A peculiar combination of internal and external forces was necessary to set off the third Arab-Israeli war in June 1967.
A peculiar combination of internal and external forces was necessary to set off the third Arab-Israeli war in June 1967. A most unstable equilibrium had, of course, existed in the area since the second war in 1956. But for all their suspicions and grievances, the two main antagonists, Egypt and Israel, had not resorted to force against each other for ten years. That a full-scale war should have erupted this year suggests that a new element had to be injected into the Middle East to upset the status quo. And this new element could only come from the outside.
The antagonisms and rivalries which led to this war resemble roads that crisscross in all directions. Some were more important than others but no single one of them could have brought about the conflict. The Arab-Israeli conflict, deep as it was, had been held in leash for the most part since 1956 by other conflicting forces. Foremost among them were the conflicts among the Arab states themselves. They could not turn on Israel as long as they were spending so much substance and energy fighting among themselves. To the “revolutionary” Arab states, Egypt and Syria, victory over the “reactionary” Arab states, especially Jordan and Saudi Arabia, was a precondition for victory over Israel. Egyptian priorities seemed first to be Yemen, where its forces had been fighting for more than four years, and then Aden, which the British had promised to evacuate in 1968. On top of this, Egypt and Syria were busy competing for the leadership of the “revolutionary” Arab struggle. They were also divided on the strategy to be followed against Israel.
What we know as the Middle East, moreover, has more in it than Arabs and Jews. In addition to about two and a half million Jews and 60 million Arabs, it contains some 75 million non-Arab Moslems extending from Turkey to Iran. Until World War II, most of the area was essentially a British sphere of influence, with France entrenched in Syria and Lebanon only. France was eliminated by 1946. Britain quit Palestine in 1948, Iran in 1951, Sudan in 1953, Egypt in 1954-56, Jordan in 1957, and Iraq in 1958. As the British and French retreated, the United States and the Soviet Union moved in. The Truman Doctrine, for the containment of Communism, was promulgated in 1947 in response to Soviet pressure in three countries—two of them, Turkey and Iran, in the Middle East. The Truman administration unsuccessfully tried to organize a Middle East Defense Command, embracing the United States, United Kingdom, France, Turkey, and the Arab states, in 1951. Former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was more successful on a more limited scale by bringing together Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Great Britain in a defense arrangement known as the Baghdad Pact in 1955. The Soviet Union countered that same year with an arms deal with Egypt—the first great Soviet military and political breakthrough in the Arab world. By the end of the decade, the Chinese Communists had begun to assert themselves, especially in Iraq and Syria.
Thus there have been antagonisms and rivalries between Arabs and Israelis, Arabs and Arabs, Arab and non-Arab states, U.S. and USSR, Russian Communists and Chinese Communists. The battle of June 5 was not the result solely of differences between Arabs and Israelis, and it probably would not have broken out when it did if they had simply been left alone.
As in all such seemingly irreconcilable conflicts, the real casus belli is a struggle against history. And this history has been so encrusted with myths and legends that there can be little hope of progress toward reconciliation until some of them have been swept away.
One of the most potent legends is that Israel owes its very existence to “Western imperialism.” It is well to determine how much truth there is in this story, not only for its own sake, but because it offers a good starting-point for considering the curious course of Soviet policy.
It is true, of course, that the British government’s Balfour Declaration started Israel on the road to statehood in 1917. But a good many British governments and Foreign Secretaries came between that promissory note on the Promised Land, which cost Britain nothing, and the United Nations General Assembly vote in favor of partitioning Palestine on November 29, 1947. Ernest Bevin, then British Foreign Secretary, was so little sympathetic to the Jewish cause that he opened himself up to the charge of anti-Semitism. Britain, in fact, abstained in the vote on the crucial resolution, and did little or nothing to implement it.
If Israel owed its existence to any powers besides itself, they were the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The favorable UN vote would not have been possible without the support of the Soviet Union, which could have vetoed the measure in the Security Council. In fact, the Soviet representative, Andrei A. Gromyko, then Deputy Foreign Minister, defended the partition of Palestine and the establishment of an independent Jewish state with all the arguments that the Arabs then and later have refused to accept. For example, he linked the birth of Israel with the Jewish past in Palestine and with the extermination of millions of Jews in Europe. In the session of November 26, 1947, he said:
The representatives of the Arab States claim that the partition of Palestine would be an historic injustice. But this view of the case is unacceptable, if only because, after all, the Jewish people has been closely linked with Palestine for a considerable period in history. Apart from that, we must not overlook—and the USSR delegation drew attention to this circumstance originally at the special session of the General Assembly—we must not overlook the position in which the Jewish people found themselves as a result of the recent world war. I shall not repeat what the USSR delegation said on this point at the special session of the General Assembly. However, it may not be remiss to remind my listeners again that, as a result of the war which was unleashed by Hitlerite Germany, the Jews, as a people, have suffered more than any other people.
No one exceeded Gromyko, once the Soviet leaders had made up their minds that a binational, Arab-Jewish state in Palestine was impossible, in the ardor with which he praised the decision to set up a Jewish state:
The solution of the Palestine problem based on a partition of Palestine into two separate states will be of profound historical significance, because this decision will meet the legitimate demands of the Jewish people, hundreds of thousands of whom, as you know, are still without a country, without homes, having found temporary shelter only in special camps in some western European countries.
Yet, in the same speech, Gromyko made a prophetic gesture to gain the favor of the Arab states:
The USSR delegation is convinced that Arabs and Arab States will still, on more than one occasion, be looking towards Moscow and expecting the USSR to help them in the struggle for their lawful interests, in their efforts to cast off the last vestiges of foreign dependence.1
The first country to recognize Israel, on May 14, 1948, eleven minutes after the new state’s declaration of independence went into effect, was the United States. But the Soviet Union, the third, was not far behind four days later. The first diplomatic representatives to arrive in Tel Aviv one after the other in August 1948 were the American and the Soviet; they stayed at the same two-story hotel, which flew U.S. and USSR flags on its roof. The Israeli parliament on March 9, 1949 adopted a program of basic principles, one of which avowed “friendship with all freedom-loving states, in particular with the United States and the Soviet Union.” 2 For a while, it seemed that, diplomatically, the Messiah had come to bring the two great powers together again in the Holy Land. If the existence of the state of Israel was the original sin, the Soviets were as implicated in it as anyone else.
A glance at the first Arab-Israeli war yields some useful historical perspective.
The Arab guerrilla war broke out as soon as the UN voted for the partition plan on November 29, 1947. Then the regular armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq invaded Palestine when the state of Israel was established on May 14, 1948. If arms were all that mattered, Israel should have been throttled at birth. Israel had only a small, underground defense force, the Haganah, with no artillery, tanks, or planes. The Arab armies were overwhelmingly stronger in numbers and equipment. At a particularly crucial moment, the Israelis managed to secure rifles, light machine-guns, and ammunition from Czechoslovakia.3 Once war had broken out in earnest, the UN did not know what to do. The United States wavered and suddenly switched from supporting the partition of Palestine to putting all of it under a temporary “trusteeship.” Ironically, the Soviet Union came out most firmly for going through with the original plan; Gromyko severely criticized the United States for holding back.4
As long as the Arab states thought they were winning, they ignored the UN, which vainly called on them to cease and desist. When the battle began to turn against them, they agreed to a one-month truce or cease-fire on June 11, 1948. But the pause gave the Syrians and Egyptians time to rest and regroup; they refused to renew the truce, took up arms again, and fought for another ten days—with the result that the Israelis captured almost half of Galilee in the north, which they would otherwise not have had. In mid-October, the Egyptians again broke the truce and renewed the fighting—with the result that the Israelis pushed them back and gained control of the Negev in the south, which they also might not have had. The fighting in the Sinai stopped on January 7, 1949, and armistice agreements were signed separately with Egypt on February 24, with Lebanon on March 23, with Jordan on April 3, and with Syria on July 20 of that year. Each of the Arab states tried to get the best bargain for itself, irrespective of the others. The procedure may be suggestive of the future.
In terms of the UN’s position, there is no doubt who the “aggressor” was. The Arab states’ resort to force was unmistakably a defiance of the UN resolution of November 29, 1947. Trygve Lie, then UN Secretary General, wrote in his memoirs: “The invasion of Palestine by the Arab States was the first armed aggression which the world had seen since the end of the War.”5 The “aggression” was halted by Israeli resistance, not by the UN, which stepped in only after the Arab states had lost their taste for fighting.
If the Arabs had accepted the UN plan of 1947, as the Jews did, Israel would have been a tiny, geographic monstrosity. The plan divided Palestine into seven parts, three Jewish and three Arab, each virtually disjointed, and a seventh, Jerusalem, which was to be “internationalized.” The largest Jewish part consisted of the Negev, then a wasteland. But this also meant that Eilat, at the southern tip of the Negev desert and at the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, was allotted to Israel to give it an outlet through the Straits of Tiran to the Red Sea and the East. Thus, when Israel captured the Negev in the late 1948 fighting, it was able to occupy Eilat, which the UN had allotted to it in theory only.
Once the Arab leaders became more interested in saving their shattered armies than in destroying Israel, they were delighted to go back to the 1947 UN partition plan which they had previously denounced. But it was too late. The armistice negotiations, which earned Dr. Ralph Bunche, the UN mediator, his Nobel Peace Prize, were advanced lessons in Oriental haggling. In the end, all parties remained pretty much where they had been when the fighting stopped. For example, the Egyptians remained in the Gaza Strip, which they still held but which had never been Egyptian soil. The Jordanians held on to the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Old City in Jerusalem, neither of which had ever been part of Jordan. Though the armistice agreement provided for “free access to the Holy Places and cultural institutions,” such as the Wailing Wall and the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, Jordan refused to live up to it—and nothing was done. As for Israel, the 1949 armistice agreements left it about one-third larger in territory than it would have been under the 1947 UN partition plan. Each war has ended with the Arabs more than willing to go back to the status quo ante.
The Soviet Union did not object to the outcome of the first Arab-Israeli war. It did not insist on a return to the 1947 boundaries. It did not assail the Israelis as aggressors because they had beaten back the armies of five Arab states and had forced them to accept armistice boundaries. It must be emphasized that none of these states had a “right” to Palestine territory which had never been theirs; the UN partition plan of 1947 had envisaged a new Arab state which never came into being. The main territorial effect of the 1949 armistice agreements was the enlargement of Israel, Jordan, and Egypt in that order.6 In the present crisis, Arab leaders have talked much of going back to 1956, 1949, or 1947. Yet the differences between these three resulted from Arab-Israeli wars.
The UN’s function was limited in the main to providing a skillful mediator for the 1949 armistice negotiations. Once the armistices were signed and the Arab leaders had recovered their nerve, UN resolutions were heeded as much as the famous resolution of November 29, 1947 had been heeded. In violation of the Constantinople Convention of 1888, Egypt has never permitted an Israeli ship to pass through the Suez Canal.7 On September 1, 1951, and again on October 13, 1956, the Security Council called on Egypt to lift these restrictions. Neither resolution enabled a single Israeli ship to pass through the Canal. At the end of 1949, after the armistice agreement was signed, Egypt installed guns at Sharm el-Sheikh overlooking the Straits of Tiran to blockade the Israeli port of Eilat. To justify this hostile act, Egypt claimed that it was still in a state of “belligerency” with Israel, armistice or no armistice. By the time Israel attempted to take the issue to the Security Council in March 1954, the Soviets had adopted a new pro-Arab line, and a Soviet veto prevented the Council from doing anything about it.
I have touched on some aspects of the crucial 1947-49 period because so much of the present Arab-Israeli conflict goes back to it. To both Arabs and Israelis, their third war was a continuation of the first and second. If the issue were merely the blockade of Eilat or the status of the Gaza Strip or the treatment of Arab refugees or the prevention of terrorist raids, it would probably not be beyond the wit of Arabs and Israelis to resolve. But the one, fundamental issue has always been the existence of the state of Israel. Once this is put in question, no lesser, immediate, practical problem can be settled in good faith or, more often, even brought up for settlement. As we shall see, the third Arab-Israeli war was fought in order to return, or to prevent a return, to the status quo ante of the second, and if the Arabs had been successful, they would not and could not have stopped short of going back to the status quo ante of the first. It is only by knowing something about the first two wars that the third can be understood.
And yet, if there is one subject that must be ruled out as off-limits, it is Israel’s very existence. This is certainly true for all those powers which helped to bring Israel into existence or have recognized its right to exist. The contradiction in the Soviet position is that although it was most instrumental in bringing about the UN decision to partition Palestine in 1947-49 and cannot repudiate the right of Israel to live without repudiating its own past, it has nevertheless supported Arab states whose policies have been dedicated to just such a repudiation. There is a more fundamental reason, however, why nothing useful or hopeful can come out of questioning the very basis of Israel’s national existence. If the Arabs have a “right” to destroy Israel by force, Israel cannot be denied the “right” to use force to prevent its destruction. It is too late to expect the Israelis to give up without a struggle what they have earned and won. As soon as the casus belli becomes the existence of Israel, there is no right and no wrong; there is only force to determine whether Israel is going to live or die. The relationship of Israel to the Arab world can be discussed more or less rationally; whether there should be an Israel cannot.
From the second Arab-Israeli war in 1956, it is possible to learn what conditions were necessary to bring on another conflict.
These conditions have, in the main, been five: (1) a rise in the level of Arab terrorist raids against Israel and Israeli military retaliation; (2) a significant imbalance in the level of arms available to both sides; (3) blockade of the Straits of Tiran to prevent shipping from the Israeli port of Eilat; (4) Arab military pacts and troop movements encircling Israel; and (5) a marked shift in the policies of the Communist and the Western powers vis-à-vis Israel and the Arab states. No one of these conditions may be determining, but when all come together, the danger of conflict clearly approaches the boiling point.
As early as 1951, it was clear that a cycle of Arab raids and Israeli reprisals had started. By 1955, both Egypt and Israel were officially committed to one or the other phase of the cycle. The question that concerns us here is not which side was guilty or innocent in individual incidents; the determination was generally too much even for the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization, set up in 1948-49 to investigate breaches of the armistice agreements. We can only view this problem as a symptom of approaching war.
Until 1955, no Arab government accepted responsibility for the attacks on Israeli life and property by small groups of Arab “infiltrators.” Israeli policy, on the other hand, made retaliatory or punitive actions a government decision and a military operation. This policy was based on the belief that these raids were a form of irregular warfare and that the Arab governments were responsible for their recurrence. Where, as in Lebanon, the government discouraged border incidents, they were few, and where, as in Egypt, Jordan, or Syria, the government encouraged or tolerated them, they were increasingly menacing. In any event, something changed in 1955. In August, it became known that Egypt was behind a campaign of sabotage and terrorism by groups known as “fedayeen.” 8 As more and more fedayeen incidents piled up, Israeli reprisals intensified, until small-scale battles were being waged.
In September 1955, the first Soviet-Egyptian arms deal was consummated, though it was at first publicly attributed to Czechoslovakia. Until then, both Israel and the Arab states had been dependent on Western arms. But these were in relatively short supply owing to a Tripartite Declaration by Britain, France, and the United States on May 25, 1950, barring an arms race in the area. Suddenly, Egypt’s new source of supply completely upset the existing balance. Egypt received tanks, artillery, fighter and bomber aircraft, and other weapons in such numbers that, materially, Israel was far outclassed.9 In 1956 as in 1967, Egypt lost the war not because it did not have the equipment but because it did not properly use what it had. Though the Tripartite Declaration had recognized that both Israel and the Arab states needed to maintain “a certain level of armed forces” to assure their self-defense, the United States and Great Britain refused to balance the Soviet arms shipments to Egypt with sales to Israel. Only France agreed to provide Israel with new arms, especially planes. A shipment of 200 French trucks arrived two days before the outbreak in 1956 and, according to Major-General Moshe Dayan, then Israeli Chief of Staff, “saved the situation.”10
Eilat, the Gulf of Aqaba, and the Straits of Tiran, of which we heard so much in the days before the third Arab-Israeli war, were also prime factors in setting off the second. The Israelis never reconciled themselves to the Egyptian blockade of Eilat. They were prepared to deal with the illegal Suez blockade diplomatically, but Eilat was always something else. Former Prime Minister David Ben Gurion made the freedom of passage from Eilat to Asia and Africa one of his main planks in the 1955 electoral campaign in Israel. Soon afterward, in September of that year, Egypt broadened the Eilat blockade to apply not only to Israeli ships but to ships of any other nation bound for Eilat, and even forced the Israeli commercial airplanes en route to South Africa to stop flying over the Straits of Tiran. From the fall of 1955, Ben Gurion made known publicly and privately that Israel could not tolerate the blockade of Eilat indefinitely. In November 1955, in a statement of policy of his new government, he warned: “This one-sided war will have to stop, for it cannot remain one-sided forever.” As we now know, the two war aims which the Israeli government set for itself in 1956 were to break the blockade of Eilat and to eliminate the fedayeen bases in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai desert.11
T. E. Lawrence once said that “Arab unity is a madman’s notion.” If the Israelis could always count on this being true, they would have much less to worry about. Whenever the Arab countries show signs of uniting, the Israelis begin to worry because almost the only thing the Arabs can unite in favor of is against Israel. As someone has said, if Arab nationalists did not have Israel, they would have to invent it. When rivals, such as Syria and Egypt, and enemies, such as Jordan and Egypt, sign military pacts, they can mean only one thing—a two- or three-front war against Israel. An Egyptian-Syrian Mutual Defense Pact was signed on October 20, 1955, a similar Egyptian-Saudi Arabian military agreement seven days later, and Jordan adhered to them the following October.
Finally, the outcome of the war of 1956 was as much determined by shifts in the policies of the Communist and Western powers as by anything else. The Soviet-Egyptian arms deal the year before was undoubtedly the decisive move which emboldened Egypt to take steps more reckless than ever before and to drive Israel into a state of desperation. At the same time, for reasons of their own, Britain and France decided to settle accounts with Nasser’s Egypt. In July 1956, when the United States unexpectedly withdrew its offer to assist Egypt to construct the Aswan High Dam and Nasser struck back by nationalizing the Suez Canal Company, the Anglo-French reaction was less tolerant than the American. For the British, it was an opportunity to get back into the Canal Zone, which they had just evacuated, and to reassert themselves in their old imperial domain. The French were as much interested in punishing Nasser for helping the Algerian rebels as in getting back control of the Canal. The Israelis considered the Anglo-French resentments a windfall, enabling them to overcome Egypt’s advantage in Soviet arms. Dayan says that it is doubtful whether Israel would have moved against Egypt on October 29, 1956, if it had not known that the British and French were planning an operation of their own two days later.12 The Russians had their hands full with their intervention in Hungary, which Soviet armed forces entered on November 1. The United States, having done more than its share to set all these moves going, surprised everyone by making common cause with the Soviets and by devoting itself more to getting Britain, France, and Israel out of Egypt than the Soviets out of Hungary.
For the Israelis, the “primary aim” of the campaign, according to Dayan, was the capture of the Egyptian fortress of Sharm el-Sheikh, commanding the Straits of Tiran and, therefore, the route to the Israeli port of Eilat. This was the last and hardest battle which the Israelis won on November 5. Dayan goes so far as to observe that the failure to take Sharm el-Sheikh would have meant, despite the other victories, loss of the entire campaign.13 How much this position meant to them was also shown by how tenaciously they held on to it. When the British and French were forced by U.S.-Soviet pressure to give up their drive to Suez, the Israelis did not follow suit. Ben Gurion refused to get out of Sinai without guarantees that the blockade of Eilat and the terrorist raids from the Gaza Strip would come to an end. It took four months, during which the Israelis held out alone, for these demands to be met. Neither Egypt nor the Soviet Union was able to force the Israelis out of Sharm el-Sheikh. The power which had most to do with the Israeli evacuation was the United States. On February 11, 1957, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles presented to then Israeli Ambassador Abba Eban an aide-mémoire which stated:
With respect to the Gulf of Aqaba and access thereto—the United States believes that the Gulf comprehends international waters and that no nation has the right to prevent free and innocent passage in the Gulf and through the Straits giving access thereto.
Another passage in this memorandum reads:
In the absence of some overriding decision to the contrary, as by the International Court of Justice, the United States, on behalf of vessels of United States registry, is prepared to exercise the right of free and innocent passage and to join with others to secure general recognition of this right.14
The Soviet spokesman in the UN interpreted this commitment to mean that the United States was threatening to use force, if necessary, to make the Gulf of Aqaba an international waterway,15 and the U.S. representative, Henry Cabot Lodge, did not dispute him.
But Israel was in no mood to accept the strongest U.S. assurances. The Israelis demanded more than mere words and did not move until they received it. This took the form of a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) stationed at Sharm el-Sheikh, the Gaza Strip, and the Sinai boundary to prevent Egypt from closing the Straits of Tiran and to check terrorist raids from Egyptian-held territory. The Soviets fought bitterly against this solution of the problem.16 But President Nasser finally agreed, and the Egyptian spokesman at the UN seemed to accept the arrangement with good grace.17 Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir went along with it on March 1, and the following day President Eisenhower wrote to Premier Ben Gurion:
I know that this decision was not an easy one. I believe, however, that Israel will have no cause to regret having thus conformed to the strong sentiment of the world community as expressed in the various United Nations resolutions relating to withdrawal.
It has always been the view of this Government that after the withdrawal there should be a united effort by all of the nations to bring about conditions in the area more stable, more tranquil and more conducive to the general welfare than those which existed heretofore. Already the United Nations General Assembly has adopted resolutions which presage such a better future. Hopes and expectations based thereon were voiced by your Foreign Minister and others. I believe that it is reasonable to entertain such hopes and expectations and I want you to know that the United States, as a friend of all the countries of the area and as a loyal member of the United Nations, will seek that such hopes prove not to be vain (my italics, T.D.).18
In diplomatic language, the United States seemed to be assuring Israel that it would not permit Eilat to be blockaded again or terrorist raids from Egyptian-held territory renewed. The combination of UNEF, U.S. assurances, and declarations by eleven other maritime nations, including Britain and France, upholding free passage of the Straits of Tiran, persuaded Israel to withdraw its forces from the Sinai peninsula and to give up the key position of Sharm el-Sheikh.19
In other respects, however, the second Arab-Israeli war ended indeterminately. By staying out, Egypt’s allies, Syria and Jordan, left open the question of what might have happened if they had stepped in. By getting in, Israel’s adventitious allies, Britain and France, left open the question of what might have happened if they had stayed out. Nasser was able to emerge from the conflict unscathed because the Anglo-French retreat left him in full possession of the Suez Canal, and he could claim that Israel would not have defeated him alone. He seemed for a time to have both the Soviet Union and the United States on his side, at least for the purpose of bringing the war to a close before he had suffered an irretrievable defeat. In these ways the second Arabi-Israeli war prepared the way for the third by giving the Arabs reason to believe, if they believed their own propaganda, that they could overwhelm Israel if they fought together and if Israel had to fight alone.
I have perhaps tried the patience of the reader anxious to get to 1967 by going over this apparently old ground. I have done so because I think that what happened in 1956 is most pertinent, even indispensable, for an understanding of 1967. The similarity of all the problems of 1956 and 1967 is, as we shall see, striking. When Americans and others learned that President Nasser had decided to get rid of UNEF and renew the blockade of Eilat, the nature and significance of these actions may not have been too clear. But the Israelis had been all through this before and had thought that they would never have to go through it again. It had meant war in 1956, and if Nasser wanted to do it again in 1967, it could only mean that he wanted to have another war.
From 1955 to the present, the one new, disturbing element in the Arab world has been the Soviet Union. All the other elements were present before that time and have receded as the Soviets have advanced.
Before World War II, the Soviet Union did very little to exert a direct influence in the Arab countries. Traditionally, Russia was primarily interested in Turkey and Iran, its Moslem but non-Arab neighbors. In 1940, Stalin’s Russia tried to establish a sphere of influence southward from Batum and Baku toward the Persian Gulf, a line of march which would have brought it next to two Arab countries, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. But this effort was made in collusion with Nazi Germany, not through the Arab countries themselves.20 After the war, the most notable aspect of Soviet policy in the Arab area was, as we have seen, the backing of the UN’s partition plan in Palestine in 1947-49, one consequence of which was support for some kind of Jewish state. In 1950, Prime Minister Ben Gurion proposed to the Soviet Ambassador that his country should try to initiate peace talks between Egypt and Israel. Moscow never replied.21
The first grave break between Israel and the Soviet Union took place in 1953. It came soon after the Stalin regime, in its last stages of psychopathology, had accused a group of Soviet doctors, most of them Jews, of plotting to kill a number of Soviet military leaders. This “Doctors’ Plot” was linked, in Pravda of January 13, 1953, with a “Zionist espionage organization” and thereby given international connotations. Czechoslovakia had already staged the so-called Slansky trial, with strong anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist overtones, and a Czechoslovak communication of February 5, 1953 referred to “the effrontery and arrogance of the Israel Zionist agents in Czechoslovakia” and “the American warmongers and their Israeli and other stooges.” On February 9, 1953, a small bomb exploded in the garden of the Soviet legation in Tel Aviv. The Soviet government immediately charged Israel with responsibility for the deed and broke off diplomatic relations. They were renewed the following July, four months after Stalin’s death and after Israel had given assurances that it would not join any aggressive alliance against the Soviet Union. But the shift in Soviet policy soon proved to be more than a Stalinist aberration.
In Stalin’s last years, Soviet policy was less pro-Arab than anti-Israel. Ever since he had burned his fingers with Chiang Kai-shek in the 1920’s, Stalin had not taken kindly to “bourgeois nationalists,” in which category the leaders of the Egyptian revolution were first pigeonholed. The Soviets did not greet with enthusiasm the overthrow of the Farouk regime in 1952 by the military junta headed by General Mohammed Naguib and Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, and they were still outwardly reserved when Nasser ousted the more conservative Naguib in 1954.
But Stalin’s successors were increasingly more flexible in this sphere, as in others, and their own inclinations happened to coincide with changes in Syria and Iraq as well as in Egypt. In 1954, the Syrian military dictatorship of Colonel Adib Shishakli was overthrown. The rising Syrian power was represented by the newly-formed Arab Socialist Renaissance party, better known as the Ba’ath party from the first word of its Arabic name (Ba’ath al-Arabi al-Ishtiraki). No one, least of all its own leaders, has ever been able to explain what the Ba’ath meant by “socialism,” but it was certainly second to none in its advocacy of Arab unity and nationalism. By 1957, the Ba’ath had gained the ascendancy over the Syrian military, and the Syrian Communists were considered the strongest single political force in the country. In 1958, the traditionalist regime of Nuri el-Said was overthrown in Iraq. The new military junta, headed by General Abdel Karim Kassim, also adopted a program based on Arab nationalism, Arab unity, and anti-Westernism. Like Egypt and Syria, Iraq turned to the Soviet Union for arms and economic aid. By the end of the decade, the Soviet investment and vested interest in these three countries had become a major factor in Middle Eastern diplomacy and strategy.
By turning the white man’s burden red, the Soviets did not make it any lighter to bear. They were dealing with extremely insecure regimes and unstable societies. The propaganda of the new Egypt, the new Syria, and the new Iraq was almost identical in the rhetoric of Arab unity, but that was as far as they were united. The Ba’athists and Nasserites, Kassim and Nasser, wanted unity on their own terms—that is to say, an Egyptian- or a Syrian- or an Iraqi-dominated unity. They made and unmade deals with their local Communist parties which were hard put to know whether the Nassers and the Kassims were an open door or a barrier to ultimate Communism. The merger of Egypt and Syria in 1958, out of which came the United Arab Republic, has been attributed to Nasser’s fear that the Syrian Communists were getting too strong. Both Egyptian and Syrian Communists were brutally repressed after the merger, and its breakup in 1961 was no cause for them to lament. Nasser managed to stay in power, but Kassim was overthrown in 1963, and Syria made a “Right” turn in 1961 and then, with the Ba’athist coup, a “Left” turn in 1963. After 1961, Nasser went to the “Left” in both domestic and foreign policy, in the first, through large-scale nationalization and in the second by declaring war on the Arab “reactionaries” in control of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other areas. To follow all the twists and turns, ups and downs of the various Arab regimes in the past ten years would be dizzying. It is enough to say, for our purposes, that the wild new Arabian horses have not been easy or inexpensive for the Soviets to ride. They have been able to stay on them largely by outbidding the West, from paying for the Aswan High Dam to providing a steady stream of cheap arms, rather than by exhibiting any particular wisdom or cunning.
It is a mistake, then, to imagine that these Arab states have simply lent themselves to Soviet purposes. To the extent that they have done so, it is not the most important part of the story. Instead, the Soviets have curried favor with the Arabs mainly by giving them the arms to do what they wanted to do. Soviet arms have always talked far more loudly and persuasively in this region than Communist propaganda. It was no accident, as the Soviets like to say, that their first historic breakthrough in Egypt took the form of an arms deal. A pro-Arab policy of this kind could not fail to prepare the way for a third Arab-Israeli war. It was not necessary for the Soviets to proclaim this war as their own aim; it was merely necessary for them to arm those Arab states which were proclaiming it as their war aim.
On April 17, 1963, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq signed an agreement in principle to federate as a single state, with its capital in Cairo. The agreement, among other things, pledged the projected United Arab Republic to a crusade for “liberating the Arab Nation from the peril of Zionism.” It was the first time, Prime Minister Ben Gurion noted in a parliamentary address in May, that the destruction of Israel had been set forth in a constitutional document providing for the unification of the three Arab states. The agreement proved not to be worth the paper it was written on because the Ba’athists in Syria and Iraq refused to accept Nasserite domination in the name of unity. Nevertheless, in one way or another, Arab unity efforts and anti-Israel war aims continued to feed each other.
In January 1964, Nasser convened the first Arab “summit conference” to deal with Syria’s demand for immediate military action against Israel. The Syrians demanded war to punish Israel for having completed a pipeline to carry water inland from the Jordan river according to a plan worked out ten years earlier by Eric Johnston on behalf of the Eisenhower administration. At this conference, Nasser took the position that the Arab states were not prepared to fight Israel immediately and had to prepare for the day by setting up a United Arab Command and a fighting organization of Palestine Arab refugees. A unified Arab command was nominally set up, commanded by an Egyptian, General Abdel Hakim Amer, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), headed by a Syrian, Ahmad Shukeiry, was authorized at the second Arab summit conference in September of that year. The PLO was based in the Gaza Strip and depended largely on Egyptian backing. Toward the end of the year, another organization of even more extremist tendencies, El Fatah, started to operate out of Syria. It began to drag Jordan, which was not anxious to provoke Israel on behalf of Syria and Egypt, into the melee by striking most often across the much longer, less easily defended Israel-Jordan frontier. At the second summit conference, the Arab states also voted to raise $43 million a year to stock arms for Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan exclusively for use against Israel.
