163. Letter From the Ambassador in Libya (Tappin) to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern, South Asian, and African Affairs (Palmer)1

Dear Joe: This is my New Year’s present to you. It is the first really important letter that I have written you and, if you can find time to think it over carefully, you may even conclude that it is one of the most important letters that you have received in some time. It originally set out to be a cable, but it was soon obvious that it would be too long for such treatment.

For most of the slightly over two years that I have been Ambassador to Libya, I have been conscious of the fact that there were great opportunities for positive diplomacy in this country. … The existence of such a circumstance depended upon the overplaying of their hands by the Egyptians and Soviets. Both of them have done so and the Libyans, who are intensely realistic, have now come to realize that their interests, both ideological and material, can best be served by facing in a new direction.

This is not to say that the Libyans are prepared to abandon their fundamental Arabism; however, it is to say that they would now like to become a part of that part of the Arab World, North Africa, which seems to be progressing towards a brighter future through logical relationships with the West.

It is my impression that the greatest handicap that Libya has had to overcome, in the thought processes of officials of the United States Government, is the fact that she is a very poor country, populated by a largely illiterate people who number only 1,150,000, and having but 2% of her land arable. This has led many in Washington to suppose that Libya was not worth much time or thought. Actually, quite the contrary is the truth. The sheer fact of her pressing needs makes Libya a veritable bargain basement, where extraordinary values can be had at a very low cost.

It is my duty to make Washington see what we all see here and to find the words and methods of persuasion that will cause Washington to respond to the great opportunity presented by current Libyan developments. To accomplish this, I must count on you and so you are the first one whom I have set out to persuade.

Begin persuasion (this is where the original cable would have begun):

[Page 460]

From Tripoli it is clear that the U.S. Government is moving positively in several fields to make the most of the opportunity presented by a sharp Libyan shift in a Westward direction. I am not too modest to state that this shift represents a major political triumph for this Embassy. It also represents an important achievement for overall U.S. foreign policy. It was directly caused by the soundness of the U.S. position on Middle East issues in recent weeks and by a strenuous and successful application of personal diplomacy in Tripoli. The net result is most encouraging to all of us here, but you must realize that we are figuratively as well as literally “on the spot.”

The fact which disturbs us most is this: While all U.S. relations with Libya—diplomatic, military, economic and informational—are handled on a team basis and directed towards the achievement of the stated objective of enabling Arab Libya to act in its own best sovereign interests, regardless of geographic location and membership in the Arab community, we suspect that in Washington the several principal elements of Libyan-American relations are being handled to a considerable extent in separate compartments. Since the “country team” approach has proved such an effective instrument for policy formulation and implementation here, could not Washington form a similar body under your Chairmanship (as discussed with me by Deputy Under Secretary Murphy last March) to backstop the Libyan program and act on Embassy recommendations? This Embassy understands that specific elements of the U.S. program in Libya must be handled by appropriate U.S. Government agencies, but the inexperienced Government of Libya tends to view the U.S. Government as a single coordinated entity. In reorienting its national policies along lines it is confident we will approve, the Government of Libya supposes that U.S. policy for Libya in final analysis is no more nor less than the sum of its parts and that at some point that policy can be identified and effectuated as a single entity.

The following is a quick list of major items of U.S. assistance to Libya currently under consideration:

Assistance in the establishment of an adequate Federal Armed Force (Embtel 429);2
Assistance in eliminating Egyptians from the educational system (Embtel 444);3
Financing the rehabilitation of the Tripoli power system (Embtel 440);4
USOM/L staffing requirements (Embtel 426);5
The Wheelus Field–Tripoli Road (Embtel 243);6
The level of development assistance for FY 58.

Admittedly, all of the above bear dollar signs, large in Libyan terms but small in terms of positive U.S. gains possible here. In round figures, a real job can be done here for about $15.8 million this fiscal year and $23.1 million in FY 1958. The attached breakdown7 shows roughly where the money would go and what segments of the program are already part of our firm commitments. These sums are not large even if we received in exchange only a strong position in Libya. However, I am still wed to the “show-window” concept and convinced that the benefits of an exemplary set of US-Libyan relations would spill over into North Africa on the one hand and the Arab League on the other. But the important fact, worth repetition, is that Libya in preparing to permanently orient her policies Westward must be able to depend upon sympathetic U.S. support in a material as well as a moral sense.

