210. Memorandum of a Conversation Between Adam Watson of the British Foreign Office and the First Secretary of the Embassy in the United Kingdom (Wilson), London, March 21, 19561

In handing me the attached document, Mr. Watson said that later today Mr. Selwyn Lloyd was going to show the Ambassador the message to Secretary Dulles regarding British policy toward Egypt2 mentioned in Eden’s message of March 19th to the President.3 Mr. Watson said that he did not wish to make any specific comment on this latter document in advance of the Ambassador’s call but that he hoped the Embassy would make it clear to the Department that the conclusions contained therein have been arrived at as the result of an exhaustive study of the facts. The conclusions are not the result of any hasty deductions but are the culmination of a process of re-examination of British policy toward Egypt which has been going on for some time. Mr. Watson said that just because the Foreign Office has not discussed this matter with us in any detail in recent weeks he hopes we will not jump to the conclusion that it does not take a serious view of the present situation. He said that it was as though a man should suddenly tell a friend “I have decided to divorce my wife” and on being asked why would reply “It’s a long story”. He thought that we should realize that recent British policy in other fields, such as Cyprus and Saudi Arabia, was directly tied in with the Egyptian situation.

Mr. Watson said that basically the British, and he thought the United States, had three objectives in the Middle East: (1) To prevent Soviet aggression by building up the northern tier and Baghdad Pact; (2) to preserve access to the oil of the Persian Gulf; and (3) to prevent the outbreak of an Arab-Israeli war. Recent indications of Egyptian attitudes were causing the Foreign Office to think that the Egyptians, as the conscious or unconscious tools of the Russians, might be working against all three of these objectives. He said that the British had various items of intelligence which were being made available to the Department in Washington … and which were evidence of this. One important item was contained in the attached document. I inquired whether the Foreign Office regarded this report as reliable, to which Mr. Watson replied that they were unable to evaluate it completely but at least thought it deserved [Page 390] the most serious consideration. He thought that it was highly significant that Trevelyan should have submitted this report, as until recently Trevelyan has been relatively pro-Nasser.

Mr. Watson thought that there was a good chance that we might be faced with a situation in the Middle East like that of the Spanish Civil War, with the Russians using every opportunity to muddy the waters and even to intervene directly if hostilities should break out between Egypt and Israel. In this event, as in Spain, the Russians would have a chance to try out their new weapons… . He also mentioned the tone of the Cairo broadcasts, both those beamed at East Africa and those beamed at the other Arab countries. He detected in these broadcasts, in addition to the usual pro-Moslem, anti-British line, a new and insidious note of attack on the entire Western position, with reference particularly to oil, i.e., the suggestion that the oil of the Arab countries should be exploited by the people of the area and not by foreigners.

I asked Mr. Watson whether the Foreign Office thought that Nasser had reached the point of no return in his relations with the Soviets. Mr. Watson replied that he thought that this had not yet occurred, but it appears that it will occur in the relatively near future. Therefore, it may be necessary to re-think our entire approach to Nasser. He said that the document which had gone forward to Washington and which Mr. Selwyn Lloyd would discuss with the Ambassador, did not propose any specific steps other than suggesting that the U.S. and the UK ought to get together to discuss the situation. He said that a corollary was that the UK must bring its relations with Saudi Arabia into line so that Saudi Arabia would be removed from Egyptian influence. He said, however, that both the Saudi Arabian problem and the problem of Cyprus, although they were being affected by the Egyptian problem, were of a lesser magnitude in that the UK could expect a solution of them, whereas he did not know what the solution of the Egyptian problem would be.

I mentioned the categorical statement Nasser had made last week to Byroade that he had no intention of attacking Israel.4 Mr. Watson said this was exactly what he would expect Nasser to say.

A good deal of what Mr. Watson said confirmed remarks made to me on March 19th by Mr. Bryan Shepherd, his Deputy. Mr. Shepherd pointed out that Nasser’s attitude toward the West was very different from that of last summer in that he no longer seemed to show the same desire to cooperate. There was not the same suggestion on Nasser’s part that he was being forced to choose between the Soviet Bloc and the West. The inference was that he [Page 391] had chosen the former. Mr. Shepherd cited various instances, such as the arms question, the supply of pilots for the MIGs, the situation in Libya, and the fact that in spite of what Nasser had said to Selwyn Lloyd, he had not done anything about the Cairo broadcasts. Trevelyan had again discussed this last point on March 18th with Nasser but had not gotten any satisfaction. Mr. Shepherd pointed out that if Nasser were to attack Israel under present circumstances he stood a good chance of acquiring great prestige with the other Arabs. He thought perhaps Nasser had reached the point of no return.


Memorandum Prepared in the British Foreign Office5

Sir Humphrey Trevelyan has had information from a generally well-informed source that Nasser has already decided to engage in hostilities with Israel and has even decided that June would be the best time (our troops will then be out of the Canal Zone). The report says that the Egyptian plan is to seize the territory they want quickly; and when called on by the United Nations or the three powers to stop, they would do so, but not give up the territories acquired.

Trevelyan thinks that this is a possibility which we should certainly take into consideration. Nasser seems to him to have given up the ideal of a Palestine settlement. Specific pointers quoted by Trevelyan are:
Nasser’s loss of interest in Alpha and in the Johnston Plan; and Fawzi’s warning that “opinion would harden” if the matter were not settled soon;
Nasser’s recent statements to Trevelyan that hostilities between Egypt and Israel would be so arranged that there was doubt about who was the aggressor, and that the militarily correct action for Egypt in Palestine would be to capture the Israeli forward base of Beersheba;
the importance Nasser attaches to the moment when British troops will no longer be able to cut his communications;
Nasser’s fear that the Israelis will get substantial arms from the Americans and his remark to Trevelyan that if there is to be a preventive action soon the Arabs ought to begin it;
the increase of tension and of firing in the Gaza strip;
the calling-off of the anti-Iraqi campaign and new emphasis on Arab unity;
Egyptian fear that Jordan might not support Egypt, especially while Glubb was there.
Trevelyan is afraid that if a clash occurs and the Russians step in with some outrageous statement about it being a clear case of Israeli aggression they will enormously strengthen their position in the Arab world.
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 641.74/3–2256. Top Secret. Drafted by Wilson. Barbour enclosed this memorandum of conversation with a letter he wrote to Allen on March 22.
  2. Document 208.
  3. Document 204.
  4. See Document 191.
  5. Top Secret. Makins, on March 22, forwarded a copy of this undated British memorandum as an enclosure to a covering memorandum to Hoover. (Department of State, S/SNEA Files: Lot 61 D 417, Omega #1)