Restoring Lost Voices of Self-Determination
King-Crane Commission Digital Archival Collection
Oberlin College Archives
Background to the Commission
At the end of World War I, the major powers negotiated the future of the areas under the control of the defeated Central Powers. One of the areas on the chopping block was the Ottoman Empire, long coveted by various empires. President Woodrow Wilson asked then Oberlin College President (1902-1927) Henry Churchill King to co-chair the American Section of the Inter-Allied Commission on Mandates in Turkey, which came to be known as the King-Crane Commission. The Commission, which was originally intended to be international in character, like other fact-finding missions of the Paris Peace Conference, became a solely American enterprise in the face of British and French foot-dragging.
Between June and August 1919, the members of the King-Crane Commission traveled from Constantinople to Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and the southern reaches of Turkey. They traveled as far south as Beersheba and as far east as Amman and Aleppo to determine wishes of the region’s inhabitants concerning a post-war settlement. Wilson instructed the Commission to “to acquaint itself as intimately as possible with the sentiments of the people of these regions with regards to the future administration of their affairs.”1
The division of territory was complicated by conflicting British and French colonial ambitions in the region. While the British had encouraged the Arab Revolt (1916-1918) against Ottoman rule, promising to support the emergence of an independent Arab state through the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, it made parallel and conflicting agreements with France, particularly the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. This largely secret treaty delineated zones of French influence and control in Syria, Lebanon, and southern Anatolia, with the British gaining influence over territory stretching from Palestine to Iraq. British policies complicated matters further with potentially conflicting stances toward Zionism and Arab nationalism.
The Balfour Declaration of 1917 stated “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”2 The tensions inherent in the Balfour Declaration presented yet another problem for the post-war settlement—and the fate of Palestine was a central part of the Commission’s work.
Scope of the Commission
The geographical scope of the Commission’s inquiry was intended to be vast, encompassing the entirety of the Ottoman Empire, but focusing on the non-Turkish regions of Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Cilicia, and Armenia, which would almost certainly be separated from Turkey. However, given the urgency of the work in the context of the ongoing Paris Peace Conference, the Commissioners decided to limit their fact-finding to Syria and Palestine.3 The Commission assembled in Constantinople, and then sailed to Jaffa, arriving on June 10, 1919. From there, the Commission visited both major urban centers and smaller villages across Palestine, Syria, and the southern region of Anatolia, including Jerusalem, Ramallah, Nablus, Damascus, Beirut, Tripoli, Homs, Aleppo, and Adana. Finally, the Commission sailed back to Constantinople on July 21, in order to deliberate and write their report. During these travels, the Commission met with religious and political delegations in each locale, 442 in sum, inviting petitions in order to measure public opinion.
Moved by the statements of the hundreds of delegations with whom they met, King and Crane sent a series of urgent telegrams to Wilson calling for action. In one such message, Crane stated that “[the] situation in Turkey so serious your Commission decided to return to report as soon as it had covered essentials.”4 However, the Paris Peace Conference was nearing its close and the Middle East was sidelined. When the Commission’s final report was transmitted to the Conference and carried to Washington, D.C. by Commission secretary Donald Brodie, it was initially ignored and eventually suppressed.
Though both Henry Churchill King and Charles Crane felt that the Commission’s report should be made public, they believed themselves unable to distribute the report or speak with the press without the explicit permission of either the Department of State or Woodrow Wilson himself. The State Department prevented even other U.S. government officials from seeing the report, stating that, “it would not be compatible with the public interest.”5 Authorization did not come until 1922, after the end of Wilson’s term and the signing of the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), which partitioned the Ottoman Empire and distributed Arab territories to Britain and France largely in line with the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. The publication of the Commission report in the December 2, 1922 edition of the Editor & Publisher allowed the public finally to read the recommendations of the King-Crane Commission. This did not mark the end of efforts exerted by individual members of the Commission.
Commission Secretary Donald Brodie purchased a large stockpile of copies of the report to send to universities and scholars across Europe and the United States. Both Brodie and Commission Advisor Albert Lybyer later aided Harry Howard in researching his volume on the Commission, which was published in 1963 as The King-Crane Commission: An American Inquiry in the Middle East. King, Lybyer, and Brodie, perhaps due to their shared ties with Oberlin College, kept in contact and maintained friendships through the rest of their lives.
The Commission was an important moment in American history—indeed, in Oberlin’s history. Nearly a century has passed since the Commission traveled to the Levant. The region is again facing challenges of self-determination—and the U.S. is again at a crossroads of whether to listen to the voices calling for self-determination. It is therefore an opportune moment to examine the work of the Commission and reflect upon the American role in the region.