Another major element of U.S.-Libyan relations which must be discussed separately from the foregoing list is the expansion of U.S. military facilities in Libya. I urge strongly that the closest liaison be maintained in Washington between those responsible for establishing defense requirements and those responsible for backstopping Libyan political programs. This Embassy naturally is not in a position to evaluate the military necessity for expanded facilities here, but we can state without fear of contradiction that if the necessity exists and if the U.S. Government makes a reasonable effort to meet Libyan political reorientation halfway by providing an adequate basis for economic development, then this is the best place in this part of the world to acquire additional facilities right now.

Recent developments in Libyan-Tunisian relations,8 highlighted by the forthcoming visit of the Prime Minister to Tunis, clearly [Page 462] foreshadow closer relations between Libya, Tunisia and Morocco, with Algeria obviously a fourth candidate for membership in an eventual North African “combination.” This Embassy has long advocated the validity of a “Southern Tier Concept” trying together through coordinated programs the independent states of North Africa with the Sudan and Ethiopia, not as a military combination, but as a combination of countries which can be drawn into closer relationships with the United States and the West by purely economic and political tactics. The basic strategy would be to prove to the Afro-Asian world that reciprocal friendship with the United States is mutually beneficial. The above evolution has already begun and the main question is simply whether or not the U.S. will have enough imagination to assist in and benefit from the process.

In the light of all of the foregoing and of all we have been reporting from here by letter, cable and despatch for a couple of years, it is not [now?] abundantly clear that we have been granted a real opportunity to establish, at a very low cost, an exemplary set of relations with an Arab country, one that will assure us a great psychological victory throughout the Afro-Asian World at the same time that it assures the maintenance of our strategic military position here? Has any Arab country given a clearer or more deserving indication of its intention to cast its lot with us? Is not this opportunity great enough to warrant an extraordinary effort by Washington? Can’t we get away from the pennypinching and the delays? Can’t we cut the red tape? Can’t we snatch a bargain when we see one? Add up the total cost of generous self-stimulated and prompt action on the various types of assistance currently under consideration for Libya and ask yourself where else you could buy similar political and military advantages for a comparable price. I just cannot bring myself to believe that Washington officialdom is so busy or so blind or that this Embassy has been so deficient in its presentation that the opportunity is not thoroughly apparent.

With kind personal regards and looking forward to seeing you in London,

Sincerely yours,

John L. Tappin9

P.S. By the way, all the recommendations in this letter will exacerbate Nasser.

. . . . . . .

  1. Source: Department of State, AF/AFS Files: Lot 62 D 406, Miscellaneous. Secret; Official–Informal.
  2. Telegram 429, December 21, reported that Bin Halim had recently informed Tappin that Libya would like to have the United States assume the entire arms burden for the country. (Ibid., Central Files, 773.56/12–2156)
  3. Telegram 444, December 31, called for ICA financial assistance to Libya to make possible the replacement of Egyptian teachers who were viewed as a dangerous influence. (Ibid, 873.43/12–3156)
  4. Telegram 440, December 29, discussed the difficulties involved in trying to finance the power plant rehabilitation. (Ibid., 873.2614/12–2956)
  5. Telegram 426, December 21, urged that approval be given to the request for U.S. technicians at a level higher than ICA seemed willing to fund. (Ibid., 773.5–MSP/12–2156)
  6. Telegram 243, October 25, justified such a road on military, economic, political, and public relations ground and noted that it would eliminate a dangerous driving condition that often produced problems. (Ibid., 711.56373/10–2556)
  7. The attachment, a table of estimated aid to Libya for fiscal years 1957 and 1958, is not printed.
  8. A friendship treaty between Libya and Tunisia was signed on January 6, 1957, and ratified on May 11. An English translation of the operative portion of the treaty was provided in despatch 245 from Tunis, January 14, 1957. (Department of State, Central Files, 672.731/1–1457)
  9. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.