The Lebanese Civil War was a 15-year conflict that took the lives of more than 130,000 people. Throughout the early 1970s, divisions between Christian Maronites and Palestinians began to deepen and soon escalated into all-out war. While the war was largely a struggle between these two groups, the violence soon affected the U.S. On June 16, 1976, recently appointed Ambassador Frank Meloy, along with Economic Counselor Robert Waring, were traveling to meet with the Lebanese president when they were kidnapped by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Both Meloy and Waring, along with the driver, were killed. (At right, President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger at the arrival ceremony.)
George Lambrakis was Deputy Chief of Mission in Beirut from 1975 to 1976. In these excerpts from his oral history, Lambrakis discusses the civil war, the events leading up to and surrounding the assassination, as well as the proposed plans for a U.S. invasion and the evacuation of personnel. Lambrakis was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in June 2002. Talcott Seelye joined the Foreign Service in 1948 and was temporary representative to the Lebanese president after the assassination of Ambassador Meloy. He was interviewed in 1995 by Charles Stuart Kennedy. The two interviewees had slightly different views as to why Ambassador Meloy and Robert Waring were killed.
Read accounts of the Embassy Beirut bombing by the ambassador and a consular officer. Read about other Foreign Service officers who died in the line of duty.
“It was a completely lawless place”
LAMBRAKIS: I got assigned to Beirut in 1975. The situation was that there had been a serious incident between the primarily Christian and the primarily Muslim sides, although it was a much more complicated arrangement in that the so-called Muslim side was really also radical and not openly Muslim, because a Druze was leading it. The so-called Christian side was more right wing as well as primarily Christian. But there was no war going on in the summer of ’75. There had been a bloody incident. I was asked to go there as deputy chief of mission to Mac Godley….
I was more junior in grade than two of the officers there, both economic and administrative counselors, although I got promoted the next promotion period the next year. Then all hell broke loose in September when the war really got going right in Beirut. My family, my wife and kids, came with me in July and got evacuated in September. They hardly unpacked. I stayed there for exactly a year, from July to July ’76.
Q: What was the war about?
LAMBRAKIS: This was a complicated war following on previous problems between the haves and have-nots to a large degree. The haves being the Lebanese Christians for the most part, led by the Maronites, although some of the Christians, non-Maronites, Greek Orthodox, were primarily neutral or even on the side of the have-nots. It was a war that had its beginnings perhaps as far back as independence…. Let’s say that the original agreements between Muslims and Christians setting up the state of Lebanon involved an unwritten agreement which allowed the Christians more power than the Muslims but also required that the Christians stop asking for aid from the French or British or anybody else, in return for which the Muslims would not try to join the neighboring Muslim countries such as Syria, which has always claimed Lebanon.
Up until the end of World War I, the area was basically known as Syria. In fact I think I have a postcard of the American Consulate, Beirut, Syria. Now, in 1958 there was a brief outbreak of fighting, much more specifically Muslim versus Christian. It had a lot to do with Arab socialism led by Nasser and the Syrians at the time. Camille Chamoun, who was president back then, had called in the Americans. The American Marines had landed in ’58 only to find that the war had ended….
This leads us up to by ’75. You had a much bigger Palestinian presence there because the Palestinians had been kicked out of Jordan in 1970, Black September. Actually they had been in Lebanon before that. In 1969 there was a pact in Lebanon [the “Cairo Agreement”] which gave them privileges, in effect running the southern part of the country even before 1970.
This began to stick in the craw particularly of the haves, namely the Christian dominant group, the Maronites, who by agreement always controlled the presidency and always controlled the army. This continued, and in spring 1975 there was a bad incident between the Palestinians and the Christians which blew up for awhile. Camille Chamoun was also involved. His interests were involved in southern Lebanon, where people objected to some of his economic moves….
The war as it broke out in Beirut in September was primarily between the Phalangists under a right-wing semi-fascist Maronite warlord, Pierre Gemayel and his sons, the Jumblattist forces, a mixed group of radicals assisted by Palestinians. The war went back and forth for quite a while. We, the American embassy, evacuated non-essential personnel early on at the end of ’75…. I ended up being Chargé between three more ambassadors there, one of whom was kidnapped and assassinated, Frank Meloy….