Thus, the old cycle of raids and reprisals started again. This problem has always been most difficult for the Israelis to deal with. The Israelis could not ignore the terrorist tactics; yet they did not wish to emulate the Arabs and engage in transparently camouflaged terrorism of their own; instead, their reprisal policy was aimed at getting across the message that the Egyptian and Syrian governments were making undeclared and unofficial war on Israel through the PLO and El Fatah. Yet the Arab governments could refuse to accept responsibility for the terrorism, which their controlled press and radio acclaimed and encouraged, whereas Israel was unable, for reasons of policy, to disavow its reprisals. This disparity opened Israel to repeated censure in the UN, which took the position that Israel should rely on the UN’s Truce Supervision observers and Mixed Armistice Commissions for protection against the terrorists. In August 1963, the Israelis agreed to put the UN case to the test. When two Israeli farmers were ambushed and killed near the Syrian border, Israel went to the Security Council for redress or at least condemnation of the deed. On the basis of reports from the UN’s Truce Supervision Organization’s Chief of Staff, Britain and the United States introduced a resolution condemning the ambush and implying that Syria had been remiss in permitting it to occur. On September 3, the resolution obtained eight votes, one short of passage. The Soviet Union cast the decisive veto. After another armed Syrian-Israeli incident in November 1964, Britain and the United States introduced a resolution in the Security Council calling for restraint and cooperation by both sides. On December 21, it again obtained eight votes but once more ran into a Soviet veto—on the ground that even this evenhanded appeal was unfair to Syria.
By 1965, then, the outlines of a third Arab-Israeli war were clearly taking shape. If it did not break out that year, the primary cause was Arab disagreement as to how and when it should be waged. Syria, under militant Ba’athist leadership, was the most impatient. But the Syrians knew they were too small and weak to take on Israel alone, and their strategy, therefore, consisted in goading Egypt to attack Israel. Jordan was most reluctant to get drawn into an open conflict, for one reason because the Egyptians and Syrians had been vowing for years to get rid of King Hussein’s regime as well as Israel. The middle ground seemed occupied by Nasser’s Egypt. At a Palestine National Conference in. Cairo in May 1965, the Syrians complained bitterly that Egypt had not come to their aid when Israel had blown up some El Fatah bases. Nasser took the following line against his Arab critics:
They say “Drive out UNEF.” Suppose that we do, is it not essential that we have a plan? If Israeli aggression takes place against Syria, shall I attack Israel? Then Israel is the one which determines the battle for me. It hits a tractor or two to force me to move. Is this a wise way? We have to determine the battle.22
This was the ambidextrous, double-edged Nasserite policy that divided or confused both Arabs and Israelis. In principle he seemed to agree with the Arab extremists with whom his differences, on the surface, were limited to timing and tactics. Nevertheless, timing and tactics were most important to them, and on these he drew back from an immediate confrontation. Meanwhile, his relations with Israel appeared to be relatively tranquil, while the Syrian-Israeli border was exploding with violence. One school of Israeli thought argued that Nasser was merely biding his time; he was as dangerous and untrustworthy as any other Arab extremist. Another Israeli school considered that his actions were more important than his words; it believed that it might be possible, eventually, to come to terms with him.
In 1966, however, events in Syria, always the tinderbox, made Nasser’s balancing act more difficult. On February 23, the inevitable army coup ousted the more moderate wing of the Ba’athist party and put little-known Ba’athist extremists in power. The new government, headed by President Nureddin el-Attassi and Prime Minister Yusif Zuayin, issued a statement calling on all Arab revolutionary organizations “to face Zionism and imperialism and to liberate usurped parts of Palestine.” By “usurped,” Syrian nationalists meant that Palestine actually belonged to Syria, not to any other Arab nation in particular or to an Arab state in general.23 The new cabinet, for the first time in Syrian history, included two Communists, Samih Ateyyeh, as Minister of Communications, and Dr. Ahmed Murad, as Minister of Economy. In a speech to a Ba’ath party congress on March 10, Dr. el-Attassi designated “the liberation of Palestine” as the keystone of the revolution. He indicated that the new Syrian regime was not satisfied with waiting for the right time to attack Israel:
We believe that postponement of the liberation battle will increase the enemy’s chances of survival. Through its call for the liberation war, the revolution believes that the chances of [Arab] unity will increase. Unity will be forged in the flames of the liberation war, which will be a decisive factor in providing the psychological, political and military atmosphere.
The new Syrian regime also introduced a Chinese Communist inflection in its war propaganda. On May 23, Dr. el-Attassi scoffed at waging a conventional war against Israel and urged what he called a “people’s war of liberation,” Chinese Communist-style. In a speech to army units on Syria’s southwestern frontier with Israel, he declared:
We want a full-scale, popular war of liberation, not only to destroy the Zionist base in Palestine but also to destroy oil monopolies and imperialist and reactionary interests. We want a policy of scorched earth, and it is only through this policy that we can hope to build a new life for the Arab masses.
In addition to Israel, he attacked the “reactionary” Arab states, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. He told the soldiers;
You have grown tired of piling up arms. I realize how eager you are that we should start the battle. The time has come to use these arms for the purpose for which they were created.24
The Syrians were as good as their word. The year 1966 was the worst since 1956 for Arab terrorist raids and Israeli military reprisals. The UN Security Council spent a major part of its time that year on Syria-Israel and Jordan-Israel border incidents. One wrangle was especially revealing. Before midnight on October 7, demolition charges exploded underneath two buildings in the Romema quarter of Jerusalem, causing much damage and injuring four civilians. On October 8, a mine blew up an Israeli police car, killing four and wounding two. Radio Damascus broadcast “Communique No. 53 of the General Staff of the El Assefa,” the military branch of El Fatah, which read: “A force from Group 105 penetrated on October 8 into occupied Jerusalem and bombed two buildings. Two demolition charges exploded at 2345 hours and two others at 2400 hours,” an accurate description of the Romema incident. When Foreign Minister Eban, who was in New York at the time, complained on October 9 to Secretary General U Thant, Syrian Prime Minister Zuayin decided to hold a press conference in Damascus. On October 10, he served notice that Syria would never take measures to curb the new fedayeen. “We are not,” he said, “sentinels over Israel’s security and are not the leash that restrains the revolution of the displaced and persecuted Arab Palestinian people.” And he promised that Syria would “never retreat from the popular liberation war to recover Palestine.”25 Israel thereupon decided to take the cases to the Security Council.
The discussion at the UN was almost an exact replica of the one which took place seven months later on the eve of the third Arab-Israeli war. The most remarkable similarities were provided on October 14 by the Soviet Ambassador, Nikolai Federenko. One part of his speech was especially noteworthy:
Since the time when the Syrian people started to consolidate its independence and ensure its social progress, military tension has begun to build up on the borders of Syria, and we know that, of late, Israel has been concentrating large military forces on the Syrian border. In areas adjacent to Syria, military maneuvers are being staged. A large number of landing troops, equipped with artillery and mine-sweepers, have been thrown in. There has been a partial mobilization of reserves in Israel. In addition, there is information showing that an air attack is being prepared in Israel against neighboring Syrian territory in preparation for the intrusion of Israel forces deep in Syrian territory.26
The scare was so great that Secretary General Thant asked Lt. Gen. Odd Bull, Chief of Staff of the UN Truce Supervision Organization, to investigate. His report failed to bear out any of Federenko’s charges of Israeli plans and preparations to invade Syria. A mildly worded resolution was submitted by Argentina, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Uganda, and Nigeria which, among other things, called on Syria to take stronger measures to prevent further border incidents. It received ten votes in the Council. But it was killed by a Soviet veto, the first in two years and the first ever cast by the Soviets against a resolution proposed by African countries.
All through 1966, both the Soviet Union and Egypt drew closer to the Arab extremists, represented most uncompromisingly by the new Syrian regime. In April, Prime Minister Zuayin and a large Syrian delegation made a pilgrimage to Moscow and came back reporting a Soviet contribution of about $150,000,000 to finance a Euphrates River dam and power station.27 On July 8, Egypt and Syria signed a trade pact, the first agreement of this sort between them since the 1961 break. Late in July, an Iraqi delegation went to Moscow and returned boasting of a pledge of Soviet arms. And on November 4, Egypt and Syria signed a mutual defense agreement providing for a joint military command.
As late as November 24, 1966, almost three weeks after he had signed the Egypt-Syria military pact, President Gamal Abdel Nasser still said publicly that “the way back to Palestine is hard and long.”28 Only six months later, he seemed to think that it had become much easier and shorter.
Why? The answer holds the key to the third Arab-Israeli war.
The trouble, as usual, started on the Syria-Israel frontier. Here is a record of the violence that flared up in the first eleven days of January 1967, as recorded in an Arab factual source:
January 1: An Israeli spokesman in Tel Aviv said that three Israeli tractors near Haon village on the southeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee came under fire from a Syrian post. The fire was returned.
January 2: A military spokesman in Damascus claimed that Syrian armed forces had destroyed three Israeli outposts to the north of the Sea of Galilee.
January 4: An Israeli spokesman said that two armed Syrians had fired several shots at Israeli farmers southeast of Ein Gev on the eastern shore of Galilee. Nobody was hurt in this exchange.
January 6: A Syrian army spokesman said that Syrian arms fire had destroyed an Israeli tractor north of the Sea of Galilee. At least one Israeli was killed or wounded as he was seen being removed from the tractor.
A later statement issued by the same spokesman said that Syrian armed forces had destroyed two Israeli outposts in a clash between both sides. The clash began, he said, when Israeli outposts shelled Arab farmers.
January 8: Syria claimed that its forces had demolished a number of Israeli military targets including an ammunition dump, after Israeli troops had opened fire on its hillside positions. A spokesman in Tel Aviv alleged that Syria had started the firing which continued for over three hours.
January 9: Firing broke out all along the frontier and lasted for about two hours. Syria admitted losing one machine gun and claimed to have destroyed one Israeli tank. The Israeli countercharge said two Syrian tanks were destroyed and another hit after Syrian positions had opened fire on a tractor.
January 10: An Israeli spokesman said that tanks and heavy mortars were used in a Syrian attack. He listed seven separate incidents of firing into Israel from the Syrian side of the border.
January 11: According to the Syrian spokesman, heavy tanks, weapons, tanks, and aircraft were used. The spokesman said: “Enemy gun batteries and tanks were silenced for good, an anti-tank gun was destroyed and a fuel dump burned out.” Israeli aircraft appeared but were forced back to base by Syrian jets, the spokesman said.29
There is, of course, no point in trying to assess the blame for these incidents. What is clear from both Syrian and Israeli versions is that a small-scale border war broke out early this year. There could be no doubt, by this time, that these attacks and counterattacks were deliberate, organized, and increasingly costly. On January 14, an explosion took place in a pump-house, damaging a wall in Dishon, a village in northern Israel. A few hours later, an anti-personnel mine went off at a football game in Dishon. A player set it off; one spectator was killed and two were wounded. Israeli army sources reported that both the explosives and the mine were East-European in origin, of the type used by the Syrian army.30
January was another month of futile Israeli-Syrian exchanges at the United Nations. To the Israeli demand that Syria should take steps to prevent these incursions, the Syrian Head of State, Dr. Nureddin el-Attassi, replied with the utmost candor. On February 8, he declared publicly that “we shall not act as protectors of Israel against Palestine commandos defending their homeland.” On February 22, he said: “It is the duty of all of us now, to move from defensive positions to offensive positions and enter the battle to liberate the usurped land. There is absolutely no scope for hesitation from now on and everyone must face the test and enter the battle to the end.” On March 8, he made a speech which was reported by an Arab news source as follows: “Dr. Attassi called on Palestine Arabs to follow the example of the Algerians in their fight against the French and model their methods on the North Vietnamese fighting the Americans. Palestine will not be returned to its people except by ‘an all-out war of liberation,’ he said. He praised the bravery of Palestine Arab commandos inside occupied Palestine (Israel). ‘Commando action in the occupied land will not cease,’ he said. The Syrian army, he said, ‘is ready to fight the decisive battle with Israel.’”31
For the Syrian government, then, the war against Israel had already started. It was being waged in the manner that Syria considered most advantageous. The old fedayeen tactics had been renamed the “people’s war of liberation” and had been given new dimensions as well as new significance. The new fedayeen were trained and equipped by the Syrian army, which was itself being trained and equipped by the Soviet Union. Though these actions started as “commando” raids, the main Syrian military forces were inevitably drawn into the fighting by Israeli retaliatory measures. Battles with tanks, anti-tank guns, and planes early in January could hardly be dismissed any longer as minor border “incidents.” The official Syrian radio broadcast the El Fatah communiqués as war bulletins.
Nevertheless, the Syrians were still far out. From their point of view, Egypt and especially Jordan were holding back. Nasser had always taken the position that the United Arab Command could not act unless the forces of one Arab country could pass through and fight in the territory of another. This was precisely what King Hussein of Jordan feared the most because the Egyptians and Syrians had been vowing for years to overthrow his “reactionary” regime. In January 1967, renewed pressure was brought on Hussein to permit other Arab military forces to move into Jordan. When he refused, Nasser assailed him mercilessly on February 22 as an American puppet, and Hussein retaliated by withdrawing his ambassador from Cairo. When the Arab Joint Defense Council met in Cairo on March 11, Jordan as well as Tunisia and Saudi Arabia refused to attend. As long as Hussein was actually more afraid of Egypt and of Syria than of Israel, the united Arab front which Nasser demanded as a precondition for an all-out war against Israel could not be realized. As late as March 1966, Nasser took the position that an attack on Israel from the south was not militarily possible; the Arab attack had to come from Syria and Jordan.32
To fight fire with fire, Hussein’s government began to twit Nasser about the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) which the Arab militants had always regarded as an Egyptian alibi to refrain from attacking Israel. Prime Minister Wasfi Tell of Jordan even accused Nasser of having in 1957 entered into a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Ben Gurion to set up a buffer between Israel and Egypt. An American correspondent reported:
The whole question of UNEF has been brought up by Jordan in Arab defense councils, where Jordan has been under heavy pressure to admit foreign troops to defend the country against Israeli attacks.
Jordan responded by insisting that other Arab states also go on a war footing for the battle with Israel, and specifically asked Egypt to get rid of UNEF so that the Egyptian army—the biggest in the Arab world—can take part in the battle.
The Egyptian response has been that the UN force was symbolic (it numbers about 3000 men) and would have no effect whatsoever if it tried to stop Egyptian army movements.33
Hussein and his advisers undoubtedly considered this riposte a clever way of embarrassing the Egyptians. In the circumstances of early 1967, however, it rather played into the hands of the Syrians, his most intransigent Arab enemies, who were telling Nasser exactly the same thing, though their motives were undoubtedly different. Thus, from the Arab “Left” and “Right,” pressure was building up for Nasser to “go on a war footing for the battle with Israel.”
But again, the Soviets saw fit to contribute a major war scare to the sufficiently tense situation on the Syria-Israel frontier. The Soviet press, of course, wholly blamed Israel for the incidents. But it went further and, as in the previous October, invented a virtual Israeli mobilization to invade Syria. A report in Izvestia, the Soviet government organ, of February 3, 1967, ran: “War psychosis is mounting in the state of Israel. The country’s armed forces are being alerted. All leave has been cancelled and more reservists have been called up. Large armed forces have been concentrated on the northern border. The incidents on the Syrian-Israel frontier which began on the eve of the New Year, continue unabated.” Thus for the second time in less than four months, the Soviets were responsible for spreading an unfounded rumor, no doubt in the guise of intelligence reports, that could only serve to incite the Syrians and neighboring Arabs to stage a counter-mobilization and prepare for imminent war.
If internal Arab pressure was one factor in Nasser’s decision, the other was external pressure on his policy.
Ever since 1955, Egypt had become increasingly dependent on Soviet military and economic largesse. The Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe had provided Nasser with at least $1.5 billion in economic aid, and probably more than that in military assistance. In 1965, according to Nasser himself, the Soviets had saved Egypt from “inevitable famine” by diverting 300,000 tons of wheat to Alexandria. By the beginning of 1967, Nasser was desperately in need of food again. He could not get it from the United States, which for a year had been holding up an Egyptian request for $150 million of surplus food after Nasser had made a number of insulting anti-U.S. speeches. In January 1967, the Soviets again agreed to tide him over with 250,000 tons of wheat in the next three months. On February 22, Nasser made another inflammatory oratorical attack on the United States in which he threatened not to pay Egypt’s debts which amounted to over $1 billion of which almost half a billion belonged to the United States. In February, too, Egypt failed for the third successive month to make any payment to the International Monetary Fund to which it owed some $105 million lent in the past four years.
In these circumstances, the Soviet factor could not have failed to weigh heavily in Nasser’s calculations. On March 29, Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko suddenly arrived in Cairo for a three-day visit. Very little is known about it except that it was arranged hurriedly. Whatever it signified, it came on the eve of the final crisis before the third Arab-Israeli war.
On April 7, the biggest Arab-Israeli battle since 1956 was fought over Syria. It precipitated all the events which led to the larger war almost exactly two months later.
The escalation of the fighting that day was typical; only the magnitude of the forces and the losses suffered were not. According to both Israeli and Syrian versions, Syrian guns emplaced in the hills overlooking the Israeli frontier settlements opened fire on an Israeli tractor plowing in the “demilitarized zone” that morning.34 Soon tanks and mortars went into action. By the end of the day, Israel reported shooting down six MIG-21’s of the Syrian air force with no losses of its own; Syria claimed that five Israeli Mirage jets and four Syrian MIGs had been shot down. Unfortunately for the Syrians, three of their planes crashed in Jordan, as a result of which these losses could be confirmed. The Jordanians were so unkind that they issued a report that the Syrian planes had been armed with dummy wooden rockets. The Damascus radio struck back: “The days of the treasonable regime in Jordan are numbered.”35
For the Syrians, the April 7 battle was no setback. It was a welcome occasion for heating up the “popular liberation war” against Israel. On April 8, the Syrian Minister of Information, Mahmoud Al-Zu’bi, declared that the clash “will be followed by more severe battles until Palestine is liberated and the Zionist presence ended.” The fighting, he said, “is not the first battle nor will it be the last.” He told reporters that there could be no permanent calm in the Arab areas adjacent to Israel “as long as there is Zionist occupation of Palestine.” The battle, he boasted, proved Syria’s superiority in land fighting, if not in the air, “since Israeli military outposts were destroyed and serious damage caused to four settlements.”36 On April 17, the Syrian Head of State, Dr. el-Attassi, celebrated the same battle as having been “very useful to us.” Syria, he said, “cannot but support Arab commandos” and “is prepared to wage the battle with all its resources, whatever the cost or sacrifices.” He inveighed against Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Morocco because they were not revolutionary enough.37
For Nasser, April 7 was a dividing line. It forced him to face as never before the problem of implementing the Egypt-Syria mutual defense pact of the previous November. Syria, after all, claimed to have been attacked by Israel, and whether its losses were four or six planes, they were evidence of the seriousness of the struggle. This meant that he was obliged to come to the defense of Syria, wherever that might lead. The Jordanians, enjoying his dilemma, could not resist needling him. The leading Jordanian newspaper of April 8 demanded: “What has Cairo done in face of this flagrant air aggression on Damascus?”38 On April 10, Cairo sent its air commander, General Mohammed Sidky Mahmoud, to Damascus to confer for twelve days. On April 17, Egypt’s Prime Minister, Mohammed Sidky Soliman, came to Damascus for five days, the highest-ranking Egyptian official to visit Syria since the 1961 break. A communiqué on April 22 pledged both sides “to carry out joint plans under the joint defense agreement between them,” and to consider the “battle for the liberation of Palestine” the main cause around which the Arab masses should rally.39 On May 2, President Nasser felt it necessary to explain why Egyptian planes had not come to the rescue of the Syrians as a result of the April 7 clash. He attributed the failure to act to the limited range of Egypt’s fighter planes, a restriction which he said had been pointed out to the Syrians, who had assured him that they had enough fighters of their own.40
As for the Soviets, the onesided defeat of their MIG’s by French Mirages, which was generally credited, gave them a direct stake in the outcome of the April 7 battle. Every move that Syria and Egypt might subsequently make had to be paid for largely by the Soviets, and without Soviet materiel, the two Arab states could not contemplate making war. The Soviets had invested so heavily in Syria and Egypt, as well as in Iraq, that they could not stay out of this runaway crisis even if they had wanted to do so. And far from wanting to stay out, they clearly tried to get more and more deeply embroiled in it.
The next round of “commando” violence showed how far the Soviet leaders intended to go. On May 5, Israeli territory was shelled from Lebanon, and on May 8, a military vehicle was blown up five miles inside Israeli territory. These exploits by El Fatah demonstrated such technical proficiency that the Israeli government decided to issue a stern warning.
This appraisal was fully backed up by the UN truce observers whose reports led Secretary General Thant to declare on May 11:
I must say, that in the last few days, the El Fatah type of incidents have increased, unfortunately. Those incidents have occurred in the vicinity of the Lebanese and Syrian lines and are very deplorable, especially because, by their very nature, they seem to indicate that the individuals who committed them have had more specialized training than has usually been evidenced in El Fatah incidents in the past. That type of activity is insidious, is contrary to the letter and spirit of the Armistice Agreements and menaces the peace of the area. All governments concerned have an obligation under the General Armistice Agreements, as well as under the Charter of the United Nations and in the interest of peace, to take every measure within their means to put an end to such activities.41
Apparently the full import of the crisis that gathered in May caught the Israeli government by surprise. In an interview in U. S. News & World Report of April 17, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol had been asked whether he expected a full-scale war with Egypt, Syria, or Jordan. He incautiously replied that“I don’t think there will be full-scale war in the next few years—although we are, of course, preparing for such a possibility, and I say that openly to the world.”42 But on May 12, Eshkol spoke with less confidence in the future. Of attempts to commit sabotage on Israeli soil, he said: “There will be no immunity for any State which aids and abets such acts.” He noted that Syria seemed to have taken on itself to assume the leadership in the Arab struggle against Israel. But, he added, Syria’s forces were not great, and “not without reason is she looking for protection among larger countries.” Although this need not cause any alarm, he cautioned, “we shall go on manning our posts, ready for any possible deployment.” The following day, he again spoke on the same theme without appearing to think that a showdown was imminent:
The firm and persistent stand we have taken on behalf of our rights has strengthened the awareness among our neighbors that they will not be able to prevail against us in open combat. They recoil today from any frontal clash with Israel, and they postpone the date of such a confrontation to the remote future. Among the Arab rulers and their saboteur-minions, there are some who nowadays attempt to manifest their hostility to Israel in deeds, diligently in search of ways of attrition, subversion, and aggression against human lives. We have furnished proof that we shall not permit our borders to be opened to attack. We have proved that to their attempts to pick easy and exposed targets, we were able to respond at a place, time, and by a method of our own choosing. Thus, the saboteurs and their employers found out that they would not accomplish their aims this way. We do not recognize the limitations they endeavor to impose upon our acts of response. The Arab States and the nations of the world ought to know that any border which is tranquil from their side will also be quiet from our side. If they try to sow unrest on our border—unrest will come to theirs.43
I have cited the relevant portions of these two statements by Eshkol at some length because they—and particularly the first one of May 12—were later used by Nasser to justify his decision to move troops to the Israeli border and to renew the blockade of Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba. In a long and most revealing press conference in Cairo on May 28, Nasser said:
In its threats in the past few years, Israel has gone beyond every limit. The most recent thing was the Israeli Prime Minister’s threat to attack Syria and his war threats. Israel has been continuously threatening war. On May 12, this threat reached an extent that no one would accept. It was the duty of every Arab to respond to this threat. Therefore, I said that if Israel wanted to threaten war—which it actually did—then Israel is welcome.44
Soviet Premier Kosygin also referred in his UN speech of June 19 to Prime Minister Eshkol’s alleged threats:
The Premier of Israel made it clear that the armed attack on Syria in April was not the last step, and that Israel was itself going to choose the method and time for new actions of this kind.
The reader may judge for himself whether Eshkol was guilty of threatening to attack Syria or of threatening war in Nasser’s or Kosygin’s sense. Ironically, the Israeli Prime Minister had opened himself to some criticism for refusing to believe that a full-scale war was so imminent. If we recall the kind of threats against Israel made for months and even years by the highest Arab leaders, this purported Israeli threat against Syria hardly seems to be sufficient cause for setting off a third Arab-Israel war. In any event, one of the alleged motivations for the Egyptian actions was the Eshkol statement of May 12.
The other motivation directly implicated the Soviet Union. An Egyptian parliamentary delegation went to Moscow for the May Day celebration and stayed until May 14. In his speech of resignation on June 9, later withdrawn, Nasser claimed that Egypt and Syria had been persuaded that Israel planned to invade Syria. But, as if he felt these Arab sources might not be sufficiently convincing, he added:
Even our friends in the Soviet Union told the parliamentary delegation which was visiting Moscow early last month that there was a calculated intention [to invade Syria].45
An official Soviet version was given by Premier Aleksei N. Kosygin to the UN on June 19:
In those days, the Soviet Government, and I believe others too, began receiving information to the effect that the Israeli government had timed for the end of May a swift strike at Syria in order to crush it and then carry the fighting over into the territory of the United Arab Republic [Egypt].
These statements raise a fascinating question about the Soviets’ role in stirring up this conflict. In October 1966, as we have seen, Soviet Ambassador Federenko had rehearsed this very bit of intelligence and it had again made its appearance in the Soviet press in February 1967. Federenko had solemnly assured the UN that Israel had been “concentrating large military forces on the Syrian border,” that it had been staging military maneuvers in areas adjacent to Syria, that it had partially mobilized reserves, and that it was preparing “for the intrusion of Israeli forces deep into Syrian territory.” In an area as small as the Syrian-Israeli border, such activities could not have been concealed from the UN truce observers who reported no such things taking place. Now, seven months later, the Soviets were assuring their Egyptian friends of another Israeli plan to invade Syria.
This peculiar Soviet effort to inflame the Arabs had a peculiar background. After the battle of April 7, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Yakob Malik had called in the Israeli ambassador in Moscow, Katriel Katz, to accuse Israel of “aggression” and to threaten reprisals. On May 12, the Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Arye Levavi, had invited the Soviet ambassador, Dimitri Chuvakhin, who had accused Israel of concentrating forces on the Syrian border, to visit the area to see for himself. Chuvakhin had refused the offer with the curt reply that his government’s information was good enough for him. Again on May 19, Eban tried to convince Chuvakhin. “I can state to you,” Eban said, “that there are no concentrations on the Syrian frontier, and the Egyptians should know this.” “On one occasion [May 29],” Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban told the UN on June 19, “the Soviet ambassador complained to my Prime Minister of heavy troop concentrations in the north of Israel. But when invited to join the Prime Minister that very moment in a visit to any part of Israel which he liked, the distinguished envoy brusquely refused.”
But the damage had already been done. Nasser has said that he received information on May 13 that “Israel was concentrating on the Syrian border huge armed forces of about eleven to thirteen armed brigades,” south and north of Lake Tiberias.46 For this reason, he claimed, the first Egyptian troops were sent to the Sinai border with Israel on the night of May 14. Six days later, Secretary General Thant reported:
There have been in the past few days persistent reports about troop movements and concentrations, particularly on the Israel side of the Syrian border. These have caused anxiety and at times excitement. The Government of Israel very recently has assured me that there are no unusual Israel troop concentrations or movements along the Syrian line, that there will be none and that no military action will be initiated by the armed forces of Israel unless action is first taken by the other side. Reports from UNTSO Observers have confirmed the absence of troop concentrations and significant troop movements on both sides of the line (my italics, T.D.).47
Israeli mobilizations, troop concentrations, and troop movements happen to be notoriously hard to conceal. A glance at the Syria-Israel border shows how short it is, barely fifty miles altogether. That UN truce observers should not have been able to see what the Soviets were telling the Egyptians and no doubt the Syrians about Israeli troops poised to invade Syria is one of the more seductive mysteries of the prewar buildup. As far as the Soviet Union is concerned, it was, unfortunately, not the only one.
We have now come to the final or what may be called the Sharm el-Sheikh phase of the buildup.
As Secretary General Thant later told the story, the Commander of UNEF, Major General Rikhye, received a message from the Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces, General Mahmud Fawzi, at 10 P.M. (Gaza time) on May 16. It requested the immediate withdrawal of all UN troops from two places, El Sabha, a strategic point in Sinai at the northern end of the Egypt-Israel border, and Sharm el-Sheikh, the fortress controlling entrance into the Gulf of Aqaba. General Rikhye replied that he did not have the authority to order the withdrawal and was told that there might be clashes between Egyptian and UN troops that very night. While Secretary General Thant requested a clarification of the Egyptian request, Egyptian forces began on May 18 to take matters into their own hands. The observation posts at El Sabha and other points were occupied by Egyptian troops and two Egyptian artillery shells burst between two UN posts, one of them El Sabha. At noon (New York time) on May 18, the Secretary General received the official Egyptian request to withdraw all UN forces “as soon as possible” from Egyptian territory and the Gaza Strip. Mr. Thant expressed the intention of appealing to President Nasser for a reconsideration but was told not to do so or he would be sternly rebuffed. Two governments, undoubtedly India and Yugoslavia, which provided about half the troops for UNEF, took the position that they would comply with Egypt’s request and withdraw their troops whatever the UN decided to do. On the night of May 18, Secretary General Thant ordered the total withdrawal of UNEF as requested by Egypt.48 While U Thant was on his way to Egypt on May 22, Nasser, without waiting to see him, officially announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israel and the consequent blockade of the port of Eilat.
Most of the controversy raised by these actions has concentrated on two questions. Was the Secretary General right or adroit in withdrawing UNEF so quickly? Was Egypt legally justified in closing the Straits of Tiran to Israel and blockading Eilat? For the time being, only the second concerns us.
