(W)Archives: Useful Dictators, 1957 and 2015

February 6, 2015

When you wrote to the White House or the State Department during the 1950s, the reply you got was surprisingly personalized. Whether asking for help or offering advice on matters of Middle East politics or security, letters from citrus growers, rabbis, eager Oberlin students, Yale professors and random Minnesotans were all unfailingly met with the same tone of polite sincerity: “We share your belief that there need not be war in the Holy Land,” or “your suggestion that France offer the Island of Madagascar as a haven for the Palestinian refugees of the Gaza strip would, I fear, not be acceptable to the refugees themselves, many of whom are determined to return to their original homes…”

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President Obama’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia and the criticism it provoked, reminded me of a particularly striking State Department letter that I found at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. On the occasion of the 1957 visit to the United States of King Saud of Saudi Arabia, many citizens wrote to criticize America’s relationship with the monarch. Their concerns included such things as the King’s undemocratic behavior and his refusal to let Jews set foot in his country. The State Department’s Office of Near Eastern Affairs provided a response to one citizen’s letter that, read fifty years later, seems unexpectedly mature in its candor. The letter begins by explaining that the “United States maintains friendly relations with many countries with political systems and philosophies which do not correspond to our own.” In particular, King Saud “[rules] an important state in the Near East, an area of concern to the United States” and moreover “he has…carried out a policy of cooperation with the United States.”

Aside from a line about the communist menace, the letter’s rationale for our alliance with the House of Saud seems anachronistic only in admitting pragmatic motives behind U.S. policy that would now be left unsaid.


Nick Danforth is a doctoral candidate in Turkish history at Georgetown University. He writes about Middle Eastern history, politics, and maps at midafternoonmap.com.