Beirut was a place in which no one was in charge. You ran a risk of being kidnapped and killed if you walked the street, quite apart from the shooting that happened periodically across the streets. My wife was almost kidnapped before the war broke out, by people who would kidnap. They were known to be raping and killing European women, among other things. It was a completely lawless kind of place. I lived three blocks from the embassy.
I remember one morning walking out and having a ten-year-old kid with a big automatic pointed at me. I smiled, and he smiled, and that was it, but he could easily have pulled the trigger playing games. After a while, we did not go out in the streets too much, except incognito, on a weekend, taking a little walk. Otherwise it was very dangerous in a suit and tie. In January or February, I believe it was, that year, or maybe earlier, two of our people were kidnapped. They were USIA [U.S. Information Agency]. They ran a printing shop. Beirut had been the center of our Middle Eastern regional operations. It had a lot of Americans….
They were kidnapped by this little band who accused them of being CIA. They were locked up, somewhat beaten up, not too much. We made a big effort, and we got them out after two months. I believe, and this has never been proven, that even though we said we would not pay to get them out, I believe that [President of Lebanon Suleiman] Frangie or someone on his behalf, made a promise to the kidnappers that had to do with giving them arms or something, which he then did not carry out. That is one theory. Why do I say all this? Because later on the Frank Meloy issue comes up….
The U.S. tries high-level negotiations, to no avail
The Palestinians were helping the left wing so well that they were winning, and they were winning to the point that the Christians were in panic. I recall the cadence. I was Chargé at the time. We used to write two cables to Washington every day. One was the normal situation one on what was happening cable…. The other was the Chief of Mission’s own judgment cable. I remember the daily cables that I was writing at the time. I remember the panic of the Maronites who were asking for American assistance and who were claiming that they could hear Russian voices on the other side, which I thought was ridiculous. Actually I never reported that until much later to Washington.
But at that key moment Jumblatt was invited to Syria where the Syrian president, Assad, gave him a tongue lashing for two or three hours. Jumblatt was unhappy because the Syrians had started to help the Christians to keep them from losing. Jumblatt was saying “Whose side are you on?” Assad said, “I am going to help the Christians because if I don’t I will lose all my credibility with them.”… The Israelis and others accused the United States of having encouraged Assad to invade Lebanon, but it seems pretty clear to me that Assad did it for his own interests, because Syria has always wanted the dominant role in Lebanon. He thought that this was his way of getting it. So all of this had taken place.
At that moment someone named Ghassan Tveini, who was a very prominent journalist, and was also then Minister of Information, came to see me and said, “We really should have Americans try to stop this. How about acting as a mediator?” I reported this to Washington. Washington said “The Secretary of State [Kissinger] is very busy. You are doing fine, just keep doing what you are doing.”
I went and saw the British ambassador and the French ambassador and said, “What about the three of us doing this?” They didn’t want to have any part in it. So I went and saw Jumblatt when he returned from Damascus and said to him, “What about trying to settle this thing now? What can we do to help?” Jumblatt played me off a little bit and said, “Why don’t we meet tomorrow?”
I went back to the embassy and wrote a quick cable to Washington saying what had happened. Got a quick cable back saying, “Don’t do anything until you hear again. We have our position.” This was a stated position which we had repeated many times and which people were laughing at because it was repeating the same platitudes we had always repeated. As a result of that, Kissinger, when he did focus on it, said, “I don’t know who Lambrakis is. He is only a chargé.”…
In my estimation, and this is not just talking sour grapes, I thought that the high-level way in which this was done, very publicized, was the wrong way, simply because both sides then assumed the United States had a very important interest in settling this thing, and therefore they would ask the maximum to see if the Americans can get it for them…. It failed.… It was then decided that they needed a proper ambassador there who would pick his own DCM [deputy chief of mission].
“Come with me to identify the bodies”
Frank Meloy was encouraged to pick his own DCM rather than keep me…. A cable from Washington said, “Frank, you have been here a while. Maybe it is time to present your credentials to the new president.” After Frangie, the new president was the former Minister of Economy, but he was now living in east Beirut, which was a Christian area. You had to cross a green line between the Muslim-patrolled and the Christian-patrolled areas. It was kept very quiet.
