890E.00/183: Telegram

The Diplomatic Agent and Consul General at Beirut ( Wadsworth ) to the Secretary of State

311. Supplementing my 310, November 11, noon. I was awakened half past 5 this morning to receive “urgent message” from French Delegation General protocol officer. He is French by nationality but of Lebanese origin. I have long known he deplores French Levant policy.

He had received orders to visit foreign representatives and religious dignitaries to inform them that Armistice Day military review was cancelled. Trembling he added “They have arrested the President and all the Ministers. French marines and Senegalese troops broke brutally into their houses. I have seen with my own eyes a decree signed by Helleu appointing Edde to the Presidency.”

At this point a strongly nationalist Lebanese journalist arrived. His story: “French Sûreté agents called to arrest him; he escaped and ran to home of Interior Minister where he found cordon of Senegalese troops under French officer; servants said Minister had resisted and been brutally beaten.”

At Legation building next door to my house, there was only Lebanese policeman on guard. Confusing switchboard plugs I found French central would give no communication. By private [line?] I called Military Attaché; then by special line to British military headquarters had myself put through to Cairo where, Legation not replying, I dictated to USAFIME headquarters message for transmission to you.

Meanwhile I had telephoned British officer on duty at area headquarters. He was unaware of developments but I have since learned that both British Legation and Ninth Army headquarters were early informed of arrests.

Breaking my narrative: Preceding evening Brigadier Hatton commanding Ninth Army in General Holmes’ absence in Egypt after [Page 1014] dining with me had said he was so concerned at explosive possibilities of the situation he would urge General’s immediate return. His orders were substantially as follows: If public security be threatened no British troops will be employed unless French territorial command is unable to maintain order and then specifically requests assistance; if employed they will operate only under British officers and primarily to protect communications, et cetera, of vital interest to Ninth Army operational command.

Resuming narrative: Before I was dressed British Military Attaché called to say Spears would like to see me and Iraqi Chargé d’Affaires. We arrived at British Legation residence shortly before 8:00.

There I found intense concern and activity. Spears had talked by phone with Casey in Cairo, and London was being urgently informed; the French were “quite mad” and “almost anything might happen”; Helleu was making address over Radio Levant at 8:00.

Spears was particularly incensed that Helleu had sat and talked with him an hour after impromptu dinner last night in British Legation in honor of King of Yugoslavia19 and had given his word of honor that French contemplated no action which might threaten public security. Not an inkling was given of what was to transpire during night.

Again breaking narrative: Word of King’s prospective arrival, primarily to visit Yugoslavian battalion near Haifa under Ninth Army operational command, was received by British only after his airplane had left Cairo. Spears and Hatton hurried to airport, there found Helleu and galaxy of French generals and officials; King was to stay at French residency; arrangements for his security had been made by French. Incident further illustrates French non-cooperative uncommunicativeness.

Resuming narrative: At British Legation I found also Lebanese Vice President of Council Abi Chahla and Defense Minister Druze Emir Medgid Arslan; my early morning informant had erred in thinking all Ministers arrested. They in turn erred in believing a third colleague was still at liberty.

Abi Chahla made to us and later put in writing contention that under Lebanese constitution all executive power devolved upon him and arrested Ministers. Both Ministers protested bitterly against Helleu’s “illegal and brutal acts” and “violation of our independence and constitution and of principles for which Allies are fighting”; intervention to reestablish constitution and free arrestees was urged.

It was an interested mixed group therefore which gathered before Spears’ radio to hear Helleu broadcast and texts of new decrees. [Page 1015] Comments were few during reading, their sense being that whole was strongly colored by unblushing hypocrisy.

Helleu’s speech began:

“Hour has struck to end insensate maneuvers aimed only at depriving Lebanon of secular support of France, to subject it to dictatorship at whose hands it would have foundered—you would have despised France had she let things drift”.

He then recounted political developments since Ministry had taken office, notably his declared intention to implement promised independence, his advice before leaving for Algiers that consideration of constitutional amendments should await his return and later warnings that such action was illegal, all left unheeded.

Then came strong attack against Premier Solh and Ministry which had encouraged “a tyranny on the street”.

It was “a conspiracy against France”. Could one keep illusions when hearing him called by German radio “the great chief”?

Finally he denied forcefully that France had not kept her promises, renewing, “solemn assurance of resolve to accord complete independence” through friendly negotiation and urging that people give proof of calm and remain deaf to excitements.

