA, instead of aiding France in its doomed war, should be starting exchange programs in Algeria in different fields, including education. That would help Algeria build up a civil servant class. And also tradesman and professionals and this could lead to “progress, stability, and good will.” He then followed that passage with this:

In these days, we can help fulfill a great and promising opportunity to show the world that a new nation, with an Arab heritage, can establish itself in the Western tradition and successfully withstand both the pull towards Arab feudalism and fanaticism and the pull toward Communist authoritarianism. (Kennedy, p. 75, italics added)

Kennedy had studied for this speech and knew Algeria was a predominantly Muslim country. The work he did is revealed by the follow up article published on the subject in Foreign Affairs magazine. (October, 1957, pp. 44–59) He understood that there was something of a tug of war going on in the Middle East. To Kennedy, John Foster Dulles had miscalculated the dynamics of that struggle.

Nasser was a secularist leader who led a republic and had developed many socialist policies in Egypt, including land reform. He was also the most popular and charismatic leader in the Middle East and Arab world. This is remarkable since Nasser was not a fundamentalist. (Click here for a video)

In fact, as he noted in the speech above, Nasser had tried to deal with the extremist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but he found them unreasonable to the point that they had planned several assassination plots against his government. Therefore, in 1954, he decided to go to war with that group. The Egyptian legal authorities arrested several leaders, raided their mosques, and stripped some of them of citizenship. This culminated in an assassination attempt by the Brotherhood against Nasser in October. That caused a fatal reprisal by Nasser. Thousands of members were arrested, many got long prison terms, and several were hanged. (Robert Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game, pp. 103–04)

But there was a complicating factor behind Nasser’s war with those who advocated Muslim states and Sharia Law in the Arab world. First, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt owed its start to the British, through a grant from the Suez Canal Company. And the British would use the Brotherhood as a counter to nationalists and communists in Egypt. (Dreyfuss, p.47) Second, the Brotherhood was later financed by Saudi Arabia. As Robert Dreyfuss has written, what Nasser opposed—a pan Islamic state—was begun by the cleric Jamal Eddine al-Afghani. He proposed it to the British and they helped sponsor his movement, turning him into a 19th century Islamic version of Pat Robertson. (Dreyfuss, p. 20) As Dreyfuss also noted, it was Afghani’s ideas which gave rise to Hasan al-Banna, who formally began the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928. This was years after Afghani had offered to go to Egypt as a British intelligence agent. (Dreyfuss, p. 20)

The reader might ask: why would the British do such a thing in the Middle East? First, because at that time—through its financing of the Suez Canal—Egypt was an imperial appendage of England. And, therefore, England believed that the Islamists would work as a counterweight to nationalistic and revolutionary movements, both in Egypt and throughout the Middle East. (Dreyfuss, pp. 27–28) As Dreyfuss also notes, and it’s a key point, this fundamentalist messaging was new at the time. As he writes in Devil’s Game, “Not in centuries had Muslims heard a challenge to renew their societies according to the methods of the early caliphs.” (p. 30)

The other reason that developed to favor British support was monetary. They began to realize that there was a wealth of petroleum lying under Middle East sand. (Dreyfuss, pp. 35–36). They then reasoned that it would be easier to deal with the states that had oil if they stayed Islamic monarchies than if they were transformed into secular, nationalist, republics. The United Kingdom was willing to do this even if it meant actually allying itself with the extreme form of Islam practiced in Arabia called Wahhabism. These Muslims were almost demonic zealots pledged to their belief in Islamic fundamentalism. And the Muslim Brotherhood had roots in Ibn Saud’s organization of the most militant wing of his followers. The first formal treaty between England and Saudi Arabia was signed in 1915. (Dreyfuss, pp. 38–39)

IV

With this background, the reader can see how someone like Nasser could pose a threat to England. Because he did turn Egypt into a secular, nationalist republic. He then became a hero throughout the Middle East, when he nationalized the Suez Canal. But beyond that, what the British and the USA really feared was that Nasser could create a pan Arab league which would then utilize the massive amounts of oil and cash to turn the Middle East into an area of productivity, education, and republics. That is how insanely appealing Nasser was to the Arab world. To use one example, Prince Talal of Saudi Arabia defected to Egypt and demanded a republic be established in Arabia. (Dreyfuss, pp. 97–99)

