Martin A. Smith
Origins and background
Though little-remembered today, the 1919 Inter-Allied Commission on Mandates in Turkey, more popularly known as the King-Crane Commission after its two co-chairs, was the first and one of the most important of the 21 commissions or committees of inquiry that were sent to Palestine over the three-decade period beginning in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. While its findings were quickly discarded at the time, the procedures, record and recommendations of the commission set precedents and raised issues that still resonate today. This paper firstly summarises the rationale behind the creation and sending of the commission. It will then consider its recommendations and finally identify key issues and challenges raised by the commission’s approach and recommendations.
The King-Crane Commission was an American presidential initiative. In 1918-19, the United States had no colonial interests, and little official presence at all, in the Middle East. In formulating policy towards the post-war peace conference in Paris, President Woodrow Wilson found himself caught between, on the one hand, interest from his British ally in drawing the US into a supportive or co-operative arrangement for managing the territories – including Palestine – that Britain had taken from Ottoman control during the recent conflict and, on the other, the rise of isolationist sentiment at home.
Wilson, seeking to balance his own ‘idealist’ inclinations with the political challenges posed by the growth of domestic isolationism, did not reject American involvement outright. Prior to any decisions being made, he proposed the creation of a four-party international commission of inquiry to visit the territories in the Middle East occupied by the British and French, in order to investigate and ascertain a viable way forward in terms of their post-Ottoman disposition and governance. This should be done, he believed, by sampling both elite and, where possible, wider popular opinions in the region.
In the event the British, French and Italian governments all dropped out, suggesting that their governments were more interested in undermining any schemes that might increase the presence and influence of a European rival, than engaging in a quest for potential solutions to core questions about future statehood and territorial control. The outcome was thus an American-only inquiry chaired by Henry Churchill King, a scholar, and Charles Crane, a businessman.
Acknowledging the rise of isolationist sentiment at home, President Wilson’s terms of reference for his new commission purposely sought to dampen any potential expectations of direct or lasting American participation in post-war international arrangements for the Middle East:
The American people – having no political ambitions in Europe or the Near East; preferring, if that were possible, to keep clear of all European, Asian, or African entanglements; but nevertheless sincerely desiring that the most permanent peace and the largest results for humanity shall come out of [the] war – recognize that they cannot altogether avoid responsibility for just settlements among the nations following the war, and under the League of Nations. In that spirit they approach the problems of the Near East.
President Wilson’s idealistic influence was reflected in the extent to which King, Crane and their colleagues did set out to expose themselves to as broad a swath of local elite and popular opinion as possible, particularly in Palestine where the commission conducted much of its fieldwork. A sincere effort was made, aided by locally-based American diplomats, to seek out and solicit opinions from as broad a cross-section of Arab and Jewish opinion as practicable. While these efforts might not pass muster by modern standards of opinion surveying, they were undoubtedly inclusive and enlightened by the standards of the time. During the course of its inquiry, the commission heard from over 400 delegations (half of them in Palestine) and received over 1,800 written submissions. Overall, this set a consultative standard that was seldom if ever exceeded, or even matched, by any of the 20 inquiries that followed, up to the 1940s.
Findings and recommendations
Several important points emerged from the King-Crane Commission’s inclusive and participatory approach. The commission received and recorded a clear sense that ‘Palestine’ as such did not exist at the time as a significant focal-point for a collective Arab identity. This was a legacy of the period of Ottoman rule when there had been no territorial or governance entity called ‘Palestine’, with the territory being governed from Damascus and Beirut, with separate arrangements for the city of Jerusalem. In 1919, the King-Crane Commission took away little sense of a demand specifically for Palestinian self-determination. In the commission’s estimation, the Arab populations self-identified overwhelmingly as ‘southern Syrian’, or simply ‘Syrian’.
Having said that, the nature of ‘Palestinian’ identity in 1919 did not prevent the local populations (Arab and Jewish) from strongly identifying – and asserting rights over – Palestine as a territory. This was reflected in the commission’s core recommendation. According to its report, a large majority of Arab interlocutors (over 80 per cent) expressed support for a united Syrian state, with less than one per cent supporting a ‘Separate Palestine’ at that time.