I do not wish to enter into the legality of the move because it seems to me largely beside the point. If nothing else were at stake but the blockade of Eilat, it would still have been a serious blow to Israel, for Eilat in 1967 was not what it had been in 1956. Israel had put a decade of stupendous effort into building up the port, its only outlet to the south. A pipeline had been built to carry the oil of Iran from Eilat to Beersheba and then by truck to a refinery in Haifa. A large proportion of the mineral exports from the Dead Sea and the growing copper production of Timna went out from Eilat. The ambitious development plans for the Negev largely depended on using the port of Eilat. Israel might well have fought for Eilat but the point is that, after May 18, Eilat was merely a symptom that Israel had to fight for itself.
On May 18, Syria’s Foreign Minister, Dr. Ibrahim Makhous, gave the following interpretation of UNEF’s withdrawal to the Syrian news agency: “The withdrawal of the UN forces in this manner, which means ‘make way, our forces are on their way to the battle,’ proves that there is nothing that can stand in the way of the Arab revolution and that reaction’s attempt to raise doubts regarding the presence of these forces had boomeranged.”49
On May 20, Syria’s Defense Minister, General Hafiz el-Assad, told a Syrian newspaper that the Syrian air force had violated Israeli territory “dozens of times” in the past year. “The army, which has long been preparing itself for the battle and has its finger on the trigger, demands in one voice that the battle be expedited,” he said. “At present we are awaiting the signal from the political leadership. As a military man I feel that the time has come to wage the liberation battle. In my opinion it is necessary to adopt at least the minimum measures required to deal a disciplinary blow to Israel, which should restore its senses and bring it to its knees, humiliated and terrified to live in an atmosphere of awe and fear which will prevent it from contemplating another aggression.”50
On May 22, President Nasser delivered a radio address announcing the closing of the Gulf of Aqaba. In it he revealed for the first time what he had had in mind. First, he seemed preoccupied with explaining away the Egyptian defeat in 1956. He blamed it on the Anglo-French invasion which, he claimed, had prevented Egypt from fighting Israel. Then he boasted of his new Soviet planes: “At that time we had a few Ilyushin bombers. We had just acquired them to arm ourselves. Today we have many Ilyushins and others. There is a great difference between yesterday and today, between 1956 and 1967.” And so the time had come to demonstrate what Egypt, if it did not have to worry about Britain and France, could do to Israel. “Today we have a chance to prove the fact. We have, indeed, a chance to make the world see matters in their true perspective. We are now face to face with Israel.” Referring to Israeli Prime Minister Eshkol’s statement of May 12, he took up the alleged challenge: “The Jews threatened war. We tell them: You are welcome, we are ready for war.”51 On that same day, Israeli Prime Minister Eshkol called for mutual withdrawal of Egyptian and Israeli troops from the border.
Thant reached Cairo on May 23 and stayed two days. As he has reported his conversations with the Egyptian President and Foreign Minister, the most important point made to him was a statement of their “general aim” in closing the Straits of Tiran to Israel. It had been done, they said, “for a return to the conditions prevailing prior to 1956.”52 As we shall see, this was not the only aim or purpose given by Nasser to explain why he had decided to take over Sharm el-Sheikh; it may be considered the minimum aim which could be stated to someone like the Secretary General.
The first public Soviet and American reactions came on May 23. The Soviet statement did not refer to Sharm el-Sheikh and the renewed blockade of Eilat at all. It merely reiterated the charge that Israeli statesmen had threatened to attack Syria and, therefore, the Arab states had acted to repel the expected “aggression.” It broadened the scope and implications of the crisis by contending that Israel’s actions had been directly and indirectly encouraged by “certain imperialist circles which seek to bring back colonial oppression to Arab lands.” In effect, it avoided all the concrete issues by giving general backing to the Arabs and making a general indictment of Israel.53 President Johnson’s statement of May 23 made two main points. The United States, he said, was “dismayed at the hurried withdrawal” of UNEF, an implied criticism of the Secretary General’s decision. The other recommitted the United States, at least formally, to the 1957 understanding opening the Straits of Tiran to Israel:
The United States considers the gulf [of Aqaba] to be an international waterway and feels that a blockade of Israeli shipping is illegal and potentially disastrous to the cause of peace. The right of free, innocent passage of the international waterway is a vital interest of the international community.54
However, all this was not really pertinent to what Nasser thought he was doing. On May 26, he made a speech to the Central Council of the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions. In it he said many things that would not have been fitting in conversations with the United Nations Secretary General. Most of this speech was devoted to explaining why he had waited so long to seek a showdown with Israel. Nasser explained:
We awaited the proper day when we would be fully prepared and confident that we would adopt strong measures if we were to enter the battle with Israel. I say nothing aimlessly. One day two years ago, I stood up to say that we have no plan to liberate Palestine and that revolutionary action is our only course to liberate Palestine. I spoke at the Arab summit conferences. The summit conferences were meant to prepare the Arab states to defend themselves. Recently we have felt strong enough that if we were to enter a battle with Israel, with God’s help we could triumph. On this basis, we decided to take actual steps.
Then he went on to explain why he had waited so long to get rid of UNEF:
A great deal has been said in the past about the UN Emergency Force. Many people blamed us for UNEF’s presence. We were not strong enough. Should we have listened to them or built and trained our army instead while UNEF still existed? I said once that we could tell UNEF to leave within half an hour. Once we were fully prepared we could ask UNEF to leave. And this is what has actually happened.
After this came the explanation for Sharm el-Sheikh:
The same thing happened with regard to Sharm el-Sheikh. We were also attacked on this score by some Arabs. Taking over Sharm el-Sheikh meant confrontation with Israel. Taking such action also meant that we were ready to enter war with Israel. It was not a separate operation. Therefore, we had to take this fact into consideration when moving to Sharm el-Sheikh. The present operation was mounted on this basis (my italics, T.D.).
And if it came to war, what was the final aim? Nasser answered:
The battle will be a general one and our basic objective will be to destroy Israel. I probably could not have said such things five or even three years ago. If I had said such things and had been unable to carry them out my words would have been empty and valueless. Today, some eleven years after 1956, I say such things because I am. confident. I know what we have here in Egypt and what Syria has. I also know that other states—Iraq, for instance, has sent its troops to Syria; Algeria will send troops; Kuwait will also send troops. They will send armored infantry units. This is Arab power.55
At a press conference in Cairo on May 28, Nasser reiterated for a non-Arab audience what the problem was not:
The problem all of us are experiencing now and are concerned about—all of us, statesmen, journalists, and the multitudes of peoples—is neither the problem of the Tiran Straits nor the withdrawal of the UN Emergency Force (UNEF). All those are side issues of a bigger and more serious problem—the problem of the aggression which has taken place and continues to take place on the Arab homeland of Palestine and the continuous threat posed by that aggression against all Arab countries. This is the original problem.
For the nature of this threat, Nasser again referred to Prime Minister Eshkol’s statement of May 12:
Israel has been continuously threatening war. On May 12 this threat reached an extent that no one would accept. It was the duty of every Arab to respond to this threat. Therefore I said that if Israel wanted to threaten war—which it actually did—then Israel is welcome.
Once more Nasser explained that his actions the week before had “restored the situation to what it was in 1956.” They were, he made clear, a challenge to Israel to capitulate or fight:
We have taken these measures to restore things to what they were before. Now we are waiting to see what Israel will do next. Should Israel provoke us or any other Arab country, such as Syria, we are all prepared to face it. If Israel chooses war, then, as I have said, it is welcome to it. . . .
Toward the end of the conference, Nasser gave a peculiar definition of Israeli “aggression”:
As I have said, Israel’s existence in itself is an aggression.56
Finally, on May 29, the same question of what the crisis was all about came up in a speech which Nasser made to members of the National Assembly who visited him:
The issue now at hand is not the Gulf of Aqaba, the Straits of Tiran or the withdrawal of UNEF, but the rights of the Palestinian people. It is the aggression which took place in Palestine in 1948 with the collaboration of Britain and the United States.
He went on:
The issue today is far more serious than they say. They want to confine the issue to the Straits of Tiran and the right of passage. We say: We demand the full rights of the Palestinian people. We say this out of our belief that Arab rights cannot be squandered because the Arabs throughout the world are demanding these Arab rights.57
In effect, Nasser had set up a situation in which, from his point of view, he could not lose. If the Israelis decided to capitulate to the new blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba, it would set them back to the pre-1956 situation. They would be put in the position of acknowledging that they had fought the second Arab-Israeli war of 1956 in vain. They would surrender a decade of effort and treasure poured into the port of Eilat and the economic interests dependent on it. They would be forced to admit such military inferiority to the Arab states that they could only look forward to a future of waiting helplessly for the Arabs to make further demands. Nasser’s minimum aim, therefore, amounted to winning the prize of a war without firing a shot.
But Nasser did not really expect the Israelis to capitulate. He recognized, as he stated openly on March 26, that his move at Sharm el-Sheikh was “not a separate operation” but was more likely to bring about “a general war with Israel.” Throughout May, the Egyptian and Syrian leaders gave every indication of deliberately trying to provoke Israel into a general war. As Nasser put it on May 28, “Now we are waiting to see what Israel will do next,” and “if Israel chooses war, then, as I have said, it is welcome to it.” And if Israel chose war, he was confident that the Arabs would accomplish their maximum aim—to set Israel back to the pre-1948 situation, that is, before there was a state of Israel.
In view of the outcome of the war, it may be hard for some to imagine that Nasser deliberately set up a situation in which he considered the Israelis practically forced to attack. It may be difficult to believe that he could have so fantastically miscalculated the balance of power on both sides. But if politicians and generals did not make mistakes, there would never be any losers in wars. The evidence is overwhelming that Israel acted exactly as Nasser expected and wanted it to act. The only question is why he expected and wanted it.
Part of the answer lies in what the Arabs, especially the Egyptians, thought they had learned from the wars of 1948 and 1956. In the first, a number of Arab states had started out fighting together, but the Egyptians had borne the brunt of the final phase and considered themselves betrayed by the others. The lesson seemed to be that Egypt had to reform itself and depend on its own resources. In the second, Egypt had fought alone, despite pacts with Syria and Saudi Arabia which it had never put into effect. The lesson seemed to be that Arab unity was necessary to defeat Israel. Beyond this, the Egyptians also convinced themselves that they could have handled Israel alone if they had not been forced to use their best forces against Britain and France. Thus Arab unity plus an isolated Israel came to be the foolproof formula for victory in the third war.
Of the several prewar studies made of Arab-Israeli military capabilities, one is especially noteworthy because it comes from an Arab source. Some of the author’s conclusions undoubtedly help us to get an insight into the thinking that led to Egypt’s prewar policy. After examining the advantages and disadvantages offered by Israel’s geographical position, the author observes: “Above all, the advantages accruing from Israel’s compactness apply only when she is fighting on a single front at any one time—which she managed to do even in 1948 when engaging four Arab armies. The geographic fact that the Arabs surround Israel on three sides would be turned into a crushing military advantage once Arab military operations against Israel are conducted according to a single, coordinated plan.” Then the study makes a very significant connection between Israel’s manpower problem and the length of the war. The 250,000 men and women whom Israel could probably mobilize, it notes, would immobilize the entire economy, for which approximately half that number is needed, if the war went on for even a few days. His verdict is that “any war with Israel that lasts for over a week and which calls for more than 100,000 Israelis being mobilized would, by that fact and apart from the military outcome, do very extensive if not permanent damage to the economic life of Israel.” In the air, this writer thought that Egypt had all the advantage. He was especially impressed by the heavy TU-16 bombers and medium IL-28 bombers which the Soviets had given Egypt. “Israel suffers from lack of territory which means that an Egyptian bomber based in Sinai would be over Israel within minutes of taking-off,” he pointed out. “The opposite case does not apply to Egypt and Israeli bombers since these planes would have to cross the whole of Sinai and/or the Delta area before being within striking distance of Egypt’s industrial centers.” After making a survey of each of six Arab states which might possibly be involved in such a war, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, the study came to this final conclusion: “The only chance that the Arabs have of beating Israel in the field is through a properly unified and coordinated military action in which narrow nationalistic interests must give way to a sincere feeling of unity.”58
The emphasis in this analysis was, then, on Arab unity, Israeli isolation, and the inability of Israel to fight a “long” war (more than a week!). If the first two conditions could be achieved, the outlook for the Arabs seemed most promising. For the Israelis, the same factors operated; Arab unification and their own isolation meant the approach of war, and to save themselves they had to fight at all costs the shortest possible war (less than a week!).
By the end of May, Arab unity seemed to be an accomplished fact. On May 24, Iraq decided to send land and sea forces to Syria and Egypt. To get to Egypt, however, Iraqi troops had to go through Jordan. That same day, King Hussein of Jordan decided to cast in his lot with what seemed to be an irresistible movement. He announced that he had granted Iraqi and Saudi Arabian forces permission to enter Jordan and that he had sent a representative to Cairo. On May 25, Dr. el-Attassi, the fire-eating Syrian head of state, told members of the Central Council of the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions: “Today we are living in a prelude to war.” He added: “The time of the battle you have long awaited has come.” 59 On May 30, King Hussein and President Nasser signed a Jordan-Egypt mutual defense pact which completed the Arab encirclement of Israel. Hussein, no doubt, was under pressure to join the Arab coalition or see his country invaded by Iraqi and other Arab forces anyway, an eventuality which would have doomed his regime one way or the other. Jordan, which had ordered the Syrian ambassador out of the country on May 23 as a result of a border incident, resumed full diplomatic relations with Syria on June 1. Iraqi and Kuwaiti troops arrived in Egypt on May 31. Iraqi President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Lt. Gen. Abderrahman Arif, told air force officers on June 1: “Brethren and sons, this is the day of the battle to avenge your martyred brethren who fell in 1948. It is the day to wash away the stigma. We shall, God willing, meet in Tel Aviv and Haifa.”60 On the same day, Ahmed Shukeiry, the chieftain of the Palestine Liberation Organization, gave an interview in the Jordanian sector of Jerusalem. Asked whether the PLO or the Jordanian army would fire the first shot against Israel, he replied:
Why not? This is likely. It is most likely and possible that the Jordanian army will begin the battle and march to liberate the country—our country.
Asked what would happen to native-born Israelis if the Arab attack succeeded, he answered:
Those who survive will remain in Palestine. I estimate that none of them will survive.61
There was hardly ever a war in which it was more inconsequential which side struck the first blow. By the end of May, both sides were fully mobilized. Nasser had sent the bulk of his forces to the Sinai border with Israel, an effort so arduous and costly that it would have been well-nigh ruinous to both morale and equipment if he did not use them. The Israelis could not maintain a full-scale mobilization without straining themselves to the breaking point, war or no war. One rumor had it that the Israelis were going to attack Syria on May 15. Another rumor had reached the Israelis that the Egyptians were going to attack them on May 25. From this point on, the slightest incident could have triggered the war because each side knew the other was ready to go into full battle, and the Israelis, from the point of view of both geography and manpower, were in the worst position of all to wait to see whether it was just another incident or the opening shot of the expected war.
Nevertheless, while the Arabs could do something about their own unity, they could not by themselves do much about isolating Israel, the second key condition for victory in their war planning. To make sure that the lesson which they thought they had learned from 1956 would be carried out, they had to count on the Soviet Union. The Arabs were too sure and too proud of themselves to demand Soviet assistance in the form of Soviet armed forces in the coming war. It was enough that the Soviets had provided them with what seemed overwhelming superiority in military equipment for their numerically superior manpower. But the Soviets had to perform one more indispensable service for them—to give them a guarantee against any Western intervention on the side of Israel, as had happened in 1956.
This additional assistance to the Arab cause the Soviets were able and willing to contribute. The first indication of what the Arabs expected from the Soviets in this respect came in a press conference on May 21 in Cairo held by the uninhibited Shukeiry of the PLO. The question and answer went as follows:
Q. Do you think that the Soviet Union will intervene to stop the fighting or do you think it might take either side?
A. I think it will not take part in the fighting in terms of supporting the Arab forces, but in terms of supporting the Arab position like trying by all means to avoid any U.S. military intervention. This by itself is a great service to the cause of peace. I believe the efforts of the Soviet Union will be directed in one direction—that is, the localization of the war in the Middle East and to prevent the United States from any military involvement.62
Four days later, President Nasser decided to make sure. On May 25, he sent his War Minister, Shamseddin Badran, to Moscow. Badran returned on May 28, and the following day Nasser told publicly what he had accomplished.
Badran relayed to me a message from Premier Kosygin saying that the Soviet Union stands with us in this battle and will not allow any country to intervene, so that the state of affairs prevailing before 1956 may be restored.63
Later, in his resignation speech of June 9, Nasser added one more detail relating to the Soviets’ role in the pre-war crisis. On May 25, the Israeli government received information that Nasser was about to order a surprise attack on Israel.64 This news was taken so seriously that Foreign Minister Eban, who had just arrived in Washington, urgently asked President Johnson to advance their scheduled meeting later that day by two hours. Evidently the Soviets had received the same information concerning Nasser’s intentions.65 For Nasser revealed that a message was handed on May 26 from President Johnson to the Egyptian ambassador in Washington “asking us for restraint and not to be the first to open fire. Otherwise we would face serious consequences.” And a few hours later, at 3:30 a.m., the Soviet ambassador in Cairo came to see Nasser and “told me that the Soviet Government strongly requested we should not be the first to open fire.”66 We have so far only Nasser’s version of these events. Nasser implied that the only reason he did not fire the first shot was that the U.S. and the USSR had asked him not to do so. In any case, the Soviet commitment did not depend on who fired the first shot; the Egyptians and Israelis were fully mobilized and presumably prepared for any eventuality; Nasser continued as if it did not matter who struck the first blow, and he fully expected Israel to be provoked into it; the fatal mistake was not in waiting, if Egypt did wait, but in failing to be on the alert, especially in its military airfields, at a time when the slightest incident could have touched off the “general war with Israel.”
From this it may be gathered that Kosygin had committed the Soviet Union two things: Soviet intervention on the side of the Arabs if any other power intervened on the side of Israel, and a restoration of the pre-1956 rather than the pre-1948 situation.67 There is no reason to believe that the Soviets committed themselves to intervene unilaterally or that the Arabs asked them to do so. The Arabs were too confident of winning without direct Soviet intervention as long as the Soviets could give them a guarantee against intervention by the United States or any other Western power. This does not mean that the Arabs set themselves merely the restoration of the 1956 situation. In his speech on May 29, Nasser said:
Now, eleven years after 1956, we are restoring things to what they were in 1956. This is from the material aspect. In my opinion this material aspect is but a small part, whereas the spiritual aspect is the great side of the issue. The spiritual aspect involves the renaissance of the Arab nation, the revival of the Palestine question, and the restoration of confidence to every Arab and to every Palestinian. This is on the basis that if we were able to restore conditions to what they were in 1956, God will surely help and urge us to restore the situation to what it was in 1948.68
At this stage, during the ten days before the outbreak, Nasser had reason to worry about what might happen in the United Nations, just as Israel had reason to worry after its victory. On the evening of May 23, Canada and Denmark requested an immediate meeting of the Security Council to deal with the Middle Eastern crisis. After the closure of the Gulf of Aqaba, the full dimensions of the emergency were clearly visible. Indeed, four days earlier, on May 19, Secretary General U Thant had already advised the Council that “the current situation in the Near East is more disturbing, indeed, I say more menacing, than at any time since the fall of 1956.”69 The Canadian-Danish request was supported by U.S. Ambassador Arthur J. Goldberg who offered to join with the Soviet Union, Britain, and France “in a common effort to restore and maintain peace in the Middle East.”70
But the Soviet Union was already running interference for the Arab states, and Egypt in particular, to prevent any “intervention” by outside powers in the consummation of the Arab plan. Therefore, Soviet Ambassador Federenko barred the way on May 24 to permit the Security Council even to take up the subject. The reason he gave shows to what extreme lengths the Soviet leaders were willing to go to give the Arabs a free hand. “Having heard the statements of representatives of the Western powers,” Federenko said loftily, “we are even more convinced that certain forces are artificially heating up the climate for reasons that have nothing to do with a true concern for peace and security in the Near East” (my italics, T.D.). He brusquely rejected the proposal that the Soviet Union should take part in consultations.71
The Security Council met again on May 29 to discuss the by now inescapable Middle East crisis. On this occasion, the Egyptian spokesman, Ambassador Mohammed Awad el-Kony, explained in brutally frank terms why Egypt had been justified in closing the Gulf of Aqaba to Israel:
The continued violations and the numerous premeditated acts of aggression in all dimensions against the Arabs, which culminated in the cowardly attack on Sinai in 1956, clearly means that a state of overt war has been existing. Hence my Government has the legitimate right, in accordance with international law, to impose restrictions on navigation in the Straits of Tiran with respect to shipping to the enemy (my italics, T.D.).72
This candid rationale for Egypt’s actions meant, if it meant anything, that overt war had already broken out in the Middle East and, indeed, had been going on ever since 1956. But if Ambassador el-Kony was right—and he was merely repeating assertions that had been made for years in Cairo and Damascus—anything the Israelis did after May 29 was also justified. If the Egyptians and the Israelis were already in a state of “overt war” on that date, it is hard to see how the Israelis could be charged with an “aggression” which started the war a week later. The logic used by the Egyptians for closing the Gulf of Aqaba to Israel contained a built-in justification for any military action that the Israelis might take in retaliation. Yet the Egyptian case against Israel seemed to be based on the flagrant contradiction that Egypt could close the Gulf of Aqaba because it was in a state of war with Israel but Israel could not strike back because it was not in a state of war with Egypt. One never ceases to wonder at the human predilection for having one’s cake and eating it too,
As late as May 29, however, Ambassador Federenko still accused Ambassador Goldberg of attempting “to dramatize the situation,” as if anything could have been more dramatic than the Egyptian declaration, made only a few hours earlier, that “a state of overt war” existed in the Middle East. Federenko, however, was not above dramatizing the situation in his own way. A “dangerous aggravation of tensions” existed in that part of the world, he declared, but there was only one “real culprit”—Israel. His solution was extraordinarily uncomplicated. All that was necessary was for the Western powers, who were allegedly using Israel to restore their former colonial rule, should “simply call to order” their Israeli “friends and allies.”73
On May 31, Ambassador Federenko took a different tack. He defended the Arab cause mainly by attacking a mythical U.S. “naval blockade” of Cuba, which he seemed to equate with the Egyptian blockade of Israel.74 And on June 3, at the last meeting of the Security Council before the outbreak of hostilities, he contented himself for the most part with again complaining about Cuba and by attacking U.S. policy in Vietnam.75 Thus Soviet strategy in the UN consisted of preventing serious discussion of the issue first by belittling its gravity and then by talking of other things.
When the UN might have done something about preventing the war, the Soviets did everything in their power to reduce the organization to impotence and bring it into disrepute. When the lightning Israeli victory proved that the Soviets had not done enough for the Arabs merely by forcing Israel to fight alone, they attempted to turn the UN into an anti-Israeli coalition to restore the very status quo ante for which the Arab states had waged the war. It is questionable which Soviet tactic has done the UN more lasting damage.
None of the great, not-so-great, and no-longer-so-great powers distinguished itself in this war crisis.
For the United States, the third Arab-Israeli war was the final stage of bankruptcy of a Middle Eastern policy that went back to the Baghdad Pact of 1955. This association of Britain, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan, which the United States did not join but with which it maintained an intimate liaison, was undoubtedly the most dubious and rickety of John Foster Dulles’s diplomatic brain children. Each of its members was less interested in any of the others than in pleasing the United States in order to get on the high priority list for American arms. The only Arab member was Iraq which was then challenging Egypt for leadership in the Arab world. As a result, Egypt under Nasser took, umbrage and considered the pact a threat to its own pretensions and ambitions. For once, Egypt and Israel agreed on something—neither had any use for the pact. When Britain tried to get Jordan into it, the opposition was so great that two Jordanian governments fell in one week and King Hussein had to get rid of Sir John B. Glubb (better known as Glubb Pasha, Chief of the Jordanian General Staff), terminate the Anglo-Jordanian treaty, and cancel British rights to bases in Jordan. When the Iraqi strong man, Nuri el-Said, was assassinated in 1958, Iraq was quickly knocked out of the pact which had to be reorganized the following year as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) without any Arab membership at all. As John C. Campbell dryly noted, CENTO remained “a rather artificial combination of three Middle Eastern states which have few natural ties with each other,”76 a condition which surely made this alliance one of the most unnatural on record. In addition, it might be added, it contained the one Western power that had been the most longstanding bête noire of Arab nationalism. Of the three remaining Middle Eastern states, over $4 billion of U.S. aid did not prevent Pakistan from turning to the Soviet Union in 1965, and a somewhat less astronomical handout did not prevent Iran from accepting $286 million of economic aid from the USSR in 1966 and signing a $100 million military aid agreement with the USSR in January 1967.
As ironies of history go, one of the most delectable is the fact that John Foster Dulles found some of his most successful, if unauthorized, disciples—in Moscow. Once the Soviets decided to compete actively with the United States for influence in the so-called underdeveloped or developing countries, they did not have to exhibit any marked originality; it largely sufficed for them to take over and adapt for their own uses the instrumentalities of foreign policy which Dulles did not invent but which he elevated in importance to a degree that only the United States could afford—economic aid and military assistance. The United States could hardly complain if the Soviet Union, using the former’s own methods, outbid it in selected countries. The Soviet footholds in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq were not for the most part gained by using the local Communist parties (the Syrian party became an important factor only in 1966), but by making direct state-to-state economic and military deals with whichever amenable government happened to be in power. In making these deals, however, the Soviets did have one advantage. The United States could not or would not adopt a hard, gross anti-Israeli line to please the Arabs; all it could do was try to maintain friendly relations with both sides. The closer the Soviets got to the Arabs, the more virulently anti-Israel they became. To listen to Soviet spokesmen in the United Nations, the Arabs could do no wrong and the Israelis no right; there has never been a Soviet word of protest against the fedayeen, the Palestine Liberation Organization, or El Fatah raids on Israeli territory; there has never been anything for the Soviets but Israeli “aggression” and “provocation.”
The United States has given over $1 billion to Egypt and over one-half billion dollars to Jordan in aid in the past two decades. Jordan, in addition, has been fully armed by the United States; it possessed twice as many U.S. tanks as Israel had in the recent war.77 Egypt has been a lost cause for years and hopelessly lost since 1965. But the case of Jordan demonstrates far more flagrantly the failure of U.S. policy in this area. Jordan was armed supposedly to make it capable of resisting the inroads of its Arab antagonists, Egypt and Syria. It cannot be said that this calculation was altogether wrongheaded. But in the payoff, the arms given to Jordan might just as well have been added to the Soviet arms given to Egypt and Syria. The policy failed when it was needed the most.
In the days immediately before the outbreak of the third Arab-Israeli war, the United States was, therefore, caught with almost no leverage on the Arab side. The confusion and indecision in Washington were immense, even if some of the difficulties were understandable. One obstacle was that U.S. officials were at first not quite sure what the U.S. commitment to Israel was. I was authoritatively told in Washington that former President Eisenhower was called, after Nasser officially closed the Straits of Tiran to Israel on May 22, and asked just what the U.S. commitment made by him in 1957 was. He answered forthrightly that he considered it a “commitment of honor” for the United States to live up to his assurance to former Prime Minister Ben Gurion that the Straits would be kept open. As a result, President Johnson issued his statement of principle the following day affirming that the United States judged the blockade of Israeli shipping to be “illegal and potentially disastrous to the cause of peace.” But how to break through the blockade was something else.
The first modality was another piece of paper—a declaration signed by as many maritime powers as possible along the lines of President Johnson’s statement but containing an implicit warning that the signatories were prepared to exercise the rights of “free and innocent passage.” At the same time, but far more mutedly, plans were gingerly being worked out for a collective maritime flotilla—soon dubbed the “Red Sea Regatta”—to provide a naval escort for ships through the Straits of Tiran, if Egypt did not heed the declaration. This contingency planning, in the Pentagon, was British and American, without any great enthusiasm on either side.78 The United States had the 50-ship Sixth Fleet with its two aircraft carriers, America and Saratoga, and a third carrier, Intrepid, and the British had about half a dozen ships in the area, but two British aircraft carriers, Victorious and Hermes, were about 1000 miles away in the vicinity of Aden. First, however, President Johnson and the State Department worked on the maritime declaration which was relatively cheap since it needed words rather than action. When Israeli Foreign Minister Eban came to Washington on May 25, he was urged to prevail on the Israeli government to trust in the proposed action of the “maritime powers” and meanwhile to use the utmost restraint. “We were at first asked to wait two days,” Prime Minister Eshkol later recalled. “Then we sent Abba Eban to the United States—and were asked to wait a further fortnight. They told us that forty to fifty maritime powers would sign a guarantee for free passage through the Tiran Strait.”79 Actually, no more than fifteen to twenty powers ever indicated that they might sign the declaration in principle, and only the Netherlands and Australia seemed prepared to back the United States and Great Britain in any possible implementation.
In Cairo, meanwhile, the U.S. embassy was a diplomatic shambles. For three months before the May crisis, the ambassadorial post in the Egyptian capital had been vacant. No U.S. official in all that time had talked to President Nasser. The new U.S. ambassador, Richard H. Nolte, a respected student of Islamic jurisprudence and culture but without diplomatic experience and with an excessive deference for Arab sensibilities, did not arrive at his post until May 21, on the eve of Nasser’s closure of the Gulf of Aqaba to Israel. When Nolte was asked at the airport what he thought of the approaching crisis, he replied, according to one version, “What crisis?”, and according to another: “There is no crisis in the Middle East. This thing will not amount to much.”80 This was too much for David G. Nes, who had been Deputy Chief of Mission in Cairo in the absence of an ambassador. Nes later took the extraordinary step for a career diplomat of making public his alarm and dismay at the way the Egyptian buildup had been handled. Nes revealed that he had been convinced as far back as January 1967 that Nasser had been planning a major confrontation with Israel and the West. Apparently unable to get through to his superiors in Washington, Nes wrote a letter in the first week of January to Senator J. William Fulbright, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urging that a top professional diplomat or a well-known business executive close to President Johnson be appointed as ambassador in Cairo inasmuch as the incumbent, Lucius Battle, was scheduled to leave the post in March. When Mr. Nes protested to Mr. Nolte that his remarks at the airport had greatly underestimated the seriousness of the situation, the latter reportedly replied that Washington thought Mr. Nes was being an alarmist.81 The imbroglio in the embassy was so demoralizing that the State Department sent its adviser on the Middle East, Charles W. Yost, to Cairo to calm the troubled diplomatic waters. President Johnson chose the former Secretary of the Navy in the Eisenhower administration, Robert B. Anderson, as his personal envoy to Nasser.
