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464 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 6 maps, notes, bibl., index

$45.00 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2840-8

$19.95 paper
ISBN 0-8078-5496-4

Published: Spring 2004

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Caught in the Middle East
U.S. Policy toward the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1945-1961

by Peter L. Hahn

Copyright (c) 2004 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


Because of the Cold War, the United States became deeply involved in the Middle East after 1945. Committed to containing communism around the globe, the Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower administrations strove to maintain access to petroleum resources, military bases, and lines of communication in the Middle East and to deny these assets to the Soviet Union. Under these two presidents, the United States also sought to promote peace in the region, to sustain governments supportive of Western political objectives, and to maintain a liberal economic system conducive to U.S. commercial interests. In short, U.S. officials sought stability in the Middle East on behalf of their objectives in the region and around the world. Stability in the region, these leaders assumed, would help them safeguard their vital interests and prevail in the Cold War. Conversely, they feared that instability would open the region to Soviet influence, ruin indigenous goodwill toward the West, and possibly spark another world war.

The Arab-Israeli conflict directly threatened Middle East stability in the late 1940s and 1950s. Unrelenting antagonism triggered two wars and numerous skirmishes. Peace proved elusive as leaders on both sides expressed a preference for conflict over compromise. Israel refused to repatriate Arab Palestinian refugees, who became a political cause for the leaders of Arab states. Restrictions on trade and shipping and disagreements about territorial boundaries and waterways embittered all of the protagonists. The conflict destabilized the Middle East and thereby imperiled U.S. vital interests.

This book analyzes U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict from 1945 to 1961. To stabilize the Middle East, U.S. officials sought in principle to resolve the conflict. They worked to avert Arab-Israeli hostilities and to end the wars that erupted in 1948 and 1956. In the interim, the U.S. government tried to negotiate permanent peace settlements among the belligerents and resolved to settle specific controversies regarding borders, the treatment of Palestinian refugees, Israeli access to Arab waterways, the dispensation of Jordan River water, and the status of Jerusalem. In short, U.S. officials wished to end the Arab-Israeli conflict before it damaged American interests.

Despite the importance of Arab-Israeli peace to regional stability, however, U.S. officials subsumed their peacemaking to other Cold War interests. The U.S. government tempered its dedication to conflict resolution with a determination to deny the Soviets any opportunity to gain political influence in the Middle East. The United States refrained from imposing stringent peace terms on either side and eventually even tolerated the conflict in an effort to safeguard the country's relationships with Middle East states and to steer them away from Moscow. The United States prioritized anti-Soviet containment over Arab-Israeli settlement, preferring a region in conflict under U.S. hegemony to a region at peace under Soviet influence.

In the end, the United States failed to resolve the overall Arab-Israeli conflict or any of its specific disputes. Failure resulted in part from the deep reluctance of the Arab states and Israel to make concessions or compromises but also resulted from the United States' self-imposed restraints on peacemaking, which undermined its moral and political credibility in the eyes of local states. U.S. peace initiatives occasionally deepened the conflict by aggravating the passions of the principals and accentuating their disagreements. Despite U.S. efforts to resolve the conflict, peace remained elusive.

While confronting this peacemaking conundrum, the United States became inextricably involved in the Middle East. As they resisted communism worldwide, U.S. leaders assigned increasing strategic and political importance to the Middle East. They gradually assumed the duty of defending Western interests there, even at the risk of war against the Soviet Union or a local state. In short, the Cold War compelled the United States to make deep and enduring commitments to regional security. By 1961, the United States found itself caught in the Middle East, unable to escape the responsibilities that American leaders had assumed.

The United States also became caught in the middle of the Arab-Israeli conflict. U.S. officials felt compelled by their global containment policy to intercede in the Arab-Israeli conflict and to preserve sound relations with all sides of the dispute. Operating within the limits set by U.S. anti-Soviet policy, however, American officials proved unable to accomplish a peace settlement and in the process of trying strained relations with both sides. Snared in the middle of a nasty fight, the United States found it impossible to arbitrate a settlement or to avoid the combatants' resentment.

