This account of Ambassador Charles Yost’s tenure in Morocco during the Cold War offers a window into his remarkable career and the texture of postwar diplomacy.
BY FELICITY O. YOST
When World War II ended in 1945, three years after “Operation Torch,” the Allied invasion of North Africa, U.S. soldiers remained in Morocco. They were still there 13 years later—and for Moroccans, this was a problem.
In 1958, in the midst of the Cold War, Charles W. Yost became part of the solution. On a hot, muggy Sunday in July, he walked out onto the tarmac of Washington’s National Airport. The State Department had booked him on a four prop-driven, dolphin-shaped Lockheed Constellation—the luxurious “Paris Sky Chief.” Two days later, after stops in Newfoundland, Ireland and France, the plane landed in Rabat.
A week after his arrival, photographers recorded the new U.S. ambassador, his top hat sitting at a rakish angle on his slender frame, arriving at the royal palace in a convertible, followed closely by a mounted military escort. Ushered into the throne room, he presented his credentials to King Mohammed V—a man he referred to as “a wise and courteous scion of an old dynasty.”
A slight man with a kindly face, the king was delighted to discover that his exchanges with the American ambassador could be conducted in French, and thus in private.
Over the coming years, the two would form a personal bond based on trust and respect—a bond that would ease them, and their countries, through the national and international problems they confronted.
As American and Moroccan officials argued over the status of the bases, nerves on both sides of the Atlantic were wearing thin.
Within days of his arrival, the country team gave Ambassador Yost a sobering view of the current political situation. In a nutshell, the stability of the newly independent Moroccan government, and U.S. objectives there, were under serious threat.
A faltering economy, rising unemployment, and an uneducated and impoverished lower class were all creating a fertile recruiting ground for extremists. As Amb. Yost well knew, Morocco had a rich but turbulent history, and had regained its independence from Spain and France only in 1956.
The most problematic issue concerned the four American military bases built in Morocco during World War II. At the end of the war, the French had taken over the bases; but in 1950, they reverted to the United States under the aegis of NATO. There the 316th Air Division housed American nuclear-armed B-47 bombers, with their capability to strike the Soviet Union. They were a crucial weapon in the U.S. air defense arsenal in the days before American intercontinental ballistic missiles became operational.
But for Moroccans, the presence of foreign troops provoked deep resentment. Moroccan anger was also fueled by the behavior of the bases’ American civilian staff. Some of them “got drunk on the plane [from New York],” recalled an American vice consul, “stayed drunk on the plane, arrived in Paris drunk, were transferred to another plane, arrived drunk in Casablanca. Three days later, they were sent home, drunk.”
As American and Moroccan officials argued over the status of the bases, nerves on both sides of the Atlantic were wearing thin despite efforts to relieve tensions. Amb. Yost soon realized that unless a solution could be arrived at, the continued American military presence would complicate—or worse, derail—an otherwise good relationship with Morocco, which had been the first nation to recognize the United States, in 1777.
Throughout the 1950s, political protests had torn at the fabric of Moroccan society. The Union des Travailleurs du Maroc (Moroccan Workers’ Union), the Parti Istiqlal (the major political party) and student organizations were all impatient with Morocco’s lack of progress in surmounting its social and economic problems. And all three, Yost informed Washington, were using the American bases as convenient political targets at which to vent their anger.
In his early cables, the ambassador also alerted the State Department to the Moroccan left wing’s attempt to remove the army and police from the palace’s purview, a move that would severely undermine the king’s ability to govern. The king’s strategy, Yost reported, was to detach the moderate party members from the far left by conferring government posts on them. If the moderates could work with the conservatives, a coalition government might function; or so the king hoped. Yost concluded that Mohammed V was the main force keeping the country from exploding—a weighty responsibility for the 49-year-old monarch.
In 1958, the UMT called for a general strike in Rabat. It soon spread across the country, and by year’s end, the nation was imploding. Early the following year, the tenuous equilibrium began to unravel, and Amb. Yost warned Washington that the king “wondered whether Moroccans would soon be slitting each other’s throats.”
Yost added that though the king was under tremendous pressure to close the bases, Mohammed V was trying to put his critics off. He urged Washington to meet the king halfway on the base question, or risk inciting opposition forces that, once unleashed, might be impossible to control. U.S. security interests in North Africa and the Middle East were then, as now, a critical issue.
The Pentagon recognized the gravity of the situation but objected, in no uncertain terms, to the idea of closing the facilities. During consultations in Washington in June 1959, General Nathan Twining (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and Admiral Arleigh Burke (chief of naval operations) told Yost they saw no reason to soften the U.S. negotiating stance.
It would be best, Yost felt, if the U.S. trod as lightly as possible on Moroccan sensibilities.
The endless discussions with the Pentagon caused Yost to doubt that soldiers, who “perceive the components of foreign affairs through the prism of what they believe to be overriding military necessities, were psychologically best fitted to define and judge national security in its broadest sense.”
As the situation became more urgent, he warned that if Washington took no steps to defuse tensions over the bases, the likelihood that the king would be assassinated would increase. And that outcome would put the hard-line, unpopular and volatile Prince Hassan on the throne.
It would be best, he felt, if the U.S. trod as lightly as possible on Moroccan sensibilities, keeping a minor breach in relations at a manageable level. “I suggest,” Yost wrote, “that what we need is not more crisis management but more crisis neglect. Small ills, like pimples, are more likely to be inflamed than cured by scratching.”