On July 26, 1956, Nasser announced he was nationalizing the Suez Canal. This triggered meetings at the United Nations in order to stave off desperate measures by the co-builders and operators of the canal, England and France. Foster Dulles tried to arrange a deal within the Security Council. Prime Minister Anthony Eden of England was particularly virulent in his hatred of Nasser and discounted any UN conciliation. Eden now joined France and Israel—which looked upon Nasser as a formidable Arab nemesis—to stage an assault on Egypt. This was called the Suez Crisis. It began on October 28, 1956, with Israel crossing the Sinai to take the canal. President Eisenhower was not informed of this attack. (Leonard Mosley, Dulles, pp. 412–15) Eisenhower then got confirmation that the Israeli land invasion had been complemented by a British air strike on Nasser’s air force. Foster Dulles subsequently informed the president that both the British and French had sent battleships and troop carriers across the Mediterranean toward Egypt. (Mosley, pp. 418–19)

Eisenhower was quite upset about all this being done behind his back. And Eden later said it was a mistake to launch the assault without directly consulting with Ike. (Mosley, p. 412) Foster Dulles now flew to New York to address the General Assembly, bypassing the Security Council where France or England could veto the resolution. He condemned the invasion of Egypt in the harshest terms and demanded a resolution demanding it be halted. This passed overwhelmingly. (Mosley, p. 423)

During the crisis, Nasser had blocked the canal by sinking the ships in the waterway. (Mosley, p. 424). He emerged from this crisis more wildly popular than ever.

But Foster Dulles had an erratic posture toward Nasser. The Secretary of State did not like Nasser’s support for Algerian independence or his recognition of China. And just before the Suez Crisis began, Foster Dulles pulled American support for the Aswan Dam to be built on the Nile. Some commentators think this is what caused the crisis, since Nasser now needed another source of income to build the dam. (Rakove, p. 11)

As many commentators have noted, the end of the Suez Crisis was a golden opportunity to make amends with Nasser. That did not happen. And Nasser now turned to the USSR for aid in building Aswan. Also, in January of 1957, the White House announced the Eisenhower Doctrine. This allowed foreign countries to ask not for aid, but for American direct intervention in the face of a Soviet threat. It was motivated by growing influence in Syria and Egypt by Russia following the Suez Crisis and, also, because Nasser was now the undisputed leader of pan-Arab sentiments in the Middle East. (Muehlenbeck, pp. 13–16) Dulles’ policy was so schizoid toward Nasser in 1956 that some authors have concluded that he had tricked Eden. And this was the real reason America had done what it did during Suez. In a personal visit with the British prime minister, Eden had clearly hinted to Dulles an intervention was coming in Egypt. But Dulles told him he did not want to hear the specifics. By not telling Ike about the unnamed impending action, Dulles was able to take advantage of the president’s anger. And this allowed him to teach England a lesson: America was now in the driver’s seat and England was a passenger. (Mosley, pp. 424–25)

But then Foster Dulles and Eisenhower did something even more inexplicable. Foster Dulles once told the National Security Council, “Although Nasser is not as dangerous as Hitler was, he relies on the same hero myth and we must try to deflate that myth.”  Vice President Nixon, as he usually did, warned the NSC that Nasser’s influence could facilitate communist influence in Africa.

