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Arthur J. Goldberg, U.S. Ambassador at the United Nations: the six-day war and the dangerous dance of diplomacy.

Arthur Goldberg, already famous for the various posts he held in different presidential administrations, was visiting his mother, who was active in several Jewish organizations. One morning the telephone rang for him. His mother answered the phone. She asked, "Who is this?" The caller replied, "This is the President." Goldberg, barely awake, heard his mother inquire, "Nu, president from which shul?" (1)

It is difficult to imagine Oscar Straus or Louis Dembitz Brandeis being the subject of such a story. Both Swans and Brandeis, Central European in background, had little Yiddishkeit in their histories. While Brandeis became an ardent Zionist later in life, Arthur Joseph Goldberg was committed to building up a Jewish state in Palestine throughout his life. Goldberg was born in Chicago in 1908, the youngest of eleven children of poor Russian Jewish immigrants. His father--who sold produce from a wagon pulled by a blind horse--died when Goldberg was a youngster. (2) Significant for any discussion of Jews close to power in America, are Goldberg's origins. Unlike the earlier Jewish leaders with access to presidents and in powerful positions in government, the judiciary, and finance, Goldberg was not from the German-Jewish aristocracy. He was the child of Eastern European immigrants, part of the great wave of immigration of Jews from Poland, Russia, and Romania between 1881 and the First World War. His rise to power in the New Deal years and afterward, was a success story not of the German-Jewish aristocracy, but of a second-generation immigrant who was one of the Ostjuden. (3) Goldberg certainly had the ear of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and was committed to Jewish causes, including Israel, throughout his life. Yet, as stated above, he was not a shtadlan, a "court Jew," in the mold of an Oscar Straus.

Goldberg worked his way up despite his humble background. He excelled at Northwestern University Law School, graduating in 1930 at the top of his class. He specialized in labor law and became the pre-eminent labor lawyer in America. During the Second World War, Goldberg was appointed head of the labor division of the Office of Strategic Services. In this capacity, he helped organize sabotage of Nazi production by working with anti-Fascist trade union leaders behind Nazi lines.

After the war, Goldberg became general counsel for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In 1955, Goldberg was one of the architects of the union merger that created the AFL-CIO. He established a reputation as a sought-after labor negotiator, playing a major role in mediating strikes in the automobile, steel, and airline industries in the 1950's. (4)

An early supporter of John E Kennedy's bid for the presidency in 1960, Goldberg was later rewarded for his loyalty with an appointment as secretary of labor in Kennedy's cabinet. With the appointment of Abraham Ribicoff--another Jew of humble, Eastern European origin--to the cabinet as secretary of health, education, and welfare, Kennedy was the first American president to have two Jews as members of his cabinet. When Justice Felix Frankfurter announced his retirement from the Supreme Court in 1962, President Kennedy appointed Goldberg to fill the vacancy. The president thus continued the tradition of a 'Jewish seat" on the Supreme Court that began with Woodrow Wilson's appointment of Brandeis to the High Court in 1916. (5)

After the shock of the Kennedy assassination in November 1963, presidential successor Lyndon Johnson called on Goldberg for advice on how to lead the country. Johnson flew back immediately from Dallas to Washington. Stepping off Air Force One, Johnson spotted Goldberg among those waiting to greet the new president. Later that evening, as was later revealed on Johnson's Oval Office tapes, the president phoned Goldberg and confided in him:
 I want you to be thinking about what I ought to do to try to
 bring all these elements together and unite the country to
 maintain and preserve our system in the world, because if it
 starts falling to pieces ... why, we could deteriorate pretty
 quick. I want to give some thought, by the way, whether we
 ought to have a Joint Session of Congress after and what
 would I say to them. I want you to think about ... how I
 ought to do it without ... I mean, with dignity and reserve
 and without being down on my knees, but at the same time
 letting them know of my respect and confidence. (6)

