Memorandum by the Director of the Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs (Henderson)2

The Present Situation in the Near East—A Danger to World Peace

At the present time the Near East, which for the purpose of this memorandum may be considered to include Turkey, the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean Islands, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Trans-Jordan, Egypt (including the Suez Canal), Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, the Persian Gulf area, and Afghanistan, is a breeding ground for international misunderstandings. The national objectives of two Great Powers, namely the Soviet Union and Great Britain, collide head-on in this region. The most important interest of the United States in the Near East is not based, as a fairly large section of the American public appears to believe, upon American participation in petroleum extraction or in profits to be derived from trade, but upon preventing developments from taking place in that area which might make a mockery of the principles on which the United Nations Organization rests, which might lead to the impairment, if not the wrecking, of that organization, and which might eventually give birth to a third World War.

Behind the curtain of protestations of a desire for international cooperation, of devotion to the principles of democracy, and of loyalty to the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries, etc., four of the world’s Great Powers are carrying on four different, opposing policies in the Near East: [Page 2]

Great Britain is endeavoring to use the Near Eastern area as a great dam which serves both to hold back the flow of Russia towards the south and to maintain an avenue of communications with India and other British possessions in the Indian and Southeast Pacific Oceans. The British strive, by maintaining a certain control over the natural resources, industry, means of communication, and commerce of this great causeway, to make it pay its own way so far as possible.
France, largely because of national pride and of a desire at least to appear to continue to play the role of a great empire, is determined to maintain a paramount position for itself in Syria and Lebanon.3 In view of the influence which French culture had exercised for a great many years in this area, France received a mandate from the League of Nations covering Syria and Lebanon following the last war; France continues to maintain troops in the area against the will of the local governments. It seems clear that France will insist that it be permitted to maintain a military base in Lebanon for an indefinite period of time and that it hopes, with the aid of Great Britain, to obtain the approval of the United Nations Organization for this project.
The Soviet Union seems to be determined to break down the structure which Great Britain has maintained so that Russian power and influence can sweep unimpeded across Turkey and through the Dardanelles into the Mediterranean, and across Iran and through the Persian Gulf into the Indian Ocean. During the last five years, two great barriers to Russian expansion have disappeared, namely, Germany in the West and Japan in the East. Judging from recent events in the Near East, Russia now appears to be concentrating upon the removal of a third barrier in the south.
The United States has been pursuing a policy of the open door in the Near East. It has taken the position that the independent countries of the Near East which are members of the United Nations should be treated with the same consideration as other members of this organization; that they should not be considered as lying within the sphere of influence of any Great Power; that the idea of any single Great Power maintaining a paramount position in any of these countries by special treaty provisions is outmoded and dangerous to peace. The United States, furthermore, has taken the attitude that the Great Powers, for the future world peace as well as for their own benefit should, in dealing with the countries of the Near East, give full consideration to the welfare of the peoples of these countries and should follow policies which would tend to raise living standards, educational and cultural levels and to qualify these peoples to play a role in world affairs appropriate to their number and talents.

Great Britain is encountering difficulty in maintaining its Near Eastern ramparts in its present weakened condition and in the face of a series of unilateral acts which Russia has committed or appears to be about to commit with the aim of breaking through to the Mediterranean and to the Indian Ocean. There is undoubtedly a tendency among certain circles in Great Britain to enter into a series of compromises [Page 3] with the Russians in the hope that the Soviet Union may be satisfied by obtaining the control of certain territory now belonging to third powers and of achieving strategic defensive positions at the expense of other members of the United Nations. If the British Government should actually embark upon such a policy, it would appear that the United Nations Organization would either disappear as a force in world affairs or would tend to become merely an instrument for the use of the Great Powers in carving up the world into respective spheres of influence. It is, furthermore, clear that the struggle between Great Britain and Russia would not be eliminated by such concessions. The Russians, once in possession of the new positions conceded to them by the British, would undoubtedly begin preparations for further attacks upon such barriers to their emergence into the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean as might remain.

French policy in the Near East is of so cynical a nature that it is impossible to believe that French officials responsible for its formulation have any confidence whatsoever in a collective approach towards the maintenance of world peace or any interest in the maintenance of the principles upon which the United Nations Organization is based. France, by exploiting its nuisance value, appears to have been successful in prevailing upon the British to agree to support France’s claim to a special position in the Levant and possibly to the maintenance by France of a military base in Lebanon. There does not seem to be any likelihood that France in the near future is destined to play any constructive role in the Near East.

The Soviet Union appears to be achieving certain successes in its efforts to break through the barriers which are restraining it in the south and southwest. Although Soviet activities in northern Persia4 appear to have been in violation of commitments made by the Soviet Union both to Great Britain and the United States as well as contrary to the general principles of the United Nations Organization, no serious effort has as yet been made by the other Great Powers jointly responsible for the maintenance of world peace to cause the Soviet Union to cease such activities. It would seem that the Soviet Union is also preparing trouble of some kind for Turkey with the purpose of gaining control of all territory touching upon the Black Sea as well as of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles.5 Although the situation in this respect is quite clear, no single Great Power has thus far made any real effort to prevent the Russians from carrying out what seems to be their purpose. If the Soviet Union does succeed by force or threat of force in obtaining control of Turkey or of Turkish territory, the United Nations Organization is likely to be placed in a position equivalent to that in which the League of Nations found itself [Page 4] when its own members engaged in acts of aggression. It is important to spare UNO this supreme test at the very outset of its existence, for it might not survive such a test.