Eisenhower later wrote that he feared Nasser becoming “an Arab dictator controlling the Mediterranean”. (Muehlenbeck, p. 14) In order to counteract Nasser’s appeal to secular nationalism, they now turned to King Saud of Saudi Arabia. Eisenhower wrote to Foster Dulles: “If we could build Saud up as the individual to capture the imagination of the Arab world, Nasser would not last long.”  When Saud visited Washington in 1957, Eisenhower got him to agree to the principles of the Eisenhower Doctrine, which Nasser would not go along with. (Muehlenbeck, p. 15)

In fact, one reason for the formulation of the doctrine was to try and curb Nasser’s influence in places like Jordan and Lebanon. Nasser understood this also. He said it was an attempt to isolate Egypt, thereby, “Accomplishing the aims of the Suez aggression by peaceful means.” (ibid) But if the goal was to distract from Nasser, the choice of Saud was as unwise as backing Ngo Dinh Diem against Ho Chi Minh. A longtime diplomat in the area characterized Saud as “weak, stupid and corrupt” and surrounded by Levantine courtiers. On top of his lack of understanding of the modern world, Saud was also personally dissolute: a drunk and a sex addict. He had countless children from a string of wives and concubines. So not only did he not appeal to those who advocated Arab nationalism and republicanism, he could not really appeal to the religious fundamentalists. (Dreyfuss, p. 122) But yet, that is what Eisenhower and Dulles were trying to do, to the point of conducting talks with close advisors to Saud. One of whom plotted to assassinate Nasser. But we must also note the following: Saudi Arabia was actively using its immense wealth to spread and sanction the Muslim Brotherhood worldwide. In other words, a terrorist fundamentalist group which advocated for Sharia law. (Dreyfuss, pp. 124–25) In a page right out of The Ugly American, America was ready to jump in bed with anyone who opposed nationalism, republicanism, and socialism.

V

As he did in most areas, John Kennedy devised much of his policy in opposition to what Eisenhower and Foster Dulles advocated for and acted upon. He was opposed to the landing of Marines in Lebanon in 1958 and the USA essentially allowing a military takeover there. (Click here for details) He and his brother also did not like what had happened in Iran, with the Shah essentially running a royalist dictatorship. The Kennedy administration held an internal debate over whether or not to try and help a nationalist government displace Shah Reza Pahlavi. (Dreyfuss, p. 225)

But where Kennedy thought Foster Dulles had really screwed up was with Nasser. In his opinion, Foster Dulles had left Nasser with little choice but to go to the Soviets for partial funding of Aswan. During the 1960 campaign, Kennedy explicitly criticized Eisenhower on this issue. He said that Washington had to find a way to “recognize the force of Arab nationalism” and to “channel it along constructive lines.” (Muehlenbeck, p. 124). He also added this:

But if we can learn from the lessons of the past—if we can refrain from pressing our case so hard that the Arabs feel their neutrality and nationalism are threatened, the Middle East can become an area of strength and hope. (ibid)

As with other areas of the globe, Kennedy felt he could compete with the USSR in the Middle East. But he could only do so by working with Nasser rather than ostracizing him. Kennedy immediately set out to mend fences with the Pan Arabist. First, he appointed Dr. John Badeau as the American ambassador to Egypt. Badeau spoke Arabic, had been the head of the Near East Foundation, and probably knew more about Egypt than any other American. Kennedy then appointed Robert Komer to the NSC and made him a specialist in Middle East affairs. Komer was an efficient and loquacious bureaucrat who advocated for furthering a relationship with Nasser and was not beholden to Israel in disputes between the two. Finally, Kennedy told National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy that he should put the question of better relations with Egypt near the top of the foreign policy agenda of the New Frontier. (Muehlenbeck, pp, 124–25).

As the reader can see, as with another country in Africa, Congo, Kennedy pretty much broke with what had come before him. The president now began to exchange correspondence with Nasser on controversial areas of the world, like Cuba, Congo, and Palestine. As Badeau later wrote, “…the success of President Kennedy’s dealings with Arab leaders was the clarity and frankness with which he spoke and wrote to them…always in a spirit of respect and equality.” (ibid, p. 127)

In September of 1961, the new relationship underwent its first crisis. The United Arab Republic, Egypt’s union with Syria, was broken up by the military. Nasser suspected this was done at the instigation of the CIA, which had previously plotted against him. Badeau tried to assure him that the USA was not involved. And Kennedy swiftly went to work to make the break up less jarring. He refused to recognize the new government in Syria until Nasser was ready to do so. Secondly, he requested both more aid and a large loan to Egypt to cushion the impact of the split. (Muehlenbeck, pp. 127–28). These two moves were effective in establishing a further rapport with Nasser. In fact, by late 1962, when Kennedy decided to sell surface to air missiles to Israel, he told Nasser about it in advance of any public notice. Nasser did not like the sale, but his respect for Kennedy and his appreciation of the heads up, stopped any formal or public protests against it.

