399.50 JO/12–2250

The Ambassador in the Union of South Africa ( Erhardt ) to the Secretary of State

No. 375

Subject: Central and Southern African Transport Conference Johannesburg, October 25–November 16, 19501

While the Conference reached agreement on certain technical matters, it failed in its main purpose which was to recommend the [Page 1585] establishment of a permanent transport organization. This failure was due to the last minute refusal of the Portuguese Delegation to accept the establishment of such a permanent body, although they had earlier in the Conference, while disapproving of the idea, given no indication that they would take an adamant contrary stand. It is reliably reported that the Portuguese position was taken on the instructions of President Salazar and that the possibility of reversing its stand is remote. Traditional Portuguese preference for bilateral rather than multilateral agreements in international affairs and lack of technically qualified personnel except on the highest level are understood to have been prime factors in the Portuguese decision.

The Belgians, seeing that the Portuguese were firm in their position, also supported this view. The French had no strong views on whether to support or reject a permanent organization, although the French Ambassador, who was head of his delegation, told me that they had some misgivings about the desirability of a permanent body as a conference was being held in the French Cameroons at the same time on transport matters and he thought that the Johannesburg Conference might come up with some recommendations which would overlap the decisions to be taken at the Cameroon Conference. When it was clear that the Portuguese would not support the permanent organization, the French did likewise. Accordingly, it is clear the Belgians and French will not exert themselves to influence the Portuguese to change their minds. The French Ambassador informed me orally recently that in his report to the Quai D’Orsay he had said that unless the Americans intervened strongly at Lisbon in a permanent organization the prospects were dim for Portuguese approval. An incident which might also have influenced the Portuguese in their stand was the information given them by Mr. Curtin, an ECA representative from Washington who was then passing through Johannesburg, to the effect that ECA would not finance the Pafuri route which the Portuguese ardently desired. Mr. Curtin took the position that Portuguese economy was sufficiently sound to enable them to finance the road without outside assistance.

Mention must also be made of the early suspicion with which the other delegates viewed the delegation of United States observers. This is believed to have been due to two principal factors. The first was the fact that the United States had taken a leading part in the preliminary special meeting on transport problems in Africa South of the Sahara which was convened at Paris by the OEEC in February and March 1950. In the words of Mr. W. Marshall Clark, Secretary-General of the Johannesburg Conference, an ECA representative “lectured us as [Page 1586] if we were in a classroom”. There was thus the fear that the United States would attempt to take a similar position at the Johannesburg meeting. The second factor was the assignment to the United States observers’ group, less than a week before the Conference opened, of a representative of the United States Department of Defense. The Department of External Affairs of the Union of South Africa immediately raised the question as to whether there was a concealed motive in this assignment, particularly in view of the agreement at the preceding Lisbon and Paris conferences that strategic or military matters would not be discussed in any way during the Johannesburg Conference. We gave assurances to the Department of External Affairs that there were no military implications in the presence of the Department of Defense observer. The subject was none the less brought before the Steering Committee (composed of the heads of the delegations) of the Conference and influenced the decision of that Committee to permit the American observers to speak in any meeting only with the specific approval of the Chairman. While this decision was not to our liking we decided, after discussions among ourselves and with other delegations, to accept the rule and do our best to carry out the Department’s instructions.

As it turned out the situation was much easier than the first day had indicated. Members of the United States group attended the committee sessions freely and some of them spoke with every evidence of appreciation from the other delegates. Thus by the end of the Conference the position of the U.S. Delegation, somewhat ambiguous at the outset, was well and favorably established.

If an agreement can be reached on a permanent organization by February 28, 1951, for which we are not too optimistic, the Conference may be considered to have been worth while. If no permanent organization is formed, the Conference may be considered to have failed to achieve its primary purpose. None the less the Conference did afford an opportunity for representatives of the area concerned to meet personally and have a full and frank discussion of many of their mutual problems.

For detailed information concerning certain phases of the work of the several committees there is enclosed a memorandum2 prepared by Mr. H. H. Kelly assisted by Mr. A. H. Smith of ECA/OSR and Mr. J. A. Birch of this Embassy.

John G. Erhardt
  1. For Ambassador Erhardt’s report on the conference under reference, see despatch 271, November 22, from Pretoria, p. 1581.
  2. Not printed.