In the UN, Ambassador Goldberg tried to spell out a key phrase in Secretary General Thant’s report of May 27. Thant had urged “all the parties concerned to exercise special restraint, to forgo belligerence and to avoid all other actions which could increase tension, to allow the Council to deal with the underlying causes of the present crisis and to seek solutions.” In his statement on May 29, Mr. Goldberg paid special attention to the words, “forgo belligerence.” He said: “We believe, from the context of the situation, that with respect to the particularly sensitive area of Aqaba, forgoing belligerence must mean forgoing any blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba during the breathing-spell requested by the Secretary General, and permitting free and innocent passage of all nations and all flags through the Straits of Tiran to continue as it has during the last ten years.”82 It was a good try, but the Egyptian spokesman, Ambassador el-Kony, made short work of it by arguing, among other things, that the three Arab states bordering the Gulf—Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt—were already “in a state of war with Israel” and, therefore, had the right “to ban the vessels of an enemy.”83 The double standard operated throughout: Egypt was at war with Israel but Israel had no right to be at war with Egypt.
In any event, the negotiations for the maritime powers’ declaration dragged on, and the planning for a flotilla to escort ships through the Straits in some indeterminate contingency became more and more remote. President Johnson maintained the position that somehow or other the Israelis were going to get through the Straits, if they waited long enough. But there was a marked difference between what correspondents heard at the White House and the State Department, and at the Pentagon. The men at the first two were preoccupied with the problem of playing for time, but if diplomatic time ran out, the men at the third were in no mood to force a military showdown. The latter were haunted by the prospect of a “second Vietnam” in the Middle East for which they were totally unprepared. Moreover, the administration was making no effort to prepare American public opinion for such a dire eventuality. Even at the White House and the State Department, those who supported Israel’s right to freedom of passage through the Straits of Tiran in principle could hardly bring themselves to contemplate what might be necessary to enforce this right in practice.84 A high State Department official threw up his hands in despair at what might have happened if the Intrepid had been sent, as someone once suggested, through the Straits.
President Johnson’s resort was to keep both sides talking as long as possible in search of a “compromise” solution. For this purpose, it was announced on June 4, the day before the outbreak, that he had invited President Nasser to send Vice President Zakaria Mohieddin to Washington, and had arranged to send Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey to Cairo. Nasser agreed for reasons of his own. Despite his more belligerent utterances, he was not altogether averse to having his way in the Gulf of Aqaba without firing a shot, thereby enabling him to claim in the Arab world that he had taken from the Israelis the equivalent of what the latter had had to gain by fighting a war. Nasser was not unwilling to permit the great powers to “prevent war,” in his sense, as long as he did not permit the Israelis to get back into the Gulf of Aqaba. For this reason, as he agreed to send Mohieddin to Washington, on June 4 he also told the so-called maritime powers what price they would have to pay for doing business with him: “We shall consider any declaration by them as a transgression of our sovereignty. It would be considered a preliminary to an act of war.”85
The trouble with all this diplomatic byplay from the Israeli point of view was that it had become largely irrelevant. For Israel was faced with two problems, and Washington wished to concern itself with only one. The two were the blockade of Eilat and the Egyptian military buildup on the Sinai border. By the beginning of June, the buildup was so great, and the Israeli strain of counter-mobilization so intense, that the question of the Gulf of Aqaba had taken second place in the Israelis’ calculation of the danger before them. There was no telling when the proposed maritime powers’ declaration might be signed, now that President Johnson had decided to bargain with Egyptian Vice President Mohieddin, and at best it would be a piece of paper. The possibility that any action might follow from it had become dimmer and dimmer. The one thing that no one was talking or thinking of doing anything about was the overwhelming military pressure that the Arab states had developed on the Israeli borders. On June 4, Iraq officially joined the Egypt-Syria-Jordan military pact. From near and far, Arab military units were hastening toward the Israeli frontiers. As the acute Washington correspondent of the London Times had already observed: “At the State Department it was emphasized that the naval planning was concerned only with securing passage for international shipping through the Strait of Tiran to the Gulf of Aqaba. There was no question of intervention in a possible land war.”86 By the first days of June, the land war and not the Gulf of Aqaba was preeminent in Israeli worrying and decision-making.
When the war did break out on June 5, the worst Israeli apprehensions of U.S. immobility seemed justified by the statement later that same day by the State Department’s press officer, Robert McCloskey, that “our position is neutral in thought, word, and deed.” I have been assured, oh the highest authority, that this remark was an inadvertence never intended to represent U.S. policy. 87 The White House press secretary, George Christian, soon made known that McCloskey’s faux pas had not been cleared with the White House. Secretary of State Rusk tried to “clarify” the matter by saying that the United States was “non-belligerent” but hardly “indifferent,” which hardly needed saying. Whatever the circumstances of Mr. McCloskey’s indiscretion, the United States could simultaneously be “neutral in thought, word, and deed,” “non-belligerent,” and not “indifferent.” In any case, the handling of this incident was scarcely reassuring to the embattled Israelis,
The worst victim of one’s propaganda is often oneself. For months, Nasser had been telling his own people and the Arab world that Israel was merely a creation and a puppet of “Western imperialism.” On May 26, Nasser said: “What is Israel? Israel today is the United States. The United States is the chief defender of Israel. As for Britain, I consider it America’s lackey.”88 On May 29, he declared: “We are not facing Israel, but those behind it. We are facing the West, which created Israel.”89 If Nasser actually believed this, it led him to think that he was safe so long as he did not have to worry about the United States or the West, thanks to the Soviet Union’s good offices, or that the Israelis could not move without U.S. permission.90 In fact, the Israelis knew that they had to fight alone and that there was very little the United States would or possibly could do to help them. The last thing the Israelis wanted was to have the United States intervene à la Vietnam and make Israel into a “second Vietnam.”
This brings us to the relationship between the third Arab-Israeli war and the Vietnam war, a subject on which there has been more than the usual quota of misunderstanding and nonsense by some who should know better. A statement, which appeared as an advertisement in the New York Times of June 7, 1967, called on President Johnson “to act now with courage and conviction, with nerve and firmness of intent, to maintain free passage in those waters [of the Gulf of Aqaba]—and so to safeguard the integrity, security, and survival of Israel and its people, and to uphold our own honor.”91 There was nothing in this statement to which the Johnson administration had not already pledged itself. It did not mention the Vietnam or any war. Some who signed it were critics of U.S. policy on Vietnam, some were not. But it moved Professor John P. Roche, a Special Consultant in the White House, to play the role of court jester and suggest that the statement should have been signed “Doves for war,” a much-quoted phrase by which he evidently meant “Vietnam doves for Israeli war.” William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote a column on the statement which he also tied up with the Vietnam war and which so bemused him that he gave it credit for putting “most of the critics of our policy in Vietnam on the run.”
The issue this raises far transcends the statement which occasioned it. The implication of the Roche-Buckley line is that Vietnam “doves” must be dovish everywhere or, conversely, Israeli “hawks” must be hawkish everywhere. Indeed, one does not have to do very much thinking any more. One merely has to take a position on Vietnam, dovish or hawkish, and every problem in every country in every region of the world automatically falls into place. On principle, one must be all hawk or all dove in U.S. foreign policy, and there is only one touchstone to determine which one it is—Vietnam. This principle is obviously inherent in the Roche-Buckley tie-up of Vietnam and Israel, and the only thing that could conceivably make it possible for a position on one to determine a position on the other.
I cannot imagine a more dangerous and pernicious doctrine. This is not evidence of contradiction on the part of critics of the Vietnam war; it is rather evidence of obsession on the part of its proponents. The cost of the Vietnam war has been high enough, but if it is to become the one, determining factor in U.S. foreign policy halfway across the globe, in totally different circumstances, the result must be war everywhere or paralysis everywhere. There is no inherent reason why one cannot criticize the abuse of power in Vietnam and the abdication of power elsewhere. Indeed, the real problem is on the other foot: our overinvestment and overindulgence of power in Vietnam has made it in short supply for use elsewhere. As the Vietnam war drags on, a “second Vietnam” has become the nightmare of U.S. policy makers and military planners. There is, then, reason to be concerned that abuse of power in one place may well lead to abdication of power in another, more important place. Soviet policy may be taking this into account, even if we cannot yet face it.
In any case, even if the Roche-Buckley principle is accepted, the Vietnam “hawks” cannot have it both ways. After all, they happen to be in control of our government, and nothing could be more ironic than the fact that they had to be urged on by Vietnam doves to be hawkish in Israel. Some hawks were, no doubt, hawkish on both issues, but the outstanding phenomenon in Washington was the dovishness on Israel by the Vietnam hawks, especially in the hawk headquarters, the Pentagon. If consistency were all that mattered, one would imagine that it was more important for those in power than for those not in power to be consistent. Yet, curiously, the grim joke was “doves for war,” not “hawks for peace.”
Actually, U.S. intervention on the Vietnam model in the Arab-Israeli struggle was never a realistic alternative, if only because Israel would not have permitted itself to become another South Vietnam. The defense of South Vietnam has caused such havoc in South Vietnam that the example has frightened our potential allies at least as much as it has deterred any present enemies. The crisis in the Middle East should again have shown how limited the application of Vietnam tactics may be in the rest of the world; it reinforces one of the main criticisms of our Vietnam policy—that it has claimed to influence events elsewhere far more than it can ever do. Yet, President Eisenhower undeniably assumed an obligation to Israel when his administration persuaded Israel to withdraw from Sharm el-Sheikh in 1957 in return for an explicit U.S. assurance that Israel would “have no cause to regret” giving up this hard-won vantage point. Subsequently, according to Prime Minister Eshkol, U.S. officials told Israel it did not need U.S. arms because it could rely on the U.S. Sixth Fleet.92 Fortunately for both Israel and the United States, the Israelis never took these assurances too seriously and always counted on having to do their own fighting. Nevertheless, there was a problem of unmistakable U.S. commitments. I have been one of those who have criticized the Johnson administration for distorting and exaggerating our past commitments to South Vietnam. But this does not mean that we do not have any real commitments anywhere; here again the worst thing that can possibly happen to our foreign policy is to shape it, commitments and all, completely in the image of our Vietnam policy. The problem of living up to our commitments to Israel was primarily one for the Johnson administration, not for the critics of its Vietnam policy. It is a measure of the difficulty of that problem that neither the administration nor its critics created it and neither would have found an easy solution for it. But some of the men around the President would have been better advised to resist the cheap temptation to use the Israeli crisis to discredit their Vietnam critics; it would have been healthier for all concerned to stand together where possible and not let their other disagreements always come between them. Since Vietnam, our far-flung commitments have become an extremely difficult and embarrassing question; a review of those commitments has been long overdue; it will never be faced if all that matters, everywhere, is what one thinks about our policy in Vietnam.
The real problem of U.S.-Israeli relations is not what the United States could have done once the war started, but what the United States should have done before the war and what it should do afterward. U.S. military equipment made up a very minor part of Israeli arms in the recent war because the United States had pursued a policy of restricting arms sales to Israel. The Israelis did not have a single U.S. bomber or fighter; the delivery of U.S. Skyhawk fighter planes, to balance Lockheed F-104’s previously made available to Jordan, was not expected until next year. The Israeli air force was French, most of its tanks were British, and its small arms were produced at home. It was the influx of Soviet arms on the Arab side and the increasing difficulty with which Israel could match it in the West that encouraged Nasser and contributed to this war. If quantity of arms had been the decisive factor, the Israelis would have been in grave trouble.93 The problem has arisen again with the renewed influx of Soviet arms to Egypt and Syria. In view of the Arab propaganda about Jewish influence in the United States, one wonders whether any non-Jewish state in Israel’s position, faced with enemies armed by the Soviet Union and enjoying the full support of Soviet propaganda and diplomacy, would have found it so difficult to buy arms in this country. This is the real problem of the past and future, not “doves for war” by the United States on behalf of Israel.
One issue was, in my view, blown up by Israel and to a lesser extent by the United States and other countries far beyond what it merited. It concerned the removal of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) from Sharm el-Sheikh and the Egypt-Israel border.
The main charges against Secretary General U Thant’s order on the night of May 18 for the withdrawal of UNEF in response to the official Egyptian request a few hours earlier were made by Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban at the UN General Assembly on June 19. He complained that U Thant’s action had been “disastrously swift” and that the Secretary General should have made a greater effort to play for time. “What is the use of a fire brigade,” Eban asked dramatically, “which vanishes from the scene as soon as the first smoke and flames appear?”
This controversy will undoubtedly provide international legal authorities with seminar material for years to come. Ordinary mortals may enter this arena only at their own peril. The problem, nevertheless, cannot be entirely avoided because it raises the question of how the war came about and because the answer may help to determine the future usefulness of the UN.
Some things seem reasonably clear. UNEF was set up in November 1956 “to secure and supervise the cessation of hostilities.” At that time, it was clearly understood that the force was only to be “of a temporary nature.” But how temporary? The answer to this seemed to depend on who was to decide when it had fulfilled its mission. Dag Hammarskjold, then Secretary General, foresaw that there could be heated dispute on this point. He recognized that UNEF could come into Egypt only with Egypt’s consent. But what was necessary to get it out? He resisted the idea that the Egyptians alone could decide when to get rid of UNEF. In lengthy negotiations with the Egyptians, especially one seven-hour session with President Nasser on November 17, he arrived at a rather tricky formula, namely, that the force would leave whenever it had “completed its task.” In an aide-memoire of November 20, Egypt promised that it would be guided by “good faith” in relation to UNEF. But who was to decide when the “task” was completed? According to Hammarskjold, in a private memorandum which he wrote about eight-and-a-half months later, he understood “good faith” to mean—and he thought the Egyptians had tacitly agreed—that the Egyptians and the General Assembly would have to agree on the completion of the task.94
But this private memorandum of August 5, 1957 was never entered into the official records or even files of the United Nations. Egypt never agreed publicly and, on at least one occasion, disagreed publicly with Hammarskjold’s version, holding that it alone was entitled to decide the fate of UNEF on its territory. Interestingly, the Egyptian Foreign Minister also resorted to the “fire brigade” analogy by saying on November 27, 1956, that “no one here or elsewhere can reasonably or fairly say that a fire brigade, after putting out a fire, would be entitled or expected to claim the right of deciding not to leave the house.” At this time, it should be remembered, the “task” of the “fire brigade” was still defined as solely to “secure and supervise” the cessation of hostilities.
Subsequently, in February 1957, UNEF was given the additional functions of serving as a buffer and deterring infiltration at the Egypt-Israel armistice line and at Sharm el-Sheikh. It is questionable whether the “good faith” commitment of November 20, 1956, applied to the additional functions three months later. Moreover, Hammarskjold’s understanding, whatever it was, implied that there was a task of a “temporary nature” that could be completed in a relatively short time, certainly months rather than years. The buffer and deterrent functions, which were added later, could go on indefinitely and did, indeed, go on for over ten years, a length of time never envisioned in 1957. In his report of June 27, 1967, on the withdrawal of UNEF, Secretary General Thant made what was, for me, a most convincing formal case.
So much for the legalities. Here again, they really made very little difference. Whatever Thant might have done to stall in New York, Nasser was making the real decisions in Egypt. UNEF consisted of only 3,400 men from seven countries, of whom no more than 1,800 were available for policing a line of 295 miles along the Egypt-Israel border and the Gaza Strip. All of 32 men were stationed at Sharm el-Sheikh, the main neuralgic point. India and Yugoslavia, which contributed over half the total force, informed the Secretary General that they were withdrawing their men whatever he decided to do. At most, UNEF was a purely symbolic presence. It had no authority to “enforce” the peace—in other words to fight, except as a last resort in self-defense. It was totally dependent on Egyptian good will for its logistical support. Israel had from the first refused to permit it to be stationed on the Israeli side of the border and, therefore, it could not be moved from the Egyptian side.
By the night of May 18, U Thant did not have to “withdraw” the force; he could merely recognize that it had already been, for all practical purposes, withdrawn. The Egyptian troops had simply shunted the UNEF units aside. As the Secretary General later reported: “Early on 18 May the UNEF sentries proceeding to man the normal observation post at El Sabha in Sinai were prevented from entering the post and from remaining in the area by United Arab Republic soldiers. The sentries were then forced to withdraw. They did not resist by use of force since they had no mandate to do so.” Egyptian officers gave the Yugoslav detachment at Sharm el-Sheikh fifteen minutes to reply to a demand for an Egyptian takeover of the UNEF camp. As the Secretary General’s report put it, “the effectiveness of UNEF in the light of the movement of United Arab Republic troops up to the line and into Sharm el-Sheikh, had already vanished before the request for withdrawal was received.”
What, then, could stalling tactics at the UN by the Secretary General have achieved? They could possibly have put Egypt temporarily on the defensive in purely legalistic terms, assuming that the legalities were not on their side. They could not have prevented the Egyptian takeover of UNEF posts in the Sinai or at Sharm el-Sheikh. This takeover was accomplished by overwhelming superior forces on the spot, not by legalistic maneuvering in New York. Mr. Thant might have ordered resistance to the Egyptian diplomatic delegation at the UN but he could not order resistance to the Egyptian troops, tanks, and guns in the desert. The reports from the field on May 18 were such that the truly pressing, realistic problem was how to prevent bloody incidents between the virtually defenseless UNEF and the on-rushing Egyptian forces and even to forestall the unseemly disintegration of the UNEF units. It should also be remembered that Mr. Thant held out for two days after he received the first Egyptian notification on May 16, and that war did not break out immediately after the order for withdrawal on May 18. Eighteen days intervened between May 18 and June 5, and it would have mattered very little in that period with respect to the efforts to prevent the war whether UNEF had still occupied their observation posts or not. UNEF could not get out overnight anyway; the first units did not leave until May 29.
Foreign Minister Eban’s analogy between UNEF and a “fire brigade” may have been effective oratorically but it unwittingly betrayed what was wrong with his reasoning. In no sense was UNEF comparable to a fire brigade; or it was, at most, a “symbolic” one. The “smoke and flames” which this “fire brigade” was supposed to fight were made up of overwhelmingly superior Egyptian armed forces. UNEF had the alternative of “vanishing” or fighting fire with fire, of resisting physically. In practice, UNEF was so outnumbered and outclassed that it mattered little whether it stayed or left, except perhaps to establish a legal point. The melancholy fact is that the basis for UNEF’s operation throughout its existence was, as the Secretary General’s report of June 27 put it, “essentially fragile.” It was, in a sense, a “fire brigade” as long as there was no fire; it was a “fire brigade” merely to signal by its forced withdrawal that a fire was coming; but it was not a “fire brigade” which the international community had set up with the authority, the numbers, and the equipment to put out a real fire.
Whose fault was that? Surely not that of UNEF or the Secretary General or the “United Nations.” It is time to put a stop to the sanctimonious swindle the individual states which make up the United Nations have been perpetrating. The founders of the United Nations set it up in such a way that it has only the collective authority and force that its members, especially the great powers, and more particularly only two of them, the United States and the Soviet Union, permit it to have. The great-power veto in the Security Council prevents even a two-thirds majority in that body from getting anything through. The Security Council was immobilized by the Soviet Union between May 23 and June 5 despite the most urgent pleas by the Secretary General. But when his worst fears materialized, it was said that the United Nations or the Secretary General had “failed.” That there was failure—tragic, ominous, and perhaps unnecessary failure—there can be no doubt. That the responsibility for the failure must be fixed on the individual states, there can also be no doubt. The United Nations does not live a life of its own; it does only what they permit or empower it to do; if it fails, they have directed and doomed it to fail. The worst of it is that the United Nations has become an alibi, a stratagem, a scapegoat, for deflecting attention from where the real evil hides—in the sovereign states. These states are not equally culpable in all cases, but where there may be guilt, it should at least be looked for in the right place—among them.
Finally, the campaign against U Thant was as tactically unsound as it was legally and realistically unjustified. One well-known columnist even used the phrase, “U Thant’s war.” This and other grotesqueries only had the effect of letting off the real culprits too easily. It may be called “Nasser’s war” or perhaps “Nasser’s and Kosygin’s war,” but to call it “U Thant’s war” makes it appear as if U Thant had the power to prevent, let alone to start it. To some extent, the campaign against U Thant was based on a misapprehension of what UNEF could do in the circumstances of May 18, but some of those in high places who took part in the campaign should have known better. Instead of putting the blame squarely where it belonged, on the Egyptian leaders who ordered their troops to take over UNEF’s posts in the hot desert before U Thant even ordered the force’s official withdrawal, and on those powers, including the Soviet Union, India, Yugoslavia and others, which took Egypt’s side in the UN, the anti-Thant camarilla pursued a vendetta of long standing, some of it based on his repugnance for the Vietnam war. It would be absurd to go to the opposite extreme and suggest that the Secretary General or the UN covered themselves with glory. They were reduced to impotence, and the cause of world community has suffered immeasurably. But they were as much victims of the real ringleaders and wirepullers of this war as the miserable fellaheen in uniform whose bodies rotted in the burning sands.
The United Nations is subject to periodic, built-in seizures of paralysis because it is primarily a place where the member-states pursue their individual self-interest. In order for the peacemaking or peacekeeping function to work reasonably well, one of two conditions is necessary. either the self-interest of the great powers must happen to coincide or the issue must happen to bypass their self-interest. The first condition has always been the sine qua non of United Nations usefulness, but the second has become increasingly rare of fulfillment. The more obvious reason for the latter state of affairs is the growing competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for the support—or to deny the other the support—of the “underdeveloped” part of the world and particularly of the nations founded since the last war. The new nationalism of the new nations is sometimes about all that holds them together, and the only virtue they have to sell. As a result, no nationalism is as obsessive and singleminded as the latest one. The great powers which seek to use them must do so through playing on a species of primitive self-interest that is far more difficult to control than that of the old-style client-states or the new variety of satellite-states. The Soviet Union, for example, wooed Nasser’s Egypt more by serving Egypt’s nationalistic interests than by getting Egypt to serve its own. But Egypt is neither an old-fashioned client-state nor a new-fangled satellite. It is rather a new-style “give-me” nationalism; Gamal Abdel Nasser has been one of the world’s great practitioners of the new golden rule that it is better—for the great powers—to give than to receive. The United States has, of course, practiced handout diplomacy for the longest time and on the most lavish scale. It is, however, one of the less publicized aspects of the “affluent society” which the Soviet Union has of late attempted to crash.
But there is another, related reason why the great powers have exacerbated the nationalistic ambitions of the newer and smaller states. For a number of years, students of war have concerned themselves with the problem of small or big, local or general, guerrilla or conventional, nuclear or non-nuclear conflicts. This preoccupation was partially dictated by the obviously catastrophic character of the big, general, conventional, nuclear war. In order to avoid destroying themselves as well as their enemies, the great powers began to take an inordinate interest in small, local, irregular and non-nuclear conflicts. In theory, the latter seemed infinitely preferable because they could be “controlled,” and a great deal of thought and ingenuity have been expended on the techniques and mechanisms for controlling them. But, increasingly, even this type of war has become too dangerous because of the reluctance of a great power to take a limited setback if it can give itself a second chance by escalating the struggle. This has typically happened to the United States in Vietnam. A new type of war, therefore, has been creeping up on us that is relatively small, local, non-nuclear but hopefully more controllable. It may be called the “war by proxy.”
Wars by proxy are not new, and no one power has had a monopoly of them. The United States tried to wage a war by proxy in Cuba in April 1961 with a pitifully small Cuban exile force. Before 1966, when the United States began to take over the main fighting from the South Vietnamese, the Vietnam war was largely a war by proxy, especially in the U.S. view which then conceived of the real antagonists as being the United States and Communist China. But the third Arab-Israeli war was preeminently the Soviet Union’s version of a war by proxy. The great Soviet Union was above regarding Israel as worthy of its unfriendly attention. To justify the expenditure of three billion dollars or more of economic and military assistance to the Arab states, a more deserving foe was needed. For this reason, Soviet propaganda and diplomacy were so insistent that Israel was merely an instrument of the “imperialist powers” or that they were behind Israel, so that by striking at Israel, the Arab states backed by the Soviet Union were really striking at “world imperialism.” In his speech to the General Assembly on June 19, Premier Kosygin went out of his way to emphasize that “the events that took place recently in the Middle East in connection with the armed conflict between Israel and the Arab states should be considered precisely in the context of the general international situation.” Later he helpfully provided the context by charging that the United States and Great Britain were “promoting” Israeli “aggression”—one of the more polite formulas of Soviet displeasure. The Arabs, as we have seen, had also taken the line that they were really fighting the “imperialist” West, though it is hard to know whether they really believed it or thought they were pleasing their Soviet benefactors.
In any event, this war by proxy showed how difficult and treacherous the new genre is. The nationalistic interests of both Israel and Egypt made it impossible for any of the great powers to “control” them. The Egyptians did not ask the Soviet Union for permission to reoccupy Sharm el-Sheikh and close the Gulf of Aqaba to Israel, and the Israelis did not ask the United States for permission to fight in order to reopen it. The war by proxy may be the safest species of small, local conflicts, but it is hardly safe. By not implicating the armed forces of a great power directly, it does enable that power to extricate itself more gracefully than would otherwise be possible. President Kennedy wisely insisted on having this escape-hatch in Cuba in 1961, and the Soviets could have it now in the Middle East. But the war by proxy still remains the most dangerous game of armed conflict the great powers are playing today. It requires far more attention than it has received. If the Soviet Union does not learn from our mistakes and seeks in the future to escalate its gamble in the Middle East to win for itself a second chance, the next round will be far more dangerous and costly to players and spectators alike.
1 United Nations, General Assembly, November 26, 1947, pp. 1360-61.
2 Walter Eytan, The First Ten Years (Simon & Schuster, 1958), pp. 10-12, 138-39.
3 Moshe Pearlman, Ben Gurion Looks Back (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1965), pp. 140-41.
4 United Nations, Security Council, March 30, 1948, pp. 248-50.
5 Trygve Lie, In the Cause of Peace (Macmillan, 1954), p. 174. Lie confirms that the Soviet Union was “more steadfast” than the United States in support of partition (p. 164). Of private consultations in March 1948, in which the U.S., USSR, France, and China, took part, Lie writes: “Only the Soviet Union seems to be seriously intent upon implementing partition; the United States clearly was not” (p. 169).
6 One of the oddities in the present heated discussion over whether Israel has the “right” to keep the West Bank of the Jordan, including the Jordanian section of Jerusalem, is the tacit assumption that Jordan has a better “right” to this territory. The West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem were occupied by the troops of Transjordan, as the country was then known, during the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. King Abdullah of Transjordan refused to give up this territory despite the opposition of the other Arab states which wanted to form an Arab “Government of All-Palestine,” with its headquarters at Gaza, then occupied by Egypt. But Abdullah had the best “Arab” army at that time, British-trained and commanded, and refused to give up the spoils of war. As a result, Transjordan increased its territory by 2,165 square miles and trebled its population because the East Bank, to which it had been formerly restricted, was over four-fifths desert. The new name, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, was adopted on April 26, 1949 (Raphael Patai, The Kingdom of Jordan [Princeton University Press, 1958], pp. 8-10, 48). Abdullah, grandfather of the present King Hussein, was the only Arab ruler who wanted to make peace with Israel, for which he was assassinated by fanatical Arab “nationalists” in 1951. The West Bank of the Jordan became Jordanian in 1948 solely by virtue of military occupation; it is hard to see why it could not be taken away from Jordan for the same reason.
7 Article I of this Convention, which governs the conduct of the Canal, provides that it “shall always be free and open, in time of war as in time of peace, to every vessel of commerce or of war, without distinction of flag” (my italics, T. D.). Article XI directs that even measures taken for “the defense of Egypt” should not “interfere with the free use of the Canal.” Thus this is not an issue which depends on whether Egypt still considers itself at war with Israel.
8 Lt. Gen. E. L. M. Burns, the Canadian head of the United Nations Truce Supervisory Organization, by no means uncritical of Israeli policy, wrote: “I felt that what Egyptians were doing in sending these men, whom they dignified with the name of fedayeen or commandos, into another country with the mission to attack men, women, and children indiscriminately, was a war crime It was essentially of the same character, though less in degree, as the offenses for which the Nazi leaders had been tried in Nürnberg, to cite the most recent examples” (Between Arab and Israeli, Ivan Obolensky, 1963, p. 88).
9 An authoritative source says that in 1955-56 Egypt received about 150 MIG-15 and MIG-17 jet fighters, 40 IL-28 tactical jet bombers, several hundred tanks, and several submarines and destroyers. Major-General Moshe Dayan estimates that the Soviet arms deal gave Egypt an approximately four-to-one advantage in tanks and planes (Diary of the Sinai Campaign [Schocken ed., 1967], p. 4).
10 Dayan, op. cit., p. 68.
11 Pearlman, op. cit., p. 147.
12 Dayan, op. cit., p. 3.
13 Ibid., p. 192.
14 Department of State Bulletin, March 11, 1957, p. 393.
15 Sobolev (USSR), United Nations, General Assembly, March 4, 1957, p. 1298
16 Kuznetsov (USSR), United Nations, General Assembly, February 2, 1957, pp. 1077-78, and Sobolev, March 4, 1957, p. 1297.
17 Fawzi (Egypt), United Nations, General Assembly, March 8, 1957, pp. 1325-26.
18 Public Papers of the Presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1957 (Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office), p. 166.
19 The eleven were Great Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, Portugal, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
20 On November 26, 1940, the German Ambassador in Moscow, Count Friedrich Werner Von der Schulenberg, wired Berlin on Soviet conditions for a Soviet-German treaty: “In accordance with the foregoing, the draft of the protocol concerning the delimitation of the spheres of influence as outlined by the Reich Foreign Minister [Ribben-trop] would have to be amended so as to stipulate the focal point of the aspirations of the Soviet Union south of Batum and Baku in the general direction of the Persian Gulf.” A year earlier, on November 23, 1939, Hitler told his Chiefs of Staff that “Russia strives to strengthen her influence on the Balkan peninsula and aims towards the Persian Gulf. But those are also aims of our own foreign policy.” This Nazi-Soviet conflict of interest in the Middle East was one, but by no means the most important, of the divergences which brought about the Nazi attack on the USSR in June 1941.
21 Pearlman, op. cit., p. 157
22 Mideast Mirror (Beirut, Lebanon), March 5, 1965, p. 5.
23 This view was openly expressed in the UN by the Syrian Ambassador, Dr. George J. Tomeh, on October 17, 1966, as a reason why Syria could not commit any aggression against Israel: “We as Syrians consider Palestine to be, and to have been, historically, geographically, and from every point of view, a part of Syria. It was only colonial rule and imperialist intrigues that divided Syria into so many States. When we speak of Palestine we feel we are speaking about part of our own country” (United Nations, Security Council, Provisional Verbatim Record, October 17, 1966, p. 61). This claim, of course, put Syria as much in conflict with Jordan as wih Israel.