Kennedy also made it clear that he did not like having to deal with the dissolute Saud and his extremist monarchy. For him, Nasser represented the hopes and aspirations of Arab nationalism. He was the reformer who could lead into a new and different future. Consequently, JFK wanted to disconnect America from the relic of the past, namely the Saud family. This was demonstrated in the fall of 1962, when the monarch was in a Boston hospital.  Kennedy deliberately did not go to Hyannnis Port at this time. After the king was released, he rented a home in Palm Beach, fifteen minutes from the Kennedy compound in Florida. Still, Kennedy did not want to visit the man. Finally, the State Department insisted Kennedy visit the ruler of Saudi Arabia. Even at that, on the way over, he kept on telling his driver, “What am I doing calling on this guy?” (Muehlenbeck, pp. 133–34)

By late 1962, the State Department had agreed that Kennedy’s effort to heal the rift with Nasser had largely succeeded. This policy had forestalled Soviet gains in Egypt and Syria, he had reoriented trade in both places toward the West, and Nasser had agreed to keep the Palestine issue from gumming up relations. (Muelhenbeck, p. 134)

But something had now erupted in the area, which was about to disrupt the growing friendship. Similar to today, there was a war in Yemen. Today, the opponents are really Saudi Arabia and Iran and the war is fought through their proxies. In 1962, the war broke out because of the overthrow of the royal monarchy by a republican force. Quite naturally, Saudi Arabia supported the former and Nasser supported the latter. Egypt even sent ground troops. In addition to Saudi Arabia, the royalists were supported by Jordan (a monarchy), England, and significant for this essay, Israel. In defiance of London’s specific request, Kennedy declared he was backing Nasser and his desire to turn Yemen into a republic. (Muehlenbeck, p. 135) This was another example of Kennedy forsaking a European ally in order to forge a bond in the Third World.

The problem was that Saudi Arabia saw this as an opportunity to drive a wedge between Kennedy and Nasser, who they despised. Therefore, they had no intention of negotiating for a truce, much less a peace settlement. Both British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and Israel’s foreign minister, Golda Meir, tried to influence Kennedy to withdraw his backing of Nasser in Yemen. Kennedy decided to send Ellsworth Bunker to start negotiations. Bunker had a personal letter from Kennedy with him which he gave to Nasser. He reminded the Egyptian leader of how much he had withstood in order to back him and how much was now on the line. Kennedy was clearly frustrated by the failure to secure a truce either by Bunker or through the UN. (Muehlenbeck, p. 137)

VI

The other problem Kennedy had in his pro-Nasser approach was with Israel. Perhaps the only group of people who disliked Nasser more than the Muslim Brotherhood were the leaders of Israel. In 1954, Israel had commissioned a false flag bombing operation against Nasser, which is today called the Lavon Affair, after Israel’s then Minister of Defense Pinhas Lavon. In 1956, prior to the Suez Crisis, then Prime Minister David Ben Gurion was open about what he wanted Israel to get from the defeat of Nasser: the elimination of Jordan as a state, the East Bank would go to Iraq as the home for the Palestinians, the West Bank would be annexed by Israel, expansion of Israeli borders into south Lebanon, and annexation of parts of the Sinai (Patrick Tyler, Fortress Israel, pp. 82–83) But after the failure of the operation, UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold brought in a large peacekeeping force, in order to maintain the previous borders. In one of his first disagreements with Ben Gurion, Kennedy wanted this peacekeeping force strengthened,and he wanted no intervention by Israel in Jordan. (NSC memo by Robert Komer to JFK of 12/22/62; Samuel Belk memo to McGeorge Bundy of 8/23/63; Kennedy memo to Tel Aviv of 5/1/63)

