110.15 MC G/10–350

The Consul at Tunis (Dorman) to the Department of State

No. 109

Subject: Visit of Assistant Secretary of State McGhee and Party to Tunis, September 27–28, 19501

Assistant Secretary of State George C. McGhee, accompanied by Mr. Elmer H. Bourgerie, Director of the Office of African Affairs, and Samuel K. Kopper, Acting Deputy Director of the Office of Near Eastern Affairs, visited Tunisia on September 27–28, 1950. During the brief stay Mr. McGhee and his party, accompanied by Consul General Jernegan and a member of the Resident General’s Cabinet, visited the Resident General, the Bey, the Secretary General2 and the Prime Minister.3 A schedule of Mr. McGhee’s appointments is forwarded as enclosure No. 1 to this despatch.4

Reception by the Resident General

Mr. McGhee was greeted on his arrival at the airport by Mr. Darche, Near Eastern Specialist and Counsellor of Embassy at the Residency General, and by Mr. Mondoloni, Acting Chief of the Diplomatic Cabinet, as well as by officers from this Consulate General. The Residency placed a car at the disposal of Mr. McGhee and his party for the duration of the visit. The Resident General and Mrs. Perillier entertained Mr. McGhee and party, as well as officers from this Consulate General, at a small luncheon on September 27. Mr. McGhee and Mr. Bourgerie accepted the invitation of Mr. Perillier to live at the Residency General during their stay.

Call on Resident General

The first of the official calls was made on the Resident General on the morning of Mr. McGhee’s arrival in Tunis. During the call, which lasted forty minutes, Mr. McGhee expressed our great interest in the reform program which Mr. Perillier had inaugurated in Tunisia. He emphasized his belief that the forces of nationalism, widespread in the world, were not necessarily bad. They could be guided into constructive lines.

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The Resident General declared his agreement and said that this was precisely what the French Government was attempting to do in Tunisia. The French believed that it was necessary to make concessions to nationalist sentiment here in order to prevent the Tunisians from joining forces with the communists, who were promising them complete independence. However, Mr. Perillier warned that one should not overemphasize the importance of nationalism in the Tunisian picture. Nationalist sentiment was really strong only among the relatively small group of intellectuals, while the uneducated mass of the people had little interest in anything outside of its own daily problems of making a living.

Mr. Perillier characterized the present French policy in this country as an “experiment”. They were endeavoring to carry out an evolutionary process with the collaboration of nationalist elements. It remained to be seen whether the Tunisians had sufficient maturity and grasp of the problems of government to make this policy a success. Their tendency was to try to grasp too much too fast and always to push beyond the terms of reference under which the collaboration had been undertaken. In any case, France had decided its course and would put the reforms into effect even without nationalist cooperation if that should become necessary. The task was a difficult one and the outcome was not certain, but he was hopeful of success. Mr. McGhee expressed his appreciation of the difficulty involved.

Mr. McGhee explained that a principal reason for American interest in a satisfactory solution of the problem of Tunisia was the strategic importance of this country to the western powers. Tunisia had played an important role during the last war and would probably be again important if there should be another major conflict. We were anxious that the people of this country should be on the side of the western powers. The Resident General agreed that this was an important consideration and that it was much preferable to have the voluntary rather than the enforced cooperation of the Tunisians in case of war.

At Mr. McGhee’s request, Mr. Jernegan told the Resident General of an approach made the night before by Mr. Hedi Nouira, Assistant Secretary General of the Néo Destour Party, who had requested that an interview be arranged with Mr. McGhee for himself and Mr. Salah ben Youssef, Minister of Justice and Secretary General of the Néo Destour. Mr. McGhee was doubtful of the wisdom of such an interview, since it might create misunderstandings, and was disposed to excuse himself from it. He would like to have the Resident General’s opinion on the matter. Mr. Perillier replied that he shared Mr. McGhee’s [Page 1788] doubts in this regard and felt that it would be much better to avoid anything of the kind, which might only encourage unreasonable demands on the part of the nationalists while at the same time alarming the French colony and making it more uncompromising than ever in its opposition to reforms. The outcome might well be to delay the reform program, which would not be in the interest of the Néo Destour itself.

