Deconstructing A Peace to End All Peace

In A Peace to End All Peace, David Fromkin’s subject is the Middle East immediately before, during, and after World War I. Central to Fromkin’s 567-page survey is the British and French division of the Arabic-speaking provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Paris and London carved up the region, which the Turks had ruled for 400 years, according to their own interests and in such a way as to make the conflicts that have come to dominate the area seem inevitable, hence the book’s title.

When the book appeared in 1989, reviews ranged from favorable to ecstatic. Fouad Ajami in The Wall Street Journal praised it as “ambitious and splendid”; Jack Miles in the Los Angeles Times called it “wonderful”; Harold Beeley of the Financial Times dubbed it “the book of the year.” William Roger Lewis, then professor of English history at the University of Texas and a fellow of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, reviewed A Peace to End All Peace at length for The New York Times and judged the book “excellent…. Readers will come away … not only enlightened but challenged.”

A Peace to End All Peace recently appeared in a 20th-anniversary edition, quite a success for an author with no specialist knowledge of the Middle East whose work relies heavily on secondary sources. While U.S. involvement in the Middle East metastasized over the last 20 years, staggering from one disaster to another, Fromkin’s book has gone from strength to strength, both in government circles and academia. For example, the late Richard Holbrooke, architect of the bombing campaign against Serbia and later special Af-Pak envoy, wrote in the November 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs that “without knowledge of its [the Middle East’s] backstory, no policymaker will get the region right.” Holbrooke continued: “of the vast array of books on the region, none is more relevant than Fromkin’s sweeping epic, A Peace to End All Peace.” The book has also become part of the Marine Corps’ “Professional Reading Program” for field-grade officers and senior NCOs and is on a similar list for the U.S. Navy. The U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College uses Fromkin’s work in some of its classes, and the State Department has made the book recommended reading for applicants preparing for its general knowledge test.

A Peace to End All Peace is read widely at American colleges and universities. Harvard’s Kennedy School used it last semester in a course titled “Understanding the ‘Arab Spring.’” A small sample of the other institutions making the book required reading includes Swarthmore (“History of the Modern Middle East”), Rutgers (“20th Century Global History to 1945”), University of Kansas (“Sociology of the Middle East”), and the University of Virginia (“WWI: Birth of the Modern Middle East”).

Despite 20 years of favorable reviews and the endorsements of the U.S. foreign policy and academic establishments, A Peace to End All Peace is a deeply flawed and highly prejudiced work. Fromkin denigrates Arab nationalism, belittles the promises made to the Arabs to prompt their revolt against the Turks, and minimizes the Arab contribution to winning WWI. A Peace to End All Peace also hews closely to the Zionist narrative, American version. Fromkin presents colonization of Palestine as an essentially benign, if misunderstood, process. He attributes the Palestinian Arabs’ refusal to accept a host of unwanted and uninvited European immigrants to British weakness and Arab ignorance and intransigence.

Fromkin’s book presents the strange notion that the British never promised the Arabs an independent state in return for their uprising against the Turks. In 1914, British officials began an exchange of letters with Hussein, sharif of Mecca, to convince him to revolt against his overlords in Constantinople. Contacts between Hussein’s son, Feisal, and Arab nationalists in Damascus eventually led Hussein to demand an independent Arab state in Greater Syria (today’s Syria plus the Turkish province of the Hatay, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan) as his price for leading an Arab uprising. In October 1915, Sir Henry McMahon, high commissioner in Egypt, agreed to Hussein’s terms.

Fromkin denies that the British committed themselves to Arab independence in return for help winning the war. Fromkin claims that Hussein “failed to reach an agreement with McMahon but felt compelled to support the allies nevertheless” (p. 185), an assertion that makes one wonder why Hussein (or any other high official) would risk head, fortune, and family and demand nothing in return. In any event, Fromkin concludes, “McMahon deliberately used phrases so devious as to commit himself to nothing” (p.179).

To support his contention that the British bamboozled the Arabs, Fromkin quotes sources who agree with his interpretation of the McMahon-Hussein agreement. But to clinch his argument, why doesn’t he just quote the actual agreement itself? McMahon to Hussein (Jewish Virtual Library, “Hussein-McMahon Correspondence,” Letter 4):

The two districts of Mersina and Alexandretta and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo cannot be said to be purely Arab, and should be excluded from the limits demanded.

With the above modification, and without prejudice of our existing treaties with Arab chiefs, we accept those limits.

As for those regions lying within those frontiers wherein Great Britain is free to act without detriment to the interest of her ally, France, I am empowered in the name of the Government of Great Britain to give the following assurances and make the following reply to your letter:

Subject to the above modifications, Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the sharif of Mecca.

McMahon’s letter does not support Fromkin’s bogus “analysis,” so Fromkin simply omits it. He very much wants to delegitimize the British October 1915 pledge of independence to the Arabs because it significantly predates the British engagement in the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 to facilitate “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Furthermore, the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France, granting the French rights in Greater Syria beyond the coast of Lebanon reserved in the McMahon letter, is also later, May 1916. Fromkin, a lawyer by training, wanted to find a way to vitiate the superior Arab claim. If a man contracts three marriages, the first is valid and the other two are illegitimate, along with their offspring.

