197. Telegram From the Embassy in Egypt to the Department of State1

2120. Embtels 2104, 2105, 2110 and 21142 reported series items covered in talk with Nasser yesterday. However, real purpose of meeting was discuss Syria as result visit from Al Ahram editor Haikal on February 12. Haikal said that in talk with Nasser latter had recalled his approach to us through Haikal (Embtel 14263 et seq.) and felt that he owed us explanation supplemental to what he had previously told us. However, for fear that his motives would be misunderstood, he preferred I make approach (a typical but inexplicable bit of Nasserism). I obliged and yesterday’s talk was result.

Nasser said wanted make clear that at time he approached us through Haikal he had no thought of Egyptian-Syrian union except as something which might be worked out in five years or so. Situation then was that there was army-backed plant [plot?] to set up a sort of super-council composed of Azm, Bagdash, Bizri, Hawrani, Aesali and Kuwatly and ultimatum to that effect given government. Foreseeing that such a set-up would be dominated by Azm, Bagdash and Bizri, Nasser became very worried and decided intervene with army, which thereupon withdrew its demands. Nasser however was not reassured because he felt trouble was still brewing and it was at this point that he asked Haikal to approach us since he felt our attacks on Azm were merely serving to strengthen his (Azm’s), and possibly Soviet, position. At first he had hesitated do so for he might be seeming lead from weakness but he had felt necessary put his misgivings aside because Syria seemed critically threatened.

As matters turned out he had been right in expecting officers could come up with some other idea; it was unity. Nasser was dubious because of role of army and parties in chaotic Syrian political situation but union idea gained momentum as both army and government vied in advocating it.

First named Bizri with group of officers representing all segments in army to promote unity scheme. Nasser insisted that sine qua non would be elimination of army from politics and abolition of parties. Officers accepted under oath. Then came Bitar with same purpose. By [Page 428]this time there was no real government in Syria. Kuwatly resigned five times. Azm had made alliance with Communists and was planning organized new party which would probably have been sort of Communist front. Collapse was imminent. Syrian conservatives and businessmen also came to say union necessary to save from Communists. “Only the name of Nasser could save the situation" (this stated factually rather than arrogantly).

So he had taken plunge because there was no alternative and without much thought about outside reaction although he had expected both USSR and US might oppose. Re Azm, Nasser said really “bad man” and noted that whereas Egyptian commercial agreement with Soviets provides that Soviet technicians will be furnished only on request, deal which Azm made binds GOS receive 300 Soviet technicians. Nasser said he had recently been discussing this with Syrians who had, at his suggestion, just decided two days before to demand some same terms in this respect as in Egyptian agreement. Nasser felt Soviets would have no choice but to agree.

Finally, Nasser discoursed at some length, as he had done on several previous occasions, danger of military immixture in politics. He said had studied French revolution, South American history and story of Ataturk and had concluded that, whereas revolutions may be fought for principles, counter-revolutions are usually motivated by sheer opportunism. For that reason he had firmly resolved keep Egyptian Army out of politics and had even taken punitive action against some of his best officer friends who had violated rule. Now he is facing same problem in Syria and realizes it is going to be very difficult because of degree to which Syrian Army has become enmeshed in political developments. He believes he can handle but it will be rough going.

An interesting aspect of talk was obvious difficulty Nasser had in keeping chronology of events straight. In fact, at one stage he remarked that he wished he had kept diary, particularly since he had handled these matters personally without advising Egyptian Foreign Office with result no record kept. This habit of Nasser’s do business in top of head without record when coupled with obviously defective time sense may indicate that his disconserting habit of rewriting history which usually interpreted as deliberated distortion, may in fact be due in part and at times at least to confused memory. Consequence is that getting story from horse’s mouth in his case may well represent his firm recollection but still be historically defective.

Final comment is that in this conversation as in previous one January 23, Nasser refrained entirely from raking over old coals and talked with objectivity and to point. I would not suggest attaching [Page 429]undue importance to this but, to extent it has any significance, it would indicate that, for time being at least, increased responsibility is having sobering rather than inflating effect.

Hare
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 786.00/2–1858. Secret; Limit Distribution. Repeated to Damascus.
  2. Telegram 2104, February 17, reported on accusations of U.S. involvement in a conspiracy in Syria. Telegram 2105, February 17, summarized Nasser’s attitude concerning international obligations of successor states. (Ibid., 786.02/2–1758) Telegram 2110 and 2114, both February 18, summarized the discussion on Africa and Yemen. (Ibid., 786.00/2–1858)
  3. Not printed.