Forty years of history and the issues appear to be remarkably the same: national identity, the confessional system, electoral reform, the viability of the state, economic reconstruction and ideological realignment. What is Lebanon? Does it exist? Can it survive? The questions are not new. More than four decades ago, British and US officials were pondering the very same questions.

World War II was over. Lebanon celebrated its formal independence on December 22, 1943, but it was not until 1946 that the French were persuaded to abandon their occupation of the country. In the interim, French pressure to hold on to its privileged status led to conflict not only with Lebanese nationalists but with British forces.

The first president, Bishara al-Khouri, governed in accord with the National Pact of September 21, 1943, the politico-confessional arrangement that came to define Lebanon’s political system. This provided the setting in which the institutions of the state could grow, along with the accumulation of capital in Lebanon’s growing banking sector. Yet the economy was in wretched shape. Agricultural development was frustrated, industrial growth contained, resources scarce, dollars unavailable. Throughout 1946 and 1947, labor unrest and unemployment increased. Even in the absence of legal parties, the intensity of politicization was impressive. Yet politicians trained in the Franco-Lebanese-Arabic political idiom continued to talk of the state in familial terms.

All of this, and more, officials in the US legation in Beirut reported in detail. They acknowledged the fragility of this nation of little over one million, and the pervasive corruption at the top. They testified to the voluntary weakness of the state and the considerable strength of its detractors.

Writing from the vantage point of the powerful outsider, appreciated because not a part of the colonizer’s family, US officials covered Lebanon with a measure of distance, though not detachment. As the chief of the Legation noted in a confidential memo to Washington in 1945:

You know my “vision” that this little country can, as living standards rise in Arab lands, become not simply the Adirondacks of the Near East but also, as American cultural and material investment increases, as it seems bound to do, a vital focus of American influence based on mutual interest rather than special privilege. If we are to play a major role in world politics it would seem to follow that we must do so regionally and not primarily by long-range propaganda from Washington. And in this region of the Arab Near East, Lebanon-Syria would seem to be the most inviting spot to cut our teeth. [1]

The view of Lebanon from Beirut looked anything but promising in those years. Monthly reports and communiques from the American Legation to the Department of State in 1944-1947 chronicled the arrogance of French officials and their overt and covert plans for indirect control. The same reports documented the growing interest of the US in the strategic as well as economic opportunities that Lebanon offered, while expressing concern over the radicalization of labor and the impoverishment of Lebanon’s political life.

The US military attaché in Beirut, Virgil A. Jackson, composed an elaborate report on the political situation at the end of 1944. [2] He minced few words about Lebanese politicians, whom he saw as mired in their mutually exclusive sectarian visions. Few Christians believed in the “Lebanese experiment” of intercommunal collaboration. Isolationists sought the creation of a Christian enclave under French support while others looked forward to other international guarantees to protect Lebanon from the dangers of “internal aggression.” Lebanese Muslims, in Jackson’s view, were generally prepared to support the government, though unprepared to relinquish their interests or aspirations. For both communities, the sticking point was the relationship with Syria:

Any realistic study of the problems of Lebanon must take Syria into account, as one country cannot be cut off physically and spiritually from the other. Any settlement must mean one satisfactory answer to two separate problems. If Syria is to be independent, there must be no foreign power established in Lebanon. If there is no effective influence of a western power in Lebanon, then the Christians of that country will be unhappy. So questions facing Syria must be taken into account if the complete picture of Lebanon’s dilemma is to be studied.

Jackson offered no solutions, although his description of Lebanese parliamentary politics was revealing. “With a Chamber made up mostly of yes-men who are feeble and corrupt, there is little opportunity for effective opposition to the Government with honest and constructive criticism.” The attaché, also convinced of the negative role that French interventionist policies had played in undermining Lebanon’s independent political life, argued that sooner or later the French would have to realize that their policies were incompatible with the interests of Muslim and Christian. France could hardly abandon Lebanese Christians who acted as “the present defenders of the French bridgehead in the Levant”; for Muslims, whatever France offered would be contingent on changing its relationship with the Christian community, which was hardly feasible.

