'You get the planes, we'll deal with Congress'
On the sixth day of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, as the Egyptian forces were stranded in Sinai, Israel requested military aid from Washington - and realized that it was faced with a huge problem at the Pentagon, in the shape of Admiral Thomas Moorer. A first publication of the memoirs of a man who really did not like Israel.
One day in October 2003, three elderly men met in a hall on Washington's Capitol Hill and read out the findings of their commission of inquiry in front of the cameras. It was their private commission, not a state or judicial body. The three were the former judge advocate general of the U.S. Navy, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Thomas Moorer - the group's most senior member.
The Moorer commission investigated the June 1967 attack on the U.S.S. "Liberty," a spy ship, by the Israel Air Force and the Israel Navy. The Israelis who have probed the affair, and some American researchers, too, are no longer in doubt: The attack was carried out by accident, due to faulty identification and the general chaos that prevailed during the Six-Day War (see box). Similarly, the ship's survivors and their supporters have no doubts: The attack constituted a criminal scheme to sink the vessel and eliminate its personnel - 34 were killed and dozens wounded - and then to cover up and whitewash the incident. According to this interpretation, president Lyndon B. Johnson and his defense secretary, Robert McNamara, were involved in the plot. In reference to them, Moorer once said (referring to McNamara) that the country would have "been better off with the bubonic plague."
Moorer formed his opinion long before he became a member of the commission of inquiry, which adopted the conspiracy version. For years he had spoken out against Israel, most notably with regard to its activities concerning the Liberty, as well its influence in Washington. In February 2004, a little over three months after that day on Capitol Hill and four days short of his 92 birthday, Moorer died. Upon his death, the memoir he had dictated in the 1970s and '80s to an interviewer from the U.S. Naval Institute, in Annapolis, was published. While passages from the interviews have already been cited by scholars, only now that the whole memoir has been made available has it emerged how serious a problem Israel was faced with in the Pentagon during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Moorer's fourth and final year as the most senior officer of the U.S. armed forces.
Israelis tend to view the American establishment as monolithic: America, Washington, Administration. In October 1973, Israel had few friends in Washington - slightly more in the legislative branch, fewer in the executive branch. As the war dragged on, Israel's fate became increasingly dependent on the supply of weapons and munitions via the U.S.-organized airlift. That airlift had primarily one engine, propelled by intrigues and a bit sooty: Henry Kissinger.
The president, Richard Nixon, was mired dejectedly in the Watergate scandal; the vice president, Spiro Agnew, had admitted to corruption charges and resigned; the defense secretary, James Schlesinger, and the director of the CIA, William Colby, were cool in their attitude toward Israel. Moorer, the armed forces' representative in the war councils - albeit not at a command level like the Israeli chief of staff - played an important role. To that role Moorer brought his resentment over the Liberty affair and other grudges, whose full extent has only now become apparent.
Moorer's admirers will say that he was a conservative, a Southern gentleman of the old school (he was born in 1912), who waxed nostalgic over the heritage of his hometown in Alabama and over old-time relations between the races and between the sexes. More alienated observers would label him a racist, an anti-Semite and a male chauvinist. "Women give life, men take life," he declared in explaining his opposition to combat service for women. Affirmative action for blacks, both within society and in the army, angered him. Immigrants from Cuba to Miami will not balk at any type of work, he said; "people are not going to hire little blacks when the Cubans will work. They won't be sassy, and they'll work twice as long, and they'll take a bath at least once a week."
One of Moorer's idols was the secretary of the Navy and later secretary of defense in the Truman administration, James Forrestal, who opposed Israel's establishment in 1948. Moorer believed that the U.S. administration had never properly explained to the Arab states - which, he said, were opposed to Communism because of their Muslim faith - its support for Israel's creation.
