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Negotiating Peacetime
 
 
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Spring 2007 Vol. V, No. 3

In Our History

Negotiating Peacetime

Leading an aspiring people to independence: President Howard S. Bliss Addresses the 1919 Paris Peace Conference on Behalf of Syria and Lebanon.

“In Our History” is part of an ongoing series that celebrates AUB’s 140th anniversary.

On February 6, 1919, AUB President Howard S. Bliss spoke before the Council of Ten at the Paris Peace Conference. Leaders from 32 states representing three-fourths of the world’s population attended the conference, which would result in the treaties that ended World War I. Key diplomatic figures at the negotiations, which took place at locations in and around Paris, included French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando, and US President Woodrow Wilson. After being welcomed by Prime Minister Clemenceau, Dr. Howard Bliss addressed the council and made a statement on behalf of Syria excerpted below.

Syria: Statement by Dr. Howard S. Bliss to the Versailles Peace Conference, 1919

Mr. President, Gentlemen, I shall not detain you long. My deep interest in the people of Syria, irrespective of race, creed or condition, bred from a long residence among them—in fact I was born on Mt. Lebanon—is my only excuse for detaining you at all.

My plea before this body on behalf of the people of Syria is this: that an Inter-Allied or a Neutral Commission, or a Mixed Commission, be sent to Syria—including the Lebanon—to express in a perfectly untrammeled way their political wishes and aspirations, viz: as to what form of government they desire and as to what Power, if any, should be their Mandatory Protecting Power.

My plan is based upon the ground that the 12th point of President Wilson’s 14 points and the declarations made by France and Great Britain in November, 1918, have committed the Allies and the United States to the granting of such an opportunity of self-expression to the people freed from the Turkish yoke to so express themselves:

The aim which France and Great Britain have in view in waging in the East the war let loose upon the world by German ambition is to ensure the complete and final emancipation of all those peoples so long oppressed by Turks, and to establish national governments and administration which shall derive their authority from the initiative and free will of the peoples themselves. To realize this France and Great Britain are in agreement to encourage and assist the establishment of national governments in Syria and Mesopotamia, now liberated by the Allies, as also in those territories for whose liberation they are striving and to recognize those governments immediately they are effectively established. Far from wishing to impose on the peoples of these regions this or that institution, they have no other care than to assure, by their support and practical aid, the normal working of such governments and administrations as the peoples shall themselves have adopted: to guarantee impartial and even justice for all, to facilitate the economic development of the country by arousing and encouraging local initiative, to foster the spread of education, to put an end to those factions too long exploited by Turkish policy—such is the part which the two Allied Governments have set themselves to play in liberated territories.

I maintain that such an opportunity of self-expression has not as yet been given. Up to the time I left Beirut, viz: Jan. 9, 1919, the stringency of the censorship of the Press and of the Post Office, the difficulty of holding public or private meetings for the discussion of political problems and the great obstacles in traveling, had made it practically impossible for the people, suffering from centuries of intimidation, and now timid to a degree, to express their opinion, with any sort of freedom. It is true that a Lebanese delegation has succeeded in reaching Paris and is here today. I know these gentlemen, several of whom are my pupils, but there are many other groups from the Lebanon, who would have gladly been here to speak for themselves and others had they been as fortunate as this group in being able to organize themselves and to find the means of traveling hither.

The point is this: Up to January 9th (the date of my leaving) no notice of any arrangments had been published anywhere in Syria, so far as I know, looking to anything like a general poll of the people of Syria (always including the Lebanon) or even anything like an attempt had been made to secure a widespread knowledge of public sentiment. I did hear more or less of a list of names that was being made up attached to various petitions in favor of this or that program, but although in a position to hear of any official or thorough or systematic general plan to ascertain the wishes of the people, no such report came to my knowledge. Many interested citizens of Beirut and the Lebanon were never approached for the purpose of ascertaining their political desires.

I therefore plead that the above mentioned Commission should be sent out as soon as possible by the Peace Conference with ample powers given to them and of course with the whole-hearted support granted to them by the French and British authorities now in Syria. The ascertaining of the desires of the people should proceed either without the presence of any foreign Power (and this is impracticable) or in the presence of both French and British authorities under whom Syria has been living for the past four months.

The people are easily frightened and intimidated even where there is nothing to fear from any source; hence these precautions. The advantage of knowing what the people wish would be a boon to the power eventually becoming the Mandatory Power as well as to the people of Syria. One word as to the work of the Commission. Their task will not be an easy one. They must approach it, in my opinion, in the spirit of large sympathy, infinite patience, frankness and good-will. In the hands of fair and open-minded men, resourceful, shrewd and generous—men who can make clear their honest purpose to a timid but intelligent people—very valuable results can be secured. The result of this enquiry will be, I am convinced, the discovery of the desire for the erection of a state or states looking eventually to complete independence but at present seeking the guardianship of a Mandatory Power.

Both the state or states and the Mandatory Power should be under the control of the League of Nations. Unless in this state or states there should be an absolute separation between religion and the state, most serious results must inevitably arise. The Government on the one hand, religion on the other, can best pursue their majestic tasks apart. Surely Oriental if not general history is making that abundantly clear.

One word more. Unless the Mandatory Power working under the League of Nations approaches its great task in the spirit of lofty service, her splendid opportunity to lead an aspiring people to independence will be forever lost. But once let the same superb spirit sustain her and the League of Nations as has animated the Allies and the United States in working together for the establishment of freedom of the world, the task though difficult will be accomplished.