The McMahon–Hussein Correspondence, or the Hussein–McMahon Correspondence, was an exchange of letters (14 July 1915 to 30 January 1916) during World War I, between the Sharif of Mecca, Husayn bin Ali, and Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt, concerning the political status of lands under the Ottoman Empire. The Arab side was already looking toward a large revolt against the Ottoman Empire; the British encouraged the Arabs to revolt and thus hamper the Ottoman Empire, which had become a German ally in the War after November 1914.
The letters declared that the Arabs would revolt in alliance with the United Kingdom, and in return the UK would recognize Arab independence. Later, the 1916 Sykes–Picot Agreement between France and UK was exposed showing that the two countries were planning to split and occupy parts of the promised Arab country.
On his return journey from Istanbul in 1914, where Faisal bin Hussein had confronted the Grand Vizier with evidence of an Ottoman plot to depose his father (Husayn bin Ali), visited Damascus to resume talks with the Arab secret societies al-Fatat and Al-'Ahd that he had met in March/April. On this occasion Faisal joined their revolutionary movement. It was during this visit that he was presented with the document that became known as the 'Damascus Protocol'. The documents declared that the Arabs would revolt in alliance with the United Kingdom and in return the UK will recognize the Arab independence in an area running from the 37th parallel near the Taurus Mountains on the southern border of Turkey, to be bounded in the east by Persia and the Persian Gulf, in the west by the Mediterranean Sea and in the south by the Arabian Sea.
Early in April 1914 Abdullah I bin al-Hussein (the second of three sons of Sherif Hussein bin Ali) asked the British High Commissioner in Cairo, what would be the British attitude if the Arab Ottomans revolted. The British response, based on its traditional policy of preserving "the integrity of the Ottoman Empire" was negative. However, the entry of the Ottomans on Germany's side in World War I on 11 November 1914, brought about an abrupt shift in British political interests concerning an Arab revolt against the Ottomans.
Following deliberations at Ta'if between Hussein and his sons in June 1915, during which Faisal counselled caution, Sherif Husayn bin Ali argued against rebellion and Abdullah advocated action and encouraged his father to enter into correspondence with Sir Henry McMahon, the Sharif set a tentative date for armed revolt for June 1916 and commenced negotiations with the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon.
The letter from McMahon to Hussein dated 24 October 1915 declared Britain's willingness to recognise the independence of the Arabs subject to certain exemptions:
The 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 must on that account be excepted from the proposed limits and boundaries. With the above modification and without prejudice to our existing treaties concluded with Arab Chiefs, we accept these limits and boundaries, and in regard to the territories therein in which Great Britain is free to act without detriment to interests of her ally France, I am empowered in the name of the Government of Great Britain to give the following assurance 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 within the territories in the limits and boundaries proposed by the Sherif of Mecca. 
Declassified British Cabinet Papers include a telegram dated 19 October 1915 from Sir Henry McMahon to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Grey, requesting instructions. McMahon said the clause had been suggested by a man named al Faroqi, a member of the Abd party, to satisfy the demands of the Syrian Nationalists for the independence of Arabia. Faroqi had said that the Arabs would fight if the French attempted to occupy the cities of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, but he thought they would accept some modification of the North-Western boundaries proposed by the Sherif of Mecca. Faroqi suggested the language: "In so far as Britain was free to act without detriment to the interests of her present Allies, Great Britain accepts the principle of the independence of Arabia within limits propounded by the Sherif of Mecca." Lord Grey authorized McMahon to pledge the areas requested by the Sherif subject to the reserve for the Allies.
In the areas with Maronite, Orthodox, and Druze populations the Great Powers were still bound by an international agreement regarding non-intervention, the Reglement Organique Agreements of June 1861 and September 1864. During a War Cabinet meeting on policy regarding Syria and Palestine held on 5 December 1918, it was stated that Palestine had been included in the areas the United Kingdom had pledged would be Arab and independent in the future. The Chair, Lord Curzon, also noted that the rights that had been granted to the French under the terms of the Sykes–Picot Agreement violated the provisions of the Reglement Organique Agreements and the war aims of the other Allies. (The publication of the Sykes–Picot Agreement caused the resignation of Sir Henry McMahon.)
