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

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

by Warren Bass

They were three of the most memorable figures of the twentieth century: David Ben-Gurion, Israel's indomitable founding father; Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, the charismatic Arab nationalist; and the young and dynamic John F. Kennedy. Now Warren Bass illuminates these three extraordinary men and their diplomatic struggles at the height of the Cold War,


They were three of the most memorable figures of the twentieth century: David Ben-Gurion, Israel's indomitable founding father; Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, the charismatic Arab nationalist; and the young and dynamic John F. Kennedy. Now Warren Bass illuminates these three extraordinary men and their diplomatic struggles at the height of the Cold War, offering stunning new insights into the origins of today's Middle East.
The Kennedy period, Bass writes, was no "mere place-marker between Suez and the Six Day War, between the martial frostiness of Dwight Eisenhower and the Texas warmth of Lyndon Johnson." He shows how Kennedy sought greater influence in the Arab world, offering more foreign aid and a new diplomatic overture to Nasser, the Arab world's leading radical. For a while, Kennedy and Nasser engaged in a rich personal correspondence. But the rapprochement was cut short by Nasser's impulsive intervention in Yemen's civil war, which led Kennedy to deploy fighter jets in Saudi Arabia as a warning to Egypt. Meanwhile, Kennedy made the first major U.S. arms sale to Israel, providing it with advanced Hawk anti-aircraft missiles—a crucial policy shift that marks the origins of America's alliance with the Jewish state. But Kennedy also feared that Israel would get the bomb and demanded that Ben-Gurion open his secret nuclear reactor to U.S. inspectors, leading to a grave confrontation. Ultimately, Israel agreed to inspections—but continued its nuclear weapons program under the cover of intense secrecy.
Drawing on meticulous research, Warren Bass paints a fresh, elegant portrait of the pivotal presidency that helped create the modern Middle East.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A major contribution to the diplomatic history of a little understood period in American Middle East diplomacy. Bass captures the full flavor of the collision between abstract interests and flesh-and-blood personalities that makes international diplomacy so fascinating. This book will be riveting even for those who think they are not especially interested in the period or its problems.... 'Support Any Friend' uses much new documentary evidence, along with interviews and the requisite secondary studies, to advance our knowledge of a fascinating, indeed seminal, period."—Adam Garfinkle, The New York Times Book Review

"Surely the definitive account of John F. Kennedy's Israel policy. To provide perspective on the decisions of the Kennedy administration, Bass has done a tremendous amount of legwork, consulting archives in the United States and Israel to produce a lively narrative of how different U.S. presidents have had different attitudes towards Israel."—Jacob Heilbrunn, The Washington Monthly

"Stimulating and informative.... Based on deep research, well-weighed and analyzed...an important addition to our knowledge of a fraught subject."—Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Washington Post Book World

"Warren Bass's important and timely book Support Any Friend, written with candor and firmly rooted in primary sources, takes us back to the diplomacy of the 1960s, and to what he argues were the beginnings of today's extraordinarily intimate alliance between the two countries. It is in effect the story of how Israel and its American friends came to exercise a profound influence on American policy toward the Arab and Muslim world. Bass believes it all began with JFK. It is an interesting thesis and he argues it well."—Patrick Seale, The Nation

"Fascinating.... The strength of Support Any Friend rests on exhaustive research in government documents, numerous interviews with the important players, and one dramatic tape of a key meeting surreptitiously recorded by the President, filed at the Kennedy Library. Bass also has a gift for bringing the dry details of diplomacy to life.... Quite aside from the story it tells, Support Any Friend has the added virtue of underlining just how much has changed since the 1960s."—The New Leader

"A generous introduction to the issues and events in lively prose, judiciously leavened with wryly humorous anecdotes.... An engaging book, thoroughly researched and lucidly argued, on a seminal moment in the making of one of America's most consequential alliances."—San Francisco Chronicle

"A major contribution to our understanding of the American imperium in Middle Eastern lands. The writing is superb and the scholarship really first class. This is the sort of book I would love to have my students read!"—Fouad Ajami

"A fine, well-constructed study.... Bass shows with admirable clarity just how keen a student and practitioner of foreign policy JFK truly was, and especially in contrast with his recent successors."—Kirkus Reviews

"Exceedingly well told.... [Bass] 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."—Dennis Ross, The Forward

