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Richard Drake: The Hope and Ultimate Tragedy of the 1919 King-Crane Report (Special Report)

drakeA Palestinian delegation waits to see the visiting King-Crane Commission in Hebron. (Photo Courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives)

The King-Crane Report, a little-known and even less understood historical document, prophetically warned of the conflicts raging in the Middle East today. Created during the post-World War I Paris Peace Conference by President Woodrow Wilson, the King-Crane Commission set out in May 1919, to determine “the real wishes and true interests” of the people in the Middle East. President Wilson, chief among the victors at the conference, which opened in January of that year, had become concerned by reports of Arab restiveness.

The Arabs had hoped for fair and generous treatment under the auspices of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, reputed to be the moral foundation of the Peace Conference. In his famous address of January 1918, the president had proclaimed a new agenda in international relations, including open covenants openly arrived at and—most welcome from the Arab viewpoint—“an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development” for nationalities under Turkish rule.

Yet in Paris, the open covenants principle soon gave way to closed-door decision-making, and months went by without any word about the fate of the Arab lands long held by the defeated Ottoman Empire. The indeterminacy of the Middle East situation had caused the Arabs to become apprehensive about what the diplomats in Paris might have in store for them.

To lead the commission, Wilson chose two eminent men: Henry Churchill King and Charles Richard Crane. King, the president of Oberlin College, subscribed to Wilson’s vision of the war as a righteous struggle for democracy against German militarism. He undertook the mission to the Middle East in order to further the cause of freedom enshrined in the Fourteen Points. Millionaire businessman Crane had been a major donor to the president’s political campaigns and a close adviser. Since the 1870s, he had traveled extensively in the Middle East and knew the region well. He, too, viewed the Fourteen Points as a sacred pledge for a moral renewal of mankind.

The King-Crane Commission also included Albert Howe Lybyer, a professor of history at the University of Illinois; Capt. William Yale, an American military observer attached to the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine and an expert on Arab affairs who would go on to write the eye-opening Near East: A Modern History; George Montgomery, an ordained minister and philosophy professor at New York University with much diplomatic experience at the American Embassy in Istanbul; Sami Haddad, the interpreter for the group and a noted surgeon in Lebanon; and Donald M. Brodie, an assistant to Crane who served as secretary for the commission.

Over a period of 42 days in the summer of 1919, the King-Crane Commission visited 36 cities and towns, read hundreds of petitions, and interviewed countless individuals. They concluded that the people of the Middle East fervently desired independence. They did not want the British and the French to replace the hated Turks as their new masters.

The Arabs also bitterly opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Comments by Zionists persuaded King and Crane that the language in the 1917 Balfour Declaration supporting “a national home for the Jewish people” had to be understood as a euphemism. The Zionists aimed all along at creating a Jewish state, which by its very definition, the commissioners claimed, would reduce non-Jews to second-class, or worse, status. They counseled that the Zionist project be given up, as it only could be carried out by an endless force of arms against the non-Jewish residents of Palestine.

King and Crane returned to Paris in August with their 40,000-word report in hand, but Wilson already had left for the United States. On Aug. 31, Crane cabled the president: “Situation in Turkey so serious your Commission decided to return to report as soon as it had covered essentials.” He added, “Report well founded on vital human facts not in harmony with many things the Alliance doing or planning to do.”   

They told their story to the American Peace Commission in Paris, which expressed interest and concern—without, however, doing anything. Brodie, still employed as Crane’s assistant, personally delivered a copy of the report to the White House on Sept. 15. By then, however, the president had embarked on the speaking tour that would leave him a permanent invalid. He most likely never read it until after retiring from office. The report ended up, without official comment, in the U.S. Department of State archives.

For three years nothing more was heard about the King-Crane Report. Then, while doing research for a book on Wilson’s role at the Paris Peace Conference, Ray Stannard Baker discovered the State Department’s copy. He wrote at length about this particular research find in Woodrow Wilson and World Settlement (1922). Regarding why the King-Crane Report had gone unheeded, Baker explained, “It was entirely too frank: it contained too much plain speaking regarding political and other conditions in that tinderbox of the world, the Near East.”

On Dec. 3-4, 1922, The New York Times published the King-Crane Report in its entirety, with an introduction by the newspaper’s Middle East correspondent, William Ellis. Based in Jerusalem and Damascus when the King-Crane Commission was making its inquiries, Ellis explained: “I witnessed enough to understand the painstaking impartiality, the tireless diligence and patience, and the American shrewdness and courage of the commission amidst pitfalls unimaginable to the Western world.” He praised Baker as well, for drawing attention to “one of the great suppressed documents of the peacemaking period.” Ellis believed it had been suppressed for political reasons.

Crane, writing in the 1930s, expressed himself in no uncertain terms about the political reasons alluded to by Ellis: “The interests that were opposed to the report, especially the Jewish and the French, were able to persuade President Wilson that, as Americans were not going to take any future responsibility for Palestine, it was not fair that the report should be published and so it was pigeonholed in the archives of the State Department.”

Crane’s comment about the Americans and Palestine concerned a recommendation in the report that the United States be awarded the mandate to supervise the development of the former Turkish territories. Only America, the commissioners contended, had the prestige, the power and the resources to manage the array of complex challenges bristling in the Middle East.

Moreover, in absolute contrast to the situation today, Americans enjoyed enormous prestige among Arabs after World War I. The Arabs assumed that the British and the French reflexively would practice their congenital imperialism, but the United States seemed in their eyes to be a nation that sincerely cared about justice and fair dealing. They would have preferred independence, but if there had to be a mandate in the Middle East, it seemed to them infinitely preferable for the Americans to be in charge.

Another complete contrast between the Middle East of today and of 1919 involves the absence of any mention in the King-Crane Report of radical Islamic groups. The commissioners neither came across any such groups nor heard any reports about them. This raises the question of which forces and policies later brought radical Islam into existence and into the foreground of the world’s preoccupations.

King and Crane feared that Zionism and imperialist policies of the Allies would introduce unprecedented mayhem into the Middle East and give an excuse for a pan-Islamist movement. They counseled that it would be wiser to respect the Arabs and work for the economic and moral uplift of the entire region than to appear before them as the worst kind of conquerors: exploiters mouthing fine phrases having nothing at all to do with the fundamental realities of their colonial rule.

The final sentence of an appendix to the King-Crane Report echoed the many assertions scattered throughout the document about the crucial need for the West to adopt an intelligent and judicious policy toward the Arabs: “Dangers may readily arise from unwise and unfaithful dealings with this people, but there is great hope of peace and progress if they be handled frankly and loyally.”

The tragedy of the King-Crane Report lies not in the failure to implement its recommendations, which doubtless contained debatable points, but in taking no notice of the document at all. It remains the best historical source available for understanding Arab concerns about the Middle East in 1919. We live today with the consequences of having ignored the Arabs at that fateful moment. 


Richard Drake is a professor of history at the University of Montana. His most recent book is The Education of an Anti-Imperialist: Robert La Follette and U.S. Expansion (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013), in which he examines the King-Crane Report in depth

Source: Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

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