24 The first citation is from the Near East Report (Washington, D. C.), May 31, 1966, p. 42; the second from Mideast Mirror, May 28, 1966, p. 2.
25 This version appeared in Mideast Mirror, October 15, 1966, p. 3. Eban cited a somewhat different and fuller version of Zuayin's remarks: “We are not guardians of Israel's safety. We are not resigned to holding back the revolution of the Palestine people. Under no circumstances shall we do so. We shall set the entire area afire, and any Israeli movement will result in a final grave for Israel.” Eban also cited a public statement on these incidents by the Syrian Chief of Staff, General Sweidani, on October 11: “These activities which are now being carried out are legal activities, and it is not our duty to stop them but to encourage and strengthen them. We are constantly ready to act inside Jordan and inside Israel in order to defend our people and its honor. We will mobilize volunteers and we will give them arms” (United Nations, Security Council, Provisional Verbatim Record, October 14, 1966, p. 13).
26 Ibid., p. 62.
27 This project demonstrates how “unpolitical” and “without strings” Soviet aid programs can be. The Soviets first promised to help Syria build this dam in 1957, but the Syrian-Egyptian merger the following year dulled the Soviets' enthusiasm and led to a withdrawal of the offer to finance the dam on the ground that it was not technically feasible. In 1959, West Germany took over the project, but it withdrew after the breakup of the Syrian-Egyptian merger in 1961. The West Germans signed another agreement in January 1963, but it was called off after the Ba'athists seized power two months later. The Left-Ba'athist coup of February 1966 brought back the Soviets who suddenly discovered that the project was technically feasible after all.
28 Mideast Mirror, November 26, 1966, p. 7.
29 Ibid., January 7, 1967, p. 7, and January 14, 1967, p. 2. I have used the original language as nearly as possible. The dates indicate when the alleged incidents took place.
30 Ibid., January 21, 1967, p. 2.
31 Ibid., February 11, 1967, p. 2; February 25, 1967, p. 6, and March 11, 1967, p. 4.
33 In an interview with the publication Al Hawadis (Beirut, Lebanon) of March 26, 1966, Nasser said: “We could annihilate Israel in twelve days were the Arabs to form a united front. Any attack on Israel from the south is not possible from a military point of view. Israel can be attacked only from the territory of Jordan and Syria. But conditions in Jordan and Syria have to be in order so that we in Egypt can be sure we will not be stabbed in the back as in 1948” (quoted in Near East Report, April 5,1966, p. 26).
34 Joe Alex Morris, Jr. (Beirut, Lebanon), Washington Post, January 8, 1967.
34 New York Times, April 8, 1967.
35 Mideast Mirror, April 15, 1967.
37 Ibid., April 22, 1967.
38 Ibid., April 15, 1967.
39 Ibid., April 29, 1967.
40 Ibid., May 6, 1967.
41 United Nations, Press conference, May 11, 1967 (Press Release, SG/SM/708, p. 13).
42 There are other indications that the Israeli government did not anticipate the seriousness of the crisis. At a luncheon of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem on January 24, 1967, Foreign Minister Eban said that Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt “do not wish to become directly involved in hostility with us” (Weekly News Bulletin, Government Press Office, January 24-30, 1967, p. 6). In an annual review in the Israeli parliament on February 14, 1967, Eban said that “Arab feuding and internal complications preoccupy the Arab leaders at this moment more than does planning of the fight against Israel” (Ibid., February 14-20, 1967, p. 2). These statements may very well have been true at the time; if so, they would indicate that the May 1967 crisis developed at a pace which in a sense caught everyone by surprise. But they hardly suggest that Israel was putting into effect a long-prepared plan.
43 I have used official Israeli translations of the May 12 and 13 statements.
44 From monitored radio broadcasts. Nasser had made the same point in his previous speech of May 22.
45 This is from the Reuters translation in the New York Times, June 10, 1967. There is a slightly different version of the same passage in a monitored radio broadcast: “Add to this fact [of Syrian and Egyptian information] that our friends in the Soviet Union warned the parliamentary delegation which was on a visit to Moscow at the beginning of last month that there was a premeditated plan against Syria.”
45 Speech of May 22, 1967, text in New York Times, May 26, 1967.
47 Text in the New York Times, May 21, 1967, p. 2.
48 This account is based on the Report of the Secretary General on the Withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force, June 27, 1967.
49 From monitored radio broadcasts.
51 Text in the New York Times, May 26, 1967.
52 Report of the Secretary-General of May 26, 1967.
53 Text in the New York Times, May 24, 1967 (read into the record of the Security Council, May 24, 1967, pp. 26-30). Yet the Soviet statement may have gone too far and may give the Soviets future trouble even if the apparent commitment was general. It said: “But let no one have any doubts about the fact that should anyone try to unleash aggression in the Near East, he would be met not only with the united strength of Arab countries, but also with strong opposition to aggression from the Soviet Union and all peaceloving states.” And it concluded: “With due account taken of the situation, the Soviet Union is doing and will continue to do everything in its power to prevent a violation of peace and security in the Near East and safeguard the legitimate rights of the peoples.” But none of this was spelled out concretely.
54 Text in the New York Times, May 24, 1967.
55 From a monitored radio broadcast.
58 Ahmad Samih Khalidi, “An Appraisal of the Arab-Israel Military Balance,” Middle East Forum (Beirut), Vol. 42, No. 3, 1966, pp. 55-65.
59 From monitored radio broadcasts.
64 This version appeared in the New York Times, May 30, 1967. The version in the monitored radio broadcasts is: “When I met with Shamseddin Badran yesterday he handed me a message from Soviet Premier Kosygin saying that the USSR supports us in this battle and will not allow any power to intervene until matters were restored to what they were in 1956.”
64 Subsequently, on June 12, Prime Minister Eshkol called attention to a “secret operation order” issued on May 27 by the Egyptian air force commander to his air force “to be prepared for a sudden attack on Israel.” This operational order, signed by Major General Jalal Ibrahim Ziz, Chief of Staff, Eastern Air Command, was captured by an Israeli unit at El-Arish in the Sinai during the fighting. It gave specific instructions to five air brigades on their targets in Israel but left the time open “in conformity with conditions as they develop.” This and other captured Egyptian plans show that the Egyptians were poised to go, and the massive bombing of Israel airfields and radar centers might have come at any moment.
65 “Pourquoi Moscou a lâché Nasser,” Le nouvel Observateur (Paris), June 14-20, 1967, p. 16. This article purports to be a version of the events given by “a high Soviet official” to an anonymous correspondent in Moscow. Unlike most such planted stories, however, it tends for the most part to be consistent with what we know from other sources and rings true. On this point, this article states that President Johnson and Premier Kosygin coordinated these efforts to restrain Nasser as a result of messages exchanged between them.
66 Text of Nasser's statement in New York Times, June 10, 1967 (from Reuters).
67 The sequence of events, as given by the “high Soviet Official” to Le nouvel Observateur, op. cit., is as follows: Soviet intelligence evaluated as very serious reports of an Israeli plan to stage a deep raid in Syria on May 15 and eventually to push as far as Damascus to overthrow the Syrian government. Nasser massed his troops on the Sinai border, to discourage Israel from launching such an attack on Syria, with full Soviet approval. But Nasser informed the Soviets of the blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba only after he had decided on it, and they warned him that he was taking the risk of unleashing “unpredictable reactions.” When U Thant quickly agreed to withdraw the UN forces, however, Nasser's confidence in being able to handle the situation seemed justified. “From that date,” the account goes on, “we warned Nasser, however, that we would commit ourselves only to neutralizing the United States, that is, we would respond by an escalation equal to any escalation on the part of Washington—and that our support would not go beyond this.”
68 This is the monitored radio broadcast version. The last sentence appeared in the New York Times of April 30, 1967, as follows: “Now that we have the situation as it was before 1956, Allah will certainly help us to restore the status quo of before 1948.”
69 United Nations, Security Council, Document S/7896, p. 5.
70 Ibid., Provisional Verbatim Record, May 24, 1967 (S/PV. 1342), p. 11.
71 Ibid., pp. 21 and 51.
72 Ibid., May 29, 1967 (S/PV. 1343), pp. 36-37.
73 Ibid., pp. 87-102 and 121-122.
74 Ibid., May 31, 1967 (S/PV. 1345), pp. 56-60 and 71-75. Federenko seems to have confused the refusal of the United States to trade with Cuba with a “naval blockade” of Cuba. Even Western powers, such as Britain and France, trade freely with Cuba. The only semblance of a U.S. blockade was imposed during the “missile crisis” of October 1962 for about a week and that was limited to offensive military equipment involving a nuclear threat.
75 Ibid., June 3, 1967 (S/PV. 1346), pp. 67-75 and 106-115.
76 John C. Campbell, Defense of the Middle East (Harper, 1960), p. 242.
77 In January 1967, King Hussein of Jordan said that his army had 55,000 men compared with 4,000 in 1948; his defense budget was $56 million; his army included 11 infantry brigades and 300 modern tanks, including 250 new Patton T-48's from the U.S.; his air force would soon have five fighter squadrons (New York Times, January 26, 1967). He did not say how much all this had cost the United States.
78 This phase was reported more fully in the British than in the U.S. press. In his press conference in Washington on June 2, Prime Minister Wilson refused to answer a question about what Britain in concert with other nations might do if Egypt refused to open the Gulf of Aqaba. But, in the House of Commons on May 31, Foreign Secretary George Brown had already indicated that stronger measures were being contemplated than the maritime powers' declaration: “But we must face the fact that action in the United Nations, or declarations made by nations outside the United Nations, may not be enough to secure the right of innocent passage to which we and all maritime nations attach such importance. It goes without saying that we certainly hope that they will. I trust that it also goes without saying that we will use every diplomatic effort to see that they do. But we would be failing our duty if we were not now consulting with others concerned about the situation that will arise if these initiatives were to fail” (The Times, London, June 1, 1967). The London Times's Washington correspondent, Louis Heren, reported on May 25: “The Americans are thinking in terms of a massive task force, while Britain believes that the job can be done with two or three destroyers.” On May 29, the London Times's Washington correspondent added: “Anglo-American contingency planning for the naval escort of ships through the Straits of Tiran is still going forward but clearly Mr. Johnson had decided against an early forcing of the passage.” British sources do not seem to bear out the contention in the New York Times of June 12: “Britain had agreed to join the United States in a statement denouncing the blockade but she is said to have balked at committing herself to a show of force if nothing else worked.”
79 New York Times, June 10, 1967.
80 Thomas T. Fenton, the Baltimore Sun, June 15, 1967; Bernard Gwertzman, Washington Star, June 15, 1967.
81 Nes's story appeared in an interview with Thomas T. Fenton in the Baltimore Sun of June 13, 1967. A State Department spokesman, Carl Bartch, did not deny any of Nes's assertions but protested that “any inference that the United States regarded the situation in the Middle East as anything other than very grave is erroneous” (Ibid., June 14, 1967). The “explanation” for Mr. Nolte's unguarded remarks at the airport seems to be that he thought he was speaking off-the-record, which hardly explains the substance of what he said.
82 United Nations, Security Council, Provisional Verbatim Record, May 29, 1967 (S/PV. 1343), p. 16.
83 Ibid., p. 31.
84 What officials in the White House and the State Department were saying to editors and correspondents privately may be gathered from the experiences of one knowledgeable editor, Myron Kolatch, the New Leader, June 5, 1967, pp. 3-5.
85 The Times (London), June 5,1967.
86 Ibid., May 26, 1967.
87 The story, as I was told it, is a classic of diplomatic nightmares. Leading officials were called to the State Department in the middle of the night on June 5. A message soon came in to the effect that five Egyptian airfields had been knocked out. This led to speculation on the part of junior officials that Egypt might not live up to Nasser's boasts. A senior official, at about 3 A.M., jokingly admonished them to remember that “we are neutral in thought, word, and deed.” The same official later briefed Mr. McCloskey for the State Department's press conference that afternoon without using these words, and they did not appear in Mr. McCloskey's opening statement. But in response to a question about the possibility of U.S. intervention, Mr. McCloskey remembered the words he had heard at about 3 A.M. and used them in his reply. Still, it would appear that the White House and State Department found it so hard to recover from this incredible goof because they were confronted with a most awkward question: If the United States was not “neutral,” what was it?
88 From monitored radio broadcasts.
89 This version appeared in The Times (London), June 5, 1967. The monitored radio broadcasts give the passage as follows: “We are confronting Israel, and the West as well—the West which created Israel and which despised us, the Arabs, and which ignored us before and after 1948.”
90 This point was made by the “high Soviet official” in Le nouvel Observateur, op. cit.: “He [Nasser] has partially been the victim of his own propaganda to the effect that the government of Tel Aviv is only a simple pawn of Washington, and that he could not see that this pawn could give proof of a certain amount of autonomy.” But the high Soviet official neglected to mention that the government of Moscow was guilty of exactly the same kind of simple-minded propaganda which might have helped Nasser to deceive himself.
91 This statement was signed by 54 persons, including myself. Such statements are basically expressions of sympathy, especially when they are as general as this one.
92 This point was discussed by Eshkol a month before the outbreak of the war. Asked what help he would expect from the United States and possibly Britain and France, he replied: “Surely, we expect such help—but we would rely primarily on our own army. I wouldn't want American mothers crying about the blood of their sons being shed here. But I would surely expect such help, especially if I take into consideration all the solemn promises that have been made to Israel. We get these promises when we ask the United States for arms and are told: ‘Don't spend your money. We are here. The Sixth Fleet is here.’ My reply to this advice is that the Sixth Fleet might not be available fast enough for one reason or another, so Israel must be strong on its own. This is why we spend so much money on arms proportionately to our population” (U.S. News & World Report, April 17, 1967, p. 76). Curiously, the same magazine later distorted a reference to its own interview. In its issue of June 19, 1967, it stated: “Israeli Premier Levi Eshkol said in an interview April 11, 1967, that the U.S. Sixth Fleet would support Israel. Arab newspapers around the world headlined his statement. Despite denials of U.S. officials, Arab leaders assumed this was a firm commitment.” As may be seen from the wording of the interview itself, Eshkol said that U.S. officials had implied the Sixth Fleet would support Israel, and he had been most dubious.
93 An Israeli story, related by Terence Prittie of the Guardian (England), may cast some light on the recent Israeli victory. It seems that the Polish emigré leader, General Sikorsky, met a rabbi during the dark days of World War II and asked him how it might be won. “By one of two ways,” the rabbi answered, “by a miracle or by a natural way.” The general asked: “What would be the natural way?” Answered the rabbi: “To win it by a miracle.” The general: “And what, then, would be the miracle?” The rabbi: “To win it in a natural way” (Israel: Miracle in the Desert, Praeger, 1967, p. 10).
94 The text of Hammarskjold's private memorandum of August 5, 1957, was published in the New York Times of June 19, 1967. That Hammarskjold knew he was skating on thin legal ice is shown by his self-revelation that “I was guided by the consideration that Egypt constitutionally had an undisputed right to request the withdrawal of the troops, even if initial consent had been given, but that, on the other hand, it should be possible on the basis of my own stand as finally tacitly accepted, to force them into an agreement in which they limited their freedom of action as to withdrawal dependent upon the completion of the task—a question which, in the UN, obviously would have to be submitted to interpretation by the General Assembly.” That Hammarskjold could really “force” anything on the Egyptians with a “tacit” agreement is more than doubtful. At most, his private memorandum suggests a “gentlemen's agreement”—but one of the gentlemen died prematurely and of the other it might be said that when men decide to go to war, they cease being gentlemen.
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t can be said that the Book of Samuel launched the American Revolution. Though antagonistic to traditional faith, Thomas Paine understood that it was not Montesquieu, or Locke, who was inscribed on the hearts of his fellow Americans. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense is a biblical argument against British monarchy, drawing largely on the text of Samuel.
Today, of course, universal biblical literacy no longer exists in America, and sophisticated arguments from Scripture are all too rare. It is therefore all the more distressing when public intellectuals, academics, or religious leaders engage in clumsy acts of exegesis and political argumentation by comparing characters in the Book of Samuel to modern political leaders. The most common victim of this tendency has been the central character in the Book of Samuel: King David.
Most recently, this tendency was made manifest in the writings of Dennis Prager. In a recent defense of his own praise of President Trump, Prager wrote that “as a religious Jew, I learned from the Bible that God himself chose morally compromised individuals to accomplish some greater good. Think of King David, who had a man killed in order to cover up the adultery he committed with the man’s wife.” Prager similarly argued that those who refuse to vote for a politician whose positions are correct but whose personal life is immoral “must think God was pretty flawed in voting for King David.”
Prager’s invocation of King David was presaged on the left two decades ago. The records of the Clinton Presidential Library reveal that at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, an email from Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel made its way into the inbox of an administration policy adviser with a similar comparison: “From the perspective of Jewish history, we have to ask how Jews can condemn President Clinton’s behavior as immoral, when we exalt King David? King David had Batsheva’s husband, Uriah, murdered. While David was condemned and punished, he was never thrown off the throne of Israel. On the contrary, he is exalted in our Jewish memory as the unifier of Israel.”
One can make the case for supporting politicians who have significant moral flaws. Indeed, America’s political system is founded on an awareness of the profound tendency to sinfulness not only of its citizens but also of its statesmen. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison informs us in the Federalist. At the same time, anyone who compares King David to the flawed leaders of our own age reveals a profound misunderstanding of the essential nature of David’s greatness. David was not chosen by God despite his moral failings; rather, David’s failings are the lens that reveal his true greatness. It is in the wake of his sins that David emerges as the paradigmatic penitent, whose quest for atonement is utterly unlike that of any other character in the Bible, and perhaps in the history of the world.
While the precise nature of David’s sins is debated in the Talmud, there is no question that they are profound. Yet it is in comparing David to other faltering figures—in the Bible or today—that the comparison falls flat. This point is stressed by the very Jewish tradition in whose name Prager claimed to speak.
It is the rabbis who note that David’s predecessor, Saul, lost the kingship when he failed to fulfill God’s command to destroy the egregiously evil nation of Amalek, whereas David commits more severe sins and yet remains king. The answer, the rabbis suggest, lies not in the sin itself but in the response. Saul, when confronted by the prophet Samuel, offers obfuscations and defensiveness. David, meanwhile, is similarly confronted by the prophet Nathan: “Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.” David’s immediate response is clear and complete contrition: “I have sinned against the Lord.” David’s penitence, Jewish tradition suggests, sets him apart from Saul. Soon after, David gave voice to what was in his heart at the moment, and gave the world one of the most stirring of the Psalms:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
. . . Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
The tendency to link David to our current age lies in the fact that we know more about David than any other biblical figure. The author Thomas Cahill has noted that in a certain literary sense, David is the only biblical figure that is like us at all. Prior to the humanist autobiographies of the Renaissance, he notes, “we can count only a few isolated instances of this use of ‘I’ to mean the interior self. But David’s psalms are full of I’s.” In David’s Psalms, Cahill writes, we “find a unique early roadmap to the inner spirit—previously mute—of ancient humanity.”
At the same time, a study of the Book of Samuel and of the Psalms reveals how utterly incomparable David is to anyone alive today. Haym Soloveitchik has noted that even the most observant of Jews today fail to feel a constant intimacy with God that the simplest Jew of the premodern age might have felt, that “while there are always those whose spirituality is one apart from that of their time, nevertheless I think it safe to say that the perception of God as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious.” Yet for David, such intimacy with the divine was central to his existence, and the Book of Samuel and the Psalms are an eternal testament to this fact. This is why simple comparisons between David and ourselves, as tempting as they are, must be resisted. David Wolpe, in his book about David, attempts to make the case as to why King David’s life speaks to us today: “So versatile and enduring is David in our culture that rare is the week that passes without some public allusion to his life…We need to understand David better because we use his life to comprehend our own.”
The truth may be the opposite. We need to understand David better because we can use his life to comprehend what we are missing, and how utterly unlike our lives are to his own. For even the most religious among us have lost the profound faith and intimacy with God that David had. It is therefore incorrect to assume that because of David’s flaws it would have been, as Amos Oz has written, “fitting for him to reign in Tel Aviv.” The modern State of Israel was blessed with brilliant leaders, but to which of its modern warriors or statesmen should David be compared? To Ben Gurion, who stripped any explicit invocation of the Divine from Israel’s Declaration of Independence? To Moshe Dayan, who oversaw the reconquest of Jerusalem, and then immediately handed back the Temple Mount, the locus of King David’s dreams and desires, to the administration of the enemies of Israel? David’s complex humanity inspires comparison to modern figures, but his faith, contrition, and repentance—which lie at the heart of his story and success—defy any such engagement.
And so, to those who seek comparisons to modern leaders from the Bible, the best rule may be: Leave King David out of it.
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Three attacks in Britain highlight the West’s inability to see the threat clearly
This lack of seriousness manifests itself in several ways. It’s perhaps most obvious in the failure to reform Britain’s chaotic immigration and dysfunctional asylum systems. But it’s also abundantly clear from the grotesque underfunding and under-resourcing of domestic intelligence. In MI5, Britain has an internal security service that is simply too small to do its job effectively, even if it were not handicapped by an institutional culture that can seem willfully blind to the ideological roots of the current terrorism problem.
In 2009, Jonathan Evans, then head of MI5, confessed at a parliamentary hearing about the London bus and subway attacks of 2005 that his organization only had sufficient resources to “hit the crocodiles close to the boat.” It was an extraordinary metaphor to use, not least because of the impression of relative impotence that it conveys. MI5 had by then doubled in size since 2001, but it still boasted a staff of only 3,500. Today it’s said to employ between 4,000 and 5,000, an astonishingly, even laughably, small number given a UK population of 65 million and the scale of the security challenges Britain now faces. (To be fair, the major British police forces all have intelligence units devoted to terrorism, and the UK government’s overall counterterrorism strategy involves a great many people, including social workers and schoolteachers.)
You can also see that unseriousness at work in the abject failure to coerce Britain’s often remarkably sedentary police officers out of their cars and stations and back onto the streets. Most of Britain’s big-city police forces have adopted a reactive model of policing (consciously rejecting both the New York Compstat model and British “bobby on the beat” traditions) that cripples intelligence-gathering and frustrates good community relations.
If that weren’t bad enough, Britain’s judiciary is led by jurists who came of age in the 1960s, and who have been inclined since 2001 to treat terrorism as an ordinary criminal problem being exploited by malign officials and politicians to make assaults on individual rights and to take part in “illegal” foreign wars. It has long been almost impossible to extradite ISIS or al-Qaeda–linked Islamists from the UK. This is partly because today’s English judges believe that few if any foreign countries—apart from perhaps Sweden and Norway—are likely to give terrorist suspects a fair trial, or able to guarantee that such suspects will be spared torture and abuse.
We have a progressive metropolitan media elite whose primary, reflexive response to every terrorist attack, even before the blood on the pavement is dry, is to express worry about an imminent violent anti-Muslim “backlash” on the part of a presumptively bigoted and ignorant indigenous working class. Never mind that no such “backlash” has yet occurred, not even when the young off-duty soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death in broad daylight on a South London street in 2013.
Another sign of this lack of seriousness is the choice by successive British governments to deal with the problem of internal terrorism with marketing and “branding.” You can see this in the catchy consultant-created acronyms and pseudo-strategies that are deployed in place of considered thought and action. After every atrocity, the prime minister calls a meeting of the COBRA unit—an acronym that merely stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A but sounds like a secret organization of government superheroes. The government’s counterterrorism strategy is called CONTEST, which has four “work streams”: “Prevent,” “Pursue,” “Protect,” and “Prepare.”
Perhaps the ultimate sign of unseriousness is the fact that police, politicians, and government officials have all displayed more fear of being seen as “Islamophobic” than of any carnage that actual terror attacks might cause. Few are aware that this short-term, cowardly, and trivial tendency may ultimately foment genuine, dangerous popular Islamophobia, especially if attacks continue.R
ecently, three murderous Islamist terror attacks in the UK took place in less than a month. The first and third were relatively primitive improvised attacks using vehicles and/or knives. The second was a suicide bombing that probably required relatively sophisticated planning, technological know-how, and the assistance of a terrorist infrastructure. As they were the first such attacks in the UK, the vehicle and knife killings came as a particular shock to the British press, public, and political class, despite the fact that non-explosive and non-firearm terror attacks have become common in Europe and are almost routine in Israel.
The success of all three plots indicates troubling problems in British law-enforcement practice and culture, quite apart from any other failings on the parts of the state in charge of intelligence, border control, and the prevention of radicalization. At the time of writing, the British media have been full of encomia to police courage and skill, not least because it took “only” eight minutes for an armed Metropolitan Police team to respond to and confront the bloody mayhem being wrought by the three Islamist terrorists (who had ploughed their rented van into people on London Bridge before jumping out to attack passersby with knives). But the difficult truth is that all three attacks would be much harder to pull off in Manhattan, not just because all NYPD cops are armed, but also because there are always police officers visibly on patrol at the New York equivalents of London’s Borough Market on a Saturday night. By contrast, London’s Metropolitan police is a largely vehicle-borne, reactive force; rather than use a physical presence to deter crime and terrorism, it chooses to monitor closed-circuit street cameras and social-media postings.
Since the attacks in London and Manchester, we have learned that several of the perpetrators were “known” to the police and security agencies that are tasked with monitoring potential terror threats. That these individuals were nevertheless able to carry out their atrocities is evidence that the monitoring regime is insufficient.
It also seems clear that there were failures on the part of those institutions that come under the leadership of the Home Office and are supposed to be in charge of the UK’s border, migration, and asylum systems. Journalists and think tanks like Policy Exchange and Migration Watch have for years pointed out that these systems are “unfit for purpose,” but successive governments have done little to take responsible control of Britain’s borders. When she was home secretary, Prime Minister Theresa May did little more than jazz up the name, logo, and uniforms of what is now called the “Border Force,” and she notably failed to put in place long-promised passport checks for people flying out of the country. This dereliction means that it is impossible for the British authorities to know who has overstayed a visa or whether individuals who have been denied asylum have actually left the country.
It seems astonishing that Youssef Zaghba, one of the three London Bridge attackers, was allowed back into the country. The Moroccan-born Italian citizen (his mother is Italian) had been arrested by Italian police in Bologna, apparently on his way to Syria via Istanbul to join ISIS. When questioned by the Italians about the ISIS decapitation videos on his mobile phone, he declared that he was “going to be a terrorist.” The Italians lacked sufficient evidence to charge him with a crime but put him under 24-hour surveillance, and when he traveled to London, they passed on information about him to MI5. Nevertheless, he was not stopped or questioned on arrival and had not become one of the 3,000 official terrorism “subjects of interest” for MI5 or the police when he carried out his attack. One reason Zaghba was not questioned on arrival may have been that he used one of the new self-service passport machines installed in UK airports in place of human staff after May’s cuts to the border force. Apparently, the machines are not yet linked to any government watch lists, thanks to the general chaos and ineptitude of the Home Office’s efforts to use information technology.
The presence in the country of Zaghba’s accomplice Rachid Redouane is also an indictment of the incompetence and disorganization of the UK’s border and migration authorities. He had been refused asylum in 2009, but as is so often the case, Britain’s Home Office never got around to removing him. Three years later, he married a British woman and was therefore able to stay in the UK.
But it is the failure of the authorities to monitor ringleader Khuram Butt that is the most baffling. He was a known and open associate of Anjem Choudary, Britain’s most notorious terrorist supporter, ideologue, and recruiter (he was finally imprisoned in 2016 after 15 years of campaigning on behalf of al-Qaeda and ISIS). Butt even appeared in a 2016 TV documentary about ISIS supporters called The Jihadist Next Door. In the same year, he assaulted a moderate imam at a public festival, after calling him a “murtad” or apostate. The imam reported the incident to the police—who took six months to track him down and then let him off with a caution. It is not clear if Butt was one of the 3,000 “subjects of interest” or the additional 20,000 former subjects of interest who continue to be the subject of limited monitoring. If he was not, it raises the question of what a person has to do to get British security services to take him seriously as a terrorist threat; if he was in fact on the list of “subjects of interest,” one has to wonder if being so designated is any barrier at all to carrying out terrorist atrocities. It’s worth remembering, as few do here in the UK, that terrorists who carried out previous attacks were also known to the police and security services and nevertheless enjoyed sufficient liberty to go at it again.B
ut the most important reason for the British state’s ineffectiveness in monitoring terror threats, which May addressed immediately after the London Bridge attack, is a deeply rooted institutional refusal to deal with or accept the key role played by Islamist ideology. For more than 15 years, the security services and police have chosen to take note only of people and bodies that explicitly espouse terrorist violence or have contacts with known terrorist groups. The fact that a person, school, imam, or mosque endorses the establishment of a caliphate, the stoning of adulterers, or the murder of apostates has not been considered a reason to monitor them.
This seems to be why Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, was not being watched by the authorities as a terror risk, even though he had punched a girl in the face for wearing a short skirt while at university, had attended the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Didsbury Mosque, was the son of a Libyan man whose militia is banned in the UK, had himself fought against the Qaddafi regime in Libya, had adopted the Islamist clothing style (trousers worn above the ankle, beard but no moustache), was part of a druggy gang subculture that often feeds individuals into Islamist terrorism, and had been banned from a mosque after confronting an imam who had criticized ISIS.
It was telling that the day after the Manchester Arena suicide-bomb attack, you could hear security officials informing radio and TV audiences of the BBC’s flagship morning-radio news show that it’s almost impossible to predict and stop such attacks because the perpetrators “don’t care who they kill.” They just want to kill as many people as possible, he said.
Surely, anyone with even a basic familiarity with Islamist terror attacks over the last 15 or so years and a nodding acquaintance with Islamist ideology could see that the terrorist hadn’t just chosen the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena because a lot of random people would be crowded into a conveniently small area. Since the Bali bombings of 2002, nightclubs, discotheques, and pop concerts attended by shameless unveiled women and girls have been routinely targeted by fundamentalist terrorists, including in Britain. Among the worrying things about the opinion offered on the radio show was that it suggests that even in the wake of the horrific Bataclan attack in Paris during a November 2015 concert, British authorities may not have been keeping an appropriately protective eye on music venues and other places where our young people hang out in their decadent Western way. Such dereliction would make perfect sense given the resistance on the part of the British security establishment to examining, confronting, or extrapolating from Islamist ideology.
