The British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs ( Morrison ) to the Secretary of State


My Dear Acheson : As you know, the question of Anglo-Egyptian relations has been looming large in our minds here recently, and I am disturbed at indications which I have seen that there is some divergence of view between you and us as to what our attitude towards these problems should be. Since I feel that any divergence between us on this issue must surely be avoided, it may be useful if I write now and tell you my own thinking on the whole question. I know you will not mind if I put my ideas quite bluntly in this personal communication, since it is after all between friends that plain speaking can and must take place.

May I say at the outset that, when I speak of divergencies, these are in no sense due to lack of co-operation between your Embassy here and ourselves, our own Embassy in Washington and the State Department, or our two Embassies in Cairo. On the contrary I should like to record that the co-operation between all of us has been constant and cordial, the interchange of ideas entirely free. Indeed, I hope that, in response to a suggestion of the State Department, our Embassies in Cairo will now be able to work out together a joint intelligence appreciation of the Egyptian situation including perhaps the Sudan. But it seems to me that the divergencies between us, if divergencies there are may derive from something deeper than the normal exchange of views on current affairs can put right. It is for this reason that I am writing to you now.

May I first re-state our position? We are in Egypt by virtue of a Treaty freely negotiated with the Egyptian Government in 1936. That Treaty has five years to run before the mechanism provided in it for revision at the request of either party comes into play; there is no provision in it for unilateral denunciation. That is the legal basis for our position although it is true that we have not found it possible to keep quite strictly within the exact terms of the treaty; but even more imporant that the legal basis, perhaps is the underlying reality to which the Treaty gives expression. That reality is that Egypt is not, and never will be able to defend herself against aggression by a major Power. We saw that in the last war, and no doubt we shall see it again if—contrary to all our hopes and efforts—there should be another war. But Egypt is important not only for herself but as the key to defence of the whole of the Middle East. I do not wish to recite again the importance of the Middle East to the defence of the free world: on that I think we are perfectly agreed. But we are advised that we cannot hope to defend the Middle East with the forces [Page 373] now at our disposal, or likely to be at our disposal in the foreseeable future, without the existence of a main base in Egypt. That base must be already there in time of peace, if we are to have a chance of holding the Middle East on the outbreak of war; and it must be there not merely as a dump, but as a live, going concern. We cannot move it out of Egypt, because not only would the expense be prohibitive, but also there is nowhere else where it can conveniently go. This was agreed between our Chiefs of Staff and yours, together with our political representatives, during the discussions last October.1 Since then we have again considered the matter exhaustively and have come to the conclusion that strategically and logistically the base must be located in Egypt. We must have troops to guard the base, and to be ready for use in an emergency in the Middle East. We are prepared to agree that the Egyptians should in due course take over some of the guard duties, but we should still have to find some alternative location for our troops and this would take time. What the Egyptians cannot do, and of this we are convinced by our many years’ experience of dealing with them, is to maintain the base itself as a live organisation. Furthermore, it is useless to have a base and headquarters in Egypt unless there is some air defence organisation to protect them from air attack, and this equally the Egyptians cannot provide in the foreseeable future.

I do not wish to dilate further on this point, because I can hardly believe that, at this time of day, there can be any serious difference between us regarding the general need for bases in advance of the outbreak of any war. After all we are very glad to have United States bomber bases in this country and we do not see why the Egyptians should object to our presence for similar reasons in their country. I should just like to repeat that we do not regard ourselves as being in Egypt simply for the maintenance of our own interests, or those of the Egyptians for that matter, but because we feel that we must bear this responsibility on behalf of all freedom-loving nations. No question of imperialism exists.

We appreciate that the Egyptians may resent this fact, and that their resentment has its roots in the past. But how deep does that resentment go? We know, from many conversations we have had with leading Egyptians and even with members of the present Egyptian Government, that they are to a great extent the prisoners of their own propaganda. Such people realize in their hearts that we have to stay in Egypt, even though some of them may regret it. Others of them say frankly that so long as we are there they will be able to divert on to our heads the wrath that should fall upon them for their corrupt and inefficient form of oligarchial government. Our task, [Page 374] therefore, it seems to me, is to provide if possible some means whereby at any rate those Egyptians who have goodwill towards us can accept the continued presence of British troops in Egypt, and thus avoid a direct clash.

As you know, we have already made an offer to the Egyptians which goes as far as, or even farther than we can safely afford. On the 11th April last, His Majesty’s Ambassador in Cairo proposed to the Egyptian Minister for Foreign Affairs that the 1936 Treaty of Alliance should be revised so as to provide for:—

the phased withdrawal of British troops from Egypt beginning within one year of the conclusion of an agreement on the revision of the Treaty and ending in 1956 (it should be noted that the rate of the withdrawal of the combatant troops and of General Headquarters depends largely on the rate at which accommodation can be provided for them elsewhere);
the progressive civilianisation of the base, which should be concluded by 1956, essential British civilian personnel being introduced as military personnel are withdrawn. The base would thereafter be entrusted to the Egyptian armed forces for security purposes but operated in accordance with British military policy under the overall administrative control of an Anglo-Egyptian Control Board;
the creation of a long-term Anglo-Egyptian coordinated air defence system in which there should be both Egyptian and British components;
the provision at an early date of arms and equipment on training scale for the Egyptian forces and thereafter the provision of whatever further arms and equipment may be necessary in equal priority with other nations with whom we have working defence agreements;
in the event of war, imminent menace of war, or apprehended international emergency, Egypt would agree to the return of British forces for the period of the emergency and would grant to them and to our allies all necessary facilities and assistance.

