Richard Nixon Twice Had Mideast Peace in His Grasp
By Richard H. Curtiss – WRMEA
“The Rogers initiative … was the first American step on the correct path… There were two factions in the U.S. who had sponsored the initiative: Rogers and a group of State Department experts who were fully convinced of the need for establishing peace in the area in order to safeguard American and Western interests. There was, however, an opposing faction led by Henry Kissinger which believed that it was in the interest of the U.S. to support Israel totally … Kissinger was able to persuade Nixon to adopt his views under the pretext of confronting Soviet infiltration in the area. This was the real beginning of the failure of the initiative.’
—Former Egyptian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Riad, 1981
My first newspaper job after army and college papers was in Whittier, California, Richard Nixon’s home town. My editor was one of the Republican citizens’ committee members who had selected Richard Nixon in 1946 from a bumper crop of young returnees from World War II to run against a well entrenched Democratic congressman and win. During my year in Whittier, from 1949 to 1950, the same committee members were working hard in Nixon’s successful 1950 senatorial campaign against actress and congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas.
I didn’t have a horse in that race. My own candidate and hometown neighbor, publisher Manchester Bodie, lost the Democratic primary to Douglas. By general election time in the fall, the Korean war was underway and I was in Los Angeles trying to decide whether to go to Asia with my new employer, United Press, or the brand new State Department program that evolved into the U.S. Information Agency.
So I voted for Richard Nixon for the only time 22 years later, in the fall of 1972, via absentee ballot from overseas. That was the year of the breakin at Democratic campaign headquarters in Washington, DC’s Watergate complex. I was aware of the “third rate burglary,” which seemed an extraordinarily dumb thing for a president’s staff to undertake, but it didn’t deter my belated enthusiasm for Richard Nixon.
I was aware that he’d come close to achieving Middle East peace early in his first presidential term, with the “Rogers Plan,” named for his secretary of state. I was sure he wouldn’t let it get away during a second term, when domestic politics would be less intrusive, And, after meeting him in the Middle East toward the end of his presidency, and communicating a little with him since we both “retired,” I’m absolutely certain he would have succeeded—were it not for Watergate.
To understand what went wrong, in a presidency shadowed at every turn by the Israeli-Arab problem, you have to go back to that campaign of 1950. It left deep wounds festering among friends of his defeated rival and her actor husband, Melvyn Douglas. Nixon hit hard from the time he entered Congress. I hadn’t realized, until I read his Six Crises, that in his epic public duel with former State Department counselor Alger Hiss in congressional committee hearings in 1948, Richard Nixon’s reputation was very far out on a limb.
The whispered charge of anti-Semitism dogged Nixon’s political footsteps.
If he hadn’t pounced on a seemingly minor inconsistency in Hiss’s testimony—which no other member of the committee noticed—instead of Hiss being convicted of passing U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union, the aggressive young congressman would eventually have been tried in the court of public opinion and dismissed as a redbaiting demagogue in the mold of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
In the rough campaign of 1950, Hollywood friends of the Douglases were convinced that Nixon was painting his opponent and her Hollywood backers red, or at least parlour pink. This was in the interval before Soviet tanks suppressed Hungarian revolutionaries in 1956, when a lot of film industry figures seemed to retain a rosier view of Josef Stalin’s tyranny than did the American mainstream. In later years however, the impression got around that Nixon’s hardball campaign might also had been tinged by anti-Semitism, based upon the religious affiliation of Melvyn Douglas and many of his wife’s political backers.
I was there and I didn’t see it. My editor, whose husband was Jewish, also was there and working hard on Nixon’s campaign. Had there been such an undercurrent, she would have jumped ship.
Two years later, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower selected Sen. Richard Nixon as his running mate in the successful 1952 presidential campaign and all Nixon’s subsequent highs and lows are part of American history. But, somehow, the whispered charge of anti-Semitism dogged his political footsteps, even after he lost the 1960 presidential campaign gracefully to John F. Kennedy, and the California gubernatorial campaign less gracefully to Edmund (Pat) Brown, Sr.