I only learned at the last minute that Meloy was going that morning. He took along with him the third-ranking man at the embassy, Bob Waring, the economic counselor, who knew the new president very well. I was leaving anyway, so I was left back at the embassy.
The two of them, with the Ambassador’s driver and a follow car, went. The follow car was told as they were approaching the green line by the Ambassador’s driver, “Okay, you can leave us now.” Nothing more was heard. Then two hours later, we got a call from the President’s office saying, “Where is the Ambassador?” At which point I got involved, sent a flash message back to Washington saying, “We have lost the Ambassador and Waring.” We started asking around, didn’t learn anything.
Then that same afternoon two Red Cross men came and asked to see me. They came up to my office and we were sitting next to each other like that. One of them said, “Are you having any problems?” I said, “Yes, I am having problems. I’ve lost my Ambassador.”
He turned around to me like that and said, “Well, my dear sir”– he was a Swiss –“Why don’t you come with me to identify the bodies?” That’s how we learned that they had been shot and dumped in front of an area that was going to be the new American embassy. It was further into the Muslim area, one we never finished. I called in the embassy security officer and all that. We identified the bodies and we took care of it after that.
At that point, of course, Washington decided that this was a critical moment and we should evacuate all Americans. Then it was a question of how that would be done. I stayed on as Chargé under the circumstances. We had a major evacuation in which Kissinger was twisting everybody’s arm to “let my people go,” as it were. There were a lot of intermediaries. The French and the Egyptians were actually the most helpful intermediaries. We came very close to another invasion of Lebanon on that occasion.
It was early afternoon when the British chargé came in to see me. (The ambassador had gone.) He said, “What are you people doing?” I said, “What do you mean what are we doing?” He said, “What are you doing? We know what you are doing.” It was through him that I understood that Washington was contemplating a second Marine landing in Lebanon (after 1958). At that point I sent a message to Roy Atherton who was then Assistant Secretary of NEA [Near East Affairs] asking what is happening.
Then we started talking on a secure telephone. He said, “Yes, we are contemplating this. How do you feel about it?” I said, “Well, I don’t think it is a good idea, and the British don’t think it is a good idea.” He said, “Well, hurry up and send me a message because the President is about to make a decision.” So I got our very senior colonel who was our military attaché in there and the top embassy people, and we were talking about this. Ten minutes later a telephone call came through. “What’s happened to that telegram? The President is about to make a decision.” So we got off a flash telegram saying we think this would be very bad, unnecessary, and the British think so too. Washington wasn’t aware that the British even knew. That apparently swung the balance.
Then we had a couple of days of discussion on how to make a peaceful evacuation. The airport was closed. Overland seemed dicey. It was finally decided that the U.S. Navy, which was itching to get into the action, since I had quietly asked them several months before to stand by, was going to take them out by amphibious landing craft. Who would protect them? The only people who could, the Palestinians. But we couldn’t talk to the Palestinians because Kissinger had made a promise to the Israelis not to talk to the Palestinians.
I had been using an intermediary to get messages back and forth, who was a very prominent former presidential candidate, Raymond Edde, a Greek Orthodox. But we got the message delivered through the Egyptians primarily. On the day we had a peaceful evacuation of about a 120 American, British, and French citizens. A lot of them simply because the airport was closed used it to go abroad and come back again. In other words, it was not felt as a crisis locally. But it was a crisis in the U.S. government. Of course, President Ford was very happy it went so well. The military were very happy, and all that kind of thing.
Why were Ambassador Meloy and Robert Waring killed?
LAMBRAKIS: That is an unsolved issue officially. I will tell you what I think. I knew the Ambassador’s chauffeur. We were on very good terms. The Ambassador’s chauffeur needed money. He was always asking me when he was going to get some more money, because he had won a U.S. government award of $500, and could he get a raise, things like that. I also know he was once captured by the radicals who took away his car and things and then gave them all back to him.
Putting two and two together, he is the one who told the follow car to go away on the day he drove Meloy and Waring, told them prematurely to go away. He, I am fairly certain, was told that these people would be kidnapped. He would be kidnapped. They would be kidnapped. He was not told anything about their being killed. He probably thought they would be kidnapped like our two USIS guys and eventually released.
I have a feeling that they had been holding this over him from the day they took him in and released him; they sort of said your family is going to suffer if you play tricks with us. I have that feeling. Mind you, I presided over a memorial service to him in Beirut, because at the time, what apparently happened is they all three got killed immediately.