The King-Crane Commission took a nuanced view of Zionism. Its report noted that minuscule numbers of interlocutors – less than one per cent of the total – had voiced support for what it termed the “Complete Zionist Program (Jewish State and Immigration)”. This reflected a recognition that Zionism at the time was not a monolithic movement, with some elements within it interpreting the end-goal of a Jewish National Home as a cultural and religious focal-point for Jews rather than a full-blown sovereign state. This viewpoint, which was not finally eclipsed in the Zionist movement until the 1940s, consequently accepted the possibility of Jews living in a bi-national or bi-communal single state with appropriate safeguards for their civil, cultural and religious rights, and limits on incoming Jewish immigration. Its best-known advocate within the Zionist movement was Dr Judah Magnes, President of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
All of this formed the background to the King-Crane Commission’s main recommendation: that a single state (embracing Palestine and Lebanon in addition to contemporary Syria) be brought into being within a League of Nations framework and under a short period (a point stressed several times in its report) of international supervision via a mandate. On the question of Zionism, the commission recommended that “only a greatly reduced Zionist program be attempted…..very gradually initiated”. This caution reflected its findings that support for even a “modified Zionist program” was recorded at less than half of one per cent, with over 72 per cent recorded as being “Against Zionist Program” altogether.
Using today’s terminology, the proposal was for an expansive type of ‘one-state solution’. It would have entailed all communities – Muslim and Christian Arabs, and Jews – coming under the authority of a single “democratic” state structure. The emphasis on democracy presupposed an acceptable form of power-sharing, or at least entrenched protection of Jewish minority rights, which Arab leaders did constantly pledge to uphold vis-à-vis indigenous Jewish populations. Entrenching this respect for and protection of minority rights was envisaged by the King-Crane Commission as a principal task of the League of Nations trustee during the period of international mandate.
Scholars have debated the reasons for the Wilson administration’s failure to follow-up the King-Crane Commission report with any plan of action. Instead, the document was rapidly discarded, and it is unclear if President Wilson even read it. Some have contended that it was intentionally “suppressed” at the behest of ubiquitous American Zionists unhappy with the commission’s failure to support their aspirations for a full-blown Jewish state in Palestine (the “Complete Zionist Program”). Consideration of the context of the time does not support these allegations. It is true that the commission’s findings and recommendations had no measurable impact on American policy, and the text of the report itself was not even published until three years after it was submitted. It is also fair to say that there is a dearth of documentary evidence about the official fate of its report, both in official sources and the secondary literature. This itself is revealing and suggests that its fate was the one indicated by archivists at Oberlin College, Ohio, who have collected many of the original documents and papers associated with the King-Crane Commission. In their analysis King and Crane followed the normal diplomatic proprieties in submitting their completed report to the State Department, but there is no hard evidence that the department disseminated it any further – not even to the White House or the Paris conference.
This is most likely explained by the enveloping isolationism that had begun to grip American society and the body politic from the early 1920s, coupled with President Wilson’s own increasing health problems, rather than any insidious Zionist plot. Crucially in this context, the King-Crane Commission had reported that if its recommended course of action (transition to Syrian statehood including Palestine and Lebanon and with a brief international mandate) were adopted, 60 per cent of ‘Syrian’ respondents (the term ‘Palestinian’ was not used in the report for reasons discussed earlier) had indicated a preference for the United States to take the League of Nations mandate, against much smaller levels of support for either Britain or France (although the largest majorities were in favour of clean-break independence without any intervening period of external supervision).
Coming against the backdrop of rising congressional antipathy to prospective US involvement in the post-war arrangements taking shape under the Versailles treaty and associated agreements, this was hardly welcome news for the Wilson administration, which had not foreseen or thought through the implications of this possibility being raised by the commission. Any embrace of the King-Crane recommendations would have risked opening the door to precisely the kind of foreign entanglement that congressional opinion was hardening against. Being thus out of sync with the rapidly-emerging tenor of the times in the US, the report was discarded into a “bureaucratic limbo”.
In the final analysis, this was a missed opportunity. Had the US government embraced the notion of taking on a time-limited mandate, with the purpose of shepherding a ‘Greater Syria’ (including Palestine) to statehood, evidence from the findings of the King-Crane Commission and elsewhere suggest that this could have enjoyed significant support among Arab leaders and wider populations during the early 1920s. The US might have been able to encourage Arab participation in statebuilding projects, including the progressive creation of fully representative political institutions and sustainable economic development. Successive British governments never managed to achieve these during their own Palestine mandate from 1923-1948.
A brief period of disinterested American supervision might also have helped give tangible form to the pledges from Arab leaders declaring that majority rule in a single state would respect Jewish minority rights. Reflecting feedback from its interlocutors in situ, the King-Crane Commission had as noted taken a nuanced approach to Zionism: distinguishing between a “Complete Zionist Program” entailing mass immigration and eventual Jewish statehood, and understandings premised on cultural, religious and perhaps political autonomy for established Jewish communities (which at the time constituted around 10 per cent of the population of Palestine), within the ambiguous ‘National Home’ framework. Given the circumstances, it is at least possible that had the US engaged with Palestine and wider post-Ottoman disposition issues from 1919, a one-state settlement might have been viable.