Mr. Jernegan explained that he had had exactly these thoughts in mind and had expressed them himself to Mr. Nouira. The latter had indicated his full understanding and had said that his Party did not wish to do anything which would embarrass Mr. McGhee or interfere with the successful carrying out of the program of collaboration now in progress. He had also agreed that it would be well for Mr. McGhee to consult the Resident General in this connection.

In the light of Mr. Perillier’s opinion, Mr. McGhee said that he had definitely decided not to have the proposed interview with Mr. Salah ben Youssef and Mr. Nouira.

Calls on Prime Minister and Secretary General

The calls on the Prime Minister and Secretary General were brief and devoted principally to an exchange of friendly remarks. Prime Minister Chenik emphasized the devotion of the Tunisian people to democracy and its determination to continue in support of the democratic principles, which he said were the principles upon which the Moslem religion was founded. Tunisia would continue to defend those principles at the side of France and the United States.

Mr. McGhee said that the United States had a great interest in the welfare of the Tunisian people, to which the Prime Minister replied that he was deeply touched by Mr. McGhee’s assurances and by the friendly gesture of his visit to Tunis, which showed that the United States was not only a great country of high ideals but also “had a great heart which could find a place for even so small a country as Tunisia”.

Secretary General Vimont, who made an excellent impression on the visitors, echoed the Resident General’s definition of the present program of cooperation with the nationalists as “an experiment”. He said that there were many difficulties to be overcome but that the French were putting into the task all the good faith and good sense that the situation required and had good hopes of a successful outcome.

Call on His Highness the Bey

The final protocol visit was made on the Bey at his palace in Carthage. The Tunisian ministers were present, as were the Chief of Protocol [Page 1789] and the Bey’s second son. The usual formula of translation was followed, i.e. translation of Mr. McGhee’s remarks into French and then translation of French into Arabic.

A portable radio, presented to the Bey by Mr. McGhee, had been delivered in advance and was placed on a table in the throne room.

The Bey opened the audience by asking Mr. McGhee if he had visited Tunisia before. Mr. McGhee replied that he had been here briefly in 1935 and 1943. His Highness observed that his visits were too brief and too far apart; His Highness did not often have the pleasure of welcoming American “ministers” to Tunisia, and he wished they would call more often.

Mr. McGhee then expressed his appreciation for having been received by the Bey and for the reception which he had received since his arrival that morning.

Mr. McGhee stated that when he was in Washington he was daily reminded of Tunisia, since just opposite his desk hung a portrait of His Highness Sadok Bey, a portrait which was sent by the Bey of Tunis to President Johnson in 1865 congratulating the President on the end of the Civil War and expressing his condolences for the death of President Lincoln. Mr. McGhee said he wished to present His Highness a photograph of the portrait of his esteemed ancestor. The Bey replied that he was very honored by this gesture of friendship. He stated that he himself had a souvenir of the United States, a signed photograph of President Franklin D. Roosevelt which he kept in his private office. The Bey sent for the photograph and had it shown to Mr. McGhee. He then called for and began to inscribe a photograph of himself which he later presented to Mr. McGhee with the hope that this would be a further reminder of the close ties which exists between Tunisia and the United States. Mr. McGhee said this photograph would hang on his wall beside the portrait of Sadok Bey.

His Highness then made a brief remark in Arabic which was translated into French by the Minister of Justice and Secretary General of the Néo Destour Party, Salah Ben Youssef, as follows:

“The Tunisian people is Moslem and shares the characteristics of all Moslems. Islamic peoples have strong sentiments of dignity and pride. Such a people cannot live in servitude.”

Mr. McGhee replied that the United States had close relations with the Moslem nations and we believe we understand their sentiments. We consider that there was a solidarity among the Moslem nations and ourselves in the present struggle between opposing forces in the world as there had been during the past war, when we had fought together against the common enemy.

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The Bey’s answer was again translated by Salah Ben Youssef. He agreed, he said, that there was a close relationship between the United States and Moslem peoples. Unfortunately, despite the wartime efforts of the Moslems, and especially the Tunisians, at the side of the Americans in the fight for liberty, six years had gone by since the war and there had been no change, no progress, no amelioration in the situation of the Tunisians. (During this exchange, while Salah Ben Youssef was speaking with marked emphasis, the Bey was devoting most of his attention to inscribing the photograph which he later presented to Mr. McGhee. There was no indication in his manner that he was saying anything more than polite platitudes.)

