Jordan is one of the United States’ staunchest allies in the Middle East and has been one of the few bright spots in a troubled region. However, this was far from the case in the 1960’s and 70’s, when relations with Jordan’s King Hussein were much more prickly and unpredictable. When Israel seized the West Bank from Jordan during the Six-Day War, displaced Palestinians fled to Jordan in an attempt to seek refuge. Among the displaced were members of the Fedayeen, a militant group of Palestinians seeking retribution for their dislocation. The Fedayeen engaged in frequent attacks on the West Bank and in Jordan proper. As tensions rose, the threat of violence became more imminent. It reached a boiling point in the April 1970, when a Fedayeen mob attacked Embassy Amman.
Cars were set on fire, books were burned, and the American flag was taken down and destroyed. This in turn led to the cancellation of a trip by Assistant Secretary Joe Sisco, which the King called “a deliberate personal insult.” Harrison Symmes, Ambassador to Jordan from 1967-1970, was on hand to witness both the attack and its aftermath, when King Hussein asked him to be recalled to Washington. He was interviewed beginning in 1989 by Charles Stuart Kennedy.
Go here to see what happened during Black September after Ambassador Symmes left. Read about Ambassador Sam Lewis’ run-in with Ariel Sharon, Ambassador Hume Horan’s dispute with Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd, and other Moments on the Middle East.
“We were really in something of a quagmire”
SYMMES: Many parts of the country had become off-limits to us because they were Fedayeen territory where the King’s writ no longer ran. We couldn’t go to some very desirable places to visit.
By mid-summer of 1969, the situation had become so tenuous that the King couldn’t decide whether he was going to put the Fedayeen down or whether he was going to give them some degree of freedom, whether he was going to use the police to put them down or whether he was going to use the military to put them down. He wanted to use the military because he saw that as a means of getting M16 rifles for the military from us. There were all kinds of factors like that involved. We were just getting nowhere in what he was going to do about the Fedayeen….
By early 1970 we were really in something of a quagmire, and about that time it was thought it would be a good time for Joe Sisco [Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near East Asia (NEA) Affairs] to make a visit to the area, that he would go to Cairo and Tel Aviv and ultimately Jordan. He was to come to Jordan from Tel Aviv.
He got to Tel Aviv, and at that point apparently the King decided — now whether this was a ploy, whether he had something to do with it, whether some of his staff had something to do with it, or how it came about — he let the Fedayeen demonstrate. And in letting them demonstrate against Sisco’s visit, he withdrew protection from around the embassy, from the cultural center and certain other locations in Amman in order, as they said at the time, to avoid inciting the Fedayeen.
The Fedayeen Mob Attacks the Embassy
So one morning in April 1970 I went as usual to the embassy. (My route was always varied.) Sisco was over in Tel Aviv, and there had been a mounting press campaign and radio campaign about “We don’t want Sisco,” blah, blah, blah. And I was in close touch with Joe, of course, over in Tel Aviv. When I arrived at the embassy that morning, there were no troops about. No armored cars, no Bedouin guards. And a surging mass of people in combat fatigues and one thing or another were fanned out around the embassy.
I managed to get into the embassy, and the next thing I knew — there were a few soldiers around — an Army captain came in and was brought up to my second-floor office to see me. He said, “The Fedayeen have requested that you lower the American flag.”
And I replied, “I’m not going to lower the American flag. This is a diplomatic mission. Why are the armored cars and the protection not here?”
“We didn’t want to have them here in order to avoid inciting the mob.”
“Well, I think you’d better do something about the mob.”
By this time they were throwing stones and bottles at the buildings, and we had all the shutters down. We were prepared of course for mob violence, and we had rigged up a device so that halyards of the flag were sort of halfway up the pole and they could be pulled over to an upstairs window so you couldn’t just pull the flag down.
Well, one of those ninnies shimmied up the flag pole and got the halyard and pulled the flag down. [Laughter] And then they started tearing it up. And, as I said at the time, it was like dividing up pieces of the true cross. You could buy a piece of the American flag down in the souk. It had been “liberated” that day. The mob were breaking windows and by this time they had set some embassy cars on fire. The embassy nurse narrowly escaped from her little building out in the garden. The mob uprooted all of the roses in the garden, pulled up plants, etc.
Meanwhile, of course, I was trying to get through to the Foreign Minister, the Prime Minister, the King. Nobody could be found. They were all at a parade at the Army General Headquarters. So I did all the proper things to get messages to them as quickly as possible.
I looked across to one of the other hills where the cultural center was located. It was up in smoke! I got a telephone call that the mob had gotten into the cultural center and they were burning the books. They had such a fire that the iron shelving melted. So the cultural center was just completely demolished.
Finally, I got through to somebody in authority, and I said, “Look, you’ve got to get the military or the police or somebody out. Lord knows how much longer the embassy is going to be able to hold out.” Ultimately, they did get the mob dispersed. They brought in some troops and so on.
King Hussein issues an ultimatum…
That afternoon I was able finally to get through to someone to get an appointment with the King and went out to his residential palace. He was there with Zaid Al-Rifai, Chief of the Royal Diwan, who was later Prime Minister — one of his nefarious advisors — very refined.
