Egypt and the Suez Canal became a point of global strategic interest during WWII because of the quick access the waterway could provide to Middle East oil, raw materials from Asia, and– for the British Empire particularly– a connection to its distant territories. Britain, as the first state to launch a completely mechanized military, was particularly dependent upon its shipping routes from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Maintaining Allied control of oil exports from the Middle East was also of strategic importance to the United States even before it entered the war, and it therefore commenced a Lend-Lease program in Egypt to equip the British with necessary materiel.
The United States publicly took a position of neutrality early in the war (the Neutrality Act of 1939), and could not sell weapons to foreign governments. In order to protect the national interest without violating the Act, the Lend-Lease program was devised to permit the non-monetary transfer of materiel “to the government of any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.” It was during this period that Raymond A. Hare was appointed Second Secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and orchestrated the movement of American materiel to British forces in Egypt and later to Soviet forces via Iran.
Below is an excerpt of his interview, conducted by Dayton Mak, which began in July 1987. To read more about World War II, the Middle East, or to read Raymond Hare’s oral history, please follow the links.
“War was the life of Cairo”
Raymond Hare, Second Secretary, U.S. Embassy Cairo, 1939-1944
Very often, when one is asked to look into the past, one tends to recall only the more momentous or the most historically significant incidents or periods in his career. In my case, I presume that my years in Cairo during World War II would fall into that category…( Hare is seen at left.)
World War II had started, but we were not yet in, although we were very interested observers. War was the life of Cairo.
Life was a sort of mixture of military, political and social. It was a whirlwind sort of place where everything was happening; people were going along having parties and at the same time people were out fighting in the desert.
You went to a party and several British officers might approach the hostess and say they were sorry but they were due back to the desert, while a couple of others might show up a bit dusty, and having heard that a party was going on they came along to join in.
When I got to Cairo in 1939 we had a Minister, Judge Fish from Florida. He was a political appointee and a fine gentleman. The first thing he said to me was “Hare, I don’t know much about this business. I’ll do the best I can; but you keep me in line; don’t let me make mistakes.”
He was very generous-minded and was particularly good at social contacts. But it wasn’t long before our setup changed. The Minister returned to the United States and the only other diplomatic secretary was transferred, leaving me as the only diplomatic officer in Egypt.
This was about the time [September 1940] that the Italians came into the war. Our office did have a consular officer and an economic officer but no others. Until a military attaché came a year later I reported on military matters as well as other routine functions.
In Cairo, I got very close to the people at the British Embassy and would be invited to their briefing sessions and things of that kind. We established a good working relationship, which provided me with important information to send back to Washington.
The Cairo press had some able editors, and I would go around regularly to talk to them. Between them and my British friends I could keep quite good track of events.
“’How did you get it?’” I’d ask. ‘I stole it,’ he’d reply”
One source of intelligence was a little man I called the Shadow. He was so inconspicuous that I think he could have walked into and out of a room without anyone noticing him. But he did get around, and he would turn up at the most extraordinary places.
For some reason he took a liking to me. From time to time he would bring me Egyptian documents and when I asked “Where did you get that?”
He’d say, “I got it from a government office.”
“How did you get it?” I’d ask.
“I stole it,” he’d reply.
I said “You take it back, I don’t want that stuff.”
Another time I was sitting in my office in the early evening when my phone rung. It was the Shadow.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“I don’t know, what is going on?”
“Well, the British Ambassador [Sir Miles Lampson] and [Major] General [R.G.H.W.] Stone, the commanding general [of British troops in Egypt 1942-1944] have just gone into the palace (Abdeen Palace seen above left).”
“Where are you?” I asked.
“In the palace,” he replied. That was the famous incident when the Ambassador and the General had delivered King Farouk an ultimatum that either he “shape up” or face the consequences.
My inconspicuous little shadow stayed there in the palace and by telephone gave me a blow by blow description. One came by information in peculiar ways! Incidentally, I never paid him a cent.
“The Palestine ‘problem’ became an important issue”
I would like to digress a bit here to say a little bit about American policy in the Middle East. Up until the beginning of World War II our policy had been one particularly and consciously devoted to promoting protection of specific interests, largely commercial.
Our Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes, admonished our delegation to the Lausanne conference of 1922 “to maintain the integrity of our position as an independent power, which has not been concerned with the rivalries of other nations which have so often made the Near East a theater of war.” That was not a bad policy for the time, and it was clearly stated and closely followed.
But as time went on the Palestine “problem” became an important issue. In Israel the Wailing Wall was the subject of controversy. The Department of State was flooded with letters and telegrams on the subject.
The question became so acute that the Department issued a statement in 1938 that while a Joint Resolution of Congress supported the idea of a Jewish National Home, that resolution was merely a specification of interest and “did not constitute a commitment to any foreign obligation or entanglement.” These statements constituted our policy, and I think that we knew what we were doing.
During the war our policy began to change. We suddenly became very involved, primarily in support of the British war effort in various ways. Our Lend-Lease legislation permitted us to do many things along this line that we could not have done before.
We set up a Middle East Command with General [Russell] Maxwell [Lend-Lease coordinator for the region] as its head, and we had representatives on the Middle East Supply Center [which regulated and dispensed civilian commerce and supplies].
Meanwhile our American Mission began to grow. At first I was alone, then a military attaché came, then we had a Minister, then the USIA [United States Information Agency], or whatever it was called in those days.
These were followed by “the beautiful people” as we called them, such as the Red Cross and OSS [Office of Strategic Services], and then the inevitable Officers Club, of course.
At the time, we were helping the British with supplies; we were also helping the Russians. To do this we set up the Persian Gulf Command, which was responsible for getting supplies to the Russians via Iran.
During these five years in Cairo my family joined me until the Italians entered the war. Our Minister, [Alexander Comstock] Kirk by name, felt it unsafe for families to remain in Cairo, so my wife went to Jerusalem for about six months until it became clear that the Italians were not the threat they seemed to be at first.
Later when the Germans under Rommel moved into the Western desert, the threat was real, and my family was evacuated to the States, via Gura (RAF support base in Eritrea), Africa and Brazil.