"A first-rate book.... Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the roots of America's current ties to Israel and dilemmas in trying to resolve the tensions that plague the Middle East. General readers as well as specialists will enjoy and profit from this important study."—Robert Dallek, author of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963

"One of the many virtues of Warren Bass's Support Any Friend is its ability to strip away conventional wisdom and accreted knowledge and transport a reader vividly back to a time when the United States was by no means certain to become Israel's ally at the expense of the Arab world. With pungent detail, wise analysis and vivid prose, Bass traces the series of diplomacy and military episodes that led Kennedy, initially very devoted to evenhandedness in Middle East policy, to align firmly, if not uncritically, with Israel....The lasting impact on the Middle East of what brief time Kennedy had is inescapable to anyone reading Warren Bass's illuminating book."—The Jewish Book World

The Washington Post
Reading this book at present has a slightly eerie "Groundhog Day" feeling. What goes around comes around, as the latest peace process echoes the events and issues of 40 and more years ago: Israel's security, the West Bank, the status of refugees. And yet if the questions are largely the same, the answers are quite different, a mark of how far the terms of the debate -- and America's position -- have changed. Today, a "right of return" is a Palestinian demand and a sticking point on which Israel can expect to be supported by the United States. — Geoffrey Wheatcroft
The New York Times
Support Any Friend marks a major contribution to the diplomatic history of a little understood period in American Middle East diplomacy. Bass captures the full flavor of the collision between abstract interests and flesh-and-blood personalities that makes international diplomacy so fascinating. This book will be riveting even for those who think they are not especially interested in the period or its problems. — Adam Garfinkle
Publishers Weekly
A forested memorial in Israel, Yad Kennedy, includes the sculpted stump of a felled tree, a tribute to the president cut down in his youth. To Bass, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Kennedy presidency, despite the professional Arabists in the State Department, shifted America's Middle East policy toward Israel, selling arms to the Jewish state, fudging inspections of its nuclear initiative and openly engaging in security cooperation. The intransigence of Arab states toward Israel had eroded the stern limits on arms sales to Israel set by the chilly Eisenhower-Dulles regime. Egypt's Gamal Abdul Nasser had gambled on an unprofitable merger with Syria and a hemorrhaging venture into Yemen to try to create, with Soviet Cold War assistance, a noose around Israel. It failed, and Kennedy's suspicion of Nasser's pro-Soviet position distanced the two men. The young president found that he had little to lose in cautiously supporting Israel, as the Soviet Union was openly cajoling some Arab nationalists into becoming clients who would prove useless while repelling others who feared for their thrones. Despite breaking foreign policy taboos, the Kennedy administration, Bass concedes, hardly addressed the intractable regional problems. Readers may nod over Bass's relentless detail, but he establishes his case that the Kennedy administration was "the true origin of America's alliance" with Israel, illuminating in the process some new and humanizing facets of Kennedy's management style and rehabilitating the savvy and subtle leadership skills of Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol, successor to the combative David Ben-Gurion. B&w photos. (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A Middle Eastern nation becomes a nuclear power and refuses to admit arms inspectors, an American president threatens intervention: news from today’s headlines, now more than 40 years old. Bass (Foreign Policy, Middle East Studies/Council on Foreign Relations) has several purposes here. First among them, he shows with admirable clarity just how keen a student and practitioner of foreign policy JFK truly was, and especially in contrast with his recent successors. As Bass writes, again with an eye to today’s news, "In the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, the American electorate knew what it came to forget in the 1990s: that it could not afford ill-preparedness in its commander-in-chief." He goes on to examine the evolution of America’s relationship with Israel, which, he points out, has not always been friendly; when JFK took office, Israel was far closer to France, though David Ben-Gurion sought to establish closer ties with the larger power. "For Ben-Gurion," Bass writes, "America was an aspiration, France a consolation." Forging those closer ties while not alienating the Arab powers, foremost among them Nasser’s Egypt, and their Soviet benefactor proved to be a vexing exercise for Kennedy, especially when Israel ignored his demands that it open a secret nuclear reactor to international inspection. Still, as Bass demonstrates, JFK helped bring about a delicate balance of military strength in the region by providing Israel with defensive antiaircraft missiles as protection against Egypt’s mighty air force, though he refused to part with offensive weapons—a policy that Lyndon Johnson undid almost as soon as he took office, so that "the U.S.-Israel arms relationship was, by thelate 1960s, almost unrecognizable from the trickle it had been at the start of the Kennedy administration." Plus ça change. . . . A fine, well-constructed study.

