Memorandum of Informal United States–United Kingdom Discussions, in Connection With the Visit to London of The Honorable George C. McGhee, April 2–3, 1951 1

top secret
Participants: Foreign Office
R. J. Bowker, Assistant Under-Secretary of State
Roger Allen, Head, African Department
M. N. F. Stewart, Assistant Head, African Department
D. V. Bendall, African Department
Sir Ralph Skrine Stevenson, British Ambassador to Egypt
George C. McGhee, Department of State
James K. Penfield } American Embassy, London
John Frick Root

Mr. Bowker said the UK had been giving intensive thought to what new defense proposals it could offer Egypt. The results were now before the British Cabinet. It was not known when the Cabinet would be able to reach a decision but Ambassador Stevenson was planning to return to Cairo at the end of the week. Mr. Bowker asked that information about these proposals be treated in the strictest confidence. They consisted in substance of the following:

The phased withdrawal of all British troops and British headquarters between now and the termination of the present treaty in 1956;
A British-staffed civilian base thereafter under overall Anglo-Egyptian control on the basis of a leasehold agreement;
An Air Defense Pact enabling HMG to keep RAF squadrons and ground defense organization in Egypt after 1956;
The right of re-entry into Egypt of British and allied forces in event of war.

In addition, the UK would propose to assist in the progressive build-up of the Egyptian armed forces, to whom the responsibility for internal defense and security would fall.

Mr. Bowker said that the UK realized that Egyptian insistence on linking the Sudan with the defense question gravely complicated the whole matter. The UK was ready to discuss the Sudan with Egypt but it was difficult to make the concessions that Egypt was demanding. There could be no question of entering into a bargain over [Page 357] the Sudan. The development of self-government and of national identity in the Sudan had already gone too far to permit any settlement which did not have the approval of the Sudanese, whom the British were convinced by and large were unwilling to accept Egyptian suzerainty.

Mr. McGhee explained that the US did not want to become a party to the Egyptian problem. Our military officials agreed on the importance of the Suez base, however, and we had continued to support the British position on every occasion as strongly as we could. Recently, however, we thought we had detected some change in British thinking on the strategic problem.

Mr. McGhee said that on his recent visit to Cairo he had had several meetings with Salah El Din, the final one lasting for two and a half hours. The Egyptian Foreign Minister had insisted that Egypt must have agreement on a phased withdrawal to be completed within one year. Mr. McGhee thought there was some prospect that the Egyptians might extend this to eighteen months or at the maximum perhaps a little more. The Egyptians maintained that during the British withdrawal their own armed forces should be built up to take over the defense responsibility. Salah El Din had said that if hostilities broke out in any of the countries adjacent to Egypt, the British troops and their allies would be allowed to return. Salah El Din had also emphasized that there could be no decision without an agreement on the Sudan. He had acknowledged that the Sudanese should determine their future, but the Egyptian position was that this could not be done while the Sudan was under British control. The Egyptians, said Mr. McGhee, seemed to be convinced that the Sudanese would want to enter into some union with Egypt under the Egyptian Crown, with Egypt perhaps responsible for such matters as foreign affairs, defense and finance. The Egyptians looked on the UK position in the Sudan as one of aggression.

Mr. McGhee said that, in his discussions with Salah El Din, he had made a long and forceful plea stressing the opportunity open to the UK under its treaty with Egypt to contribute to the defense of Egypt in the present critical international situation and the importance of the British role in the defense of the Near East as a whole. He had explained that he understood the nationalist aspirations underlying the Egyptian position but that it should be recognized that British troops in the area were not there for the purpose of restoring any form or degree of colonialism but purely for safeguarding against aggression from without. Our belief was that all the factors involved in the negotiation between Egypt and the UK could be reconciled. We hoped that Egypt would not close the door to an agreement with Britain until at least it had studied the counterproposals we understood the British were preparing. In the judgment [Page 358] of the US (Mr. McGhee had told the Egyptians) we were in a state approximating war. There were already open hostilities in Korea and Iran was exposed to great danger. There was no evidence that Russia would not move into the Near East. Normal peacetime conditions did not prevail and the situation called for exceptional measures. During this critical period every effort should be made to build up the defensive forces in the Near Eastern countries, but nevertheless no matter how large an army the Egyptians might build, Egypt and the Near East would still need the assistance of foreign troops. It would be too late to look for outside help when the invader reached adjacent countries. The US was convinced there was no danger of any reversion to colonialism but rather that the real threat of imperialistic rule came from Russia.

Mr. McGhee said that he had also argued with Salah El Din that the stationing of British troops in the Canal Zone should not be linked with the problem of the Sudan. They were unrelated issues.

Mr. McGhee went on to impress on his British listeners that we considered the situation in the Near East so delicate that one more incident—an impasse between the UK and Egypt for example—could be extremely dangerous and was in fact unthinkable. For this reason he would strongly urge the UK to keep its position on an agreement with Egypt as flexible as possible and not take any final, irrevocable stand. He said that the British Charge in Cairo had mentioned to him the desirability of sweetening any treaty arrangement with Egypt by obtaining an Egyptian concession on its present Suez Canal embargo. Mr. McGhee urged that these dissimilar problems not be related. He did not very well see how Egypt could back down from its present stand on the Suez Canal question so long as Iraq, foregoing great revenues, continued to maintain its embargo on the flow of oil through the pipeline to Haifa.

Mr. McGhee said he had been greatly impressed at the extent to which the Anglo-Egyptian dispute had become a political issue in Egypt and, indeed, throughout the whole of the Near East. Even Iraq and Jordan, which themselves had close relations with the UK, were sympathetic to Egypt, and there was a general desire throughout the Near Eastern countries to see the Egyptian position met. All this was a very unsettling influence. Along with the Iranian oil problem and Palestine issue, the Anglo-Egyptian dispute was one of the three major foci for dissatisfaction and unrest in the area.

