Collateral Damage: How The Vietnam War Hobbled America’s Mideast Policy

Gershom Gorenberg

Until I received a note from Michael Keating, editor of The VVA Veteran, it never occurred to me that I might write for the journal of the Vietnam Veterans of America. But at Michael’s invitation, I have an article in the latest issue:

“You will certainly note,” Hal Saunders said, “that we had another problem on the other side of the world.”

Saunders spoke in the quiet voice of a lifetime diplomat.He was explaining why the Johnson administration let the Arab-Israeli conflict fester after the Six-Day War of 1967. Back then, he said, the “top levels of theU. S. government” were distracted and exhausted by that other “problem”—Saunder’s immensely understated term for the VietnamWar.

During that critical period of history, Saunders served as the National Security Council’s staffer responsible for theMiddle East.His description of a hamstrung superpower points to a kind of rarely noticed collateral damage from the Vietnam War: When the United States was tied down militarily in Southeast Asia, whenwar there dominated America’s diplomatic agenda abroad and its political debate at home, it was less able to cope with challenges elsewhere on the globe. The after-effects are still being felt.

The Middle East provides the prime example.Vietnam hobbled President Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to keepwar from breaking out between Israel and its Arab neighbors in the spring of 1967. What’s more, the war also sapped the administration’s determination to reach a full peace afterward. The neglect continued under Richard Nixon. Only after the Paris Agreement of 1973—and after another disastrous Middle Eastwar led to a face-off with the Soviet Union—did the United States make a serious push for Arab-Israeli agreements.

On May 15, 1967, at their morning meeting, National Security AdviserWalt Rostow and his staff discussed a disturbing report from Cairo: The day before, thousands of Egyptian troops had marched through the city, passing the U.S. Embassy. Whether or not the NSC realized it, the report was like a dark puff of smoke rising from a volcano—a sign that the Middle East was about to erupt.

For months beforehand, Israeli and Syrian forces had sporadically clashed on their shared border, and Palestinian guerrilla groups had launched raids into Israel from both Syria and Jordan. Now, based on a false warning from the Soviet Union that Israel was preparing to retaliate by invading Syria, Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser decided to mobilize his army.From Cairo, he sent it across the Suez Canal into the Sinai Peninsula.

Nasser, it seems, aimed at facing Israel down and renewing his shopworn credentials as the defender of the Arabs. On May 16 he demanded that U.N. Secretary GeneralUThant remove peacekeeping forces that the United Nations had deployed in the Sinai for a decade. Their job was to prevent war between Egypt and Israel and to ensure that the Straits of Tiran, the gateway to Israel’s southern port of Eilat, stayed open.The tankers that brought Israel’s oil from Iran came through the straits.

To the world’s surprise, and probably to Nasser’s, the U.N. leader acceded and pulled out the peacekeepers.Nasser, trapped by his own bravado, ordered the Straits closed. In Israel, meanwhile, the streets were emptying of men as the military reserves—the bulk of the Israeli army—were called up.

The crisis put Lyndon Johnson’s administration in an impossible bind. U.S. public opinion favored Israel, and Johnson himself was a strong supporter of the Jewish state. In ColdWar calculus, Israel was aligned with America; Egypt and Syria were Soviet clients. On the other hand, as Saunders and Rostow had stressed in policy memos just a few weeks before, America had huge investments in Arab oil states. It needed to bolster “Arab moderates,” pro-Western countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and keep Soviet influence from spreading. America couldn’t afford to be seen as simply pro-Israel and anti-Arab.

Making the dilemma sharper, the United States had an explicit commitment to protect “the right of free and innocent passage” of shipping through the Straits of Tiran. The Eisenhower administration had made that promise ten years earlier when Israel withdrew from the Sinai after an earlier war with Egypt.America also had affirmed that if Israeli ships were prevented from using the straits, Israel was entitled to “exercise its inherent right of self-defense.”

In Washington, it seemed entirely possible that if a small ally went to war against large, Soviet-backed adversaries, it might need American military help to survive.Yet as Secretary of State Dean Rusk noted when he met with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 23, 1967, the United States already had 450,000 troops inVietnam. Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.), the father of the future vice president, told Rusk that “because of the domestic political pressures the chances are overwhelming that this countrywould not [bewilling to] see Israel destroyed.”

Yet other senators warned Rusk that “we have enough troubles inVietnam,” that Americawas “overextended,” that more than ten thousandAmericans had already died in Southeast Asia. In fact, as Sen. J.William Fulbright (D-Ark.) Suggested, this was the reason for the new crisis. “Do you really think Nasser would have acted as he has if we were not preoccupied with Vietnam?” he challenged Rusk.

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