After Richard Nixon moved to Manhattan to practice law, almost the first person he sounded out about 1968 was a young Jewish lawyer in the firm, Leonard Garment. Ostensibly, Nixon wanted contacts in the television industry to improve his access to the still relatively unexplored medium. In fact, he probably wanted Jewish participation at every level of his campaign to dispel that whiff of poisonous innuendo that had only grown after remarks he made as Eisenhower’s vice president accusing some American Jewish leaders of misrepresenting U.S. Middle East policies overseas.
Garment, a Democrat up to then, became Nixon’s friend, adviser, confidant and, during the denouement of Watergate six years later, his personal lawyer. A book by a disaffected early supporter entitled The Selling of the President skewered just about everyone associated with Nixon’s successful 1968 presidential campaign—except Leonard Garment.
Midway in the first Nixon term, Garment–by then a White House legal adviser–came to the island of Rhodes where I directed the Voice of America’s Arabic service. I liked him and his wife tremendously, and agreed with his conclusions about most Israeli leaders of the time. But I wondered why a White House lawyer with such a deep interest in Israel had come all the way to Greece to visit just one Voice of America language service—the one broadcasting to Israel’s neighbors.
Driving him back to his hotel from a sun drenched outdoor restaurant on his final day in Rhodes, I returned what I considered his intrusive questions with two of my own.
“How is it that you were the only member of the president’s campaign staff who came out smelling like a rose in Joe McGinnis’s book?” I asked.
“I’ve often wondered,” he replied with a bland smile.
“Hasn’t the president ever asked you?” I persisted.
“Not yet,” he said, climbing out of the car and waving a cheerful goodbye.
A decade later, reading Henry Kissinger’s tell-all second volume of memoirs, The Gathering Storm, I found myself wondering, time after time, why Nixon hadn’t inquired of Kissinger why he was undercutting Secretary of State Rogers, the Egyptians, and the Rogers Plan that brought Middle East peace so tantalizingly close. The answer, I believe, was that Richard Nixon knew he had to have capable Jewish supporters at the highest levels of his administration, and when he got such supporters, he didn’t ask questions.
In the case of Leonard Garment, Nixon obviously felt his trust was not abused. In the case of Henry Kissinger, it’s appropriate to let the record speak. It’s also fair, since Kissinger has written so much of that record himself.
The story of the twice-lost Middle East peace starts when Nixon stunned the Harvard professor, who had long been a paid consultant to Nixon rival Nelson D. Rockefeller, by offering Kissinger the position of national security adviser.
As secretary of state, Nixon chose his fellow attorney and friend from the Eisenhower administration, William D. Rogers.
From the beginning, it was understood that the one area Kissinger was to leave totally to Rogers was the Middle East, which Nixon sensed was ripe for change in the wake of the 1967 war and U.N. Security Council Resolution 242’s ‘land-for-peace’ formula to break the 20-year stalemate. In the words of chief of staff John Ehrlichman, Nixon felt “Henry, being Jewish, simply could not gain the required confidence from Arab leaders.”1
Even before his inauguration, Nixon sent former Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton on a fact-finding mission to the Middle East, where he electrified friendly Arab rulers by saying Nixon would favor an ‘even-handed’ policy there. The statement also energized Israel’s friends in America. The resulting storm was a reminder that any Middle East initiative, especially by Nixon, would have to be handled sensitively. Governor Scranton did not get a Nixon administration job.
Nevertheless, Rogers and his State Department Middle East specialists plunged ahead to take advantage of the fact that leaders of the Arab states bordering Israel were adopting perceptibly more moderate positions in preparation for a land-for-peace deal. For its part, the Rogers Plan made it clear that there would be only ‘insubstantial’ alterations between the pre-1967 lines and Israel’s final borders.
