A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Great Powers Gather at Mena House: 70 Years Since the First Cairo Conference, Part I

Chiang, FDR, Churchill, Madame Chiang in Cairo
Unless you spent the day in a coma or an alien solar system, you know that today was he 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. But this November 22 (late as this post is) marks another anniversary as well: November 22, 1943, 70 years ago, was the first day of the First Cairo Conference, the first in a string of three World War II summits one after the other, all involving Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill: First Cairo (Churchill, FDR, China's Chiang Kai-shek), Tehran (Churchill, FDR, Stalin), and Second Cairo (Churchill, FDR, and Turkish President İsmet İnönü). Though all were held in Middle Eastern cities, they were, like the Casablanca Conference earlier in the same year, in but largely not of the region or even about it.  Of the three, only the third actually addressed an issue substantively involving the Middle East (attempting to persuade İnönü to bring Turkey into the War on the Allied side).

As I did with the earlier summit in Casablanca, this will be the first of a number of posts about First Cairo, followed by discussions of the two subsequent conferences, over the couple of weeks to come. This first post sets the scene and context of the summit. Subsequent posts will deal with why King Farouq did not meet the foreign leaders (whereas FDR hosted a dinner for Sultan Muhammad V at Casablanca) (hint: Farouq was in the hospital, but that is a tale of its own worth retelling in the next post), followed by details of the proceedings, including FDR's hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for the attendees.

Meanwhile this post will introduce the setting, context, and dramatis personae.

The reasons for having three summits rather than one were diplomatic. With the invasion of Europe looming in 1944, Roosevelt had never yet met with Soviet Premier/General Secretary Stalin. Stalin had missed Casablanca because the Battle of Stalingrad was still under way. Roosevelt Churchill and their military staffs had also not held a full-scale conference on the strategy against Japan.

Meanwhile, after a mostly-forgotten border war in 1939 (known to Japan as Nomonhan and the Russians as Khalkhyn-gol) along the Russian-Manchurian-Mongolian border areas, Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Japan at the time of the German invasion in 1941. Accordingly, unlike his British and American allies, Stalin was not at war with Japan. As a result, he chose not to attend the Cairo summit, mostly devoted to the war against Japan and including Chiang Kai-shek (Stalin was of course a supporter of the Chinese Communists, though they were in a truce with the Nationalists to fight the common Japanese enemy.). So it was decided to split the Cairo Conference (codenamed SEXTANT) from the one with Stalin in Tehran (EUREKA). first Cairo Conference ran from November 22-26; Tehran from November 28-December 1, and Second Cairo December 4-6. Roosevelt brought Ambassador Harriman, a trusted friend, down from Moscow to interpret Russian intentions. Russia sent no official delegate for the reasons stated, but its Assistant Foreign Minister Andrei Vishynsky was in town en route to Algiers to join an Allied commission on post-Mussolini Italy, and did take the opportunity to make courtesy calls on the principals.

The inclusion of Chiang was at Roosevelt's insistence. He was seeking to build up Chiang's image as an ally against Japan. Roosevelt was also much more determined to push the British to do more in the China-Burma-India ("CBI) Theater. Churchill was clearly unhappy (even in his memoirs after the war) with the American focus on Chiang. To Churchill, Britain's interests in Asia were the recovery of Hong Kong and Singapore (and Malaya) from Japan, and the protection of India (the "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire) against Japanese invasion. To him, the war in Burma was to protect India; to the US, it was a bridge via the Burma Road to supply Chiang.  (Fortunately for both countries, the British had one of their very best generals in the war, William Slim, in Burma, though Churchill underestimated him).

You may note, above, that the photo above includes not only the three leaders but also, seated alongside them, Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Soong Mei-ling), while Eleanor Roosevelt and Clementine Churchill are not only not in evidence, but were back in Washington and London.
Only one person here speaks no English
Officially, she served as her husband's translator. She was definitely that: she spoke fluent, colloquial and American accented English (having spent some years in Macon, Georgia, it's said she had a pronounced Georgia accent, though she later attended Wellesley), while Chiang, even in his long years in American-protected exile on Taiwan, never bothered to learn any. Note, in the photo at right, that she is chatting up Churchill animatedly while Chiang is staring straight at the camera, perhaps unsure what's going on.

But she was much more. The three Soong sisters married well: one married H.H. Kung, the richest businessman in China; the other became the second wife of Sun Yat-sen, leader of the 1911 Chinese Revolution. The latter remained in China under Mao, rising to senior posts in the Communist Party (mostly for who she was), even while her sister was the First Lady of Taiwan.

