Blogs > Cliopatria > LBJ, Fortas, & Israel

Dec 19, 2008

LBJ, Fortas, & Israel

Given the context in which he operated—the necessities of the Cold War tilting the United States toward conservative Arab states; a U.S. public opinion far less favorable to Israel than what exists today, when both nations face the common threat of radical Islamist terrorism—LBJ was the most pro-Israel President in U.S. history.

Johnson concluded his presidency by authoring the selling of Phantom planes to Israel. Continuing with some clips from the newly released LBJ tapes, LBJ discusses the matter in this conversation with Abe Fortas (who the President had just nominated as chief justice for the Supreme Court). Johnson lashes out at Missouri senator Stuart Symington—making the transition from a stalwart Cold Warrior to among the most effective Senate critics of Cold War foreign policy.

The discussion also offers insight into the pro-Israel lobbyists with whom LBJ associated—Abe Feinberg, a major Democratic fundraiser from New York who had close ties to the Israeli government; and Arthur Krim, an entertainment lawyer who would serve as a chief fundraiser for the LBJ Library.

Clip is below; draft transcript below the fold.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: I’ve got to make a decision on those [Phantoms], and I want to make it as soon as—far enough ahead of time, before I go out [of office], not to be the last thing.

But I want the Russians to turn me down on disarmament. I’ve got a letter in his [Alexsey Kosygin’s] lap now.

And this idiot of a [Stuart] Symington has sent us word that if I don’t give Israel the Phantoms, that he’s going to kill our [foreign military] sale bill, where we can sell planes. If I don’t go ahead and give ‘em to ‘em [the Israelis].

And I can’t do it until Kosygin answers me. He’s not going to pee a drop with me: I know that. But I’ve got to have that behind me so I’ve got that as an excuse. [I can] say, “By God, I’ve tried everything. I tried a conference, I tried a proposal, I tried letters, I tried meetings, I pled with him. And finally he turned it down, and I just—there’s no other alternative. I have no course in the world except this.”

ABE FORTAS: Yeah. That’s right.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: And that’s what I’m trying to do.

Now, I never have told anybody I’m going to give ‘em to ‘em [the Israelis]. But I made up my mind a long time ago I was going to give ‘em to ‘em. But I’m not going to give ‘em to ‘em unless I can protect myself. I’m not going to be a goddamned arms merchant! I’m going to make them [the Soviets] to be the outlaws if I can.

FORTAS: Sure. I think that’s very good.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: Now, that’s what I’m trying to do.

And this little Eppie is the only one I think that’s got sense enough in their organization to see it. He sees it all the time. He’s just as bright as that goddamned [unclear] dog of mine. He catches everything that comes along without telling him. So he helps.

But Symington is just the biggest muddlehead I ever saw. I thought you and Clark Clifford could advise somebody. [teasingly] Are all of your clients muddleheads like me and Symington? [Fortas laughs heartily.] I don’t understand it.

FORTAS: Well, Stuart is absolutely one. I don’t know—he’s just got . . . Hell, I just don’t understand. Is this [issue] this fellow Solomon now?

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: No, no! Solomon’s a smart cookie. He’s bound to have plenty of sense.

No, no. I think he [Symington] just wants to be head of the Israel—get credit for ‘em. And they think, you know—the ones that don’t know think you ought to.

I haven’t had one goddamned bit of trouble with a fellow like Eppie [Evron, Israel’s ambassador to the United States] or [Abe] Feinberg. They’re smart. [Arthur] Krim.

FORTAS: isn’t this fellow Feinberg wonderful?

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: He is just the finest I ever saw. Except Krim. Krim’s the best man.

FORTAS: Oh, yes. Well, he’s just—

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: Krim’s the smartest. Krim’s the only one that I know of that’s like you. Feinberg is damn near like you, but Feinberg’s got a little eye on business. He goes over there and sells his Coca-cola. [Fortas laughs.] And he looks after his bank a little bit—


PRESIDENT JOHNSON: —and I don’t even think . . . This Krim is as pure as any person I ever saw.

FORTAS: He really is.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: He’s got a soft voice. He has none of the aggressiveness that you would associate with a Wall Street lawyer.

FORTAS: He really is a fine man.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: [with Fortas concurring] He’s no oversell, no overkill. He sits here . . . I see him damn near every week, and he comes down here—he was here last night (I came down here)—because I just like to listen to him. He’s so soft, and sweet, and kind, and soothing. I let him see every damn document that comes in. He reads anything. I never have heard of one little thing he ever said.

FORTAS: Yeah. Well, he’s a saint.

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