It is very clear from the cable traffic that the Israelis knew about Kennedy’s communications with Nasser. It is also clear that they did not like it and took every opportunity to demonize the Egyptian leader to Kennedy. This went as far as comparing Nasser with Adolf Hitler and saying that if Egypt were to win a war with Israel, Nasser would do to the Jews what the Third Reich did to them in Eastern Europe. (5/12/63 letter from Ben Gurion to Kennedy; memo of meeting between Kennedy and Ben Gurion of 5/5/30/61)

From the partly declassified record secured by researcher Malcolm Blunt, Kennedy took this in stride and considered it to be boilerplate. In fact, at a press conference on May 8, 1963, Kennedy encouraged progress in the region as a whole,and this included acceptance of the aspirations of the Arab population for unity. (State Department cable of May 9, 1963) Kennedy then wrote a letter to Nasser and acknowledged the problems he was having with Israel. But added that this would not deter him from pursuing his relationship with Egypt. He then wrote that he would not oppose Nasser’s attempt to form a Pan Arab union. He closed by saying that Nasser could be reassured against any Israeli expansionism in the region. (Letter sent to Badeau in May of 1963)

But not only were the Israeli leaders anti-Nasser per se, they looked askance at the idea of Pan Arabism. In a two for one sale, they tried to smear the movement by labeling it “Nasserism”. (State Department meeting with Israeli Minister of Education Abba Eban of 5/7/63) This is a key point for the future and the reader should keep it in mind as we progress.

As anyone who followed the career of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and his foreign minister Golda Meir would know, fundamentally they were opposed to negotiating with the Palestinians or with a third party representing the Palestinians. This was over the Palestinian homeland issue, in general, and the refugee dilemma, in particular. For instance, when asked during the 1948 war what should be done with the Palestinian population, Ben Gurion looked at his military commander Yitzhak Rabin and waved his hand in the air. (New York Times, October 23, 1979, story by David Shipler) In 1937, in a letter to his son, Ben Gurion had written, “We must expel Arabs and take their place.” (Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 41 No.2, pp. 245–50) Once he was in power, in 1948 during the Nakba, as quoted in Michael Bar Zohar’s biography, Ben Gurion had written in his diary that the Palestinian refugees should never return to Israel. (p. 148)

Kennedy had a problem with this. He did want the refugees to return—and he even went beyond that. As a special envoy for the United Nations, Joseph Johnson had devised a plan in this regard. The United Nations would sponsor a program which would give the refugees a three-sided choice:

  1. They could stay where they were
  2. They could move elsewhere outside of Israel
  3. They could return to their homes in Israel prior to the Nakba

The United Nations would pay the bill if they chose the last two options. Kennedy had backed this option plan even before it was officially stated by the UN. But it had been rejected by Ben Gurion in a cable to Secretary of State Dean Rusk. (January 24, 1963) What is remarkable about Kennedy in this regard is that, through his ambassador to Israel, Kennedy was still fighting for it into May of 1963. And at that May meeting, both Ben Gurion and Meir were in attendance.

VII

The other major issue Kennedy had with Israel was, of course, over the atomic reactor at Dimona. Again, when one studies the life and career of Ben Gurion, one can see that he wanted atomic weapons for Israel for decades on end. He once said that, “What Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Teller—the three of them are Jews—made for the United States, could also be done in Israel for their own people.” (Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic, September, 2010) He felt that this was necessary especially in the case of the rise to power of someone like Nasser. As Zachary Keck wrote in The National Interest, this dated back to the founding of Israel in 1948:

Ben Gurion viewed nuclear weapons as a last resort for ensuring the survival of the Jewish state in case its enemies used their much larger populations and economies to build conventionally superior militaries. (4/4/2018)

Ben Gurion and the other Israeli leaders were so devoted to this aim that they resorted to two illicit means in order to secure the goal. First—there is no other way to say this—they involved themselves in a government-wide conspiracy to deceive Kennedy about the true nature of the Dimona reactor. Israel already had a small reactor in place at Soreq in the Negev Desert. This was legitimately used for research purposes and for energy in 1956 under the auspices of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. It could not produce weapons grade plutonium.

