The right to strike
A declassified study reveals that the U.S. had plans to attack Israel, and began to dust them off in May 1967. But organizational foot-dragging and the IDF's prowess in Sinai spurred the general in charge of the U.S. Strike Command to put them back in the drawer.
The end of the story is known: During the Six-Day War, no battles were waged between the Israel Defense Forces and the United States. True, the American spy ship "Liberty" was attacked by mistake, but neither side initiated exchanges of fire. What is not known - and because of it, the story is riveting nevertheless - took place in the background. For some time, the United States had had an emergency plan to attack Israel. In May 1967, one of the U.S. commands was charged with the task of removing the plan from the safe, refreshing it and preparing for an order to go into action. However, the preparations lagged behind the developments in the diplomatic arena, and even further behind the successes of Israel's air force and armored divisions in Sinai. The general who was planning to attack Israel made do with extricating frightened American citizens and a panic-stricken ambassador from Jordan.
This unknown aspect of the war was revealed in what was originally a top-secret study conducted by the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington. In February 1968, an institute expert, L. Weinstein, wrote an article called "Critical Incident No. 14," about the U.S. involvement in the Middle East crisis of May-June 1967. Only 30 copies of his study were printed for distribution. Years later the material was declassified and can now be read by everyone, although details that are liable to give away sources' identities and operational ideas have remained censored.
Strike Command, the entity that was to have launched the attack on Israel, no longer exists. It was annulled in 1971 for domestic American reasons and superseded by Readiness Command, which was abolished in the 1980s in favor of Central Command (CENTCOM) - which today includes forces in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Afghanistan - and the Special Operations Command (SOCOM).
The general who oversaw the planning in 1967 was Theodore John ("Ted") Conway. In Israeli terms, taking into consideration all the relevant differences, he can be likened to Avraham Tamir and Yuval Ne'eman, Aharon Yariv and Giora Eiland. Conway was a talented but forgotten officer, who did not leave a powerful impression on the history of the army that made use mainly of his brain; he did more participating than actual fighting in his generation's wars. His qualities as a curious and intelligent planner, a quick study who was creative in his solutions, led his commanders to assign him to headquarters and deprived him of the prospect of leading fighting forces.
That didn't stop Conway from advancing through the ranks. In the last decade of his service he moved up quickly to the highest level - that of four-star general - at the age of 56, as head of Strike Command. It was in this last post, ahead of his retirement, that he served as the crisis of May 1967 unfolded. It was his last opportunity to see whether what he had conceptualized could truly be realized.
Conway, who hailed from Indianapolis, described himself jestingly as one of the "subway" soldiers, as New Yorkers who enlisted to serve in World War II were sometimes described: short men, whose dimensions suited the crowding on the underground trains. He was a small, coiled spring, a physical fitness zealot. Every New Year's Day he made his officers take part in a 16-kilometer run, so that they would not spend the holiday watching television in a beer-induced stupor on the couch.
In the 1930s he was sent to Paris to study France, its language and culture, in order to return to West Point and teach the cadets about them. His exposure to Europe peeled away the provinciality that characterized the American officer corps at that time. During World War II, in the course of his service in North Africa, Italy and France - sometimes as an interpreter and liaison between the U.S. and British forces, and between both of them and the French forces - Conway acquired expertise and an understanding of the complexities of security and diplomacy on both shores of the Mediterranean. If the U.S. Army was going to have to act in the Middle East, there was no officer more suited than him to command the forces in the period of the Six-Day War.
As a 30-year-old captain at the start of the American involvement in the world war, Conway volunteered for the paratroops, but was disqualified because of his age. A decade later, after two years in military colleges, he discovered that the only way to avoid being assigned to a desk job in the Pentagon was to volunteer for the paratroops. He tried again, and this time, as a colonel of 40, he was given command of a brigade.