Biographical Background of Commission
The two Commissioners, Henry Churchill King and Charles R. Crane, had limited exposure to the Near East, with the former serving as President of Oberlin College, and the latter a prominent Chicago businessman and Democratic Party figure. Their experts and staff members were largely drawn from the American Mission to Negotiate Peace in Paris, including academics like Albert H. Lybyer of the University of Illinois, and military officers with previous service in the Near East, such as Captain William Yale.
Henry Churchill King was affiliated with Oberlin College for nearly half a century, serving as its President from 1902 until his retirement in 1927. King took his undergraduate degree at Oberlin in 1879, then studied at Oberlin Theological Seminary, while tutoring Latin and mathematics at Oberlin Academy. King was an associate professor of mathematics from 1884-90, of philosophy from 1890-7, and of theology from 1897 onwards. King became Dean in 1901 and was appointed President the year thereafter. During World War I, King was Director of the Religious Work Department of the Y.M.C.A. in France, before being asked by President Wilson to serve as one of the two Commissioners on the inter-allied mission to Turkey.
Charles R. Crane, King’s fellow Commissioner, came from a markedly different background. After nearly a quarter century in the Chicago manufacturing industry, Crane’s philanthropy and heavy political donations to Woodrow Wilson’s campaign in 1912 led to his diplomatic service. In 1917, Crane was a member of Wilson’s Special Diplomatic Commission to Russia, while after the King-Crane Commission, he was appointed as U.S. Minister to China (1920-1921). He went on to found the Institute for Current World Affairs in 1925, and worked to promote ties between the United States and China.
Albert Howe Lybyerwas a professor of history, first at Oberlin College, then at the University of Illinois, and served as General Technical Adviser for the Commission. Lybyer was part of the Balkan Division of the American Mission to Negotiate Peace before learning about the planned mission to Turkey and Syria from King.
Captain William Yale, Technical Adviser for the Southern Regions of Turkey, was trained as a civil engineer, and in 1917 had been appointed as a Special Agent of the Department of State and dispatched to Cairo to report on political developments. Given a military commission, he was made a Military Observer to the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine from June 1918 to January 1919, before being recalled to Paris as an expert on Arab affairs.
Dr. George Montgomery, Technical Adviser for the Northern Regions of Turkey, was an ordained minister and professor of philosophy at Carleton College, Yale University, and New York University. Before being appointed to the American Mission to Negotiate Peace, he served as special assistant to the American ambassador in Constantinople in 1916.
Captain Donald Brodie graduated from Oberlin College in 1911 then earned an M.A. from Columbia University in 1915 before becoming a member of the American Mission to Negotiate Peace. After serving as Secretary of the King-Crane Commission, Brodie went on to work as Charles Crane’s financial secretary until 1939. He continued to collaborate with Crane, working as treasurer of the Institute of World Affairs, the China Institute in America, and the China Foundation.
Sami Haddad, Commission physician and interpreter, was a noted surgeon in Lebanon, and after his service in the King-Crane Commission became a prolific author in both English and Arabic, establishing a non-profit hospital in Beirut that was demolished during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990).
Scope of the Collection
The compilation and digitization of records related to the King-Crane Commission offers new opportunities for research—and also the opportunity to remedy one of the tragedies surrounding the Commission. After the Commission finished its work and dispersed, the group’s records were split amongst the members. Though the Oberlin College Archives are home to the papers of Henry Churchill King, this is only a fraction of the documents produced by the King-Crane Commission.
Most significantly, the majority of petitions submitted to the Commission by the people of the region are not held in a single collection. These petitions are essential—they were the means through which the “wishes” of the people of the region were to be determined. The King-Crane Commission Report noted that 1863 petitions were received, some of which may have been presented verbally by the 442 delegations in the region. While the petitions gathered by other Peace Conference commissions have been preserved in single archival collections, such as those from the commission investigating the Adriatic region, which are held in the Woodrow Wilson papers at the Library of Congress, the King-Crane Commission’s have not.
One of the primary goals of this project has been to locate these petitions—so that these lost voices can be recovered and digitized never to be lost again. Approximately 100 petitions have been found among the King, Lybyer, Montgomery, and Brodie papers, and included in this digital collection. However, those located thus far are fewer than the total examined by the Commission. Additional petitions may have been sent directly to President Woodrow Wilson or the American Mission to Negotiate Peace at the Paris Peace Conference. Another 300 from these sources have been located and inventoried by the project team. The search for petitions continues and the project hopes to regularly add more, seeking to restore them to their rightful place in history while making them accessible from all over the world.
At present, this digital collection encompasses all Commission-relevant documents from several archival repositories, which each hold the papers of different members of the King-Crane Commission.
The Henry Churchill King Papers at Oberlin College. The heart of the collection, these records include extensive correspondence and photographs from the time of the Commission, as well as several Arabic petitions.
The Albert H. Lybyer Papers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. These records include Lybyer’s diaries from the time of the Commission, as well as extensive logistical documents, such as schedules of interviews and travel itineraries, and a number of petitions.