In July 1965, President Johnson urged Goldberg to resign from the Supreme Court and replace Adlai Stevenson as American Ambassador to the United Nations. Stevenson, an eloquent spokesman for the US in the world body, had died of a heart attack. For Goldberg, the decision to leave the High Court was a difficult one. "Although he was to score some notable successes as a diplomat," writes Goldberg-biographer David L. Stebenne, "they were outweighed by more basic frustrations: his inability to bring about an end to the war in Vietnam, to continue in public life by winning an elective office, and, above all, to return to the much quieter and, for him, more satisfying world of the Court he had so reluctantly left behind." (7) There is no doubt that Goldberg accepted the UN ambassador post because he thought he could influence Johnson to abandon the war in Vietnam. That does not mean, however, that his tenure at the UN was a failure. The opposite is true. "Goldberg," writes Stebenne, "still exercised more clout and met with more diplomatic triumphs throughout his tenure at the UN than Stevenson did." (8)

Before discussing Goldberg's crucial position at the UN during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 including his role as groundbreaking architect of Resolution 242--it is worth taking a look at some of his other triumphs in the world body. His successes included negotiating a cease-fire between India and Pakistan when war broke out in 1965. When the white minority government in Rhodesia proclaimed that country's independence the following October, Goldberg played an important role in mobilizing American opposition to that regime and galvanizing support for majority rule there. In the fall of 1966, Goldberg won U.S. support for a resolution ending the South African regime's legal authority over what is now known as Namibia. After the crisis in the Middle East, Goldberg scored additional diplomatic triumphs. His efforts produced a Security Council resolution calling for restraint in Greece and Turkey's hostility over control of Cyprus. He also contributed to the peaceful resolution of North Korea's seizure of the U.S.S. Pueblo in January 1968. (9)

Yet, when Arthur Goldberg's career and life are examined, he will most likely be remembered not as a labor lawyer of genius or a Supreme Court Justice, but as the American Ambassador to the UN in June 1967. "The high point of his UN career came during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967," according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, "when throughout the six days of fighting, he repeatedly and successfully argued the American position calling for a cease-fire without previous withdrawal. He thereby earned the enmity of the Arab nations, who accused him of influencing American policy on behalf of Jewish interests." (10) The Arab perception, in this case, was wrong. While Goldberg sympathized with Israel during the crisis, he never strayed from his role as a United States ambassador who represented the interests of his country.

Goldberg, as we shall see, was certainly no agent of Israel or Zionism. When Johnson called on Israel to reign in its power, whether before the war or during the fighting, Goldberg spoke in one voice with the president. American Jews who occupied positions of influence were Americans first and Jews second. Goldberg, whether in meetings with Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban or Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gideon Rafael, defended America's position in the Middle East regarding more moderate Arab nations and the USSR, as well as Israel.

In the weeks leading up to the Six-Day War, Goldberg criticized UN Secretary General U Thant as "weak-kneed" because he gave into to Nasser's demand to expel the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) from Sinai, as well as to close the Straits of Tiran to any Israeli shipping. (11) While President Johnson had, even more than John E Kennedy, been a staunch supporter of Israel, he (Johnson) was angry that American Jews were leaders in the anti-Vietnam War movement and that Israel had not made a public statement supporting that war. Johnson surrounded himself with Jewish advisors--the Rostow brothers, speechwriter Ben Wattenberg, Abe Feinberg, and Goldberg, himself. The president was exceptionally close to Abe Fortas, the Jewish judge whom he chose to replace Goldberg on the Supreme Court. It was said by political observers that one of the reasons Kennedy chose Johnson as his vice-president in 1960 was to secure the Jewish vote. Still, Johnson told Feinberg that "Israel gets more than it's willing to give. It's a one-way street." (12)

In the days leading up to the outbreak of the war, Abba Eban met with Johnson. The May 26 meeting was a great disappointment to the Israeli foreign minister. Eban wanted a joint declaration of support for an Israel under threat of extinction. The best Johnson could propose was "Operation Red Sea Regatta," a plan to send an international fleet of ships through the Straits of Tiran to challenge Nasser. Johnson told Eban, "Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go it alone."

The American president was reluctant to openly support Israel militarily for a number of reasons: US Congress opposition to American involvement in Vietnam, the threat of starting a Third World War by confronting the USSR, and the risk of alienating those Arab regimes in the Middle East that were American allies. The day after the meeting, Goldberg told Eban: "You owe it to your government, because lives are going to be lost and your security is involved, to tell your Cabinet that the president's statement means a joint resolution of Congress, and that the president can't get such a resolution because of the Vietnam War." (13) Yes, Goldberg was a Zionist and a Jew. But in the end, he was representing the interests of the United States he represented.

