As an electronic publication of the Truman Library, users should note that features of the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview, such as pagination and indexing, could not be replicated for this online version of the Wilkins transcript.
Opened December 1979
Oral History Interview with
MCKINZIE: Ambassador Wilkins, I think a lot of historians are interested in why people go into Foreign Service. I wonder if you could explain something about your education and why you went into the Government service in the first place?
WILKINS: I'd always been interested in Foreign Service when I was an undergraduate at Yale. But when I finished there in 1931 it was the middle of the depression, and it was very difficult to go on studying, and, in fact, because of my father's death I had to go to work right away; I had three younger brothers. And so, living in Chicago, and then in Louisville, and later in Baltimore, I was hardpressed to continue working, rather than thinking about Foreign Service. But about 1937 they resumed the Foreign Service examinations. In my spare time I studied the exams and took them several times. I passed the Foreign Service exams in '39, and was taken into the Foreign Service in 1940. The main reason I was anxious to do it was that I'd always been interested, for one thing, and two, I was dissatisfied with what I was doing.
MCKINZIE: You were in advertising for a while.
WILKINS: Yes, advertising. Then I worked for Frankfort Distilleries Incorporated. They had distilleries in Kentucky and in Maryland. But I wasn't on the distillery side, I was on the production, bottling, side--in charge of supplies and stuff like that. And I didn't want to spend the rest of my life doing that. So then I passed the oral exams and was taken into the Foreign Service in August of 1940; my first post was at Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada.
MCKINZIE: When did you first get interested in the Near East?
WILKINS: The Near East was rather by chance, after coming back from Halifax, which was a probationary post. It was the eve of the American entry into the Second World War, and we were kept here in Washington working in the Visa Division, where there was a tremendous increase in the number of visas because of so many people coming from Europe to Canada, and then to the U.S. And after a brief month in the Foreign Service School--ordinarily that course lasts about a year, but they cut it down to a month because they needed young officers overseas--I was unexpectedly assigned to Bagdad, Iraq, and that's how I got into the Near East.
MCKINZIE: You spent most of the war then in . . .
WILKINS: I stayed in Iraq almost three years and then went to Tangier, Morocco for another three years. And once you get into the Near East it's very difficult to get out of it, because in those days the Near East Division of the State Department ran all the way from Burma to Morocco and from Greece to the Sudan. Although it was called Near East, it really covered quite a diverse area.
MCKINZIE: In that wartime experience, were you aware that there were people in the State Department--some of whom worked under Leo Pasvolsky and Sumner Welles--who were drawing up contingency plans for the period after the war?
WILKINS: Not so much at my level, because when I started out I was only a vice-consul and also I was away from Washington until 1946. So, I really wasn't aware of what work of that type was going on here.
MCKINZIE: But certainly you had input in that?
WILKINS: No. We were, in the posts in the field, preoccupied with the acceleration of Foreign Service work. For example, in Bagdad, my principal responsibility was lend-lease, which increased because of assistance to Iraq during the war. And then later on in Morocco, I was doing economic work. At that time I was the only economic officer on the staff and we were required to report for all of Morocco. The mission itself was in Tangier. We were busy, and we didn't have time to do anything else; so there wasn't any input by us into postwar planning.
MCKINZIE: Well, you must have had some feeling about how the end of the war was going to affect the area.
WILKINS: Yes, I suppose that's the case. When I was in Bagdad we used to hear a lot about what would happen in the Palestine mandate after the war, because there had been increasing Jewish immigration from Europe since 1933 because of Hitler. But this had been more or less called off, or a moratorium placed on it, during the war, because of the overriding urgency of winning it. And the British were able to persuade the Zionists not to press the issue then, to let it rest until the end of the war, in '45 as it turned out. So when I talked to Englishmen in Iraq at that time, they used to talk about the difficulties in Palestine. Fortunately, they were not pressing during the war years.
MCKINZIE: The postwar years seemed to concern three major issues of problems with the Near East: oil, communism, and the Jewish problem. During the war, from the observation post or reporting post in Iraq, did you anticipate there would be any kind of Communist problem in the area? That came to the fore, first of all, in Iran, but was there any anticipation of this going to be a U.S. problem?