Product Details

Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date:
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9.56(w) x 6.38(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Support Any Friend

Kennedy's Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance


Copyright © 2003 Warren Bass
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0195165802

Chapter One

Kennedy's Inheritance

America and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1917-1960

In November 1953, Eddie Jacobson, a Jewish Kansas City haberdasher who had the good fortune to pick as his business partner a scrappy young man named Harry S. Truman, was asked to introduce his old friend to an audience at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Before an eager crowd at the intellectual home of America's largest Jewish denomination, nestled in Morningside Heights in Manhattan, Jacobson tried to give the former president an introduction that rose to the occasion. "This is the man," Jacobson declared, "who helped create the state of Israel."

"What do you mean, 'helped create'?" asked Truman. With some feeling, he gave his own view of his role: "I am Cyrus. I am Cyrus."

Truman was a self-taught history buff, so it is perhaps unsurprising that he could identify with the ancient Persian monarch who liberated the Jews from their exilic bondage in Babylon. It is also not surprising that he chose in hindsight to romanticize the cutting of a Gordian policy knot. Still, Truman's assessment of his own importance has sometimes come to overshadow the reality of his administration's muddled approach to the Palestine question-and of the muddled and highly contingent American relationship with the young state of Israel. In fact, it had never been as simple as Truman liked to make it sound in retrospect.

America's Middle East policies throughout both world wars and the early Cold War were produced by a complex intersection of interests and actors. Throughout, sympathizers with Zionism had to grapple with opponents convinced that U.S. friendship with a Jewish state would hurt America's posture in the region. Moreover, U.S. Middle East policy was buffeted by wider trends in world politics: the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of Nazism in Germany and communism in Russia, the devastation of World War II and the Holocaust, the rise of nationalism and the fall of the great European empires, the indispensability of oil to Western economies, and the superpower jousting of the Cold War. The instinctive modern assumption of deep and abiding friendship between the United States and Israel rings tinny when one looks back at the presidencies that shaped America's encounter with the Middle East. Those White Houses found Middle East policy-making agonizing, and the policies they produced came not from neat ideological certainties but from painstaking attempts to balance U.S. interests and values.

Not least in importance was the administration of John F. Kennedy, who received a complicated inheritance in the Middle East. Woodrow Wilson bequeathed to Kennedy a liberal emphasis on the importance of nationalism; Franklin Roosevelt dissembled and underscored the importance of Saudi oil; Harry Truman demonstrated the difficulty of integrating support for Israel into U.S. Cold War strategy; and Dwight Eisenhower left a region with American influence on the wane and nationalism on the rise. To understand Kennedy's Middle East policies, we must understand what he inherited.


Woodrow Wilson set the stage for America's policies toward the Arab-Israeli conflict-largely by expressing a value-driven American sympathy for nationalism, including the Jewish desire for self-rule. Temperamentally, it is hard to imagine two men farther apart than the gregarious Truman and the priggish Wilson. Still, they did have at least one thing in common: neither thought much of his State Department. Wilson trusted his secretary of state, Robert Lansing, no farther than the president-no Olympic athlete-could throw him. He relied instead on a series of advisers, including his all-purpose fixer, confidant, and occasional alter ego, the omnipresent Colonel Edward House. Wilson relied, too, on several distinguished American Jews who had managed to become establishment fixtures, including Henry Morgenthau-later named ambassador to the Ottoman Empire-and the man Wilson appointed as a Supreme Court justice, Louis Brandeis.

Brandeis was then America's most influential Zionist. To be sure, this was not saying much in absolute terms-the American Zionist movement was, in the century's first decade, something to be sneezed at-but Brandeis's quiet clout was considerable. While Wilson's Princeton milieu was shot through with the anti-Semitism of its day, it seems not to have rubbed off; the president respected Brandeis, who wound up undertaking an array of missions that today would be bizarre tasks for a sitting member of the highest court in the land.