The first decree declared void Parliament’s November 8th vote amending constitution, dissolved member of [sic] Chamber of Deputies, suspended constitution pending new elections, reestablished provisions for nominated third of Chamber and provided for French appointment of “Chief of State-Chief of Government” to exercise executive authority and, in Council of Ministers appointed by himself, to issue decrees having force of law.

Juridical bases for this decree cited in its preamble included notably articles 90 and 102 of constitution (i. e. chief of those abolished 3 days earlier by Chamber), Catroux’s 1941 declaration of independence and Algiers’ decision of November 5 that constitution might be amended only with French assent.

Preamble concluded:

“Lebanese President, Government and Parliament by their act of November 8 violated constitution, necessitating recourse to new elections”.

Second decree named Emile Edde new chief executive. Department will recall he once held presidency and was 2 months ago French favored candidate for reelection. “Chief French stooge” was Spears’ comment.

On Helleu’s speech and decrees Tahsin Qadri commented “The French are quite mad”. Emir Arslan asked “How can you expect me to control the Druzes?”

[Page 1016]

The ensuing conversation with Spears and Qadri former said he already had Casey’s authority to lodge strong written protest. He reiterated indignation at Helleu’s “perfidy”, adding “for French to undertake act of this kind without any warning to Ninth Army is unthinkable if only on security grounds; and this under aegis by [of?] countries of Atlantic Charter which have recognized Lebanese independence; it is challenge to cause for which we are fighting”.

He then asked if we wished to associate ourselves in protest. Britain he said had chief responsibility because it had “guaranteed” that independence “but we are all in the same boat”; there could be no doubt Helleu acted under instructions from Algiers where, he hoped, urgent representations would be made for restoration of constitution and release by arrestee [of arrestees?].

His final point was that no one should recognize any government named by Edde “not only stooge but also one called traitor by his colleagues where he quit the Chamber before its final note [vote?] for independence”.

Qadri agreed, said he viewed French action as “directed against Allies and us”, commented again “French are mad” and added “blood will flow before tomorrow unless British troops intervene”.

I commented that French appeared to be using same coup d’état tactics as last March when ousting Naccache regime20 but in a situation so changed, by reestablishment of constitutional regime, from that of 9 months ago that their use could not as then be condoned; I should consequently feel strongly hesitant to recommend recognition of Edde regime.

I added that, as British position here was special, as Spears had said, I felt it would be unwise for me to associate myself directly with his protest; I would however endeavor to see Helleu and report fully to my Government.

Here we were interrupted by series of reports on spreading demonstrations as word of French decisions circulated in the city. These were cited in my telegram under reference.

There followed visits from Maronite Archbishop and Mufti. Former called French action“coup de folie which may well lead country to revolution”. He added “You who stand for Lebanese independence should meet force with force; I speak with voice of all Lebanese Christians when I say this coup d’état cannot be tolerated.

Mufti greeted me with “Are we slaves?” and I garnered following bits from his ensuing protest “This cannot be done. What is this constitution I protest strongly for all Moslems. We cannot let this bloodshed worsen. Reaction will be bitter and violent here and in all Arab countries and strongly prejudicial to United Nations’ cause”.

[Page 1017]

Upon my return to Legation I found two further protests, one from speaker and six deputies who had installed themselves in Chamber before it was encircled by cordon of Senegalese troops. Informed of events of the night and prevented from lawfully meeting with their colleagues they protested to those countries which had recognized Lebanese independence and to sister Arab states.

Note: Shortly thereafter these deputies left Parliament under threat of forceful eviction but met again during afternoon in house of one of them with some 20 other deputies.

My second protest was from representatives of Plalange and Najjada, respectively leading Maronite and Moslem youth organizations. That these traditional rivals came as joint delegation illustrates unanimity of anti-French protest.

Later a representative delegation of nearly 100 doctors, lawyers, engineers and journalists visited Legation. Many among them were leaders in their professions and demonstrating for first time in their lives.

Tomorrow I am to see six foreign correspondents, four British and two American, flown here today in British plane from Cairo at Spears’ suggestion.

There has been no further marked deterioration of public security during afternoon. Most shops remained closed. No crowds circulated, but there was little disorder beyond tearing down of French propaganda posters of de Gaulle. Largest crowd, perhaps 1,000, demonstrated at President’s house where there was some shooting by Senegalese troops posted on neighboring roofs, two demonstrators who endeavored to enter house being shot in leg.

Lady Spears braved this fusillade and with President’s wife, whom she found in terrified state, returned to British Legation amid demonstrators’ applause. There are ugly tales of harsh and inconsiderate treatment by soldiery of member of President’s family. American Legation automobile passing this crowd was also applauded.

