Memorandum Rejecting Tank Sale to Israel
(May 15, 1964)
President Johnson instructs his special council
to inform Israeli Prime Minister Levi
that the U.S. is denying Israel's request to buy American tanks
at least an appearance of balance between Israel and the Arabs."
Memorandum From President Johnson to His Deputy Special
Washington, May 15, 1964.
President's Instruction for Feldman-Sloan Mission
In view of the repeated Israeli pleas for a quick answer on their tank
request, I am sending you to explain our position on the matter. You
should explain to Prime Minister Eshkol that we are giving him our firm
views through you so the tank matter won't get in the way of a constructive
visit, to which I am looking forward eagerly. You should then talk with
him along the following lines:
I. Context in Which We Considered Tank Request. We've taken a most
exhaustive look at the tank matter, as the Israelis well know. Our JCS
and intelligence community have assessed the present and prospective
military balance. In arriving at our decision we also had to take into
account whether the likely gain to Israel and the US outweighed the
potential costs. I want you to assure Eshkol, however, that we did so
on the basis of the underlying premise that Israel's security must be
A. In fact the US regards itself, and all the Arabs do too, as consistently
the staunchest supporter of Israel. It is primarily the US which is
expected by them to come to Israel's defense if attacked. This, of course,
is simple truth--since 1950 it has been a fixed tenet of our policy,
reiterated by every President, to deter and if necessary cope with military
aggression against Israel. We have also, through both public and private
means, been Israel's strongest financial backers. I want you to say
again that I am as firmly behind this policy as my predecessors.
B. But we have felt it necessary to maintain at least an appearance
of balance between Israel and the Arabs, because of our wide interests
in the area and desire not to thrust Arabs into arms of Moscow. This
policy has always seemed to us as much in Israel's interest as our own--not
only does it give us leverage with Arabs but it helps limit Arab receptivity
to such obvious Soviet meddling as Khrushchev is up to right now in
C. One facet of this policy has been to avoid providing clearly offensive
weapons to Israel or to Arab states which could use them against her.
Nor has this policy compromised Israel's ability to maintain a substantial
deterrent edge. Shrewd purchases from Europe, indirectly subsidized
by US aid, have enabled Israel to stay well ahead of Arabs. In fact,
our JCS and intelligence people all see Israel retaining a substantial
margin of superiority for the next several years.
D. This is also the year of the Jordan Waters crisis, on which the
US is already carrying the main burden of backing Israel. To overload
the circuit by such a dramatic shift in US policy as a big tank sale,
especially at the very time when Moscow is bidding for Arab favor, could
simply undermine our relations with the Arabs. We mean here not just
the UAR but almost every Arab country:
1. It might jeopardize the position of Jordan, and at the least make
it impossible for Hussein to maintain close relations with us.
2. Since Libya has become one of the most fanatical anti-Israel states,
we would almost certainly lose our base.
3. Our restraining influence on issues like the Jordan diversion would
be thrown away just when it is needed most. Arab frustration over their
inability to do much about it could easily be catalyzed by a tank deal
into a violent reaction against us.
4. In fact, we see a major risk of Arab counteraction against our oil,
already likely to come under fire because of the Jordan Waters crisis.
Khrushchev could end up the chief gainer, not Israel.
II. Meeting Israel's Need for Tanks. For all these reasons I do not
believe that the US can afford a direct sale of tanks. Nonetheless we
are as interested as ever in seeing Israeli deterrent capabilities maintained
(though our JCS and intelligence people think Israel more pessimistic
than it need be, and we believe Israel discounts far too heavily the
added deterrent created by Arab belief the US will intervene).
A. On tanks specifically, we recognize that Israel's armor needs gradual
modernization to keep a dangerous imbalance from developing, though
here too our JCS see needs as more like 300 than 500 tanks over next
2-3 years. We also note heavy Israeli purchases of advanced AT weapons.
B. We intend to see that Israel gets the tanks it needs, but without
exposing the US to unacceptable political risks. We believe, based on
recent inquiries, that it can buy enough modern tanks to meet its needs--in
quantities, on terms, and with delivery schedules comparable to the
best we could do ourselves--from the UK and possibly West Germany. Of
course we can't speak for them; Israel will have to talk directly.
C. But we promise US help in paving the way. The one absolute imperative
is to avoid publicity, especially surrounding the Eshkol visit here.
If the finger is pointed at London or Bonn it would be politically impossible
for them to fill such a large order.
D. The US could not justify grant MAP to Israel in any case. Its financial
position is such that it can afford to buy tanks. And Centurions from
the UK or M-48s from Germany are probably available at similar prices
to what we'd charge. Nor, as you told Eshkol before, could we justify
giving tanks free while Israel uses its own foreign exchange to buy
missiles from France.
III. Israeli Missiles. I want you to assure Eshkol that our concerns
over Israeli missile plans in no way influenced our decision. We also
recognize we can't make this decision for Israel. But I want Eshkol
to know of my worry lest Israel get missiles on a scale which would
actually serve to accelerate the arms race rather than damp it down.
You needn't argue this matter, but simply remind Eshkol that it is
on our agenda. Tell him our experts are convinced UAR can't develop
enough missile capability to present much of a threat. Even advanced
missiles are of questionable value without nuclear warheads, which are
far beyond the UAR. So we wonder why Israel should spend so much on
highly expensive missiles, which are wasteful without nuclear warheads
and highly dangerous if the Arabs conclude, as we fear they will, that
Israel has nuclear plans in mind.
In sum I want you to make clear that, while we can't sell Israel tanks
directly, we intend to see that a comparable alternative is worked out,
always provided the matter can be closely held. Thus we are confident
that Israel's security concern can be suitably met.
Lyndon B. Johnson
1 Source: Johnson Library, National Security File,
Country File, Israel, Tanks, Vol. I. Secret. Drafts of this memorandum
entitled "Feldman Talking Paper, "dated May 13 and 14, apparently
drafted by Komer, are ibid. The memorandum was sent to Johnson with
a May 15 covering memorandum from Komer, which states, "It tells
Mike exactly what we want him to say, so he won't stray off the reservation."
(Ibid.) A copy filed with a May 19 covering memorandum from Bromley
Smith to Rusk, McNamara, and JCS Chairman Taylor states that the instruction,
as amended by Rusk, was approved by the President on May 16. (Washington
National Records Center, RG 330, OSD Files: FRC 70 A 1266, Israel 470)
See Document 57.
Sources: Department of State