890E.01/141: Telegram

The Consul at Beirut (Gwynn) to the Secretary of State

280. 1. General Holmes of the Ninth Army34 (see paragraph 6 of my 275, August 7, 10 a.m.35) called on me yesterday and asked me to discuss quite frankly the political situation in this territory. I exposed the views many of which I have set forth in recent telegrams to the Department; that is, firstly, the absolute necessity of establishing and maintaining authority in these countries in view of the great potential strength of the fifth column, the inborn propensity of the local population to intrigue and agitation, the very serious situation and perhaps grave disturbances sure to arise from the shortage of food and the appalling prices of living; secondly, the need of Franco-British cooperation not only in the war effort but in view of the postwar period when Great Britain in particular and the United States will need as many and as powerful friends on the Continent as possible, the first of which should of necessity be France; thirdly, the folly, to my way of thinking, of compromising Franco-British understanding and confidence for a possible gain in influence in this relatively [apparent omission] region; fourthly, the fact that the French no longer trusted the British in any move they made here as they were convinced that an ulterior political motive was always present. He said that he was pretty well aware of these views from conversations with General Wilson and Minister Kirk, that he had spent a week trying to find out what the situation really was and had reached the [Page 609] conclusion that it was appalling. He indicated that he agreed with me entirely.

2. He seemed most interested in finding out my view as to the advisability of holding elections at this time. I expressed the opinion that no greater folly could be imagined than to attempt to hold elections at a time when no one dared to express his mind for fear of an English or French concentration camp or a Lebanese or Syrian prison,—when nothing could be published that had not passed several censors, when public meetings were illegal, when the public was profoundly dissatisfied with all of the Allies on account of supply shortages, when the fifth column appeared to be much better organized and more powerful than civil government in this region, when there was no popular demand for elections, the population thinking of nothing but bread, and when, finally, no elections were being held in Iraq, Palestine, or England itself. He said he quite agreed. I asked him if he could explain why then General Spears was so insistent on having them held in the immediate future. He replied that the insistence came from London, but could not explain why.

3. I asked General Holmes if he would be good enough to make clear to me who, he or General Spears, was the Britisher responsible for the security of the Army. He seemed surprised at the question. I explained that General Wilson had told me that this was his affair but that every time Spears intervened in what appeared to be a question of purely local politics, he advanced the argument of security and that this had profoundly disturbed the French and the Lebanese. He replied that he could scarcely answer, theoretically the Ninth Army was responsible for military security, Spears for political security, that in wartime it was practically impossible to draw the line between them. He appeared to me greatly interested in the question.

4. General Holmes then asked me what possible solution I saw to the situation. I replied that it seemed to me at the present time the Free French, in this territory, at least, had absolute need of British assistance for any number of reasons, financial, military, shipping, the immediate proximity of states where British influence is dominating; but the British should exercise their influence in a way comparable to that of a conscientious guardian caring for the interests of a minor, and not of one inclined to appropriate the minor’s inheritance; that it should be possible to find a Britisher capable of fulfilling such a role and in whom the French as well as the Lebanese and Syrians could have implicit confidence; that at present such was not the case and could not be as long as Spears remained here.

5. Holmes strikes me as an absolutely honest and straightforward person. He appeared to be quite in agreement with me, but rather embarrassed to know what to do. I gained the impression that he had been charged with the mission of reporting to headquarters in [Page 610] Cairo at least, and possibly London. He had, I think, just returned from Cairo when he phoned on Friday, the 7th, for an appointment on the 11th. He thanked me cordially on leaving and departed, apparently, the best of friends.

Repeated to Cairo.

  1. General Holmes succeeded General Wilson as Commanding Officer of the British Ninth Army.
  2. Not printed.