157. Memorandum of a Conversation, Tripoli, March 22, 1956, 3:30 p.m.1


  • Mustafa Ben Halim, Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the United Kingdom of Libya
  • Suleiman Bey Jerbi, Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the United Kingdom of Libya
  • John L. Tappin, American Ambassador to Libya
  • David G. Nes, Counselor of Embassy, American Embassy, Tripoli

Ambassador Tappin and the Embassy’s DCM, David G. Nes, met with Prime Minister Ben Halim at the latter’s home shortly following a luncheon party given there in honor of the British Secretary of War, Mr. Anthony Head.

Ambassador Tappin stated that he had now received detailed instructions from Washington in response to the Prime Minister’s letter of February 17, 1956 and that in accordance with them he was now prepared to discuss implementation of the formula suggested by the Prime Minister during his meeting with Mr. Nes on March 7 (Embtel 475).2 The Ambassador then outlined the seven items of assistance which the United States Government was prepared to extend to Libya (Subject I of attached memorandum).3 With respect to the first item, additional economic aid in the amount of $5 million for 1956, Ambassador Tappin stressed the fact that this was the figure twice suggested by the Prime Minister himself, during their [Page 446] after-dinner conversation of January 22, 1956, and at a conference in the Prime Minister’s office the following day (Embtel 368 and Despatch 262),4 as one which was economically valid and politically feasible. The Ambassador also expanded slightly on Item 7, concerning arms assistance, by stating that an increase of 1,000 men was established in light of Libya’s internal budget limitations and the availability of necessary officer material.

When the Ambassador had completed his outline of the United States assistance offers, Mr. Nes said he would like to point out that according to the best calculations of the American Embassy economic staff, the additional economic assistance proposed would enable the Libyan Government to proceed with an economic development program and that, in fact, the funds available through fiscal 1957 were slightly in excess of those required during this initial period to get such a program properly under way.

Ambassador Tappin then informed the Prime Minister of the basis on which the United States was able to contemplate continued assistance to Libya, including the five points contained in Subject II of the attached memorandum.5

Using as an opening gambit the desire of the United States Government for reassurances concerning Libya’s general attitudes towards her friendship with the United States, the Ambassador next stated that he would expect the Prime Minister to make either a public statement in Parliament answering Deputy Zugallai’s question re Soviet offers or a statement to the press independent of Parliament clearly rejecting them (Subject III of the attached memorandum). This would fulfill the promise given to Mr. Nes on March 7 by the Prime Minister (Embtel 475) and would constitute the second step in the Prime Minister’s formula.

The Ambassador then explained that additional United States assistance had been based on certain assumptions, namely that Libya would implement the verbal assurances given to the Ambassador and the Wheelus Air Force Base Commander, Colonel Cain, by the Prime Minister on January 18 (Embtel 357)6 with respect to his relations with the Soviet Union. The United States Government desires that these assurances be formalized in a written exchange of letters. The seven points to be covered (Subject IV of the attached memorandum) were then explained to the Prime Minister.7 Ambassador Tappin pointed out in addition that these assurances would [Page 447] necessarily have to apply to Soviet satellite countries as well as to the USSR itself (Subject V of the attached memorandum).

The Ambassador also said that the economic and arms assistance proposed would of course be covered by the usual agreements, as would the gift of famine relief wheat (Subject VI of the attached memorandum).

After reading Subject VII of the attached memorandum dealing with additional military facilities, Ambassador Tappin said that the decision of the United States Government, although necessarily based on budgetary and military considerations, would also be based of necessity on a confidence that Libya would provide a suitable political climate over a long-term period.

The Prime Minister, who had taken notes throughout the above presentation, stated that he would reply point by point.

Although he would necessarily require time for full consideration of everything Ambassador Tappin had said, his first reaction to the economic aid offers was that they were eminently fair and demonstrated the good will of the United States toward Libya. His own words were: “I can now stand up and defend my policy of orientation to the West, which I wish to continue”. After Ambassador Tappin had expressed his satisfaction with the Prime Minister’s reaction, the latter reiterated: “I like this offer.” Ben Halim then went into an impassioned defense of his tactics vis-à-vis the United States and stated that he had been “gambling”, not because of disillusionment with the United States failure to implement “sympathetic consideration”, but because of Libya’s real and urgent need for economic development funds. He had always been aware of United States good will and had never intended to threaten or blackmail the United States with Soviet offers. Neither had he ever wished to change Libya’s basic policy of orientation to the West. Libya was, is, and would continue to be a loyal friend. He had never intended to accept a Russian or “any other” offer of assistance. He did not trust or like the Russians. Had the temper of Parliament been such as to have forced acceptance of the Russian offers, Ben Halim stated he would have first resigned.