Moorer was less taken by Johnson's second secretary of defense, Clark Clifford, an avowed Israel sympathizer and an expensive attorney-lobbyist. According to Moorer, one day Clifford received a phone call from a large company that was going to be hurt by Congressional legislation. The company wanted to know what to do. "Nothing," Clifford replied on the spot, and sent the firm a bill for $60,000 for the consultation.
As a Navy fighter pilot, Moorer was at Pearl Harbor when the American base was bombed by the Japanese. Later, he attributed the idiotic concentration of the entire Pacific fleet in one exposed port to marginal but lethal civilian considerations - a budgetary shortfall and the demand by Honolulu merchants that sailors spend their weekends onshore.
Later in the war, in a dogfight opposite the Australian coast, he was shot down by a bullet fired from the machinegun of a Japanese plane. The fuel leaked and Moorer's plane caught fire. He became a victim of the interwar period's foolish economizing: the Japanese, the Germans, even the British already had armored fuel tanks, and for the price of his downed plane a hundred other American planes could have been armored. Years later, when he testified in Congress and advocated the procurement of expensive military equipment, he asked senators whose sons were pilots whether in their view the extra protection their sons would get was really a waste of money. Economizing, he added, "is great until you are in the sea and somebody is shooting at you. You've got a different view."
He had a rough time. He was forced to abandon his plane in mid-ocean, was picked up, wounded, by an Australian ship that was sunk the same day by a Japanese attack and then was tossed around desperately in a lifeboat without either water or a compass. His identification with the casualties of the "Liberty" was more emotional than an expression of solidarity with his comrades-in-arms. The same goes for his empathy with the suffering of the soldiers in the Egyptian Third Army, who were surrounded by Israeli forces at the end of the Yom Kippur War.
When the war broke out, on October 6, 1973, at 8:50 A.M. in New York, where Secretary of State Kissinger was attending the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, a phone call was recorded between him and his deputy in the national Security Council, air force general Brent Scowcroft. "Put the fleet into position; if we want them to move they can move; and find out how long [it will take] to get them together," Kissinger directed. "Get a plan from Moorer by noon, to see what we can move if this gets out of hand and tell DOD [Department of Defense] to shut up about military moves or anything. From Moorer find out what forces are available for movement throughout the Atlantic and how quickly it could be done." Two aircraft carriers will not be able to get the troops back, Scowcroft said, "since this is a weekend." Just like Pearl Harbor, only this time it was the Israelis who were the victims of a surprise.
Moorer refused to place part of the blame on U.S. intelligence for failing to warn Israel about the Egyptian-Syrian attack. Intelligence excelled at revealing capabilities, but to prophesy the intentions of heads of state requires "mind-reading."
"The Israelis didn't believe it. Suppose the United States intelligence community or those in the Pentagon said, 'Look here, Israelis, you're about to get attacked,' while the Israelis attacked first as a result of our advice. That would put us in a position of at least indirectly suggesting that they do something about it.
"Had the Israelis pre-empted, then the war would have been on our backs because everybody would say, 'You egged them on. You started the war.' The Egyptians weren't going to attack Israel but you people frightened the Israelis now into committing an irrational act. That is what would have happened, the other side of the coin."
According to Moorer, there were two basic goals of the Nixon-Kissinger administration in the war: "One was we would not permit the Arabs to push Israel into the sea... Second, we were not going to permit the Israelis to humiliate the Arabs... What we wanted to do was bring about a cease-fire so we could start talking." Already on the first or second day, the president set a policy for replacing Israeli army losses, Moorer said, which miscalculated the duration of the war and therefore also the amount of munitions that would be needed. "So it became obvious that the Israeli aircraft could not meet the requirements of transporting the material as fast as it was used up, either destroyed or expended.
"So the next step was that they [the Israelis] attempted to charter aircraft of any kind and all kinds. The hooker was that no airline would charter an airplane to them and neither would the Europeans permit the chartered aircraft - even if they were available - to land in Europe."
