Memorandum of Conversation, by the Officer in Charge of Lebanon–Syriar–Iraq Affairs (Clark)


Subject: Necessity for Improving Arab-American Relations.

Participants: Mr. George C. McGhee, Assistant Secretary of State
Dr. Stephen B. L. Penrose, Jr., President of the American University of Beirut
Mr. Arthur Gardiner—NEA
Mr. H.B. Clark—ANE

Problem: Dr. Penrose believes that if steps are not taken to correct Arab misapprehensions concerning American policy in the Near East, there is a real danger that Communist influence will gain control there.

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Action Required: To re-study Dr. Penrose’s previous suggestions as to means for improving Arab-American relations.

Action Assigned to: ANE


Mr. McGhee said that we would be very glad to have Dr. Penrose’s views concerning conditions in the Near East. Dr. Penrose replied that he regretted to say that distrust of American policy in the Near East had increased, if anything, within recent months. Regardless of what we may say to the contrary, Arab leaders and the Arab people are, to an increasing degree, convinced that every move we make in the area is for the benefit of Israel.

At the same time, Communist propaganda activities have increased greatly both in volume and effectiveness. The Communists not only play upon traditional grievances of the under-privileged Arab people and encourage their dissatisfaction with their own governments: they also attribute all existing ills to Western policies, especially those of the United States. They say in effect, “You’ll never get justice out of the West. Abandon the United States and Britain and come along with us. We will fix everything up for you.” We were thus faced with more or less the same situation we had in China, where Government leaders and policies were discredited, but we also have the additional disadvantage of appearing in Arab eyes to be constantly supporting their worst enemy—an enemy whose avowed purpose was to gobble up their neighbors. Dr. Penrose expressed the opinion that the possibility of Russian penetration of the Near East is very real, and that in Syria especially the Communists might be able to take over during further periods of disorder.

Mr. McGhee said that the charge that we were motivated solely by consideration for Israel was entirely untrue. We believed that the first essential for all the Arab countries was to stabilize the situation. It could not be shown that we had favored Israel to the disadvantage of the Arabs during the past year, for example. Dr. Penrose declared that the Arabs believed we had favored Israel on several occasions within the past year and once very recently. He had learned in Syria not long ago of an approach Minister Keeley had been instructed to make to Prime Minister Azm, urging Syria not to close its frontiers should Jordan contract a peace agreement with Israel. The Arabs felt that the only way they could prevent Israel from flooding their markets with Jewish goods and otherwise falling under Israeli domination was to maintain a rigid boycott of Israel. It was in self-defense that Syria had threatened to close its frontiers to Jordan should it sign a peace agreement with Israel, and yet the United States had in effect urged it not to exercise this right of self-defense against Israel.

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Mr. McGhee asked what Dr. Penrose thought we should have done in the circumstances. He replied that we could at least have kept quiet, as had the British. Mr. McGhee said that while we wished to convince the Arabs of the sincerity of our friendship, there were certain things we could not do. We could not, for example, agree to roll back the tide of events in Palestine. The Arabs refused to recognize that Israel exists, whereas the fact is Israel exists as a state and will continue to do so. The sooner the Arabs adjust themselves to that fact the better it will be for everyone concerned. Dr. Penrose said that most Arabs likewise agreed that Israel was here to stay. Mr. Clark said that in the past the Arabs had always been from two to ten years too late in taking advantage of favorable opportunities to achieve a reasonable settlement. The Arab Governments pleaded that they could not seize such opportunities because of public opinion, yet it was these very Governments who kept stirring up public opinion by taking more and more extreme stands. Dr. Penrose rejoined that the Israeli leaders were themselves by no means conciliatory and in fact appeared to do everything possible to enrage the Arabs. Why did they not show a conciliatory attitude?

Mr. McGhee said that the Arabs not only criticized us unjustly of partiality for Israel but never gave us credit for many things we had done in the past for the benefit of the Arabs, sometimes in the face of Israeli protests arid notwithstanding the weight of opinion among American Jewry, which was solidly behind Israel. There was no escaping the fact that the Zionist movement did have the sympathy of an important section of the American electorate. He referred, for example, to the United Jewish Appeal paid advertisement, “America Speaks”, in the April 12 issue of the New York Times, which included statements from the Vice President of the United States and such leading figures as Republican Senator Taft and Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. We had not hesitated, however, to send some very stiff messages to the Israel Government at critical periods, which had had a moderating influence. We had likewise, for example, conducted our own investigation of charges of the Israel Government and of leading American Jewish organizations that the Iraqi Government was engaging in a campaign of persecution against its Jewish minority and had publicly stated our conclusion that these reports were without foundation. There were many other instances which could be cited showing the straightforward character of our policy.

Dr. Penrose said that unfortunately none of the Arabs knew about these cases in which the United States could be shown in a friendly light. He wished that an effective informational campaign could be undertaken to acquaint the rank and file of the Arab people of American good will and especially of US readiness to stand first against [Page 855] Israel should it attempt to jump over the traces. He had always said that the United States should play a more active role in arranging a peace settlement between the Arabs and Israel and to reassure the Arabs that we would not stand idly by should Israel go over the borders which would be established.

Mr. McGhee said that much thought had been given to the question of guarantees of frontiers or assurances short of guarantees. He was sure that Dr. Penrose realized that this Government was not in the same position as the United Kingdom, which had traditional strategic ties in the area and which was able to enter into treaties of alliance with the states in the area. However, we would continue to consider how we might appropriately contribute to area stability by some form of assurances concerning the frontiers which might be established between Israel and the Arab states.

Mr. Clark observed that it was first necessary to establish the frontiers, and such frontiers could only be established through the conclusion of treaties of peace such as Jordan was endeavoring to conclude with Israel. We sincerely believed it was in the interest of Jordan and the other Arab states to facilitate peace settlements, and at least they should not do anything to deter them. That is why we expressed our strong disapproval of Syrian pressure upon King Abdullah in an endeavor to prevent conclusion of a peace agreement with Israel. In these circumstances we would do the same thing again tomorrow in the interest of achieving a peace settlement.

Mr. McGhee said he would be glad to have any further suggestions Dr. Penrose might wish to make, and Dr. Penrose replied that he still stood by the suggestions he had made in his letter to Mr. McGhee last September (See letter dated September 9, 1949).1 He especially thought it necessary for Israel to make some concessions to the Arabs, and perhaps the best thing we could do at this time would be for us to urge the Israeli Government to unfreeze the bank accounts of Palestinian Arabs who were now taking refuge in other Arab countries. This would go far toward appeasing the refugees and restoring confidence in the United States. Mr. McGhee said that we would be glad to go over the points raised in Dr. Penrose’s letter again and would like to have his further views upon his return to Washington next week. Dr. Penrose said that he might suggest that the United States assist him in setting up an Agricultural Department in the American University of Beirut, which was a project he considered one of the most worthwhile in the area. He would give the subject further thought and endeavor to come up with some specific suggestions upon his return.

  1. Not printed.