WILKINS: In those years we didn't worry about communism at all; the principal discussion which took place between the American legation and the government of Iraq was related to oil. I remember that the United States had, through the American oil companies, slightly over 25 percent of the Iraqi petroleum. And we only gained that earlier because of great pressure by American oil companies on the government to persuade the British to let us have a part of it. And I was told that some of the most acrimonious correspondence in the files of the State Department related to the American interest in taking part in the Near East-Middle East.
MCKINZIE: In the middle of the war you were moved to Morocco?
MCKINZIE: Were you there in the postwar period when there was a large problem with U.S. businessmen in the area who wanted exemptions from import-export quotas that were imposed on . . .
WILKINS: This developed very rapidly after 1945, because a number of American servicemen who had been in Morocco during the war years stayed on there afterward or returned, and they expected preferential treatment for doing business in Morocco.
MCKINZIE: Did you have any dealings with those people? They had a small organization, as I recall.
WILKINS: Yes, we did. There was a man named Rodes. But I think most of the discussions took place in Washington rather than Morocco, because it was getting the State Department to do something about their rights. Even at that late date we had extraterritorial privileges in Morocco dating from the nineteenth century. Also, we were interested in establishing radio stations in Tangier, because it's a good place for a radio station. As I recall, Rodes was being hardfaced on this. I've forgotten the name now, but there was a commercial station developed there in 1945-1946; it continued on thereafter. I don't know what's happened to that.
MCKINZIE: You were there at the time the American troops were?
WILKINS: Yes, but they were mainly in French Morocco, because, you see, Morocco was divided in three parts, the restored international zone, Spanish Morocco, and French Morocco. American troops were, generally speaking, in French Morocco. They used to come to Tangier on occasion; Tangier had a free money market and you could change your dollars there for two hundred francs to the dollar, and you could only get 50 in Casablanca. You'd get a lot of troops coming up for that reason. And then, too, the Germans left the international zone area late in 1944 or early in 1945, but they didn't actually leave Spanish Morocco until the end of the war. So, we had that problem there, getting rid of the Germans from parts of Morocco.
You see, when the Germans were moving ahead on the Continent they persuaded the Spanish, who had occupied the international zone--to let them come in and have consulates there. They had a German network of officers and intelligence officers in the international zone and Spanish Morocco, and that was still in existence in 1944 when I went there and didn't disappear until 1945. That was one of the big problems at that time.
MCKINZIE: Yes. From your position in Morocco, were you apprised always of what was going on at the other end of the Mediterranean?
WILKINS: No we weren't, other than general circulars. I mean, we were so preoccupied with the events of North Africa that we didn't pay much attention to the Near East. We were more interested in what was going on in Spain and Europe. This is an interesting thing about North Africa. It's so far removed from the rest of the Near East; in fact, the local Arabic was different. If you spoke the local Arabic dialect in Morocco, they wouldn't understand you in Syria; the only way they could correspond or talk to each other would be in classical Arabic. And, my impression at that time was that North Africa was more interested in Spain and in France because they were the metropolitan powers--and in Great Britain, because of its interest in Tangier.
MCKINZIE: When you were in that post there was a lot going on--not only in the State Department, but through some international conferences--in the way of trying to set up some sort of postwar economic arrangements between countries, an arrangement which was pretty much authored, I think, by Will Clayton, or people around him, which was a kind of free trade thing. It called for a kind of mutual interdependence, on integration of economies. And there was supposed to be, after a couple of years, a kind of reconstruction at the end of the war, an upward spiral of living standards as a result of the implementation of this open world idea. Was that at all in the minds of people who were on posts in places like Morocco?
WILKINS: It certainly didn't come to the fore in Tangier; the principal thing I remember being interested in at that time was, first, the economy of Morocco itself, which was tied into that of France, and, secondly, with tracking down looted property, works of art and things like that that had been taken by the Germans and possibly had found refuge in Spain. And the third thing was relief for refugees, the UNRRA in Europe. Those were the principal things that we discussed in Tangier.
MCKINZIE: Now, how did UNRRA figure into this?
WILKINS: Well, just because of the relationship between Morocco and France and plans for a relief agency in Europe, and subsequently for the Marshall plan--because you see, this was primarily in 1945 and '46.
MCKINZIE: Franklin Roosevelt had taken a very anti-colonialist position with the British and also with the French. Did that anti-colonial position permeate the State Department, or were they more willing to accept the reality of the situation?
