Memorandum of Informal United States–United Kingdom Discussion1

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[Page 297]
Participants: Foreign Office:
Mr. Michael Wright, Assistant Under-Secretary of State
Mr. Roger Allen, Head, African Department
Mr. R. H. G. Edmonds, African Department
Mr. K. J. Simpson, African Department
Department of State
Hon. George C. McGhee
Mr. Samuel Kopper2
Mr. Elmer Bourgerie3
American Embassy, London
Mr. Joseph Palmer 2nd4
Miss Margaret Tibbetts5
Mr. John F. Root6

Anglo-Egyptian Relations (Item 8 under Near East)

Mr. Allen reviewed briefly the recent discussions with the Egyptian Government on defense problems and the Sudan: The results had been almost entirely negative. There appeared to be almost no realization on the part of the Egyptians that the defense of their country was more important than political aspirations. The British Ambassador has concluded that there is no chance for agreement on defense arrangements without a time limit on the evacuation of the Canal Zone. The Egyptians have in mind a limit of about one year and in any event will certainly insist upon evacuation in less than the three years specified in the Bevin-Sidky draft treaty of 1946. The Foreign Office hopes that the Egyptian Foreign Minister’s visit to Lake Success7 may help him to appreciate something beyond the parochial interests of Egypt and that representatives of other countries there will take the opportunity of speaking frankly to him about security considerations in the Middle East. (Mr. Wright said later in the discussion that the UK hoped to encourage approaches of this nature by the French, Turks, Greeks and Commonwealth countries. He indicated he hoped the US would also join in.) However, the British Ambassador was not optimistic that even this pressure would be really effective. He feared the Foreign Minister was too much a prisoner of Wafd aspirations. The picture, then, was one of complete deadlock. Egypt was in a vital area and the Canal Zone provided the most suitable base, for which there appeared to be no immediate satisfactory alternative.

Mr. Wright said the problem had three aspects: (1) the joint defense of Egypt, particularly air defense; (2) the location of the main supply and administrative base; and (3) the location of a striking force. It was this last question which was the most difficult and if it could be settled he thought it would be possible to work out an agreement on the other two. Mr. Allen said the UK was now looking [Page 298] for some face-saving formula under which the UK would, in principle, evacuate British troops from the area while at the same time obtaining Egyptian acquiescence in some sort of arrangement for a base.

Mr. Wright said the UK legal advisers had studied the problem and had concluded it would be legally impossible for the UK to claim any right to stay in Egypt after 1956. This, then, was the problem and he would like to know whether the US agreed that the withdrawal of the British forces would leave a vacuum.

Mr. McGhee replied that we did agree and pointed out that we had supported the British position as far as we were able to do so. We had turned down all Egyptian efforts to get us to intervene and had emphasized that this is not the time to jeopardize the security of the area.

Mr. McGhee went on to say, however, that, in our concern for the problem, we had become interested in the possibilities of the “Gaza strip” proposal and would like to take the opportunity of examining the proposal further with the UK. It seemed to us that it might be the answer to satisfy the Egyptians and that Israel might accept it if it were coupled with an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The territory is of no particular advantage to the Egyptians but the presence of Egyptians there is disturbing to the Israelis. The Israelis badly want a peace treaty and might well agree to have the UK in the Gaza strip as the price. Egypt on the other hand could balance a peace treaty with evacuation of British troops from the Canal Zone. Through this proposal can we not, perhaps, visualize the pieces of our puzzle gradually fitting together and achieve the dual objective of satisfying defense considerations and breaking the Arab-Israeli impasse at an important point? There was, to be sure, the added problem of the refugees, but this would have to be dealt with eventually in any case.8

Mr. Allen agreed that the Gaza idea might provide a key to the overall problem but wished to emphasize certain considerations from a military point of view. First of all, the transfer of troops to Gaza could not be carried out if Israel opposed it and as a consequence might refuse to permit the transit of troops across Israeli territory in time of war. More than this, the arrangement must have the cooperation and agreement of the Israeli Government. There is very little room for training and maneuvering and the plan would not work if there was the constant danger of incidents with a hostile or unfriendly Israel.

Mr. Allen added that the British Minister in Tel Aviv felt there was no possibility of getting the Israelis to accept the Gaza proposal [Page 299] without a peace treaty with Egypt. Mr. McGhee said we, too, assumed this to be an essential. He thought, in fact, the advantages of such a bargain might be played up with Israel.