The same phenomenon may explain why authorities did not follow up on community complaints about Abedi. All too often when people living in Britain’s many and diverse Muslim communities want to report suspicious behavior, they have to do so through offices and organizations set up and paid for by the authorities as part of the overall “Prevent” strategy. Although criticized by the left as “Islamophobic” and inherently stigmatizing, Prevent has often brought the government into cooperative relationships with organizations even further to the Islamic right than the Muslim Brotherhood. This means that if you are a relatively secular Libyan émigré who wants to report an Abedi and you go to your local police station, you are likely to find yourself speaking to a bearded Islamist.
From its outset in 2003, the Prevent strategy was flawed. Its practitioners, in their zeal to find and fund key allies in “the Muslim community” (as if there were just one), routinely made alliances with self-appointed community leaders who represented the most extreme and intolerant tendencies in British Islam. Both the Home Office and MI5 seemed to believe that only radical Muslims were “authentic” and would therefore be able to influence young potential terrorists. Moderate, modern, liberal Muslims who are arguably more representative of British Islam as a whole (not to mention sundry Shiites, Sufis, Ahmmadis, and Ismailis) have too often found it hard to get a hearing.
Sunni organizations that openly supported suicide-bomb attacks in Israel and India and that justified attacks on British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan nevertheless received government subsidies as part of Prevent. The hope was that in return, they would alert the authorities if they knew of individuals planning attacks in the UK itself.
It was a gamble reminiscent of British colonial practice in India’s northwest frontier and elsewhere. Not only were there financial inducements in return for grudging cooperation; the British state offered other, symbolically powerful concessions. These included turning a blind eye to certain crimes and antisocial practices such as female genital mutilation (there have been no successful prosecutions relating to the practice, though thousands of cases are reported every year), forced marriage, child marriage, polygamy, the mass removal of girls from school soon after they reach puberty, and the epidemic of racially and religiously motivated “grooming” rapes in cities like Rotherham. (At the same time, foreign jihadists—including men wanted for crimes in Algeria and France—were allowed to remain in the UK as long as their plots did not include British targets.)
This approach, simultaneously cynical and naive, was never as successful as its proponents hoped. Again and again, Muslim chaplains who were approved to work in prisons and other institutions have sometimes turned out to be Islamist extremists whose words have inspired inmates to join terrorist organizations.
Much to his credit, former Prime Minister David Cameron fought hard to change this approach, even though it meant difficult confrontations with his home secretary (Theresa May), as well as police and the intelligence agencies. However, Cameron’s efforts had little effect on the permanent personnel carrying out the Prevent strategy, and cooperation with Islamist but currently nonviolent organizations remains the default setting within the institutions on which the United Kingdom depends for security.
The failure to understand the role of ideology is one of imagination as well as education. Very few of those who make government policy or write about home-grown terrorism seem able to escape the limitations of what used to be called “bourgeois” experience. They assume that anyone willing to become an Islamist terrorist must perforce be materially deprived, or traumatized by the experience of prejudice, or provoked to murderous fury by oppression abroad. They have no sense of the emotional and psychic benefits of joining a secret terror outfit: the excitement and glamor of becoming a kind of Islamic James Bond, bravely defying the forces of an entire modern state. They don’t get how satisfying or empowering the vengeful misogyny of ISIS-style fundamentalism might seem for geeky, frustrated young men. Nor can they appreciate the appeal to the adolescent mind of apocalyptic fantasies of power and sacrifice (mainstream British society does not have much room for warrior dreams, given that its tone is set by liberal pacifists). Finally, they have no sense of why the discipline and self-discipline of fundamentalist Islam might appeal so strongly to incarcerated lumpen youth who have never experienced boundaries or real belonging. Their understanding is an understanding only of themselves, not of the people who want to kill them.
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Review of 'White Working Class' By Joan C. Williams
Williams is a prominent feminist legal scholar with degrees from Yale, MIT, and Harvard. Unbending Gender, her best-known book, is the sort of tract you’d expect to find at an intersectionality conference or a Portlandia bookstore. This is why her insightful, empathic book comes as such a surprise.
Books and essays on the topic have accumulated into a highly visible genre since Donald Trump came on the American political scene; J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy planted itself at the top of bestseller lists almost a year ago and still isn’t budging. As with Vance, Williams’s interest in the topic is personal. She fell “madly in love with” and eventually married a Harvard Law School graduate who had grown up in an Italian neighborhood in pre-gentrification Brook-lyn. Williams, on the other hand, is a “silver-spoon girl.” Her father’s family was moneyed, and her maternal grandfather was a prominent Reform rabbi.
The author’s affection for her “class-migrant” spouse and respect for his family’s hardships—“My father-in-law grew up on blood soup,” she announces in her opening sentence—adds considerable warmth to what is at bottom a political pamphlet. Williams believes that elite condescension and “cluelessness” played a big role in Trump’s unexpected and dreaded victory. Enlightening her fellow elites is essential to the task of returning Trump voters to the progressive fold where, she is sure, they rightfully belong.
Liberals were not always so dense about the working class, Williams observes. WPA murals and movies like On the Waterfront showed genuine fellow feeling for the proletariat. In the 1970s, however, the liberal mood changed. Educated boomers shifted their attention to “issues of peace, equal rights, and environmentalism.” Instead of feeling the pain of Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck characters, they began sneering at the less enlightened. These days, she notes, elite sympathies are limited to the poor, people of color (POC), and the LGBTQ population. Despite clear evidence of suffering—stagnant wages, disappearing manufacturing jobs, declining health and well-being—the working class gets only fly-over snobbery at best and, more often, outright loathing.
Williams divides her chapters into a series of explainers to questions she has heard from her clueless friends and colleagues: “Why Does the Working Class Resent the Poor?” “Why Does the Working Class Resent Professionals but Admire the Rich?” “Why Doesn’t the Working Class Just Move to Where the Jobs Are?” “Is the Working Class Just Racist?” She weaves her answers into a compelling picture of a way of life and worldview foreign to her targeted readers. Working-class Americans have had to struggle for whatever stability and comfort they have, she explains. Clocking in for midnight shifts year after year, enduring capricious bosses, plant closures, and layoffs, they’re reliant on tag-team parenting and stressed-out relatives for child care. The campus go-to word “privileged” seems exactly wrong.
Proud of their own self-sufficiency and success, however modest, they don’t begrudge the self-made rich. It’s snooty professionals and the dysfunctional poor who get their goat. From their vantage point, subsidizing the day care for a welfare mother when they themselves struggle to manage care on their own dime mocks both their hard work and their beliefs. And since, unlike most professors, they shop in the same stores as the dependent poor, they’ve seen that some of them game the system. Of course that stings.
White Working Class is especially good at evoking the alternate economic and mental universe experienced by Professional and Managerial Elites, or “PMEs.” PMEs see their non-judgment of the poor, especially those who are “POC,” as a mark of their mature understanding that we live in an unjust, racist system whose victims require compassion regardless of whether they have committed any crime. At any rate, their passions lie elsewhere. They define themselves through their jobs and professional achievements, hence their obsession with glass ceilings.
Williams tells the story of her husband’s faux pas at a high-school reunion. Forgetting his roots for a moment, the Ivy League–educated lawyer asked one of his Brooklyn classmates a question that is the go-to opener in elite social settings: “What do you do?” Angered by what must have seemed like deliberate humiliation by this prodigal son, the man hissed: “I sell toilets.”
Instead of stability and backyard barbecues with family and long-time neighbors and maybe the occasional Olive Garden celebration, PMEs are enamored of novelty: new foods, new restaurants, new friends, new experiences. The working class chooses to spend its leisure in comfortable familiarity; for the elite, social life is a lot like networking. Members of the professional class may view themselves as sophisticated or cosmopolitan, but, Williams shows, to the blue-collar worker their glad-handing is closer to phony social climbing and their abstract, knowledge-economy jobs more like self-important pencil-pushing.
White Working Class has a number of proposals for creating the progressive future Williams would like to see. She wants to get rid of college-for-all dogma and improve training for middle-skill jobs. She envisions a working-class coalition of all races and ethnicities bolstered by civics education with a “distinctly celebratory view of American institutions.” In a saner political environment, some of this would make sense; indeed, she echoes some of Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign themes. It’s little wonder White Working Class has already gotten the stink eye from liberal reviewers for its purported sympathies for racists.
Alas, impressive as Williams’s insights are, they do not always allow her to transcend her own class loyalties. Unsurprisingly, her own PME biases mostly come to light in her chapters on race and gender. She reduces immigration concerns to “fear of brown people,” even as she notes elsewhere that a quarter of Latinos also favor a wall at the southern border. This contrasts startlingly with her succinct observation that “if you don’t want to drive working-class whites to be attracted to the likes of Limbaugh, stop insulting them.” In one particularly obtuse moment, she asserts: “Because I study social inequality, I know that even Malia and Sasha Obama will be disadvantaged by race, advantaged as they are by class.” She relies on dubious gender theories to explain why the majority of white women voted for Trump rather than for his unfairly maligned opponent. That Hillary Clinton epitomized every elite quality Williams has just spent more than a hundred pages explicating escapes her notice. Williams’s own reflexive retreat into identity politics is itself emblematic of our toxic divisions, but it does not invalidate the power of this astute book.
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When music could not transcend evil
he story of European classical music under the Third Reich is one of the most squalid chapters in the annals of Western culture, a chronicle of collective complaisance that all but beggars belief. Without exception, all of the well-known musicians who left Germany and Austria in protest when Hitler came to power in 1933 were either Jewish or, like the violinist Adolf Busch, Rudolf Serkin’s father-in-law, had close family ties to Jews. Moreover, most of the small number of non-Jewish musicians who emigrated later on, such as Paul Hindemith and Lotte Lehmann, are now known to have done so not out of principle but because they were unable to make satisfactory accommodations with the Nazis. Everyone else—including Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan, and Richard Strauss—stayed behind and served the Reich.
The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, then as now Europe’s two greatest orchestras, were just as willing to do business with Hitler and his henchmen, firing their Jewish members and ceasing to perform the music of Jewish composers. Even after the war, the Vienna Philharmonic was notorious for being the most anti-Semitic orchestra in Europe, and it was well known in the music business (though never publicly discussed) that Helmut Wobisch, the orchestra’s principal trumpeter and its executive director from 1953 to 1968, had been both a member of the SS and a Gestapo spy.
The management of the Berlin Philharmonic made no attempt to cover up the orchestra’s close relationship with the Third Reich, no doubt because the Nazi ties of Karajan, who was its music director from 1956 until shortly before his death in 1989, were a matter of public record. Yet it was not until 2007 that a full-length study of its wartime activities, Misha Aster’s The Reich’s Orchestra: The Berlin Philharmonic 1933–1945, was finally published. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, its managers long sought to quash all discussion of the orchestra’s Nazi past, steadfastly refusing to open its institutional archives to scholars until 2008, when Fritz Trümpi, an Austrian scholar, was given access to its records. Five years later, the Viennese, belatedly following the precedent of the Berlin Philharmonic, added a lengthy section to their website called “The Vienna Philharmonic Under National Socialism (1938–1945),” in which the damning findings of Trümpi and two other independent scholars were made available to the public.
Now Trümpi has published The Political Orchestra: The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics During the Third Reich, in which he tells how they came to terms with Nazism, supplying pre- and postwar historical context for their transgressions.1 Written in a stiff mixture of academic jargon and translatorese, The Political Orchestra is ungratifying to read. Even so, the tale that it tells is both compelling and disturbing, especially to anyone who clings to the belief that high art is ennobling to the spirit.U
nlike the Vienna Philharmonic, which has always doubled as the pit orchestra for the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic started life in 1882 as a fully independent, self-governing entity. Initially unsubsidized by the state, it kept itself afloat by playing a grueling schedule of performances, including “popular” non-subscription concerts for which modest ticket prices were levied. In addition, the orchestra made records and toured internationally at a time when neither was common.
These activities made it possible for the Berlin Philharmonic to develop into an internationally renowned ensemble whose fabled collective virtuosity was widely seen as a symbol of German musical distinction. Furtwängler, the orchestra’s principal conductor, declared in 1932 that the German music in which it specialized was “one of the very few things that actually contribute to elevating [German] prestige.” Hence, he explained, the need for state subsidy, which he saw as “a matter of [national] prestige, that is, to some extent a requirement of national prudence.” By then, though, the orchestra was already heavily subsidized by the city of Berlin, thus paving the way for its takeover by the Nazis.
The Vienna Philharmonic, by contrast, had always been subsidized. Founded in 1842 when the orchestra of what was then the Vienna Court Opera decided to give symphonic concerts on its own, it performed the Austro-German classics for an elite cadre of longtime subscribers. By restricting membership to local players and their pupils, the orchestra cultivated what Furtwängler, who spent as much time conducting in Vienna as in Berlin, described as a “homogeneous and distinct tone quality.” At once dark and sweet, it was as instantly identifiable—and as characteristically Viennese—as the strong, spicy bouquet of a Gewürztraminer wine.
Unlike the Berlin Philharmonic, which played for whoever would pay the tab and programmed new music as a matter of policy, the Vienna Philharmonic chose not to diversify either its haute-bourgeois audience or its conservative repertoire. Instead, it played Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert (and, later, Bruckner and Richard Strauss) in Vienna for the Viennese. Starting in the ’20s, the orchestra’s recordings consolidated its reputation as one of the world’s foremost instrumental ensembles, but its internal culture remained proudly insular.
What the two orchestras had in common was a nationalistic ethos, a belief in the superiority of Austro-German musical culture that approached triumphalism. One of the darkest manifestations of this ethos was their shared reluctance to hire Jews. The Berlin Philharmonic employed only four Jewish players in 1933, while the Vienna Philharmonic contained only 11 Jews at the time of the Anschluss, none of whom was hired after 1920. To be sure, such popular Jewish conductors as Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter continued to work in Vienna for as long as they could. Two months before the Anschluss, Walter led and recorded a performance of the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, his musical mentor and fellow Jew, who from 1897 to 1907 had been the director of the Vienna Court Opera and one of the Philharmonic’s most admired conductors. But many members of both orchestras were open supporters of fascism, and not a few were anti-Semites who ardently backed Hitler. By 1942, 62 of the 123 active members of the Vienna Philharmonic were Nazi party members.
The admiration that Austro-German classical musicians had for Hitler is not entirely surprising since he was a well-informed music lover who declared in 1938 that “Germany has become the guardian of European culture and civilization.” He made the support of German art, music very much included, a key part of his political program. Accordingly, the Berlin Philharmonic was placed under the direct supervision of Joseph Goebbels, who ensured the cooperation of its members by repeatedly raising their salaries, exempting them from military service, and guaranteeing their old-age pensions. But there had never been any serious question of protest, any more than there would be among the members of the Vienna Philharmonic when the Nazis gobbled up Austria. Save for the Jews and one or two non-Jewish players who were fired for reasons of internal politics, the musicians went along unhesitatingly with Hitler’s desires.
With what did they go along? Above all, they agreed to the scrubbing of Jewish music from their programs and the dismissal of their Jewish colleagues. Some Jewish players managed to escape with their lives, but seven of the Vienna Philharmonic’s 11 Jews were either murdered by the Nazis or died as a direct result of official persecution. In addition, both orchestras performed regularly at official government functions and made tours and other public appearances for propaganda purposes, and both were treated as gems in the diadem of Nazi culture.
As for Furtwängler, the most prominent of the Austro-German orchestral conductors who served the Reich, his relationship to Nazism continues to be debated to this day. He had initially resisted the firing of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Jewish members and protected them for as long as he could. But he was also a committed (if woolly-minded) nationalist who believed that German music had “a different meaning for us Germans than for other nations” and notoriously declared in an open letter to Goebbels that “we all welcome with great joy and gratitude . . . the restoration of our national honor.” Thereafter he cooperated with the Nazis, by all accounts uncomfortably but—it must be said—willingly. A monster of egotism, he saw himself as the greatest living exponent of German music and believed it to be his duty to stay behind and serve a cause higher than what he took to be mere party politics. “Human beings are free wherever Wagner and Beethoven are played, and if they are not free at first, they are freed while listening to these works,” he naively assured a horrified Arturo Toscanini in 1937. “Music transports them to regions where the Gestapo can do them no harm.”O
nce the war was over, the U.S. occupation forces decided to enlist the Berlin Philharmonic in the service of a democratic, anti-Soviet Germany. Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, who succeeded him as principal conductor, were officially “de-Nazified” and their orchestra allowed to function largely undisturbed, though six Nazi Party members were fired. The Vienna Philharmonic received similarly privileged treatment.
Needless to say, there was more to this decision than Cold War politics. No one questioned the unique artistic stature of either orchestra. Moreover, the Vienna Philharmonic, precisely because of its insularity, was now seen as a living museum piece, a priceless repository of 19th-century musical tradition. Still, many musicians and listeners, Jews above all, looked askance at both orchestras for years to come, believing them to be tainted by Nazism.
Indeed they were, so much so that they treated many of their surviving Jewish ex-members in a way that can only be described as vicious. In the most blatant individual case, the violinist Szymon Goldberg, who had served as the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster under Furtwängler, was not allowed to reassume his post in 1945 and was subsequently denied a pension. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, the fact that it made Helmut Wobisch its executive director says everything about its deep-seated unwillingness to face up to its collective sins.
Be that as it may, scarcely any prominent musicians chose to boycott either orchestra. Leonard Bernstein went so far as to affect a flippant attitude toward the morally equivocal conduct of the Austro-German artists whom he encountered in Europe after the war. Upon meeting Herbert von Karajan in 1954, he actually told his wife Felicia that he had become “real good friends with von Karajan, whom you would (and will) adore. My first Nazi.”
At the same time, though, Bernstein understood what he was choosing to overlook. When he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time in 1966, he wrote to his parents:
I am enjoying Vienna enormously—as much as a Jew can. There are so many sad memories here; one deals with so many ex-Nazis (and maybe still Nazis); and you never know if the public that is screaming bravo for you might contain someone who 25 years ago might have shot me dead. But it’s better to forgive, and if possible, forget. The city is so beautiful, and so full of tradition. Everyone here lives for music, especially opera, and I seem to be the new hero.
Did Bernstein sell his soul for the opportunity to work with so justly renowned an orchestra—and did he get his price by insisting that its members perform the symphonies of Mahler, with which he was by then closely identified? It is a fair question, one that does not lend itself to easy answers.
Even more revealing is the case of Bruno Walter, who never forgave Furtwängler for staying behind in Germany, informing him in an angry letter that “your art was used as a conspicuously effective means of propaganda for the regime of the Devil.” Yet Walter’s righteous anger did not stop him from conducting in Vienna after the war. Born in Berlin, he had come to identify with the Philharmonic so closely that it was impossible for him to seriously consider quitting its podium permanently. “Spiritually, I was a Viennese,” he wrote in Theme and Variations, his 1946 autobiography. In 1952, he made a second recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, whose premiere he had conducted in 1911 and which he had recorded in Vienna 15 years earlier. One wonders what Walter, who had converted to Christianity but had been driven out of both his native lands for the crime of being Jewish, made of the text of the last movement: “My friend, / On this earth, fortune has not been kind to me! / Where do I go?”
As for the two great orchestras of the Third Reich, both have finally acknowledged their guilt and been forgiven, at least by those who know little of their past. It would occur to no one to decline on principle to perform with either group today. Such a gesture would surely be condemned as morally ostentatious, an exercise in what we now call virtue-signaling. Yet it is impossible to forget what Samuel Lipman wrote in 1993 in Commentary apropos the wartime conduct of Furtwängler: “The ultimate triumph of totalitarianism, I suppose it can be said, is that under its sway only a martyred death can be truly moral.” For the only martyrs of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics were their Jews. The orchestras themselves live on, tainted and beloved.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
He knows what to reveal and what to conceal, understands the importance of keeping the semblance of distance between oneself and the story of the day, and comprehends the ins and outs of anonymous sourcing. Within days of his being fired by President Trump on May 9, for example, little green men and women, known only as his “associates,” began appearing in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post to dispute key points of the president’s account of his dismissal and to promote Comey’s theory of the case.
“In a Private Dinner, Trump Demanded Loyalty,” the New York Times reported on May 11. “Comey Demurred.” The story was a straightforward narrative of events from Comey’s perspective, capped with an obligatory denial from the White House. The next day, the Washington Post reported, “Comey associates dispute Trump’s account of conversations.” The Post did not identify Comey’s associates, other than saying that they were “people who have worked with him.”
Maybe they were the same associates who had gabbed to the Times. Or maybe they were different ones. Who can tell? Regardless, the story these particular associates gave to the Post was readable and gripping. Comey, the Post reported, “was wary of private meetings and discussions with the president and did not offer the assurance, as Trump has claimed, that Trump was not under investigation as part of the probe into Russian interference in last year’s election.”
On May 16, Michael S. Schmidt of the Times published his scoop, “Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation.” Schmidt didn’t see the memo for himself. Parts of it were read to him by—you guessed it—“one of Mr. Comey’s associates.” The following day, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation. On May 18, the Times, citing “two people briefed” on a call between Comey and the president, reported, “Comey, Unsettled by Trump, Is Said to Have Wanted Him Kept at a Distance.” And by the end of that week, Comey had agreed to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
As his testimony approached, Comey’s people became more aggressive in their criticisms of the president. “Trump Should Be Scared, Comey Friend Says,” read the headline of a CNN interview with Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes. This “Comey friend” said he was “very shocked” when he learned that President Trump had asked Comey for loyalty. “I have no doubt that he regarded the group of people around the president as dishonorable,” Wittes said.
Comey, Wittes added, was so uncomfortable at the White House reception in January honoring law enforcement—the one where Comey lumbered across the room and Trump whispered something in his ear—that, as CNN paraphrased it, he “stood in a position so that his blue blazer would blend in with the room’s blue drapes in an effort for Trump to not notice him.” The integrity, the courage—can you feel it?
On June 6, the day before Comey’s prepared testimony was released, more “associates” told ABC that the director would “not corroborate Trump’s claim that on three separate occasions Comey told the president he was not under investigation.” And a “source with knowledge of Comey’s testimony” told CNN the same thing. In addition, ABC reported that, according to “a source familiar with Comey’s thinking,” the former director would say that Trump’s actions stopped short of obstruction of justice.
Maybe those sources weren’t as “familiar with Comey’s thinking” as they thought or hoped? To maximize the press coverage he already dominated, Comey had authorized the Senate Intelligence Committee to release his testimony ahead of his personal interview. That testimony told a different story than what had been reported by CNN and ABC (and by the Post on May 12). Comey had in fact told Trump the president was not under investigation—on January 6, January 27, and March 30. Moreover, the word “obstruction” did not appear at all in his written text. The senators asked Comey if he felt Trump obstructed justice. He declined to answer either way.
My guess is that Comey’s associates lacked Comey’s scalpel-like, almost Jesuitical ability to make distinctions, and therefore misunderstood what he was telling them to say to the press. Because it’s obvious Comey was the one behind the stories of Trump’s dishonesty and bad behavior. He admitted as much in front of the cameras in a remarkable exchange with Senator Susan Collins of Maine.
Comey said that, after Trump tweeted on May 12 that he’d better hope there aren’t “tapes” of their conversations, “I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself, for a variety of reasons. But I asked him to, because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. And so I asked a close friend of mine to do it.”
Collins asked whether that friend had been Wittes, known to cable news junkies as Comey’s bestie. Comey said no. The source for the New York Times article was “a good friend of mine who’s a professor at Columbia Law School,” Daniel Richman.
Every time I watch or read that exchange, I am amazed. Here is the former director of the FBI just flat-out admitting that, for months, he wrote down every interaction he had with the president of the United States because he wanted a written record in case the president ever fired or lied about him. And when the president did fire and lie about him, that director set in motion a series of public disclosures with the intent of not only embarrassing the president, but also forcing the appointment of a special counsel who might end up investigating the president for who knows what. And none of this would have happened if the president had not fired Comey or tweeted about him. He told the Senate that if Trump hadn’t dismissed him, he most likely would still be on the job.
Rarely, in my view, are high officials so transparent in describing how Washington works. Comey revealed to the world that he was keeping a file on his boss, that he used go-betweens to get his story into the press, that “investigative journalism” is often just powerful people handing documents to reporters to further their careers or agendas or even to get revenge. And as long as you maintain some distance from the fallout, and stick to the absolute letter of the law, you will come out on top, so long as you have a small army of nightingales singing to reporters on your behalf.
“It’s the end of the Comey era,” A.B. Stoddard said on Special Report with Bret Baier the other day. On the contrary: I have a feeling that, as the Russia investigation proceeds, we will be hearing much more from Comey. And from his “associates.” And his “friends.” And persons “familiar with his thinking.”
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
In April, COMMENTARY asked a wide variety of writers,
thinkers, and broadcasters to respond to this question: Is free speech under threat in the United States? We received twenty-seven responses. We publish them here in alphabetical order.
Floyd AbramsFree expression threatened? By Donald Trump? I guess you could say so.
When a president engages in daily denigration of the press, when he characterizes it as the enemy of the people, when he repeatedly says that the libel laws should be “loosened” so he can personally commence more litigation, when he says that journalists shouldn’t be allowed to use confidential sources, it is difficult even to suggest that he has not threatened free speech. And when he says to the head of the FBI (as former FBI director James Comey has said that he did) that Comey should consider “putting reporters in jail for publishing classified information,” it is difficult not to take those threats seriously.
The harder question, though, is this: How real are the threats? Or, as Michael Gerson put it in the Washington Post: Will Trump “go beyond mere Twitter abuse and move against institutions that limit his power?” Some of the president’s threats against the institution of the press, wittingly or not, have been simply preposterous. Surely someone has told him by now that neither he nor Congress can “loosen” libel laws; while each state has its own libel law, there is no federal libel law and thus nothing for him to loosen. What he obviously takes issue with is the impact that the Supreme Court’s 1964 First Amendment opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan has had on state libel laws. The case determined that public officials who sue for libel may not prevail unless they demonstrate that the statements made about them were false and were made with actual knowledge or suspicion of that falsity. So his objection to the rules governing libel law is to nothing less than the application of the First Amendment itself.
In other areas, however, the Trump administration has far more power to imperil free speech. We live under an Espionage Act, adopted a century ago, which is both broad in its language and uncommonly vague in its meaning. As such, it remains a half-open door through which an administration that is hostile to free speech might walk. Such an administration could initiate criminal proceedings against journalists who write about defense- or intelligence-related topics on the basis that classified information was leaked to them by present or former government employees. No such action has ever been commenced against a journalist. Press lawyers and civil-liberties advocates have strong arguments that the law may not be read so broadly and still be consistent with the First Amendment. But the scope of the Espionage Act and the impact of the First Amendment upon its interpretation remain unknown.
A related area in which the attitude of an administration toward the press may affect the latter’s ability to function as a check on government relates to the ability of journalists to protect the identity of their confidential sources. The Obama administration prosecuted more Espionage Act cases against sources of information to journalists than all prior administrations combined. After a good deal of deserved press criticism, it agreed to expand the internal guidelines of the Department of Justice designed to limit the circumstances under which such source revelation is demanded. But the guidelines are none too protective and are, after all, simply guidelines. A new administration is free to change or limit them or, in fact, abandon them altogether. In this area, as in so many others, it is too early to judge the ultimate treatment of free expression by the Trump administration. But the threats are real, and there is good reason to be wary.
Floyd Abrams is the author of The Soul of the First Amendment (Yale University Press, 2017).
Ayaan Hirsi AliFreedom of speech is being threatened in the United States by a nascent culture of hostility to different points of view. As political divisions in America have deepened, a conformist mentality of “right thinking” has spread across the country. Increasingly, American universities, where no intellectual doctrine ought to escape critical scrutiny, are some of the most restrictive domains when it comes to asking open-ended questions on subjects such as Islam.
Legally, speech in the United States is protected to a degree unmatched in almost any industrialized country. The U.S. has avoided unpredictable Canadian-style restrictions on speech, for example. I remain optimistic that as long as we have the First Amendment in the U.S., any attempt at formal legal censorship will be vigorously challenged.
Culturally, however, matters are very different in America. The regressive left is the forerunner threatening free speech on any issue that is important to progressives. The current pressure coming from those who call themselves “social-justice warriors” is unlikely to lead to successful legislation to curb the First Amendment. Instead, censorship is spreading in the cultural realm, particularly at institutions of higher learning.
The way activists of the regressive left achieve silence or censorship is by creating a taboo, and one of the most pernicious taboos in operation today is the word “Islamophobia.” Islamists are similarly motivated to rule any critical scrutiny of Islamic doctrine out of order. There is now a university center (funded by Saudi money) in the U.S. dedicated to monitoring and denouncing incidences of “Islamophobia.”
The term “Islamophobia” is used against critics of political Islam, but also against progressive reformers within Islam. The term implies an irrational fear that is tainted by hatred, and it has had a chilling effect on free speech. In fact, “Islamophobia” is a poorly defined term. Islam is not a race, and it is very often perfectly rational to fear some expressions of Islam. No set of ideas should be beyond critical scrutiny.
To push back in this cultural realm—in our universities, in public discourse—those favoring free speech should focus more on the message of dawa, the set of ideas that the Islamists want to promote. If the aims of dawa are sufficiently exposed, ordinary Americans and Muslim Americans will reject it. The Islamist message is a message of divisiveness, misogyny, and hatred. It’s anachronistic and wants people to live by tribal norms dating from the seventh century. The best antidote to Islamic extremism is the revelation of what its primary objective is: a society governed by Sharia. This is the opposite of censorship: It is documenting reality. What is life like in Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Northern Nigerian States? What is the true nature of Sharia law?
Islamists want to hide the true meaning of Sharia, Jihad, and the implications for women, gays, religious minorities, and infidels under the veil of “Islamophobia.” Islamists use “Islamophobia” to obfuscate their vision and imply that any scrutiny of political Islam is hatred and bigotry. The antidote to this is more exposure and more speech.
As pressure on freedom of speech increases from the regressive left, we must reject the notions that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islamic doctrines is inherently “racist.”
Instead of contorting Western intellectual traditions so as not to offend our Muslim fellow citizens, we need to defend the Muslim dissidents who are risking their lives to promote the human rights we take for granted: equality for women, tolerance of all religions and orientations, our hard-won freedoms of speech and thought.
