When the Pentagon Feared Israel's Nukes

"Single most dangerous phenomenon" in the Mideast

By Robert Beckhusen

Israel’s nuclear weapons program is one of the biggest military open secrets in the world. Now we know a little more about the angst inside the Pentagon in the late 1960s, as Israel was months away from activating its nuclear deterrent.

That’s all according to new documents obtained by the non-profit National Security Archive at George Washington University. In 2006, the researchers revealed the Nixon administration’s wrangling over what to do about Israel’s nuclear weapons program. But the latest round of documents shows new details about the debate—and the stark warnings from Pentagon officials about the dangers of Israeli nukes.

One of the more severe warnings came from then-Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard. On July 14, 1969, Packard sent a memo to Melvin Laird—the secretary of defense—laying down what to discuss with the president. The memo reflected a “general consensus” among Pentagon officials and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that Israel’s weapons program would destabilize the region.

“The choices of decision before the president is to lean on the Israelis or not to lean on them,” Packard wrote. “In my opinion, not to lean on them would, in effect, involve us in a conspiracy with Israel which would leave matters dangerous to our security in their hands.”

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Israel remains highly secretive about its nuclear weapons—which are believed to number in the several hundreds. In the late 1960s, the secretive nature of the program led to lots of uncertainty in Washington about how far Israel had made it, and whether other Middle Eastern states knew about the program.

The officials recommended seeking an agreement with Israel not to deploy Jericho I ballistic missiles—which could plausibly be used for non-nuclear weapons, but were too impractical and expensive to build unless Israel intended to build nukes.

The memo also recommended delaying the delivery of F-4 Phantom fighters to the Israel air force—the “lean” option to convince Israel to back off. But the U.S. was also in another dilemma. The Pentagon was also concerned the Israelis didn’t have the training to properly maintain the fighters if Washington delivered them.

That meant in the case of a war, the U.S. would have to rush technicians to Israel to keep its American-supplied fighters in the air—“the worst possible political time for us to do so,” the memo stated. But if the U.S. delayed delivery for too long, reporters might find out and start asking uncomfortable questions about the reasons.

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Robert Beckhusen
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