But, in 1958, Israel began building a much larger reactor nearby. At the beginning of construction, they were aided by France. This was seen as a favor by the French in return for Israeli cooperation in the plot to invade Egypt and dethrone Nasser during the Suez Crisis. Eventually the French pulled out when they concluded that the aim of the reactor was to produce weapons grade plutonium. After this, France discovered that Ben Gurion was trying to buy uranium from both Gabon and the Union of South Africa. (Cable from State in Paris to Dean Rusk, 8/14/63)

Once Kennedy began receiving information like this—and from more than one source—he suspected he was being lied to. He was correct. In the cables and correspondence secured by Malcolm Blunt, this author noted six different instances where Kennedy, or his direct representative, was assured by Ben Gurion, Meir, or Abba Eban that Dimona was not designed to produce atomic weapons.

I should note something for the record here before proceeding. Kennedy had been harshly opposed to Foster Dulles attempting to use atomic weapons in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu. He had tried to attain a test ban treaty with the Soviets and succeeded in 1963. Roger Mattson, an authority on DImona, has written that no president—before or since—was more opposed to nuclear proliferation than Kennedy. (Mattson, Stealing the Atom Bomb, pp. 38–40, 256) Therefore, Kennedy was not singling out Israel. He was simply and strongly against the spread of atomic weapons. Period. Consequently, he requested inspections of Dimona.

To say that Israel was slow to respond and rather reluctant to allow full inspections is severely understating the case. Israel allowed two visits under Kennedy, one in 1961 and one in 1962. Each was about forty minutes in length and the inspectors were not given full access to the plant. (Memo from Robert Komer to Kennedy, 12/12/62) What made this worse was the fact that the State Department had told Nasser that Dimona was being built for peaceful purposes. (Cable from State in Cairo to Rusk, 4/25/63)

In early summer of 1963, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and Under Secretary of State George Ball joined Komer in his disdain for the mendacity and unfairness of what Israel was doing. On May 10, 1963, Kennedy sent a letter to Ben Gurion expressing his frustration at the state of affairs. He said Tel Aviv had not responded to a request for regular inspections. This puzzled him, since no other country in the Middle East was even close to being able to produce highly enriched uranium or weapons grade plutonium. He closed the letter with something no other president, before or since, had done with Israel: he threatened to pull American funding for Israel if no regular inspections were forthcoming.

Ben Gurion called for a cabinet meeting before preparing a reply. The Ben Gurion letter was the usual boilerplate Kennedy had seen many times before. He again compared Nasser to Hitler and requested a bilateral defense treaty with America. (Letter of 5/12/63 from Ben Gurion to Kennedy) On May 27th, he replied a bit more rationally, but there was still no proposal about regular inspections.

On June 15, 1963, Kennedy replied to Ben Gurion. And there was a supplementary note sent by Dean Rusk to the American ambassador in Tel Aviv. Kennedy repeated his warning: either there would be full and regular inspections or Ben Gurion would be placing future American aid in limbo. Rusk’s note said that these inspections had to be arranged before the reactor reached criticality.

One day after Tel Aviv was in receipt of this letter, David Ben Gurion resigned his post as prime minister. He had held that office for a combined 14 years. To this day, there is a controversy about whether or not his retirement was caused by his conflict with Kennedy. Levi Eshkol now assumed office. About two weeks after Ben Gurion’s resignation, Kennedy wrote the following to Eshkol:

This government’s commitment to and support of Israel could be seriously jeopardized if it should be thought that we were unable to obtain reliable information on a subject as vital to peace as the question of Israel’s effort in the nuclear field. (Letter of July 4, 1963)

At the time of Kennedy’s assassination, Bundy was negotiating with Eshkol the terms of biannual inspections of Dimona. One sticking point was that Eshkol did not want Nasser to know about the visits. Whereas for Kennedy, this was one of the predicates for the inspections. (Bundy memorandum to Kennedy, 8/23/63)

