The Ambassador in the United Kingdom ( Kennedy ) to the Secretary of State

No. 2116

Sir: Referring to my despatch No. 2094 of February 14, 1939 and to previous despatches on the London discussions on Palestine, I have [Page 710] the honor to report that the British Government has consented to the publication of the correspondence between Sir Henry McMahon, then High Commissioner of Egypt, and the Grand Sherif Hussein of Mecca, in 1915, which has been cited by the Arabs as supporting their claim for the inclusion of Palestine in a National Arab State.

Mr. Chamberlain, in reply to a question in the House of Commons on February 14, stated that a White Paper containing the McMahon correspondence was being prepared and would be issued as soon as possible.34 A further question was addressed to him as to why it was now in the national interest to publish this correspondence when in the past successive British Governments had always refused to do so on the ground of national interest. In reply, Mr. Chamberlain said that he could not go into the reasons why past Governments had not thought it right to publish it, but publication had been asked for by the Arab delegates, and it was considered desirable to comply with their request. As they were going to have this information, it seemed desirable to make it available to the House of Commons also.

This correspondence was referred to both in the Arab and in the Jewish presentation of their respective cases at the beginning of the current London discussions. Jamal Effendi Husseini, at the meeting with the British representatives on February 9, stated that the “Arabs had been denied the independence which had been promised to them in the British Government’s pledge of October 24, 1915, and confirmed in several subsequent pledges in return for their share of the Allied victory.” (See enclosure35 to despatch No. 2079 of February 11, 1939).

Dr. Weizmann, in his presentation of the Jewish case on February 8, also alluded to it, asserting with regard to alleged conflicting promises made to the Jews and Arabs, that “His Majesty’s Government had repeatedly acknowledged that no such conflict existed in regard to Western Palestine. Sir Henry McMahon had stated this and Colonel T. E. Lawrence had placed on record that Mr. Churchill’s settlement of 1921–22 fulfilled all Britain’s promises to the Arabs “in letter and in spirit.’” (See enclosure35 to despatch No. 2094 of February 14, 1939.)

The Times of February 15 writes as follows with regard to the support which the McMahon correspondence gives to the Arab claim:

“The passage which is regarded by the Palestinian Arabs and their supporters as confirming their claim to Palestine was contained in a letter dated October 24, 1915. In this Sir Henry McMahon replied [Page 711] to the very comprehensive territorial demands made on behalf of ‘the Arab people’ by the Grand Sherif. The relevant passage in his reply ran:

The districts of Mersina and Alexandretta and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Hama, Horns, and Aleppo cannot be said to be purely Arab, and should be excluded from the above limits and boundaries.

“As the boundaries proposed by the Grand Sherif had mentioned the Mediterranean as the western limit of the independent Arab area the Arabs took this to mean that Palestine would be included in it. The late King of Iraq (then the Emir Feisal) made this contention in a conversation at the Foreign Office in January 1921, but withdrew it after hearing the British explanation of the passage quoted. In his memorandum of June 3, 1922,36 Mr. Churchill stated that the reservation made by Sir Henry McMahon was always ‘regarded by His Majesty’s Government as covering the Vilayet (Province) of Beirut and the independent Sanjak (district) of Jerusalem. The whole of Palestine was thus excluded from Sir H. McMahon’s pledge.’ Sir Henry McMahon himself, in a letter published in The Times on July 23, 1937, confirmed that he did not intend to include Palestine in the independent Arab area, and one of Colonel Lawrence’s recently published letters entirely supports Mr. Churchill’s statement.”

In a brief conversation yesterday afternoon, Mr. C. W. Baxter,37 one of the British Foreign Office officials who is participating in the current discussions on Palestine, was asked why the McMahon correspondence had hitherto been withheld from publication by the British Government. He said that he could not be altogether sure, but that it was his recollection, that the main deterrent had been certain references in it to the question of the Caliphate. He added that in any case, the references in it to eventual territorial limits of an independent Arab State had not been the reason for withholding publication in the past.

Commenting on the general status of the Palestine Conference at this time, Mr. Baxter said that it had not really settled down to detailed negotiations and that the meetings with the Arabs were still being devoted largely to general statements by the representatives of the Arab States.

Mr. Baxter said that the Government here was looking for a solution that would not put the Jews under the Arabs nor give them a minority status. He went on to say, however, that it was still too early to see how things would develop.

Respectfully yours,

For the Ambassador:
Herschel V. Johnson

Counselor of Embassy
  1. British Cmd. 5957, Miscellaneous No. 3 (1939): Correspondence between Sir Henry McMahon … His Majesty’s High Commissioner at Cairo and the Sherif Hussein of Mecca, July 1915–March 1916.
  2. Not printed.
  3. Not printed.
  4. British Cmd. 1700: Correspondence With the Palestine Arab Delegation and the Zionist Organisation, June 1922, pp. 17, 20.
  5. Chief of the Eastern Department of the British Foreign Office.