One of the fascinating shifts in US policy occurs between the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Kennedy had opposed Israel getting nukes, Johnson was a wimp on the question. Kennedy had stood up for the return of refugees, Johnson didn’t push it. As historian Geoffrey Wawro said at Friday’s “National Summit to Reassess the US-Israel Special Relationship,” Kennedy was far more concerned than Johnson about the impact of US support for Israel on Arab opinion, and Johnson was far less friendly to Nasser than Kennedy.
“I’ve got three Cohens in my cabinet,” Johnson boasted after Kennedy’s death, Wawro related. “No president had done more for the Jews than he would.”
Robert Caro is of course the indefatigable biographer of Lyndon Johnson. The latest volume of his multi-volume pursuit is called The Passage of Power, and focuses on the transition from the Kennedy to the Johnson administrations. I picked it up in a friend’s house recently and saw that Israel was mentioned once or twice in the index.
Caro brings up Robert Kennedy’s visit to Israel and Palestine in 1948. Kennedy had just graduated from Harvard and filed four stories to the Boston Post. Caro:
But when he arrived in the Middle East and saw, with his own eyes, Jews fighting for their existence against overwhelming odds, and was told by a twenty-three-year-old Israeli woman (“I never saw anyone so tired,” he wrote his mother) about her four brothers fighting in the Haganah, the views he expressed in his articles for the Post were not the views of his father [a reputed anti-Semite]. “The Jews in Palestine have become an immensely proud and determined people… a truly great modern example of the birth of a nation,” he wrote. They have “an undying spirit” the Arabs could never have; as for the United States, its failure to come more strongly to Israel’s assistance should be a matter of shame. “We are certainly not the great little saints we imagine ourselves.” And there was another noteworthy aspect of the articles, written as they were by such a mediocre student: they showed, as Arthur Schlesinger writes, “a maturity, cogency and, from time to time, literary finish” quite “creditable for a football player of twenty-two.”
It wasn’t only his reaction to Jews that gave the hint, it was his reaction to the embattled to the oppressed— to anyone, it began to become apparent, who was the underdog…
Caro is of course writing about the Nakba, the period in which 750,000 Palestinians fled and/or were expelled from Palestine as part of Israel’s creation. You would have no idea about the Palestinian experience from his rendering.
Why do I think that Caro’s next book, on Johnson as president, is going to do a poor job of treating the Six Day War and the general question of US policy toward Israel?