155. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs (Talbot) to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (McGhee)0


  • United States Responses to Tension Regarding Kuwait

Intense British concern with their large stake in Kuwait and their apparent determination to pursue a policy of firm response to the slightest indication of aggressive Iraqi intentions, led them in the last few days to order an aircraft carrier and small vessels from Kenya to the Persian Gulf area. The British Air Transport Command has been placed in an alert status. By giving these moves plenty of publicity, the British have sought to exercise a deterrent effect on Prime Minister Qasim of Iraq. The intelligence items on which the British acted did not seem to us to indicate any real danger.

These British steps may well have had the desired effect in impressing the Iraqis. Other results, however, are not so helpful. Iraq has sent a letter of protest to the President of the United Nations Security Council describing the British moves as an “aggressive, imperialistic” exercise in “gunboat policy”.1 We have unconfirmed reports of a statement from the Arab League, currently supposed to be the guardian of Kuwait’s security, criticizing the British moves. Unconfirmed press stories report UAR-Iraq “secret talks” aimed at “resolving their differences over Kuwait”. Whether or not these reports prove true, they underline the fact that the recent British actions tend to erode the principal political bulwark to Kuwait’s security, namely, Arab League support for Kuwait’s independence. Arab League intentions have been demonstrated by the stationing in Kuwait of some 2,000 troops, principally of the Jordanian and Saudi armies. UAR support for the Arab League position on Kuwait has shown some sign of weakening with the UAR’s recent withdrawal of its 150-man contingent.

We are inclined to believe that it would be extremely difficult for Qasim to launch a surprise attack on Kuwait. However, in public statements he has committed himself over and over again to the “recovery of Kuwait” and there is no doubt that a successful quick conquest would [Page 377]greatly strengthen his hand in the uneasy internal situation he now faces. He may be tempted also by the impunity with which India seized Goa.

Against these advantages and pressures Qasim must measure the strong possibility of a military defeat at British hands and possible open hostilities with the Arab League. Regarding the latter, Qasim may feel that “Arab will not fight Arab” and that there is little real determination behind the League’s intention to defend Kuwait, particularly in view of the recent withdrawal of UAR troops there. Qasim must also be aware that he probably could not occupy Kuwait without seriously disrupting the entire structure of oil production, sales and royalty payments which make Kuwait a valuable prize. Qasim may be playing a cat and mouse game with the British, hoping to wear them (and the UK treasury) down by a series of scare gestures which will make it increasingly clear to the rest of the world and the Arabs in particular that Kuwait is, after all, only a British colony.

The British have indicated they will not further intensify at present their precautionary measures with regard to Kuwait.

I propose to discuss with the British Embassy here some of the considerations set out above and we have asked our Embassies in Kuwait and London to discover the extent to which the British are encouraging the Kuwaitis to maintain Arab League support.2 Some renewed gesture of UAR interest would be particularly helpful although possibilities for this seem lessened by Nasser’s recent bitter attacks on other “reactionary regimes” in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. We have suggested that our Ambassador in Jidda seek an assessment from the Saudi Arabian Government of the present temper of Arab League attitudes toward Kuwait.3

Two other contingencies might, however, have to be dealt with with regard to Kuwait and we would propose to handle them as set out below:

British troop landings in Kuwait prior to an actual Iraqi attack. In view of the adverse political effects of British military moves, we are prepared to express to the British our views should we feel there is a sharp cleavage between our estimate of the imminence of an attack and theirs. Should there be, however, a preponderance of events indicating aggressive Iraqi moves are pending we should be prepared to act favorably on possible British requests of the type we received last summer, i.e., assistance in obtaining permission for overflights of Iran, Turkey and Saudi [Page 378]Arabia. We should be prepared to reaffirm publicly, if it would seem helpful, our acceptance of Kuwait as an independent, sovereign nation. While British determination to defend Kuwait must be clear at all times, we believe that a positive US affirmation of an intention to participate in this defense would be unnecessary and would probably strengthen Iraq’s case for greater Soviet assistance and weaken Kuwait’s posture as an independent Arab country. Thus we should refrain from public military gestures, such as the dispatch of naval vessels in support of the British position. Given substantial evidence of an Iraqi intention to attack, we should be prepared to support fully Security Council consideration of Iraq’s aggressive position.
Actual hostilities between British and Arab League forces on one side and the Iraqis on the other. In this case we would, of course, identify ourselves publicly with the British and Arab League efforts to protect Kuwait’s sovereignty. We should be prepared to consider British requests for logistic support, perhaps in supply of air transport or weapons. We have developed in planning talks in London some understanding as to the possibilities for limited US assistance in these circumstances. We should be prepared to make known to the Soviets our intention to support the British to the fullest extent but only if there should be unmistakable signs of major Soviet intervention on the side of Iraq.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 786D.00/12–2961. Secret. Drafted by Thacher (NEA/NE). A previous memorandum from Thacher to Talbot of December 27 that discussed the situation in Kuwait and U.S. options is ibid., NEA/NE Files: Lot 63 D 33, Kuwait.
  2. December 28, 1961; U.N. doc. S/5043.
  3. Telegram 366 to Kuwait and 3482 to London, December 28. (Department of State, Central Files, 786D.022/12–28621)
  4. Telegram 366 to Kuwait was repeated to Jidda as telegram 206.