The Pentagon "discussed the problem as to whether the U.S. could lease the aircraft and invoke this law that permits commandeering, if you will, of U.S. commercial aircraft in an emergency. Well, I discussed this with Schlesinger. I said, 'Look, the way that thing is going, what we have to do, in my view, is just face it. We have to go supply them with MATS [Military Air Transport Service].' We might as well stop going through all these alternatives and grab the bull by the tail and say, all right we are going to use MATS.
"Of course, what they were trying to do in the political arena was to avoid the appearance of direct participation and avoid if they could the same kind of thing we had barely gotten over in Vietnam. This was October and we had just gotten the POWs back the preceding spring."
Similarly, the decision to use American military aircraft did not solve the problem. "The Europeans had said nothing doing... [There] had to be a refueling stop if we were going to resupply at the rate that was obviously going to be required. Obviously, you can fly nonstop from the United States to Tel Aviv if you have a series of tankers along the way. But then you get into almost prohibitive tanker requirements." Even though Nixon had decided by October 9 to assist Israel, the Pentagon tarried three days before Moorer called the chief of air transport and told him, "We'll have to get them moving, or we'll lose our jobs." The huge airlift, codenamed Operation Nickel Grass, consisting of 145 sorties of the mammoth C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft (each carrying almost 100 tons, including tanks, self-propelled guns and helicopters), and 422 sorties of C-141 Starlifters, "was just perfect. I talked to Mrs. Golda Meir about this, she was amazed. She took some of her grandchildren down to watch these planes come in. We were landing ammunition in Tel Aviv at midnight and it was being fired up the next day." Israeli planning, he explained, was too complacent: They came close "to really getting pushed into the sea."
When the Arabs implemented the oil embargo, European ports were reluctant to load war materiel on Israeli ships. A case in point was Germany, Moorer related, from which the Americans wanted to move tanks of theirs to Israel. "Let's face it," Moorer suggests, "The Germans were less than enthusiastic about Israel. There's a long history there."
The country that finally saved Israel, Moorer says, was Portugal. Authorization to land in the country's Azore Islands was obtained only after Nixon applied heavy pressure on Lisbon, a few days after Kissinger had demonstratively shunned the Portuguese ambassador to the United Nations, "because they [Portugal] were a colonial power." In his view, "Portugal saved Israel," and Franco's Spain, which was universally abominated, also helped, by turning a blind eye: The U.S. refueling aircraft lifted off from bases in Spain, contrary to official statements by Madrid.
The source of the evil, Moorer believed, was the U.S. Congress. The Greeks navigated American policy toward Turkey, he complained, the blacks toward Africa, and the Jews toward the Middle East. In his opinion, "If you're going to be an American, you've got to be an American. If you want to be a Greek, go to Greece. Or if you want to be a black, go to Africa. But America comes first, I think, if you accept the advantages of citizenship in this country." For his memoirs he dictated, "I want to emphasize that I am in no way anti-Semitic, but, on the other hand, there's no question about it that the Israeli lobby controls foreign policy in the Middle East. I've seen it happen many times."
Prosecution exhibit number one, Moorer claimed, was a meeting with the Israel Defense Forces attache in Washington during the Yom Kippur War, and later chief of staff, Mordechai Gur. Here is Gur's version of the meeting, as recorded in his memoirs. On Thursday, October 11, Gur had "extremely frustrating visits" with the chiefs of the navy, air force and army. In a meeting with Senator Henry Jackson, one of Israel's greatest friends, Gur complained, "'Our requests for weapons have not yet received speedy treatment.' Jackson looked into the subject and promised to talk to Schlesinger. A bit encouraged, I went to Admiral Moorer's office. His reception was cool. Every time I mentioned our requests for aid he looked up at the ceiling, as though the war was being fought there."
Gur did not quote Moorer, but the latter was deeply impressed - and not favorably - by what the Israeli major general told him. "Gur called on me and demanded that we rush over to them a certain squadron in the entire U.S. armed forces, and we had just put it in commission in the last few weeks. And I told him, 'If I present that squadron for delivery to Israel, Congress will raise hell with me.'