The United States remained trapped in the middle of the Arab-Israeli conflict because American policy emanated from two distinct and conflicting perspectives. One impulse took root in the State and Defense Departments. Driven by such national security concerns as containment, access to military bases, and preservation of oil sources, adherents to this approach advocated close relations with Arab states. The second impulse centered on the White House staff and Congress. Reflecting such domestic concerns as electoral politics, public opinion, and cultural values, proponents of this position favored close relations with Israel. As U.S. policy regarding the Arab-Israeli situation evolved, these competing impulses struggled for the president's mind.

Competition between the national security and domestic impulses significantly shaped U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. This competition frequently resulted in U.S. policies that were compromises between the pro-Israel and pro-Arab perspectives, a tendency that rendered the United States unable to side with one antagonist over the other or find a solution to the conflict that both sides would accept.

Between 1945 and 1961, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower laid the foundations of a U.S. Middle Eastern policy that endured for decades. To apply anticommunist containment doctrine to the Middle East, these presidents accepted responsibilities for the stability and security of the region that lasted beyond the end of the Cold War. Truman's and Eisenhower's involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict began an enduring U.S. effort to make peace in the region. By 1961, the United States had developed a policy of supporting conservative regimes and resisting radical revolutions in the Middle East, a policy that persisted—in that and other regions of the Third World—until the twenty-first century. This examination of the Truman-Eisenhower era thus clarifies the foundations of long-term U.S. policy in the Middle East.

This book analyzes U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, developing several important themes. First, distinctions exist between the policy making of Truman and that of Eisenhower. An unsteady president distracted by momentous developments around the world, Truman usually made decisions about the Middle East in reaction to events there. Consequently, his policy often appeared ambivalent and inconsistent. In contrast, Eisenhower, who became president when Cold War tensions had stabilized, devoted personal attention to the Middle East, proactively made policy, and showed more consistency. Despite such differences, these two presidents shared a determination to privilege Cold War security concerns over peacemaking ventures, and both dealt relatively evenly with Israel and the Arab states.

Second, this book examines the domestic political context in which U.S. officials made foreign policy, assessing the prodigious lobbying on behalf of Israel by U.S. citizens, members of Congress, and private interest groups and, where possible, measuring Israel's influence in mobilizing such support. Because the lobbying often conflicted with what officials in the State and Defense Departments defined as national interests, those officials resented and resisted the pressure. This study elucidates how the diplomats balanced their foreign policy aims with domestic political restraints.

The evolution of U.S.-Israeli relations forms a third theme of this study. Many scholars describe the U.S.-Israeli relationship as "special" because of instances of U.S. support for Israel and because of the deep sympathy for Israel in U.S. public opinion.[1] While acknowledging such special ties, this book stresses that disagreements on security-related issues involving the Arab states generated friction and acrimony in the official relationship. In this sense, this work offers an important corrective to the special-relationship thesis.

Although not a work of Israeli history per se, my analysis speaks indirectly to a controversy among scholars of Israeli relations with the Arab states. For decades, the prevailing body of scholarship sympathetically portrayed Israel's foreign policy as defensive, justified, reasonable, and wise.[2] This "orthodox" school came under sharp attack in the late 1980s when a younger generation of Israeli scholars, called the revisionist or "new" historians, critically evaluated Israeli diplomacy as provocative if not aggressive, unjustified in its treatment of Palestinians, and regrettable.[3] Publication of revisionist scholarship provoked intense resistance from defenders of the orthodox school as well as an impassioned debate among scholars and citizens in Israel and elsewhere.[4] Although not intended to be revisionist history, this book does not refrain from discussing aspects of Israeli history that the orthodox school has either denied or glossed over.

A fourth theme of this book is U.S. relations with the Arab states that most directly challenged Israel—Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.[5] Conflict with Israel fueled the growth of Arab nationalism, which spawned revolutionary unrest in several states, radicalized significant Arab constituencies, threatened Western economic interests, and encouraged neutralism in the Cold War. The United States sought to preserve conservative Arab regimes and to stem the growth of Arab nationalism while avoiding what U.S. officials considered the unfathomable step of completely abandoning Israel. This volume assesses the U.S. effort to reach these goals in the Arab world.