Jackson’s questions were amplified in subsequent Legation dispatches. Although deeply concerned about the state of the economy and the coherence of political organization, US diplomats vigorously pursued commercial and diplomatic relations, including an airport project, accords on credit and other financial arrangements, and oil refineries at Tripoli for Socony Vacuum and Standard Oil of New Jersey. High-level negotiations for a commercial and friendship treaty with Lebanon were concluded with some bitterness on the part of the Lebanese in 1949.

In their economic assessments in 1946-1947, US officials wrote grim accounts of the scarcity of resources and widespread labor unrest and unemployment. Washington requested regular updates on labor legislation, unions, their membership and political character. George Wadsworth, the chief of the Legation, was concerned that US businesses such as General Motors interested in the availability of cheap labor and political stability in Lebanon be apprised of the situation. Writing in May 1946, Wadsworth pointed to the dangerous disparity between wages and cost of living. “While economic situation of Lebanon is fortunate compared with most of Europe and Asia, situation is much worse than superficially apparent and is deteriorating. Bare subsistence [of] many workers on very high-priced bread, which is basic fare of working classes, and growing unemployment are causing increased insistence on government action.” [3]

In this context, US officials in Beirut communicated alternative assessments as to what was to be done. In the summer of 1946, the Legation sent the Department of State a survey prepared by the assistant director of the Ministry of National Economy. Na‘im Amyouni’s ideas for economic reconstruction, in which Palestine appeared as a model case, placed far less emphasis on trade and finance than on rural and industrial development. [4] Some months later a cable from the Legation praised another member of the Ministry of National Economy, Kamal Bey Jumblatt, for his “constructive economic program, energy, social imagination, courage and forthrightness [which] had in only six months of office made him most widely respected and admired personality in Lebanon, though youngest minister and without previous experience in office.” [5]

The voices which finally captured Washington’s attention through the offices of the Legation, however, were those of the “New Phoenicians,” dominated by Beirut’s Christian power brokers of the mercantile-financial bourgeoisie. Such figures as Gabriel Menassa, Michel Chiha, Alfred Kettaneh and their wide network of family and political relations reached to the top of the Lebanese political hierarchy. Their appeal resided in their vehement opposition to any form of economic planning and protectionism and their equally staunch advocacy of a Beirut-style free enterprise system. Arguing that Lebanon’s limited resources precluded industrialization of any kind, they concentrated their energies on commerce and trade, the sectors which accounted for their own capital accumulation.

The vision had obvious appeal to American officials, though its harshness in practice and its corruption were evident. “Survivors of a race who really practice the capitalist system and mean to continue” — that was how Lowell Pinkerton of the US Legation described the dominant elite to the Secretary of State on August 19, 1947. Lebanese who share the outlook of this group, he explained, “say their slogan must be: Import or die.” In the interim, Pinkerton observed, many Lebanese and Syrians appeared not at all concerned about the cost of such policies. “The ancient commercial craft of the Phoenicians is still very evident,” he wrote. “Perhaps it will prevail over more modern counsels, or be more effectively supplemented by expert foreign advice. In any case, here are vigorous exponents of the capitalist system who now look only to the United States for ideas and encouragement.” [6]

The political habits of the Lebanese ruling class, as opposed to their ideological orientation, constituted a far less agreeable sight to US officials. Keen observers of the byzantine coalition-building characteristic of the Bishara al-Khouri and Riyad al-Sulh regime in the immediate post-independence period, Legation officials regularly exposed the shortcomings of the political system — until they reassessed the advantages of the status quo from the point of view of maintaining a reliable and compatible elite in power. Prior to that, denunciations of confessionalism were common. “The bane of Lebanese politics,” was how Charge d’Affaires Bertel E. Kuniholm described it in the October 1946 monthly review sent to Washington. [7] Its suppression, he later observed, would be nothing less than revolutionary in terms of its effect on Lebanese politics. The absence of electoral reform, on the other hand, including the retention of the confessional principle, guaranteed a non-representative parliament, as Kuniholm observed in his discussion of the elections set for 1947.