Nixon assembled the National Security Council to launch the plan. The mood of the gathering was expressed by one participant who declared, ‘It’s high time that the United States stopped acting as Israel’s attorney in the Middle East.’
The government of Israel, which seemed fully informed of each Nixon administration step, complained that Rogers, together with the U.K., France and the U.S.S.R., was preparing to ‘impose’ a Middle East settlement which would force it to give up battlefield conquests essential to its security in return for paper promises.
As Rogers took his plan to the Middle East, Kissinger found a role for himself in the growing furor. He began a series of confidential briefings for the U.S. Jewish organizations and journalists who were moving to support Israel. He warned them that since Nixon had been elected without significant Jewish support, personal attacks on the president rather than on the State Department might have undesirable consequences for American Jews.
Drawing the Fire
The result was that the intense criticism of the administration’s Middle East plan focused almost exclusively on Rogers’s State Department. In fact, Nixon personally believed Israel would never enjoy real security until it had signed peace agreements with all of its Arab neighbors. Instead of using all resources of the U.S. government to explain this to the American Jewish community, however, Nixon and Kissinger left Rogers to negotiate almost alone the plan that Nixon saw as the key not only to Middle East peace, but also to ejecting the Russians, who had been fishing so successfully in troubled Middle Eastern waters.
By now however, Kissinger had moved in his briefings with journalists to denigration of the plan. It depended upon Soviet cooperation, he said, and thus it was illogical to expect the Soviets to cooperate in a peace plan aimed at getting them out of the Middle East.
The Soviets, in fact, did reject the plan publicly, and the Egyptian government of President Gamal Abdel Nasser foolishly echoed that criticism. By this time the Israelis had all of the details of the plan, so Rogers made it public on Dec. 9, 1968, convinced that a close examination by Arab leaders would reverse their opposition.
Kissinger seized the opportunity to bring his own opposition into the open. He told his staff that Rogers had not cleared the Dec. 9 speech with him, and had therefore caught the president unaware. This was not true however, as Joseph Sisco, Roger’s principal Middle East assistant who later held the same position under Kissinger, said Kissinger not only had seen the speech in advance, but had made substantive comments and recommendations for changes.
The following day, Kissinger criticized the Rogers Plan at a National Security Council meeting. He advanced a diametrically opposed Middle East strategy to delay a Middle East settlement for as long as it took to convince the Arabs that the Soviet Union could not help them get back their land. On Dec. 17, Nixon told Leonard Garment to give private assurances to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir that the Rogers Plan did not have his full backing. A month later, Nixon made the same assurances personally at an emergency meeting of U.S. Jewish leaders who had assembled to protest the plan.
Thanks to Kissinger’s strategy, the Rogers Plan effectively was strangled in the cradle before Nasser realized how ‘evenhanded’ it really was. By the time he and other Arab leaders got around to responding to Rogers’s overtures, Kissinger already had barred the door.
From then on, as Nixon fixed his attention upon winding down the Vietnam War and the opening to China, in addition to domestic concerns, U.S. Middle East policy was on two tracks. From Rogers’s State Department, moves toward moderation were encouraged. Kissinger, in the White House, was determined that the Middle East should continue to bleed. And bleed it did.
First the ‘war of attrition’ between Israeli and Egyptian forces dug in on both sides of the Suez Canal grew from commando raids back and forth across the canal and the Red Sea into bombing raids on Cairo and aerial confrontations between Israeli and Soviet pilots overhead. Hijackings of commercial aircraft by Palestinian leftist militants culminated in ‘Black September,’ in which armed Palestinians were expelled from Jordan and eventually set up shop anew in Lebanon.
Nasser died and was replaced by Anwar Sadat. Soon Sadat sounded out the U.S. about expelling the Russians from Egypt. Kissinger ignored him, and ridiculed Rogers for recommending otherwise.
