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A Fabulous Friendship

Support Any Friend: Kennedy’s Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance

By Warren Bass

Oxford University, 336 pages, $30

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President John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address, declared that the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, [and] oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Borrowing from that speech, Warren Bass, a former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has written a book titled “Support Any Friend: Kennedy’s Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance.” It is the story of the Kennedy administration’s policy toward the Middle East, and it is exceedingly well told.

That the story is also interesting may come as a surprise, especially to most observers of the Middle East. Other presidents and their administrations are associated with particular events that encapsulate their policies. Harry Truman is known for his quick recognition of Israel, despite the opposition of his senior foreign policy advisers. Dwight Eisenhower is known for his opposition to the Israeli attack — coordinated with the British and French — against Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt in the Suez War of 1956, and his successful pressure to get Israel to withdraw from the Sinai after the war. Lyndon Johnson is known for his vacillation in response to Nasser’s blockade of the Straits of Tiran and Egypt’s deployment of six divisions to Israel’s border in May of 1967 — events that immediately led to the Six Day War in June 1967. But he is also known for his readiness to provide weapons to Israel and the framing of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 in November 1967. Richard Nixon and his administration are known for the critical support provided to Israel during the war in 1973 and Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy following the war.

From Gerald Ford’s “reassessment” and subsequent assurance letter to then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1975 to Clinton’s shalom chaver in 1995 following the assassination of Rabin and his summit diplomacy in 2000, each administration is known for something when it comes to the Middle East. But there has not been an easy handle to describe President Kennedy’s administration.

While there may not have been dramatic events during the Kennedy tenure, Bass points out that the Kennedy presidency shifted America’s approach to the Middle East, making possible a “full-blown U.S.-Israeli alliance.” It was, he says, the Kennedy administration that “broke the taboo on arms sales to Israel… fudged a compromise that smoothed over the nuclear issue… set the precedent of professionalized security talks…and began the process of minimizing the costs of friendship with Israel by discovering the limits of friendship with the Arab states.” If, as Bass writes, “Harry Truman was the father of the U.S.-Israel special relationship, John Kennedy was the father of the U.S.-Israel alliance.”

Bass does not simply assert these conclusions; he demonstrates their validity by describing the legacy of policy that Kennedy inherited, and by providing extensive detail on Kennedy’s efforts in three areas: reaching out to Nasser’s Egypt, selling Hawk anti-aircraft missiles to Israel, and trying to get David Ben-Gurion to permit inspections of Israel’s nuclear plant at Dimona.

Bass’s discussion of the legacy reminds us that it was the opposition of George Marshall, Robert Lovett, and Dean Acheson — known as the “Wise Men” — to Truman’s recognition of Israel that established one of the myths about American policy toward the Middle East: That U.S. support of Israel is only a function of domestic political factors, not of the shared interests and bonds of two democracies.

Marshall, then secretary of state, was dead-set against U.S. recognition of the state of Israel, believing it would be a disaster for us with the Arab world. In a pivotal meeting held to decide what to do as the British departed from Palestine, Marshall objected to the presence of Clark Clifford — a presidential political advisor — and then, as Bass recounts, boldly said to President Truman: “If you follow Clifford’s advice and in the election I were to vote, I would vote against you.” For Marshall, Truman’s decision was all politics. He ignored Truman’s sense of responsibility to the Jewish people after the Holocaust as well as Truman’s anger at the State Department for reversing his policy supporting the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state — a shift in policy at the United Nations that caught Truman by surprise.

For Middle Eastern experts in the State Department, the lesson seemed clear: Politics, not our national interests, determine our policy toward Israel. In Bass’s words, “The accusation of impropriety in Israel policy was the Wise Men’s greatest gift to the Arabists.” The guiding assumptions for those who worked on the Middle East were that we had no real interests in Israel, Israel could only complicate our relationship with the Arabs, and the Soviets could exploit that complication. The Eisenhower administration embraced these assumptions, and added one of its own — i.e., Israel was also expansionist: Israel was not so much threatened by the Arabs as it threatened them. As with most mythologies, no one questioned what became the conventional wisdom.

With the advent of the Kennedy administration, there was very little questioning among the specialists about the approach to Israel, but there was much questioning of the efficacy of the policy that Kennedy was inheriting more generally. Kennedy and those around him felt the Eisenhower policies were hidebound. Kennedy was attracted to leaders in the Third World who were independent, progressive, noncommunist and governed largely by national pride. In the competition with the Soviet Union, Kennedy believed, America could be successful if it reached out to such leaders — and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt was seen as one such leader. Reaching out to Nasser represented a profound departure from the Eisenhower administration’s approach.