Now who did it, a line seems to go back to the same crowd that did the USIS kidnappings, a small group of possibly Lebanese working under Palestinian control, possibly Palestinians. We are not quite sure, radicals. There was never any political reason for it. There were never any political demands made. It was a mystery. It still is a mystery. The only reason I can think is they felt they were double-crossed over the American USIS people, and they were going to show everybody that you can’t double cross them. That is the only thing I can think of.
SEELYE: The Ambassadors’ cars in those days were rigged with a concealed microphone in the ceiling. You had a button to the right of your seat that you could press if you were in a dangerous situation. That would trigger the microphone and then the microphone would play back to the Marine Guard office. So the embassy could hear what was going on and take steps accordingly. That button had never been pressed in the case of Meloy. Nothing was heard at the Marine headquarters. Either it hadn’t worked or it hadn’t been pressed.
My guess is that it had not been pressed, because my reading is that probably what happened was that the chauffeur had been blackmailed into agreeing to a friendly kidnapping. This is just my view. That is, the car would be stopped and the party would be kidnapped for political purposes, with no intention of killing them. They would be held and then all released.
The kidnappers wanted to make a political point. Presumably the chauffeur had been put under such terrible pressure, maybe with threats to the life of his wife and family, that he figured that since no one was going to get killed he would go along with it. Further substantiation of this is the fact that as the party was approaching the green line, the chauffeur, on his radio mike, told the backup car to turn around and go back because he said it wasn’t needed anymore. The Ambassador obviously had not known about this exchange because it was in Arabic. Frank didn’t speak Arabic, didn’t know what the chauffeur was saying, and probably didn’t notice that the backup car had turned around. This substantiates my thesis.
Evidently the party arrived at a prearranged area where guys with guns stopped the car. The driver presumably says, “Ambassador, don’t worry about this, these are friendly parties,” and opens up the window and the guns were poked in. And the group is taken. The driver probably told the Ambassador that this was a friendly group, so he did not press the button.
We learned later that the group that had taken the Ambassador, Waring, and the chauffeur somehow turned them over or they were grabbed by a Communist group, another group. Circumstances are unclear regarding the transfer. But they were evidently moved and killed immediately and put into body bags and within a matter of a couple of hours after the scheduled meeting their bodies were found on the Corniche.
The PLO was informed of the action because it was in charge of security. But it was quite upset because of tardiness in informing the PLO. They said, “Look, if you had notified us sooner we probably could have tracked down the kidnappers right away and saved the lives of the party.” Which very likely could have been the case. That to me is the only explanation of how this could have happened.
Later on we found the Ambassador’s vehicle in an abandoned garage intact. I had the unpleasant task of presenting a plaque to the driver’s widow and two sons on the occasion of his death.
Q: Why was one group trying to kill the Ambassador?
SEELYE: Well, you start out with the stigma attached to the close U.S.-Israeli relationship. That is the underlying consideration. Radical groups equate the U.S. with Israel, which had been beating up Palestinians and taken Palestinian land, etc. More than that, with regard to the Lebanese political dynamics, Muslim radicals alleged U.S. support for the Christian Maronite faction. Officially the U.S. did not support the Maronite faction. We were neutral.
In fact, while I was in Beirut I frequently made public statements and interviews saying that we were neutral, wanted a reunited Lebanon, and believed in preserving Lebanon’s territorial integrity. And, in fact, we were very skeptical of the Maronites because they were causing a lot of problems. They helped stimulate the start of the civil war. So there was no truth in fact for their belief that we supported them on the political level.
On the other hand, I have learned since then that the CIA was probably feeding them some stuff. Certainly they were later, whether they were at that time I don’t know. I should have known if they were at that time. Be that as it may, the radical faction no doubt assumed that this was what we were doing, that we were helping the Maronites with equipment and money because they were well-heeled.
Those were two basic reasons. A third, of course, was that the Communists obviously got Soviet money and the Soviets were anti-American, so they shared the anti-American orientation of the Soviets. They were the ones who killed Meloy. Those who had kidnapped Meloy had not intended to kill. That is my theory — they just wanted to make a political point. So the killers were those with a Soviet connection. So this is a third element.