In a Cabinet analysis of diplomatic developments prepared in May 1917, W. Ormsby-Gore argued that:
French intentions in Syria are surely incompatible with the war aims of the Allies as defined to the Russian Government. If the self-determination of nationalities is to be the principle, the interference of France in the selection of advisers by the Arab Government and the suggestion by France of the Emirs to be selected by the Arabs in Mosul, Aleppo, and Damascus would seem utterly incompatible with our ideas of liberating the Arab nation and of establishing a free and independent Arab State. The British Government, in authorising the letters despatched to King Hussein before the outbreak of the revolt by Sir Henry McMahon, would seem to raise a doubt as to whether our pledges to King Hussein as head of the Arab nation are consistent with French intentions to make not only Syria but Upper Mesopotamia another Tunis. If our support of King Hussein and the other Arabian leaders of less distinguished origin and prestige means anything it means that we are prepared to recognise the full sovereign independence of the Arabs of Arabia and Syria. It would seem time to acquaint the French Government with our detailed pledges to King Hussein, and to make it clear to the latter whether he or someone else is to be the ruler of Damascus, which is the one possible capital for an Arab State, which could command the obedience of the other Arabian Emirs.
In subsequent decades the British government maintained that the Balfour Declaration was not inconsistent with the McMahon pledges. This position was based an examination of the correspondence made in 1920 by Major Hubert Young. He noted that in the original Arabic text (the correspondence was conducted in Arabic on both sides), the word translated as "districts" in English was "vilayets", a vilayet being the largest class of administrative district into which the Ottoman Empire was divided. He concluded that "district of Damascus", i.e., "vilayet of Damascus", must have referred to the vilayet of which Damascus was the capital, the Vilayet of Syria. This vilayet extended southward to the Gulf of Aqaba, but excluded most of Palestine. The weak points of the government's interpretation were nevertheless acknowledged in a memorandum by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Halifax, in 1939:
- (i) the fact that the word "district" is applied not only to Damascus, &c., where the reading of vilayet is at least arguable, but also immediately previously to Mersina and Alexandretta. No vilayets of these names exist...and it would be difficult to argue that the word "districts" can have two completely different meanings in the space of a few lines.
- (ii) the fact that Horns and Hama were not the capitals of vilayets, but were both within the Vilayet of Syria.
- (iii) the fact that the real title of the "Vilayet of Damascus" was "Vilayet of Syria."
- (iv) the fact that there is no land lying west of the Vilayet of Aleppo.
The Foreign Secretary's analysis concluded "It may be possible to produce arguments designed to explain away some of these difficulties individually (although even this does not apply in the case of (iv)), but it is hardly possible to explain them away collectively. His Majesty's Government need not on this account abjure altogether the counter-argument based on the meaning of the word "district," which have been used publicly for many years, and the more obvious defects in which do not seem to have been noticed as yet by Arab critics."
McMahon's promises were seen by the Arabs as a formal agreement between them and the United Kingdom. Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour represented the agreement as a treaty during the post war deliberations of the Council of Four. On this understanding the Arabs established a military force under the command of Hussein's son Faisal which fought, with inspiration from 'Lawrence of Arabia', against the Ottoman Empire during the Arab Revolt. In an intelligence memo written in January 1916 Lawrence described the Arab Revolt as
beneficial to us, because it marches with our immediate aims, the break up of the Islamic 'bloc' and the defeat and disruption of the Ottoman Empire, and because the states [Sharif Hussein] would set up to succeed the Turks would be … harmless to ourselves … The Arabs are even less stable than the Turks. If properly handled they would remain in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities incapable of cohesion (emphasis in original).
The Arab Revolt began in June 1916, when an Arab army of around 70,000 men moved against Ottoman forces. They participated in the capture of Aqabah and the severing of the Hejaz railway, a vital strategic link through the Arab peninsula which ran from Damascus to Medina. This enabled the Egyptian Expeditionary Force under the command of General Allenby to advance into the Ottoman territories of Palestine and Syria.
The British advance culminated in the Battle of Megiddo in September 1918 and the capitulation of Turkey on 31 October 1918.
In January 1918 Commander David Hogarth, head of the Arab Bureau in Cairo, was dispatched to Jeddah to deliver a letter written by Sir Mark Sykes on behalf of the British Government to Hussein (now King of Hejaz). The message assured Hussein that
The Entente Powers are determined that the Arab race shall be given full opportunity of once again forming a nation in the world. This can only be achieved by the Arabs themselves uniting, and Great Britain and her Allies will pursue a policy with this ultimate unity in view.
and with respect to Palestine and in the light of the Balfour Declaration that
Since the Jewish opinion of the world is in favour of a return of Jews to Palestine and in as much as this opinion must remain a constant factor, and further as His Majesty's Government view with favour the realisation of this aspiration, His Majesty's Government are determined that insofar as is compatible with the freedom of the existing population both economic and political, no obstacle should be put in the way of the realisation of this ideal.