As the crisis worsened, Goldberg continued to serve as Johnson's spokesman to both a jittery Israel and American Jews concerned that Israel's survival was at stake. The United States realized that the Regatta plan was going to fail. Goldberg played a key role in convincing Johnson to let Israel go it alone and move ahead with a pre-emptive strike against a hostile Egypt. (14) According to Michael B. Oren's excellent study of the Six-Day War, Goldberg--speaking for Johnson--gave Israel a green light to go ahead alone to face its enemies. "You must understand," Goldberg told Gideon Rafael, "that you stand alone and you have to know the consequences ... I understand that if you do act alone, you will know how to act." (15) Johnson wanted to see Nasser humiliated but realized that the US role in that humiliation was limited by geopolitical circumstances.

The war broke out on June 5, 1967. Johnson received the news at 4:35 in the morning. Besides calling Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Johnson phoned Goldberg. During the next six days Goldberg would be a key player in representing US interests in the conflict on the world stage. Goldberg's first goal was to arrange a simple cease-fire resolution in the UN among the warring parties. Both Israel and Egypt, for their own reasons, resisted the UN's efforts. At mid-day, Goldberg asked Rafael what Israel wanted. Rafael's reply was simply "time." The Israelis wanted more time to reap the benefits of the starting destruction of the Egyptian air force while their planes were still on the ground. Yet,
 Time was already dwindling, however, as rumors of Israeli
 victories reached New York. At 6:30 EM. India insisted that
 the Security Council reconvene to restore the status quo
 ante begum of June 4. The draft, implicitly legitimizing
 both the blockade and the eviction of UNEE was fundamentally
 unacceptable to Goldberg. Coordinating closely
 with Johnson and Walt Rostow, he joined with Britain's
 ambassador, Lord Caradon (the former Hugh Foot, the
 last British governor of Cyprus and a one-time official
 under the Palestine Mandate), in tabling an alternative
 resolution. This called upon the warring parties to cease
 firing immediately, to "insure [the] disengagement of
 forces" and "to refrain from acts of force regardless of
 their nature and to reduce tension in the area." The language
 was designed to compel Egypt to reopen Tiran and
 to remove its troops from Sinai. (16)

Goldberg was never satisfied with Soviet and Egyptian attempts to put forward a resolution that would leave Israel with what Abba Eban called "Auschwitz borders." If the war was going to end, Goldberg saw it as an opportunity to bring real peace to the Middle East. Any resolution put forth that would leave the Straits of Tiran closed to Israel or would leave Egyptian troops in the Sinai was not acceptable. This did not represent Goldberg's Zionist sympathies, though it jibed with them. Rather, Goldberg, as UN ambassador, was representing the position of the Johnson administration. Yes, Goldberg was a Jew close to power, but he acted as an American. Johnson and his advisors, by the second day of the war, were buoyed by a fide of pro-Israel sentiment in the United States and agreed that the war should not end with Israel still threatened by Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.

This did not mean, however, that the Johnson administration was not concerned with the threat of the USSR entering the fighting. Nikolai Federenko, the Soviet ambassador to the UN, was fond of Goldberg, calling the American "a slick Jew who could fool the devil himself." (17) While the rhetoric of the USSR was viciously anti-Israel and anti-Western--supporting the "Big Lie" spread by Nasser that Israel fought with the aid of American and British warplanes--the Soviets were reluctant to act on their words. By the end of the second day of the war, the USSR was willing to accept a simple cease-fire without withdrawal of Israeli forces from areas conquered. The cease-fire resolution passed in the UN. However, it was scuttled, because the Egyptians and the Syrians rejected it. For all of Goldberg's efforts, diplomacy failed, as

On both the third and fourth days of the war, Goldberg continued to play an important role as a spokesman for President Johnson. Abba Eban received an appeal from the American ambassador to the UN, saying, "in the president's name," that continuing the war with Jordan--a nation that should have stayed out of the fighting but was seduced by Nasser's rhetoric--was liable to embroil Israel in "serious international complications." (19) The Israelis were not pleased with Goldberg's plea, as they were nearing the wresting of control of Jerusalem's Old City from the Jordanians. But again, Goldberg was speaking to them as a US representative, not as a Jew and a Zionist.

