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60 Years Ago, JFK Tried to Stop the Israeli Bomb
David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding prime minister, would resign the day after Kennedy's final letter to him. Kennedy wrote the US "commitment to and support of Israel could be seriously jeopardized".
[I’ve unlocked the piece “Dueling -- or Logrolling -- Apartheids”.
[This will likely be one in a series of articles on the Kennedys and Israel. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who is a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for president, recently said: “I support Israel. My family has a long relationship with Israel.” He then escalated his pro-Israeli remarks in an interview with Glenn Greenwald which I reacted to on Twitter in real time.]
Below are letters between John F. Kennedy and two successive prime ministers of Israel, David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol, in the spring and summer of 1963. Kennedy was insisting on inspections of Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona in the early summer. Kennedy would be assassinated on November 22. Lyndon B. Johnson would then take a much more lax posture toward Israel’s nuclear weapons program. Nixon would end inspections completely and the US government would adopt a policy of refusing to acknowledge the reality of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s last article, published on New Year’s Eve 2020, was an admonition to the then-incoming Biden administration to change this. The sub-headline read: “The Coverup Has to Stop.”
I raised this issue at two State Department briefings early this year and was told to take up the matter — with the Israeli government. Even “The Squad” now refuses to acknowledge Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
May 18, 1963
Dear Mr. Prime Minister:
I welcome your letter of May 12 and am giving it careful study.
Meanwhile, I have received from Ambassador Barbour a report of his conversation with you on May 14 regarding the arrangements for visiting the Dimona reactor. I should like to add some personal comments on that subject.
I am sure you will agree that there is no more urgent business for the whole world than the control of nuclear weapons. We both recognized this when we talked together two years ago, and I emphasized it again when I met with Mrs. Meir just after Christmas. The dangers in the proliferation of national nuclear weapons systems are so obvious that I am sure I need not repeat them here.
It is because of our preoccupation with this problem that my Government has sought to arrange with you for periodic visits to Dimona. When we spoke together in May 1961 you said that we might make whatever use we wished of the information resulting from the first visit of American scientists to Dimona and that you would agree to further visits by neutrals as well. I had assumed from Mrs. Meir’s comments that there would be no problem between us on this.
We are concerned with the disturbing effects on world stability which would accompany the development of a nuclear weapons capability by Israel. I cannot imagine that the Arabs would refrain from turning to the Soviet Union for assistance if Israel were to develop a nuclear weapons capability—with all the consequences this would hold. But the problem is much larger than its impact on the Middle East. Development of a nuclear weapons capability by Israel would almost certainly lead other larger countries, that have so far refrained from such development, to feel that they must follow suit.
As I made clear in my press conference on May 8, we have a deep commitment to the security of Israel. In addition, this country supports Israel in a wide variety of other ways which are well known to both of us. …
I can well appreciate your concern for developments in the UAR [United Arab Republic]. But I see no present or imminent nuclear threat to Israel from there. I am assured that our intelligence on this question is good and that the Egyptians do not presently have any installation comparable to Dimona, nor any facilities potentially capable of nuclear weapons production. But, of course, if you have information that would support a contrary conclusion, I should like to receive it from you through Ambassador Barbour. We have the capacity to check it.
I trust this message will convey the sense of urgency and the perspective in which I view your Government’s early assent to the proposal first put to you by Ambassador Barbour on April 2.
John F. Kennedy
Jerusalem, May 27, 1963
Dear Mr. President,
I have given careful consideration to your letter of May 19 and to Ambassador Barbour’s explanation of your policy in the conversations which I have had with him. Let me assure you, at the outset, Mr. President, that our policy on nuclear research and development has not changed since I had the opportunity of discussing it with you in May 1961. I fully understand the dangers involved in the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and I sympathize with your efforts to avoid such a development. I fear that in the absence of an agreement between the Great Powers on general disarmament, there is little doubt that these weapons will, sooner or later, find their way into the arsenals of China and then of various European states and India. In this letter, however, I propose to deal not with the general international aspect on which you express your views so clearly in your letter—but with Israel’s own position and attitude on this question.
In our conversation in 1961, I explained to you that we were establishing a nuclear training and research reactor in Dimona with French assistance. This assistance has been given on condition that the reactor will be devoted exclusively to peaceful purposes. I regard this condition as absolutely binding, both on general grounds of good faith and because France has extended military assistance of unique value to Israel in her struggle for self-defence, from the Arab invasion of 1948 down to the present day.
In the same sense I informed you in 1961 that we are developing this reactor because we believe, on the strength of expert scientific advice, that within a decade or so the use of nuclear power will be economically viable and of great significance for our country’s development. I went on to add that we should have to follow developments in the Middle East. This is still our position today.
Between us and France there exists a bilateral arrangement concerning the Dimona reactor similar to that which we have with the United States in the reactor at Nachal Sureiq. While we do not envisage a system of formal United States control at the Dimona reactor which the United States has not helped to establish or construct, as in the case of the reactor at Nachal Sureiq, we do agree to further annual visits to Dimona by your representatives, such as have already taken place.
The “start-up” time of the Dimona reactor will not come until the end of this year or early in 1964. At that time, the French companies will hand the reactor over to us. I believe that this will be the most suitable time for your representatives to visit the reactor. At that stage they will be able to see it in an initial stage of operation, whereas now nothing is going on there except building construction.
I hope, Mr. President, that this proposal meets the concern expressed in your letter of May 19.
In 1961, you suggested the possibility that a visit be carried out by a scientist from a “neutral” country. This idea is acceptable to us, but a visit by an American expert would be equally acceptable from our point of view.