The meaning of the Hogarth message, and in particular whether it modified the commitments made in the Balfour Declaration is still debated, although Hogarth reported that Hussein "would not accept an independent Jewish State in Palestine, nor was I instructed to warn him that such a state was contemplated by Great Britain".
The secret Sykes–Picot Agreement did not call for Arab sovereignty, but the French and British agreement did call for 'suzerainty of an Arab chief' and 'an international administration, the form of which is to be decided upon after consultation with Russia, and subsequently in consultation with the other allies, and the representatives of the sheriff of mecca. Under the terms of that agreement, the Zionist Organization needed to secure an agreement along the lines of the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement with the Sharif of Mecca.
In light of the existing McMahon–Hussein correspondence, but in the wake of the seemingly competing Balfour Declaration for the Zionists, as well as the publication weeks later by the Bolsheviks of the older and previously secret Sykes–Picot Agreement with the Russians and French, seven Syrian notables in Cairo, from the newly formed Party of Syrian Unity, issued a memorandum requesting some clarification from the British Government, including a "guarantee of the ultimate independence of Arabia". In response, issued on 16 June 1918, the Declaration to the Seven, stated the British policy that the future government of the regions of the Ottoman Empire occupied by Allied forces in World War I should be based on the consent of the governed.
On 19 October 1918, General Allenby reported to the British Government that he had given Faisal,
official assurance that whatever measures might be taken during the period of military administration they were purely provisional and could not be allowed to prejudice the final settlement by the peace conference, at which no doubt the Arabs would have a representative. I added that the instructions to the military governors would preclude their mixing in political affairs, and that I should remove them if I found any of them contravening these orders. I reminded the Amir Faisal that the Allies were in honour bound to endeavour to reach a settlement in accordance with the wishes of the peoples concerned and urged him to place his trust whole-heartedly in their good faith.
In the Anglo-French Declaration of 7 November 1918 the two governments stated that
The object aimed at by France and the United Kingdom in prosecuting in the East the War let loose by the ambition of Germany is the complete and definite emancipation of the peoples so long oppressed by the Turks and the establishment of national governments and administrations deriving their authority from the initiative and free choice of the indigenous populations.
According to civil servant Eyre Crowe who saw the original draft of the Declaration, "we had issued a definite statement against annexation in order (1) to quiet the Arabs and (2) to prevent the French annexing any part of Syria".
Years later, historians and scholars searching through the declassified files in the National Archives discovered evidence that Palestine had been pledged to Hussein. The Eastern Committee of the Cabinet, previously known as the Middle Eastern Committee, had met on 5 December 1918 to discuss the government's commitments regarding Palestine. Lord Curzon chaired the meeting. General Jan Smuts, Lord Balfour, Lord Robert Cecil, General Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and representatives of the Foreign Office, the India Office, the Admiralty, the War Office, and the Treasury were present. T. E. Lawrence also attended. According to the minutes Lord Curzon explained:
"The Palestine position is this. If we deal with our commitments, there is first the general pledge to Hussein in October 1915, under which Palestine was included in the areas as to which Great Britain pledged itself that they should be Arab and independent in the future . . . the United Kingdom and France - Italy subsequently agreeing - committed themselves to an international administration of Palestine in consultation with Russia, who was an ally at that time . . . A new feature was brought into the case in November 1917, when Mr Balfour, with the authority of the War Cabinet, issued his famous declaration to the Zionists that Palestine 'should be the national home of the Jewish people, but that nothing should be done - and this, of course, was a most important proviso - to prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. Those, as far as I know, are the only actual engagements into which we entered with regard to Palestine."
During the war, thousands of proclamations were dropped in all parts of Palestine, which carried a message from the Sharif Hussein on one side and a message from the British Command on the other, to the effect 'that an Anglo-Arab agreement had been arrived at securing the independence of the Arabs.'
It was a well known fact that France wanted a Syrian protectorate. At the Peace Conference in 1919, Prince Faisal, speaking on behalf of King Hussein, did not ask for immediate Arab independence. He recommended an Arab State under a British Mandate.
