344. Editorial Note

On March 21, at least 68 people were killed and more than 220 were injured in Sharpeville, South Africa, when police fired on demonstrators who were participating in country-wide protests against the South African pass laws. At the Department of State press briefing on March 22, in response to a query from a news correspondent, Director of the Office of News Lincoln White read the following statement:

“The United States deplores violence in all its forms and hopes that the African people of South Africa will be able to obtain redress for legitimate grievances by peaceful means. While the United States, as a matter of practice, does not ordinarily comment on the internal affairs of governments with which it enjoys normal relations, it cannot help but regret the tragic loss of life resulting from the measures taken against the demonstrators in South Africa.”

Telegram 49 to Capetown, March 22, informed the Embassy that the statement had been prepared in view of the prominent press attention to the incident and the impossibility of avoiding press questioning. It stated that White had refused to interpret the statement and declined to comment on further questions. (Department of State, Central Files, 745A.00/3–2160)

President Eisenhower raised this with Secretary of State Herter at a meeting at 8:45 a.m. on March 24. The relevant portion of a memorandum of the meeting by Andrew J. Goodpaster, reads as follows:

“The President said he had seen in the newspapers a statement from the State Department deploring actions in South Africa, and asked about this. Mr. Herter said he had not heard about this until after the statement had been made to the press. He is furious about it, [Page 742] regarding it as a breach of courtesy between nations. It occurred through internal failure within the State Department whereby a bureau chief proposed a statement and the press office released it without checking at the top policy level, and without investigating the facts of the matter. The President said the fat is in the fire. All he could see to do would be to call in the South African Ambassador and tell him that, although we are much distressed by events in South Africa, we do not regard it as our business to make public statements about this, and officially regret having done so. This action should be kept secret. In further discussion, the President agreed that this action might be taken through our Ambassador in South Africa if Mr. Herter wishes. The President said that, if it were his decision, he would find another post for the bureau chief involved.” (Eisenhower Library, Staff Secretary Records)

A March 24 memorandum from Secretary Herter to Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Andrew H. Berding reads in part as follows:

“The appearance in the press Wednesday morning of the Department’s rather strong statement deploring the police violence in South Africa took me by surprise. On inquiring, I have learned that Messrs. Dillon and Merchant were likewise not consulted before the statement was issued at noon on Tuesday.

“The issuance of a statement of this nature outspokenly critical of a Government with which we maintain friendly relations, and on a subject which not only has world-wide interest, but also involves domestic political factors—is, it seems to me, a decision to be taken only at the highest level in the Department of State.” (Ibid., Herter Papers)

Secretary Herter discussed the statement with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs James K. Penfield in a telephone conversation at 2:10 p.m. that afternoon. According to a memorandum of the conversation, he suggested that “Mr. Penfield give some thought to what could be done.” He commented that “we had jumped awfully fast on this one and made a real mistake” and that “we had clearly taken sides and might be accused of inciting a revolution.” (Ibid., Telephone Conversations)

Representative at the United Nations Henry Cabot Lodge telephoned Herter that afternoon to report that the Afro-Asian group at the United Nations was requesting an immediate meeting of the Security Council on the matter and that they had extended “unanimous thanks” to the United States for the Department’s statement; he commented that since the Secretary received so many complaints, he should be pleased “by the tremendous credit and good which has come out of this in all these countries.” (Note to Herter from “marian,” March 24; ibid.)