Memorandum of Conversation, by the Deputy Director of the Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs (Villard)


Habib Bourghiba1 called at his request and spent about an hour reviewing the cause of Tunisian independence. He said he wished to underline particularly two points in the history of this matter:

That after the first world war, when the mandate system was created, certain ex-enemy territories, such as Syria and Lebanon, were placed under the administration of France and, in accordance with the [Page 672] terms of the mandates, launched along the road to eventual independence. Tunisia had the bad luck not to be part of enemy territory, and therefore did not share in the progressive régime established for less advanced territories.
That a second piece of bad luck for Tunisia was that France and not some other imperialist power had taken over the territory, the unfortunate result being that Tunisia under French administration had been steadily forced backwards on the path toward independence, contrary to current world-wide developments.

Bourghiba advised a close study of the Treaty of Bar do to show the tenuous nature of France’s relationship with Tunisia. He said that he had shown a copy of this treaty to Faris El Khoury, Syrian representative on the Security Council, who had expressed astonishment at the flimsy legal foundation of France’s present hold over Tunisian territory.

I asked Bourghiba if an international trusteeship under the United Nations would be acceptable to Tunisia as a first step in the emancipation of the territory. I said that I spoke, of course, entirely unofficially and personally, but that the thought had crossed my mind since we had advocated international trusteeship for Libya. Bourghiba replied that Tunisia was much further developed than Libya and such an arrangement would scarcely be appropriate. When I suggested that some proviso might be made for re-examination of the situation after a term of five years or so, Bourghiba said he thought well of the idea. He said that on second thought an international trusteeship, directed toward eventual self-government or independence in accordance with the terms of the United Nations Charter, might be an orderly and constructive approach to the problem of Tunisia’s future.

I told Bourghiba that certain rumors had reached us to the effect that he had written a letter while in the United States to Selah Ben Youssef,2 which had been receiving widespread circulation in Tunisian Nationalist circles. This letter purported to declare that Bourghiba had enlisted the support of the United States Government in the Tunisian cause and that the question was actually under consideration by the “Mandates Commission” of the United Nations. Bourghiba denied categorically sending any such letter. He said the only communication he had addressed to Ben Youssef referred to (a) the friendly reception he had received in the United States and (b) the full-hearted cooperation of the Arab delegations to the United Nations.

I asked Bourghiba what he envisaged for the future. He replied that the first move would be to have the case thoroughly documented and prepared for presentation, probably by Egypt, at the UN General [Page 673] Assembly next September. Ultimately he hoped to see some sort of Arab federation, league or union in all of North Africa, including Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.3

  1. Leader of Tunisian Nationalist Party.
  2. Secretary-General of the “New Destour” Party in Tunisia; this represented Nationalists who followed Bourguiba.
  3. In a memorandum of conversation of January 28, Mr. Villard reported he had explained the American attitude to the French Minister (Lacoste) who was concerned lest Arab nationalists misunderstand American interest. “I told Mr. Lacoste that our desire was to see an orderly evolution among the peoples of North Africa, along lines that would preserve peace in the area and deny an opportunity to the Communists to capitalize on the situation.… If we could ever be of assistance in seeking to bring together the French and Arab points of view, I felt sure that the French Government had only to suggest it and it would receive a favorable reaction.” (851s.00/1–2847)