In early June, 1967, Israel stunned the world by defeating the combined armies of three Arab countries and reclaiming all of its ancient capital, Jerusalem, as well as capturing the Golan Heights, Judea, Samaria, and the Sinai Peninsula.
Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, already enmeshed with the quagmire in Vietnam, tried to push for a ceasefire to prevent the entry of the Soviet Union should the Arabs suffer an even more humiliating defeat. Johnson tried to stay neutral between the adversaries.
Watching on the sidelines was the Republican governor of California, Ronald Reagan, who was in the midst of running the first time for the presidency. Reagan saw events quite differently than had Johnson.
Reagan had been staunchly pro-Jewish and pro-Israel. He used to love telling the story of how his father had slept in his car rather than go to a hotel which had refused to admit Jews. During World War II, one of the war movies Reagan had made pushed for all races to work together to defeat the Nazis. When the Holocaust was revealed as the war ended, he never forgot the horror he felt when he watched the films of the Nazis' genocide of the Jews. Reagan proclaimed that Jews, "deserved a country of their own."
When Reagan first ran for governor of California in 1966, twice he was charged with being anti-Semitic. Reagan was being advised behind the scenes by former president Dwight Eisenhower, and Ike helped him fight those false charges.
By June 1967, Ike had been mentoring Reagan on world affairs for many months. At this point, Reagan was some eight months into his first quest for the presidency, and was but one month after his first major foreign affairs triumph: Reagan resoundingly had defeated Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-N.Y., in an internationally-televised debate on Vietnam. As the Six Day War made daily headlines worldwide, candidate Reagan now expanded his grasp of foreign affairs by taking on the problems of the Mideast.
On June 11, as the war was ending with Israel's victory, Reagan, one of many speakers, only had the chance for brief remarks at the Hollywood Bowl's Defense of Israel rally. But shortly thereafter at a major campaign speech in Omaha, candidate Reagan delivered a stinging rebuke to Johnson's policies.
Reagan told his audience that the U.S. should not remain neutral in the Mideast, proclaiming, "Our national interest is inextricably woven into the fabric of Israel." Reagan saw with distinct moral clarity that America should stand at the side of the Mideast's only democracy — Israel.
Did Reagan advocate that the solution to the many crises and wars in the Mideast should be found at the United Nations? No! Reagan said that the structure of the U.N., "as presently constituted," with tremendous voting power in its General Assembly given to new and small countries, was the wrong approach.
Reagan urged that America's 6th Fleet continue its stay in the Mediterranean Sea as but one way of demonstrating U.S. commitment to the region. In the years ahead, often Reagan would see the choices America had to face in such moral terms of right versus wrong. In Omaha, Reagan received wild applause and six standing ovations.
A year later, Reagan returned to the Hollywood Bowl for its Salute to Israel event, which commemorated Israel's twentieth birthday as well as its war victory eleven months earlier. He again praised the courage of Israel and its soldiers and its desire to live in peace.
But now the Soviets had begun to rearm the Arab states which had been resoundingly defeated by Israel a year earlier. Reagan again cut to the heart of the problem of Johnson trying to remain neutral. Reagan again saw the clear moral choice which America faced and now called for America to rearm Israel and for Israel to have secure borders and national sovereignty, "The freedom of the world is at stake and who defends that freedom? Only that one tiny nation born of a hunger for freedom and inspired by two decades having the taste of freedom . . . Those who make the desert flower have been forced to lay aside the tools of peace and they have stood manning the ramparts as armed guards.
"They deserve better from us. They must be provided with the weapons to match the Soviet arms now aimed at their nation's heart."
Reagan ended his speech proclaiming that the goals for Israel and the U.S. in any future negotiation should be, "the guarantee of their borders and the sovereignty of their nation."
The following summer would see Richard Nixon eke out a scant first-ballot victory to obtain the 1968 Republican nomination, even though many GOP delegates could not wait to vote for Reagan on the second ballot. As president, Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger would push for the policy of detente, or accomodation, with communism.
Yet Reagan, finally winning the presidency on his third attempt in 1980, would change course dramatically. Reagan would see the choice of communist oppression versus freedom in the West in distinct moral terms and would defeat communism without firing a shot.
President Reagan's relationship with Israel is beyond the subject of this essay, yet in early June 1981, when a surprise Israeli air raid — Operation Opera — would destroy Saddam Hussein's Osiraq nuclear reactor, perhaps Reagan recalled his 1967-1968 first public words about Israel's need to defend herself against existential threats.
President Trump, new to world affairs but also a true friend of Israel, can look back to Ronald Reagan's first public calls for America to side firmly with Israel, as a role model to follow.
Gene Kopelson is the author of "Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK, and Reagan’s Emergence as a World Statesman" (Figueroa Press, 2016) and has published about Reagan’s 1966 successful gubernatorial campaign with Americans of Mexican descent. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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