Memorandum of Informal United States–United Kingdom Discussions in Connection With the Visit to London of Assistant Secretary of State McGhee, September 19, 19501
top secret
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 Kopper
Mr. Elmer Bourgerie
American Embassy, London
Mr. Joseph Palmer 2nd
Miss Margaret Tibbetts
Mr. John F. Root

[Here follows a discussion of Anglo-Egyptian relations, the Suez Canal, and Libya. The record of the Libyan discussion is printed page 1631.]

Eritrea (Item 1 under Africa)

Mr. McGhee said it was now the general feeling of our UN observers that the Eritrean question could no longer be settled in the Interim Committee. He himself felt it was clear the Italians had been deliberately leading us down the garden path and had had no intention of accepting the federation formula even if it included [Page 1679] the four points Italy had specified as necessary revisions. He believed this attitude was not really due to their fear of internal public opinion in Italy but to their desire to win a preferred position in Eritrea. It seemed clear also that the Latin American bloc would not support any federation proposal until the Italians indicated that they were willing to accept it.

Mr. McGhee told Mr. Wright that at his meeting in New York with Ethiopian Foreign Minister, Ato Aklilou had pointed out the very difficult tactical position in which he had been placed as a result of the breakdown of negotiations in the I.C. and he indicated he would need the continued support of the US and the UK if the Eritrean question was to be settled satisfactorily.

Mr. McGhee said that Ato Aklilou had suggested two steps which might be taken now: (1) To have the US, UK and France make either a tripartite statement, or parallel statements in the General Assembly emphasizing the importance they attached to reaching a settlement at this session; and (2) to have the UK Foreign Minister tell Count Sforza that if Italy was not willing to agree to some reasonable solution to the Eritrean question the UK would consider withdrawing from Eritrea.

Mr. Wright said the British legal advisers felt there was no obligation on the UK to remain in Eritrea indefinitely in the absence of some settlement of the problem. It would not, of course, obstruct UN efforts in Eritrea, but its duties under the peace treaty were “permissive” in nature. This meant that if the GA proposed some unsatisfactory solution, such as independence or trusteeship, the UK would feel that it was free to leave immediately; or, if there were no solution at this time, the UK would feel justified in carrying out in Eritrea what it believes to be the real wishes of the inhabitants.

Mr. Wright said the Chief Administrator had already warned that there would be great danger in trying to put into effect even the federative solution and Mr. Allen pointed out that the UK’s support for federation was contingent on Italian as well as Ethiopian agreement to this sort of settlement. Mr. McGhee and Mr. Kopper said this appeared to diverge considerably from our own concept of our responsibilities in the matter. We had made clear that the solution had to be acceptable to the Ethiopians but did not at all feel we were obligated in the same sense to the Italians. We felt that in the last analysis we would be entitled to push through federation, if possible, even against Italian opposition. Mr. Wright said that we must bear in mind, however, that the Italian elements in Eritrea could cause difficulties if the UK Government endeavored to put into effect a federation settlement which was not approved by the Italian Government.

[Page 1680]

The discussion was resumed in the afternoon with Mr. Wright referring to the difficult and unstable internal situation within Eritrea. In the event that the GA failed to reach an agreement along the lines of the federation formula, Mr. Wright foresaw two alternative situations arising:

The GA might pass some undesirable resolution, such as one for independence after a period of trusteeship. In these circumstances, the United Kingdom would be inclined to withdraw from Eritrea and leave the implementation of the resolution to someone else, perhaps to the UN itself. It would, of course, be necessary for the United Kingdom to make clear beforehand that it did not agree with a decision which did not correspond with the clearly expressed wishes of the inhabitants. Withdrawal under these circumstances would, according to the views of the Foreign Office’s Legal Advisers, be justified.
The GA might fail to reach any decision whatsoever. If this were the case, there would be reason to fear trouble within the territory and the task of administering would be greatly complicated. The provisional thinking at the departmental level in the Foreign Office is that the United Kingdom would have three choices in such a contingency:
To implement unilaterally the original US–UK proposal for partition of the territory with the cession of Eastern Eritrea to Ethiopia.
To withdraw from the territory altogether soon after the General Assembly’s failure to reach a decision.
To remain on the present basis until the next session of the General Assembly could consider the matter again, which the United Kingdom would be most reluctant to do.

Mr. McGhee felt, and Mr. Wright concurred, that all of the alternatives involving unilateral action would have grave repercussions and that this high-lighted the necessity for a decision of this problem at this session of the General Assembly. It was agreed that both the United States and the United Kingdom should continue their efforts to promote a settlement along the lines of federation. It was also agreed, however, that we should not ask the Ethiopians to make further concessions for the sake of agreement. The most hopeful lines seem to be:

To endeavor to obtain Italian acceptance of the present federation formula; or, failing this,
To endeavor to push the present federation proposals through the General Assembly even in the face of Italian opposition by breaking up the Latin American bloc.

Mr. McGhee felt that the United Kingdom should not hesitate to warn the Italians and other delegations of the probable repercussions in the territory if no decision or an undesirable decision is reached, [Page 1681] placing particular emphasis on the fact that it may be impossible to restrain the inhabitants from seeking to realize their clearly expressed wishes. If, despite these warnings, the federation proposal failed, the justification for the United Kingdom proceeding to take unilateral action would appear to be enhanced.

Mr. Wright pointed out that the United Kingdom has never regarded federation as the best solution for Eritrea. As administering authority in the territory, it does not want to be in the position of championing a solution which it was not convinced is best adapted for the country. Mr. McGhee felt that it could be left to the United States and other delegations to champion the federation formula, provided that the United Kingdom would not oppose it.

Mr. Kopper inquired whether there would be any useful purpose in considering leaving the problem of the Western Province in abeyance for the time being. This might aid in securing Moslem support. Mr. Wright and Mr. Allen said that the UK would be willing to stay on for a longer period there if it would help solve the remainder of the problem satisfactorily to Ethiopia. It was agreed that the UK and US delegations should keep this possibility in mind during the coming UN discussions.

Mr. Wright said that the Foreign Office would prepare a telegram to the UK Delegation in New York setting forth its understanding of the day’s discussion on Eritrea. Mr. McGhee agreed to look the telegram over before its despatch.2

  1. McGhee was en route to a conference of U.S. diplomatic officers in Tangiers; for documentation on this conference, see pp. 1569 ff.
  2. An abbreviated text of this memorandum, concurred in by McGhee, was transmitted from London in telegram 1754, September 22, not printed (357.AH/9–2250).