200. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State1

PARTICIPANTS

  • Ambassador Herve Alphand
  • The Secretary
  • John F. Simmons, U/PR2
  • William M. Rountree, NEA
  • C. Burke Elbrick, EUR

In the course of the call of the new French Ambassador this morning to present to the Secretary a copy of the credentials which will later be presented to President Eisenhower, a discussion took place of the latest developments on the Suez problem.

The Secretary read to the Ambassador a draft statement3 which he felt was called for by Nasser’s rejection of the 18 nation proposals. He then referred to this morning’s Homer Bigart article in the New York Times which he characterized as entirely inaccurate. He said, for example, that contrary to Bigart’s assertion the United States has given no thought to the Spanish “compromise plan”. The Ambassador agreed that the Bigart article was “very bad”. The Ambassador said that such articles as the Bigart article were widely disseminated in France and obviously produced a bad impression. He was entirely in agreement that something must be done to redress the situation. The Secretary said that he had thought of having the Department [Page 459]spokesman issue a denial and he hoped that it would be effective although a denial of this sort never commands the same attention as the original story.

Ambassador Alphand said that he assumed that Nasser’s proposal for a new conference does not change plans under discussion with the Secretary regarding future action. After reading the text of the Nasser statement4 which the Ambassador had taken from the Agence France Presse ticker, the Secretary said that he did not think this development would make any change in the situation, although he would like to see an official text before making any definitive comment. The Ambassador felt that this new proposal by Nasser was another effort at “foot dragging” and was merely designed to gain time. He felt that the action we contemplate taking should not be delayed.

The Secretary remarked that the new Nasser proposal seems to differ somewhat from the previous Soviet proposal for a 46 nation meeting in that it proposes a meeting of the “other signatories” of the 1888 Convention. Presumably East Germany and the Balkan States as successors to the Austro-Hungarian Empire would be invited. Nasser says that he wants differing opinions on the Suez problem to be represented at such a conference. The Secretary said that he has already been made aware of the opinion of the states responsible for over 90 per cent of Canal traffic.

The Secretary said that he wanted to clarify the point made yesterday regarding the non-payment of Canal tolls. Either one or both of two conditions must exist before the plan for refusing to pay tolls to the Egyptian company can be put into effect. We must be prepared to route shipping around the Cape of Good Hope, and/or we must be prepared to go forward with the plan for the association of Canal users. The Ambassador said that he thought that the Secretary had agreed yesterday that it would take approximately two weeks to organize such an association of users and that meanwhile we would make payments only to a blocked account. The Secretary said that if we stopped payments now it is obvious [Page 460]that the ships will not get through since we would not “fight” them through the Canal but would route them around the Cape. The Ambassador observed that only strong action would be effective now and that otherwise the “Bigarts” around the world would think that we are weak and ineffectual. At the present time the French and British are paying tolls in the UK and France and the United States is paying tolls in Egypt. The Secretary reiterated that the United States is not prepared to take action to stop paying tolls in Egypt unless the French and the British are willing to accept the consequences of routing ships around Africa. Certainly it would be highly impolitic to provoke a situation which the French and British are not prepared to accept economically. The Ambassador acknowledged the validity of this point and said he would inquire of his Government.

The Ambassador said that it is proposed that Eden make a statement on Wednesday in the House of Commons and that the French Government do the same and that the United States Government thereupon indicate its support of these two statements. The statements would include: (1) an announcement of an agreement to create, on the basis of the 1888 Convention, an interim authority of users of the Canal; (2) a description of the rights and duties of this authority; and (3) an announcement that either tankers for the supply of Europe are being rerouted or a statement to the effect that if Nasser interrupts traffic as a result of this decision we are ready to face the situation. The Secretary thought that there was some virtue in demonstrating some flexibility on our side in indicating that we are prepared to face up to a possible blockade by Egypt by routing ships around Africa. This, he felt, might make it easier to bring about “de facto” what we want to accomplish “de jure”. The offer of the users association to pay Egypt “out-of-pocket” expenses provided an intermediate position which Egypt might well accept. The discontinuance of the use of the Canal by the Western nations would cut traffic through the Canal to the point where Canal tolls would have to be raised to meet operating expenses and this in turn would impose additional burdens on the Arab and Asian countries.

The Secretary said that we are willing to consider playing this either way the British and French want. If it is only a matter of paying tolls into a blocked account he wished to make it clear that the United States was not prepared to fight its way through the Canal and would reroute ships around the Cape if they were denied passage through the Canal. Our allies must be prepared to face up to the economic implications of our decision. The Ambassador commented that the French foreign exchange position was extremely tight, and wondered whether the Secretary felt it would be possible for the French to pay francs for Western Hemisphere oil if it should become necessary to obtain it from that source as a result of the Canal closure. The Secretary said that this [Page 461]raised a difficult question, and that United States governmental assistance in this regard might require Congressional action. As the Ambassador knew, Congress is not now in session.

In reply to the Ambassador’s question the Secretary repeated that he did not think that Nasser’s action in calling for a new conference changed the position which we had previously established. The Ambassador proposed that he come with Sir Roger Makins to see the Secretary as soon as possible to show him the draft statements to be made in Paris and London this week, for which he hoped to obtain U.S. support.5

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 974.7301/9–1056. Secret. Drafted by Elbrick. The time of the meeting is from Dulles’ Appointment Book. (Princeton University Library, Dulles Papers)
  2. Chief of Protocol.
  3. Presumably the statement is the same as that issued by Dulles on September 10; see footnote 3, Document 196.
  4. On September 10, the Egyptian Government issued a statement, in which it proposed that “as an immediate step, a negotiating body should be formed which would be representative of the different views held among the states using the Suez Canal and that discussions should take place forthwith to settle the composition, the venue and the date of the meeting of such a body. To it may also be entrusted the task of reviewing the Constantinople Convention of 1888.” The Egyptian Government also affirmed its belief that solutions could be found for questions relating to: (1) the freedom and safety of navigation in the Canal; (2) the development of the Canal to meet the future requirements of navigation; and (3) the establishment of just and equitable tolls and charges. The Egyptian Embassy forwarded the text of the statement in a memorandum to the Department of State. (Department of State, Central Files, 974.7301/9–1056) The complete text of the statement is printed in The Suez Canal Problem, July 26–September 22, 1956, pp. 327–330.
  5. At 3 p.m. on September 10, Ambassador Alphand presented his credentials to President Eisenhower. The two discussed, among other topics, the Suez situation. A memorandum of this conversation is in the Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, International File and in Department of State, Central Files, 601.5111/9–1056.