It is by nurturing and protecting such speech that progressive reforms can emerge within Islam. By accepting the increasingly narrow confines of acceptable discourse on issues such as Islam, we do dissidents and progressive reformers within Islam a grave disservice. For truly progressive reforms within Islam to be possible, full freedom of speech will be required.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the founder of the AHA Foundation.
Lee C. BollingerI know it is too much to expect that political discourse mimic the measured, self-questioning, rational, footnoting standards of the academy, but there is a difference between robust political debate and political debate infected with fear or panic. The latter introduces a state of mind that is visceral and irrational. In the realm of fear, we move beyond the reach of reason and a sense of proportionality. When we fear, we lose the capacity to listen and can become insensitive and mean.
Our Constitution is well aware of this fact about the human mind and of its negative political consequences. In the First Amendment jurisprudence established over the past century, we find many expressions of the problematic state of mind that is produced by fear. Among the most famous and potent is that of Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California in 1927, one of the many cases involving aggravated fears of subversive threats from abroad. “It is the function of (free) speech,” he said, “to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” “Men feared witches,” Brandeis continued, “and burned women.”
Today, our “witches” are terrorists, and Brandeis’s metaphorical “women” include the refugees (mostly children) and displaced persons, immigrants, and foreigners whose lives have been thrown into suspension and doubt by policies of exclusion.
The same fears of the foreign that take hold of a population inevitably infect our internal interactions and institutions, yielding suppression of unpopular and dissenting voices, victimization of vulnerable groups, attacks on the media, and the rise of demagoguery, with its disdain for facts, reason, expertise, and tolerance.
All of this poses a very special obligation on those of us within universities. Not only must we make the case in every venue for the values that form the core of who we are and what we do, but we must also live up to our own principles of free inquiry and fearless engagement with all ideas. This is why recent incidents on a handful of college campuses disrupting and effectively censoring speakers is so alarming. Such acts not only betray a basic principle but also inflame a rising prejudice against the academic community, and they feed efforts to delegitimize our work, at the very moment when it’s most needed.
I do not for a second support the view that this generation has an unhealthy aversion to engaging differences of opinion. That is a modern trope of polarization, as is the portrayal of universities as hypocritical about academic freedom and political correctness. But now, in this environment especially, universities must be at the forefront of defending the rights of all students and faculty to listen to controversial voices, to engage disagreeable viewpoints, and to make every effort to demonstrate our commitment to the sort of fearless and spirited debate that we are simultaneously asking of the larger society. Anyone with a voice can shout over a speaker; but being able to listen to and then effectively rebut those with whom we disagree—particularly those who themselves peddle intolerance—is one of the greatest skills our education can bestow. And it is something our democracy desperately needs more of. That is why, I say to you now, if speakers who are being denied access to other campuses come here, I will personally volunteer to introduce them, and listen to them, however much I may disagree with them. But I will also never hesitate to make clear why I disagree with them.
Lee C. Bollinger is the 19th president of Columbia University and the author of Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century. This piece has been excerpted from President Bollinger’s May 17 commencement address.
Richard A. Epstein
Today, the greatest threat to the constitutional protection of freedom of speech comes from campus rabble-rousers who invoke this very protection. In their book, the speech of people like Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald constitutes a form of violence, bordering on genocide, that receives no First Amendment protection. Enlightened protestors are both bound and entitled to shout them down, by force or other disruptive actions, if their universities are so foolish as to extend them an invitation to speak. Any indignant minority may take the law into its own hands to eradicate the intellectual cancer before it spreads on their own campus.
By such tortured logic, a new generation of vigilantes distorts the First Amendment doctrine: Speech becomes violence, and violence becomes heroic acts of self-defense. The standard First Amendment interpretation emphatically rejects that view. Of course, the First Amendment doesn’t let you say what you want when and wherever you want to. Your freedom of speech is subject to the same limitations as your freedom of action. So you have no constitutional license to assault other people, to lie to them, or to form cartels to bilk them in the marketplace. But folks such as Murray, Mac Donald, and even Yiannopoulos do not come close to crossing into that forbidden territory. They are not using, for example, “fighting words,” rightly limited to words or actions calculated to provoke immediate aggression against a known target. Fighting words are worlds apart from speech that provokes a negative reaction in those who find your speech offensive solely because of the content of its message.
This distinction is central to the First Amendment. Fighting words have to be blocked by well-tailored criminal and civil sanctions lest some people gain license to intimidate others from speaking or peaceably assembling. The remedy for mere offense is to speak one’s mind in response. But it never gives anyone the right to block the speech of others, lest everyone be able to unilaterally increase his sphere of action by getting really angry about the beliefs of others. No one has the right to silence others by working himself into a fit of rage.
Obviously, it is intolerable to let mutual animosity generate factional warfare, whereby everyone can use force to silence rivals. To avoid this war of all against all, each side claims that only its actions are privileged. These selective claims quickly degenerate into a form of viewpoint discrimination, which undermines one of the central protections that traditional First Amendment law erects: a wall against each and every group out to destroy the level playing field on which robust political debate rests. Every group should be at risk for having its message fall flat. The new campus radicals want to upend that understanding by shutting down their adversaries if their universities do not. Their aggression must be met, if necessary, by counterforce. Silence in the face of aggression is not an acceptable alternative.
Richard A. Epstein is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law.
David FrenchWe’re living in the midst of a troubling paradox. At the exact same time that First Amendment jurisprudence has arguably never been stronger and more protective of free expression, millions of Americans feel they simply can’t speak freely. Indeed, talk to Americans living and working in the deep-blue confines of the academy, Hollywood, and the tech sector, and you’ll get a sense of palpable fear. They’ll explain that they can’t say what they think and keep their jobs, their friends, and sometimes even their families.
The government isn’t cracking down or censoring; instead, Americans are using free speech to destroy free speech. For example, a social-media shaming campaign is an act of free speech. So is an economic boycott. So is turning one’s back on a public speaker. So is a private corporation firing a dissenting employee for purely political reasons. Each of these actions is largely protected from government interference, and each one represents an expression of the speaker’s ideas and values.
The problem, however, is obvious. The goal of each of these kinds of actions isn’t to persuade; it’s to intimidate. The goal isn’t to foster dialogue but to coerce conformity. The result is a marketplace of ideas that has been emptied of all but the approved ideological vendors—at least in those communities that are dominated by online thugs and corporate bullies. Indeed, this mindset has become so prevalent that in places such as Portland, Berkeley, Middlebury, and elsewhere, the bullies and thugs have crossed the line from protected—albeit abusive—speech into outright shout-downs and mob violence.
But there’s something else going on, something that’s insidious in its own way. While politically correct shaming still has great power in deep-blue America, its effect in the rest of the country is to trigger a furious backlash, one characterized less by a desire for dialogue and discourse than by its own rage and scorn. So we’re moving toward two Americas—one that ruthlessly (and occasionally illegally) suppresses dissenting speech and the other that is dangerously close to believing that the opposite of political correctness isn’t a fearless expression of truth but rather the fearless expression of ideas best calculated to enrage your opponents.
The result is a partisan feedback loop where right-wing rage spurs left-wing censorship, which spurs even more right-wing rage. For one side, a true free-speech culture is a threat to feelings, sensitivities, and social justice. The other side waves high the banner of “free speech” to sometimes elevate the worst voices to the highest platforms—not so much to protect the First Amendment as to infuriate the hated “snowflakes” and trigger the most hysterical overreactions.
The culturally sustainable argument for free speech is something else entirely. It reminds the cultural left of its own debt to free speech while reminding the political right that a movement allegedly centered around constitutional values can’t abandon the concept of ordered liberty. The culture of free speech thrives when all sides remember their moral responsibilities—to both protect the right of dissent and to engage in ideological combat with a measure of grace and humility.
David French is a senior writer at National Review.
Pamela GellerThe real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.
Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.
With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.
Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:
- Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
- Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
- Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
- Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
- Banned from Britain.
A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.
This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.
The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?
There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.
Pamela Geller is the editor in chief of the Geller Report and president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
Jonah GoldbergOf course free speech is under threat in America. Frankly, it’s always under threat in America because it’s always under threat everywhere. Ronald Reagan was right when he said in 1961, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
This is more than political boilerplate. Reagan identified the source of the threat: human nature. God may have endowed us with a right to liberty, but he didn’t give us all a taste for it. As with most finer things, we must work to acquire a taste for it. That is what civilization—or at least our civilization—is supposed to do: cultivate attachments to certain ideals. “Cultivate” shares the same Latin root as “culture,” cultus, and properly understood they mean the same thing: to grow, nurture, and sustain through labor.
In the past, threats to free speech have taken many forms—nationalist passion, Comstockery (both good and bad), political suppression, etc.—but the threat to free speech today is different. It is less top-down and more bottom-up. We are cultivating a generation of young people to reject free speech as an important value.
One could mark the beginning of the self-esteem movement with Nathaniel Branden’s 1969 paper, “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” which claimed that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.” This understandable idea ran amok in our schools and in our culture. When I was a kid, Saturday-morning cartoons were punctuated with public-service announcements telling kids: “The most important person in the whole wide world is you, and you hardly even know you!”
The self-esteem craze was just part of the cocktail of educational fads. Other ingredients included multiculturalism, the anti-bullying crusade, and, of course, that broad phenomenon known as “political correctness.” Combined, they’ve produced a generation that rejects the old adage “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me” in favor of the notion that “words hurt.” What we call political correctness has been on college campuses for decades. But it lacked a critical mass of young people who were sufficiently receptive to it to make it a fully successful ideology. The campus commissars welcomed the new “snowflakes” with open arms; truly, these are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
“Words hurt” is a fashionable concept in psychology today. (See Psychology Today: “Why Words Can Hurt at Least as Much as Sticks and Stones.”) But it’s actually a much older idea than the “sticks and stones” aphorism. For most of human history, it was a crime to say insulting or “injurious” things about aristocrats, rulers, the Church, etc. That tendency didn’t evaporate with the Divine Right of Kings. Jonathan Haidt has written at book length about our natural capacity to create zones of sanctity, immune from reason.
And that is the threat free speech faces today. Those who inveigh against “hate speech” are in reality fighting “heresy speech”—ideas that do “violence” to sacred notions of self-esteem, racial or gender equality, climate change, and so on. Put whatever label you want on it, contemporary “social justice” progressivism acts as a religion, and it has no patience for blasphemy.
When Napoleon’s forces converted churches into stables, the clergy did not object on the grounds that regulations regarding the proper care and feeding of animals had been violated. They complained of sacrilege and blasphemy. When Charles Murray or Christina Hoff Summers visits college campuses, the protestors are behaving like the zealous acolytes of St. Jerome. Appeals to the First Amendment have as much power over the “antifa” fanatics as appeals to Odin did to champions of the New Faith.
That is the real threat to free speech today.
Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor at National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
KC JohnsonIn early May, the Washington Post urged universities to make clear that “racist signs, symbols, and speech are off-limits.” Given the extraordinarily broad definition of what constitutes “racist” speech at most institutions of higher education, this demand would single out most right-of-center (and, in some cases, even centrist and liberal) discourse on issues of race or ethnicity. The editorial provided the highest-profile example of how hostility to free speech, once confined to the ideological fringe on campus, has migrated to the liberal mainstream.
The last few years have seen periodic college protests—featuring claims that significant amounts of political speech constitute “violence,” thereby justifying censorship—followed by even more troubling attempts to appease the protesters. After the mob scene that greeted Charles Murray upon his visit to Middlebury College, for instance, the student government criticized any punishment for the protesters, and several student leaders wanted to require that future speakers conform to the college’s “community standard” on issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. In the last few months, similar attempts to stifle the free exchange of ideas in the name of promoting diversity occurred at Wesleyan, Claremont McKenna, and Duke. Offering an extreme interpretation of this point of view, one CUNY professor recently dismissed dialogue as “inherently conservative,” since it reinforced the “relations of power that presently exist.”
It’s easy, of course, to dismiss campus hostility to free speech as affecting only a small segment of American public life—albeit one that trains the next generation of judges, legislators, and voters. But, as Jonathan Chait observed in 2015, denying “the legitimacy of political pluralism on issues of race and gender” has broad appeal on the left. It is only most apparent on campus because “the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the political left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others.” During his time in office, Barack Obama generally urged fellow liberals to support open intellectual debate. But the current campus environment previews the position of free speech in a post-Obama Democratic Party, increasingly oriented around identity politics.
Waning support on one end of the ideological spectrum for this bedrock American principle should provide a political opening for the other side. The Trump administration, however, seems poorly suited to make the case. Throughout his public career, Trump has rarely supported free speech, even in the abstract, and has periodically embraced legal changes to facilitate libel lawsuits. Moreover, the right-wing populism that motivates Trump’s base has a long tradition of ideological hostility to civil liberties of all types. Even in campus contexts, conservatives have defended free speech inconsistently, as seen in recent calls that CUNY disinvite anti-Zionist fanatic Linda Sarsour as a commencement speaker.
In a sharply polarized political environment, awash in dubiously-sourced information, free speech is all the more important. Yet this same environment has seen both sides, most blatantly elements of the left on campuses, demand restrictions on their ideological foes’ free speech in the name of promoting a greater good.
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Laura KipnisI find myself with a strange-bedfellows problem lately. Here I am, a left-wing feminist professor invited onto the pages of Commentary—though I’d be thrilled if it were still 1959—while fielding speaking requests from right-wing think tanks and libertarians who oppose child-labor laws.
Somehow I’ve ended up in the middle of the free-speech-on-campus debate. My initial crime was publishing a somewhat contentious essay about campus sexual paranoia that put me on the receiving end of Title IX complaints. Apparently I’d created a “hostile environment” at my university. I was investigated (for 72 days). Then I wrote up what I’d learned about these campus inquisitions in a second essay. Then I wrote about it all some more, in a book exposing the kangaroo-court elements of the Title IX process—and the extra-legal gag orders imposed on everyone caught in its widening snare.
I can’t really comment on whether more charges have been filed against me over the book. I’ll just say that writing about being a Title IX respondent could easily become a life’s work. I learned, shortly after writing this piece, that I and my publisher were being sued for defamation, among other things.
Is free speech under threat on American campuses? Yes. We know all about student activists who wish to shut down talks by people with opposing views. I got smeared with a bit of that myself, after a speaking invitation at Wellesley—some students made a video protesting my visit before I arrived. The talk went fine, though a group of concerned faculty circulated an open letter afterward also protesting the invitation: My views on sexual politics were too heretical, and might have offended students.
I didn’t take any of this too seriously, even as right-wing pundits crowed, with Wellesley as their latest outrage bait. It was another opportunity to mock student activists, and the fact that I was myself a feminist rather than a Charles Murray or a Milo Yiannopoulos, made them positively gleeful.
I do find myself wondering where all my new free-speech pals were when another left-wing professor, Steven Salaita, was fired (or if you prefer euphemism, “his job offer was withdrawn”) from the University of Illinois after he tweeted criticism of Israel’s Gaza policy. Sure the tweets were hyperbolic, but hyperbole and strong opinions are protected speech, too.
I guess free speech is easy to celebrate until it actually challenges something. Funny, I haven’t seen Milo around lately—so beloved by my new friends when he was bashing minorities and transgender kids. Then he mistakenly said something authentic (who knew he was capable of it!), reminiscing about an experience a lot of gay men have shared: teenage sex with older men. He tried walking it back—no, no, he’d been a victim, not a participant—but his fan base was shrieking about pedophilia and fleeing in droves. Gee, they were all so against “political correctness” a few minutes before.
It’s easy to be a free-speech fan when your feathers aren’t being ruffled. No doubt what makes me palatable to the anti-PC crowd is having thus far failed to ruffle them enough. I’m just going to have to work harder.
Laura Kipnis’s latest book is Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.
Eugene KontorovichThe free and open exchange of views—especially politically conservative or traditionally religious ones—is being challenged. This is taking place not just at college campuses but throughout our public spaces and cultural institutions. James Watson was fired from the lab he led since 1968 and could not speak at New York University because of petty, censorious students who would not know DNA from LSD. Our nation’s founders and heroes are being “disappeared” from public commemoration, like Trotsky from a photograph of Soviet rulers.
These attacks on “free speech” are not the result of government action. They are not what the First Amendment protects against. The current methods—professional and social shaming, exclusion, and employment termination—are more inchoate, and their effects are multiplied by self-censorship. A young conservative legal scholar might find himself thinking: “If the late Justice Antonin Scalia can posthumously be deemed a ‘bigot’ by many academics, what chance have I?”
Ironically, artists and intellectuals have long prided themselves on being the first defenders of free speech. Today, it is the institutions of both popular and high culture that are the censors. Is there one poet in the country who would speak out for Ann Coulter?
The inhibition of speech at universities is part of a broader social phenomenon of making longstanding, traditional views and practices sinful overnight. Conservatives have not put up much resistance to this. To paraphrase Martin Niemöller’s famous dictum: “First they came for Robert E. Lee, and I said nothing, because Robert E. Lee meant nothing to me.”
The situation with respect to Israel and expressions of support for it deserves separate discussion. Even as university administrators give political power to favored ideologies by letting them create “safe spaces” (safe from opposing views), Jews find themselves and their state at the receiving end of claims of apartheid—modern day blood libels. It is not surprising if Jewish students react by demanding that they get a safe space of their own. It is even less surprising if their parents, paying $65,000 a year, want their children to have a nicer time of it. One hears Jewish groups frequently express concern about Jewish students feeling increasingly isolated and uncomfortable on campus.
But demanding selective protection from the new ideological commissars is unlikely to bring the desired results. First, this new ideology, even if it can be harnessed momentarily to give respite to harassed Jews on campus, is ultimately illiberal and will be controlled by “progressive” forces. Second, it is not so terrible for Jews in the Diaspora to feel a bit uncomfortable. It has been the common condition of Jews throughout the millennia. The social awkwardness that Jews at liberal arts schools might feel in being associated with Israel is of course one of the primary justifications for the Jewish State. Facing the snowflakes incapable of hearing a dissonant view—but who nonetheless, in the grip of intersectional ecstasy, revile Jewish self-determination—Jewish students should toughen up.
Eugene Kontorovich teaches constitutional law at Northwestern University and heads the international law department of the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.
Nicholas LemannThere’s an old Tom Wolfe essay in which he describes being on a panel discussion at Princeton in 1965 and provoking the other panelists by announcing that America, rather than being in crisis, is in the middle of a “happiness explosion.” He was arguing that the mass effects of 20 years of post–World War II prosperity made for a larger phenomenon than the Vietnam War, the racial crisis, and the other primary concerns of intellectuals at the time.
In the same spirit, I’d say that we are in the middle of a free-speech explosion, because of 20-plus years of the Internet and 10-plus years of social media. If one understands speech as disseminated individual opinion, then surely we live in the free-speech-est society in the history of the world. Anybody with access to the unimpeded World Wide Web can say anything to a global audience, and anybody can hear anything, too. All threats to free speech should be understood in the context of this overwhelmingly reality.
It is a comforting fantasy that a genuine free-speech regime will empower mainly “good,” but previously repressed, speech. Conversely, repressive regimes that are candid enough to explain their anti-free-speech policies usually say that they’re not against free speech, just “bad” speech. We have to accept that more free speech probably means, in the aggregate, more bad speech, and also a weakening of the power, authority, and economic support for information professionals such as journalists. Welcome to the United States in 2017.
I am lucky enough to live and work on the campus of a university, Columbia, that has been blessedly free of successful attempts to repress free speech. Just in the last few weeks, Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza have spoken here without incident. But, yes, the evidently growing popularity of the idea that “hate speech” shouldn’t be permitted on campuses is a problem, especially, it seems, at small private liberal-arts colleges. We should all do our part, and I do, by frequently and publicly endorsing free-speech principles. Opposing the BDS movement falls squarely into that category.
It’s not just on campuses that free-speech vigilance is needed, though. The number-one threat to free speech, to my mind, is that the wide-open Web has been replaced by privately owned platforms such as Facebook and Google as the way most people experience the public life of the Internet. These companies are committed to banning “hate speech,” and they are eager to operate freely in countries, like China, that don’t permit free political speech. That makes for a far more consequential constrained environment than any campus’s speech code.
Also, Donald Trump regularly engages in presidentially unprecedented rhetoric demonizing people who disagree with him. He seems to think this is all in good fun, but, as we have already seen at his rallies, not everybody hears it that way. The place where Trumpism will endanger free speech isn’t in the center—the White House press room—but at the periphery, for example in the way that local police handle bumptious protestors and the journalists covering them. This is already happening around the country. If Trump were as disciplined and knowledgeable as Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which so far he seems not to be, then free speech could be in even more serious danger from government, which in most places is its usual main enemy.
Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Michael J. LewisFree speech is a right but it is also a habit, and where the habit shrivels so will the right. If free speech today is in headlong retreat—everywhere threatened by regulation, organized harassment, and even violence—it is in part because our political culture allowed the practice of persuasive oratory to atrophy. The process began in 1973, an unforeseen side effect of Roe v. Wade. Legislators were delighted to learn that by relegating this divisive matter of public policy to the Supreme Court and adopting a merely symbolic position, they could sit all the more safely in their safe seats.
Since then, one crucial question of public policy after another has been punted out of the realm of politics and into the judicial. Issues that might have been debated with all the rhetorical agility of a Lincoln and a Douglas, and then subjected to a process of negotiation, compromise, and voting, have instead been settled by decree: e.g., Chevron, Kelo, Obergefell. The consequences for speech have been pernicious. Since the time of Pericles, deliberative democracy has been predicated on the art of persuasion, which demands the forceful clarity of thought and expression without which no one has ever been persuaded. But a legislature that relegates its authority to judges and regulators will awaken to discover its oratorical culture has been stunted. When politicians, rather than seeking to convince and win over, prefer to project a studied and pleasant vagueness, debate withers into tedious defensive performance. It has been decades since any presidential debate has seen any sustained give and take over a matter of policy. If there is any suspense at all, it is only the possibility that a fatigued or peeved candidate might blurt out that tactless shard of truth known as a gaffe.
A generation accustomed to hearing platitudes smoothly dispensed from behind a teleprompter will find the speech of a fearless extemporaneous speaker to be startling, even disquieting; unfamiliar ideas always are. Unhappily, they have been taught to interpret that disquiet as an injury done to them, rather than as a premise offered to them to consider. All this would not have happened—certainly not to this extent—had not our deliberative democracy decided a generation ago that it preferred the security of incumbency to the risks of unshackled debate. The compulsory contraction of free speech on college campuses is but the logical extension of the voluntary contraction of free speech in our political culture.
Michael J. Lewis’s new book is City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning (Princeton University Press).
Heather Mac DonaldThe answer to the symposium question depends on how powerful the transmission belt is between academia and the rest of the country. On college campuses, violence and brute force are silencing speakers who challenge left-wing campus orthodoxies. These totalitarian outbreaks have been met with listless denunciations by college presidents, followed by . . . virtually nothing. As of mid-May, the only discipline imposed for 2017’s mass attacks on free speech at UC Berkeley, Middlebury, and Clare-mont McKenna College was a letter of reprimand inserted—sometimes only temporarily—into the files of several dozen Middlebury students, accompanied by a brief period of probation. Previous outbreaks of narcis-sistic incivility, such as the screaming-girl fit at Yale and the assaults on attendees of Yale’s Buckley program, were discreetly ignored by college administrators.
Meanwhile, the professoriate unapologetically defends censorship and violence. After the February 1 riot in Berkeley to prevent Milo Yiannapoulos from speaking, Déborah Blocker, associate professor of French at UC Berkeley, praised the rioters. They were “very well-organized and very efficient,” Blocker reported admiringly to her fellow professors. “They attacked property but they attacked it very sparingly, destroying just enough University property to obtain the cancellation order for the MY event and making sure no one in the crowd got hurt” (emphasis in original). (In fact, perceived Milo and Donald Trump supporters were sucker-punched and maced; businesses downtown were torched and vandalized.) New York University’s vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, Ulrich Baer, displayed Orwellian logic by claiming in a New York Times op-ed that shutting down speech “should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people.”
Will non-academic institutions take up this zeal for outright censorship? Other ideological products of the left-wing academy have been fully absorbed and operationalized. Racial victimology, which drives much of the campus censorship, is now standard in government and business. Corporate diversity trainers counsel that bias is responsible for any lack of proportional racial representation in the corporate ranks. Racial disparities in school discipline and incarceration are universally attributed to racism rather than to behavior. Public figures have lost jobs for violating politically correct taboos.
Yet Americans possess an instinctive commitment to the First Amendment. Federal judges, hardly an extension of the Federalist Society, have overwhelmingly struck down campus speech codes. It is hard to imagine that they would be any more tolerant of the hate-speech legislation so prevalent in Europe. So the question becomes: At what point does the pressure to conform to the elite worldview curtail freedom of thought and expression, even without explicit bans on speech?
Social stigma against conservative viewpoints is not the same as actual censorship. But the line can blur. The Obama administration used regulatory power to impose a behavioral conformity on public and private entities. School administrators may have technically still possessed the right to dissent from novel theories of gender, but they had to behave as if they were fully on board with the transgender revolution when it came to allowing boys to use girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms.
Had Hillary Clinton had been elected president, the federal bureaucracy would have mimicked campus diversocrats with even greater zeal. That threat, at least, has been avoided. Heresies against left-wing dogma may still enter the public arena, if only by the back door. The mainstream media have lurched even further left in the Trump era, but the conservative media, however mocked and marginalized, are expanding (though Twitter and Facebook’s censorship of conservative speakers could be a harbinger of more official silencing).
Outside the academy, free speech is still legally protected, but its exercise requires ever greater determination.
Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The War on Cops.
John McWhorterThere is a certain mendacity, as Brick put it in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in our discussion of free speech on college campuses. Namely, none of us genuinely wish that absolutely all issues be aired in the name of education and open-mindedness. To insist so is to pretend that civilized humanity makes nothing we could call advancement in philosophical consensus.
I doubt we need “free speech” on issues such as whether slavery and genocide are okay, whether it has been a mistake to view women as men’s equals, or to banish as antique the idea that whites are a master race while other peoples represent a lower rung on the Darwinian scale. With all due reverence of John Stuart Mill’s advocacy for the regular airing of even noxious views in order to reinforce clarity on why they were rejected, we are also human beings with limited time. A commitment to the Enlightenment justifiably will decree that certain views are, indeed, no longer in need of discussion.
However, our modern social-justice warriors are claiming that this no-fly zone of discussion is vaster than any conception of logic or morality justifies. We are being told that questions regarding the modern proposals about cultural appropriation, about whether even passing infelicitous statements constitute racism in the way that formalized segregation and racist disparagement did, or about whether social disparities can be due to cultural legacies rather than structural impediments, are as indisputably egregious, backwards, and abusive as the benighted views of the increasingly distant past.
That is, the new idea is not only that discrimination and inequality still exist, but that to even question the left’s utopian expectation on such matters justifies the same furious, sloganistic and even physically violent resistance that was once levelled against those designated heretics by a Christian hegemony.
Of course the protesters in question do not recognize themselves in a portrait as opponents of something called heresy. They suppose that Galileo’s opponents were clearly wrong but that they, today, are actually correct in a way that no intellectual or moral argument could coherently deny.
As such, we have students allowed to decree college campuses as “racist” when they are the least racist spaces on the planet—because they are, predictably given the imperfection of humans, not perfectly free of passingly unsavory interactions. Thinkers invited to talk for a portion of an hour from the right rather than the left and then have dinner with a few people and fly home are treated as if they were reanimated Hitlers. The student of color who hears a few white students venturing polite questions about the leftist orthodoxy is supported in fashioning these questions as “racist” rhetoric.
The people on college campuses who openly and aggressively spout this new version of Christian (or even Islamist) crusading—ironically justifying it as a barricade against “fascist” muzzling of freedom when the term applies ominously well to the regime they are fostering—are a minority. However, the sawmill spinning blade of their rhetoric has succeeding in rendering opposition as risky as espousing pedophilia, such that only those natively open to violent criticism dare speak out. The latter group is small. The campus consensus thereby becomes, if only at moralistic gunpoint à la the ISIS victim video, a strangled hard-leftism.
Hence freedom of speech is indeed threatened on today’s college campuses. I have lost count of how many of my students, despite being liberal Democrats (many of whom sobbed at Hillary Clinton’s loss last November), have told me that they are afraid to express their opinions about issues that matter, despite the fact that their opinions are ones that any liberal or even leftist person circa 1960 would have considered perfectly acceptable.
Something has shifted of late, and not in a direction we can legitimately consider forwards.
John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University and is the author of The Language Hoax, Words on the Move, and Talking Back, Talking Black.
Kate Bachelder OdellIt’s 2021, and Harvard Square has devolved into riots: Some 120 people are injured in protests, and the carnage includes fire-consumed cop cars and smashed-in windows. The police discharge canisters of tear gas, and, after apprehending dozens of protesters, enforce a 1:45 A.M. curfew. Anyone roaming the streets after hours is subject to arrest. About 2,000 National Guardsmen are prepared to intervene. Such violence and disorder is also roiling Berkeley and other elite and educated areas.
Oh, that’s 1970. The details are from the Harvard Crimson’s account of “anti-war” riots that spring. The episode is instructive in considering whether free speech is under threat in the United States. Almost daily, there’s a new YouTube installment of students melting down over viewpoints of speakers invited to one campus or another. Even amid speech threats from government—for example, the IRS’s targeting of political opponents—nothing has captured the public’s attention like the end of free expression at America’s institutions of higher learning.
Yet disruption, confusion, and even violence are not new campus phenomena. And it’s hard to imagine that young adults who deployed brute force in the 1960s and ’70s were deeply committed to the open and peaceful exchange of ideas.
There may also be reason for optimism. The rough and tumble on campus in the 1960s and ’70s produced a more even-tempered ’80s and ’90s, and colleges are probably heading for another course correction. In covering the ruckuses at Yale, Missouri, and elsewhere, I’ve talked to professors and students who are figuring out how to respond to the illiberalism, even if the reaction is delayed. The University of Chicago put out a set of free-speech principles last year, and others schools such as Princeton and Purdue have endorsed them.
The NARPs—Non-Athletic Regular People, as they are sometimes known on campus—still outnumber the social-justice warriors, who appear to be overplaying their hand. Case in point is the University of Missouri, which experienced a precipitous drop in enrollment after instructor Melissa Click and her ilk stoked racial tensions last spring. The college has closed dorms and trimmed budgets. Which brings us to another silver lining: The economic model of higher education (exorbitant tuition to pay ever more administrators) may blow up traditional college before the fascists can.