I appreciate what you say in your letters, Mr. President, about the commitment of the United States to Israel’s security. While I understand your concern with the prospect of a proliferation of nuclear weapons, we in Israel cannot be blind to the more actual danger now confronting us. I refer to the danger arising from destructive “conventional” weapons in the hands of neighboring governments which openly proclaim their intention to attempt the annihilation of Israel. This is our people’s major anxiety. It is a well-founded anxiety, and I have nothing at this stage to add to my letter of May 12 which is now, as I understand, receiving your active consideration.
Sandler notes: “Kennedy was far from satisfied with Ben-Gurion’s reply, particularly his attempt to stall any inspection in Dimona.”
June 15, 1963
Dear Mr. Prime Minister:
I thank you for your letter of May 27 concerning American visits to Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona. I know your words reflect your most intense personal consideration of a problem that is not easy for you or for your Government, as it is not for mine.
I welcome your strong reaffirmation that the Dimona will be devoted exclusively to peaceful purposes. I also welcome your reaffirmation of Israel’s willingness to permit periodic visits to Dimona.
Because of the crucial importance of this problem, however, I am sure you will agree that such visits should be of a nature and on a schedule which will more nearly be in accord with international standards, thereby resolving all doubts as to the peaceful intent of the Dimona project.
Therefore, I asked our scientists to review the alternative schedules of visits we and you have proposed. If Israel’s purposes are to be clear to the world beyond reasonable doubt, I believe that the schedule which would best serve our common purposes would be a visit early this summer, another visit in June 1964, and thereafter at intervals of six months. I am sure that such a schedule should not cause you any more difficulty than that which you have proposed. It would be essential, and I take it that your letter is in accord with this, that our scientists have access to all areas of the Dimona site and to any related part of the complex, such as fuel fabrication facilities or plutonium separation plant, and that sufficient time be allotted for a thorough examination.
Knowing that you fully appreciate the truly vital significance of this matter to the future well-being of Israel, to the United States, and internationally, I am sure our carefully considered request will again have your most sympathetic attention.
John F. Kennedy
The next day, June 16, 1963, Ben-Gurion, who had been Israel’s leader since its inception in 1948, abruptly resigned from office citing “personal needs”. Sandler notes: "Many believed his resignation was due in great measure to his dispute with Kennedy over Dimona.”
The National Security Archives, which describes Kennedy's letter as “akin to an ultimatum,” reports that Ben-Gurion resigned before Kennedy’s letter was delivered. This could theoretically mean that Ben-Gurion actually did resign for other reasons — or it could mean Ben-Gurion was tipped off about the Kennedy letter and resigned to avoid receiving it.
Sandler adds: “In a letter to Ben-Gurion’s successor, Levi Eshkol, Kennedy left no doubt as to what the U.S. response would be if ‘we were unable to obtain reliable information’ about the intent of the Dimona project, a threat that, according to one conspiracy theory, led to Israel’s role in Kennedy’s assassination.” I should say I’ve heard that Kennedy was assassinated because he said he wanted to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces” a thousand times over the years but I’d never heard about the notion that Israel was a factor or a motive until recently. I hope to write assessing this theory. See Wade Frazier’s recent thoughts on the issue.
July 4, 1963
Dear Mr. Prime Minister:
It gives me great personal pleasure to extend congratulations as you assume your responsibilities as Prime Minister of Israel. You have our friendship and best wishes in your new tasks. It is on one of these that I am writing you at this time.
You are aware, I am sure, of the exchanges which I had with Prime Minister Ben-Gurion concerning American visits to Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona.
Most recently, the Prime Minister wrote to me on May 27. His words reflected a most intense personal consideration of a problem that I know is not easy for your Government, as it is not for mine. We welcomed the former Prime Minister’s strong reaffirmation that Dimona will be devoted exclusively to peaceful purposes and the reaffirmation also of Israel’s willingness to permit periodic visits to Dimona.
I regret having to add to your burdens so soon after your assumption of office, but I feel the crucial importance of this problem necessitates my taking up with you at this early date certain further considerations, arising out of Mr. Ben-Gurion’s May 27 letter, as to the nature and scheduling of such visits.
I am sure you will agree that these visits should be as nearly as possible in accord with international standards, thereby resolving all doubts as to the peaceful intent of the Dimona project. As I wrote Mr. Ben-Gurion this Government’s commitment to and support of Israel could be seriously jeopardized if it should be thought that we were unable to obtain reliable information on a subject as vital to peace as the question of Israel’s effort in the nuclear field.
Therefore, I asked our scientists to review the alternative schedules of visits we and you had proposed. If Israel’s purposes are to be clear beyond reasonable doubt, I believe that reasonable doubt, I believe that the schedule which would best serve our common purposes would be a visit early this summer, another visit in June 1964, and thereafter at intervals of six months. I am sure that such a schedule should not cause you any more difficulty than that which Mr. Ben-Gurion proposed in his May 27 letter. It would be essential, and I understand that Mr. Ben-Gurion’s letter was in accord with this, that our scientists have access to all areas of the Dimona site and to any related part of the complex, such as fuel fabrication facilities or plutonium separation plant, and that sufficient time be allotted for a thorough examination.
Knowing that you fully appreciate the truly vital significance of this matter to the future well-being of Israel, to the United States, and internationally, I am sure our carefully considered request will have your most sympathetic attention.
John F. Kennedy
The new Israeli prime minister Eshkol would stall for more time. The National Security Archives reports that the first inspection at Dimona didn’t happen until January 1964, some six months after Kennedy said he wanted — and may have been further delayed “because of Kennedy’s assassination”.
See more information in pieces from MondoWeiss (which summarizes reporting from books by Seymour Hersh and Avner Cohen on the matter), Jewish Virtual Library, Haaretz and related documents at the State Department.
See the in-depth paper, “The Israeli Nuclear Weapons Program” by John Steinbach.