In October 1961, when President John Kennedy paid a visit to Fort Bragg, the headquarters of the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division and of the Special Forces, the then 50-year-old Conway was already the commander of the division, had parachuted with his troops and marched back to base with them in a trek of 135 kilometers. His deputy, Ed Rowny, later recalled the presentation Conway prepared for Kennedy: He divided the division into five units and dressed each of them in a different uniform, in order to demonstrate the division's flexibility to carry out missions anywhere in the world. One group was in standard battle fatigues, ready to be airlifted to Europe; a second was in jungle camouflage fatigues, ready to deploy to Vietnam; a third wore desert camouflage fatigues; a fourth wore winter uniforms of the Korean War type; and the fifth, equipped with skis and wearing white ski suits, was available for Arctic operations.
Within a few months, Conway's clever presentation of worldwide readiness sparked an imitation. At MacDill Air Force Base, near Tampa, Florida, the headquarters of Strike Command, an officer demonstrated for the camera of the ground forces monthly journal Army just how ready every soldier there was for any mission anywhere: They had not one duffle bag and not two, but three: one Arctic, one tropic, one miscellaneous.
Strike Command (STRICOM) was established in January 1962 at the order of President Kennedy and his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, in order to fill two worrisome gaps in U.S. military deployment. The first was a crying need for fit and available General Staff reserves for immediate posting to the main arena (Europe) or the secondary arena (Korea), where most of the ground forces outside the United States were deployed.
The creation of STRICOM was welcomed enthusiastically by the air and ground branches, but opposed by the U.S. Navy and Marines. The latter two branches were unable to torpedo the establishment of STRICOM, because the chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were all, consecutively, generals from the army. The commander of STRICOM also came from the ground arm: first General Paul Adams and then, four years later, Conway.
The second gap lay in the world map: in Africa and Asia. Between the arena of responsibility of the European Command, EUCOM, and that of the Pacific Command, PACOM, lay a vast area, from Egypt via the Arabian Peninsula to Iran, without command responsibility. Until the end of the 1950s, the Americans preferred to leave that region to the British as part of the Western bloc's distribution of labor. However, as Britain continued to grow weaker, gradually losing its hold in the region and finally ignoring American policy altogether (in the Suez crisis of 1956), Washington became convinced that improvising in emergency situations was untenable.
It was decided that STRICOM, as an external contractor from Florida, would prepare the ground and the hearts for U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. To that end, and at the request of the State Department, the command received another acronym, MEAFSA, referring to the sectors under its responsibility, for fear that newly independent governments in Asia and Africa would look askance at the explosive term "Strike."
Spokesmen for Strike Command took pride in plans that placed 225,000 troops at its disposal in eight ground divisions and more than 50 combat, transport and refueling squadrons. The command's major expertise was far more modest: preparing an airborne force - a battalion or at most a brigade - for offering rapid assistance to friendly governments, or rescuing civilians who were caught in battles between rebels and the army of a friendly regime. That proficiency was put to the test in operations in the Congo and the Dominican Republic.
Conway, who earlier had contrived to escape the labyrinth of the Pentagon in favor of field posts, discovered that in the remote Tampa of the mid-1960s he was "out of sight, out of mind," as he noted years later when he dictated his memoirs: Far from both Washington, where the decisions are made, and far from the Middle East, where he was barred from setting up his headquarters.
He did pay occasional visits to the region, flying in his executive jet, "The Princess." He developed particularly close relations with the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. He also became friendly with Jordanian King Hussein and visited Cairo for talks with the chief of staff, Mahmoud Fawzi, a few months before the Six-Day War.
The American approach to the Arab states was then quite simplistic: good Arabs and bad Arabs - meaning, good Arabs and Nasser. The good Arabs resided in North Africa, in the formerly French (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) and Italian (Libya) states. East of there were Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, good Arabs (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon) who were afraid of Nasser, and relatively bad Arabs who were somewhat with Nasser and somewhat against him (Syria, Iraq). The underlying assumption of American policy was that when push came to shove, such as in an Egyptian-Israeli war or a clash between the West and the Soviet Bloc, the Arabs would split into two camps. Moderate North Africa, under the responsibility of EUCOM, would not intervene; Nasser would cause havoc and might need treatment by STRICOM.