VIII

A familiar pattern took place with American policy in the Middle East after Kennedy’s assassination—a pattern which has lasted until today. As with, for example, Sukarno in Indonesia, Lyndon Johnson did not see the point in keeping up the relationship with Nasser. Slowly but surely, President Johnson slipped back to the Eisenhower/Dulles policy in the Middle East. One problem between the two men was the new president’s escalation of the war in Vietnam. Quite naturally, Nasser was opposed to this new militaristic policy. When this difference came out into the open, Johnson retaliated by cutting aid to Egypt and shipping more arms to Israel. As could have been predicted, and as what happened under Eisenhower, this gravitated Nasser toward the USSR (Rakove, pp. 241–42)

To make the split with Kennedy even more marked, Johnson now grew closer to Saudi Arabia. In fact, he began to set up what was essentially a military alliance with this fundamentalist monarchy. First, he equipped them with a 400-million-dollar air defense system. Then, he designed plans for military bases and also a 100-million-dollar grant for trucks and other transport vehicles. (Dreyfuss, p. 142) Saudi Arabia later declared Nasser an infidel. To this day, that brutal monarchy spends millions smearing Nasser’s legacy. (Consortium News, 10/15/2020, “In Defense of Nasser”)

American policy toward Israel also changed under LBJ. As Roger Mattson notes in his book on the subject, when the CIA alerted the new president that it appeared that Israel had now developed the atomic bomb, Johnson barely reacted. (Mattson, p. 97) There was no official investigation launched. In fact, Johnson told the CIA not to alert either State or Defense about the discovery. Through Mattson, and also author Grant Smith, we know today that Israel had stolen hundreds of pounds of highly enriched uranium out of what was essentially their shell plant in Apollo, Pennsylvania, called NUMEC.

During the Six Day War in 1967, Johnson clearly favored Israel. The ultimate proof of this is the infamous Liberty Incident. Israeli jets attacked an American communications vessel for hours. This resulted in 34 dead and 171 wounded. Johnson did not break relations with Israel. And there were no trials held over this atrocity. As the late Peter Novick noted in his controversial book, The Holocaust in American Life, it was after this war and this incident that the Holocaust seemed to loom ever larger in American culture. (Click here for a Novick lecture)

Although it was praised at the time, the Carter/Anwar Sadat Camp David Accords were largely bilateral, that is between Egypt and Israel. Unlike with Kennedy, there was no address made to the Palestinian right of return. This is why the agreements were not accepted by the United Nations. In fact, as a result, Egypt was expelled from the Arab League for the next ten years. Most commentators believe that Nasser, who had died in 1970, would not have accepted such an agreement. As historian Jergen Jensehaugen wrote about the Accords in his book Arab-Israeli Diplomacy under Carter, the president was left,

…in an odd position—he had attempted to break with traditional US policy but ended up fulfilling the goals of that tradition, which had been to break up the Arab alliance, sideline the Palestinians, build an alliance with Egypt, weaken the Soviet Union and secure Israel. (p. 178)

This policy was accelerated and perhaps epitomized by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s disastrous war on Libya under President Obama. Again, Muammar Gaddafi was an Arab nationalist and socialist. He deposed a monarchy in 1969, attempted to turn his country into a republic, and allied himself with Nasser. A problem he had in Western eyes was his support of revolutionary movements elsewhere. And as John Ashton shows in his 2012 book on the case, it is much more likely that the Lockerbie bombing was done by Iran than Libya. Nevertheless, Hillary Clinton convinced Obama to go to war with Libya through NATO. This resulted in a disaster as it turned the country over to fundamentalists who sponsored terrorism. One would have thought that Obama would have learned the lesson of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the rise of ISIS. (Click here for details)

Which brings us to Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Kushner had no foreign policy experience prior to entering the White House. Apparently his qualifications in this area were that he was married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka. Yet Trump placed him in charge of an overall Middle East peace plan. The Palestinians were dead set against Kushner’s role for the simple reason that he had a longstanding, friendly relationship with Israeli’s rightwing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump also seemed oblivious to the cross purposes Kushner’s actions would have in regards to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s ideas. Tillerson thought Kushner’s Middle East plans were short on historical perspective and relied on money grants to function. Tillerson also thought that Kushner’s actions with Netanyahu were “nauseating to watch. It was stomach churning.” (Bob Woodward, Rage, pp. 64–65)