On June 8, the fourth day of the war, after the tragic Israeli attack on the American spy ship Liberty, Goldberg again spoke to the Israelis as a representative of the American government. "Israel must be careful not to push its advantage too far," Goldberg warned Eban. (20) Goldberg was alarmed that the Soviets would enter the war as an ally of the Arab states it was arming. That was the chief concern of the United States as the war continued. Goldberg, representing the Johnson administration, reminded Eban that "it is necessary ... that Israel should not emerge from the current situation as a power with designs to infringe on the territorial integrity of other countries." (21) Whether the Israelis wanted to hear Goldberg's words or not, he spoke in defense of US interests, although his sympathies and those of his government were certainly with the Israelis, not the Arabs.

The last two days of the war focused on Israel's Northern Front and the confrontation with Syria. While the Soviets demanded in the Security Council that Israel be censured for breaking the cease-fire--ignoring the Syrian attacks on Israeli settlements in the Galilee--Goldberg was cautious but firm, both with the Soviets and the Israelis. While the Syrians wanted to halt the Israeli advance with a simple cease-fire, the Soviets insisted that Israel return to the Armistice lines of 1949. Goldberg accused the Soviets of playing politics at the cost of human lives. The Soviet sabotage of another cease-fire gave Israel extra time to make gains in the war against Syria. Yet, by the last day of the war, the United States compelled Israel to end the fighting. Again, Goldberg played a major role in delivering the Johnson administration's message to the Israelis:
 At the UN, Goldberg invited Rafael to the delegates' lounge to make
 a statement on Israel's intention to stop the fighting. If not, he
 intimated, Federenko would soon declare that "the Soviet government
 is prepared to use every available means to make Israel respect the
 cease-fire resolution." Speaking, he said, on the president's
 express instructions, Goldberg confided that "the United States
 government does not want the war to end as the result of a Soviet
 ultimatum.. This would be disastrous for the future not only of
 Israel, but for us all. It is your responsibility to act now." (22)
 (my emphasis)

This confrontation with Israel's UN ambassador is classic Goldberg: acting both as an advisor and as a concerned ally, he speaks for his government while expressing understanding of Israel's position. After Israel's capture of Quneitra on the Golan Heights defeating Syria on the last afternoon of the war, hostilities would soon come to an end.

For Goldberg, the war's end was a grand opportunity to bring peace to the Middle East. According to Michael Oren, Goldberg went from delegation to delegation in the UN, canvassing their attitudes toward Arab-Israeli negotiations. These, he assumed, would be face-to-face and direct with an option for UN mediation, and result in initial agreements on forces separation and freedom of passage through the Straits. 'With prophetic understatement, he wrote, "The issue of a simple withdrawal as opposed to withdrawal as part of an overall settlement will be the main and somewhat tricky problem as soon as [the] cease-fire firms up."' (23)

Before leaving the UN for good because of his disagreements with Johnson over Vietnam, Goldberg left a lasting legacy for peace in the Middle East. Resolution 242--"Concerning Principles for a Just and Lasting Peace in the Middle East"--was to become a "cornerstone for future Arab-Israeli agreements through seven subsequent presidencies," and the "United States has continued to champion 242 and the territory-for-peace principle it implies." (24)

While the wording of the resolution remains ambiguous, it promised defensible borders for Israel and security for all states in the area. Israel is either expected to withdraw from "territories" captured (the English translation) or "the territories" captured in 1967 (in the French and Arabic translation). Goldberg explained that the 1949 armistice lines were defined as provisional military boundaries by both Jordan and Israel, and therefore did not constitute the "secure and recognized boundaries" called for in Resolution 242. (25)

But there is no doubt that Goldberg's vision of Middle East peace would see fruition in Israeli peace treaties with both Egypt and Jordan. His contribution to the resolution is a mark of brilliance.