Mr. McGhee then observed that he understood certain progressive steps had already been undertaken. He hoped that the Tunisian people would continue in the path of progress, in cooperation with the French. He knew that His Highness had the welfare of his people at heart and he wished him all success and prosperity.

Dr. Ben Salem, Minister of Public Health, who understands English fairly well, quickly volunteered to interpret this statement of Mr. McGhee’s directly from English into Arabic. The Bey’s reply to this last statement, retransmitted directly through Dr. Ben Salem, indicated approval of Mr. McGhee’s observation.

After the customary amenities the party took its leave of the Bey.

In the ante-room of the palace the Bey’s Chief of Protocol presented to Mr. McGhee, on behalf of the Bey, a gold watch inscribed with the Bey’s name.

Luncheon at the La Marsa Residency

During the luncheon (at which no Tunisians were present) Resident General Perillier remarked to Mr. Jernegan that the aggressive attitude demonstrated by Salah Ben Youssef that morning was evidence of the difficulties confronting the French in trying to work out their program. Ben Youssef was a man “of no education”, he said, but the Bey and all the Cabinet members were afraid to say or do anything to check him. Mr. Mondoloni told Mr. Jernegan that the Residency was entirely satisfied with the way Mr. McGhee had handled the situation Ben Youssef had created.

At the same luncheon, I asked Mr. Darche, who is an Arab specialist, whether Ben Youssef had given a correct translation of the Bey’s remarks. Mr. Darche replied that the translation had been far from correct and that the Bey had merely confined himself to general platitudes. He stated that he had already reported to the Resident General that Mr. McGhee had handled the situation extremely well and had said nothing that could be interpreted as being incorrect. He [Page 1791] added that Salah ben Youssef’s deliberate mistranslation of the Bey’s remarks was evidence of the bad faith of the Néo Destour Party with which the Residency had to cope at every turn.

The small luncheon given in honor of Mr. McGhee and his party at La Marsa included the newly arrived Secretary General, Mr. Vimont, Mr. Orsetti (Chief of the Resident General’s Civil Cabinet), Mr. Mondoloni, Mr. and Mrs. Jernegan, and Mr. and Mrs. Dorman.

During the afternoon of September 27 Mr. McGhee and party, accompanied by officers of this Consulate General, visited Carthage, Sidi Bou Said, and the Arab Quarter of Tunis.

That evening Mr. and Mrs. Jernegan entertained Mr. McGhee and his party at a small supper.

On the morning of September 28 Mr. McGhee and his party left for Tripoli by special military Air Transport Service plane.

Local Contacts

On the afternoon prior to Mr. McGhee’s arrival, Mr. Hedi Nouira, editorial writer for the Néo Destour organ, Mission, requested an urgent interview with Mr. Jernegan. Mr. Nouira stated that he was coming on behalf of Salah Ben Youssef, who wished to interview Mr. McGhee during his stay in Tunisia. It was agreed that Mr. McGhee should be approached on this matter after his arrival and Mr. Nouira would be notified of Mr. McGhee’s decision in this matter.

In conference with Mr. McGhee the following morning it was suggested that the matter be discussed with the Resident General that same morning and that his advice be sought. However, because of the difficult position in which the Resident General might find himself, it was decided that this proposition be put to the Resident General in such a way it would be easier for him to refuse than to accept. As indicated above, the Resident General subsequently discouraged the meeting.

On the morning following Mr. McGhee’s departure a note was received from a certain Ahmed Alaoui, correspondent of Al Alam, apparently organ for the Moroccan Istiqlal Party. Mr. Alaoui requested that he be granted an interview with Mr. McGhee before the latter’s departure. Accompanying the note were several tracts dealing with the Istiqlal Party. Mr. Alaoui was notified by telephone through a clerk in the office that Mr. McGhee had already left Tunisia.

[Here follows a review of press reaction in Tunis to the visit by McGhee and his party.]

John Dorman
  1. The visit of Assistant Secretary McGhee and his party to Tunis was one of several stops made by them in European and African capitals in connection with the Assistant Secretary’s attendance at the North African Diplomatic and Consular Conference at Tangier, October 2–7. Regarding the McGhee tour, see the editorial note, p. 1550.
  2. Jacques Vimont.
  3. Mohamed Chenik.
  4. The enclosure is not printed.