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Overview

Because of the extraordinary importance of the World War II years, UPA has published in their entirety the Confidential Prints for the Middle East, 1940-1945. The collection consists of Foreign Office country file documents and documents classified as "General" because they deal with affairs in more than one country. For example, matters relating to Arab unity are classified as "General." Following the organizational structure of the Foreign Office of that time, most documents on Egypt are found in the corresponding Africa volumes. In early 1940, the three northern tier states of Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan shared a view of the Soviet Union as the principal enemy and regarded Germany as an important economic partner and a potential ally. The three states were affected by the Soviet-German pact of August 1939, which appeared to make the two countries allies. Even though subsequent reports incorrectly suggested that Germany was offering the Soviet Union a free hand in areas to the south, they remained unwilling to break off relations with Germany. By contrast, the Arab states to the south had no particular fear of the Soviet Union (whatever their feelings about communism) or, for the most part, of Germany. Their principal concern was with how the war affected their relations with Britain and France and with their internal economies and political structures. The fall of France in June 1940 brought a Vichy government to power in Syria and Lebanon and presented unsettling opportunities to radicals in Iraq. Then Germany took control from Italy of the North African theater and the Balkan campaigns. With the fall of Yugoslavia and Greece, the possibility arose that Germany might mount a two-pronged assault on the British position in the Middle East in the summer of 1941. The result was a major crisis that ended with British intervention to overthrow a potentially hostile regime in Iraq, and British and Free French intervention to remove the Vichy government from Syria and Lebanon. Although the Allies had averted the immediate danger, the situation remained unstable throughout the remainder of 1941 and most of 1942. Only after the Allied successes at El Alamein and Stalingrad in late 1942 did the region turn to look at postwar prospects. As one British official remarked, the Eighth Army's successes had created an optimism as exaggerated as the pessimism of the summer of 1942 (Volume 6, Spears to Eden, 11 November 1942). From 1943 the dispatches become more and more concerned with the struggle for advantage in the postwar world, a struggle that involved Britain and France in Syria and Lebanon; Britain, the United States, and Russia in Iran; and Britain and the United States in other parts of the region. A general theme of the dispatches is the economic hardships resulting from the war, including massive inflation. The Middle East Supply Centre (MESC) was set up to control shipping, distribution, and gradually many other matters. The dispatches deal with some of the MESC's operations on the ground and suggest that the organization may have been less valuable than is sometimes claimed. Of course it was trying to tidy up problems partially created by the Allies themselves. The material from Iran is very revealing in this respect. In times of crisis the documents often include a considerable number of telegrams. In general, however, the principal sources are periodic dispatches from the ambassador. Valuable additions for Syria and Lebanon are the weekly collections of general information sent to the British minister of state resident in the Middle East in Cairo and copied to the Foreign Office. Similarly the Iranian material includes intelligence reports compiled by the military attach, which forms a vast collection of information on many aspects of Iranian life during the war. Also of particular interest are the annually updated personality files, with their descriptive sketches of other countries' diplomatic representatives. Judging by the annual reports on the heads of foreign missions, there were very few foreign diplomats who met with British approval.

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