84. Memorandum of a Conversation, White House, Washington, June 15, 1958, 5:10–6:45 p.m.1


  • Lebanon


  • The President
  • Department of State: The Secretary, the Under Secretary, Mr. Rountree, Mr. Macomber, Mr. Hanes
  • Department of Defense: Deputy Secretary Quarles, General Twining
  • CIA: Mr. Allen Dulles
  • USIA: Mr. George Allen
  • White House: Mr. Arthur Minnich

The Secretary and Mr. Rountree first outlined the situation, which the Secretary noted had been clarified somewhat as a result of his talk with Malik about fifteen minutes previously.2 Mr. Rountree recalled that Malik called him about noon Saturday, June 14, saying he had heard from Chamoun that the situation was critical with fighting around the palace, and was close to being out of hand. Malik did not request United States intervention, but put us on notice that such a request might be imminent. Later Saturday, our own information from Beirut indicated that the immediate situation was somewhat improved, but the long-term prospects remained gloomy.

Sunday morning at 7:30 o’clock, Washington time, Malik again called Rountree and asked for an urgent meeting. At this meeting he said that he had heard from Chamoun that the situation had again worsened, with parachutists from Syria being reported in Lebanon, some 500 Egyptian-trained Palestinians fighting in Beirut, etc. Chamoun wished to have an immediate answer, to give to the Cabinet Sunday afternoon, to the question whether the U.S. would intervene militarily at once if asked.

Mr. Rountree had replied that he could not give any answer which would be suitable to transmit to Chamoun by telephone, but that we would give our answer through our Ambassador.

[Page 134]

Mr. Rountree said Malik asked later Sunday if he could call Chamoun with our approval and merely say “hold firm—do not yield”. Mr. Rountree had replied that he could not, since this was subject to various interpretations. For example, we would agree that he should not yield on any matter fundamental to the independence of Lebanon, but we would not agree that any reasonable compromise should be excluded.

The Secretary then read cable No. 47903 from the Department to McClintock giving our answer to Chamoun’s request. He also read cable No. 47104 from McClintock reporting his latest talk with Chehab.

Mr. Allen Dulles then handed an intelligence estimate5 to the President, and also referred to a telegram [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] that Chamoun had prepared a memorandum containing a 24-hour ultimatum to Chehab to take effective command of the Lebanese forces or relinquish his command. Chamoun presumably intended to discuss this with his Cabinet Sunday afternoon.

The Secretary remarked that there was much plotting going on in Lebanon, and probably there were well-advanced plans for a military coup to place Chehab in the Presidency. This effort by Chamoun to replace Chehab as army commander might bring such plans to a head.

The Secretary also noted that the U.N. is moving rapidly and vigorously to implement the Security Council resolution. Cordier is already in Beirut, and the Secretary read from USUN’s 14906 containing Cordier’s report. The Secretary noted that the Secretary General plans rapidly to recruit several hundred observers from Italy, the Netherlands, Ceylon, and Burma.

The Secretary then reported on Malik’s call at 4:30 Sunday afternoon at which time (speaking from an outline) Malik had said that any Middle East country inviting armed intervention by Western Powers would be the subject of “shame and reproach” for generations. Therefore, three prerequisities to such a request were essential:

That the request be made only “in extremis”,
That there be some Arab participation in, or support of, the intervention, even if token. In this regard, he was thinking particularly of Iraq and Jordan.
The action must have the moral support of some organ of the U.N., either the Security Council or the General Assembly.

The Secretary had told Malik this was a statesmanlike approach, and coincided with our own thinking. If we were to intervene without such conditions being met, the intervention would not succeed and actually would not help the government that had called on us for help.

The Secretary then pointed out to the President that this latest statement represented a considerable reversal of Malik’s thinking, and probably was strictly his own thinking, not shared by Chamoun or the rest of the Lebanese Government. Nonetheless, the Secretary felt that the thinking was sound, and corresponded substantially to our own original conditions for intervention, possibly somewhat up-dated. The Secretary pointed out that any intervention at this moment would be looked upon as undermining and causing to fail what some might feel is a vigorous and promising U.N. initiative, which in itself had been taken at Lebanon’s request and with which Lebanon had professed satisfaction. The Secretary felt it would be catastrophic to lay ourselves open to such a charge. Therefore, he felt that we probably ought not to make an immediate military response before exploring further with Iraq and Jordan what they were willing to do, and before taking certain further actions in the U.N. In this connection he mentioned a cable which Lord Hood of the British Embassy had just read to him from Selwyn Lloyd saying that we ought not to act until there had been at least one more round at the U.N.7

Mr. Rountree then reported that the French Charge had told the Department a few hours earlier this afternoon that a French warship was moving to the area solely for the purpose of protecting French lives in the area. The French had stressed that this action was not being taken under the Tripartite (1950) Declaration, since French help had not been requested, but was solely to protect French interests. The Admiral in command had been ordered to get in touch with U.S. and U.K. commanders in the area upon arrival in the area. The Secretary commented that the French will undoubtedly intervene if we and the British do.