Yost knew that if he succeeded in convincing the Pentagon to agree to close the bases at some future date, both Rabat and Washington could pull back from the brink of a major military and diplomatic confrontation. If he failed, the consequences for his career and the U.S.-Moroccan relationship could be momentous.
In his initial conversation with Amb. Yost, General Curtis LeMay (Air Force vice chief of staff) assumed that he was dealing with a lightweight. As Yost wrote: “LeMay gagged at giving up those [bases] in Morocco and spoke grimly of ‘bombing them into the Stone Age’ if the Moroccans should use force.”
Yost’s reserved manner fooled many, friend and foe alike, who faced him across the negotiating table. But he did not hesitate to remind LeMay that the Moroccans could simply deprive the bases of access to drinking water. He also reminded the general of the larger implications for American alliances if the free world’s champion bombed a friend and ally.
In the end, with perseverance and wise counsel, Yost won the support of Gen. Twining. His success was an example, as he later recounted, of how facts could persuade an intelligent person despite his core beliefs.
On a crisp morning just three days before Christmas 1959, Amb. Yost walked up to the stairs of Air Force One at Nouasseur Air Force Base in Casablanca. He and the king had come to greet President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had commanded “Operation Torch” 17 years earlier and was now returning to sign a joint communiqué ending the crisis.
U.S. military forces would be withdrawn over the next four years. As the New York Times reported it, the accord “concluded by the United States Ambassador, Charles Woodruff Yost, and King Mohammed, was something of a triumph for royal diplomacy.”
Yost had weathered the greatest crisis that he might have expected to face as ambassador to Morocco. But the respite would not last long.
The night of Feb. 29, 1960, the second day of the holy month of Ramadan, was clear in the seaside town of Agadir, 342 miles south of the capital. But as families who had broken their fast at sunset greeted friends in the streets, they began noticing the animals’ odd behavior: a cat who yowled so loudly she drowned out a radio; donkeys whose withers started shivering nonstop; and the echo of countless dogs howling across the starlit night.
At 11:40 p.m. the town suffered a magnitude 5.7 earthquake. The ground shook for just 15 seconds, followed by a massive tidal wave, but that was all it took for fire and brimstone to consume the town. Due to poor design and use of shoddy materials, many areas were completely obliterated. Some 15,000 people died, and twice that many were injured.
A phone call alerted Amb. Yost to the disaster, and he immediately launched a massive American relief effort. The official residence became a hub for U.S. and other assistance, and soon filled up with any container that could hold clothes, blankets, canned goods, bandages, water jugs or cooking utensils. Even chickens were deposited on the doorstep.
Less than 12 hours after the quake, a Navy transport aircraft, with Yost aboard, led a convoy of UF-1 Albatrosses (amphibious search-and-rescue flying boats) to the site. Even from a distance they could see the havoc wreaked on the seaside community, the enormous fissures in the earth into which whole city blocks, entire families, and herds of camels and donkeys had simply vanished.
At the end of the harrowing visit, Amb. Yost visited a curbside medical facility. There a photographer captured a heart-wrenching image of him sitting at the bedside of a patient, his head bowed, weeping as he gently held the survivor’s fingers—the only unbandaged part of the man’s body.
In mid-November 1960, a new challenge arose when the Soviet Union offered to sell two nuclear-capable Ilyushin bombers and 12 MIG fighters to Morocco. For the Americans, Soviet nuclear bombs and jet fighters within easy striking distance of U.S. bases were simply unacceptable.
In December, back in the States on home leave, Amb. Yost met with officials at State and at the Pentagon. He emphasized that it would be in the interest of the U.S. to respond positively to Morocco’s request for military support. By supplying its army, which tended to be loyal to the king, with updated weapons, Washington could help solidify the king’s position and make the Soviet overture less attractive.
In a cable to the Secretary of State, Yost “urgently requested standby authority to make such an offer.” After the Pentagon’s objections were appeased, the White House signed off on an offer of F-86s.
On Feb. 21, 1961, Yost met with the king and presented a letter from the new U.S. president, John F. Kennedy. In subsequent meetings with the monarch, he pursued the issue of Soviet jets and technicians stationed in the country. At the conclusion of the second meeting, on Feb. 25, Mohammed casually mentioned that he was scheduled for minor surgery later that evening; so minor, in fact, that the procedure would be done in the palace and certainly would not interfere with their meeting the following morning.
The next morning, however, the Moroccan press reported that the king had died during the night. When the American ambassador received a phone call during breakfast, he remarked to his wife: “I would venture to bet Prince Hassan was involved.” It was an opinion shared by many.
Yost’s reserved manner fooled many, friend and foe alike, who faced him across the negotiating table.
In one of his last acts as U.S. ambassador to Morocco, Yost urged President Kennedy to send a high-profile representative to the funeral. Ambassador at Large Averell Harriman, a Yost family friend, turned out to be the perfect choice. The night before the funeral, Yost and Harriman, both suffering from insomnia, met in the kitchen of the residence in Rabat over a glass of hot milk (it was Harriman’s idea to add a shot of whiskey, Yost recalled). Barely 18 months later both men would be members of the diplomatic team advising JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Amb. Yost returned to the United States shortly after the king’s funeral, in March 1961, to become deputy U.S. representative to the United Nations.