Having sought to demolish the legal underpinning for an Arab state in Greater Syria, including Palestine, Fromkin next argues that the Arabs were undeserving of a state because their uprising did not contribute significantly to the defeat of the Turks. But Fromkin has trouble keeping his story straight and contradicts himself. In his introduction, Fromkin states, “The Arab Revolt … occurred not so much in reality as in the wonderful imagination of T. E. Lawrence” (p. 15). But the Arab capture of Aqaba in July 1917 was fact, not chimera. And although Fromkin admits taking Aqaba meant “Hussein’s forces could reach a battlefield on which the British-Turkish war was actually to be fought” (p. 310), he does not acknowledge that the Arab victory removed all danger of a renewed Turkish assault on the Suez Canal, Britain’s absolutely critical link to India.

Fromkin concedes that “After the capture of Jerusalem, Feisal’s Arab forces … showed their worth” (p. 313). But of the Arabs’ contribution at the decisive battle against the Turks in September 1918, Fromkin merely says, “Further north, Feisal’s Camel Corps disrupted the railroad lines upon which the main Turkish forces depended” (p. 333). According to military historian Basil Liddell Hart in The Real War 1914–1918, however, the Arabs were a decisive factor in the campaign. They cut the Hejaz Railway north and south of Der’a and the branch line west into Palestine. As a result, the Turks could not deploy their troops to oppose the main British thrust along the Mediterranean, retreat, or even keep their forces supplied with food and ammunition. Three Ottoman armies, 35,000 men, promptly surrendered, bringing the Allied struggle against the Ottoman Empire to a speedy and victorious conclusion. Despite the Arabs’ key role in the final campaign against the Ottomans, Fromkin soon consigns the Arab Revolt to the realm of make-believe once more: “The British did pretend, however, that Feisal and his followers had played a substantial role in the liberation of Syria” (p. 394).

After the war, Greater Syria was divided between Britain and France, consistent with the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The British obtained the Mandate for Palestine. American and European Zionists drafted the Mandatory document to facilitate Jewish colonization. In addition to betraying the promises made to the Arabs in the Hussein-McMahon Agreement, the Palestine Mandate clearly violated the letter and intent of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which formed the basis for the Armistice ending WWI, especially Point Twelve: “The Turkish portions of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.” Fromkin, in his lawyerly way, defends British and Zionist arrangements to sidestep Wilson and deny self-determination to the Palestinians based on a technicality, claiming the Fourteen Points were not binding in the East because the U.S. had not declared war on the Ottomans (pp. 367 & 394).

Continuing his practice of belittling Arabs, Fromkin is scathing in his criticism of Arab nationalist politics in Damascus between the collapse of Ottoman rule at the end of WWI and the French conquest of the city in July 1920. He remarks censoriously that the Arabs in charge of Damascus “were from land-owning families, with a stake in maintaining the established order” and were “made up in large part of Ottoman soldiers and officials” (p. 408). Whom did Fromkin imagine would emerge as leaders in Syria? Herdsmen and tenant farmers? If land owners and British former officers had been excluded from our rebellion against Great Britain, Jefferson would not have been in Congress to write the Declaration of Independence and Washington would have been disqualified from leading the Continental Army.

Fromkin claims that the French had “few troops” available to oust the Arab government from Damascus and that “the defenders of Damascus panicked, turned and fled, and offered no resistance” (p. 439). Fromkin’s assertions are untrue. The French had 9,000 men supported by aircraft and artillery; the Arabs had 3,000 men under arms, mostly inexperienced volunteers. Feisal’s minister of war, 36-year-old Yusef al-Azmeh, an ex-Ottoman army officer, led the Arabs. The opposing forces met at the Maysaloun, 12 miles west of Damascus; the Arabs were defeated and al-Azmeh was killed. The Arabs suffered about 400 dead and the French about 50. The French entered Damascus the next day. Fromkin speaks only of “local uprisings” and “disturbances” (p.440) during the French occupation, but a French attempt to crush an uprising in the Jebel Druze in 1925 provoked a revolt across Syria that took two years to defeat.

Early in A Peace to End All Peace, Fromkin tries to explain his quarrel with Arab nationalism: “Unlike European nationalists, they were people whose beliefs existed in a religious rather than secular framework. They lived with the walls of the city of Islam…” (p. 102). But that Arab nationalism and Islam should be intertwined is quite reasonable. The vast majority of the inhabitants of Greater Syria spoke Arabic, the language of the Quran, most were Muslims, and the region had been a part of the greater Muslim nation for over a thousand years.

