On March 24, 1968, President Johnson telephoned his ambassador to the United Nations, Arthur Goldberg. The previous few weeks had been among the most difficult of Johnson's presidency. In late January, the Tet offensive undermined public support for the Vietnam War. In early March, Johnson barely edged longshot Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary. Four days later, the senator of New York, Robert Kennedy, announced that he would seek the Democratic nomination.
Johnson told Goldberg that he had grown more sympathetic to Israel's plight as his own political fortunes had declined. "They haven't got many friends in the world," the president said, and "they're in about the same shape I am. And the closer I got — I face adversity, the closer I get to them ... Because I got a bunch of Arabs after me — about a hundred million of 'em, and there's just two million of us. So I can understand them a little bit."
The exchange with Goldberg is included in around 13 hours of recorded conversations from January through April 1968, which the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library released publicly on May 1. In the call, Johnson expressed his understanding of Israel's plight in unusually stark terms, but his remarks typified the support for Israel that characterized his presidency.
For instance, on June 25, 1967, shortly after the Six Day War, Johnson confronted the Soviet premier, Aleksei Kosygin, in a summit meeting at Glassboro, N.J. The Soviets had supported Egypt and Syria during the conflict, and had threatened to intervene militarily on the last day of fighting. After the two sides agreed to a cease-fire, Moscow urged the U.N. to demand that Israel withdraw from all occupied territories before Arab states even considered a peace settlement recognizing Israel's right to exist.
Kosygin, recalling a conversation Johnson had with President Eisenhower later that evening, said, "he couldn't understand why we'd want to support the Jews — three million people when there are a hundred million Arabs." Johnson's reply to his Soviet counterpart was blunt: "I told him that numbers do not determine what was right. We tried to do what was right regardless of the numbers."
Beyond providing crucial diplomatic support for Israel during the Six Day War and in U.N. debates that followed it, Johnson supplied Israel with three significant arms packages in 1965, 1966, and 1968. His policies laid the foundation for the U.S.-Israeli strategic partnership that continues to exist.
Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, the American public has come to appreciate Israel's role as a partner in the battle against Islamist terrorism. A 2007 Gallup Poll identified Israel as the only country in the world that a majority of Americans both viewed favorably and considered strategically important.
But Johnson operated in an environment far less sympathetic to Israel. U.S.-Israel relations were distant during the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s. John F. Kennedy tilted America closer to the government of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, and agreed to sell Israel defensive weapons in 1962. But his administration also cautioned the Israelis to look to Western Europe, not America, as their chief military and diplomatic supporter.
Johnson's approach toward Middle Eastern affairs did not come as a result of a differing strategic vision. Like Eisenhower and Kennedy, Johnson's chief ideological goal was containing Soviet diplomatic influence, especially in Jordan and the Persian Gulf.
Instead, Johnson's policies stemmed more from personal concerns — his friendship with leading Zionists (such as Abe Fortas, Abe Feinberg, and Arthur Krim), his belief that America had a moral obligation to bolster Israeli security, and his conception of Israel as a frontier land much like his home state of Texas. His personal concerns led him to intervene when he felt that the State or Defense Departments had insufficiently appreciated Israel's diplomatic or military needs.
In 2008, policy toward Israel has attracted more attention than in any presidential campaign in American history. It's not hard to see why — Jewish voters could decide the outcome not only in Florida, but also in swing states such as Nevada and even Colorado.
Earlier this spring, the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, traveled to Israel, visiting the besieged city of Sderot, whose civilians regularly face Hamas rockets fired from Gaza. The likely Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, has aggressively wooed both Jewish voters and the Jewish press, reaffirming his support for Israeli security.
Beyond Israel, Senators McCain and Obama offer dramatically differing visions of appropriate policy toward the Middle East. In choosing between the two candidates, however, the lesson of Lyndon Johnson should serve as a reminder to voters. Given the unique nature of the U.S.-Israeli partnership, a chief executive's personal attitude toward Israel is at least as important as his broad strategic plans.
Mr. Johnson, a professor of history at Brooklyn College, is the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in the Humanities for the 2007-2008 academic year.