This assumption, which fell apart in light of the reality that unfolded in the Six-Day War, was based in part on the open enmity between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In the 1960s, the Egyptian army became bogged down in aiding the rebels in Yemen against the monarchy there, and against Saudi Arabia, which was assisting it. Following Egyptian bombings inside Saudi territory, Kennedy ordered Strike Command to send half a combat squadron to help the Saudis, with rules of engagement that included readiness to down planes.
John Kennedy's assassination and the rise to power of Lyndon Johnson improved Israel's status in Washington. For American Jewry, the political and personal channels to Johnson were more open, warm and influential. Johnson did not share Kennedy's intransigent opposition to the reactor at Dimona. The secretaries of state and defense, Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara, stayed on under Johnson, but the new president appointed to three key positions officials who were more sympathetic to Israel than their predecessors: Walt Rostow as national security adviser, Richard Helms as CIA chief, and General Earle Wheeler as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Adherence to armistice
The planning of operations against the IDF remains in the defense apparatus as a persistent relic of a declared American policy that seeks to achieve a holy balance in the Israeli-Arab conflict. Its origins go back to the 1950s and the tripartite U.S.-British-French declaration against arms sales to either side. The Soviets exploited this policy to sell arms to the Arabs, and the French looked after their own interests when they supplied weapons to Israel, but the Americans preserved an outward appearance of egalitarianism.
Washington's support for the existence, independence and territorial integrity of all the states of the region was translated into adherence to the armistice lines of 1949: not to allow Egypt, or any combination of Arab states, to destroy Israel, but also not to allow Israel to expand westward, into Sinai, or eastward, into the West Bank. The American pressure in this regard brought the IDF back from El Arish in Operation Horev in 1949 and from Sinai in 1956. A version of it would appear in Henry Kissinger's directives after the IDF encircled Egypt's Third Army at the end of the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
On May 20, 1967, according to L. Weinstein's confidential study for the Institute for Defense Analyses, cable No. 5886 of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was sent to EUCOM and STRICOM. STRICOM was asked to refresh the emergency plans for intervention in an Israeli-Arab war - one plan on behalf of Israel and the other, on behalf of the Arabs.
Conway replied four days later. He was doubtful about combat intervention and preferred an operation to evacuate American civilians from Israel and from Arab states. He also emphasized the need for political coordination in order to secure rights to use foreign bases, particularly Incirlik in Turkey, but also in Libya and Spain, and overflight rights. On May 25, STRICOM and EUCOM were asked to send officers familiar with the commands' plans to assist with planning at the Pentagon.
The next day, the Joint Chiefs asked Conway for his view on the question of American support for Israel. The government of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol implored the Johnson administration to take action to lift Nasser's closure of the Straits of Tiran. Johnson did not want a U.S. operation, but he was also not keen on the two other alternatives: a unilateral Israeli operation, or an Egyptian operation, which would jeopardize Israel's existence.
Conway was asked for his opinion about how the United States should act if the war were to be launched by an Arab action or, alternatively, by an Israeli strike. "The ultimate objective would be to stop aggression and insure the territorial integrity of all the Middle Eastern states," he was informed in cable No. 6365 of the Joint Chiefs, with a copy to EUCOM.
Conway's reply to this, dated May 28, is described in the top-secret study as "a strong plea for complete impartiality." The United States was liable to lose its influence to the Soviets, the general warned, and therefore it must demonstrate "strict neutrality" and avoid open support for Israel. The true importance of the Middle East lay in the American-Soviet context of the Cold War, Conway argued, and the American stance must derive from those considerations, not from "local issues." Only as a last resort should the United States take unilateral action - and then only to put an end to the fighting. In the estimation of the STRICOM commander, the Egyptian forces were deployed defensively, whereas the Israelis were deployed in rapid-strike offensive capability.
On May 29, Conway recommended that any U.S. intervention be launched early in order to ensure the territorial integrity of all the countries involved; restoring the status quo ante would become more complicated as the attacking army captured more territory. It might be difficult to determine which side had launched the hostilities, he noted, but the American response should be identical in both cases: a display of force, warnings to both sides, and if that should prove insufficient, "air and naval action to stabilize the situation, enforce grounding of aviation of both sides plus attacks on all moving armor or active artillery." Following the cease-fire, U.S. ground forces would be moved in for peacekeeping missions. The return of territories would be achieved primarily by diplomatic means, with military force to be used only if "absolutely necessary."
