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Joseph C. Satterthwaite Oral History Interview


Oral History Interview with
Joseph C. Satterthwaite

1st secretary of legation and consul, Damascus, 1944-45; asst. chief, Division of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Dept. of State, 1945-46; special asst. to the director, Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs, and acting chief, Division of Research for Near East and Africa, 1946-47, deputy director, 1947-48, director, 1948-49; and Ambassador to Ceylon, 1949-53.

Washington, D.C.
November 13, 1972
by Richard D. McKinzie

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened January, 1976
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri


[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


Oral History Interview with
Joesph C. Satterthwaite


Washington, D.C.
November 13, 1972
by Richard D. McKinzie


MCKINZIE: Mr. Ambassador, you were, I think, in charge of the Legation in Damascus at the time that President Roosevelt died and when President Truman assumed office. Do you have any recollections about what happened on the occasion of President Roosevelt's death, and how the coming to office of a new President affected your outlook and the outlook of the Middle Easterners with whom you had contact?

SATTERTHWAITE: Well, yes, I remember it very dramatically because I was in charge of our legation in


Damascus. The Minister Plenipotentiary George Wadsworth, lived in Beirut, over two ranges of mountains, and when he wasn't in Damascus I was in charge. President Roosevelt had left tremendous impressions throughout the Near East in his war efforts. I had a [condolence] book and all day long people of an amazing variety came to visit me. The Syrian officials came and signed the book. France was still officially the protecting power, and individuals from General [Paul] Beynet down to a corporal, I remember, came in and signed the book.

Most impressive to me were some of the heads of the great tribes, the still nomadic tribes on the great Syrian desert, who came in in their robes, of course, and their abbas and so on. It lasted all day long with an amazing outpouring of emotion. But they knew very little about President Truman as our Vice Presidents aren't very highly publicized overseas as a rule,


except maybe [Spiro] Agnew now a little more. And so all I could say was that we're never without a President, fortunately, and that our new President is Harry S. Truman.

MCKINZIE: The Middle East seemed to have a particular interest for President Roosevelt. There is some evidence that he wanted to use Iran, perhaps, as a test case for the Atlantic Charter, that here was a place where you could see if it was going to work. Were you aware, at the end of the war, of any expectations on the part of the Syrian Government, or any other Middle Eastern government, about development plans that they might expect the United States to help them with?

SATTERTHWAITE: Well, in connection with Iran let's go back to my days in Baghdad, which were just before World War II, and of course, the problem


we had being close to the border of Iran, and very much in touch with Iranian affairs. After the war, by the time I was in the Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs, the principal Iranian problem was Azerbaijan. The Russians had occupied it, even though they had shared the occupation with the British, but they wouldn't move out of this northern province, and this was one of our greatest problems in '45 and '46. Maybe someone would say it was some other problem, but it seems to me this was the first great success of the United Nations, because in the debates at the Security Council, it was the worldwide publicity that this problem got that in effect forced the Russians finally to pull their troops out of Azerbaijan and leave all of Iran to be governed by the old Shah.

MCKINZIE: May I interject here that President Truman wrote a book, with the help of assistants, after he did his memoirs, in which he contends that he


said to Stalin that he should withdraw the troops from Azerbaijan, or he, Truman, would send the American Mediterranean fleet into the Persian Gulf, and historians have not been able to come up with any document to Premier Stalin, suggesting that that was going to happen. In your own personal recollections...

SATTERTHWAITE: No, I don't have any recollections of that, and it seems to me he would certainly have told Dean Acheson at least, whom he thought so highly of, if it were so. I don't recall it ever having been mentioned in any of our many meetings. But I shouldn't dispute Truman if he said so.

MCKINZIE: But historians have been puzzled that such a document has never been found.

SATTERTHWAITE: Certainly I have no recollection of this. Now, as to sending the fleet into the Persian Gulf, of course, it's still a long way from the Soviet Union. One of our fears always --


and now it can be told -- secretly, was that because of the Russian desire, the Imperial Russian desire, also, to have a warm water port, they might drive down to the Persian Gulf some day. And at one time after World War II we knew they had some airborne divisions poised in the Caucasus. And we were disturbed and took counteraction, to a degree. I don't think there was any real question of our sending ships into the Persian Gulf. We had one old, mother ship there which wouldn't have deterred much of anybody and it would have been almost impossible for us to carry out an action in the Persian Gulf. The kind of action that we would have had to take would have been not of a warlike kind, but, you know, hurting the Russians in all the other ways you could think of economically. I can't imagine how we could have really frightened Stalin, even if we did have a fleet in the Mediterranean.

MCKINZIE: At that time, were you aware of the fact


that very many people in Truman's Cabinet and in the military were seeing the Middle East as an increasingly important area? Secretary [Harold] Ickes, for example, got very excited at the end of the war about the oil potential in the Middle East, as, indeed, did Secretary (Robert P.] Patterson, arguing to President Truman at one point that the United States could fight a major world war for only three years without the oil. This seemed to be a kind of new or recent concern, didn't it?

SATTERTHWAITE: I don't remember that, though it may be true. By the time I was Director of the Near Eastern and African Affairs Ickes was concerned about India in one way. Nehru was to make a trip to the U.S. and I remember Ickes got me on the phone about the details of arranging his visit, but I don't remember if anything came of it. It would have had to have come through the


White House pretty much. Ickes, being Ickes, would have dealt directly with Acheson if he wanted to, I am sure, or with Bob [Robert A.] Lovett probably. Incidentally, I had the greatest admiration for Lovett, as I did for General Marshall, but Lovett was the one that handled the details always. You see Marshall operated like a general with a chief of staff, and Lovett was his chief of staff, and he often used to tell me, "The General and I operate as a team."

MCKINZIE: Mr. Ambassador, what about the theory that the United States didn't fill the power vacuum in the Middle East as fast as it might have with the decline of the French influence, and, indeed, British influence in the Middle East, that were leaving a kind of political turmoil.

SATTERTHWAITE: If you will remember -- you may be too young to -- but the first few months after the war we were demobilizing just as rapidly as we


could, and I remember Larry [Lauris] Norstad, as a young major general, lecturing to the political officers of the State Department saying how fortunate it was that there were great new problems while we were almost completely disarmed, and so we could build up a new army.

MCKINZIE: You mentioned that when you came back to the State Department in September of 1945 there were a lot of ambassadors coming back from the Middle East, and they found President Truman relatively accessible.

SATTERTHWAITE: That's right.

MCKINZIE: What kind of things were they telling him about the Middle East?

SATTERTHWAITE: Well, he was interested in the Middle East. As I said, we were rather surprised how easy it was to make appointments for them. Actually, with one or two exceptions, they were still ministers


plenipotentiary. The posts were raised to the rank of ambassador maybe in '47 or ‘48. But anyway, they were our representatives there, and, of course, he was interested in Palestine. But remember that didn't become a real political problem until '47 and I'm talking about the fall of '45 now. And he was interested in that area, what to do about it, and what would happen there and what they were like even though a lot of people didn't know the difference between Iraq and Iran, for instance. That was certainly true of this famous general who made so much trouble in China later on -- Patrick Hurley, this picturesque general, who came to the Near East during the last days of the war, and when he was in Baghdad he was talking as if h