Mr. Wright explained that there was not yet unanimity of view within UK circles on the Gaza proposal. To him personally it was attractive and he was inclined to agree with the US on its advantages. In answer to Mr. Wright’s question, Mr. Allen said that, according to the British Ambassador in Cairo, the Egyptians would count the removal of British troops to Gaza as evacuation. Mr. Wright then went on to caution that the whole idea, if adopted, would have to be taken up very carefully with the Egyptians so that we would not lose the tactical advantages we hoped to derive from it. We would not want them to think it was something we wanted too badly or they might raise the price of agreement. There were also the legal difficulties. The Egyptians now administer Gaza but, if British troops were to be evacuated there, the Egyptians would have to be able to say that it was not Egyptian territory. If it was not Egyptian, asked Mr. Wright, whose was it to be? Mr. McGhee emphasized again that a peace treaty would have to lay the legal basis for the arrangement.

Answering Mr. McGhee’s question, Mr. Wright said he saw no particular conflict arising between Britain’s obligation under the Tripartite Agreement and the presence of British troops so close to the Israeli border. He thought their presence there would, in fact, represent an even greater guarantee of security than the Tripartite Agreement alone.

Mr. Wright said he was willing to have us sound out our representatives in Israel about the probable Israeli reaction to the Gaza proposal, provided we did not let the Israelis know in any way that it was under consideration. The UK, he said, would be very glad to learn what we thought about the prospect of Israeli agreement.

Mr. McGhee wondered whether the UK was giving thought to other alternative bases, such as Iraq and Cyrenaica. Mr. Wright said that he believed the UK and US Chiefs of Staff had already agreed these areas would not be suitable for bases in wartime. One was too far north, the other too far away. This, of course, did not apply in the same way to the present location of a striking force and the UK was looking at all the alternatives, including Libya.

He thought the lesson in Korea showed that we must strengthen the Middle East militarily in peace time and he felt that this could most effectively be done if, again using the Korean example, the burden did not fall on any one nation alone, but instead we applied the principle of coordinated effort in the Middle East. This led him to ask whether it would be possible to work out some arrangement of this kind in Libya. Just as the UK had provided a contingent for our [Page 300] major effort in Korea, would the US be prepared to station a land contingent in Tripolitania to supplement the UK forces in Cyrenaica? If this were done, it would substantially increase the attractiveness of Libya as a UK base and give the presence of the UK troops there a wider character. He thought that, even if our forces were only small ones, their presence would be particularly beneficial psychologically.

Mr. McGhee agreed to discuss this question with officials in Washington. He believed the latest thinking of our defense authorities was that we did not have such forces available but on the basis of Mr. Wright’s inquiry he would pursue the matter further on his return to the US. He suggested that a similar benefit would accrue if US forces were stationed, for example, in Dhahran. Mr. Wright agreed that this was so, especially with regard to defense of the Persian Gulf.

Mr. Allen again reminded the group of some of the difficulties from the military standpoint in the way of working out satisfactory arrangements. The difficulty of stationing a striking force in Cyrenaica, for example, was that this was a long way from the likely danger zone. As for a joint defense arrangement with Egypt which would give the semblance of Egyptian control, he was not at all sure it would be easy to work out an arrangement satisfactory to both Egypt and the UK. The Egyptian Foreign Minister, he said, is very insistent oil a time limit for evacuation, but there are considerable administrative problems in carrying this out. Furthermore, the UK would still need in the Canal Zone very considerable numbers of administrative and technical personnel.

Mr. Allen said that we had no doubt noticed that the UK was now taking a tougher line with the Egyptians. Recently it had put an embargo on the supply of jet aircraft and certain other military items to Egypt.

With regard to the Sudan, there was relatively little attention focussed on it in the recent negotiations between the British Ambassador and the Egyptian Foreign Minister and, on the whole, the UK had been fairly successful in keeping this issue separate from the defense problem. He believed the Egyptian Foreign Minister had envisaged a transitional period of about two years, following which the UK would evacuate all British officials and troops. At this time the Sudan would take some autonomous position under the Egyptian crown. The British Ambassador, said Mr. Allen, had made it clear that the UK considered these suggestions entirely unrealistic. Mr. Allen said that the UK would be interested in any views we might have on the UK’s program of political development in the Sudan. Mr. Kopper said that we had little information concerning the Sudan upon which to make an evaluation. As far as we knew things seemed to be going satisfactorily.