These proposals were flatly rejected by the Egyptians on 24th April, without even any discussion. The Egyptians merely repeated their own demands for total evacuation within a year.

I may add here in parenthesis that we have also been discussing the question of the future of the Sudan with the Egyptians and have tried to formulate certain principles to which both we and they could subscribe, but again we have reached deadlock over the Egyptian insistence on the unity of Egypt and the Sudan under the Egyptian Crown, whatever the wishes of the Sudanese may be. It is our view that these wishes must be the decisive factor on this aspect.

On the 6th August the Egyptian Foreign Minister in a speech in the Senate declared that he considered that negotiations between us were now closed. He chose as the pretext for this my own speech in the foreign affairs debate in the House of Commons on 30th July, [Page 375] in which I had been at particular pains to express our desire for cooperation with Egypt on the basis of equality and partnership.2 In these circumstances, we must reckon on the possibility that, despite the efforts we have made, the next step by the Egyptians may be the unilateral denunciation of the 1936 Treaty.

Meanwhile, we are trying to work out, with your Government’s agreement, the organisation of an Allied Middle East Command. Apart altogether from the general desirability of such an organisation, on which I think we are agreed, I personally am most anxious that the setting up of this Command should afford us an opportunity of a new approach to the Egyptians. If we had to leave Egypt, not only would the establishment of the proposed Allied Command be of little practical value but the effect on the Turks might be most unsettling; apart from this, it is surely in all our interests to see if we cannot offer to Egypt a settlement of the political problems which any reasonable person could hardly reject. The details of the proposed Command, and of the manner in which Egypt should be associated with it, are at present under study. What, however, I have in mind is that the headquarters of the Command should be located in Egypt, provided the latter agrees, and that Egypt should be offered a special position within the Command itself. We are also considering whether the proposals which we have already made to the Egyptian Government could be modified in any way in order to fit in with this conception.

So far I have said little about the divergencies between us. Indeed, I hope that on reading this statement of our views, you will think that they do not amount to much. But if there is anything that you disagree with here, or any suggestion which you have to make, I do hope that you will not hesitate to say so.

The plain fact is that we cannot afford to leave Egypt entirely, and I can assure you that no British Government, of whatever complexion, could offer to do so and hope to remain in office. We cannot afford to leave Egypt, because we need her, and we need her not only for ourselves, but for all of us who are determined to resist any attack upon our way of life. If the Egyptians will recognise the fact, so much the better; but if not, we and they will have to take the consequences of our remaining nonetheless. It is difficult to foresee exactly what those consequences may be, but whatever they are, they can hardly be worse than the abandonment of our essential requirements in Egypt and loss of control of the land bridge to Africa. Moreover, there is at least a chance, in my view, that if we show a firm and united front, while demonstrating our willingness to meet the reasonable wishes of [Page 376] Egypt, the consequences of a refusal to withdraw may not be so very terrible after all.

In any case, in facing these facts I should like to feel able to count upon American support, both as regards working out now one more line of approach to the Egyptians, and if that fails, in resisting all attempts to dislodge us, whether they be made in the Security Council of the United Nations or elsewhere.

I should, however, be much worried if the Egyptians got the impression (as did the Persians in the earlier days of the present oil discussions)3 that the United States was against us and could be relied upon, therefore, to side with them against the British. Such an impression would give us all the maximum of trouble.

Perhaps we may talk about all this in Washington,4 but I wanted you to know of my views meantime. I hope also that between now and then it may be possible for these thoughts to be considered in the course of further politico-military talks between our representatives in Washington.5

Yours sincerely,

Herbert Morrison
  1. For documentation on the United States–United Kingdom military talks of October 26, 1950, see Foreign Relations, 1950, vol. v, pp. 217 ff.
  2. Extracts of Morrison’s July 30 remarks in the House of Commons and of Foreign Minister Salaheddin’s speech to the Egyptian Senate of August 6, together with a subsequent exchange of notes between Morrison and Egyptian Prime Minister Nahas Pasha, dated August 17 and 26, respectively, are printed in Documents (R.I.I.A.) for 1951, pp. 455–462.
  3. Regarding the Anglo-Iranian oil dispute, see p. 544.
  4. Reference is to the forthcoming meetings of the Foreign Ministers of the United States, United Kingdom, and France, at Washington, September 10–14; for documentation, see vol. iii, pt. 1, pp. 1163 ff.
  5. In telegram 956 from London, August 21, marked “Eyes only Secretary,” Minister Julius Holmes reported “Strength of Brit feeling on Egyptian defense question, which is revealed in Morrison’s note to you, was stressed to me at luncheon yesterday by Slessor, Chief Air Staff, who emphasized firm Brit decision, fully concurred in Brit C[hiefs of] S[taff] and Min Def, to remain in Egypt under 1936 Treaty if no other solution to problem cld be worked out.” Holmes added that Slessor had informed him that Morrison’s letter was in response to a telegram from Ambassador Franks “reporting a conversation with a Dept official in which latter was quoted as saying that if trouble comes over Egypt UK cannot count on US support.” (774.5/8–2151)