The King Crane
Hugh Gregory GallagherPart IVery few people today know that President Woodrow Wilson sent a commission to Palestine to study the feasibility of a proposal which had first been made by Great Britain in 1917. The proposal in question was known as the Balfour Declaration. It stated specifically that "His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people..."
We now know that if some of the suggestions made by Wilson's Commission had been observed, the sequence of events in the Middle East would have been drastically different than what we have today.
In 1917, the United Kingdom was in desperate straits. It was very close to losing the war. The Cabinet hoped the Balfour Declaration would gain the support of Jewish Americans and thus help bring the USA into the war on the side of the UK. It was also hoped that the Declaration would encourage influential Jews, participating in the ongoing Russian revolution, to keep Russia in the war on the side of the Allies.
As the wartime Prime Minister, David Lloyd-
George testified before the Palestine Royal Commission in 1936,
the Zionist leaders gave us a definite promise that, if the Allies committed themselves to giving facilities for the establishment of a national home for the Jews in Palestine, they would do their best to rally Jewish sentiment and support throughout the world for the Allied cause. They kept their word.
In its search for support, Britain made other, conflicting commitments concerning the disposition of the Arab-speaking parts of the collapsing Ottoman Empire. It promised the Arabs an independent, national state (or states) after the war, to consist of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, presumably including Palestine.
At the same time, in the secret Sykes-Picot agreement Britain promised France a "sphere of influence" --- colonial control --- over what is now Syria and Lebanon while it claimed a "sphere of influence" over what is now Iraq, Kuwait, and the Emirates. Uncertain about what should be done about Palestine, the British at one time or another, indicated that it should go to themselves, the Arabs, the French, the Jews or perhaps be placed under some sort of international administration.
The 1919 Versailles Peace Conference sought to resolve these (and many other) issues, but the American delegation's knowledge of the Middle East was meager. What little was known came from the reports of missionaries in Arab lands and what the Americans had read in the newspapers. Wilson's chief advisor on the Middle East area was an American professor whose knowledge of the Arab lands was limited to the Crusades, a thousand years before.
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The Americans had gone to the Conference with the belief that the other great powers --- Britain, France and Italy --- generally agreed with the President's war aims as pronounced in his "Fourteen Points." These set forth the principles by which Wilson wanted the peace to be determined. Among others, the "Fourteen Points" promised self determination for nations and an end to secret agreements. There would be no more of the old "bad diplomacy" by which lands and the peoples therein were bartered back and forth in secret by the great powers. Wilson's 12th Point was quite specific:
The Turkish portions of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule [the Middle East] should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.
How this was to be achieved was addressed by Wilson in a speech given on July 4, 1918.
The settlement of every question, whether of territory or sovereignty, of economic arrangement, or of political relationship, [is to be determined] upon the basis of the free acceptance of that settlement by the people immediately concerned, and not upon the basis of material interest or advantage of any other nation or people which may desire a different settlement for the sake of its own exterior influence or mastery.
France and Britain seemed to have accepted --- at least publicly --- Wilson's position. In the "Anglo-French Joint Statement," released to the public on November 8, 1919, it was stated,
The aim of France and Great Britain ... in the Near East ... is the complete and final liberation of the peoples so long oppressed by the Turks and the establishment of governments and administrations deriving their authority from the initiative and free choice of the native populations.
Wilson, a stout Presbyterian with a strong background in the Old Testament, liked the idea of a Jewish home in Palestine, the "Promised Land" of the Bible. He rather believed this could be achieved without infringing upon the self-determination rights of the people who already lived there. Americans were led to believe that Palestine was largely unpopulated. As the Zionists of the day were fond of saying, "A land without people for a people without land."
In fact, the arable portions of Palestine were well populated with farmers and small tradespeople. The British knew that Palestine was occupied but the Cabinet believed the rights of the indigenous people could be protected. The Balfour Declaration, in the very same sentence which endorsed a home for the Jewish people, emphasized,
it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.
At the 1919 Peace Conference, when the Big Three --- Prime Minister Clemenceau of France, Prime Minister Lloyd George of Great Britain and President Wilson --- took up the disposition of the Arab lands, they found themselves entrapped in overlapping promises, agreements and secret arrangements. Wilson, in his innocence and his faith in the principles of self-
determination, suggested that they send a joint mission out to the Middle East to determine what the wishes of the indigenous peoples might be. Clemenceau and Lloyd George felt obliged to agree to what was a most reasonable proposal but tried to kill it by inaction. They never even got around to appointing their commissioners.
Their inaction was perhaps understandable as Britain and France had already agreed in secret to divide up these lands between them, whatever the wishes might be of the people who lived upon them. Acting on his own, President Wilson went ahead and appointed his own commissioners and sent them out to the region.
Wilson chose two Americans for the job: Dr. Henry Churchill King was president of Oberlin College. He was a well known theologian and educator. Charles R. Crane was a respected Chicago industrialist and philanthropist. Wilson knew these men well and trusted their judgment. Neither had ever been to the Middle East nor had any connection with the Zionist cause. Wilson wanted them to go with open minds, sound out the people on the ground and to report their honest conclusions to him. This they did.