WILKINS: We accepted the situation as it was in Morocco. You see, the Sultan was not there; he had been taken away and he didn't return until 1956. So you had a completely French administration in French Morocco and Spanish in Spanish Morocco. They were, for all intents and purposes, parts of those two countries on the Continent. It's amazing to see the change that's taken place now; they're not there. In fact, Spain is in the process of giving up the remaining colony south of French Morocco. I don't think they've done it yet. I've been down to Ifni, it's just a barren desert waste, but still, it's something that the Spaniards held onto for years and was always a thorn in the side of the French in French Morocco.
MCKINZIE: When that tour was completed, what did they tell you you would be doing when you came back to . . .
WILKINS: They surprised me one day by sending me a telegram saying I was assigned to Ponta Delgada in the Azores. I was horrified at that. I didn't even know how to get there, much less want to go there. But that was shortly thereafter canceled, and I was transferred back to the State Department. I was on the Palestine desk of the Near East Division. I think one of the reasons I was selected was because while I was in Bagdad, Iraq, Loy Henderson was sent as American minister in 1943 to Bagdad. He was transferred back to Washington as director for Near Eastern and South African affairs in 1945, so when my time was up in 1946, I imagine that he picked me for the Palestine desk because of his knowledge of my work in Iraq.
MCKINZIE: But you had some catching up to do, I take it, when you came back in 1946.
MCKINZIE: Because there had already been . . .
WILKINS: The Anglo-American Committee had already been to the field and come back with a report, so that the pace of affairs was beginning to accelerate in the Near East, with respect to Palestine, in the fall of 1946.
MCKINZIE: Who controlled events as they began to unfold?
WILKINS: At that time there was little doubt in my mind that the British were in control of the events in the Palestine mandate, because they controlled immigration and they controlled the situation on the ground in Palestine--the British troops that were there, some 70 to 80 thousand troops. Developments were affected, secondly, by the attitude of the American administration, President Truman, and public statements he made with respect to immigration into Palestine apart from the Anglo-American Committee report.
MCKINZIE: Did you have the feeling, then, in the fall of 1946, when you assumed the Palestine desk, that the President had a particular interest in this question?
WILKINS: There's no doubt about it. He would speak on the subject rather than the Secretary of State, James Byrnes. Although it was the affair of the Secretary, he was preoccupied with Eastern Europe and peace treaties with Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Rumania. But the President was playing a leading role in Palestine at that time.
MCKINZIE: Well, being on the Palestine desk, then, did this bring you into contact with the higher structure in the State Department immediately, or did they just leave you alone to deal with day-to-day problems?
WILKINS: The way the Department functioned; the custom there is that the desk officers would receive the action copies of any telegram or dispatches that came in and had the responsibility for preparing action, either written or oral, although other high officials in the Department might take steps of their own to get in touch with you before you had done anything. But ordinarily you would prepare an action for response and send it on up to, first, the Director or Assistant Secretary of the area, then on up to the Under Secretary--and in those days the Assistant Secretary for Political Affairs, also--then to the Secretary. So, you were aware of what was happening at high levels, but not everything, because there might, for example, be discussions between the Secretary and the President about what to do about certain situations you wouldn't ever know about. But at that time Dean Acheson was Under Secretary, and he would frequently telephone, having seen a copy of an incoming cable, and ask about it, make suggestions about it. It was his practice always to have a desk officer come to his office when he was seeing a foreign visitor.
For example, if a Near Eastern Ambassador or someone from the Jewish Agency came in to see him, he would ask a desk officer to come and be there during their conversation. We were not allowed to take any notes; it was just that you would be present. Later on, after the interview, you'd go back to your office, dictate a memorandum of what was said, and send a draft up to the Under Secretary. He would approve it, and it would become part of the file. This is opposite of the practice of John Foster Dulles when he was Secretary. I also happened to be Director of Near Eastern Affairs in that day. He would permit you to take notes of the discussion from which you could later dictate a memo and send it up to him for approval. The result of these two different methods of taking notes was that the memos of the conversations of Mr. Acheson were always very short, concentrated on the principal points of the discussion, whereas those for Mr. Dulles were rather long and detailed. Mr. Acheson's might be one page, and Mr. Dulles' might be three--and they were filled with lots of irrelevant material. It was just the different way in which people operate.