I, of course, told the King that I was very concerned about what had happened, that I hoped he had a full report about it and that there would be restitution of what had been destroyed in terms of physical property. He never said he was sorry. His sidekick never said he was sorry. I said, “I think in view of what’s happened, we are going to have to consider some way maybe to postpone the Sisco [pictured] visit.”
He said, “Oh, no. That would certainly not be possible. You mustn’t postpone that visit whatever happens. I am in charge here and I can assure you that Mr. Sisco will be safe.”
“The plan calls for him to cross the Jordan River and then to be motored up to Amman, which would provide very tricky places for an ambush.”
“Oh, no. I’ll have my helicopter pick him up and fly him to Amman.”
“The Fedayeen have got all kinds of assault rifles and hand missiles, and I don’t think that would be particularly safe.”
“As long as I’m in control of this country, Mr. Sisco will be safe. He must come.”
I then reminded him of December 1958 when I’d gone out with Bill Rountree on a trip around the Middle East. We’d ended up in Baghdad and had been attacked by a mob and so on. Before we’d gone on to Baghdad, we had visited both Hussein and Nasser, who had warned us not to go, that if we went we were going into a trap and so on. Bill and I went, anyway. Although we had recommended we not continue the trip to Baghdad, Loy Henderson who was in charge at the time – [Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles was sick and [Under Secretary of State Christian] Herter wasn’t there — said we had to go and we went and almost lost our lives.
So I reminded the King of this and said, “You know, we didn’t take your advice then, and Bill Rountree wished we had when we got there. Maybe this is one of those times, Your Majesty, that we should think about a way to avoid having Sisco come. We could come up with a very good public relations rationale. We could get him sick. There are all kinds of things we can do and just postpone the visit.”
He said, “I shall regard Sisco’s not coming as a deliberate personal insult and I shall consider you responsible.”
…Which the U.S. ignores
So I went back to the embassy with that and communicated all this to Joe and to Washington and made a recommendation that Joe not come under the circumstances. Because I didn’t think the King was effectively in charge of the situation and even if he tried to be in charge that he would succeed.
Given what the mob had just done, we did not know what would happen if he came. I thought Joe’s life would be in danger, and not only Joe’s life, but the whole American community would be in danger. It was just too easy to cut our losses, in other words….
I sent word back to the Department — Joe concurred in it, Wally Barbour concurred in it — and the Department agreed that I should say Mr. Sisco had unavoidably been forced to postpone his visit and would not be coming. An illness or something like that — I’ve forgotten now the rationale. Perfectly good one. I was told to communicate that to the King the next day.
So I had that message and written out and called up the palace and spoke to Zaid Al-Rifai, Chief of the Royal Diwan. He said, “His Majesty is not available and he has asked me to take any message that you may have. What can I do for you?”
I said, “This is for His Majesty’s ears only and I’d really like to see him. I think it is terribly important for our two countries.”
“His Majesty is just not going to be available to do it.”
We hemmed and hawed and he said, “Bring it to me.”
I said, “I’d like for you to go back to the King and see what can be done.”
He called up later and said the King wasn’t going to be available. So I sent the message over by [Political Counselor] Morris Draper. I told Morris not to say anything. Now whether Morris followed my instructions or not, I don’t know. I didn’t always rely on him and his judgment. In any case, that was in the very late afternoon.
The King retaliates
About 9:00 that evening, I was watching a home movie with my family and I got a call from the Prime Minister to come and see him. He said the King had requested my transfer to Washington. He said that he had advised against it.
I said, “I hope you can go back to him. I think it’s a very bad idea. I don’t think it’s going to be good for our relations on either side. Apart from any personal effect on me, I just don’t think it’s going to look good for Jordan. I’m due for a transfer anyway. I’ve just been waiting for orders, why not let the thing go through?”
He said, “We’ll keep it quiet so you just get word to Washington.”
Of course, the next day it was all over the papers. [Laughter]
That’s a typical sort of Hussein way of acting…. [Pictured, Ambassador Symmes, at right, with Governor George Romney]
Q: There’s a childish element there.
SYMMES: Yes. “I’m going to pick up my marbles and go home.” I recall I had to leave the day after that to go to an ambassadorial conference in Tehran. Joe was going as well, and that was one reason he had come out on the trip at that time. I flew up to Beirut to pick up the plane to go to Tehran and recall that Dana Adams Schmidt was on the airplane. I’ve forgotten whether it was on the Amman-Beirut or the Beirut-Tehran leg, but he was sitting beside me. A New York Times correspondent at the time and a long-time Middle Eastern reporter.
He said, “Harry, don’t feel bad about that. He does this to all the people he really likes and respects. Look at what he did to Glubb Pasha.” [Laughter]
I said, “That’s not much solace at this time.”
[Note: Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot Glubb, a.k.a. Glubb Pasha, led and trained Transjordan’s Arab Legion between 1939 and 1956 as its Commanding General. He retained command until March 1956, when King Hussein dismissed him. Hussein wanted to distance himself from the British and to disprove the contention of Arab nationalists that Glubb was the actual ruler of Jordan. Despite this, Glubb remained a close friend of the King.]