In 1917, the Zionist movement's center of intellectual gravity was located in London, home of Chaim Weizmann, the urbane, dapper chemist turned nationalist who would 31 years later become the ceremonial head of the new Jewish state. Weizmann, with the help of the sympathetic British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, was trying to succeed where even Theodor Herzl had failed: winning the support of a great imperial power for the Zionist enterprise. With the Allies at war with the crumbling Ottoman Empire, Palestine and much of the rest of the Middle East might soon fall into the hands of the British, who might in turn offer a home for Jewish nationalism. By the spring of 1917, with the world still mired in the muck of the Great War's trenches and Britain increasingly eager to enlist the support of world Jewry in hopes of breaking the stalemate, Weizmann was tantalizingly close to winning British patronage-expressed in the form of the famous Balfour Declaration, in which Britain expressed support for a Jewish national home in Palestine. So one of Weizmann's colleagues, James de Rothschild, asked Brandeis a favor: would he sound Wilson out about the idea of a postwar Holy Land that would be both Jewish and under the protection of Great Britain?

Wilson's response was in some doubt. Wilson saw himself as the tribune of a new politics. The Great War's key causes were, as Wilson saw it, essentially European: the Metternich-style system of shifting alliances and balances of power, the jingoistic legacy of warmongering in general and German belligerence in particular, and the disease of imperialism. Instead of the ruinous old statecraft, Wilson proposed disarmament, a system of collective security rooted in the League of Nations, and self-determination for small peoples. That made Rothschild's proposal something less than a perfect Wilsonian fit. On the one hand, the idea of a Jewish national home jibed neatly with the president's push for self-determination. On the other, Jewish self-rule under the aegis of Britain would come in imperialist wrapping. But on May 4, Brandeis lunched at the White House with Wilson and found the president willing to live with that tension-and accept a British protectorate for the Jews in Palestine?

Both Lansing and House objected. The secretary of state pointed out that America was not yet at war with Palestine's Ottoman masters. Moreover, Lansing wrote, "many Christian sects and individuals would undoubtedly resent turning the Holy Land over to the absolute control of the race credited with the death of Christ." Lansing also feared that Wilson's zeal for self-determination would put the United States on a slippery slope and put "ideas into the minds of certain races." In December 1918, Lansing asked, "Will not the Mohammedans of Syria and Palestine and possibly of Morocco and Tripoli rely on [Wilson's promise of self-determination]? How can it be harmonized with Zionism, to which the president is practically committed? The phrase is simply loaded with dynamite."

Ultimately, however, Wilson's disdain for Lansing kept the State Department out of the loop. Yet House-who often was the loop-also urged Wilson to hold off. The colonel fretted that London was plotting some sort of imperialist con game to use Washington to help it snatch up the choice bits of the Turks' collapsing empire. Nonetheless, Wilson's attraction to Zionism overrode his suspicion of Britain. The president "was fascinated with the idea that a democratic Zionism might replace Ottoman despotism and create a haven for oppressed Jews in Palestine." For one thing, the notion appealed to Wilson's messianic side, which was never terribly repressed. For another, there was a political upside. If he opposed the Balfour Declaration, Wilson risked getting outflanked on both the left and the right: Samuel Gompers' American Federation of Labor backed Zionism for fear that the alternative was a massive influx of Jewish immigrants, which could flood the U.S. labor market and depress wages; and both the Republicans and Theodore Roosevelt were also tilting toward Zionism. Moreover, some key satellites in Wilson's orbit-above all Brandeis, but also Rabbi Stephen S. Wise of New York and Brandeis's protégé, Felix Frankfurter-were also wooing him. Finally, Wilson proved willing to tolerate a continued great-power role in the Middle East, paving the way for the League of Nations Mandates that would place Palestine in British custody and let Britain and France divvy up much of the Middle East.

Ultimately, Wilson overruled Lansing and House and told Britain that he would back the Balfour Declaration. In America's earliest encounter with Zionism, the decision-making circle was actually a dot. The U.S. decision to bless the Balfour Declaration was made by the president alone. As Peter Grose has argued, Wilson's Zionism was casual and unreflective, rather than the result of a carefully weighed assessment. He followed his idealistic predilections, his chums, and his views of political prudence. "To think," Wilson mused, "that I, the son of the manse, should be able to help restore the Holy Land to its people."


Another American son of the manse played an even more important and complex role during the second part of U.S.-Zionist relations' early act. Franklin Delano Roosevelt replaced Wilson's elitism with beaming cheer and a sure common touch. "Above all," as Isaiah Berlin has noted, "he was absolutely fearless." Roosevelt was blessed with an invincible certainty that everything-the shipwreck of capitalism, the rise of fascism and communism, and quite simply the largest and most savage war ever-would turn out all right. When he told the American people that they were entitled to freedom from fear, he was merely inviting them to share in his natural state of mind.