Then, in the summer of 1972, Sadat expelled the Russian military advisers from Egypt. There was no White House response. Kissinger had convinced Nixon that the last thing he needed was renewed hostility from the American Jewish community just as he faced a reelection campaign. As Kissinger wrote later, ‘My principal assignment was to make sure that no explosion occurred to complicate the 1972 election, which meant that I was to stall.’
I recall predicting to friends during that campaign that ‘after spending four years arming the Israelis to the teeth, Nixon will turn to them after his reelection and say, `Now that you’re secure, it’s time for you to make peace.’
All the documents show that this was exactly what Nixon started to do. Kissinger himself records in his book Years of Upheaval that Nixon, after his reelection, penciled on a Kissinger memorandum recommending continued U.S. inaction in the Middle East: ‘I have delayed through two elections and this year I am determined to move off dead center. I totally disagree. This thing is getting ready to blow.’
In another appended comment recorded around the same time by Kissinger, Nixon made his intended course clear:
‘K- you know my position of standing firmly with Israel has been based on broader issues than just Israel’s survival and those issues now strongly argue for movement towards a settlement. We are now Israel’s only major friend in the world. I have yet to see one iota of give on their part. This is the time to get moving—and they must be told that firmly…The time has come to quit pandering to Israel’s intransigent position. Our actions over the past have led them to think we will stand with them regardless of how unreasonable they are.’
The only flaw was that, instead of being immunized from domestic politics by his election to a second term, Nixon now had to defend his presidency against charges growing out of that bungled ‘third-rate burglary.’ Surely no one believes by now that Nixon knew the men who actually went into the Watergate office of the Democratic campaign committee, or exactly what they were seeking in the summer of 1972.
He can be faulted, however, for covering up for them afterward. He should never have assembled in the first place that unsavory crew of ‘plumbers,’ charged with plugging White House leaks to the press, whose presence gave rise to the Watergate break-in.
The conventional wisdom is that the leakers Nixon sought were those undermining his Vietnam policy. I think in his mind, however, they also were connected to the damaging leaks to Israel about the contents of the Rogers Plan, and the strategy for selling it, at the very beginning of his term. He believed that some of the opposition to his plans for winding down the Vietnam War was motivated by a desire to keep him from cranking up (getting involved in) another Middle East peace initiative.
His many bitter references to his ‘enemies’ can be assumed to mean the liberal Eastern establishment press. Many certainly were enemies, but the evidence shows he had something more specific in mind on at least one occasion. That was when, in 1972, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released figures Nixon felt would be used by the press to hurt his reelection campaign.
He went into a tirade, and charged Fred Malek, a member of his White House staff, with determining how many of the government economists who had prepared the figures were Jewish. Irrational, perhaps, but indicative that he felt some of Israel’s American supporters had reached the same conclusion I had by 1972: If Nixon won a second term, he would start all over with a land-for-peace agreement in the Middle East, and do it his own way, not Henry Kissinger’s.
Instead, with the drip-drip-drip of Watergate consuming more and more of his attention from the first days of his second term, Nixon eventually allowed Henry Kissinger to become the secretary of state in name as well as in fact, and to retain his national security adviser position as well. This ensured continuation of Kissinger’s policy of letting the Arabs bleed, although with the Russians out of Egypt there was no rational excuse for it any more.
The result was that Anwar Sadat, the most moderate Mideast leader, after threatening for three years to go to war to liberate Egypt’s occupied lands if the Israelis refused to withdraw, and being ignored by Kissinger, finally did in conjunction with Syria exactly what he said he would do. The October 1973 attack caught Kissinger, and Israel, totally by surprise.
Now, with Israel bleeding and Nixon engrossed in Watergate, Kissinger openly took charge. At a night meeting of the National Security Council which he convened, apparently without informing Nixon, Kissinger threatened other cabinet members and military advisers with immediate dismissal if they did not get underway the massive lift of U.S. planes, tanks, artillery and ammunition that saved Israel, alienated Europe, and brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union closer to nuclear war than ever before or since.