While Kennedy was prepared to see what an initiative with Nasser might produce, he was not nearly as enthusiastic about the possibilities as the specialists in the State Department and his own specialist at the National Security Council, Robert Komer. Nasser’s pan-Arabism was seen less as a threat and more as a reflection of the Arab ethos, giving Nasser a commanding presence in the Arab world — or so the specialists believed. Kennedy was more skeptical but willing to explore what might be possible with Nasser.

One theme that emerges in the book is that Kennedy was hands-on, paid close attention, and often seems to have had a better grasp of the realities than his Middle Eastern experts. He was more dubious of Nasser, was more skeptical of the Johnson plan on refugees that asked Israel to absorb Palestinian refugees without any clear end point, and was instinctively more inclined to see that Israel faced a threat. Unlike the prevailing wisdom in the bureaucracy, which portrayed Israel as expansionist, as early as his presidential candidacy, Kennedy declared that Arab state belligerence to Israel was the “threshold obstacle” to peace in the Middle East. While the political benefits of this posture should not be discounted, it seems consistent with his subsequent approach to Israel.

Until Kennedy’s decision to sell Hawk missiles to Israel, there was a taboo on weapons sales or a military relationship of any kind with Israel. Ben-Gurion had felt it essential for Israel to have a security relationship with America, but he had been repeatedly rebuffed by the Eisenhower administration — which, fearing Arab reactions, excluded Israel from the security alliances it sought to forge in the Middle East against the Soviet threat. Those reactions also precluded selling arms to Israel.

Measured against the realities of the current U.S.-Israel relationship and the repeated declarations of “America’s ironclad commitment to Israeli security,” it is hard to imagine that the sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Israel would be seen as destabilizing. But the argument in the Eisenhower administration and by the State Department in the first years of the Kennedy presidency was precisely that: Selling defensive missiles to Israel would trigger an arms race with the Arabs, give the Soviets an opportunity to fish in troubled waters and whet the Israeli appetite for more arms. That the Soviets had been providing arms to Egypt, Syria and Iraq made no difference to the State Department arguments. The U.S. would not sell to Israel, and the State Department repeatedly said Israel faced no real threat from its neighbors.

So why did Kennedy decide to break the taboo arms sales to Israel? Bass offers several reasons: First, the Defense Department, in the person of William Bundy, made the case that Israel had a legitimate need for the Hawk missiles, given the growing arsenals of its neighbors — effectively providing a Defense Department assessment that undercut the State Department argument. Second, Israel, in the person of Shimon Peres — then Ben-Gurion’s deputy in the Israeli defense ministry — met with President Kennedy and convincingly worked the Washington bureaucratic scene to make Israel’s case. Third, Nasser’s war in Yemen — his Vietnam — roiled the inter-Arab waters, making it clear that the conservative Arab regimes were far more focused on Nasser’s threat to them than anything else. (In addition to limiting what would be possible with Egypt, this also signaled that the Arab reaction to the sale was likely to be muted.) Fourth, Kennedy’s preoccupation with nonproliferation was paramount, and he felt he would have more leverage over Israel’s nuclear program at Dimona if he responded to Israel’s request for the Hawk missiles.

Interestingly, Bass attributes no role to the “Jewish lobby” in the sale. Indeed, in general terms, he sees the influence of the Israel lobby as being exaggerated, entitling one section the “Overrated Israeli Lobby.”

As someone who spent more than a decade in senior positions in the first Bush and two Clinton administrations, I was struck by certain continuities and changes from the past. The most profound change is, of course, the relationship with Israel. While the legacy of fearing the consequences of too close an identification with Israel still exists among many of our diplomatic corps serving in the Arab world, no one questions the U.S. commitment to Israel. Ironically, for all those who bemoan our “bias” toward Israel, Arab leaders always emphasize that the U.S. is the only one capable of influencing Israeli behavior. Whatever their complaints about our policy, they are always asking us to do more, not less on the peace issue.

The most striking continuity is in the bureaucratic battles on Middle Eastern issues. Though far tamer in the Kennedy administration than those we see today, Bass suggests that they were decisive in changing the direction of the U.S.-Israel relationship. This is one area in which I would have liked to see additional discussion in the book: Why the change in the Defense Department attitudes from the Eisenhower administration? Was it only the change of personalities, as Bass suggests? Would that explain why later in the Nixon and Carter administrations the Defense Department was more skeptical of the relationship with Israel? Or, were there other factors at play, like greater preoccupation with the “Arab cold war” at the Defense Department — given relations with the Saudis — than at the State Department? How might that have affected bureaucratic perspectives later on?

While interesting for enhancing our understanding of the roots of bureaucratic dissonance on the Middle East, Bass can hardly be faulted for not delving deeper into these questions. He has written a superb book — one that a scholarly and more general audience will find fascinating and useful for understanding some of today’s realities.

Ambassador Dennis Ross, the director and Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was President Clinton’s envoy to the Middle East and the head of the policy planning staff in the first Bush administration.

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