Like Obama, Trump came into office talking about fairness for the ignored Palestinian interests. It appears that this disappeared under Kushner’s influence. In May of 2017, Trump was in Tel Aviv meeting with Netanyahu. Kushner called Tillerson into the meeting—which tells you something right there. When Tillerson got inside, Trump told him to watch a video that Netanyahu had just showed him. Tillerson deduced that the Israelis had spliced together a falsely edited presentation of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas was supposed to be Israel’s partner in Kushner’s plan, yet here he was ordering the murder of children. Netanyahu played the tape again and then said, “And that’s the guy you want to help?” He then left.

Tillerson tried to inform Trump that what he just saw was a piece of fabricated propaganda. Trump ignored this. He now turned on Abbas and the Palestinians. He closed the office of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Washington, cancelled nearly all US aid to the West Bank and Gaza, as well as 360 million in annual funds for the UN plan to aid Palestinian refugees. (Woodward, p. 67) This story is important, since it illustrates how easily Trump was deceived by propaganda and how resolute Kennedy was in the face of it.

Netanyahu was the leader of Likud during the campaign of 1995, which resulted in the assassination of Labor’s Rabin. That race was marked by a definite attempt by Likud to polarize the voting populace into two opposing camps. If one had a conciliatory attitude toward the Palestinian problem, one was smeared as an appeaser. Rabin was campaigning on an anti-violence platform, in support of the Oslo peace process. Netanyahu characterized the land for peace program as not being in the Jewish tradition or maintaining Jewish values. This rhetoric inspired the worst aspects of the Likud to draw posters of Rabin in a Nazi uniform in the crosshairs of a gun. Netanyahu even led a mock funeral procession featuring a coffin and a hangman’s noose at an anti-Rabin rally. (Ben Caspit, The Netanyahu Years, p. 123) Urging his crowds on, they began to shout “Rabin is a traitor” and “Death to Rabin.” Even when he was alerted to a plot against Rabin and was asked to tone down his rhetoric, Netanyahu declined. (Charles Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israel Conflict, pp. 464, 466) Netanyahu never accepted responsibility for building the polarization that resulted in Rabin’s murder. In the face of this, one has to wonder about Jared Kushner and Trump accepting a falsified video from a character like him. One is also reminded of Trump’s refusal to condemn White Supremacy and his characterization of Charlottesville as featuring fine people on both sides. As in the case of Rabin, these public pronouncements likely contributed to the kidnapping plot against governor Gretchen Whitmer.

As the reader can see, the breakage in Kennedy’s policy in the Middle East has now led us to just about a reversal of his policy. Kennedy wanted to appeal to the Arab forces he considered moderates, in hope of spreading the elements of moderation—republics, socialism, free education—throughout the Middle East. He then could move on a solution to the Palestine problem. What has happened there today is that American policy now attempts to accent the extremes. This includes Trump saying that he helped save Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “ass”, in the murder of author Jamal Khashoggi. ((Woodward, pp. 226–27) Make no mistake, this also extended to Hillary Clinton’s attempt to overthrow Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad via Operation Timber Sycamore. Assad is another secularist Middle East leader who does not wear a hajib. Evidently, President Obama saw the results in Libya and decided one disaster was enough on his watch.

But after Iraq, Libya, and Syria, who could not see the pattern? As Kennedy warned in 1957, all of this unleashed Muslim fundamentalism. By simultaneously supporting Likud and the Saudis, the policy of polarization stays intact. It preserves Likud, as it retards any modernization and progress for the Arab citizenry. By doing so, it constitutes the posthumous triumph of the neocon philosophy over Kennedy’s attempt to befriend the last great leader of the Arab world.


Jim extends his personal thanks to Malcolm Blunt for unearthing the research documents used in this article from the JFK library.

Last modified on Friday, 23 October 2020 21:59
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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