After a while, it wasn't too difficult to make a report of a conversation like that, because ordinarily, when somebody like Rabbi [Abba Hillel] Silver or Moshe Shertok would come in, they would usually have their presentation arranged in logical order. If you concentrated on what they were saying and what the Secretary replied, it wasn't too difficult to make an accurate report of the conversation.
MCKINZIE: I wonder if I could get you to describe what happened in 1947--the events with which you personally dealt, which consumed most of your time as that year unfolded?
WILKINS: I'd like to go back as early as April 1947. The date exactly was about April 17, and the British left with us a memorandum. I believe they gave it to Mr. Acheson, but he immediately passed it on to Loy Henderson. In it they said that they no longer could carry the burden of the Palestine mandate because of the cost and the number of troops out there, and they wished to consult the United Nations with respect to what to do about it, primarily because the Arabs and the Jews couldn't reach agreement on any plans for the future of Palestine.
As a result, in the spring of '47 there was called a special session of the General Assembly of the United Nations in which they considered what to do. The result of that was, after much maneuvering at Lake Success in New York, another committee was set up called the United Nations Special Committee for Palestine. This consisted of about eleven members, including Guatemala, India, Canada, Yugoslavia--I've forgotten the rest--which went to Palestine and reported back in the late summer of 1947, with two plans: a majority proposal for partition of Palestine with economic union (this latter aspect is often forgotten), and a minority report for an Arab-Jewish federal state in Palestine. These two reports were to be considered by the General Assembly meeting in August or September of 1947. But most of the work of the State Department that spring and summer and fall, dealt with the activities of the Committee in Palestine, and the receipt of the report itself. The United States had nothing to do with the committee and in no way tried to influence its work. But there was an American on the staff of the United Nations in the person of Ralph Bunche, who, although not an official of the State Department, played a major role in the development of the UNSCOP report.
MCKINZIE: Did you have contact with him?
WILKINS: I had known Ralph Bunche earlier, because he had been in the State Department. He told an interesting story, after the report had been completed--and this was when he was the acting mediator after the assassination of Count Bernadotte. He told me that the Committee had talked to lots of people out in Palestine about what to do, but it had been somewhat dilatory in getting down to the actual discussion and writing of a report. So, as the deadline for the submission of the report approached in late summer, he was rather concerned about how to set it up. He knew the main lines of thinking in the Committee, that they favored partition with some form of economic union, and he knew that some of the members were not in favor of this and preferred a federal state. But they hadn't gotten down to the details of what partition should be.
There was, he told me, a Swedish member of the U.N. secretariat, something like Niels Bohr, who always had a lot of colored pencils in his pocket. He and Ralph Bunche, after dinner one night, sat down and partitioned Palestine with these colored pencils. The time was so short that they didn't have to go into all of the effects of this type of partition, so that, as it turned out, the line, when drawn, in many cases separated the villages from the land which they tilled. It's a custom in the Near East for the villagers to live in a little town and to go out to surrounding fields during the day to till it. So that later on, during the partition debate in New York, one of the arguments against the partition plan was that it separated the towns from their fields. For the Arabs and the Jews, both, there'd be rectifications of the frontiers to take into account this matter. This is especially true in the west bank around the north of Jerusalem, in that area.
MCKINZIE: Do you recall the discussions in the Department when those two plans came back?
WILKINS: Yes, I do. I mean, we naturally studied both plans and prepared a number of position papers for the U.S. delegation to the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, so that we would be prepared to speak to it, at least with respect to the details such as I mentioned. Now, as far as a decision in the Department is concerned with respect to the majority or the minority report, that was not decided until a later time. I remember that General [George C.] Marshall, who had replaced Secretary Byrnes as Secretary of State, made the argument one day in the Department--or perhaps it was in New York, because he used to go up to New York for meetings of the delegations. He said, "There were three principal reasons why I think the United States should favor the majority report, and they are, one, that every President since Wilson in 1917 has come out in favor for a Jewish National Home in Palestine." He said, "It is to be a cultural and religious home for the Jews, not necessarily a political state. The second thing is that since the 19th century, especially since 1933, 500,000 Jews from all over the world, primarily from Eastern Europe, have accumulated in Palestine, so there is a substantial minority." At that time there were perhaps another million and a half Arabs in the mandate, altogether about two million of which 500,000 were Jews. "And the third reason is that the United Nations, as a result of a special session of the General Assembly, decided to set up a special committee to study the situation, and they now come back with a majority report in favor of partition and of economic union, and a minority report in favor of a federal state." He said, "For all these reasons, I think the United States should be ready to give the majority report great weight." And he selected those words purposely to show that while that we attached great weight to it, we meanwhile wished to hear the views of other members of the United Nations about it.