Mr. McGhee said he had the impression that Egypt, by withholding such essential supplies as labor and water, could render the British position in the Suez Canal Zone very difficult, if not untenable. It would be hard for the UK to justify retaliatory measures and of very doubtful wisdom to try to use force. He thought we must ask ourselves quite seriously whether the liability of political unrest [Page 359] throughout the Near East did not outweigh the military value of adhering to British treaty rights. An impasse with Egypt, he reiterated, could well nigh be fatal and he would again urge the UK to maintain a flexible attitude towards the Egyptian demands perhaps even with a view to meeting them. The critical period in the Near East would come during the next year-and-a-half to two years, while the West was building up its strength, and it was during this time that we must seek to hold the Near East together and to restore its confidence in its internal strength and security.

Mr. McGhee thought that an alternative to complete withdrawal might be the use of forces with some multilateral flavor. Salah El Din did not commit himself on this point but the Egyptians have in the past intimated that such an arrangement might be acceptable. Perhaps some UN complexion could be put on the situation. With the evolution of our own policy it might be possible for the US to play some part, possibly through assigning a US Deputy Commander under General Robertson. Complete withdrawal or some multilateral force seemed to be the only two possibilities. Mr. Bowker and Ambassador Stevenson indicated they were not sanguine about the prospect of Egyptian acceptance of a multinational force. The Egyptian position with them had been that no foreign forces could be stationed on Egyptian soil.

Mr. Bowker noted with interest all Mr. McGhee had said and in reply wished to emphasize that the object of the British proposals was precisely to reconcile all the factors which Mr. McGhee had mentioned, in particular to meet Egyptian aspirations and at the same time to safeguard British and Western interests. The UK was anxious to try to find some means of obtaining Egyptian cooperation, some modus vivendi over the critical period. He thought that the British proposals now under consideration within the UK Government could form the basis for an agreement. Ambassador Stevenson said he would fully agree that the problem at hand was, so far as Egypt was concerned, a sentimental one and required a sentimental solution.

Mr. McGhee then said he had received an indication from some British sources he preferred to leave unnamed that the UK might be prepared to use force should all other measures fail to obtain the modus vivendi over the critical period. He thought that the British forces now in the Suez area could be used to seize Cairo. Mr. McGhee said that in his opinion it would be most unwise to resort to force and he hoped the British were not contemplating such an extreme. Ambassador Stevenson affirmed that force would not be used while he was HMG’s representative in Cairo unless there was a danger to British life and limb and Mr. Bowker agreed that the resort to force was the last thing the UK wanted; on the other hand it was obviously the right and duty of the government if the safety of the British [Page 360] citizens was at stake. Mr. Bowker added that, as to Mr. McGhee’s reference the undesirability of linking the Suez Canal and treaty questions, the important point for the UK Government to consider was that they were in fact already being linked by the British parliament and public.

Ambassador Stevenson said that with regard to the Sudan, the Sudanese would not give up independence and did not want Egyptian suzerainty. A solution to this difficulty was not easy to see, but he thought that it might be possible to establish a set of principles for governing the determination of the Sudan’s future which would be difficult for the Egyptians to refuse publicly.

Mr. McGhee said that we had given Egypt no encouragement that we could supply them with arms and had usually referred them to the UK. Ambassador Stevenson noted in this connection that in the past there had been some difficulty in securing American permission for the release to Egypt of lend-lease equipment held by the UK. He understood that it was now necessary to refer all available supplies of this sort to NATO for any demand which might exist there. Mr. Penfield observed that delay in the past probably arose primarily from the administrative difficulties in arranging for the necessary clearances.


Mr. McGhee said he was not abreast of the latest developments concerning arrangements for obtaining base rights in Libya. The US had always felt, however, that it would be unwise to link the question of obtaining defense facilities with the provision of economic assistance. Mr. McGhee thought it was dangerous to establish a precedent of making an outright grant (apart from usual land rentals) for the base rights and it seemed to him that the matter of providing Libya with whatever economic aid it required could be kept separate from the defense arrangements. Mr. Allen explained the conviction of Mr. Pelt, the UN Commissioner in Libya, that the Libyans would require some direct payment for defense facilities. Mr. Allen said that the UK had proposed to make up the budgetary and balance payments deficit for the whole of Libya, but, in view of Mr. Pelt’s insistence that there must be some fixed guarantee of payment in return for base privileges, the Foreign Office, which could see no overriding objection to this arrangement, was now considering that UK aid to Libya might fall into three parts: one, probably a very substantial proportion, would be earmarked for direct payment for defense rights; one would be a contribution to an economic development fund; the third amount would be a variable sum used to make up the Libyan deficit. Mr. Allen explained that the UK proposed to make up the deficit after US and other outside aid had been absorbed.

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Mr. McGhee commented on the special attention he had given to the tendency throughout the Near East and Asia towards taking a neutral stand on issues in the struggle between the free world and Communism. The conversations he had had on his tour, however, had convinced him that government leaders in none of the 12 Near Eastern and South Asian countries he had visited had any real respect or philosophical attachment for the neutralists policy expounded by Nehru, but to the contrary had a realistic appreciation of the significance of the East-West struggle. The fact that these countries did not take a more forthright stand with the West was due primarily to their sense of insecurity and their preoccupation with problems of immediate self-interest. It was important to try to restore confidence and to alleviate internal stresses throughout the area in order to obtain more open cooperation in the larger world conflict.

  1. Drafted by Root. The source text was transmitted to the Department of State as enclosure 6 to despatch 4832 from London, April 10, not printed. For further information on McGhee’s visit to London, April 2–3, see footnote 1, p. 104.