The Donald M. Brodie Miscellaneous Papers at the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University. This collection includes petitions and extensive correspondence from after the Commission, particularly surrounding the suppression and publication of the report, as well as the memoirs of Charles R. Crane.
The George Montgomery Papers at the Library of Congress. These records, housed in the Montgomery Family Collection in the Manuscript Division, include an extensive set of handwritten notes taken by Montgomery during interviews with delegations, as well as petitions written in Arabic, French, and Turkish.
The William Yale Papers at the University of New Hampshire. This collection primarily includes correspondence, memorandums, and reports to and from William Yale concerning the Commission’s work and the regional circumstances. Additional copies of archival records are housed at Harvard University, Yale University, Boston University, and Oxford University, but have not been included in this project.
The Sami Haddad Papers. The grant includes funds to search for the Sami Haddad papers in Lebanon in 2012. It is hoped that, as Commission translator, he might have retained Arabic petitions and other documents regarding the Commission.
Since this digital collection is a work in progress, and we are currently in the process of digitizing additional records, Commission-related documents from the following collections are forthcoming:
Additional archival repositories contain records broadly related to the Commission and to the situation in the Middle East following World War I. The Library of Congress in Washington D.C. is home to the Woodrow Wilson papers, which document the uncertainty that surrounded the Commission’s appointment and departure amidst British and French hesitance and maneuvering. A number of organizations and private citizens in America, as well as expatriates living in Turkey, petitioned Wilson to act, citing the urgency of political and economic conditions in the collapsing Ottoman Empire. This correspondence provides a valuable context for the ongoing situation that the Commission found in the region, and also contains copies of some Commission-related documents found in other repositories.
The National Archives & Records Administration (NARA) in College Park, Maryland, holds both the general internal records of the U.S. Department of State and the records of the American Mission to Negotiate Peace. This extensive documentation, preserved on microfilm, shows many facets of American planning for the Commission. For example, an American fact-finding mission to the Middle East was tentatively planned in the early days of the Peace Conference, until the intended leader, Leon Dominian, withdrew. Two members of this cancelled mission, Lybyer and Yale, were then chosen to join the coalescing King-Crane Commission. NARA holds a significant quantity of petitions from organizations and individuals both in the Middle East and America, sent either to the Paris Peace Conference or to American diplomatic posts in the region. In the majority of cases, these petitions were received in the early months of 1919, before the Commission’s departure, and it is thus conceivable that members of the Commission could have read and referred to these documents. However, there is no indication of whether or not copies of these petitions were brought on the journey, or were counted amongst the 1863 used by the Commission in formulating its recommendations.
Notes on Terminology
Metadata input for geographic location in the King-Crane Commission Digital Collection relies on the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names (TGN), using the names and boundaries of contemporary units. In many cases, states are used (e.g. Lebanon, Syria). By TGN standards, the names of states are accompanied by the designation of “nation” (e.g. “Syria (nation)”). However, to accurately represent the area’s status at the time of the commission, “Palestine (historic region)” is used. In the case of documents regarding Jerusalem, the term “Jerusalem (inhabited place)” is used. For photographs in the collection, subject headings are derived from the Getty Art & Architecture Thesaurus, while document subject headings draw on the Library of Congress Subject Headings system. These are fixed vocabularies intended to facilitate searches for specific individuals, themes, and historical events; the selection of terms are not intended as political statements.
Arabic language documents from the King, Lybyer, and Brodie papers have been digitized. Although some of these documents are currently available in the collection, additional documents will be released online soon.
Since this collection is a work in progress, we invite comments and suggestions from researchers. Please contact the Oberlin College Archives at firstname.lastname@example.org to provide comments or suggestions, or if you have questions concerning the collection.
1.Report, “Future administration of certain portions of the Turkish empire under the mandatory system,” March 25, 1919, page 3. Henry Churchill King Presidential Papers, Record Group 2/6, box 128, folder 1, Oberlin College Archives (http://dcollections.oberlin.edu/u?/kingcrane,230).
2.Balfour Declaration, quoted in “First Publication of the King-Crane Report on the Near East: A Suppressed Official Document of the United States Government,” Editor & Publisher December 2, 1922, page 3. Henry Churchill King Presidential Papers, Record Group 2/6, box 128, folder 10A, Oberlin College Archives (http://dcollections.oberlin.edu/u?/kingcrane,1211).
3.Albert H. Lybyer, “Problems to be studied first,” April 22, 1919. Albert H. Lybyer Papers, Record series 15/13/22, box 16, folder 1, University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) Archives (http://dcollections.oberlin.edu/u?/kingcrane,1809).
4.Charles R. Crane, telegram to Woodrow Wilson, 1919?. Henry Churchill King Presidential Papers, Record Group 2/6, box 128, folder 1, Oberlin College Archives (http://dcollections.oberlin.edu/u?/kingcrane,211).