890E.01/144: Telegram

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

289. My 283, August 12.

At his request I called on General de Gaulle yesterday. He stated that he wished to outline the position of Fighting France in the Levant and thought that his views might be of interest to the American Government. He thereupon spoke calmly and uninterruptedly for about an hour giving what amounted to a carefully prepared lecture on the subject. I cannot attempt to do more than summarize the principal points he made and do not think more is necessary as his ideas are those frequently expressed by French officials here which have already been set forth at considerable length in recent telegrams.
He said that Fighting France as well as France was determined ultimately to fulfill the terms and purpose of the mandate and to grant when possible independence to Syria and Lebanon but that this can be done only when the peoples are prepared for it, that time has not come and may not for many years. There would be great danger in granting independence prematurely, grave internal troubles due to religious, ethnographic and regional differences would result which would be exploited by our enemies and our common war effort be seriously compromised. It is indispensable that some great power remain at present in these territories to guarantee internal and external peace.
Fighting France cannot cede any portion of French patrimony of which it has custody until France itself has been able to resume its legitimate place in the world and relieved Fighting France of its responsibility at which time a regularly constituted French Government may see fit to make certain concessions. An important item in that patrimony is the French position and influence in the Levant.
Therefore the mandate remains in force (see my 279, August 12,41) in spite of what others may have said or may say until France is able to relinquish it in due form.
At that time France will make treaties which in all probability will be very similar to those negotiated in 1936, which treaties de Gaulle considers on the whole quite satisfactory, and in accordance with which France will enjoy a privileged position in Lebanon and Syria.
For reasons that are not clear the English apparently held very different views when they together with the Free French occupied these territories last year. They seemed to think the occasion good to eliminate the French from Levant. As soon as he had understood their purpose he had felt obliged to discuss the situation very frankly [Page 614] with them (see Engert’s 32 [323], August 5, 1941, 11 p.m.42) and as a result agreements had been reached in July and October 1941 which formed the legal basis of Franco-British relations in the Levant. The object of these agreements was to grant the British all possible aid and facilities in this territory to pursue their war effort but at the same time to safeguard France’s present and future position here; the French had attempted loyally to fulfill their obligations but the British had continued to go their way with the design now patent of expelling the French from this part of the world; they think the occasion favorable in that their prestige is higher in that they know the Arabs better and are more capable of handling them in that they are better liked by the Arabs than are the French; all of which assumptions are false. Things had reached such a pass that he had decided that the situation must be reestablished immediately and he meant to stay in Levant until that had been accomplished. He hoped that some 2 weeks would be sufficient time but would remain much longer if necessary.
[sic] He therefore had just sent a telegram to Churchill a copy of which he handed me to read. At my request he immediately had prepared a paraphrase a copy of which will go forward by next pouch and which in translation reads as follows:
  • “1. Since my arrival in the States of the Levant under French mandate I have the regret to observe that the agreements signed by the French nation the subject of Syria and Lebanon are not always respected. The engagement undertaken by Great Britain to pursue no political aim in the States of the Levant and not to attempt to encroach thereon the positions of France, as well as the assurance given by the British Government that the mandate would be maintained until a decision should have been taken by the League of Nations, which alone is entitled to put an end to it, form the bases of the Lyttelton–de Gaulle agreements of July 194143 and of the exchange of letters between the French National Committee and the British Government of October 1941.
  • 2. I am obliged to state that a great number of the manifestations of British policy in Syria and in Lebanon do not appear to me to agree with these principles.
  • 3. The constant intervention of the representatives of the British Government in the international politics and administration of the States of the Levant and even in the relations between the Governments of these States and the representatives of mandatory France cannot in my opinion be compatible either with the political disinterestedness of Great Britain in Syria and Lebanon or with the respect of the position of France or with the regime of mandates.
  • 4. I think furthermore that the interventions and the reactions they produce lead the populations in all the Arab East to think that [Page 615] grave discords compromise here the good understanding between Great Britain and Fighting France, who are nevertheless Allies. This is a situation that can ultimately profit only our enemies.
  • 5. I must tell you lastly that these encroachments on the rights of France and on the attributions of the Governments of the States of the Levant are profoundly resented by all the French people and by the Syrian and Lebanese populations, and this more especially as we have facilitated here by all our means and often under conditions morally painful for us the military work of the British Command of land, sea and air, and have placed at the disposal of the British Command in the Orient all the forces we can dispose of to assist in the battle of Libya and Egypt.
  • 6. I thus find myself led to request you to reestablish in this country the application of the agreements we have concluded in order to assure here our military cooperation and to manifest in all the Orient the union of Great Britain and France. Aside from other reasons, that appears to be necessary, the better to unite our efforts in this hard period of the war we are making in common.”
At my request for further elucidation de Gaulle stated that the present British policy in regard to this territory must be immediately and fundamentally changed and that its representative here General Spears must leave. He added that he expected and feared determined opposition from Churchill. I again asked him what he expected to do if Churchill refused to cede. He repeated that it would be the end of all collaboration. I said that it seemed to me impossible that things should go so far. He replied that he quite agreed but that he was determined to see this thing through, that it might lead to conflict and that the Fighting French might be beaten but they preferred that rather than to cede without being defeated in an open fight.
He ended his prepared talk by saying that the situation being as he had described it he thought the American Government should be informed though it was not directly a party to the quarrel. I answered that we are very much interested in anything that might affect our common war effort, that I thought recent statements and actions had shown clearly that the American Government had great sympathy with Fighting France and I did not doubt that the threat of breach in its relations with our British Allies would receive its most serious attention. He assented but again repeated that he was determined at all costs to force the British to respect French rights and to live up to the agreements they had signed with him.
He has gone to Damascus and expects to spend the entire week in a tour of Syria and then to remain in Beirut to await developments.
I asked if General Holmes had called to see him (see paragraph 6 of my 283). De Gaulle replied that he had not heard from him and conjectured that Spears had instructed Holmes not to see de Gaulle.
The situation appears to me most grave. Something doubtless should be done but I doubt if anything can be accomplished here. I [Page 616] should like to be able to present more comprehensively the British side in this difference but am unable to do so as neither Spears himself nor his collaborators appear willing to talk as freely as do the French; their fundamental thesis is I think fairly set forth in paragraph 5 of my 283.
Should any serious incident occur between the British and French we might find ourselves seriously embarrassed by the presence of our aviators at Rayak where they are expected in the immediate future (see my 28444).
General de Gaulle said I would certainly see him again before he left this region and I will attempt to keep informed day by day at the Delegation General. I have not discussed the above with the British here.
Repeated to Cairo.
  1. Not printed.
  2. Foreign Relations, 1941, vol. iii, p. 780.
  3. Exchange of letters dated August 7, 1941; for texts, see British Cmd. 6600, Syria No. 1 (1945): Statements of Policy by His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom in Respect of Syria and the Lebanon, 8th June–9th September, 1941, pp. 3–4. For correspondence regarding the background of the Lyttelton–de Gaulle exchange, see Foreign Relations, 1941, vol. iii, pp. 780783.
  4. Not printed.