While the rest of Goldberg's life was mired in disappointment--especially his inability to extricate America from Vietnam--his tenure at the United Nations was a success. While a Zionist and an American official who sympathized with Israel, he never stepped out of his role as a representative of America's government and its interests. Yes, Goldberg did conduct a Passover Seder every year, but he was able to observe a line of demarcation between his being a Jew and being an American. Although, for the most part, the goals of the Johnson administration and those of Israel were in agreement--to neutralize the power of Egypt's Nasser in the Middle East and keep Soviet influence to a minimum---Goldberg was able to criticize the Israelis when he believed it was necessary. His sparring with the Egyptians and the Soviets during the tense days of May and June 1967 and his cautious handling of Israel--were, indeed, a dangerous diplomatic dance that Goldberg performed with cunning and grace. His legacy is still with us.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I composed this essay for a graduate course on "American Jews in Power" at The Sperms Institute in Chicago in 2007. Since writing the essay, the promise of Arthur Goldberg's diplomacy has slipped into the realm of fantasy. What was once called "The Two-State Solution" has become a delusion. The Arabs of Palestine are intent on acting at the UN unilaterally, abandoning negotiations--or they fire missiles onto Israeli cities in the name of a Hamas "One-State Solution" (that is, a Judenrein theocracy from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River controlled by Islamic law). It seems as if for the next generation the reality of Israel's relationship with the Arab and Islamic world will be the reality of war. That is a very sobering thought, very tragic. But Israel will survive and thrive despite that reality.

This essay relies heavily on Israel Ambassador to the US Michael Oren's incredible scholarship and insight. He has written the definitive work on the 1967 Six-Day War. I focused on his coverage of the diplomatic scene during the conflict and excluded the details of battles fought and won. I owe him a debt of great thanks.

Arthur Goldberg remains one of the great American Jews of the last century. His legacy will endure despite Hamas, Hezbollah, and Ivan. I wrote this essay to make clear that Goldberg was not a "Court Jew" in the medieval and early modern sense of the phrase. No doubt, he loved Israel. But his first loyalty was to his country. His experience reflects the dilemma that some American Jews still face regarding the whole issue of "dual loyalty." In reality, it is not a matter for most American Jews of "Israel First." Yet, we must realize that since the creation of nation-states and the granting to Jews of emancipation, there is an issue of "dual identity, that is not easily solved. Let us hope, as Zionists and Americans, that the US and Israel maintain strong ties and fight for the same goals as models of democracy. I believe that is what Ambassador Goldberg was trying to do in 1967.


Bass, Warren. Support Any Friend: Kennedy's Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance, NewYork: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Dalin, David G. and Kolatch, Alfred J. The Presidents of the United States and the Jews, New York: Jonathan David Publishing, 2000.

Diker, Dan. "A Return to Defensible Borders," pp.52-82 in Azure: Ideas for the Jewish Nation, No. 21, Summer 5765/2005.

Editors, Encyclopaedia Judaica, Volume 7, Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972.

Ginsburg, Ruth Bader. "Jews and the Rule of Law," pp. 2-4, American Jewish Historical Society Heritage, May 2005.

Oren, Michael B. Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Sachar, Howard M. A H/story of the Jews in America, New York: Vintage Books, 1992.


(1.) American Jewish Historical Society Heritage May 2005, "Jews and the Rule of Law," p.4.

(2.) Ibid

(3.) Based on class discussion.

(4.) The Presidents of the United States & the Jews, pp. 200-1.

(5.) Ibid.

(6.) Ibid, p. 110.

(7.) Arthur J. C-old, berg: New Deal Liberal, p. 352.

(8.) Ibid., pp. 352-3.

(9.) Ibid, p.355.

(10.) Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 7, pp.699-700.

(11.) Six Days of War, p.104.

(12.) Ibid. p. 112.

(13.) Ibid. p. 116.

(14.) Ibid. p. 150.

(15.) Ibid. p. 153.

(16.) Ibid p. 200

(17.) Ibid. p. 235.

(18.) Ibid. p. 237.

(19.) Ibid p. 244

(20.) Ibid. p. 271.

(21.) Ibid.

(22.) Ibid., pp. 298-9.

(23.) Ibid., pp. 303-4.

(24.) Ibid, p.327.

(25.) "A Return to Defensible Borders," Azure, No. 21, Summer 5765, p.59.

ELI KAVON is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida. He received his ordination from The Rabbinical Academy in Woodmere, New York Rabbi Kavon studied Comparative Religion and History at Columbia University and earned a Master's degree in Jewish Studies in 2009 from the Spertus Institute in Chicago. He is on the faculty of The Lifelong Learning Institute in Davie, Florida and he is a regular contributor of essays to Midstream. He last appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of Midstream, with an article about the Ninth of Av.
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Title Annotation:Israel, Zionism, Antisemitsm
Author:Kavon, Eli
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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