So, this was sort of the atmosphere of the State Department and the delegation in New York with respect to the UNSCOP report, early on in the General Assembly, in the fall of '47.
MCKINZIE: Did the Jewish refugee problem have anything to do with those discussions? There was, as you know, almost parallel to that, an attempt to revise the immigration laws in the country to allow large numbers of Jewish refugees caught in Germany and who had fled from Eastern Europe to come to the United States, and the United States indeed put a lot of pressure on other nations to do that. And there have been some people who have said that the whole problem arose because of the inability to accommodate refugees. How did that figure in these discussions?
WILKINS: There was some discussion about immigration to the United States, but it was considered unlikely. The principal discussion in the State Department was with respect to immigration--so-called illegal immigration--to Palestine, and efforts by the British to intercept it, take the refugees from Europe to Cyprus and so on, and in one case to return a whole shipload to Southern France. So, the approaches we used to get from American Zionists and the Jewish Agency and others dealt with their trying to persuade us to bring pressure on the British to allow a greater number of refugees to go into Palestine. So, we talked more about that aspect than we did about immigration into this country.
MCKINZIE: You said "the approaches we used to get." That's very rare in the State Department, for certainly a desk officer, to have any contact at all, really with groups within the country. I wonder if you could talk about your early contact with these groups.
WILKINS: There are all sorts of American groups that would come in at every level in the State Department, from the Secretary on down: religious groups, the American Jewish Committee, Judge [Joseph M.] Proskauer, the American Zionist organization itself, Bob [Robert] Nathan, Oscar Ganz. American Jews and pro-Israeli groups were very well-organized, very accurate in seeing everybody they possibly could--not only in the State Department but in every Government department. And they would also be, I have no doubt, in close touch with the White House, because they were very well-organized and they always had a beautiful case to present. So, as desk officer, I would either receive some of these men myself, or else I would be present in conversations with the Secretary and others when they would come in, and subsequently would write memos of conversations. Furthermore, we would receive round-robin letters from American Congressmen with respect to various aspects of our policy towards Palestine. And, there again, we would always be responsible for preparing the replies to these letters with signature by the Secretary or others.
MCKINZIE: What happened, so far as you were concerned, after the two reports had been made by the U.N. Commission and it was brought before the General Assembly?
WILKINS: There was the usual lengthy debate. They set up a Special Committee for Palestine in the General Assembly, to consider this case alone instead of referring it to the political committee, which had a lot of other matters on its agenda. All the members had to agree, and the Jewish agencies spoke, as I recall, and I believe the Arab higher committee did, too. I think they gave the two parties a right to be heard. Dr. [Chaim] Weizmann came over. Dr. Silver also spoke; I don't know in what capacity he could have done so, but I believe he did.
The session, which began in late August or early September, dragged on until late November. Toward the end, as the various members made their views known, the tension mounted rapidly. There was one point in which it appeared that the Arabs were making some headway and might be able to get the whole issue referred back to the Committee after it had reached the General Assembly. The Committee made a move in favor of the majority plan, but there was disagreement at the General Assembly. And it looked like it might be referred back to the Special Committee on Palestine for further consideration, which, from the parliamentary point of view, would have meant that it was dead until something was proposed to take its place. But toward the end of November, great pressure was brought on various other governments, on the United States Government, and on delegates in New York to support the majority plan. So, in the final vote, the majority proposal, for which the United States and the Soviet Union voted, was passed 33 to--I forget the exact figure. But this caused great indignation among the Arab delegation in New York and in the Arab world itself. And there were many charges that unfair tactics had been used in persuading some of the delegates in some of the countries to support the majority plan.
MCKINZIE: Did you have any evidence that that was true?
WILKINS: No, although there's no doubt that interested Congressmen and interested Government officials, knowing many of the delegates and knowing many of the officials of other governments, perhaps heard from them that this was probably the only way to solve the thing, and that now is the time to do it, and strike while the iron was hot.
MCKINZIE: To your knowledge, did President Truman have anything to do with this first important voting?
WILKINS: I know that the Presid