The effective discarding of the King-Crane Commission’s report ensured that this chance was lost. It also marked the beginning of a long-term erosion of faith in the bona fide intentions of outside powers, among peoples and leaders in the Middle East and the Arab world especially. In one of the few published analyses of the history of the King-Crane Commission, Andrew Patrick has observed, of the impact its presence in Palestine and elsewhere made in 1919 that:
[I]t is important to note that people from the region made a concerted effort to play a prominent role in their own destiny in 1919 and their pleas were largely ignored by the world leaders they were attempting to influence.
The levels of interest and participation from Arab leaders and representatives would never be as broad or as deep with any of the other commissions or committees that came later. The Arab response to these tended to be marked by varying degrees of disinterest, formulaic responses to questions, and sometimes outfight boycott. While such uncooperative responses deserve some criticism (for being self-defeating apart from anything else, given the markedly more consistent extent of Zionist co-operation), they were understandable. To Arab populations in Palestine and elsewhere, the Wilson administration’s effective discarding of the King-Crane report had suggested that it – and subsequent similar exercises – were a sham.
Dr Martin A. Smith is Senior Lecturer in Defence and International Affairs at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. He is currently authoring a book on US policy toward Palestinian self-determination since 1919, and writes here in a personal capacity.
 See Andrew Patrick, America’s Forgotten Middle East Initiative: The King-Crane Commission of 1919 (London: I.B. Tauris 2015), pp. 65-67.
 For the published text of the commission’s report see ‘First Publication of King-Crane Report on the Near East’, Editor and Publisher, vol. 55 no. 27, 2 December 1922, p. iv. Available online at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiug.30112075996634&view=1up&seq=2&skin=2021.
 On the commission’s methodology see Patrick, America’s Forgotten Middle East Initiative, pp. 104-108. On this and the number of representations it received see also Ken Grossi, Maren Milligan & Ted Waddelow, Restoring Lost Voices of Self-Determination. Available online at https://www2.oberlin.edu/library/digital/king-crane/intro.html.
 ‘Zionism’ is sometimes used as a loaded or pejorative descriptor in the academic and wider literature. In this paper it is used straightforwardly to refer to the international movement favouring the reconstitution of a Jewish homeland/state on the ‘historic territory of the Land of Israel’ in Palestine, as varyingly defined and understood by that movement’s leaders.
 ‘First Publication of King-Crane Report on the Near East’, p. v.
 For Magnes’ articulation of this view see Judah Magnes, ‘Toward Peace in Palestine’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 21 no. 2 1943, pp. 242–249.
 ‘First Publication of King-Crane Report on the Near East’, p. ix.
 ‘First Publication of King-Crane Report on the Near East’, p. x.
 ‘First Publication of King-Crane Report on the Near East’, p. v.
 Hisham H. Ahmed, ‘Roots of Denial: American Stand on Palestinian Self-Determination from the Balfour Declaration to World War Two’, in Michael Suleiman (ed.), U.S. Policy on Palestine From Wilson to Clinton (Normal, Ill: Association of Arab-American University Graduates, Inc.1995), pp. 38-44.
 Grossi, Milligan & Waddelow, Restoring Lost Voices of Self-Determination.
 This is also the conclusion of Andrew Patrick in the most detailed scholarly account of the King-Crane Commission and report published to date. See Patrick, America’s Forgotten Middle East Initiative, pp. 173-181.
 ‘First Publication of King-Crane Report on the Near East’, p. v. For additional evidence of potential Arab support for this outcome see William R. Polk, David M. Stamler & Edmund Asfour, Backdrop to Tragedy: The Struggle for Palestine (Boston MA: Beacon Press 1957), p. 73 and Patrick, America’s Forgotten Middle East Initiative, p. 82. Patrick notes that the commission’s records suggested that support was more widespread in Syria itself than in Palestine (pp. 134-135).
 Patrick, America’s Forgotten Middle East Initiative, p. 174.
 Patrick, America’s Forgotten Middle East Initiative, p. 4. On the interest and expectations generated in the region by the commission see also Lori Allen, ‘The King-Crane Commission of 1919: Setting a Pattern of Futile ‘Peace’ Initiatives’, Interactive Encyclopedia of the Palestine Question. Available online at https://www.palquest.org/en/highlight/30778/king-crane-commission-1919.
See also King Crane commission. 1919