237. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, July 2, 19561


  • Dhahran Air Base Negotiations


  • Reuben Robertson, Deputy Secretary of Defense
  • Gordon Gray, Assistant Secy of Defense, International Security Affairs
  • Mr. McGuire, Deputy Assistant Secy of Defense, Internat. Security Affairs
  • Admiral Truman Hedding, Special Asst to Admiral Radford
  • Robert Murphy, Deputy Under Secretary of State
  • Allen Lightner, Deputy Assistant Secretary, P
  • David Newsom, NE
  • George Allen, Assistant Secretary of State, NEA
  • Mr. Bennett, G

Mr. McGuire opened the discussion on US-Saudi Arabia negotiations for extension of the Dhahran air base agreement by stating that the Pentagon now has two matters under study in that connection: (1) The State Department draft of a proposed letter to King Saud from the President.2 (2) The “package” that Defense would be [Page 380] willing to offer the Saudis in event a suitable agreement on the Dhahran base is reached. He recognized that Ambassador Wadsworth is awaiting instructions from Washington. He said that Admiral Radford did not very much like the idea of the letter, while OSD is rather favorable to sending one.

He pointed out that the letter, as drafted, rather puts it up to the Saudis that unless we can reach reasonable agreement with them on extension of base rights, we are prepared to get out of the base. What if the King says, “All right, get out”? We have not considered what our next move would be. What if the King says, “All right, we’ll negotiate”? We have not determined the size of our “package”. He argued that the problem is really a political one and one calling for a government decision rather than Defense Department or air force determination. He does not object so much to sending a letter as to the fact that we have not yet decided on our next move after sending it. Admiral Hedding indicated that this was also substantially the view of Admiral Radford.

Mr. McGuire indicated that US has an investment of approximately 50 million dollars in the air field and fixed installations there, plus another 25 million dollars worth of movable facilities. The Air Force Department is now studying the problem on an urgent basis to determine the upper limit of size of the “package” it would be prepared to offer the Saudis. He indicated Secretary Quarles as having an interest in putting the operation of Dhahran on more of a civilian basis, in other words, something somewhat more subtle than the existing arrangement which involves the presence of some eleven hundred men in Air Force uniform. Mr. McGuire expressed the hope that the US negotiating position would be made firm in the near future, as he thought it would be bad tactics for the US to request a second temporary extension of the agreement. It would be much better, in his opinion, to have the other side ask for an extension while considering US terms.

Mr. Allen expressed the opinion that on Dhahran, as in other places around the world, we should face up to the problem there and insist that the Saudis also face up to it. If they do not wish us to be there, then we should know it and should be prepared to get out. Unless there is a reasonable attitude of cooperation on the part [Page 381] of the Saudis, or any other government on whose territory we have defense facilities, then our arrangements are not on sound ground anyway, no matter how specific our agreements may be. We would be in a much better position to say to any government with which we are negotiating that we have other alternatives, that if they do not wish to have us there we do not wish to be there. This would improve our world-wide position. Deputy Secretary Robertson, Mr. Murphy and others expressed general opinion with Mr. Allen’s views, and all agreed on the desirability of sufficient flexibility on the part of the US to enable it to withstand gouging and unreasonable demands and conditions by other countries presumably cooperating with us for mutual benefit rather than solely for financial considerations. Admiral Hedding pointed out that the adoption of such an attitude on our part would mean a new pattern of relationships everywhere we have bases and that this could have both good and bad aspects.

At this point Deputy Secretary Robertson called the attention of the meeting to the letter just received in Defense from Secretary Dulles suggesting an urgent study by State and Defense of the general problem of overseas bases and of the need for increased flexibility in our policy on bases in the light of rising nationalism abroad.3 He expressed satisfaction over the letter, and Mr. McGuire commented that it was most timely. The latter said that the JCS had just been asked to study the same problem and the letter from the Secretary of State would complement and support that study. Mr. McGuire indicated that the JCS was undertaking to determine the priority of various of our overseas bases—Iceland, Morocco, the Azores, Spain, Dhahran, etc. In just what order of importance for US vital interests do these various bases stand?

Mr. Murphy took occasion to call attention to the Department’s recent experience in asking JCS views on the importance to the US of bases in such areas as Morocco and Dhahran. He remarked that up to now we have always been told that the base in question is considered absolutely essential and that the US must continue to have use of it. He pointed out that such a position obviously affects our negotiating position vis-à-vis the foreign government, and reduces our area of maneuver in negotiations.

Mr. McGuire suggested that we need to establish a rental basis for the use of overseas territory. He asserted that the negotiations with Libya set a reasonable pattern and pointed out that the Libyan facilities are at least twice as large as Dhahran in territory and that [Page 382] we possess much broader rights in Libya. He indicated Secretary Quarles’ view that the Air Force budget will simply not allow the payment of 50 million dollars a year to Saudi Arabia for rights at Dhahran.

There was discussion of various alternatives in handling the Dhahran situation such as, for instance, having the Dhahran base operated by a civilian airline with rights retained to put it on a war footing if necessary. Mr. Allen mentioned that the Saudis had actually made an approach to TWA indicating an interest in having TWA operate the field. It was agreed that this should be looked into.

In a further consideration of the proposed letter to the King, Mr. Murphy said that he was very loath to bring the President into the situation directly with the King at this stage of the negotiations. He felt that this would be using our heaviest ammunition too soon and suggested that it would be preferable for Ambassador Wadsworth to make another approach to the King. The Defense officials indicated concurrence with this viewpoint and, at Mr. McGuire’s request, Mr. Newsom was designated by Mr. Murphy to sit down immediately with a Defense committee to work out a draft telegram to Jidda, instructing the Ambassador to approach the King and talk along the lines of our readiness to quit Dhahran in the event no reasonable arrangement for its continued use could be worked out. There was general agreement with Mr. Murphy’s view that the Saudis would not have desire to have the Soviets move into Dhahran even if the US should leave, although Mr. Allen pointed out that it might be the Egyptians who would take over.

Mr. Murphy indicated that Mr. MacArthur would be working on the worldwide bases problem in follow-up to the Secretary’s letter to Defense.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 711.56386A/7–256. Secret. Drafted by Bennett. Initialed by Murphy.
  2. On June 19, in a draft memorandum to Burdett, Newsom forwarded a second draft of a proposed letter from the President to Saud. According to Newsom, the idea of sending a Presidential letter posed a number of problems, from giving the Saudis the impression that the United States attached too great an importance to the airfield, to involving the President directly in the negotiations. Instead, Newsom proposed that Wadsworth make an appeal to the King regarding “pressures” (which Newsom did not further explain), and that the United States make a counteroffer of pilot training, an air terminal, or economic aid. If this failed, Newsom concluded, the United States might propose a formula for civilian control of the airfield. (Ibid., NEA/ARP Files: Lot 69 D 547, Dhahran Airfield, Memos—Miscellaneous (Inter-Office, to Sec. etc.))
  3. On June 28, in a letter to Wilson, Dulles forwarded a memorandum entitled “Preservation of U.S. Overseas Military Bases, Operating Rights, and Facilities”. (Ibid., Central Files, 711.56300/6–2856)