On 6 January 1920 Prince Faisal initialed an agreement with French Prime Minister Clemenceau which acknowledged 'the right of the Syrians to unite to govern themselves as an independent nation'. A Pan-Syrian Congress, meeting in Damascus, declared an independent state of Syria on 8 March 1920. The new state included portions of Syria, Palestine, and northern Mesopotamia which had been set aside under the Sykes–Picot Agreement for an independent Arab state, or confederation of states. King Faisal was declared the head of State. The San Remo conference was hastily convened, and the United Kingdom and France both agreed to recognize the provisional independence of Syria and Mesopotamia, while 'reluctantly' claiming mandates to assist in their administration. Provisional recognition of Palestinian independence was not mentioned, despite the fact that it was designated a Class A Mandate.
France had decided to govern Syria directly, and took action to enforce the French Mandate of Syria before the terms had been accepted by the Council of the League of Nations. The French intervened militarily at the Battle of Maysalun in June 1920. They deposed the indigenous Arab government, and removed King Faisal from Damascus in August 1920. The United Kingdom also appointed a High Commissioner and established their own mandatory regime in Palestine, without first obtaining approval from the Council of the League of Nations.
The Sykes–Picot Agreement between Britain, France and Russia of May 1916 (made public by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution) pre-dated the establishment of the League of Nations Mandate system. After the war, France and Britain continued to provide assurances of Arab independence, while planning to place the entire region under their own administration.
United States Secretary of State Robert Lansing was a member of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace at Paris in 1919. He explained that the system of mandates was simply a device created by the Great Powers to conceal their division of the spoils of war, under the color of international law. If the territories had been ceded directly, the value of the former German and Ottoman territories would have been applied to offset the Allies claims for war reparations. He also explained that Jan Smuts had been the author of the original concept.
At the Paris Peace Conference, US Secretary of State Lansing had asked Dr. Weizmann if the Jewish national home meant the establishment of an autonomous Jewish government. The head of the Zionist delegation had replied in the negative.
Lawrence became increasingly guilt-ridden by the knowledge that Britain did not intend to abide by the commitments made to the Sharif, but still managed to convince Faisal that it would be to the Arabs' advantage to go on fighting the Ottomans. At the Versailles peace conference in 1919 and the Cairo conference in 1921 Lawrence lobbied for Arab independence, but his belated attempts to maintain the territorial integrity of Arab lands, which he had promised to Hussein and Faisal, and in limiting France's influence in what later became Syria and Lebanon were fruitless. However, as Churchill's adviser on Arab affairs (1921–2) Lawrence was able to lobby for a considerable degree of autonomy for Mesopotamia and Transjordan. The British placed Palestine, promised to the Zionist Federation in 1917, under mandate with a civilian administration headed by Herbert Samuel, and divided their remaining territory in the Middle East into the kingdoms of Iraq and Transjordan, assigning them to Faisal and his brother Abdullah, respectively.
The debate regarding Palestine derived from the fact that it is not explicitly mentioned in the McMahon–Hussein Correspondence, but is included within the boundaries that were proposed by Hussein. Whatever McMahon had meant to say is irrelevant, because the actual terms used contained the pledges. Under customary treaty law, binding obligations are seldom supported by an Argument from silence.
The Arab position was that "portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo..." could not refer to Palestine since that lay well to the south of the named places. In particular, the Arabs argued that the vilayet (province) of Damascus did not exist and that the district (sanjak) of Damascus covered only the area surrounding the city itself and furthermore that Palestine was part of the vilayet of 'Syria A-Sham', which was not mentioned in the exchange of letters. The British position, which it held consistently at least from 1916, was that Palestine was intended to be included in the phrase. Each side produced supporting arguments for their positions based on fine details of the wording and the historical circumstances of the correspondence. For example, the Arab side argued that the phrase "cannot be said to be purely Arab" did not apply to Palestine, while the British pointed to the Jewish and Christian minorities in Palestine.
Balfour had come under criticism in the House of Commons, when the Liberals and Labor Socialists moved a resolution 'That secret treaties with the allied governments should be revised, since, in their present form, they are inconsistent with the object for which this country entered the war and are, therefore, a barrier to a democratic peace.'
In response to growing criticism arising from the mutually irreconcilable commitments undertaken by the United Kingdom in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, the Sykes–Picot Agreement and the Balfour declaration the 1922 Churchill White Paper stated that
it is not the case, as has been represented by the Arab Delegation, that during the war His Majesty's Government gave an undertaking that an independent national government should be at once established in Palestine. This representation mainly rests upon a letter dated 24 October 1915, from Sir Henry McMahon, then His Majesty's High Commissioner in Egypt, to the Sharif of Mecca, now King Hussein of the Kingdom of the Hejaz. That letter is quoted as conveying the promise to the Sherif of Mecca to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs within the territories proposed by him. But this promise was given subject to a reservation made in the same letter, which excluded from its scope, among other territories, the portions of Syria lying to the west of the District of Damascus. This reservation has always been regarded by His Majesty's Government as covering the vilayet of Beirut and the independent Sanjak of Jerusalem. The whole of Palestine west of the Jordan was thus excluded from Sir. Henry McMahon's pledge.