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Suez Canal (Item 9 under Near East)

Mr. Allen said this question fitted into the discussion on Egyptian-Israeli relations which had gone before. He noted the positions we both had adopted regarding the Egyptian restrictions on Canal traffic and the protests we had made, which, unfortunately, had so far failed to budge the Egyptians.9 The Foreign Office, he said, has been under considerable pressure from Parliament to take some decisive action in the matter and has been deeply concerned about what it might do. It had sought the advice of its legal advisers on the legality of the Egyptian restrictions and, while their views were not entirely conclusive, in general it appeared that the arguments were fairly nicely balanced and that on the whole the Egyptians were entitled to their 1 present course of action. Mr. Wright pointed out that the Egyptians had not denied passage through the Canal to any ships, but had merely specified that certain cargoes must be removed. The UK had given some thought to referring the question to the International Court, but it now appeared that an international tribunal judging the dispute on its legal merits would probably support the Egyptian position. There was the further complication that the UK could not compel the Egyptians to appear before the International Court since they had not signed the “optional clause” and were therefore under no obligation to accept the Court’s jurisdiction. With this the prospect, the Foreign Office felt it had to proceed very cautiously and to do nothing premature which might prejudice the whole position, not only for itself but for other maritime powers as well. Mr. Allen added that the UK legal advisers did feel that as time went on and the threat from Israel diminished, it became increasingly difficult for the Egyptians to justify their restrictions.

Mr. McGhee said that the opinion of the Department’s legal advisers was substantially the same as that just described. However, our advisers did feel we were justified in protesting any Egyptian restrictions which could be considered unreasonable and impracticable. We had used this argument, for example, in protesting the requirement that the Egyptians be furnished a Certificate of Destination on tanker cargoes.

There was then some discussion of the possibility of joint action by the maritime powers using the Canal. It was felt this might, for example, provide a means of dealing with the requirement for a certificate [Page 302] of destination, but that at the same time if joint action were used it would have to command wide and wholehearted support to be effective.

Both the UK and US officials agreed that we should not go beyond our present efforts in pressing the Egyptians on legal grounds, except to the extent that their requirements were “unreasonable and impracticable”, and that, in general, it would be unwise to take a tougher line with the Egyptians and attempt to force the Suez Canal issue with any threat of retaliation. It was felt that in dealing with the problem we were brought back to the whole question of relations between Egypt and Israel and that the ultimate solution would probably have to fit into the context of this wider problem. Mr. Allen suggested the possibility that the Egyptians might be encouraged to use the relaxation of the Suez Canal restrictions as a gesture to Israel preliminary to peace negotiations.

[Here follows a discussion of two items from the agenda dealing with African affairs.]

  1. A series of discussions concerning Middle Eastern, African, and South Asian problems took place when Assistant Secretary of State McGhee visited London between September 18–23. On September 19 they discussed two items from their agenda dealing with the Near East; in addition they analyzed two African questions. Regarding McGhee’s trip which took him to Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, see the editorial note, p. 1550.
  2. Acting Deputy Director, Office of Near Eastern Affairs.
  3. Director, Office of African Affairs.
  4. First Secretary.
  5. Attaché.
  6. Second Secretary.
  7. Lake Success, New York, was a temporary site for the meetings of the United Nations pending completion of permanent headquarters.
  8. The “Gaza Plan” was first discussed by the British and Egyptians during a conference held on July 10 between Sir Ralph C. Stevenson, the British Ambassador in Egypt, and Mohamed Salaheddin, Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. (Telegram 54 from Cairo, July 12; 641.74/7–1250)
  9. On July 19 the Egyptian Government increased their restrictions on the use of the Suez Canal in order to prevent oil supplies from reaching Israel. Masters of north-bound tankers using the Canal were required to furnish a guaranteed declaration concerning the destination of their cargoes and, upon delivery, had to obtain certification from tan official of the Egyptian Government verifying that their cargo was discharged there. (Telegram 129 from Cairo, July 31; 974.531/7–3150; and despatch 23 from Port Said, Augusts 7; 974.53/8–750)