Present law permits of entry of many deputies who would never be elected on any truly popular referendum; representatives of prominent families, trivial chieftains and leaders of religious communities are now assured a certain number of seats in spite of a lack of popular support. By the same token, many outstanding individuals are unable to run on any ticket. With certain rare exceptions, therefore, the same faces will appear in the next Parliament unless the present Chamber has the courage to pass a new law. [8]

Reflecting on the origins of the Lebanese political situation in the mandate period, US officials concluded that French policies had undermined the emergence of an independent Lebanese political system, that its political institutions were designed to serve French interests, and that the influence wielded by the Maronite Church and rich landlords throughout the period had further compromised this system. [9]

Whatever the legacy of French rule, it was the continued ability of the old political classes to remain in power that confronted US officials. The elections of 1947, generally regarded as highly corrupt, provided additional evidence of how politics was practiced Lebanese style. US officials anticipated very little. A communique of April 16, 1947 from Beirut to the Department of State was pessimistic. “That we may confidently expect an entire new crop of faces in the next Parliament is, of course, an illusion which no one should harbor seriously. The same individuals, or their henchmen will take their places in the Chamber, most of them bound by no electoral promises which need disturb their sleep.”

After the elections, the Legation reported that the director of military intelligence of the Lebanese Army had informed the US Legation “that the intervention of the Army and Gendarmerie in the voting was flagrant” and that the president had issued instructions to the commander-in-chief of the Lebanese army, Gen. Shihab, “to use force to keep opposition supporters from reaching the polling booths.” [10] The same memo assessed the meaning of the elections. “The new members of the House, frankly, were nominated and not elected. Many of them represent neither the Lebanese people nor the prevailing political currents of the nation. Even geography was flouted, and deputies were elected, by prearrangement, from districts where they have no roots whatsoever. There is no effective opposition; whatever there is of protest and censure will have to come henceforth from outside of Parliament…. So, until Parliament can be prevailed upon to change the electoral law and the machinery of elections, there will be no forum for the Lebanese people to express its opinion.”

This position was neither sustained nor translated into policy. While US diplomats continued to be aware of the non-democratic character of Lebanese politics, they increasingly appreciated the benefits to be obtained from the ideological orientation, strategic location, commercial and financial policies of this distinctly pro-Western regime. In time, concern about upsetting the existing “balance” led to a steadily more conciliatory attitude toward the status quo. Electoral change in Lebanon, according to such arguments, was too risky in terms of the Lebanese political map as well as the regional balance of power. That outlook was to prevail for the ensuing decades — in 1958, in 1975-76 and again after 1982 — as the US conceded the need for reform while resisting the forces of change in favor of political containment.


[1] All references refer to the collection of US documents published by the University Publications of America under the title: Confidential US State Department Central Files, Lebanon 1945-1949. July 11, 1945. George Wadsworth, American Legation, Beirut, Lebanon to Loy Henderson, Department of State (DOS).
[2] January 17, 1945. Lt. Col. GSC, Military Attaché Virgil Jackson, “Political Alignments in Lebanon,” Report #R-19-45.
[3] May 16, 1946. George Wadsworth, American Legation, Beirut, Lebanon, to Secretary of State, DOS.
[4] July 3, 1946. Despatch 1258 from American Legation, Beirut, Lebanon to DOS.
[5] January 4, 1947. Incoming Airgram 1971 to Secretary of State, DOS, from American Legation, Beirut, Lebanon.
[6] August 19, 1947. Lowell Pinkerton, American Legation, Beirut, Lebanon, to Secretary of State, DOS. Airgrams A-384 and A-385.
[7] October 1946. Monthly Political Review, sent to DOS on November 5, 1946 from American Legation, Beirut, Lebanon.
[8] January 7, 1947. From Bertel E. Kuniholm, Charge d’Affaires, American Legation, Beirut, Lebanon, to Secretary of State, DOS.
[9] Despatch A-167 of April 14, 1947, from American Legation, Beirut, Lebanon, to DOS.
[10] May 28, 1947. From Lowell Pinkerton to Secretary of State, DOS.

How to cite this article:

irene gendzier "“No Forum for the Lebanese People”," Middle East Report 162 (January/February 1990).

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