While Conway represented the feelings on the ground, General Wheeler was attentive to the president. In an internal directive, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs recalled that Israel had repeatedly requested joint planning, but had been told that there was no authorization for this. At the same time, Wheeler continued, this possibility could not be ruled out, and the Joint Chiefs should therefore prepare an operational concept for the use of American forces to assist Israel, if war should erupt and if the relevant political decision were taken.
Wheeler barred the distribution of the planning concept to subordinate levels. A preliminary paper was prepared by June 5, the day the war erupted, and became outdated even before it could be used. On June 6, when the success of the Israel Air Force was known, and as the divisions under Israel Tal, Ariel Sharon and Avraham Yoffe advanced into Sinai, the Joint Chiefs sent McNamara top-secret memorandum No. 315-67, recommending that the United States not intervene militarily, that it continue to work through the United Nations and bilateral diplomatic channels, including consultation with the Soviets, to stop the war, and that logistical support for all sides be suspended.
The American sigh of relief at the demise of the worst-case scenario - the danger that Israel would be destroyed - was replaced by the fear that the Arab defeat had been so crushing that the Soviets would intervene on their behalf, or at least would reap a diplomatic profit. Because the United States did not know what Israel was aiming at, despite declarations by Eshkol and by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan that Israel had no territorial ambitions, the administration "now felt that it was necessary to limit [the Israeli] success to reasonable bounds."
In the years prior the war, Strike Command held a series of surprise exercises - "Bold Shot" and "Rapid Strike" - to examine the ability of the forces to organize without any prior warning, board a transport plane and prepare themselves for a parachute drop into battle. The last exercise in the series, held at the end of March, was based on the scenario of a crisis in an African country. Even against a small rebel force, a battalion of paratroopers needed four days from the start of the crisis, and two days from the time the order was received, to reach the target. In order to stop armored divisions in the desert, at the pace the IDF was keeping in June 1967, a force that embodied an internal contradiction would have been required: i.e., one that was both heavier, but also faster than what was available. Even if Johnson had made an unreasonable decision to use his army to block the IDF as it sped to Suez - contrary to his inclinations, the advice of his aides and what his confidants in the American Jewish community said - he would not have had the requisite military capability. The IDF was faster than the planners, decision makers and paratroopers of the United States.
True, we can conjecture that the appearance of an American force opposite the IDF would have had the effect of a tripwire that can block whatever is approaching, on the assumption that Israel would have been careful not to step on the little piece of metal cable that would have brought about even more massive American intervention - but this possibility is not hinted at in the American documents. The "Liberty" incident, which stemmed mainly from failures of coordination between the intelligence elements that ran the ship - the Joint Chiefs, EUCOM and the Sixth Fleet - illustrated how dangerous it was to deploy units without a uniform and clear chain of command in a combat zone.
In his memoirs, General Conway took a swing at his rival, Admiral McCain, over the "Liberty" issue. It was a tragedy of errors in more ways than one. Nasser had fabricated the idea of an intervention by the Sixth Fleet in Israel's favor; this was, as mentioned, a type of operation that had been planned secretly for an emergency, but was never implemented. The Pentagon initially attributed the attack on the ship to Egypt, as a kind of reaction to the fictional intervention. If Israel had not forwarded a surprising admission of its responsibility for the attack, Sixth Fleet aircraft would have been sent to attack Egyptian targets. The made-up story of the intervention would have become fact, by mistake, and Israel would have been accused of fomenting it.
Two retired IDF major generals - Israel Tal and Shlomo Gazit, who was then head of research in Military Intelligence - said recently, upon hearing the secret plan of the U.S. military, that Israel had no knowledge of this. The IDF fought the Egyptians, the Jordanians and the Syrians without imagining that it might find itself confronting the Americans as well, in their desert camouflage fatigues. This is the detail that is missing in Conway's memoirs: Did he study the events of the previous war, in 1956, and of all possible places in Sinai choose to parachute a battalion precisely in the Mitla Pass?