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Franklin Delano Roosevelt Administration: Roosevelt Meets King Saud at Bitter Lake

(February 14, 1945)

During the 1940s, America’s Arab “allies” were angered by what they viewed as President Franklin Roosevelt’s pro-Zionist policies. The State Department held the naive belief that the king of Saudi Arabia and other Arab leaders could be persuaded to either support America’s pro-Zionist policies or at least minimize opposition to them.

In May 1943, Saudi King Ibn Saud first made his views clear on the subject after viewing with alarm the Roosevelt administration’s drift toward support for the establishment of a Jewish state. “Jews have no right to Palestine,” he wrote the president. “God forbid . . . the Allies should, at the end of their struggle, crown their victory by evicting the Arabs from their home.”[1]

A few weeks later he wrote another letter in which he insisted that Palestine “has been an Arab country since the dawn of history and . . . was never inhabited by Jews for more than a period of time, during which their history in the land was full of murder and cruelty. . . . [There is] religious hostility . . . between the Muslims and the Jews from the beginning of Islam . . . which arose from the treacherous conduct of the Jews towards Islam and the Muslims and their prophet.”[2]

The Saudis had not yet achieved the fabulous wealth they are now known for; in fact, they constantly needed American cash, and their oil reserves were not yet viewed as vital to American security, but government officials feared losing access to the oil fields and the prospect of another government, notably the British, gaining influence in the kingdom. The State Department subsequently backed the king’s warnings by suggesting that support for the Zionists would undermine America’s economic, commercial, cultural and philanthropic interests throughout the Arab world. This would become the mantra of State Department Arabists, which persists to the present day.

Some diplomats held out hope that Saud’s support for partition could be bought. In 1942, the British tried to arrange a deal where they would make him the leader of the Arab world (something the State Department would later try as well) if he would work out a deal with Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader, who would also arrange for Jewish funds to help him pay off his debts, which at that time were primarily owed to the British. Wallace Murray, an anti-Semite who headed the State Department Near East Division, was convinced the only way Saud would accept such a deal would be if a single binational state was created that would effectively deny Jews the homeland promised by the Balfour Declaration, so he hoped to set up a situation whereby the U.S. would get credit in the Arab world if Weizmann compromised and basically sold out the Zionist program and could blame the British if anything went wrong. Max Thornberg, an oil company executive serving as a consultant to the State Department at the time, favored the approach. He was convinced that ibn Saud was not really anti-Semitic, but was only saying what the British wanted him to.[3] Undersecretary of state Sumner Welles also believed the idea had a chance of success based on the precedent of meetings held between Weizmann and the Arab leader Emir Faisal after World War I. Roosevelt subsequently agreed to send Harold Hoskins as an emissary to ask Saud whether he would be willing to meet with Weizmann or other representatives of the Jewish Agency to discuss a solution to the dispute.

The king’s reaction was hostile. He told Hoskins that he was “prepared to talk to anyone, of any religion, except a Jew” and that he specifically disliked Weizmann because Saud claimed the Zionist leader had tried to bribe him. The State Department thought the entire exercise had been an embarrassing waste of time whose failure was predictable.[4]

Roosevelt decided to meet with Saud and discuss the issues face-to-face. Following his meeting with Stalin and Churchill at Yalta in February 1945, Roosevelt traveled to the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal and met Saud, who was making his first trip outside his kingdom, aboard the U.S. cruiser Quincy. The translator for Roosevelt was William Eddy, the U.S. minister in Jidda and one of the pioneer Arabists in the State Department.

When the king arrived on the ship, he was offered the commodore’s stateroom, but insisted on sleeping outside in a tent. His aides also rolled out rugs so he would not have to step on the deck. The king believed that good Muslims eat only freshly killed meat, so he brought a flock of sheep that were kept in a corral at the stern. The king’s retinue would slaughter the sheep and cook them on charcoal pots on deck. Saud would only eat or drink after someone first tasted the food.

When the king met Roosevelt, the president was sitting in his wheelchair. The king, who was elderly and walked with a cane, mentioned that Roosevelt was lucky to have something to help him move around. Roosevelt had an extra wheelchair and gave it the king. The American delegation also gave him an airplane, but the king was especially fond of the wheelchair, which he showed off to visitors as a symbol of his friendship with the president.[5] The Saudis handed out gifts to the crew, including cash, headdresses, leather sandals, ivory-handled sabers and Swiss gold watches.[6]

The exchange of gifts and warm feelings between the two leaders did not bridge the gulf between the two leaders regarding the Palestine issue. Roosevelt made plain his support for the Jewish survivors of what was not yet called the Holocaust. He also expressed his admiration for the Jews who fought against the Nazis and who had developed Palestine, and asked the king to support his idea of establishing in Palestine a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth. Saud would have none of it, arguing deceitfully that it was the Arabs and not the Jews who had fought against the Germans, and that it was the British and not the Jews who made the deserts bloom. The king adamantly opposed allowing Jews to go to Palestine or establish their own state and suggested that they be given the homes of Germans instead. When Roosevelt said that three million Jews had been slaughtered in Poland alone, Saud replied that there must now be room there for three million more.[7]

Roosevelt was shocked by the vehemence of the king’s reaction. He should not have been, given Saud’s previous uncompromising statements, including his remark on the eve of the Yalta Conference that Palestine would be drenched in blood, and that the United States must choose between the Zionists and the Arabs.