British and American Army reports confirm general friendly attitude of populace toward two countries, but there is undercurrent of feeling that our declared principles are on trial. I sensed this too when receiving protests mentioned above.

A 6:30 curfew has cleared streets and on tour just made Legation Secretary found city “quiet as tomb” with few troops in evidence, only apparent evidence of disorder being half dozen still smouldering overturned French Army automobiles and as many uneffective barricades.

There are unconfirmed reports of tension accompanied by unimportant demonstrations in some provincial towns, notably Tripoli [Page 1018] where Moslem leader and Deputy Karami was also arrested during night. I have just learned that he and Minister were taken to Rashaya where, according to Helleu, they will be treated considerately, like gentlemen and not as criminals.

British Legation is concerned lest these arrestees and President (who is reported held elsewhere possibly Chtaura) be flown to French Africa; watch-out orders have been given British control authorities.

From British Legation I learn also that, having been unable to obtain appointment during morning to see Helleu, Spears sent him vigorous written protest against French action and methods and reserved liberty of action. Presumably because of reference therein to Helleu’s misleading answers to Spears’ questions of preceding evening, this note evoked acid reply which has led to near rupture between two Missions. Denying charge, reply said “My honor has no need of lessors [lessons?]”.

At 6 p.m. I visited Helleu by appointment and will report conversation in following section.

Following are highlights of my conversation with Helleu, delayed in coding because of shortness of staff.

I said I had had day of report and rumor, protest and worry. He replied he had found painful need for drastic action.

I said it was not only situation in country that troubled me but also probable reactions in neighboring Arab states. He saw no basis for serious concern unless others fished in troubled waters.

In Algiers he had obtained really practical propositions to make to Levant states. In confidence these were: He was to say National Committee was now prepared to ratify 1936 treaties21 with minor modifications earlier suggested by states; then to negotiate for such transfer of common interests as exigencies of war might permit.

Note: This struck me as hypocrisy or ignorance, and latter seemed improbable; he must know for long Syria and now Lebanon would have nothing of treaties.

He insisted forcefully French policy was thus to accord independence to states; I had his “word of honor” for it.

He endeavored to explain, as in morning’s radio broadcast, that National Committee had given Lebanese Government every chance to act reasonably but the latter had refused Committee’s suggestion. [Page 1019] This offense to France, similarly ignoring his request for delay was slap in face. He had but returned these acts in kind.

Reverting to his reference to fishers in troubled waters I asked: “Frankly do you mean the British; and do French today generally believe British are endeavoring to oust them from Levant and take their [apparent omission].” He replied in substance: “They are, there can be no doubt, it is more than policy of man on the spot. Churchill and Eden22 have told Massigli23 not to take Spears too seriously, that policy is determined only in London; but we know from long experience it is more than that.”

Note: Never before have I had so clear authentic answer to this question. I believe it constitutes one of two basic motives prompting present French action; other being imperialistic desire to retain hold on country. I said reports on reactions in other Arab countries to last week’s period of tension had been bad enough, up to [after?] today’s events they would be more bitter; result might well be serious undermining of United Nations’ position in Arab world. Should there not, as Spears suggests, have been prior consultations, between Allies? He replied he knew Spears was angry and “thinks I misled him by saying last evening that if anyone disturbed security it will not be I.” He added “Could I tell him what had been prepared in greatest secrecy for me to do that night[?] There should be no serious trouble if no one intervenes.”

I said reports of procedure of arrests, made in dead of night with seemingly intentional discourtesy and rough handling, were also troubling. He thought I would find reports exaggerated; there had been no lack of consideration for arrestees; they would be treated as gentlemen, not criminals.

I asked him to keep me informed of state of security. He agreed to do so. His reports were that during day only one person had been killed and two wounded, regretful though this was.

Note: American military tells me that while figures at time we talked were probably 5 killed and 20-odd wounded, extent of shooting (probably only some five to ten thousand shots) was relatively light.

Finally I urged him in interest of common war effort, to keep himself promptly informed on reactions in other Arab countries. He replied he held that effort in mind.

  1. King Peter II.
  2. See pp. 953 ff., passim.
  3. Franco-Syrian Treaty of Friendship and Alliance, signed at Damascus, December 22, 1936, and Franco-Lebanese Treaty of Friendship and Alliance, signed at Beirut, November 13, 1936. These treaties were never ratified by France. For texts, see France, Ministère des Affaires Étrangères, Rapport à la Société des Nations sur la situation de la Syrie et du Liban (année 1936), pp. 201 and 229, respectively.
  4. Anthony Eden, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
  5. René Massigli, in charge of foreign affairs for the French Committee of National Liberation.