While Fromkin finds Arab nationalism tainted by religion, he applauds Zionism, which is entirely the fusion of nationalism and religion: “The future return to Zion remained a messianic vision until the ideology of 19th-century Europe converted it into a contemporary political program” (p. 271). Fromkin even associates Zionism with late 19th-century European nationalism and the unification of Germany and Italy: “A representative idea of that time was that every nation ought to have an independent country of its own” (p. 271). Fromkin also recognizes the “dark side of the new nationalism: intolerance of groups different from the majority” (p. 272). Thus the Zionist imperative to build a Jewish majority and a Jewish state in Palestine: Jews would gain the protections of a state of their own if they could dislodge the native population.

Comparing German and Italian nationalism and unification to Zionism is absurd. The people within the state Cavour created were already Italian. The situation was similar in the German states Bismarck united. At the end of WWI, Jews constituted about 15% of the population of Palestine. The aim of creating a Zionist state required something very unusual: that the minority should oppress the majority until the minority should become the majority. To accomplish this, Zionists in the 1920s had to rely on the British to deprive the Palestinian Arabs of self-government and political rights. Had the Palestinians attained political power, they would have immediately halted immigration and abrogated the advantages the colonists enjoyed under the British Mandate.

Fromkin writes that “Zionist leaders … claimed that, had the Arab population of the country been made to feel that the Balfour Declaration was the unalterable policy of the British government and inevitably would be carried into effect, Arabs would have acquiesced — and might even have become receptive to its benefits” (p. 445), a spurious argument he repeats in several places. Spokesmen for Zionism outside of Palestine might have made such a claim, but neither Ben Gurion’s Labor Zionists nor Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Revisionists, the two major branches of Zionism, had any illusions about reaching a modus vivendi with the Palestinian Arabs. Fromkin himself admits, “Moslem opposition to a Jewish Palestine had arisen long before the war, in the wake of Zionist colonization at the end of the 19th century” (pp. 92–93). And Yosef Gorny, in Zionism and the Arabs 1882-1948, reports organized protests against Zionist colonization dating from 1891 when “500 Jerusalem Arab notables protested against the revival of Jewish immigration and complained that ‘the Jews are taking all the land out of Muslim hands and taking over all the commerce…’” (Gorny, p. 21). Clearly the Arabs understood exactly what Zionism sought to accomplish and opposed it from the very beginning.

Although Fromkin quotes Jabotinsky’s famous call for “an iron wall” to protect Jews from Arabs and notes Jabotinsky’s view that the Palestinians would never accept the takeover of their land, he omits several of Jabotinsky’s key statements since they contradict Fromkin’s narrative that Arab resistance to Zionism sprang from base motives. Jabotinsky scorned the contention “that the Arabs are either fools who can be deceived by a watered-down version of our objectives, or are a greedy tribe ready to forgo their prior rights to Palestine in return for cultural or economic advantages” and that there were any “blandishments or promises in the world which would have the power to persuade them to renounce [Palestine]-precisely because they are not a mob but a living nation” (Jabotinsky, quoted by Gorny, pp. 165-6).

Fromkin may claim that Ben Gurion was a socialist, but when labor solidarity and the interests of the colonists clashed, the need to create a Jewish majority in Palestine came first. Labor Zionists led the effort to remove Arab laborers from Jewish agricultural colonies. While Fromkin notes that the Arab “peasantry struggled to eke out a living from low-yielding, much-eroded, poorly irrigated plots, while large holdings of fertile lands were being accumulated by … absentee landlords” (p. 522), he does not reveal that Arab tenant farmers worked the majority of the arable land in Palestine under informal sharecropper arrangements often dating back generations. Zionist purchase of land for agricultural colonies that used Jewish labor exclusively turned the tenant farmer off the land, out of his house, and into an impoverished town dweller.

In 1919, Woodrow Wilson dispatched the King Crane Commission to Greater Syria to ascertain the kind of political settlement the local people actually wanted. The commissioners sampled public opinion by meeting local groups and accepting signed petitions. As with the McMahon-Hussein agreement, however, Fromkin dismisses the King Crane Report without revealing what it actually said. Why? A Peace to End All Peace states, “Among the Arabic-speaking communities of Palestine, there was considerable disagreement on most issues, and perhaps even on Zionism” (p. 446). Really? In Palestine, the King Crane Commission received 260 petitions, of which 222 (85.3%) were opposed to European colonization. The report itself states that “it is to be remembered that the non-Jewish population of Palestine — nearly nine tenths of the whole — are emphatically against the whole Zionist program … there was no one thing upon which the population of Palestine were more agreed than upon this.”

Much of Fromkin’s book is a rather unsophisticated apology for Zionism, albeit a very long-winded one. The non-specialist and the undergraduate may be forgiven for missing the book’s bias, errors, and strange conclusions, but the professional academic can be permitted no such excuse.

Author: John Taylor

John Taylor received an A.B. in Near Eastern languages from the University of Chicago, a B.A. and an M.A. in Oriental studies from Cambridge University, and an MBA from Columbia University. He served two years active duty in the United States Army, reaching the grade of sergeant, and spent six years in the reserves. Before making his career in the oil and gas business in Texas, he worked in the Middle East as an archaeologist, banker, and civil servant. Taylor is a life-long Republican.