It also brought the oil price shock—the Arab political embargo—that beggared half of Western Europe and from which the industrial world has only recently recovered. Then came Kissinger’s headline-grabbing shuttles between Arabs and Israelis in which he persuaded Nixon to go for ‘step-by-step’ solutions instead of the comprehensive peace for which both the Arabs and Nixon yearned.
Incredibly, Kissinger persuaded the politically wounded Nixon that, whatever Watergate did to the presidency, it must not be allowed to damage Kissinger’s peace shuttles. The result was that Kissinger stayed overseas for much of the time that ‘Deep Throat’ supposedly was filling in Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and Washington Post editor Howard Simon on every White House twist and turn to stave off the end of Nixon’s second term—and the end of Nixon’s Mideast peacemaking.
Few people remember how closely intertwined the two sagas became. In a desperate attempt to help keep Nixon’s head above water, Anwar Sadat arranged a triumphal procession by train from Alexandria to Cairo in which the two leaders took the cheers of more than a million Egyptians. How many of those cheering knew who Nixon was didn’t matter. At the Cairo terminus of the trip the diplomatic relations broken during the 1967 war were restored. Everyone knew that signaled renewed prosperity for Egypt at the end of the long Russian night.
Nixon’s next stop in Damascus was a particularly poignant time for me. I had been there in June 1967, when Syria broke diplomatic relations and we lowered the U.S. flag from an embassy building battered by three days of mob violence, interrupted only by Israeli air raids.
I was the only one of many Americans pulled into Damascus to help make the Nixon visit a success who had been present both then and now as we raised the flag again. Nixon was gracious in conversation, but he looked terrible. He was limping perceptibly from the as yet undiagnosed phlebitis that soon was to assume life threatening dimensions, and his face seemed gray. Between speeches and exchanging toasts with Syrian President Hafez Al Assad to the restored relationship between the two countries, Nixon’s gaze seemed fixed not on the clear skies of Damascus, but the threatening political clouds at home.
Alone for a minute with White House press secretary Ron Ziegler, I noted that the exhilarating Middle East events were going unbelievably well. ‘Do you suppose the televised scenes from over here could save the presidency over there?’ I asked.
‘They’re supposed to,’ Ziegler replied laconically.
They didn’t. A month later Richard Nixon resigned and flew off to California. With him went the hope of Middle East peace in his time.
I think this–the destruction of Nixon’s peace plan–is what was wanted by those who worked so hard to keep alive the cover-up of the third-rate burglary that brought down a presidency. Since the October 1973 disaster for Israel and for the world’s economy that more attention by Nixon might have prevented, however, there has been far worse. Neither the civil war in Lebanon nor the Israeli invasion would have taken place if Nixon’s peace initiative had been successful.
Over the 20 years from 1974 to 1994 there have been myriad other disasters in the Middle East, and hundreds of thousands of lives shattered by Scuds, bombs, napalm, rockets, grenades, katushas, machine guns, truck bombs, car bombs, suitcase bombs and even knives and rubber bullets in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Palestine and, over and over, Israel itself.
Is all of this what was intended by those who set out, by fair means or foul, to thwart a peace plan by destroying a presidency? No prime minister of Israel can trade land for peace in the absence of American pressure. But where will the pressure come from if every president with the will to apply it is destroyed?
Alan Knutson Commentaries
For those ‘not in the know’, Richard Curtis was a career diplomat who had a bird’s eye view of everything taking place both out in front and behind the scenes regarding American foreign policy in the Middle East.
As you read this, please pay close attention to those sections dealing with Nixon’s ‘Ultimate Peace Deal’ and juxtapose what took place then with all the Jrama that is taking place now and–not coincidentally–the fact that it is the very same people hell-bent on scuttling any American president’s plans for resolving the conflict in the area and who are today applying the very same template against Trump that they used in bringing down the Nixon Administration.