In a 1922 letter to Sir John Shuckburgh of the British Colonial Office, McMahon wrote the following: "It was my intention to exclude Palestine from independent Arabia, and I hoped that I had so worded the letter as to make this sufficiently clear for all practical purposes. My reasons for restricting myself to specific mention of Damascus, Hama, Homs and Aleppo in that connection in my letter were: 1) that these were places to which the Arabs attached vital importance and 2) that there was no place I could think of at the time of sufficient importance for purposes of definition further South of the above. It was as fully my intention to exclude Palestine as it was to exclude the more Northern coastal tracts of Syria."
A committee established by the British in 1939 to clarify the various arguments observed that many commitments had been made during and after the war - and that all of them would have to be studied together. The Arab representatives submitted a statement to the committee from Sir Michael McDonnell which explained that whatever McMahon had intended to mean was of no legal consequence, since it was his actual statements that constituted the pledge from His Majesty's Government. The Arab representatives also pointed out that McMahon had been acting as an intermediary for the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Grey. Speaking in the House of Lords on 27 March 1923, Lord Grey had made it clear that, for his part, he entertained serious doubts as to the validity of the Churchill White Paper's interpretation of the pledges which he, as Foreign Secretary, had caused to be given to the Sharif Husain in 1915. The Arab representatives suggested that a search for evidence in the files of the Foreign Office might throw light on the Secretary of State's intentions. In a speech delivered in the House of Lords on 27 March 1923, late Lord Grey had said:
" A considerable number of these engagements, or some of them, which have not been officially made public by the Government, have become public through other sources. Whether all have become public I do not know, but I seriously suggest to the Government that the best way of clearing our honour in this matter is officially to publish the whole of the engagements relating to the matter, which we entered into during the war."
The committee concluded:
'It is beyond the scope of the Committee to express an opinion upon the proper interpretation of the various statements mentioned in paragraph 19 and such an opinion could not in any case be properly expressed unless consideration had also been given to a number of other statements made during and after the war. In the opinion of the Committee it is, however, evident from these statements that His Majesty's Government were not free to dispose of Palestine without regard for the wishes and interests of the inhabitants of Palestine, and that these statements must all be taken into account in any attempt to estimate the responsibilities which—upon any interpretation of the Correspondence—His Majesty's Government have incurred towards those inhabitants as a result of the Correspondence."
If the advocates of the system intended to avoid through its operation the appearance of taking enemy territory as the spoils of war, it was a subterfuge which deceived no one. It seemed obvious from the very first that the Powers, which under the old practice would have obtained sovereignty over certain conquered territories, would not be denied mandates over those territories. The League of Nations might reserve in the mandate a right of supervision of administration and even of revocation of authority, but that right would be nominal and of little, if any, real value provided the mandatory was one of the Great Powers as it undoubtedly would be. The almost irresistible conclusion is that the protagonists of the theory saw in it a means of clothing the League of Nations with an apparent usefulness which justified the League by making it the guardian of uncivilized and semi-civilized peoples and the international agent to watch over and prevent any deviation from the principle of equality in the commercial and industrial development of the mandated territories.
It may appear surprising that the Great Powers so readily gave their support to the new method of obtaining an apparently limited control over the conquered territories, and did not seek to obtain complete sovereignty over them. It is not necessary to look far for a sufficient and very practical reason. If the colonial possessions of Germany had, under the old practice, been divided among the victorious Powers and been ceded to them directly in full sovereignty, Germany might justly have asked that the value of such territorial cessions be applied on any war indemnities to which the Powers were entitled. On the other hand, the League of Nations in the distribution of mandates would presumably do so in the interests of the inhabitants of the colonies and the mandates would be accepted by the Powers as a duty and not to obtain new possessions. Thus under the mandatory system Germany lost her territorial assets, which might have greatly reduced her financial debt to the Allies, while the latter obtained the German colonial possessions without the loss of any of their claims for indemnity. In actual operation the apparent altruism of the mandatory system worked in favor of the selfish and material interests of the Powers which accepted the mandates. And the same may be said of the dismemberment of Turkey. It should not be a matter of surprise, therefore, that the President found little opposition to the adoption of his theory, or, to be more accurate, of the Smuts theory, on the part of the European statesmen.