Next Wednesday will mark the 100th birthday of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the first really pro-Israel U.S. president in terms of both word and deed.
Harry Truman has been enshrined in Jewish collective memory for recognizing Israel moments after its birth, but he maintained a strict embargo on arms to the embattled nation as it fought for its survival. His recognition would have meant nothing had the Jews of Palestine been unable to obtain Russian arms via Communist Czechoslovakia.
Eisenhower was cool to Israel from the get-go, treating it at best like an embarrassing and thankfully distant relation. Kennedy talked a good game but pushed hard for Israel to take back Arab refugees and shut down its nuclear program and at times outdid Eisenhower in assuming a bended-knee approach to Middle Eastern autocrats.
The atmosphere changed almost immediately upon Johnson’s ascendance to the presidency. Johnson–who as Senate Majority Leader in the 1950s had been one of Israel’s strongest backers in Congress–did not share Kennedy’s obsession with the refugee and nuclear issues, and his first budget, for fiscal year 1965, allocated $71 million in aid to Israel–an increase of 75 percent over Kennedy’s final budget. The amount nearly doubled in 1966, to $130 million.
Beyond the numbers, the nature and terms of the aid signaled a dramatic break with past American policy. Development loans and surplus food had constituted the extent of U.S. aid under Eisenhower and Kennedy, and anti-aircraft missiles sold to Israel by the Kennedy administration required a cash payment. Not only did Johnson become the first American president to sell offensive weapons to Israel (the missiles from Kennedy were defensive), he permitted the Israelis to buy American arms with American aid money, which meant no funds would leave Israel’s hard-pressed government coffers.
In the spring of 1967, tied down in Vietnam and wary of Soviet intentions, the administration tried to strike a neutral pose in the buildup to and the initial stages of what would become known as the Six-Day War. But it was no secret–to the Soviets, the Arabs, or anyone else–where Washington’s sympathies lay. When in the course of the war the Israelis attacked a U.S. intelligence ship, killing 34 Americans and wounding nearly 200 others, Johnson accepted Israeli assurances that the assault was a tragic mistake and overruled senior aides–including Clark Clifford, a mainstay in keeping Harry Truman on a pro-Zionist course in 1948–who urged the President to respond with harshly punitive measures.
After the war, Johnson resisted international calls to force Israel into withdrawing from the wide swaths of territory it had just captured.
While it was not widely known during his lifetime, Johnson’s affinity for Jews stemmed from early familial influences; his paternal grandfather and a number of other relatives were Christadelphians–fundamentalist Christians who believed the Jews would return to Palestine and create a new Jewish state. His grandfather would admonish young Lyndon to “Take care of the Jews. . . . Consider them your friends and help them any way you can.”
In 1939, while still a young and inexperienced congressman, Johnson was moved enough by reports of Jewish suffering in Europe to begin pulling whatever strings were necessary–not all of them legal–to save Jews from the Nazis. Over the next few years, hundreds of Jews were issued counterfeit passports and visas and brought to Johnson’s home state of Texas, where they began new lives in the safety and security of America.
Whatever else can be said of Lyndon Johnson, he proved to be a true friend of the Jews and Israel. He proved it as a young lawmaker who did everything he could to get as many Jews as possible out of Europe; as one of Israel’s most important backers in Congress during the Jewish state’s early years; and as president by granting Israel then-unprecedented levels of financial and military aid and by refusing, in marked contrast to Eisenhower’s actions after the Suez crisis of 1956, to force unilateral concessions on Israel following the Six-Day War.