Note also that the anti-speech movement is run by rich kids. A Brookings Institution analysis from earlier this year discovered that “the average enrollee at a college where students have attempted to restrict free speech comes from a family with an annual income $32,000 higher than that of the average student in America.” Few rank higher in average income than those at Middlebury College, where students evicted scholar Charles Murray in a particularly ugly scene. (The report notes that Murray was received respectfully at Saint Louis University, “where the median income of students’ families is half Middlebury’s.”) The impulses of over-adulated 20-year-olds may soon be tempered by the tyranny of having to show up for work on a daily basis.
None of this is to suggest that free speech is enjoying some renaissance either on campus or in America. But perhaps as the late Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Robert Bartley put it in his valedictory address: “Things could be worse. Indeed, they have been worse.”
Kate Bachelder Odell is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.
Jonathan RauchIs free speech under threat? The one-syllable answer is “yes.” The three-syllable answer is: “Yes, of course.” Free speech is always under threat, because it is not only the single most successful social idea in all of human history, it is also the single most counterintuitive. “You mean to say that speech that is offensive, untruthful, malicious, seditious, antisocial, blasphemous, heretical, misguided, or all of the above deserves government protection?” That seemingly bizarre proposition is defensible only on the grounds that the marketplace of ideas turns out to be the most powerful engine of knowledge, prosperity, liberty, social peace, and moral advancement that our species has had the good fortune to discover.
Every new generation of free-speech advocates will need to get up every morning and re-explain the case for free speech and open inquiry—today, tomorrow, and forever. That is our lot in life, and we just need to be cheerful about it. At discouraging moments, it is helpful to remember that the country has made great strides toward free speech since 1798, when the Adams administration arrested and jailed its political critics; and since the 1920s, when the U.S. government banned and burned James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses; and since 1954, when the government banned ONE, a pioneering gay journal. (The cover article was a critique of the government’s indecency censors, who censored it.) None of those things could happen today.
I suppose, then, the interesting question is: What kind of threat is free speech under today? In the present age, direct censorship by government bodies is rare. Instead, two more subtle challenges hold sway, especially, although not only, on college campuses. The first is a version of what I called, in my book Kindly Inquisitors, the humanitarian challenge: the idea that speech that is hateful or hurtful (in someone’s estimation) causes pain and thus violates others’ rights, much as physical violence does. The other is a version of what I called the egalitarian challenge: the idea that speech that denigrates minorities (again, in someone’s estimation) perpetuates social inequality and oppression and thus also is a rights violation. Both arguments call upon administrators and other bureaucrats to defend human rights by regulating speech rights.
Both doctrines are flawed to the core. Censorship harms minorities by enforcing conformity and entrenching majority power, and it no more ameliorates hatred and injustice than smashing thermometers ameliorates global warming. If unwelcome words are the equivalent of bludgeons or bullets, then the free exchange of criticism—science, in other words—is a crime. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the current challenges are new variations on ancient themes—and they will be followed, in decades and centuries to come, by many, many other variations. Memo to free-speech advocates: Our work is never done, but the really amazing thing, given the proposition we are tasked to defend, is how well we are doing.
Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.
Nicholas Quinn RosenkranzSpeech is under threat on American campuses as never before. Censorship in various forms is on the rise. And this year, the threat to free speech on campus took an even darker turn, toward actual violence. The prospect of Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at Berkeley provoked riots that caused more than $100,000 worth of property damage on the campus. The prospect of Charles Murray speaking at Middlebury led to a riot that put a liberal professor in the hospital with a concussion. Ann Coulter’s speech at Berkeley was cancelled after the university determined that none of the appropriate venues could be protected from “known security threats” on the date in question.
The free-speech crisis on campus is caused, at least in part, by a more insidious campus pathology: the almost complete lack of intellectual diversity on elite university faculties. At Yale, for example, the number of registered Republicans in the economics department is zero; in the psychology department, there is one. Overall, there are 4,410 faculty members at Yale, and the total number of those who donated to a Republican candidate during the 2016 primaries was three.
So when today’s students purport to feel “unsafe” at the mere prospect of a conservative speaker on campus, it may be easy to mock them as “delicate snowflakes,” but in one sense, their reaction is understandable: If students are shocked at the prospect of a Republican behind a university podium, perhaps it is because many of them have never before laid eyes on one.
To see the connection between free speech and intellectual diversity, consider the recent commencement speech of Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust:
Universities must be places open to the kind of debate that can change ideas….Silencing ideas or basking in intellectual orthodoxy independent of facts and evidence impedes our access to new and better ideas, and it inhibits a full and considered rejection of bad ones. . . . We must work to ensure that universities do not become bubbles isolated from the concerns and discourse of the society that surrounds them. Universities must model a commitment to the notion that truth cannot simply be claimed, but must be established—established through reasoned argument, assessment, and even sometimes uncomfortable challenges that provide the foundation for truth.
Faust is exactly right. But, alas, her commencement audience might be forgiven a certain skepticism. After all, the number of registered Republicans in several departments at Harvard—e.g., history and psychology—is exactly zero. In those departments, the professors themselves may be “basking in intellectual orthodoxy” without ever facing “uncomfortable challenges.” This may help explain why some students will do everything in their power to keep conservative speakers off campus: They notice that faculty hiring committees seem to do exactly the same thing.
In short, it is a promising sign that true liberal academics like Faust have started speaking eloquently about the crucial importance of civil, reasoned disagreement. But they will be more convincing on this point when they hire a few colleagues with whom they actually disagree.
Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz is a professor of law at Georgetown. He serves on the executive committee of Heterodox Academy, which he co-founded, on the board of directors of the Federalist Society, and on the board of directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Ben ShapiroIn February, I spoke at California State University in Los Angeles. Before my arrival, professors informed students that a white supremacist would be descending on the school to preach hate; threats of violence soon prompted the administration to cancel the event. I vowed to show up anyway. One hour before the event, the administration backed down and promised to guarantee that the event could go forward, but police officers were told not to stop the 300 students, faculty, and outside protesters who blocked and assaulted those who attempted to attend the lecture. We ended up trapped in the auditorium, with the authorities telling students not to leave for fear of physical violence. I was rushed from campus under armed police guard.
Is free speech under assault?
Of course it is.
On campus, free speech is under assault thanks to a perverse ideology of intersectionality that claims victim identity is of primary value and that views are a merely secondary concern. As a corollary, if your views offend someone who outranks you on the intersectional hierarchy, your views are treated as violence—threats to identity itself. On campus, statements that offend an individual’s identity have been treated as “microaggressions”–actual aggressions against another, ostensibly worthy of violence. Words, students have been told, may not break bones, but they will prompt sticks and stones, and rightly so.
Thus, protesters around the country—leftists who see verbiage as violence—have, in turn, used violence in response to ideas they hate. Leftist local authorities then use the threat of violence as an excuse to ideologically discriminate against conservatives. This means public intellectuals like Charles Murray being run off of campus and his leftist professorial cohort viciously assaulted; it means Ann Coulter being targeted for violence at Berkeley; it means universities preemptively banning me and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Condoleezza Rice and even Jason Riley.
The campus attacks on free speech are merely the most extreme iteration of an ideology that spans from left to right: the notion that your right to free speech ends where my feelings begin. Even Democrats who say that Ann Coulter should be allowed to speak at Berkeley say that nobody should be allowed to contribute to a super PAC (unless you’re a union member, naturally).
Meanwhile, on the right, the president’s attacks on the press have convinced many Republicans that restrictions on the press wouldn’t be altogether bad. A Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll in late April found that 36 percent of Americans thought freedom of the press “does more harm than good.” Undoubtedly, some of that is due to the media’s obvious bias. CNN’s Jeff Zucker has targeted the Trump administration for supposedly quashing journalism, but he was silent when the Obama administration’s Department of Justice cracked down on reporters from the Associated Press and Fox News, and when hacks like Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes openly sold lies regarding Iran. But for some on the right, the response to press falsities hasn’t been to call for truth, but to instead echo Trumpian falsehoods in the hopes of damaging the media. Free speech is only important when people seek the truth. Leftists traded truth for tribalism long ago; in response, many on the right seem willing to do the same. Until we return to a common standard under which facts matter, free speech will continue to rest on tenuous grounds.
Ben Shapiro is the editor in chief of The Daily Wire and the host of The Ben Shapiro Show.
Judith ShulevitzIt’s tempting to blame college and university administrators for the decline of free speech in America, and for years I did just that. If the guardians of higher education won’t inculcate the habits of mind required for serious thinking, I thought, who will? The unfettered but civil exchange of ideas is the basic operation of education, just as addition is the basic operation of arithmetic. And universities have to teach both the unfettered part and the civil part, because arguing in a respectful manner isn’t something anyone does instinctively.
So why change my mind now? Schools still cling to speech codes, and there still aren’t enough deans like the one at the University of Chicago who declared his school a safe-space-free zone. My alma mater just handed out prizes for “enhancing race and/or ethnic relations” to two students caught on video harassing the dean of their residential college, one screaming at him that he’d created “a space for violence to happen,” the other placing his face inches away from the dean’s and demanding, “Look at me.” All this because they deemed a thoughtful if ill-timed letter about Halloween costumes written by the dean’s wife to be an act of racist aggression. Yale should discipline students who behave like that, even if they’re right on the merits (I don’t think they were, but that’s not the point). They certainly don’t deserve awards. I can’t believe I had to write that sentence.
But in abdicating their responsibilites, the universities have enabled something even worse than an attack on free speech. They’ve unleashed an assault on themselves. There’s plenty of free speech around; we know that because so much bad speech—low-minded nonsense—tests our constitutional tolerance daily, and that’s holding up pretty well. (As Nicholas Lemann observes elsewhere in this symposium, Facebook and Google represent bigger threats to free speech than students and administrators.) What’s endangered is good speech.
Universities were setting themselves up to be used. Provocateurs exploit the atmosphere on campus to goad overwrought students, then gleefully trash the most important bastion of our crumbling civil society. Higher education and everything it stands for—logical argument, the scientific method, epistemological rigor—start to look illegitimate. Voters perceive tenure and research and higher education itself as hopelessly partisan and unworthy of taxpayers’ money.
The press is a secondary victim of this process of delegitimization. If serious inquiry can be waved off as ideology, then facts won’t be facts and reporting can’t be trusted. All journalism will be equal to all other journalism, and all journalists will be reduced to pests you can slam to the ground with near impunity. Politicians will be able to say anything and do just about anything and there will be no countervailing authority to challenge them. I’m pretty sure that that way lies Putinism and Erdoganism. And when we get to that point, I’m going to start worrying about free speech again.
Judith Shulevitz is a critic in New York.
Harvey SilverglateFree speech is, and has always been, threatened. The title of Nat Hentoff’s 1993 book Free Speech for Me – but Not for Thee is no less true today than at any time, even as the Supreme Court has accorded free speech a more absolute degree of protection than in any previous era.
Since the 1980s, the high court has decided most major free-speech cases in favor of speech, with most of the major decisions being unanimous or nearly so.
Women’s-rights advocates were turned back by the high court in 1986 when they sought to ban the sale of printed materials that, because deemed pornographic by some, were alleged to promote violence against women. Censorship in the name of gender–based protection thus failed to gain traction.
Despite the demands of civil-rights activists, the Supreme Court in 1992 declared cross-burning to be a protected form of expression in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, a decision later refined to strengthen a narrow exception for when cross-burning occurs primarily as a physical threat rather than merely an expression of hatred.
Other attempts at First Amendment circumvention have been met with equally decisive rebuff. When the Reverend Jerry Falwell sued Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt for defamation growing out of a parody depicting Falwell’s first sexual encounter as a drunken tryst with his mother in an outhouse, a unanimous Supreme Court lectured on the history of parody as a constitutionally protected, even if cruel, form of social and political criticism.
When the South Boston Allied War Veterans, sponsor of Boston’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, sought to exclude a gay veterans’ group from marching under its own banner, the high court unanimously held that as a private entity, even though marching in public streets, the Veterans could exclude any group marching under a banner conflicting with the parade’s socially conservative message, notwithstanding public-accommodations laws. The gay group could have its own parade but could not rain on that of the conservatives.
Despite such legal clarity, today’s most potent attacks on speech are coming, ironically, from liberal-arts colleges. Ubiquitous “speech codes” limit speech that might insult, embarrass, or “harass,” in particular, members of “historically disadvantaged” groups. “Safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” protect purportedly vulnerable students from hearing words and ideas they might find upsetting. Student demonstrators and threats of violence have forced the cancellation of controversial speakers, left and right.
It remains unclear how much campus censorship results from politically correct faculty, control-obsessed student-life administrators, or students socialized and indoctrinated into intolerance. My experience suggests that the bureaucrats are primarily, although not entirely, to blame. When sued, colleges either lose or settle, pay a modest amount, and then return to their censorious ways.
This trend threatens the heart and soul of liberal education. Eventually it could infect the entire society as these students graduate and assume influential positions. Whether a resulting flood of censorship ultimately overcomes legal protections and weakens democracy remains to be seen.
Harvey Silverglate, a Boston-based lawyer and writer, is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (Free Press, 1998). He co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in 1999 and is on FIRE’s board of directors. He spent some three decades on the board of the ACLU of Massachusetts, two of those years as chairman. Silverglate taught at Harvard Law School for a semester during a sabbatical he took in the mid-1980s.
Christina Hoff SommersWhen Heather Mac Donald’s “blue lives matter” talk was shut down by a mob at Claremont McKenna College, the president of neighboring Pomona College sent out an email defending free speech. Twenty-five students shot back a response: “Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist . . . classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live.”
Some blame the new campus intolerance on hypersensitive, over-trophied millennials. But the students who signed that letter don’t appear to be fragile. Nor do those who recently shut down lectures at Berkeley, Middlebury, DePaul, and Cal State LA. What they are is impassioned. And their passion is driven by a theory known as intersectionality.
Intersectionality is the source of the new preoccupation with microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and privilege-checking. It’s the reason more than 200 colleges and universities have set up Bias Response Teams. Students who overhear potentially “otherizing” comments or jokes are encouraged to make anonymous reports to their campus BRTs. A growing number of professors and administrators have built their careers around intersectionality. What is it exactly?
Intersectionality is a neo-Marxist doctrine that views racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and all forms of “oppression” as interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Together these “isms” form a complex arrangement of advantages and burdens. A white woman is disadvantaged by her gender but advantaged by her race. A Latino is burdened by his ethnicity but privileged by his gender. According to intersectionality, American society is a “matrix of domination,” with affluent white males in control. Not only do they enjoy most of the advantages, they also determine what counts as “truth” and “knowledge.”
But marginalized identities are not without resources. According to one of intersectionality’s leading theorists, Patricia Collins (former president of the American Sociology Association), disadvantaged groups have access to deeper, more liberating truths. To find their voice, and to enlighten others to the true nature of reality, they require a safe space—free of microaggressive put-downs and imperious cultural appropriations. Here they may speak openly about their “lived experience.” Lived experience, according to intersectional theory, is a better guide to the truth than self-serving Western and masculine styles of thinking. So don’t try to refute intersectionality with logic or evidence: That only proves that you are part of the problem it seeks to overcome.
How could comfortably ensconced college students be open to a convoluted theory that describes their world as a matrix of misery? Don’t they flinch when they hear intersectional scholars like bell hooks refer to the U.S. as an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”? Most take it in stride because such views are now commonplace in high-school history and social studies texts. And the idea that knowledge comes from lived experience rather than painstaking study and argument is catnip to many undergrads.
Silencing speech and forbidding debate is not an unfortunate by-product of intersectionality—it is a primary goal. How else do you dismantle a lethal system of oppression? As the protesting students at Claremont McKenna explained in their letter: “Free speech . . . has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry.” To the student activists, thinkers like Heather MacDonald and Charles Murray are agents of the dominant narrative, and their speech is “a form of violence.”
It is hard to know how our institutions of higher learning will find their way back to academic freedom, open inquiry, and mutual understanding. But as long as intersectional theory goes unchallenged, campus fanaticism will intensify.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of several books, including Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys. She also hosts The Factual Feminist, a video blog. @Chsommers
John StosselYes, some college students do insane things. Some called police when they saw “Trump 2016” chalked on sidewalks. The vandals at Berkeley and the thugs who assaulted Charles Murray are disgusting. But they are a minority. And these days people fight back.
Someone usually videotapes the craziness. Yale’s “Halloween costume incident” drove away two sensible instructors, but videos mocking Yale’s snowflakes, like “Silence U,” make such abuse less likely. Groups like Young America’s Foundation (YAF) publicize censorship, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sues schools that restrict speech.
Consciousness has been raised. On campus, the worst is over. Free speech has always been fragile. I once took cameras to Seton Hall law school right after a professor gave a lecture on free speech. Students seemed to get the concept. Sean, now a lawyer, said, “Protect freedom for thought we hate; otherwise you never have a society where ideas clash, and we come up with the best idea.” So I asked, “Should there be any limits?” Students listed “fighting words,” “shouting fire in a theater,” malicious libel, etc.— reasonable court-approved exceptions. But then they went further. Several wanted bans on “hate” speech, “No value comes out of hate speech,” said Javier. “It inevitably leads to violence.”
No it doesn’t, I argued, “Also, doesn’t hate speech bring ideas into the open, so you can better argue about them, bringing you to the truth?”
“No,” replied Floyd, “With hate speech, more speech is just violence.”
So I pulled out a big copy of the First Amendment and wrote, “exception: hate speech.”
Two students wanted a ban on flag desecration “to respect those who died to protect it.”
One wanted bans on blasphemy:
“Look at the gravity of the harm versus the value in blasphemy—the harm outweighs the value.”
Several wanted a ban on political speech by corporations because of “the potential for large corporations to improperly influence politicians.”
Finally, Jillian, also now a lawyer, wanted hunting videos banned.
“It encourages harm down the road.”
I asked her, incredulously, “you’re comfortable locking up people who make a hunting film?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It’s unnecessary cruelty to feeling and sentient beings.”
So, I picked up my copy of the Bill of Rights again. After “no law . . . abridging freedom of speech,” I added: “Except hate speech, flag burning, blasphemy, corporate political speech, depictions of hunting . . . ”
That embarrassed them. “We may have gone too far,” said Sean. Others agreed. One said, “Cross out the exceptions.” Free speech survived, but it was a close call. Respect for unpleasant speech will always be thin. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton wanted violent video games banned. John McCain and Russ Feingold tried to ban political speech. Donald Trump wants new libel laws, and if you burn a flag, he tweeted, consequences might be “loss of citizenship or a year in jail!” Courts or popular opinion killed those bad ideas.
Free speech will survive, assuming those of us who appreciate it use it to fight those who would smother it.
John Stossel is a FOX News/FOX Business Network Contributor.
Warren TreadgoldEven citizens of dictatorships are free to praise the regime and to talk about the weather. The only speech likely to be threatened anywhere is the sort that offends an important and intolerant group. What is new in America today is a leftist ideology that threatens speech precisely because it offends certain important and intolerant groups: feminists and supposedly oppressed minorities.
So far this new ideology is clearly dominant only in colleges and universities, where it has become so strong that most controversies concern outside speakers invited by students, not faculty speakers or speakers invited by administrators. Most academic administrators and professors are either leftists or have learned not to oppose leftism; otherwise they would probably never have been hired. Administrators treat even violent leftist protestors with respect and are ready to prevent conservative and moderate outsiders from speaking rather than provoke protests. Most professors who defend conservative or moderate speakers argue that the speakers’ views are indeed noxious but say that students should be exposed to them to learn how to refute them. This is very different from encouraging a free exchange of ideas.
Although the new ideology began on campuses in the ’60s, it gained authority outside them largely by means of several majority decisions of the Supreme Court, from Roe (1973) to Obergefell (2015). The Supreme Court decisions that endanger free speech are based on a presumed consensus of enlightened opinion that certain rights favored by activists have the same legitimacy as rights explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution—or even more legitimacy, because the rights favored by activists are assumed to be so fundamental that they need no grounding in specific constitutional language. The Court majorities found restricting abortion rights or homosexual marriage, as large numbers of Americans wish to do, to be constitutionally equivalent to restricting black voting rights or interracial marriage. Any denial of such equivalence therefore opposes fundamental constitutional rights and can be considered hate speech, advocating psychological and possibly physical harm to groups like women seeking abortions or homosexuals seeking approval. Such speech may still be constitutionally protected, but acting upon it is not.
This ideology of forbidding allegedly offensive speech has spread to most of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. Rather than seeing themselves as taking one side in a free debate, progressives increasingly argue (for example) that opposing abortion is offensive to women and supporting the police is offensive to blacks. Some politicians object so strongly to such speech that despite their interest in winning votes, they attack voters who disagree with them as racists or sexists. Expressing views that allegedly discriminate against women, blacks, homosexuals, and various other minorities can now be grounds for a lawsuit.
Speech that supposedly offends women or minorities has already cost some people their careers, their businesses, and their opportunities to deliver or hear speeches. Such intimidation is the intended result of an ideology that threatens free speech.
Warren Treadgold is a professor of history at Saint Louis University.
Matt WelchLike a sullen zoo elephant rocking back and forth from leg to leg, there is an oversized paradox we’d prefer not to see standing smack in the sightlines of most our policy debates. Day by day, even minute by minute, America simultaneously gets less free in the laboratory, but more free in the field. Individuals are constantly expanding the limits and applications of their own autonomy, even as government transcends prior restraints on how far it can reach into our intimate business.
So it is that the Internal Revenue Service can charge foreign banks with collecting taxes on U.S. citizens (therefore causing global financial institutions to shun many of the estimated 6 million-plus Americans who live abroad), even while block-chain virtuosos make illegal transactions wholly undetectable to authorities. It has never been easier for Americans to travel abroad, and it’s never been harder to enter the U.S. without showing passports, fingerprints, retinal scans, and even social-media passwords.
What’s true for banking and tourism is doubly true for free speech. Social media has given everyone not just a platform but a megaphone (as unreadable as our Facebook timelines have all become since last November). At the same time, the federal government during this unhappy 21st century has continuously ratcheted up prosecutorial pressure against leakers, whistleblowers, investigative reporters, and technology companies.
A hopeful bulwark against government encroachment unique to the free-speech field is the Supreme Court’s very strong First Amendment jurisprudence in the past decade or two. Donald Trump, like Hillary Clinton before him, may prattle on about locking up flag-burners, but Antonin Scalia and the rest of SCOTUS protected such expression back in 1990. Barack Obama and John McCain (and Hillary Clinton—she’s as bad as any recent national politician on free speech) may lament the Citizens United decision, but it’s now firmly legal to broadcast unfriendly documentaries about politicians without fear of punishment, no matter the electoral calendar.
But in this very strength lies what might be the First Amendment’s most worrying vulnerability. Barry Friedman, in his 2009 book The Will of the People, made the persuasive argument that the Supreme Court typically ratifies, post facto, where public opinion has already shifted. Today’s culture of free speech could be tomorrow’s legal framework. If so, we’re in trouble.
For evidence of free-speech slippage, just read around you. When both major-party presidential nominees react to terrorist attacks by calling to shut down corners of the Internet, and when their respective supporters are actually debating the propriety of sucker punching protesters they disagree with, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that our increasingly shrill partisan sorting is turning the very foundation of post-1800 global prosperity into just another club to be swung in our national street fight.
In the eternal cat-and-mouse game between private initiative and government control, the former is always advantaged by the latter’s fundamental incompetence. But what if the public willingly hands government the power to muzzle? It may take a counter-cultural reformation to protect this most noble of American experiments.
Matt Welch is the editor at large of Reason.
Adam. J. WhiteFree speech is indeed under threat on our university campuses, but the threat did not begin there and it will not end there. Rather, the campus free-speech crisis is a particularly visible symptom of a much more fundamental crisis in American culture.
The problem is not that some students, teachers, and administrators reject traditional American values and institutions, or even that they are willing to menace or censor others who defend those values and institutions. Such critics have always existed, and they can be expected to use the tools and weapons at their disposal. The problem is that our country seems to produce too few students, teachers, and administrators who are willing or able to respond to them.
American families produce children who arrive on campus unprepared for, or uninterested in, defending our values and institutions. For our students who are focused primarily on their career prospects (if on anything at all), “[c]ollege is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement,” as David Brooks observed 16 years ago. “They’re not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb it, and they are streamlined for ascent. Hence they are not a disputatious group.”
Meanwhile, parents bear incomprehensible financial burdens to get their kids through college, without a clear sense of precisely what their kids will get out of these institutions in terms of character formation or civic virtue. With so much money at stake, few can afford for their kids to pursue more than career prospects.
Those problems are not created on campus, but they are exacerbated there, as too few college professors and administrators see their institutions as cultivators of American culture and republicanism. Confronted with activists’ rage, they offer no competing vision of higher education—let alone a compelling one.
Ironically, we might borrow a solution from the Left. Where progressives would leverage state power in service of their health-care agenda, we could do the same for education. State legislatures and governors, recognizing the present crisis, should begin to reform and renegotiate the fundamental nature of state universities. By making state universities more affordable, more productive, and more reflective of mainstream American values, they will attract students—and create incentives for competing private universities to follow suit.
Let’s hope they do it soon, for what’s at stake is much more than just free speech on campus, or even free speech writ large. In our time, as in Tocqueville’s, “the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of a democratic republic,” especially “where instruction which awakens the understanding is not separated from moral education which amends the heart.” We need our colleges to cultivate—not cut down—civic virtue and our capacity for self-government. “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form,” Madison wrote in Federalist 55. If “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” then “nothing less than the chains of despotism” can restrain us “from destroying and devouring one another.”
Adam J. White is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Cathy YoungA writer gets expelled from the World Science Fiction Convention for criticizing the sci-fi community’s preoccupation with racial and gender “inclusivity” while moderating a panel. An assault on free speech, or an exercise of free association? How about when students demand the disinvitation of a speaker—or disrupt the speech? When a critic of feminism gets banned from a social-media platform for unspecified “abuse”?
Such questions are at the heart of many recent free-speech controversies. There is no censorship by government; but how concerned should we be when private actors effectively suppress unpopular speech? Even in the freest society, some speech will—and should—be considered odious and banished to unsavory fringes. No one weeps for ostracized Holocaust deniers or pedophilia apologists.
But shunned speech needs to remain a narrow exception—or acceptable speech will inexorably shrink. As current Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai cautioned last year, First Amendment protections will be hollowed out unless undergirded by cultural values that support a free marketplace of ideas.
Sometimes, attacks on speech come from the right. In 2003, an Iraq War critic, reporter Chris Hedges, was silenced at Rockford College in Illinois by hecklers who unplugged the microphone and rushed the stage; some conservative pundits defended this as robust protest. Yet the current climate on the left—in universities, on social media, in “progressive” journalism, in intellectual circles—is particularly hostile to free expression. The identity-politics left, fixated on subtle oppressions embedded in everyday attitudes and language, sees speech-policing as the solution.
Is hostility to free-speech values on the rise? New York magazine columnist Jesse Singal argues that support for restrictions on public speech offensive to minorities has remained steady, and fairly high, since the 1970s. Perhaps. But the range of what qualifies as offensive—and which groups are to be shielded—has expanded dramatically. In our time, a leading liberal magazine, the New Republic, can defend calls to destroy a painting of lynching victim Emmett Till because the artist is white and guilty of “cultural appropriation,” and a feminist academic journal can be bullied into apologizing for an article on transgender issues that dares to mention “male genitalia.”
There is also a distinct trend of “bad” speech being squelched by coercion, not just disapproval. That includes the incidents at Middlebury College in Vermont and at Claremont McKenna in California, where mobs not only prevented conservative speakers—Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald—from addressing audiences but physically threatened them as well. It also includes the use of civil-rights legislation to enforce goodthink in the workplace: Businesses may face stiff fines if they don’t force employees to call a “non-binary” co-worker by the singular “they,” even when talking among themselves.
These trends make a mockery of liberalism and enable the kind of backlash we have seen with Donald Trump’s election. But the backlash can bring its own brand of authoritarianism. It’s time to start rebuilding the culture of free speech across political divisions—a project that demands, above all, genuine openness and intellectual consistency. Otherwise it will remain, as the late, great Nat Hentoff put it, a call for “free speech for me, but not for thee.”
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason.
Robert J. ZimmerFree speech is not a natural feature of human society. Many people are comfortable with free expression for views they agree with but would withhold this privilege for those they deem offensive. People justify such restrictions by various means: the appeal to moral certainty, political agendas, demand for change, opposing change, retaining power, resisting authority, or, more recently, not wanting to feel uncomfortable. Moral certainty about one’s views or a willingness to indulge one’s emotions makes it easy to assert that others are doing true damage or creating unacceptable offense simply by presenting a fundamentally different perspective.
The resulting challenges to free expression may come in the form of laws, threats, pressure (whether societal, group, or organizational), or self-censorship in the face of a prevailing consensus. Specific forms of challenge may be more or less pronounced as circumstances vary. But the widespread temptation to consider the silencing of “objectionable” viewpoints as acceptable implies that the challenge to free expression is always present.
The United States today is no exception. We benefit from the First Amendment, which asserts that the government shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. However, fostering a society supporting free expression involves matters far beyond the law. The ongoing and increasing demonization of one group by another creates a political and social environment conducive to suppressing speech. Even violent acts opposing speech can become acceptable or encouraged. Such behavior is evident at both political rallies and university events. Our greatest current threat to free expression is the emergence of a national culture that accepts the legitimacy of suppression of speech deemed objectionable by a segment of the population.
University and college campuses present a particularly vivid instance of this cultural shift. There have been many well-publicized episodes of speakers being disinvited or prevented from speaking because of their views. However, the problem is much deeper, as there is significant self-censorship on many campuses. Both faculty and students sometimes find themselves silenced by social and institutional pressures to conform to “acceptable” views. Ironically, the very mission of universities and colleges to provide a powerful and deeply enriching education for their students demands that they embrace and protect free expression and open discourse. Failing to do so significantly diminishes the quality of the education they provide.
My own institution, the University of Chicago, through the words and actions of its faculty and leaders since its founding, has asserted the importance of free expression and its essential role in embracing intellectual challenge. We continue to do so today as articulated by the Chicago Principles, which strongly affirm that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” It is only in such an environment that universities can fulfill their own highest aspirations and provide leadership by demonstrating the value of free speech within society more broadly. A number of universities have joined us in reinforcing these values. But it remains to be seen whether the faculty and leaders of many institutions will truly stand up for these values, and in doing so provide a model for society as a whole.
Robert J. Zimmer is the president of the University of Chicago.