"And he said, 'You get the airplanes; I'll take care of the Congress,' which he did."
Only 10 words, but they resonated in Moorer's mind and perpetuated his resentment of Israel. Gur, according to Moorer, bragged but did not exaggerate. That was the division of labor: the Pentagon sees to the equipment, Israel sees to Congress, because the terrifying Israeli lobby is powerful enough to vanquish even presidents.
The second prosecution exhibit regarding the Israeli plot was the bitter fate of air force general George Brown, Moorer's successor as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Brown was invited to speak at Duke University, in North Carolina. "It was supposed to be unattributed; nevertheless, there was a man there with a tape recorder and immediately gave the tape to The Washington Post. The Post sat on it for six or eight weeks until Arafat appeared on the UN podium with pistols on both of his hips. Immediately, The Post printed what General Brown had said, which was, in effect, that the Jews owned TVs and banks in this country and, consequently, had influence far in excess of their proportional population."
That was Moorer trying to quote Brown; now here is Moorer defending him: "Well, General Brown made just one mistake. He used the word 'all.' He said they owned 'all' the banks. Then, of course, the critics would run around and find a little bank down in Texas or somewhere that they didn't own. He should have said 'most of the big banks' or something like that - I mean qualify the statement - but they attacked him on accuracy...
"Shortly thereafter, he said that Israel was a burden to the United States. Well, Israel is a burden to the United States when you look at the money we've supplied to them per capita. Our children will have to pay it. I don't think it's a criticism to be a burden. I mean, you expect, when you have a baby, that the baby is going to be a burden until he is going to graduate from college and becomes independent... That caused a demand, which was complied with, that General Brown be taken to the woodshed over in the White House. He was publicly humiliated. You can't tell me that this is not true, it just being a fact that the Israeli lobby exerts a fantastic amount of pressure on the Congress."
Toward the end of the war, Moorer dealt with the confrontation with the Soviets, who threatened to send forces that would force the IDF to lift its siege of the Egyptian Third Army. "It appeared that this Egyptian army was going to be destroyed. That would have been the fourth time that forces equipped with Soviet equipment were destroyed. The Soviets got very concerned about that, not only from an investment point of view but from an image point of view."
Moorer did not need military intelligence to know what was happening to the 60,000 encircled Egyptians in 45 degree (centigrade) heat without water. "You just sit down there in that damned desert without any water for a day or two and you've had it. As a matter of fact, I've had that personal experience of being without water as well as food and I tell you, lack of food is just uncomfortable... but lack of water is torture. You can get accustomed to being without food... but if you don't get any water, you are in tortuous pain."
The American refusal to allow Israel to continue the siege, in the hope of ending the war with an achievement, stemmed from "the second goal, not to humiliate the Arabs," as well as from concern that the oil embargo would be exacerbated and that there would be clashes with the Soviets. The American pressure on Israel worked, but before it did, Moorer, Kissinger, Schlesinger and Colby - Nixon was barely involved in the consultations - spent quite a few tense hours. Moorer was worried about the accumulating signs attesting to Soviet military intervention: the Union's airborne divisions were placed on alert and its sealift to Syria was stopped, with the ships instead delivering Soviet tanks, which were to be manned by crews that would be flown in.
In light of the time difference - midnight in Washington and dawn in Moscow - Moorer was concerned that the Soviet operation would be launched in the early morning hours, in order to exploit daylight. An immediate decision was needed. There was no time to consult with the European members of NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization]. The allies were angry at not having been consulted when the American alert was declared, which had the effect of deterring the Soviets. "You know those bastards never get up before about 10 o'clock," Moorer fumed. He then instructed the transcriber of the memoirs, "Delete 'bastards.' Those gentlemen never get up before 10 o'clock."