U.S.-Arab relations evolved in a context of great dynamism in intra-Arab relationships. Between 1945 and 1961, tension developed as Arab powers expressed a desire for transnational unity but engaged in political conflicts. The Arab League, founded in 1944-45 to promote pan-Arab solidarity, declined in importance by the early 1950s. In its place, Bruce Maddy-Weitzman explains, Arab national leaders built a regional balance of power marked by "loosely structured, shifting coalitions derived from temporarily shared interests." Although the Arab states shared such ideologies as pan-Arab unity, revolutionary socialism, and anticolonialism, Malcolm Kerr suggests that by the late 1950s these countries engaged in "a dreary and inconclusive cold war" among themselves that overshadowed their relationships with the United States, the Soviet Union, and Israel. This book evaluates U.S.-Arab relations in the context of this intra-Arab cold war.[6]

Finally, this work analyzes the influence of the Anglo-U.S. relationship on U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. The United States considered Britain its closest ally in the Cold War, but U.S. and British views toward the Arab-Israeli controversy often conflicted. Moreover, the 1945-61 period witnessed the sharp decline of the British Empire and the rise of the United States as a global power. This book elucidates the manner in which U.S. officials resolved inconsistencies between the demands of the Atlantic alliance and American national objectives in the Middle East at a time when the relative power of the United States and Britain reversed.[7]

This book, in short, analyzes the evolution of U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli dispute during the first two presidential administrations after World War II. The volume assesses how U.S. officials approached the regional conflict and why they implemented certain policies toward it and explains the making of U.S. policy in its global, regional, and binational dimensions. While focused mainly on diplomatic and security issues, this work also addresses the domestic political and cultural dimensions of U.S. policy, explaining why the United States failed to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and assessing this failure's impact on American interests in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The book is organized in such a way as to draw attention to several facets of U.S. policy during this era. Part I summarizes the pre-1945 origins of the Arab-Zionist controversy and U.S. involvement in it (chapter 1) and examines the Truman administration's approach to Palestine through 1949 in the context of U.S. global concerns during the early Cold War (chapters 2-4). These chapters aim for brevity since much of the literature on U.S. policy toward Palestine has concentrated on the years preceding Israeli independence in 1948.

Part II examines Truman's policy in 1949-53, when the president made several momentous decisions regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict (and a period that has received much less scholarly attention than the preceding four years). Chapter 5 assesses regional and global concerns that shaped Truman's thinking about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and chapters 6-9 study the development of the president's policy regarding such points of controversy as borders, refugees, and Jerusalem, among others. Chapter 10 evaluates the impact of the conflict on U.S. relations with Israel and the Arab states.

Part III analyzes Eisenhower's policy during his first administration. Chapter 11 examines the regional context of U.S. policy in the mid-1950s, and chapters 12-14 evaluate Eisenhower's efforts to resolve specific Arab-Israeli disputes and to negotiate a comprehensive peace settlement. U.S. policy during and after the 1956-57 Suez-Sinai War forms the subject of chapters 15 and 16.

Part IV analyzes the late Eisenhower period. Chapters 17-19 establish the regional context of U.S. policy and evaluate the president's policy toward specific Arab-Israeli disputes and crises. Chapter 20 evaluates the evolution of U.S. relations with Israel and the Arab states during the Eisenhower years.

While preparing this book, I aspired to honor the noble ideal among diplomatic historians of conducting research in multiple archives and in multiple countries. Within the United States, I examined the papers of Truman and Eisenhower as well as the records of the State Department, the Pentagon, the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, and various individual diplomats. Consulting such a wide range of sources proved invaluable, revealing how key officials balanced domestic concerns against overseas goals, diplomatic objectives against security imperatives, and bureaucratic ambitions against the national interest. I also conducted extensive research in the archives of Israel (most of which are in Hebrew) and Britain. These records revealed the foreign wellsprings of U.S. diplomacy, the overseas impact of that diplomacy, and other features of U.S. policy that remain shrouded in U.S. archives. (No official records of the Arab states were available when I conducted research for this book.) I hope that such research gives this book distinctive breadth and depth.[8]

It is difficult to write about the Arab-Israeli conflict because the subject remains controversial. Not merely an academic, historical issue, it continues to generate passionate debate among citizens and scholars who identify with one side or the other in the current conflict. In writing this book, I have attempted to remain impartial, agreeing with Mark Tessler that the conflict "is not a struggle between good and evil but rather a controversy between two peoples who deserve recognition and respect, neither of whom has a monopoly on behavior that is either praiseworthy or condemnable."[9] In short, this book seeks to empathize with all sides to the Arab-Israeli dispute but to sympathize with none.

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