While Chiang spoke no English, Madame Chiang was thoroughly Americanized. Raised a Christian in American Methodist missionary schools in China, she studied in the US from 1907 through her graduation from Wellesley in 1917. She was not just the interpreter of Chiang's words but of his ideas, and probably more. Many believed that Chiang, the military officer trained in military schools, speaking only Chinese and largely ignorant of the outside world, was protected by Mei-ling, who filtered out his more naive and ignorant notions from his conversations, Many Westerners were convinced she was the brains of the outfit. Madame Chiang lived until 2003, dying at the age of 105, outliving, well, most everybody (105!). The Soong sisters were formidable, and forgive this long aside, but that's why Madame Chiang is in the photo.

The Venue
Mena House Hotel
The primary venue of the Cairo Conference was the Mena House Hotel at the foot of and just across the road from the pyramids of Giza. It's one of the grand old colonial hotels, a longtime favorite of Churchill's, though he stayed in a private villa and only attended several sessions at the hotel on this trip. The Mena House is a grand old hotel in the British colonial manner, and still operating, though the Indian-owned  Oberoi chain which had run it for several decades ended its ownership in 2012. Currently undergoing renovation and run by Egypt, it is nevertheless still open, according to its website. Though they bill their Churchill Suite online as where he stayed during the Cairo Conference, he was sleeping in a private villa; perhaps he kept this suite for his own use during his private visits, or stayed there on his many other trips.
The View from Mena House

By the testimony of Churchill's own war memoirs, he stayed at a villa. Churchill had sailed from Plymouth in HMS Renown on November 12, not to return to Britain for nearly three months. He stopped in Algiers to meet with Eisenhower and British General Alexander, then sailed on to Malta, where he learned Roosevelt had proposed Khartoum instead of Cairo as less susceptible to air attack. Churchill was having none of that and considered Malta instead (overlooking that it was much more susceptible to air attack than Cairo?) He sailed from Malta on the 19th arrived in Alexandria November 21. From there he flew to "the desert landing ground near the pyramids," (presumably the Cairo West airfield, still a major Egyptian Air Base, and where FDR would land the next morning). He took up residence for the duration at a villa near the pyramids occupied by Richard Gardiner Casey, the British Minister of State Resident in the Middle East (not to be confused with the British Ambassador, Lord Killearn, until recently Sir Miles Lampson).

Chiang Kai-shek was already there. He had left his wartime capital at Chungking on November 18 and was already in  Cairo by the 21st, staying at a villa a half mile from Churchill's, though I'm unclear about his air route from Chungking to Cairo (obviously not nonstop) or in whose villa he stayed.

Roosevelt for his part sailed on November 13 from Hampton Roads (Norfolk), Virginia, on the new  USS Iowa, lead ship on a new US battleship class and only just commissioned earlier in 1943. (She was only finally decommissioned in 1990. She was the only battleship to have both a bathtub and an elevator aboard, both added specifically for FDR.  On the second day out there was a tricky moment during a submarine drill when an American destroyer, USS William D. Porter, mistakenly launched a torpedo towards the Iowa, which thankfully was able to outmaneuver the torpedo. Almost accidentally sinking the Navy's newest battleship would be bad enough; at least at the time the escort ships did not yet know that the President was aboard. That didn't last long: for the first time (Note in US Navy history, the entire officers and crew of the  Porter were placed under arrest).

Having survived what may be the ultimate "oops" moment, the Iowa sailed on while the Porter crew were hauled off to Bermuda. On November 20, Iowa arrived at Mers el-Kebir, the naval base at Oran in Algeria. Roosevelt then flew on in his favorite C-54 (military version of the DC-3), dubbed the "Sacred Cow," to Tunis, where he met with his sons Elliot and FDR Jr., serving in the theater, and toured the Tunisian battlefields.

Then the President flew on to Cairo. The second plane in the President's party arrived at Cairo West some two and a half hours before the President's plane (which the official log shows as landing at 9:35 AM). Two groups of fighter escorts scheduled to accompany the plane never saw it, and there was obviously conceen about the President's safety. In fact the :President's plane had dropped southward to around 28 degeees of latitude, intercepting the Nile well south of Cairo, and finally following the Nile Valley northward, bringing the President in right over the pyramids and Sphinx.

Roosevelt's villa belonged to the then US Ambassador to Cairo, Alexander C. Kirk, known for his elegance of style, rich taste in interior decorating, but not apparently for his diplomatic skills. Egypt was not a major US interest.

We now have the dramatis personae assembled.  Enjoy your weekend and we'll tell more stories on Monday.

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