Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

The Burning of the JFK Library in Cairo — Thanksgiving Day, 1964


burning-flagOn November 28, 1964 — Thanksgiving Day — several hundred students from the Congo and elsewhere set fire to the newly christened John F. Kennedy  Library, completely burning it to the ground. The Congo had been in a state of chaos after being granted independence from Belgium in 1960. After the Soviets intervened on behalf of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, the United States began supporting Joseph Kasa-Vubu and began airlift efforts to aid refugees and Belgian forces. These efforts in turn enraged Lumumba supporters across the African continent.

The mob then stormed the U.S. Embassy. During the frenzy of the protests, one American citizen and one Swedish citizen were shot. U.S. Marines eventually managed to subdue protesters outside of the embassy.

Of the 20,000 books in the library, only 8 could be saved. The Egyptian government had known of the demonstration beforehand but did not warn the embassy; moreover, it did not apologize for the incident.

Lucius D. Battle served as the Ambassador to Egypt from 1964 to 1967. In the following excerpt from his interview he recalls the dramatic events that occurred on that day .

 

 

BATTLE: So we prepared to go to Cairo. I recently made a speech to the DACOR [Diplomatic and Consular Officers – Retired] group and told them that my appointment was the kind that all Foreign Service officers should fight. I was not prepared to go to Cairo as Ambassador; I had not served in the Middle East. But it enabled the President to say to Congress and to the Senate particularly that he was sending out some one well known to them who had fresh eyes and mind, who was not an old “Arabist.” The new man could review everything. The President wanted to keep the aid program going and the White House thought that my review would help that. I don’t think that one person makes that much difference to historical trends or to what really happens, but at any rate I did go to Cairo.

battleDuring the first few weeks we were in Cairo, we had a lot of problems. About the week I arrived, a new aid bill was being considered by Congress which included a very large PL 480 program [food assistance] for Egypt. Senator Gruening of Alaska was on the aid subcommittee dealing with this program. He had an assistant who was extremely pro-Israeli. The Senator had absolutely no interest in the issue whatsoever and would do whatever the staffer asked him to do. So a rider was attached to the bill saying that there would be no more aid to Egypt until it got out of Yemen. That was not exactly welcome news to the Egyptians and it happened during my first week in Cairo. That problem was followed by the burning of the American library in the Embassy compound….I was still making my calls.

This was on Thanksgiving or about two months after I arrived. All embassies had received alerts from the Department advising that there could be trouble in connection with the Congo issues. There were large numbers of black students in Cairo and elsewhere. The Egyptians had made an effort to have large number of African students in order to try to increase its influence in the continent. So U.S. Embassy Cairo was an obvious target.

I received this alert over Thanksgiving weekend. I read the instructions which said if a building was ever invaded and could not be defended, even if files were in danger, the Marines should not fire. They were to use fire-arms in only very circumscribed circumstances. On Thanksgiving Day, I read the President’s proclamation at the English church in Cairo. We drove home after service, passing the Embassy compound. All was quiet since it was a holiday. We had dinner about 2 p.m. I settled down with a brandy and my children were playing chess with some of their friends. I had let my car go, which was a blessing.

The phone rang; it was the Marine guard saying that the compound was under attack. There were people all over the place throwing bricks, tearing up the flower pots and in general rampaging. The Marine asked whether I could come. I asked him whether I could get through and he thought that I could. So I walked, since my car and driver had long left. It was not a long walk, so I went. I put on a raincoat since it was a chilly evening. I told Surri, the majordomo, to pull down all the blinds, to lock up and not anyone into the house, to lock all the gates and to prepare for possible trouble.

I walked to the embassy and it was a disastrous situation. In order to get there, I had to pass both the fire and police departments buildings. In neither case, did I see any activity. I passed these buildings and went to the embassy. As I arrived, the flowerpots were being thrown right into the building, right into my office.

The Marine barracks were on fire as was the library. I walked very slowly and the mob let me go through. The Marines were all lined up behind the door; I could see them. They yelled at me to run, but I thought that if I did that, I would be killed. So I walked through the crowd; I pushed one guy who stood in the way, aside.

The crowd waited long enough for the gate to swing open so I could get through. Then it went back to rioting again. Now it seems the funniest thing in the world. I wasn’t quite sure what to do; I asked each Marine to take a fire extinguisher of which we had a number. I took one, although I had never used one in my life, and headed for the library fire.

By the time we got there, it was a gigantic blaze. There wasn’t anything we could do; we couldn’t even get close enough. Unfortunately, that fire was so spectacular, as the photographs taken at the time will show, that every article written in the next six months in the U.S. included mention and pictures of it. The burning of U.S. libraries was common problem in those days. The articles would use the Cairo’s burning as an example; LIFE included the pictures in one of its editions; a lot of publications did.

Every time there was a fire at any post, the Cairo library pictures were used as an illustration, because they were the best pictures available. The stories might be general in nature or about an event somewhere else, but the pictures were always that of our fire. I stayed up all night at the embassy; the police and the fire departments finally showed up, unnecessarily late.

I think the Egyptians were embarrassed; they didn’t know what to do about the incident. The Chief of Police came to the embassy after things had calmed down to ask whether I was all right. I told him that I was okay and that was about the extent of that conversation. I showed him the damage. By that time, the mob had broken up. If the Egyptians had done more immediately, the press might have reported it differently. if they had apologized or committed themselves to compensation for the building damage, that would have made a big difference. But they didn’t do that.

congoUltimately, after many weeks, they did the right things. As we pieced the story together, it was apparently a mob of African students who were protesting the Congo developments, the U.S. airlift out of the Congo.

The next day, I went to protest the absence of appropriate protection and the slow response by the police and fire departments. The Foreign Office became very indignant that I protested; they didn’t respond; they didn’t apologize. They expressed regrets that the incident had occurred, which wasn’t satisfactory. So we had a mess.

I don’t think the Egyptians ever intended for the riot to occur, but they had given a permit for the demonstration. So they knew that there would be a demonstration. Whether they knew how far it might go, I don’t know, but they knew that there would be a demonstration. That was not very helpful. Eventually, the building that they gave us right near the residence became a better library than the one we had because it was in a better location — one didn’t have to enter the embassy compound to get to it.

 

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