There was some general discussion about the internal effect in Lebanon of intervention, and Chehab’s gloomy predictions of the response of the Lebanese army; and our own intelligence estimates of [Page 136] the army’s reaction, which were not quite so gloomy. Nonetheless, it was apparent that a substantial part of the population would undoubtedly oppose our intervention, actively or passively.

The President then asked a rhetorical question: How can you save a country from its own leaders? Chamoun, for example, has not yet fired Chehab, despite more than ample cause.

The President said he also took account of the possibility of a concurrent French intervention; and the fact that we would be in a bad spot if we intervened without the U.N. having first reported that the U.N. action was ineffective. To be legal, any intervention must be in response to a request by Chamoun in the U.N. context. The President was also reminded of the situation in the early 1950’s when the British were trying to hold a base in Suez with the entire population against them, and the impossible situation that resulted. He also recalled that our Middle East doctrine had been directed only against external aggression. The President wondered, therefore, what possible future there would be if we intervened except to remain indefinitely. He felt, in this regard, that the arguments which we had advanced to the British and French against their intervention in Suez might be pertinent also in this instance—particularly the question: Where would it lead; where would it end?

The Secretary commented that Turkey, Iran and Iraq would undoubtedly favor our intervening.

Mr. Allen Dulles commented that Chehab probably wants Chamoun to fail, since he probably wants his job.

The President commented that Chehab was symptomatic of the whole situation. There seemed nobody on whom we could pin our hopes. The President said he had little, if any, enthusiasm for our intervening at this time.

The President commented that what was really needed in Lebanon was a strong leader whom we could back strongly. Otherwise we would be intervening to save a nation; and yet the nation is the people, and the people don’t want our intervention.

The Secretary noted that if there were a “Korea-type” intervention involving many countries under the U.N. aegis, it would be a quite different situation, and probably all right. There seemed, however, little likelihood of this.

At this point, the Secretary noted the unstable and weak situation in Iraq, and Nuri’s recent intemperate statements to the U.S. and U.K. Ambassadors about the poor condition of the Arab Union.

The Secretary noted that this general weakness of pro-Western governments in the area must be considered in any action we take— we must have the proper conditions before we can take any action.

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The Secretary said that Chamoun has a good case about UAR intervention, and Malik made it quite well in the Security Council. However, Chamoun has not made it well publicly. He has not appealed to his own people, or to his parliament, or made a loud and effective public case.

Mr. Allen Dulles commented that the Soviets have not entered the Lebanese situation at all except by radio.

The Secretary then pointed out that if Chamoun calls on us and we do not respond, that will be the end of every pro-Western government in the area. This leaves us with little or no choice, even though every alternative is “wrong”. The President agreed, and noted that in such circumstances we would have to fulfill our commitments.

Mr. Rountree said we should have no illusions that if we move in militarily we must move firmly and promptly to help establish a regime which could survive our withdrawal. This would mean in all probability a pro-Western dictatorship, since there is not sufficient popular support in Lebanon for Western intervention.

The President commented that if we are forced to intervene, we should do everything possible to intervene under the most favorable auspices and circumstances, and also attempt to bolster the Lebanese army as soon as possible, so that our forces could withdraw quickly. The President directed General Twining to have the Chiefs of Staff study the military possibilities and problems involved.

The President also felt that we should examine the possibility of putting in massive military support, possibly accompanied by numbers of technicians, as the Soviets did in Syria, as an alternative to military intervention.

Mr. Rountree pointed out that the critical time for the Lebanese Government would be after it had requested outside assistance and had so reported to the Security Council, and before the military assistance arrived. Internal discontent with this move would then place the government in great jeopardy. Therefore, we must be prepared to move most promptly when the request became public.

The Secretary said that it would be unthinkable to move until some U.N. action had taken place, even though this might mean a certain delay and danger. It was agreed that the possible U.N. actions should be urgently studied.

  1. Source: Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, Eisenhower Diaries. Top Secret. Drafted on June 17 by Hanes. Another memorandum of this conversation was prepared by Minnich. (Ibid.; included in the microfiche supplement)
  2. See supra.
  3. Document 82.
  4. In telegram 4710 from Beirut, June 14, McClintock reported that he had found Chehab deeply pessimistic that morning. The General described the military situation as neither good nor bad, and added that he foresaw an indefinite struggle in which neither side could gain ascendancy. Chehab stated that it was essential for a neutral government to be formed, and said that, in his opinion, the only chance of ending the downward spiral in Lebanon was for the three Western ambassadors to impose a decision as to who the next president of Lebanon should be. (Department of State, Central Files, 783A.00/ 6–1458; included in the microfiche supplement)
  5. Reference is to SNIE 36.4–1–58, Document 77.
  6. In telegram 1490, June 13, Andrew W. Cordier, Executive Assistant to the Secretary-General, reported from Beirut that only a small portion of Lebanon’s frontier was under government control and accessible to U.N. observers. (Department of State, Central Files, 330/6–1358)
  7. The cable was summarized in a memorandum of conversation between Under Secretary Herter and Ambassador Caccia, June 15. (Ibid., 783A.00/6–1558; included in the microfiche supplement)