AF files, lot 56 D 412, “Ambassador Dudley—1949–1952”

The Officer in Charge of West, Central, and East Africa Affairs (Feld) to the Ambassador in Liberia (Dudley)

secret personal

Dear Ed: As you know, we are desperately trying to keep Roberts Field in operation, but after a number of weeks’ consideration of the problem the Air Force told us two days ago that, despite an exhaustive review (as a result of Mr. Byroade’s intervention with the highest Pentagon authorities1 and also no doubt President Truman’s interest which you stimulated last July) it could not continue indefinitely to finance the field. I am enclosing copies of self-explanatory memoranda of conversations on this subject.2 You will gather from reading these memoranda that the Air Force is willing to continue to supply funds until June 30, 1953, if (and it’s a very big if) the State Department will give it a firm commitment that it will obtain funds to finance the field from some other source (MSA and TCA have been mentioned as possibilities) from the beginning of FY 1954 onward.3

Doug Smith of ED has been exploring various possibilities of financing the field, and has written a memorandum on the subject, a copy of which I am also enclosing for your information and comment.4 I have also written a brief justification of the field on strategic, political, economic and civil aviation grounds,5 but I think you should realize that [Page 493] the Air Force’s review denied the military justification on the grounds that Roberts does not fit into any of their plans for jet aircraft, etc.

There are so many differences of opinion regarding the field, the pros and cons of spending more money on Roberts or thinking more in terms of improving Payne air strip up to international standards, that I would like to solicit your views on the entire problem. I talked with Bucky Bryan in MSA/S (Martin’s office)6 yesterday and gathered that there is little if any chance that the project can be financed from MSA funds.*Byroade, in a recent meeting, was very lukewarm about the idea of asking TCA to put in a budget request for the project, but we may wind up with no other alternative. Oscar Meier, who was once not too interested in using TCA funds for the field, now seems much more sympathetic and, as a last resort, we might have to ask Mr. Byroade to agree to TCA financing if the TCA high command is itself agreeable. Heretofore, TCA policy has been not to finance airfields in Africa, because TCA has the philosophy that it should interest itself only in essential forms of transportation, such as roads, railways, harbors, etc. In Africa, however, air transport is almost the rule rather than the exception, and is not an additional form of luxury transport where the other more usual forms of surface transport simply do not exist.

Last week I lunched with Ross Wilson and Larabee, and Wilson expressed the view that the MATS engineers have estimated the cost of needed repairs too high. According to Wilson, it would not take anywhere near a million dollars to repair the runway intersection, etc. I am very confused as to who is right, but tend to go along with the larger estimate. I understand that Jim Rives7 also thinks the MATS estimates are inaccurate. He seems to think that the MATS estimates tend to vary depending on the weather at Roberts. In other words, if they visit the field during the rainy season, the estimate is high, because conditions look so bad, but, if another MATS group sees the field during the period of good weather, they are not so extravagant about the cost of repairs. It’s hard to get a completely objective picture out of all this welter of conflicting opinion.

This dithyrambic is merely intended to present to you various facets of the problem as I see it here. It would be very helpful, indeed, if you would let me have your own views as soon as possible. I am particularly anxious to have your answers to the following questions:

Should we try to get TCA to finance Roberts, if all else fail; and, if so, under what terms and conditions?
What would be the reaction of Firestone and the other American business interests in Liberia if the field were closed down? Also what would they be prepared to do, in your opinion, to prevent this from happening?
What would be the reaction of the Liberians if Roberts were closed down?
Would you consider it wise to let Roberts go and concentrate on building up Payne air strip to international standards; and, if so, on what terms and conditions?
Would the Liberians be interested in obtaining a loan to finance the needed airfield improvements at Payne Field, assuming such a loan could be arranged?
Would it be feasible for Pan-Am to operate an improved Payne Field under an arrangement with the Liberian Government similar to the one under which TWA operates Ethiopian Airlines?

I shall await your reaction to the above with great interest,8 but in the meantime, I want to assure you that we shall do everything we can to keep Roberts Field in Operation. If you can condense your ideas into a cable, you could save a lot of time by cabling your views.

[Here follows a discussion of personnel matters.]

With very best regards to you and the staff,

Very sincerely,

Nicholas Feld

P.S. Leo9 has read this letter and suggests that I add in this postscript our view that the continuation of Roberts Field would be much more in the U.S. national interest than the building up of Payne air strip as a substitute for Roberts. While I think I understand the Liberians’ objections to Roberts, which seems to be historically associated in their minds with the Firestone concession, the U.S. Air Force’s exclusive wartime jurisdiction, and U.S. control in general, I feel that it would be more efficient and probably more economical in the long run to improve the present facilities at Roberts than to switch to a field which will have to be built more or less from scratch at a cost of perhaps $900,000, at the very least. Anyway, the Liberians haven’t got that kind of money for an airfield project. If they are going to have a field of international standard in their country, it looks as if U.S. funds will have to pay for it, and if this is granted, [Page 495] we ought to have the greater voice in determining where the money should be spent. Incidentally, the figure of $900,000 is one mentioned by Jim Rives. Doug Smith, you will note, speaks of $5,000,000.

  1. Byroade had met with Frank Nash, Assistant Secretary of Defense, on Sept. 11; see the memorandum of conversation, p. 487.
  2. None printed.
  3. This was revealed to Thayer and Feld at a meeting called by Milton M. Turner, Special Assistant to Secretary of the Air Force Thomas Knight Finletter, on Oct. 16. (AF files, lot 56 D 418, “Transportation & Communication–1952”)
  4. Not printed. In submitting his “Justification for Continued Operation of Roberts Field, Liberia” to Feld on Oct. 8, Smith indicated his lack of certainty as to the accuracy of all of his statements. (976.524/10–852)
  5. Not printed.
  6. Belton O’Neal Bryan was a Special Assistant to the Director, Office of the Special Assistant for Mutual Security Affairs and Edwin M. Martin was the Special Assistant to the Secretary for Mutual Security Affairs.
  7. Bryan just informed me that Martin will not consider our proposal and he also doubts whether TCA can “scare up” any money either. Prospects seem pretty bleak. [Footnote in the source text.]
  8. Public Works Adviser.
  9. Dudley replied to these questions in a letter of Nov. 7 as follows: He recommended that TCA make an outright grant to repair the runways while Liberia would assume the current operating expenses. He believed that this would require an agreement between Pan American Airways and the Liberian Government. If the field closed, he suspected that American businesses would utilize Air France’s DC–3s at Payne Air Field. He thought the Liberians would feel bitter and betrayed should the field close and would seek aid from the French. Dudley opposed building up Payne Field which he considered too costly. But he assumed that the Liberians would welcome a loan to accomplish that end since Roberts Field was too far removed from Monrovia. Though he was unfamiliar with the details of the TWA operation in Ethiopia, he thought it likely that PanAm could manage an improved Payne Field under an arrangement with the Government of Liberia. (AF files, lot 56 D 412, “Ambassador Dudley—1949–1952”)
  10. Leo G. Cyr.