Oliver Wendell Holmes famously reckoned that FDR had a second-rate intellect but a first-rate temperament; as it happened, America's longest-serving president proved far wilier than his foes. Indeed, if the yardstick for intelligence is F. Scott Fitzgerald's proverbial ability to retain opposing ideas simultaneously and still function, Roosevelt's second-rate intellect starts to look more like genius. Nowhere was that clearer than on Palestine, where the man whom the historian Warren Kimball calls "the sly squire of Hyde Park" strewed in his wake the flotsam and jetsam of contradictory promises, commitments, and impressions. FDR stands as a lasting reminder that American sympathy for Zionism came with strings attached-that Wilsonian idealism was not nearly enough in a world of cruel choices and unyielding interests. "You know I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does," said Roosevelt on May 15, 1942. "I may be entirely inconsistent, and furthermore, I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war." So he was; so it did.

If Wilson's response to the Palestine problem was a casual Zionism, FDR's was by turns fanciful, hard-headed, duplicitous, and pragmatic. The common link was that neither man saw Zionism as a front-burner issue. With a shudder at FDR's easygoing improvisation, one key White House aide, David Niles-who would later become one of Zionism's most strategically placed proponents during the Truman administration-noted that there were "serious doubts" in his mind "that Israel would have come into being if Roosevelt had lived."

A staggering 92 percent of U.S. Jews voted to give FDR a fourth term in 1942. In turn, the president made them one of the building blocks of the New Deal coalition. Like Wilson, FDR seems to have been largely unaffected by the anti-Semitism of his class. (The young Eleanor, however, was not above the odd anti-Semitic jibe; and for all his anticolonialism, Roosevelt's correspondence and chats on Middle East affairs betray a less liberal attitude toward Arabs and Muslims, whom he lumped in with the large parts of the planet he assumed to be lamentably backward.) He was annoyed that his domestic reforms were sometimes sneeringly called the "Jew Deal," and many of his best aides were Jewish. As for Palestine itself, FDR's interest was somewhat limited, although he was fascinated with the Holy Land's geography. (En route to the Tehran summit in 1943, he ordered his pilot to swoop over Palestine as he picked out sites below. "We've seen it all, from Beersheva to Dan!" he enthused. "You know this country as though you were raised here," an adviser commented. "So I do!" Roosevelt replied.) The president, however, was not much of a Zionist. After 1941, his ideology, such as it was, did not extend much farther than doing whatever it took to win the war.

Roosevelt was lobbied more intensively on Palestine than his predecessors. The American Zionist movement grew dramatically after the Great War, even as Zionism's geopolitical position began eroding. As Nazism rose and as Britain's Balfour enthusiasm cooled, frosted, and then froze over, America's Zionists became increasingly worried. The largest mainstream Zionist groups were Hadassah (for women) and Brandeis's Zionist Organization of America (for men). Their combined membership rose steadily, in some grim symmetry with the rise of Adolf Hitler. In 1935, Hadassah and the ZOA had a total of 50,000 members; in 1939, they had 110,000; in 1945, 280,000; and by the time Israel was born in 1948, fully half a million. For the most part, however, the movement was not a mass one, preferring to leave its lobbying to Roosevelt intimates-particularly Rabbi Stephen Wise, who was a veteran New York Democratic activist and Roosevelt sycophant. More hard-line Zionists preferred Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver of Cleveland, a fiery orator with close ties to Ohio's Republican Senator Robert A. Taft and scant inclination to shield the administration from his rhetorical wrath.

The Zionists at first sought to win Roosevelt over by using shtadlanim, or emissaries, to intercede discreetly on the movement's behalf, in much the same way Brandeis so effectively nudged Wilson along. It did not go well. In February 1940, FDR met for the first time with Weizmann. "What about the Arabs?" Roosevelt inquired. "Can't that be settled with a little baksheesh?"

Needless to say, it could not.


Excerpted from Support Any Friend by WARREN BASS Copyright © 2003 by Warren Bass
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Warren Bass is a Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy and Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, The New Republic, The Jerusalem Report, and Slate. He holds a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University and is a former Associate Editor of Foreign Affairs. He lives in New York City.

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