Roosevelt argued that Palestine was such a small part of the Middle East that the Arabs would not be harmed by the creation of a Jewish state, and he was prepared to guarantee that “the Jews would not move into adjacent parts of the Near East from Palestine.”[8] But he seemed to backtrack by the end of his meeting, promising the king that the United States would not take any position on Palestine without first consulting him and other Arab leaders, and would not do anything for the Jews at their expense. This was the same promise he had made in May 1943: “No decision altering the basic situation of Palestine should be reached without full consultation with both Arabs and Jews.”

After returning home, Roosevelt sent another letter to the king, in response to one he had received from Saud, in which the president repeated the views he had expressed during their meeting and again tried to reassure the king that the United States would take no measures that “might prove hostile to the Arab people.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, who supported the Zionist cause, wrote to her friend Joseph Lash that the president was frustrated that he did not convince the king to change his uncompromising position on the Palestine issue.[9]

While historian Michael Oren has called the meeting notable because “the leader of the world’s most powerful democratic nation had in fact bowed to the dictates of an Arabian chieftain,” he added that Roosevelt saw it more as a “source of exotic entertainment” than a diplomatic landmark.[10] Nevertheless, the meeting clearly had its effect. Roosevelt told a joint session of Congress on March 1, 1945, “I learned more about the whole problem, the Moslem problem, the Jewish problem, by talking with ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in an exchange of two or three dozen letters.” The Zionists were horrified, and feared he had reneged on his pledge of support for a Jewish state.

Privately, Roosevelt expressed conflicting opinions. He had told Harold Hoskins, who had been Roosevelt’s emissary to the Middle East, that, given the size of the Arab population, a Jewish state “could be installed and maintained only by force.” Before his meeting with Saud, however, he told undersecretary of state Edward Stettinius, “Palestine should be for the Jews and no Arabs should be in it.”

After his speech to Congress, Roosevelt wrote to reassure the American Jewish leader Stephen Wise that he supported unrestricted immigration to Palestine and a future Jewish state. Roosevelt told Wise he had arranged the meeting with Saud to make the Zionist case, but admitted, “I have never so completely failed to make an impact upon a man’s mind as in his case.”

The Arabists, meanwhile, continued to reassure their friends in the Middle East that the United States would not act without consulting them, as Roosevelt had promised Saud. When the Arabs tried to suggest they had received a different commitment from Roosevelt, Wise released the letter from the president.[11]

Roosevelt was the consummate politician, telling partisans on both sides what they wanted to hear either directly or through his minions. As Jews would do after the war, Wise defended Roosevelt and excused his indiscretions as the result of being misled by “some supersubtle counselors in the State Department.”[12]

The president died before any decisions had to be made on the future of Palestine. Still, it is one of the great ironies of history that American Jews would revere him and developed a strong attachment to the Democratic Party as a result, despite the fact that Roosevelt failed to take steps before and during the war that could have saved thousands of European Jews, and that most of his actions with respect to the Zionist program were unhelpful.

[1] Michael Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), p. 469.

[2] Letter dated, April 30, 1943, cited in Benny Morris, 1948 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008), 393.

[3] Phillip Baram, The Department of State in the Middle East, 1919–-1945, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978), pp. 277, 307–8n.

[4] Eliahu Elath, Zionism at the U.N., (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1976), p. 316n; Parker T. Hart, Saudi Arabia and the United States (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), p. 38; Baram, pp. 278–79, 307–8n.

[5] Thomas W. Lippman, Inside the Mirage, (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004), pp. 27-29.

[6] Waveney Ann Moore, “Sailor was the piper of history,” St. Petersburg Times, (February 12, 2005).

[7] Peter Grose, Israel in the Mind of America, (New York: Knopf, 1983), p. 153; Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy, p. 471.

[8] FDR plan told to Stettinius on January 2, 1945, cited in Grose, p. 149.

[9] “President and King, The Meeting at Great Bitter Lake,” Saudi-U.S. Relations Information Service, (February 14, 2013).

[10] Oren, p. 473.

[11] Grose, p. 147; Baram, p. 295; Melvin Urofsky, We Are One, (NY: Anchor, 1978), p. 63.

[12] Urofsky, pp. 62–63.

Sources: Mitchell Bard, The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America's Interests in the Middle East. NY: HarperCollins, 2010, pp. 12-16.