The United States has of late made little progress in the direction of carrying out its own policies in the Near East. It is obvious that the United States does not intend to enforce its policies in that area with the use of force or the threat of force. Furthermore, the United States has thus far made no effort worthy of note to back up its policies with the employment of American economic power. The countries of the Near East which have suffered severe economic blows as a result of the war have repeatedly begged for financial, economic and technical assistance from the United Stated. Little has been done, however, to aid them. In reply to requests for credits which would enable them to satisfy their most urgent consumption and industrial needs and to carry out certain programs for industrial and agricultural reconstruction, the United States has in general taken the attitude that any help from it must be limited to projects which can produce dollars or goods with which to repay. The impression is being created in the Near East that the United States is prepared to advance huge credits to Great Powers such as Great Britain and the Soviet Union in order to enable them to become even stronger and greater, but that it is unwilling to take any investment risks in order to enable small and backward peoples to improve their lot. The special interest of the United States in Palestine6 has also created the impression that the United States is not only willing to aid people of Jewish blood in a manner in which it would not be ready to assist other peoples of the Near East, but that it is prepared to back a political program in Palestine which is opposed by two-thirds of the people of that country, and by the neighboring countries. This impression serves to handicap the efforts of the representatives of the United States in the Near East in carrying out the policies of the American Government.

Since the conflict of policies and interests in the Near East, if permitted to continue unchecked, may eventually lead to a third World War, it is believed that the time has come for this Government carefully to consider whether it should endeavor to find some means of alleviating the situation or whether it should allow the matter to drift. If steps are to be taken, it would seem that they should be taken at once before the Soviet Union goes so far in Iran and Turkey that it cannot retreat, and before its activities have assumed a character which would hopelessly compromise the United Nations Organization. What steps, if any, might be taken? It is believed that the various problems of the Near East are so closely connected and that the policies [Page 5] of the various Great Powers are so interwoven into these problems that it will be impossible to solve them piece-meal or to alleviate the general situation by agreements reached between any two or three of the interested Powers. It is suggested, therefore, that perhaps the most promising way to obtain a settlement in the Near East which might result in at least a considerable postponement of a breakdown an the world peace structure and which would contribute to the strengthening of the United Nations Organization would be for Great Britain, the Soviet Union, France and the United States to reach a comprehensive agreement on Near Eastern matters which would be in harmony with the spirit of the United Nations Organization. It is believed that the holding of a conference on Near Eastern matters by these four Powers would be the most promising method for them to reach an agreement of this kind. Such a conference might be announced now, but would be held in about six months. It could not, of course, without violating the spirit of the United Nations Organization, undertake to decide what the future of the Near East is to be. Its purpose would be to find whether or not the four Powers who would attend it could determine upon a common policy with regard to the Near East. It would be clearly understood that any policy which might be worked out at the conference must be one which not only would eliminate friction between the Great Powers, but which would also be to the benefit of the peoples of the Near East and would in no sense be in contravention of the spirit of the United Nations Organization. In case the four Powers should be successful in reaching unanimity, they could present their findings to the various countries of the Near East. Possibly every country in the Near East would have an objection to one or more of the findings which might be reached. Nevertheless, if the findings were of such a nature that there could be no doubt as to their basic justice and fairness, and if they would include plans for raising living and cultural levels and for modernizing and reconstructing the agriculture, industry and transportation of the Near East, it is possible that all of the countries of the Near East would eventually adopt them as their own.

It is realized that it would be extremely difficult for a conference such as that proposed to be a success. In the first place, Great Britain might greet with suspicion a suggestion that it be held for fear that it would become a means for depriving the British Empire of its present position in the Near East. Furthermore, the Soviet Union might regard it as an expedient for preventing it from making the most of the present situation in order to continue its drive towards the south and southwest. France, on the other hand, would probably welcome inclusion in a conference of this kind. Elements in the United States might take the attitude that the conference was merely another ruse for extracting from the United States funds and [Page 6] materials for the benefit of other Great Powers. In spite of the complications and difficulties which can be foreseen, it is recommended that the Department give immediate consideration to the advisability of suggesting informally to Great Britain, France and Russia that such a conference be held. If such a suggestion should be made to Russia, it might simultaneously be pointed out that if the Soviet Union really desires the maintenance of world peace, it should at least for the time being abandon its present unilateral approach towards Near East problems.

The agenda for such a conference would be lengthy and complex. Many of the problems which it must solve if a real understanding is to be reached would be difficult. Nevertheless, the situation in the Near East is fraught with so much danger that nothing which might offer some hope of alleviation should be left undone. Even if the conference should conclude without an agreement being reached, it should serve the purpose of bringing the issues involved into the court of world opinion.

  1. Addressed to the Under Secretary of State (Acheson), the Assistant Secretary of State for European, Far Eastern, Near Eastern, and African Affairs (Dunn), and the Deputy Director of the Office of European Affairs (Hickerson). In his covering memorandum of December 28, 1945, Mr. Henderson stated: “I wish to stress the fact that the suggestions contained in this memorandum are of an extremely tentative nature. We are advancing them now with the idea that they might be useful for discussion within the Department. If any of them are considered useful they might be passed on to the Secretary.” (890.00/2–2845)
  2. For documentation on the French role in Syria and Lebanon, see pp. 751 ff.
  3. For documentation on this subject, see pp. 289 ff.
  4. For documentation on this subject, see pp. 801 ff.
  5. For documentation on this subject, see pp. 576 ff.