The Prime Minister then discussed the nature and extent of Egyptian pressure which had been exerted on him in an attempt to force him to accept the Soviet offers. Although Egypt had not made an “official” offer of economic or arms aid, Ambassador El Faki on instructions from Nasser had recently made a verbal démarche. … Digressing for a moment, the Prime Minister then referred to the Arab League and said that he thought Libya had made a great mistake in entering the League without “conditions”, since Libya’s interests in many cases were not identical with those of the other Arab States.

[Page 448]

Ben Halim then turned to the meeting of Parliament and said that he intended to hold a secret meeting on March 27 (since the formal opening of the National Bank would take place the 26th) at which he would answer Deputy Zugallai’s question regarding Soviet offers by saying that Libya had in the past received full economic and political support from the United States and United Kingdom, that he had every reason to believe such support would continue and would satisfy Libya’s needs, and that he would not therefore risk any association with the untried and unknown. Ben Halim explained that he wished to make his reply in secret session so that he could elaborate in detail on certain subversive activities in which the Soviet Embassy was already engaged and so that he could be frankly critical of the Soviet record in other areas. He would then ask for a vote of confidence, which he felt he would receive with only two or three dissenting votes. The next day the local press would announce that the Libyan Government had received a vote of confidence on its policy of rejecting the Soviet offers.8

With regard to written assurances on the seven points in which the United States was interested, Ben Halim said he could give his oral commitment on all of them with the exception of Point 7,9 which seemed to limit Libya’s right to accept aid from anyone (such as her sister Arab states) other than the United States and United Kingdom. Mr. Nes interrupted to say that this was not the intention and that the United States was only opposed to those offers of assistance specifically designed to compromise United States-Libyan relations. The Prime Minister then suggested that a formula might be devised which would take this factor into consideration and would emphasize that the “intent” of the offer would be the governing factor. As to putting these assurances into written form, Ben Halim pointed out that such a document would require Cabinet approval and that this might be difficult, since the Cabinet would immediately conclude that United States aid was conditional on written assurances limiting Libya’s sovereignty. Ambassador Tappin interrupted at this point to say that there was certainly no intention on the part of the United States to make its aid “conditional” and that what was being discussed in effect was merely a statement of Libyan policy “as it in fact is”. Such a statement would therefore be in accord with the assumptions as to that policy on which our extension of assistance was necessarily based. Mr. Nes pointed out also that, whereas the United States would never question the Prime [Page 449] Minister’s “oral” assurances, Prime Ministers were essentially temporary spokesmen for their governments, as Ben Halim surely recognized, and that therefore a written expression of the Libyan Government’s policy was necessary from the long-range viewpoint. The Prime Minister replied by saying that he would like to have more time to consider the form of such a letter of assurances and requested that Mr. Nes meet with Under Secretary Jerbi the next week to work on a draft.10

Ambassador Tappin then brought the conversation to a close by saying that he was certain his Government would be very gratified by the constructive attitude of the Prime Minister. The Ambassador mentioned that he would like to go to Tobruk to pay a courtesy call upon the King as soon as convenient. It was agreed that he and the Prime Minister would fly over together within the next week or ten days.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 773.5–MSP/3–2456. Secret. Drafted by Nes. Enclosure to despatch 327, March 24.
  2. Telegram 475 from Tripoli, March 29, reported Bin Halim’s assurance to Nes that Libya was not trying to “blackmail” the United States. Bin Halim suggested that Ambassador Tappin should provide him with private assurance of U.S. financial support, which would enable him publicly to reject the Soviet offer. Thereafter, he would proceed to Washington to conclude the needed arms and economic accords, which he would proclaim upon his return home, (Ibid., 873.00/3–856)
  3. Not printed; see Murphy’s letter, supra.
  4. See footnote 1, Document 152.
  5. See Murphy’s letter, supra.
  6. Document 151.
  7. See Document 159.
  8. The text of the speech he intended to deliver was transmitted in telegram 549 from Tripoli, March 24. (Department of State, Central Files, 873.00/3–2956)
  9. It reads: “That Libyan acceptance of economic, technical, and military assistance offers from other states will be limited to those which do not endanger U.S.-Libyan relations.”
  10. The terms of the U.S. aid offer were spelled out in a letter from Tappin to Bin Halim dated April 4. (Department of State, Central Files, 773.5–MSP/5–456)